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January 17, 2021 Sermon – Lament in the Time of COVID: Cry Out to God

January 17, 2021 Sermon
“Lament in the Time of COVID: Cry Out to God”

1st Scripture Reading – Lamentations 1:1-11

1 How lonely sits the city
    that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
    she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
    has become a vassal.

2 She weeps bitterly in the night,
    with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
    she has no one to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
    they have become her enemies.

3 Judah has gone into exile with suffering
    and hard servitude;
she lives now among the nations,
    and finds no resting place;
her pursuers have all overtaken her
    in the midst of her distress.

4 The roads to Zion mourn,
    for no one comes to the festivals;
all her gates are desolate,
    her priests groan;
her young girls grieve,
    and her lot is bitter.

5 Her foes have become the masters,
    her enemies prosper,
because the Lord has made her suffer
    for the multitude of her transgressions;
her children have gone away,
    captives before the foe.

6 From daughter Zion has departed
    all her majesty.
Her princes have become like stags
    that find no pasture;
they fled without strength
    before the pursuer.

7 Jerusalem remembers,
    in the days of her affliction and wandering,
all the precious things
    that were hers in days of old.
When her people fell into the hand of the foe,
    and there was no one to help her,
the foe looked on mocking
    over her downfall.

8 Jerusalem sinned grievously,
    so she has become a mockery;
all who honored her despise her,
    for they have seen her nakedness;
she herself groans,
    and turns her face away.

9 Her uncleanness was in her skirts;
    she took no thought of her future;
her downfall was appalling,
    with none to comfort her.
“O Lord, look at my affliction,
    for the enemy has triumphed!”

10 Enemies have stretched out their hands
    over all her precious things;
she has even seen the nations
    invade her sanctuary,
those whom you forbade
    to enter your congregation.

11 All her people groan
    as they search for bread;
they trade their treasures for food
    to revive their strength.
Look, O Lord, and see
    how worthless I have become.

2nd Scripture Reading – Lamentations 1:12-22

12 Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
    Look and see
if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,
    which was brought upon me,
which the Lord inflicted
    on the day of his fierce anger.

13 From on high he sent fire;
    it went deep into my bones;
he spread a net for my feet;
    he turned me back;
he has left me stunned,
    faint all day long.

14 My transgressions were bound into a yoke;
    by his hand they were fastened together;
they weigh on my neck,
    sapping my strength;
the Lord handed me over
    to those whom I cannot withstand.

15 The Lord has rejected
    all my warriors in the midst of me;
he proclaimed a time against me
    to crush my young men;
the Lord has trodden as in a wine press
    the virgin daughter Judah.

16 For these things I weep;
    my eyes flow with tears;
for a comforter is far from me,
    one to revive my courage;
my children are desolate,
    for the enemy has prevailed.

17 Zion stretches out her hands,
    but there is no one to comfort her;
the Lord has commanded against Jacob
    that his neighbors should become his foes;
Jerusalem has become
    a filthy thing among them.

18 The Lord is in the right,
    for I have rebelled against his word;
but hear, all you peoples,
    and behold my suffering;
my young women and young men
    have gone into captivity.

19 I called to my lovers
    but they deceived me;
my priests and elders
    perished in the city
while seeking food
    to revive their strength.

20 See, O Lord, how distressed I am;
    my stomach churns,
my heart is wrung within me,
    because I have been very rebellious.
In the street the sword bereaves;
    in the house it is like death.

21 They heard how I was groaning,
    with no one to comfort me.
All my enemies heard of my trouble;
    they are glad that you have done it.
Bring on the day you have announced,
    and let them be as I am.

22 Let all their evil doing come before you;
    and deal with them
as you have dealt with me
    because of all my transgressions;
for my groans are many
    and my heart is faint.

“Lament in the Time of COVID: Cry Out to God”

I remember last year while I was on a mission trip to Puerto Rico – a trip for which I departed Grand Junction on January 17, 2020…so EXACTLY one year ago today – I remember relaxing on my bunk in the evenings, and reading news stories on my phone about a mysterious virus that was spreading in China and that appeared to be both particularly contagious and particularly deadly.  I remember praying for the folks in China.  I remember encountering Asian people while in Puerto Rico and starting to wonder…just a little bit…if the virus might have spread around to this part of the world already.

But I also remember having absolutely no idea that the virus I was reading about would have the kind of global impact it has had or that it would be an ever-present aspect of daily life one year later…with an end potentially in sight but still fairly long way off.

Think about all that has happened in the past year:

  • We received projections that as many as 217 million Americans could get the virus within a year, with upwards of 21 million requiring hospitalization (in a nation with fewer than a million hospital beds) and 1.7 million dying.
  • While we haven’t exactly reached these projections a year later, more than 23 million people have been infected with the disease and more than 400,000 have died…and that’s just in the United States.  Worldwide, more than 90 million people have contracted the virus and more than 2 million have died from it.
  • Initial fear led to shortages of food, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, masks, and other essentials for living amidst a pandemic.
  • State and local governments responded with varying levels of shutdowns and restrictions.  About a quarter of US small businesses closed temporarily.  More than 100,000 US businesses have closed permanently, with one study claiming 800 businesses continue to close permanently with each passing day.  People have lost jobs.  Fear, anxiety, and depression have set in.
  • All kinds of events of varying sizes have been cancelled or substantially modified:
    • Last spring’s NCAA Basketball tournament was cancelled.
    • The Olympics were postponed.
    • As the Vice Moderator of our region, I was part of a committee that decided to postpone our Regional Assembly.
    • Major League Baseball played a shortened season without fans.
    • Cruise ships stopped cruising.
  • Everyone here likely knows someone who has been significantly impacted by the disease.  I know many people who’ve gotten it.  I am close to some people who have died – some as a direct result of the disease and some as an indirect result.
  • And of course there are all the people who have been living in extreme social isolation.  People in nursing homes can’t see their family members.  People in the hospital must suffer – and often die – completely cut off from family and friends.
  • And everywhere we go, we feel the impact of this pandemic:
    • We haven’t been able to worship together, in-person, for two long stretches of time that included Easter Sunday, Advent, and Christmas Eve.
    • Pretty much everyone wears a mask and keeps a distance from other people.
    • Hugs and handshakes are a thing of the past…as is singing in groups of people.
    • The distribution mechanisms for essential goods and services – even food – has changed drastically in a short period of time.

Our world has CHANGED in the last year…and mostly in ways that are not good or healthy.  We, people, were not made to be socially isolated.  We, people, were not made to thrive when subjected to constant stress and anxiety.  Anxiety and stress can help us in bursts…but not when they are a constant of life.  And we modern people are not quite so accustomed to dealing with the end of the cycle of life quite to the extent that we’ve been confronted by it during this past year.

What can we do?  

As people of Christian faith, I hope you know that we should be much better equipped to deal with a happening like this than everybody else.  Our scriptures TEACH us, PREPARE us, to live and even thrive in the midst of such adversity…because the faith of our spiritual ancestors was forged in crises like the one we face…and because we worship a God who offers love and peace and hope amidst ANY circumstance, even the circumstance of walking through the valley of the shadow of death.  Y’all, of all people, WE should be prepared.

But as I prayed in preparation for the recent Advent and Christmas season, God revealed to me that I had not yet preached an entire sermon series with the specific purpose of reminding you how your faith has equipped you to deal with something as earth-changing as this COVID pandemic.  Sure, I preached an Easter sermon about New Life Amidst Covid, and every series in the past year, from the series about how Christianity grew from 11 Frightened Disciples to a series about Living the Christian Faith and even a series about seeing The Forest for the Trees have included points and even whole sermons relating to the pandemic, I have not yet devoted an entire sermon series to dealing with the consequences of this pandemic as faithful people, as Christian people.  So, now, God has led me to do so.  Beginning today, we will take a look at a tool God gave God’s ancient people for dealing with times like this.  It’s a tool called a “lament”.  A lament is an expression of grief, an expression of loss.  And our spiritual ancestors – especially in the times of the Bible – experienced so much grief and loss that they became very good at this kind of thing, and we can find examples throughout our scriptures.  They became so good at lamenting that a “lament” began taking a particular kind of form with certain elements that were helpful to them in their grieving and that can and should be helpful to us.  There’s even a whole book of laments called Lamentations, and we’ll use this book as the foundation for most – but not all – of the sermons in this series.

Today, we begin with the first chapter of the book of Lamentations, which I read for you a while ago.  And I want to consider one incredibly important learning from this chapter of Lamentations…and it’s something that can be found in all chapters of the book and even every lament that I have been able to find in the scriptures.  The learning is this: the Israelites took their pain and suffering to God, even cried out to God out of their pain and suffering, and we should, too.

Before we dive into that learning, let’s take a few moments to address something you might be thinking: the situation of those ancient Israelites – or Judeans, as this group of God’s people was known during the time of Lamentations – was very different from our modern COVID situation.  The Judeans had been overtaken by a foreign adversary and felt like the only way that could have happened was because God had abandoned them…due to repeated covenant violations.  Our situation isn’t like that.  Most Americans don’t feel like COVID is a punishment for us specifically as a nation.  (I know, some people feel like COVID is a punishment from God, but most don’t – and for those who do…they must realize this disease is impacting the whole world…not just one nation, not just us.)  So…we’re facing a virus, not warriors from foreign nations sent by God.  If our situation is so different, how can we learn, how can we glean, anything helpful from Lamentations?  I hope you can see that the similarities outweigh the differences…especially as far as teaching is concerned. Those ancient Judeans were losing hope and experiencing great anxiety…WE are losing hope and experiencing great anxiety.  Those ancient Judeans were experiencing great economic distress…COVID has caused us great economic distress.  Ancient Judah had lost status in the world, status among the nations; as the nation with the most COVID cases and deaths, many in our midst feel like we are losing status, as well.   (PAUSE)  In other words, y’all, it is the loss of hope, the anxiety, and the distress that links us to those ancient Judeans – NOT the exact source of our predicament.

So we CAN and SHOULD learn from our ancestors in the faith.  And, as I mentioned a moment ago, one thing those ancestors in the faith did consistently – and which is evident in Lamentations 1 – is they took their loss of hope, their anxiety, their distress to God, even cried out to God.

You might be wondering why this is such a big deal. 

To begin considering why it’s so important to take our feelings of pain and suffering to God amidst great distress, let’s consider the alternative.  If you didn’t cry out to God amidst the pain of COVID, what else could you do?  The answer is obvious; it stares us in the face.  All we have to do is look at what all the other people are doing around us in this time and place:

  • Some – many – are playing the blame game.  Instead of crying out to God, they’re blaming each other, even attacking each other – sometimes verbally, sometimes physically.  That’s one of the things that happens when we don’t take stuff to God – we take it out on other people.  Sometimes we don’t even do it consciously; it just happens.  I imagine that’s why we saw so much more blaming than we typically witness during an election cycle leading up to November’s elections.
  • Some people internalize the pain, the cries.  They don’t know God and so can’t take the pain to God, or maybe they do know God but are afraid that crying out to God in anguish and frustration is wrong, so they internalize it…which leads to all manner of physical, mental, and emotional illness.  I read one study that concluded that during just one week in June 2020, adults in the US were experiencing mental health issues at a rate THREE TIMES what is typical.
  • And, of course, some people just metaphorically explode.  They don’t blame others so much as they take out their anger, rage, frustration, and anxiety on people around them.  I found a study concluding that incidence of serious domestic violence may have doubled during the COVID pandemic and resulting lockdowns here in the US.  But you don’t need studies: look at all the violence that has overtaken our nation since COVID began.  People are exploding.
  • And then there are all the people who try to take their pain and anxiety SOMEWHERE, try to share it with someone without exploding – they try to get it out, but they go to places other than God.  Some go to friends.  Some go to family members.  Some go to co-workers or church members.  These folks who take their pain and anxiety to someone other than God, they’re doing a good thing in getting their pain OUT THERE.  The problem is, they’re taking their pain and anxiety to beings who can’t really DO anything about it…except maybe become more pain-filled and anxious themselves…leading to a whole new set of problems.

Maybe I’ve missed a possible alternative option, but I hope you can see that taking our pain to someplace or someone or something OTHER than God isn’t particularly helpful.  That’s where the biblical authors of laments come in; a lament involves taking our pain to God.

Consider Lamentations 1.

As the lament begins, it doesn’t seem as if the author is addressing God; we can’t tell if the author is addressing anyone.  The author simply begins by presenting a complaint about how terrible things are, telling Judah’s devastating  story of being overcome by an enemy, being taken into exile, being enslaved by an enemy master…this story could be being told in the second person – addressing someone directly, or it could be being told in the third person.  As the lament begins, we can’t tell.  But then, in verse 9, something changes.  The author cries out:

 “O Lord, look at my affliction,
    for the enemy has triumphed!”

In verse 13, the author again cries directly to God:

“Look, O Lord, and see
    how worthless I have become.”

And then in verse 20:

20 See, O Lord, how distressed I am;
    my stomach churns,
my heart is wrung within me,
    because I have been very rebellious.
In the street the sword bereaves;
    in the house it is like death.

The author – who appears to be speaking on behalf of all Judah – took the pain and suffering and distress to God.

That’s difficult for some people.  I’ve met a great many people who tell me that this isn’t something everyone is comfortable doing, that many people feel it’s wrong to cry out to God like this.  Which gets me wondering: Do they not think God can handle it?  Do they not think God knows what we’re thinking and feeling anyway?  Do they not know from the biblical witness that God WANTS us to cry out to God and keep the relationship ith God going in the midst of our most troubling times?  Do they not know that God revealed through Job that the kind of relationship God CRAVES with us is the kind in which we can take our pain and suffering to God?

You see – the great big reason for crying out to God is to keep the relationship with God going.  If you do ANYTHING else, you’re depriving God of the real relationship God craves with you.  And, y’all, when you shut God out of real relationship, that’s the beginning of the end of your relationship with God.

Oh…and as a bonus…and something I mentioned a little while ago…when you’re in the midst of the most difficult circumstances of life, there really is ONLY one being in all the universe who knows the way out – I suppose we could more accurately call it the best way to proceed – and who can direct you toward that best way.  Don’t you want to keep the lines of communication, the relationship, open with that One being?

(PAUSE)

My friends, we are in the midst of the most difficult times we have faced, collectively, as a nation in as long as I’ve been alive.  I’m sure some of you, some of us, have experienced worse than COVID individually, and I’m sure some of you have been alive long enough to remember wars and maybe even a depression that was worse than this COVID pandemic – but this is pretty much a generationally bad time we’re going through.  And it’s important to remember what our ancestors in the faith learned and revealed to us, it’s important to remember what God made sure to record in the scriptures so it could be transmitted to us after thousands of years – the single most important thing we can do in the midst of difficult times, especially in the midst of generationally difficult times,  in the midst of COVID, is to take our real feelings to God FIRST, to keep the relationship with God going as our NUMBER ONE PRIORITY.  It will make all the difference.

 Amen!