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Lament in the Time of COVID-19: What Does God Desire?

January 24, 2021 Sermon
“Lament in the Time of COVID: What Does God Desire?”

1st Scripture Reading – Lamentations 2:1-11

1 How the Lord in his anger
    has humiliated daughter Zion!
He has thrown down from heaven to earth
    the splendor of Israel;
he has not remembered his footstool
    in the day of his anger.

2 The Lord has destroyed without mercy
    all the dwellings of Jacob;
in his wrath he has broken down
    the strongholds of daughter Judah;
he has brought down to the ground in dishonor
    the kingdom and its rulers.

3 He has cut down in fierce anger
    all the might of Israel;
he has withdrawn his right hand from them
    in the face of the enemy;
he has burned like a flaming fire in Jacob,
    consuming all around.

4 He has bent his bow like an enemy,
    with his right hand set like a foe;
he has killed all in whom we took pride
    in the tent of daughter Zion;
he has poured out his fury like fire.

5 The Lord has become like an enemy;
    he has destroyed Israel.
He has destroyed all its palaces,
    laid in ruins its strongholds,
and multiplied in daughter Judah
    mourning and lamentation.

6 He has broken down his booth like a garden,
    he has destroyed his tabernacle;
the Lord has abolished in Zion
    festival and sabbath,
and in his fierce indignation has spurned
    king and priest.

7 The Lord has scorned his altar,
    disowned his sanctuary;
he has delivered into the hand of the enemy
    the walls of her palaces;
a clamor was raised in the house of the Lord
    as on a day of festival.

8 The Lord determined to lay in ruins
    the wall of daughter Zion;
he stretched the line;
    he did not withhold his hand from destroying;
he caused rampart and wall to lament;
    they languish together.

9 Her gates have sunk into the ground;
    he has ruined and broken her bars;
her king and princes are among the nations;
    guidance is no more,
and her prophets obtain
    no vision from the Lord.

10 The elders of daughter Zion
    sit on the ground in silence;
they have thrown dust on their heads
    and put on sackcloth;
the young girls of Jerusalem
    have bowed their heads to the ground.

11 My eyes are spent with weeping;
    my stomach churns;
my bile is poured out on the ground
    because of the destruction of my people,
because infants and babes faint
    in the streets of the city.

2nd Scripture Reading – Lamentations 2:12-22

12 They cry to their mothers,
    “Where is bread and wine?”
as they faint like the wounded
    in the streets of the city,
as their life is poured out
    on their mothers’ bosom.

13 What can I say for you, to what compare you,
    O daughter Jerusalem?
To what can I liken you, that I may comfort you,
    O virgin daughter Zion?
For vast as the sea is your ruin;
    who can heal you?

14 Your prophets have seen for you
    false and deceptive visions;
they have not exposed your iniquity
    to restore your fortunes,
but have seen oracles for you
    that are false and misleading.

15 All who pass along the way
    clap their hands at you;
they hiss and wag their heads
    at daughter Jerusalem;
“Is this the city that was called
    the perfection of beauty,
    the joy of all the earth?”

16 All your enemies
    open their mouths against you;
they hiss, they gnash their teeth,
    they cry: “We have devoured her!
Ah, this is the day we longed for;
    at last we have seen it!”

17 The Lord has done what he purposed,
    he has carried out his threat;
as he ordained long ago,
    he has demolished without pity;
he has made the enemy rejoice over you,
    and exalted the might of your foes.

18 Cry aloud[b] to the Lord!
    O wall of daughter Zion!
Let tears stream down like a torrent
    day and night!
Give yourself no rest,
    your eyes no respite!

19 Arise, cry out in the night,
    at the beginning of the watches!
Pour out your heart like water
    before the presence of the Lord!
Lift your hands to him
    for the lives of your children,
who faint for hunger
    at the head of every street.

20 Look, O Lord, and consider!
    To whom have you done this?
Should women eat their offspring,
    the children they have borne?
Should priest and prophet be killed
    in the sanctuary of the Lord?

21 The young and the old are lying
    on the ground in the streets;
my young women and my young men
    have fallen by the sword;
in the day of your anger you have killed them,
    slaughtering without mercy.

22 You invited my enemies from all around
    as if for a day of festival;
and on the day of the anger of the Lord
    no one escaped or survived;
those whom I bore and reared
    my enemy has destroyed.

 

“Lament in the Time of COVID: What Does God Desire?”

In my newsletter article this past Thursday, I wrote about four typical features of this literary form that is called a “lament”.  One of those typical features of laments is what’s called “the complaint”.  The complaint is exactly what it sounds like – telling God what’s wrong…COMPLAINING to God about what’s wrong.  Often, the biblical complaints were direct, harsh, and vivid.  Consider Lamentations 2:

  • The Lord has destroyed without mercy…
  • The Lord has become like an enemy;  he has destroyed Israel.
  • (Judah’s) king and princes are among the nations; guidance is no more, and her prophets obtain no vision from the Lord…
  • My eyes are spent with weeping;  my stomach churns;  my bile is poured out on the ground because of the destruction of my people, because infants and babes faint in the streets of the city.
  • All your enemies open their mouths against you; they hiss, they gnash their teeth, they cry: “We have devoured her!  Ah, this is the day we longed for; at last we have seen it!”
  • The Lord has done what he purposed, he has carried out his threat;

I’m not sure you can get much more direct than proclaiming that God has become like an enemy or that God has destroyed Israel.  I’m not sure you can get much more harsh than saying God has destroyed without mercy.  I’m not sure you can get much more vivid than bile poured out on the ground or hissing enemies.

THIS is the stuff of complaint.  This is the stuff of lament.  This is the kind of stuff we’re supposed to take to God.

Remember, I mentioned last week that the biblical laments teach us first and foremost to take our pain to God, even cry out to God.  Today, I’ll begin by telling you exactly HOW the biblical laments suggest we cry out to God…and it’s not milquetoast complaining.  It’s NOT going to God in the times of COVID-19 and saying, “well, gee, golly, God, umm, I’m not sure this has been as good a year as it could have been.”  Y’all, so many people of God, so many Christians, because they have read in the scriptures that we – people – are supposed to be humble before God, they seem to have misunderstood that being humble means being DISHONEST instead of AUTHENTIC in our complaints.  It is true that God is God, that God is the Creator of the universe who reigns supreme over all things. And it is true that we are people, creatures of God’s creation, that we are LESSER than God. That…is…true.  But the biblical witness does NOT suggest that our being lesser means that we should not, can not, take our honest and authentic complaints to God.  No, the biblical witness, ESPECIALLY in the laments, is that we complain to God with whatever authentic pain we feel…even if that means our complaints must be direct, harsh, and vivid!

Which gets me thinking, what would an authentic, direct, harsh, vivid complainant to God look like, sound like, in this place and time?  I can’t answer for you, for any of you; I can only answer for me.  For me, the complaint of the past twelve months might look and sound something like this:

  • Too many people – hundreds of thousands in this nation and millions the world over – are dying of a disease that kills in horrible and painful ways.
  • Too many people are suffering isolated and alone – isolated and alone in their hospital beds, in their nursing home rooms, even in their homes…while their loved ones pine away, longing to see them…but cannot.
  • Too many people are suffering from despair and depression that makes life seem to be not worth living – and too many of these folks are taking their own lives.
  • Too many people have lost their jobs and sources of security, and so they live in fear for their futures.
  • And we have become a people divided, more divided than at any time I can remember.  Friends are turning against friends; family members are turning against family members.
  • Lies are being peddled as truth; we don’t know whom to trust, whom to believe.
  • Regardless of who is objectively right and who is objectively wrong, we’ve lost sight of how to know, and so many people seem to have stopped caring.  They’ve become members of tribes whose loyalty is to their tribe more than it is to the truth, to the light, to the good, to God.
  • Almost everyone I know, almost everyone I encounter, seems to be absolutely filled with anxiety and stress – not just once in a while but almost constantly.
  • It feels like the world, society, humanity is slipping out of control – lost without a compass or a rudder.
  • Hatred and anger seem to be driving us forward far more than love and peace.

(PAUSE)

Like I said, your lament will be different from mine.  Maybe it will be more direct, maybe more harsh, maybe more vivid.  But you – we – NEED to say these things to God.

We need to say these things to God for all the reasons I mentioned last week and for one more.  Before getting to the one more, I’ll backtrack just a bit.

Last week, I began a sermon series about a biblical literary type called a lament.  I reminded you that we, as people of faith, should be much better equipped than everyone else to deal with all this crazy and painful stuff happening in our world.  I originally intended for the sermon series to be focused exclusively on the pain of COVID-19, but, obviously, so much more is happening right now.  And I told you last week that 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 ones 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.  

In this series, we’re looking to see what we can learn from the biblical laments for a time such as this.

In these laments, we can learn quite a lot about how to approach God in the midst of grave difficulty, even disaster.  In these laments, we can learn quite a lot about how to approach God – and receive help from God – in the midst of something as devastating as the COVID-19 pandemic (or even the political division that seems to be tearing our society apart.)  You can apply these learnings to pretty much ANY difficult situation.

In last week’s lament, we considered something that was true of all laments I’ve studied: the authors of lament took their cries, their concerns, to God FIRST.

Today, we discover something that tended to happen when lamenters took their pain to God, something that provides the one NEW reason for taking our complaints to God, and it is this…there is something that happens when we take our complaints to God: the biblical lamenters, they ended up trying to figure out if God actually wants, if God DESIRES, the terrible things they were experiencing all around them.  Some people might read these efforts and think the biblical lamenters were trying to remind God of what God desires, reminding God that God doesn’ really desire horrible, bad, awful things for God’s beloved people.  But those biblical lamenters knew something that we ALSO know:  God doesn’t need the reminding, even when we feel like God does.   It’s US who need the reminding!  In our pain, we start to think that God just MIGHT want badness for us, that God might DESIRE COVID and disunity and hatred among people.  We need to ask what God desires not so that God will remember but so that WE will remember.

Take a look at Lamentations 2:20-22.  After the author described the terrible situation of God’s people, Judah – using the kind of direct, harsh and vivid language I mentioned a while ago – the author cried out to God:

20 Look, O Lord, and consider!
    To whom have you done this?

Y’all, when the author of Lamentations 2 asked God to consider to whom God has done this, that was pretty much the same thing as asking God to consider what God really desires.  Over and again, God had already declared God’s love for God’s people; over and again, God had already promised a steadfast love to God’s people that would endure forever.  God had chosen them as a treasured possession above all else.  And so the lamenter wondered if the description of what was happening was consistent with God’s desires.  Remember what the author was experiencing:


Should women eat their offspring,
    the children they have borne?
Should priest and prophet be killed
    in the sanctuary of the Lord?

21 The young and the old are lying
    on the ground in the streets;
my young women and my young men
    have fallen by the sword;
in the day of your anger you have killed them,
    slaughtering without mercy.

22 You invited my enemies from all around
    as if for a day of festival;
and on the day of the anger of the Lord
    no one escaped or survived;
those whom I bore and reared
    my enemy has destroyed.

Can’t you hear the author pleading, “God, is this really what you want, is this really what you desire?”

And can’t you imagine the author, after asking if this is really what God wants, can’t you imagine the author of this lament going back through the scriptures and going back through the author’s own experience of God in life and then RE-discovering in prayer what God ACTUALLY wants…what God has wanted all along?

The same is true for us, isn’t it? Every time we ask of God:

  • Is COVID-19 and millions of people dying with tens of millions more suffering really what you want?
  • Is economic collapse really what you want?
  • Is division so entrenched that it threatens to tear our nation apart really what you want?
  • Is isolation and loneliness really what you want?
  • Is congregations like ours being unable to worship you together and to fellowship together really what you want?

Everytime we ask these questions of God and seek out the answer…we are reminded of God’s love for us.

So…here’s the thing.  In this time of COVID, in this time in which it just might feel like the world is about to fall apart – whether it be from COVID or economic collapse or isolation or disunity or hatred and anger bubbling over – in the time in which it feels like the world just might fall apart, take your feelings of pain and anguish to God.  Take your feelings and your complaint to God, and then ask: is this what God really desires?  And as you prayerfully seek out the answer to that question, open yourself to consider the biblical witness and even your life experience:

  • Open yourself to consider if the terrible things you’re encountering could be the desires of a God who created the world and breathed life into people and placed those people into a perfect place.
  • Open yourself to consider if the terrible things you’re encountering could be the desires of a God who, after experiencing his prize creations – people – turning away from him over and again, promised steadfast love to them. 
  • Open yourself to consider if the terrible things you’re encountering could be the desires of a God who heard the cries of God’s ancient people and sent them a deliverer by the name of Moses to lead them to a Promised Land.
  • Open yourself to consider if the terrible things you’re encountering could be the desires of a God who has sent and keeps on sending prophets of one kind or another to show God’s good desires to people who keep making bad choices.
  • Open yourself to consider if the terrible things you’re encountering could be the desires of a God who sent his son to die for you.  
  • Open yourself to consider if the terrible things you’re encountering could be the desires of a God who resurrected his son to demonstrate to you that God has power over death and will use that power for you.
  • Open yourself to consider if the terrible things you’re encountering could be the desires of a God who has sent the Holy Spirit to guide you and urge you into the best ways of living.
  • Open yourself to consider if the terrible things you’re encountering could be the desires of a God who has helped you make it through the worst things the world has thrown at you…so far.

Because, y’all, that’s what this part of lamenting is about.  It’s about US – not God – remembering WHO God is and WHAT God does and HOW MUCH God loves us and desires good things for us.  So please, PLEASE, in your pain and despair, name every…single…awful detail of your complaint to God, and then prayerfully consider…is this really what God wants?

In the process, it is my hope for you that you will – like I have recently – re-discover what it is that God really desires…for you, for us, and for all the world.

 Amen!