Thursday, 25 September 2014

When hope dawns

Yet this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness. Lamentations 3:21-23

Have you read the book of Lamentations recently? I suspect I could go further and ask, Have you read the Book of Lamentations ever?

I remember the first time I did. I ended up amazed that so little is made of this short book. And I decided that chapter 3 in general and these verses in particular are among the most beautiful and moving in the whole Bible. If you don’t read another word of this post, I hope saying just this might encourage you to have a look.

The book’s title tells us what it’s about - a lament, even a dirge, over unimaginably terrible events. Tradition says it was written by the prophet Jeremiah after the most dreadful catastrophe in the history of the people of Israel: the fall of Jerusalem (God’s earthly “capital city”!) and the destruction of the temple (God’s earthly seat!) to the cruel Babylonians about six hundred years before Christ. How could such a thing be! Where is God?

The first twenty verses of chapter 3 are sheer unmitigated gloom: darkness, bitterness, death, despair, you name it. It is the most intensely personal part of the book, which is why it can connect so directly with our experience all these centuries later.

But (how important that little word can be in the Bible!) suddenly at verse 21 the mood changes: wonderful, transforming hope appears. It’s as if leaden, steel-grey skies have parted and the sunlight pours down. God’s “compassions”, we are told, “never fail”; they are “new every morning”. Every dawn is a little miracle of creation, fresh, clean, full of possibilities; and that’s what God’s compassions are like. Great indeed is his faithfulness!

Let me pick out one or two highlights from the following verses.

First, there is a call for patience (verse 24): “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” Yes, there are times in life when God seems to be completely absent (didn’t even Jesus cry out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) but such times will come to an end. “It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (verse 26). Is “quiet waiting” a skill you need to learn?

Second, there is a word of encouragement for the young, those who are likely to be the most idealistic and therefore all the more shattered by the destruction of their dreams: “It is good for one to bear the yoke while one is young... for men are not cast off by the Lord for ever” (verses 27, 31). Many people would testify that severe hardships in childhood and youth have helped shape their adult selves into something strong and good. Pain in early life may well be traumatic; but it can make us as well as break us.

Third, there is a recognition of God’s lordship over all things: yes, he does indeed “bring grief”, but that grief does not cancel out his “unfailing love” (verse 32). When terrible things happen they are hard to bear, and it is tempting and understandable to blame God, even to shake a fist at him (and his shoulders are big enough to take it, by the way). But “he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men” (verse 33). 

There are things which God actively makes happen; and there are things which he, in sadness, allows to happen for reasons only he knows - even though they bring pain to the men and women he loves.

Fourth, there is a call to repentance. Sometimes our misfortunes are just, as it seems to us, bad luck (see, for example, John 9:1-3 or Luke 13:1-5). But sometimes they are the result of our own sin and rebellion. This was certainly the case with Israel at this time. And so it may be that a radical change of heart is needed: “Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord” (verse 40). Is this a word to some of us?

I could go on; but hopefully I have said enough to whet your appetite. I find it hard to imagine any of us not hearing some word from God through this most moving of Bible chapters. May God bless us all as we read.

Loving Father, thank you that you never willingly afflict pain, and that when pain does come it can be turned to good. Help me, please, to “trace the rainbow through the rain, /And feel the promise is not vain /That morn shall tearless be”. Amen.

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