Cutting deals (8-21-16 Formations) - Word&Way

Cutting deals (8-21-16 Formations)

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Formations: August 21, 2016
Lamentations 3:31-36, 41-42, 58-66

Michael OlmstedMichael OlmstedElisabeth Kübler-Ross describes bargaining as a common stage in the grieving process. We make promises to God, change a habit or attitude and get more active in church. But what about the inside of your life – a change of heart, a realization that unless motive and understanding are clarified, nothing really changes?

Each chapter of Lamentations is a stand-alone poem, focusing on a different aspect of the peoples’ grief. Lamentations 1 catalogs their losses: Jerusalem was no longer their social and religious center. Lamentations 2 focuses on material losses. Chapter 3 continues the grieving, but shows the people coming to terms with their situation. The narrator/poet is a mentor and preacher as we listen to the struggle to come to terms with God as their protector and judge. As the people begin to face their tragedy, the narrator does not speak down to them, but identifies himself as a fellow struggler seeking answers. We learn from this tragedy that our calling is more that of companionship than judgment, that answers are not always found but God’s steadfast love is the essential, and that faith cannot be reduced to rewards or punishment for our deeds.

Our text begins with the hope that never changes because it is at the core of God’s character: “My Lord definitely won’t reject forever. Although he has caused grief, he will show compassion in measure with his covenant loyalty” (vv. 31-32). Clearly, God’s love is steadfast but it is made real in terms of “covenant,” or the reality of living as God’s people in the real world. God “doesn’t enjoy affliction making humans suffer,” “crushing underfoot,” or “denying justice” or “subverting a person’s lawsuit” (vv. 33-36). In other words, the suffering of Jerusalem is known to God, but it is the sin and rebellion of the people that has brought on calamity. He declares “we are the ones who did wrong, we rebelled,” so we must “lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven” (v. 41). The language is repentant: “my desperate case”…“redeem my life”…“judge my cause” (vv. 58-59).

But the plea for God’s help and restoration of his favor is quickly turned to a desire to “punish those who have caused our grief and suffering. Look at our enemies jeering, scheming, and their incessant gossiping” (vv. 60-62). Then comes the request: “Pay them back, fully, according to what they have done. Give them a tortured mind – put your curse on them! Angrily hunt them down; wipe them out from under the Lord’s heaven” (vv. 64-66). How quickly the focus turns from “my sin” to “those evil people who hurt us!”

Revenge and repentance do not share equal standing in a prayer for God’s mercy. Keep in mind this is not a situation of tragic illness or the senseless death of a child. This fall of Jerusalem narrative is about a people who erased God from their thoughts and behavior, blatantly violated his laws and covenant and suffered the consequences. The text says the people began right by admitting their guilt, but very quickly pointed God to those wicked enemies.

Did they think God would ignore or forget their own sin if they pointed out those nasty pagans? Did they so easily forget their own failures or consider themselves less deserving of God’s punishment? Should God’s people not focus on their own relationship with God before looking at someone else? Although the text begins with a confession of guilt and seeking God’s forgiveness, it all too quickly moves to condemning the enemy.

Am I any different? When I face trouble do I find something or someone to blame instead of honestly facing the problem and seeking God’s help? What do I expect from God when the world falls apart around me? This text sounds as though the people are reminding God that he is “theirs” and they know his character will dictate punishment for those evil Babylonians. Since they are God’s chosen people he has an obligation to punish their enemies. It is much like a system in which God grants his people special favors, so the rest of the world had better watch out! Are we immune from the complications of life, or is God with us in those challenges?

The Bible does not promise us immunity from reality. When Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, walked this earth he was not immune to reality. Hebrews 4:15 reminds us: “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (NASV). It sounds like the people of Jerusalem were trying to bargain or “cut a deal” with God. But the narrator/poet makes it clear that their suffering is the result of their own failure and, even though the enemy is evil, God’s people need to focus on their failure and the hope that God will restore them.

Loss of any kind usually pushes us to re-evaluate our faith. Blaming something or someone does not make the pain go away, it only intensifies the pain. Often there is no logical or emotionally satisfying answer. We usually just get through, but with scars that can negatively shape the rest of our life. What if, given the problems of this “fallen” creation in which we live, the answer is, not to live immune to pain, but to learn and grow stronger as a child of God? What if the answer is to build your life on the grace of God who loves you and sent his Son to die in your place?

In the marvelous narrative of Israel recorded through the Bible we see ourselves in the various stages of life and we learn from their tragedies and joys. Lamentations does not reveal a positive neat little picture. We read of failure, disastrous results and the struggle of moving from religion to a personal faith in God. We see ourselves and ask, “What do I really want from God?’ The answer is, beyond self-serving desires, we want a God who will accompany us every step of the journey, forgive and love us, and exceed our inadequate wishes for everything to be easy.

Retired after more than 45 years in pastoral ministry, Michael K. Olmsted enjoys family, supply preaching and interim work, literature, history, the arts and antiques.

Formations is a curriculum series from Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc. through NextSunday Resources.

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