Hope in the Middle of Despair
CHCC – November 6, 2011
The picture on the screen is a 1630 Rembrandt oil painting titled Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem. If you look in the background you see people fleeing a city that is in flames. Jewish tradition ascribes Lamentations to Jeremiah as an eyewitness to the fall of Jerusalem. Lamentations begins with the word “ALAS” (possible connection to the phrase “Oy vay!”)
This BOOK tells us about God’s faithfulness … but it doesn’t gloss over the evil and suffering that we have to endure here on earth. Lamentations describes just about every evil that people have ever had to endure: war and destruction, rape and pillaging, human trafficking, starvation, and even cannibalism … all of these are described and lamented.
• Chapter 1 describes the city’s destruction
• Chapter 2 explains God’s righteous judgment against Judah
• In Chapter 3 Jeremiah expresses his own personal suffering
• Chapter 4 focuses on the specific suffering of the Jerusalem’s citizens
• Chapter 5 gives a plea for God’s mercy
The book of Lamentations is a series of 5 dirges (funeral poems) that are read each year in mid-July on the anniversary of the destruction of the temple. Hebrew poetry is different from most western poetry which tends to rhyme at the end of lines. Hebrew poetry used alliteration at the beginning of each line.
If you look at the book as literature you see something interesting. The book consists of 5 poems, divided into 5 chapters. 4 of the poems consist of 22 verses each, using the Hebrew acrostic style.
If you could read it in Hebrew, you’d see that each verse starts with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet –aleph, beth, gimel dalith,he, Vav, Zayin, … and so on.
This is true for all but chapter 3 --- the central poem. Chapter 3 is three times as long --- 66 verses --- and uses triple acrostics (each letter is used 3 times in succession.)
It’s interesting that this 3rd poem is 3 times as long, and 1/3 of the way through it, you find the PIVOTAL verse of Lamentations.
To see the significance of this verse … which is at the center of the book … we’ll start with Lamentations 3:19-20:I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.
Then in verse 21, Jeremiah suddenly changes directions: Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope. This is the “hinge” of the book, where Jeremiah’s thoughts take a sudden turn --- from DESPAIR to HOPE.
Today we’re going to focus on the verses in the middle of Lamentations --- because this is the central message of Lamentations: no matter how bad life gets, God can give us HOPE in the middle of DESPAIR.
Here’s where Jeremiah set his mind on hope. He wrote, Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope. Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his mercies never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Jeremiah 3:21-23
Jeremiah found hope because …
1. God’s mercies are new every morning
In the book of Lamentations, Jeremiah has been singing the blues. In fact, if you look at the first verse in chapter 3, he says, “I am a man who has seen affliction…”
It brings to mind that song from the movie, “Oh Brother, where Art Thou,” (sing) “I am a man of constant sorrows. I’ve seen trouble all my days …”
Maybe you’ve been singing the blues lately. Maybe you’ve wondered if God is really faithful. Have you ever felt like …
* God has forsaken you
* Everything you care about has been taken away
* You have no reason to live
* You’re in constant pain and you can’t find release
* You’re prayers are going nowhere
* No one understands your pain
* Your life is hopeless
If you’ve had any of those feelings, then you can empathize with Jeremiah. And you can learn from Jeremiah that’s it’s okay to be brutally honest with God. It’s okay to honestly express your feelings … just like Jeremiah did.
But it’s not okay to stay there. It’s healthy to express your true feelings to God, but don’t get stuck there!
I remember a woman years back who used to come to me about once a month … to rehearse her troubles. And I use the word “rehearse” on purpose, because that’s exactly what she did. Every time, she’d tell me the same set of complaints over and over and over again. She had her misery memorized where she could recite it the same way every time. I was young and inexperienced back then, but it didn’t take me long to realize that endlessly rehearsing her troubles wasn’t getting her anywhere!
Like a computer that defaults to a certain setting, some of us have a “despair default.” If we don’t reset our minds, we’ll spiral down into despair. We need to take a cue from Jeremiah and snap out of it. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: God’s mercies are new every morning!
The word “mercy” comes from the Hebrew word for “womb.” It indicates gentle concern and care, nurturing, sustenance, and pretty much everything that is needed for life!
If that isn’t good enough, notice … it’s not just mercy, it’s mercies – plural. Everything we need for life and then some!
And these mercies are new every morning! What if you woke up every morning to find your wallet full of money, your car full of gas, your refrigerator full of food, and your body in perfect condition? That’s the way it is spiritually with God’s compassion and mercies … you can never use them up.
But in reality, there’s a bit of a catch to this. And Jeremiah addresses this in the next verses: I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. Jeremiah 3:24-26 You see …
2. The LORD is good to those who wait for Him
God’s blessings may not come early, but they aren’t late either. God’s blessings come when we need them not earlier and not later. God gives us what we need today. If we needed more, He would give us more. When we need something else, He will give us that as well. Nothing we truly need will ever be withheld from us.
God is faithful, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t have to endure seasons of grief. C.S. Lewis described his own painful experience of grieving after the death of his wife. He said he discovered that “there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it.” (A Grief Observed page 38)
C.S. Lewis describe grief as “the monotonous treadmill march of the mind around one subject.” (A Grief observed, page 10)
He described the times when he felt as if God had abandoned him. C. S. Lewis said when you turn to God for help in your deepest grief, you sometimes feel as if “a door has slammed in your face, with a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside … After that, silence.”
This is the way Jeremiah felt. He said, So let a man sit alone in silence, for the LORD has laid it on him. Let him bury his face in the dust --- Jeremiah 3:28-29
Jeremiah found himself in a catch 22 situation --- he needed God to comfort him in his grief, but he couldn’t feel God’s comfort because his overwhelming grief. (Communicator’s Commentary, John Guest, p. 374)
In spite of this Jeremiah continued by saying: There may yet be hope. For no one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. Jeremiah 3:31-32
We can have HOPE in the middle of DESPAIR because of …
2. God’s unfailing love
We can have HOPE and PEACE even in the middle of disaster because of God’s unfailing love for us. This short poem sums it up: Look at yourself and you’ll be depressed; look at circumstances and you’ll be distressed; look at the Lord and you’ll be blessed.
Vs. 33 says that God does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone. When we have to go through troubles, we need to remember this --- no matter how we feel at the moment, we are never alone. Our loving Father is always with us, even in times when we can’t feel His presence.
I was watching a TV show recently called “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” where they tell the stories of people who’ve come through various disasters. This story was about a Methodist minister who was caught in an AVALANCE and buried under 10 feet of snow.
One minute he heard a roar, looked up to see a wall of snow coming at him --- and the next thing he was aware of was that he was in complete darkness --- unable to move and barely able to breathe.
I was struck by what he said next. He said, “My first conscious thought was, ‘God, thank you for being here with me.’” Then he continued to pray silently, thanking God for His faithfulness through the years of his life --- until eventually he passed out from lack of oxygen.
Amazingly, he was located and rescued soon afterwards. The rescue team said most people in that circumstance panic and quickly use up the oxygen. They said he survived because he stayed calm. His peace came from focusing on God’s faithfulness. In fact, he explained that he focused on a kind of prayer called “breath prayer.” (explain)
In Lamentations 3:53, Jeremiah describes an experience similar to that Methodist minister. Jeremiah’s enemies threw him in a pit and threw stones at him. Then he said the waters closed over his head and he thought he was about to die.
Here was Jeremiah’s reaction: I called your name, LORD, from the depths of the pit … You came near when I called you, and you said, “Do not fear.” You, Lord, took up my case; you redeemed my life. Lamentations 3:55, 57-58
If you are going though troubles, grief, and sorrow today, let this sad book Lamentations lift your spirits. There is HOPE to be found even in the middle of despair. We can wait with confidence if we put all our hope in our great God … His Mercies are new ever morning and His love is unfailing.