Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent 2017

 

He will keep you in exile no longer. This phrase from the end of Lamentations 4 reveals how suffering is only for a season. We have seen in this book that Judah suffered immensely for her unrepentant sins. She had the benefit of centuries of faithful prophets and kings to call her back to the Lord. Yet, she remained consistent in her impenitence.  The Prophet Jeremiah was the prophet charged with warning Judah and Jerusalem to come back to the Lord in the period of Lamentations. This book of the Bible is a concise meditation upon the contents of the book of Jeremiah. Chapter 4 focuses on the suffering of God’s people, the punishment upon the religious leadership, the enemies of Jerusalem, and the end of their suffering.

The Suffering of God’s People. Verses 1-10

          Verses 1-10 relate the suffering of God’s people due to their sins. This suffering was wrought upon them by the Babylonians, the most powerful and ruthless empire of that era. This discipline or chastisement is a consistent theme woven throughout this book.

          The punishments in these ten verses provide some of the answers as to why Judah suffered in terms of specific sins. First, in verses 1-2, we see suffering through being scattered in exile. Verse 1 states, “The holy stones lie scattered at the head of every street.” Verse 2 continues, “The precious sons of Zion, worth their weight in fine gold, how they are regarded as earthen pots, the works of a potter’s hands! One form of oppression in the ancient Middle East was to remove the leadership of a recently conquered nation to another part of the empire. This, in essence, removed the ability of such leadership to garner the will of the people under them to resist. This is where Judah found herself.

          In the centuries leading to the fall of Judah, she steadily disobeyed God in terms of her treatment of strangers and foreigners seeking to become part of the nation. Jeremiah 7:5-6 states, “For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm.” Through oppressing the sojourners from other lands, Judah was acting more like the surrounding pagan nations. Idolatry, which is the base sin that leads to all sins, causes one to seek the interests of self over the commands of God to love. Sometimes, the judgment for being exclusive in defiance of God that calls us to love others enough to lead them into our faith and life is to be scattered. It is to become strangers and sojourners in foreign lands. This is one of the sins behind Judah’s suffering through being scattered.

          The second area of suffering due to her sins is found in verses 3-6. These devastating verses speak to the level of suffering Judah underwent with starvation. Going back to the verses quoted from Jeremiah 7, we see that Judah was also oppressing the fatherless and widows. Oppressing such groups often entailed depriving them of the necessities of life such as food. The laws of God for His people were meant to allow those without means of providing their own food to grow to go to the fields to glean the edges of the fields. When the edges of the fields were harvested in disobedience to God’s Word, these sources of food became scarce. We see this warning in Leviticus 19:13, “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning.” When the wages of the hired worker remain with the employer until morning, this means that the hired worker goes without for his family for that night. When such occurs, people go hungry. Part of the judgment they endured stemmed from depriving people of the God-given ability and command to gather and earn.

          The last area we see, verses 7-10, speaks to the point that even the leadership of Judah suffered for their sins. This was judgment for not leading the people to repent. For leadership, this begins with their repentance. We read of such godly leadership with King Josiah. He repented and then led his people to hear the recently re-discovered Word of God so that they had the opportunity to repent. If you note, in the cases where Kings repented in Scripture for national sins, they brought them to hear the Word of the Lord. For Judah at the time of Lamentations, the leadership refused to hear the pleas from the Prophet Jeremiah to repent. Instead, the King of Judah had Jeremiah cast into a cistern. In our next section, we will delve deeper into this punishment upon the religious leadership that failed to confront the King to listen to Jeremiah’s warnings.

Punishment of Jerusalem’s Religious Leadership. Verses 11-16

          Verses 11-16 speak of the punishment of Jerusalem’s religious leadership. They suffered with the people. Ultimately, they neglected their God-given calling to lead the people to repentance and faithfulness. Jeremiah 2:8 states, “The priests did not say, ‘Where is the LORD?’ Those who handle the law did not know me; the shepherds transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal and went after things that do not profit.” When God’s ministers fail to do as called, it leaves the entire church and nation to the wolves. Often in the case of Judah and even in our day, the people in their rejection of God and His Word will seek only clergy that will go along with supporting their favorite sins. This is a constant danger. God always honors standing against sin in tough love for the truth and the eternal health of God’s people. God disciplines and chastises us when we bend to the sinful culture in appeasement.

          The destruction of Judah was something that the kings of the earth as we read in verses 11-12 did not believe. I am sure the same held true for how the religious leadership remained quiet as the King of Judah silenced Jeremiah by placing him in a cistern. The longer the religious leadership stayed quiet at the warnings of the legitimate prophets of God, the longer their sins as outlined in verses 13-16 would remain covered and hidden. Yet, such could not be hidden from God.

          Verse 13 speaks of the sins and iniquities of the prophets and priests of shedding the blood of the righteous. Verse 14 and 15 speak of the judgments upon them, of wandering blind through the streets, defiled with blood. They forfeited all for the sake of embracing sin. They forfeited all for a short season of living in and encouraging those under their care to live in unrepentant sin.

          Verse 16 here speaks of all of this leading to the following, “no honor was shown to the priests, no favor to the elders.” God scattered them along with the rest of the leadership. A telling sign of religious leadership that are in deep rebellion against God’s Word are of those that demand respect and honor without putting in the hard and long work of earning such. The leadership in Judah were such in name only, not following the ways of the Lord in favor of doing as they pleased. The same was true of the Pharisees in the time of Jesus. They demanded respect and honor through pointing out their goodness compared to others.

The Enemies of Jerusalem. Verses 17-20

          Verses 17-20 speak of Jerusalem’s enemies. It is appropriate that the author starts with where the blame resided for the calamities, the people guilty of unrepentant sin. Then, it is appropriate as we see here to deal with the atrocities of their enemies. The tendency we all have when dealing with our enemies is to blame all upon them even when we are guilty of our own sins. I am sure it was quite tempting for Judah to say Babylon was much worse for what they did to them, therefore thinking their centuries of sin not that big of a deal. This attitude is dangerous. Yet, it is healthy after we have repented of our sins to ask God to deliver us from the clutches of our enemies.

          Verse 17 begins this with Judah admitting she looked to the wrong sources of help. In facing the impending invasion of Babylon, Judah sought the help through alliances with surrounding pagan nations. Instead of turning to God alone, she sought help through human means. As the end of verse 17 states, “in our watching we watched for a nation which could not save.” Often in our quest to serve self over God and others, we seek help from sinful sources. In the end, the conclusion is always that we could not find anything or anyone to save us. If we place so much trust in our actions such as leaders we elect to the point we neglect God, we will be sorely disappointed. God calls us to remain faithful through prayer, worship, and His love. Only God can save us. No matter how much we in our propensity to sin do not want to admit this, it will always come to turning to God in the end as our only source of salvation.

          Verse 18 speaks of the enemies of Jerusalem thwarting even the ability for the people to walk safely in their own streets. The end was upon them as we read. Verse 19 speaks of this further, noting how their pursuers were faster, that they lay in wait for them even when they sought refuge in the wilderness. When in unrepentant sin, no place is safe for escape. The only hope as being described here from our enemies is God. Verse 20 closes this section speaking of the theme we saw at the end of chapter 3, captured in pits by their enemies.

The End of Suffering. Verses 21-22

Verse 21-22 speaks of the end of all this suffering. These verses speak of the coming judgment upon Edom, a nation to the east of Judah, descendants of Esau, Jacob’s brother. Edom took great joy in the fall of Judah. She profited from her downfall. In this, she would take her own turn in suffering judgment.

In the midst of these verses about what would happen to Edom for neglecting to help his brother Judah in the time of need, we come to the supreme hope and assurance that Judah’s suffering would end. Verse 22 states, “The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter of Zion, is accomplished; he will keep you in exile no longer.” Yes, Judah would suffer for 70 years in captivity. Yet, this period was used of God to raise a faithful remnant, willing to serve God to return to the Land. This was not the first time in their history that God used periods of decades to teach His people. In the wilderness they wandered for 40 years while a new generation came up to enter the Promised Land, suffering for the faithlessness of the people that had been saved from Egyptian bondage through many wonderful and great miracles.

Have you ever been through something horrendous due to your own doing and came to the end of the ordeal? Often, the feeling of coming to the end of a discipline or chastisement for our sins is welcomed in a renewed sense of learning from our mistakes with a deeper commitment to Christ. On my High School football team, my coach had several “punishments” for infractions against the rules he set up at the beginning of the season. We would endure these punishments as a team even for the infraction of one teammate. The idea was that all would suffer together as a team and learn as a team. At the end of the extra physical disciplines such as crawling on our stomachs by only inching forward with our shoulders and facemasks for a hundred yards, the whole team was both relieved and resolved to make sure all towed the line. For Judah, ALL suffered for the sins of the nation. Yes, even the faithful such as Jeremiah suffered with the rest of the nation. The vast majority of the nation was unrepentant. Even in the midst of this, God calls His faithful remnant such as Jeremiah to remain to minister to the people. He did this with Daniel and his friends as read in the book of Daniel. They were exiled with the rest of Judah even though they clearly were faithful and steadfast to God. In the midst of suffering with the rest of the people, God used them to witness to the King of Babylon as well as their own people.

Yes, suffering is tough. Yes, it does not seem fair that the faithful suffers with the faithless. Yet, this is what happened with Judah. Ultimately, Jesus Christ as the perfect prophet, priest, and king suffered for all our sins in our place to make atonement for us. He died for us so that we would no longer have the sentence of eternal death, but a pardon with eternal life by His loving sacrifice.

In all we encounter, Jesus Christ already in our place underwent the punishment for our iniquity. In Christ, He accomplished all punishments for our iniquity in our place. In Christ, our exile has expired and we are free to live as the children of God with full rights and benefits. Yes, we will go through periods in this life of suffering for righteousness sake, of suffering even due to our own sins. Yet, our salvation is eternally secure. The sufferings of our short lives prepare us to better love God and one another.

Conclusion

          As the Church, work remains for us in light of the lessons of the past, the lessons of the suffering as seen in the book of Lamentations. Yes, we will sometimes turn to the wrong sources for help and will be sorely disappointed. As the Church, we are not called to tell fellow believers “I told you so” when they falter. No, we mourn with those that mourn. We even suffer with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ even if they caused their own misery. We do not yell at them in their pit to figure their own way out, especially when they are repentant. No, we go down there and suffer all it takes to pull them out. We endure the punishments meted out by the wicked of this world together through and in Jesus Christ alone, knowing full well we are assured life everlasting in Him. WE REPENT of our sins and pray earnestly and love our enemies in the hope they will repent and join us as fellow heirs of Jesus Christ. He will keep you in exile no longer. Let us pray, “Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that we, who for our evil deeds do worthily deserve to be punished, by the comfort of thy grace may mercifully be relieved; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”