Sunday, July 8, 2012

Lamentations 3:22-33 Pentecost 6

God gives hope to people who deserve to be punished.  We have an example in the ancient people of Jerusalem.
For years they had been spitting in God’s face.  Wicked King Manasseh worshiped idols.  He sacrificed his son to the false god Molech.  He even put an Asherah pole in the temple itself.   God had to watch people doing the most detestable things in his holy temple.
Now, after his reign was over you might think that the people would joyfully return to the Lord, having been relieved of this wicked king and his disgusting idolatry.  Actually, they seem to have enjoyed it.  They continued in it.  King Amon continued to do all those things.  So did King Jehoahaz and King Jehoiakim after him. 
God was not willing to put up with this filth any longer.  Because of their wickedness, God sent the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar to punish them.  But do you think they repented and accepted God’s punishment?  No—in fact, after three years Jehoiakim rebelled.  King Nebuchadnezzar had to come back.  He clapped bronze shackles on Jehoiakim’s wrists and led him off as a prisoner to Babylon.
Now, would Jehoiakim’s son learn to be humble and accept God’s punishment?   No, actually he had only learned to sin like his father had.  He too rebelled against God and against Nebuchadnezzar, and the Babylonian had to come back a second time.  This time he took the king prisoner, but also the king’s mother, his officials, and his whole army.  All of them were led away to Babylon.
Perhaps the next king would learn to be humble and accept God’s punishment for their wickedness—but actually, he did not.  Even animals learn that you keep getting punished when you keep doing the same bad thing, but these kings of Jerusalem continued to worship their idols and spit in God’s face.  And, like his fathers, Zedekiah refused to accept God’s punishment.  He rebelled against the Babylonian King.  Nebuchadnezzar had to come back a third time—the last time.  The Babylonians surrounded the city and cut off all their food.  For a year and a half no one got in or out of Jerusalem.  Every bit of grass, every household pet, every bit of shoe leather became food.  Then they ate things far worse than that.   Then they ate nothing at all.  When they could hold out no longer, the Babylonians plundered and burned the city.  They took all the gold, silver, and bronze from the temple.  The golden altar of incense, the bronze altar where the sacrifices were made, the beautiful gold and silver cups and bowls that were used in the temple services—all of it was taken away to Babylon.  Then they even burned the temple. 
The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar took all of the leaders and all of the skilled people of Jerusalem to live far away in Babylon.  He made King Zedekiah watch as he killed his sons, and then he gouged out his eyes so that it would be the last thing he saw. 
The people of Jerusalem looked around at their misery.  It was probably Jeremiah who wrote the book of Lamentations about this destruction.  Listen to what he wrote about the destruction of Jerusalem:
      “Look, O Lord, and consider:
Whom have you ever treated like this?
Should women eat their offspring,
the children they have cared for?
Should priest and prophet be killed
in the sanctuary of the Lord?
      “Young and old lie together
in the dust of the streets;
my young men and maidens
have fallen by the sword.
You have slain them in the day of your anger;
you have slaughtered them without pity.  (Lam 2:20,21)
The punishment was horrible, but they deserved it.  And yet, even when they were being punished for the horrible sins they had committed, God told them to put their faith in his love. His love never ends.  His mercy never ceases.  He does not enjoy punishing his people—he doesn’t do it willingly, but because he must.  God wants us to be humble and accept his punishment, understanding that he does it because of his love for us.  He wants us to wait patiently for him to stop punishing and again let us see his love.  He inspired Jeremiah to write these words, our sermon text:
22    Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
23    They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24    I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”
25    The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
26    it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
27    It is good for a man to bear the yoke
while he is young.
28    Let him sit alone in silence,
for the Lord has laid it on him.
29    Let him bury his face in the dust—
there may yet be hope.
30    Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him,
and let him be filled with disgrace.
31    For men are not cast off
by the Lord forever.
32    Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
so great is his unfailing love.
33    For he does not willingly bring affliction
or grief to the children of men.
There is hope, even for people who deserve to be punished.  When you suffer, be patient.  Quietly Wait for God.

Theme: Quietly Wait for God.

What are you waiting for?
The people of Jerusalem waited for God to rescue them from the destruction of their city.  What are you waiting for?  Maybe you aren’t waiting for anything, if you constantly feel that God loves you and blesses you.  His angels surround you, and they keep all bad things from happening to you.  Just wait, your day is coming.  Bad things will happen.
As for the rest of us normal Christians, its actually kind of rare to feel God’s loving protection.   We are nearly always worrying about something, and wondering if God is going to help us.  Disaster looms.  Someone is going to die.  Something expensive is going to happen.  Something horrible is going to take you by surprise.
And then, when it does happen, you are going to ask why God would let this happen to you.  You have been taught to believe that God is all about love and forgiveness.  You thought that he would forgive you and not punish you, but you will feel like you are being punished. 
Now in these words from Lamentations, we read that God actually does punish.  He doesn’t just allow you to get into trouble because of your sin; he actually brings trouble upon you because of your sin.  In your heart you know that it’s true.  When have you been in trouble and not thought of at least 2 or 3 or a dozen reasons why you deserved it?  Haven’t you felt before that God was punishing you?
Look at the words of our text:  (v.28) the LORD has laid [the yoke] on him; (v.31) men are cast off by the LORD (but not forever); (v.33) the LORD brings affliction and grief (though not willingly).
The truth is, any time we suffer, we are feeling God’s punishment for sin.  It’s a little itty bitty taste of hell.  It’s a small taste of what we deserve for our sins.  Even if there is not any particularly horrible sin that we have committed recently, we deserve it.  All have sinned.  We all deserve it.  A few verses after our text the prophet wrote:
“Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?  Why should any living man complain when punished for his sins?”
There you have it—every living person has sins and deserves to be punished.  So when the prophet wrote, ”It is good wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord,”  I suppose he meant all of us.  We are nearly always waiting to feel the love and forgiveness that God has promised us.

God wants us to wait quietly.
When you’re on a trip and the back seat keeps crying out, “Are we there yet, I’m hungry, I’m too hot, I’m too cold, I think you’re going the wrong way,”—someone is not waiting quietly.
Isn’t that the way it is in Christian life too?  The temptation is to cry out against God, “This is too hard, this is not fair, I thought God doesn’t punish, I thought God forgives.”
God gives us two key words that help us understand what he means by quiet waiting—the first is “hoping,” and the second is “seeking.”  We are to wait for him, putting our hope in him that he will let us feel his love again.  We wait for him to let us feel his love, but at the same time we seek it.  We seek his love in the places where we know we can always find it—in his Word and the Sacraments of Baptism and Communion.  We also seek his love in our lives as we pray that he will rescue us and bless us again.
We should understand this quiet waiting in the sense of waiting peacefully for God.  Waiting quietly means that we don’t accuse God of doing wrong.  We don’t accuse him of giving us more trouble than we deserve.  We don’t refuse to suffer under his hand.  Can you do that?  When it feels like God is punishing, it’s hard enough even to say what the prophet said,
26    It is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
27    It is good for a man to bear the yoke
while he is young.
28    Let him sit alone in silence,
for the Lord has laid it on him.

We don’t wait quietly
Because of our rebellious sinful natures, we are going to fight back against the suffering God puts on us.  We are going to resist his punishment, just like those kings of Jerusalem did.  Depending on what kind of a person you are, you will either be tempted to be angry with God and make him your enemy, or despair of his love and sink into a spiritual depression.

The key to quiet waiting is having the assurance of God’s love.
There is a key ingredient to quiet waiting.  When you cook, if you are missing the key ingredient or you don’t put in enough, it doesn’t turn out.  The bread is flat; the pie is soupy; the cookies aren’t sweet.  The key ingredient to quiet waiting is having the assurance of God’s love.  Our text begins with the words, ”Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.”  The prophet was able to wait quietly because he had the key ingredient.  He was sure that God’s love would not fail, because that’s who God is.  His love is great.  His compassion never fails.  Even if we feel his punishment, it doesn’t mean that he has stopped loving us.
In Christ we are assured that our sins have not made God stop loving us, because Christ was punished for our sins.  In Isaiah we read, “the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”  Now if that is true, and it is, then the punishment we suffer now cannot be a true punishment for our sins. God will not truly give us what we deserve.  He will not destroy us.  Though he may give us a taste of hell, we have hope that he will not actually send us there.  If we are with Christ, and Christ has already suffered that punishment, then what we suffer must be something else.  It must be meant for our good.   It must be something that God is doing in his love for us.
This is God’s wisdom: Because of his great love, he hides his love.  He doesn’t want us to become lazy in our sins, so he lets us taste a bit of his wrath.  He doesn’t want us to forget the depth of his love that led him to suffer all of that and more on the cross in our place.  God doesn’t want us to forget and lose everything that his love would give us.  He wants us to put our hope in him, and to seek out that love in his Word and Sacraments.  God wants us to turn our thoughts back to the baptism that washed away every reason that God would have to destroy us.  He wants us to come rushing back to the Lord’s Supper for the forgiveness that Christ won for us by his death on the cross.  God wants us to seek his love there, where he has promised that it will always be found.

 This is Christian life: A Christian continually repents and rises with the assurance of God’s forgiveness to try again.

Do you feel like you are any more able to wait quietly for God, now that you have been reminded of his love?  Tentatively, maybe you do.  Maybe you don’t.  This is why Christian life is a lifelong repentance.  But understand that it is a sin to be impatient with God.  It is a sin to resist his discipline, insisting that you don’t deserve it.  It is also a sin to despair of his love for you.  Daily, bow your head to God and accept any trouble that he gives, because you deserve it.  Daily repent of your proud thoughts.  But also, because his mercies are new every morning, daily rise up and wait for his salvation.  He has assured you of his love and faithfulness.  His punishment can only be meant for your good, not to destroy you in hell but to discipline you as his child.  Put your hope in his never-ending love.  Wait quietly for God and for his salvation.  Amen.