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October 4 - Lamentations 3 - "Where to From Here?"
MPC 4th October 2009.
There's this great family story that gets thrown around at my family gatherings sometimes.
It's about when Uncle Noel was stuck on a bus in the middle of a flood.
The bus was on its way to Cairns in the middle of the northern west season, and there was water everywhere.
Some of the rivers were starting to rise, the road was getting pretty slippery. But the bus driver really wanted to get everyone home, so he just kept on going.
Then he tried one water crossing too many, and got stuck. The bus stalled, then it wouldn't start.
The water was rising slowly, but the driver couldn't get the bus to start.
This is before mobile phones, and with water rising up over the battery, everything in the bus is useless.
People were starting to panic, just unsure of how far the water was going to rise.
Uncle Noel knew something had to be done, he had to get news out of what was happening so someone could be sent to rescue the passengers.
So Noel gets out through an emergency window, and dives into the rushing water. He was going to make an attempt at getting a rescue going.
In the book of Lamentations, we meet the nation of Israel in a desperate situation that they need to be rescued from.
They are God's special people, who God had made an agreement with long ago. It was called a covenant or a contract.
And in that contract God had promised that if Israel obeyed him he would bless them and make them a great nation.
If they disobeyed him, he would curse them and destroy them. They were the terms of the agreement.
And as we read chapter 3, we find that they are very much cursed, and that they have disobeyed God. And accordingly, they are on the receiving end of God's anger, God's punishment.
As these guys talk about God's punishment, they're not just talking about something 'out there' either. For Israel this is not a discussion they're having in the lunch room, or some ideas over coffee.
Israel speaks of God's punishment as a dire personal situation. Speaking with one voice, as one man who's copped the full blow of God's stick. Look at v1 of chapter 3:
I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of his wrath.
It's personal for these guys. We're not dealing with some self-help gurus telling us their thoughts on how God might do something. We're listening to a nation who has experienced God doing a very severe something.
And in these first 20 or so verses, what rings through loud and clear, is that Israel knows that "that very severe something" is clearly from God. They know it's not some random natural event, or political manoeuvring, but they can see clearly it's God.
Look how many times they attribute their situation to God. he is the one who has acted. Let me skim through some verses,
2 He has driven me away... 3 he has turned his hand against me... 4 He... 5 He... 6 He... 7 He... 8 he shuts out my prayer... 9 He... 11 he... 12 He... 13 He... 15 He... 16 He...
I can see they're driving the point home. God is against them.
God's the one who's swept his angry arm across their land.
It's world-stopping news for Israel. They're God's special people. God's daughter they were described as in the previous chapters.
It's like their own dad's turned his guns to point at them.
Israel have enjoyed centuries of protection under the wing of God. They are the ones that God had promised to make into a great nation.
And after having that front and centre place on God's mantle piece for so long, the tide has turned.
It looks to them like the God who gives them everything is no longer playing for their team.
Where will they turn with God's anger so strongly against them?
Looking around at their plight, they've crystallised the problem down to its purest form. God's against what they've done.
Which is what makes the next few verses really astounding.
I've got one of those birds near my house at the moment, a kookaburra, who just keeps hitting the window. 5:30 this morning, bang. A little rest. Thud.
When you watch him, you can see he gets a little stunned, then has another go. It seems really unwise, a little silly.
The next verses are astounding, because after punishment from God, they get up and fly straight back to him.
Have a look at verse 24:
I say to myself, "The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him."
There must have been a lot of options for them. They could have sought the protection of a nearby super-power. Perhaps they could've made peace with the country of Babylon who had defeated them.
But somehow, after being on the end of God's judgment, they find it fit to shake off the dust of their desperation and turn back to God.
And it is a desperate time.
The first section of this chapter describes these people as walking in darkness, like those who are dead.
They're weighed down with chains, dragged from the path and mangled, with broken teeth and they're deprived of peace.
In a very real way they have come within an inch of their life. This was one of the moments in history when an entire nation was only a fraction away from being taken off the map forever.
But it's that they are within an inch of life that seems to give them something to hope for. The fact that they are still there seems to be the sunshine through the clouds for them.
They've already made case against themselves as guilty for disobeying God.
They know that God should be angry at them, and that he's done the right thing by punishing them. They know they broke the terms of the agreement with God.
So they also know the words from their covenant with God that say they should be destroyed.
For disobeying the God who had looked after them so well, they should have been wiped off the map.
Even though God's against them, because they're still alive, he's left them a little flicker of hope. Israel's being given a chance she simply doesn't deserve. Her nine lives are gone, and God's handing out a tenth.
That's the reason they have the hope of verse 22 and 23:
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.
God has treated them in a way they don't deserve by rescuing some from his anger, when all are guilty.
That's one of the reasons why they turn to God.
But it's not just that they're alive that gives them hope. The fact that they are still living and breathing and writing poetry as a nation tells something about what God is like.
God's character means there's the hope of mercy. The possibility he'll give them a deal they aren't entitled to. Because he did it once already.
When you have a deal, you stick to it. A contract is a contract.
Which is one reason why friends of mine are going through turbulent times at the moment about a house they're going to buy.
See they signed a contract with the builder. And a contract with the bank. But halfway through doing the house, Bob the Builder went bust.
Now the builder's bank is staking a claim on what's left of the house. They want to take it, and sell it and get some of their cash back.
They're not interested in any negotiation. Nor any sign of good faith, or perhaps even a bit of charity...or mercy.
Rules are rules and the contract is the contract, and in this situation the contract says they can take the house off everyone.
Israel are sighing with relief that God doesn't have that attitude to them. He doesn't say rules are rules and a contract is a contract.
If he did that, Israel would be non-existent.
But God doesn't destroy things because he can. He's not a hard-line stickler for the rules. In fact, unlike that bank, he does want to show mercy, compassion, he does want to offer people refuge from the anger they deserve.
God desperately loved his people. Israel got life when the contract said they should get death. The only conclusion they can come to about God's character is that he loves to have mercy. God loves to have compassion.
Hear how they say that in verse 31:
For men are not cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men.
God has turned against them, they're on the receiving end of his anger. But in the face of that anger they turn to God because God shows compassion when he need not.
The God who gives life, in the face of death is just what they need to pull them out of their national disaster they are.
He's the only one who has the heart and the power to get his special nation back on track.
This poem is a bit of cry out to God, acknowledging that he has to be the one to get them on track. It has to be God's rescue.
They are not looking anywhere else for a second.
Have you ever noticed how with younger people, they seem to change their minds at the last minute?
Maybe it's a generation Y thing. I heard someone my age say once that 'all plans are null and void until 15 minutes before the event'.
It's like they're always waiting for a better offer, so there's no commitment in case the next thing is superior.
Israel though, know that there will be no better offer, they know only God can give them the rescue they need. And, they're saying that they'll work with all their energy to make sure they stay focused on that rescue.
In fact, one of the things that people who write really clever books about this passage say is that it used to be read out at festivals. A few thousand Israelites, gathered together every year. And they'd read the book of Lamentations out loud together.
Day and night staring out to the horizon, until that time when the rescue they need is forthcoming. And until that time they'll be in great distress as they wait for God. See verse 49:
My eyes will flow unceasingly, without relief, until the Lord looks down from heaven and sees.
Here we are, with God's special people on the receiving end of God's anger and they need rescue. Their glimpse of God's mercy when he ought to be unforgiving means they await the rescue of their nation of Israel.
And that rescue eventually comes for them in the person of Christ.
Christ comes to bring an end to Israel's tears. Christ comes to rescue them from God's anger. And he does that by taking the full force of God's anger at the cross.
Christ is weighed down with chains, dragged from the path and mangled, broken and deprived of peace.
He's punished as though he were a guilty Israelite, so that guilty Israelites could be rescued from God's anger.
Affliction willingly taken by Christ, so that man wouldn't be afflicted.
When my uncle Noel submerged himself into that raging floodwater, I reckon a good number of people on the bus would have thought it was crazy. Certainly none of them followed him.
And as they watched from the bus, with water rising rapidly against its walls, the clock probably stopped.
Eventually though, with huge relief I imagine, they saw him emerge at the road on the other side. Their rescue was set in motion.
See for us, this side of Jesus, where in just as much need of rescue as any.
The truth is that because of our sin we are in a precarious situation with God.
All of us face God's anger for the way we have treated him and each other.
And the most visible sign of God's anger in our world is death. Death is what happens when you ignore the God of life.
Because it reminds us that we're not in control, that something is drastically wrong, and no matter how good we get at medicine or science, the fact is, death keeps telling us that we're in a lot of trouble.
We need someone to rescue us from our situation.
And when God's anger is against you, you need God's rescue.
The great news is that Christ didn't just die on behalf of a desperate Israel, Christ has died to rescue all.
In his death, Christ is punished for everything you have ever done that wrecks the way things should work between God and man. Every sin that we should be punished for, Christ offers to be punished on our behalf.
It's just what we need, the right action at the right time really.
Sometime after Christ died and came back to life, the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 5 verse 6:
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.
We're bound for God's anger, with not a hope of stopping, but Christ can stop it.
And that's not something we deserve, but God in his compassion and his mercy offers the deal we have no right to.
His compassion goes beyond forgiveness.
We have hope of rescue from death.
Christ set out to rescue us by submerging himself in death. And three days later rose up from the grave showing us that death no longer has the last word.
Christians have the hope of life.
Just a little bit later in that same book of Romans, we are told in chapter 6 verse 23:
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Christ has risen, and for those who take up his offer of forgiveness, the wheels of rescue to eternal life are set in motion.
When you face God's anger, you need God's rescue. That's the message to Israel in Lamentations 3, and the message to us in Jesus Christ.
Let's just touch on a couple of things from that as we finish. They're to do with how you are valued, and where you find the answers to life's problems.
If you're here this morning and you call yourself a follower of Jesus, do you know the mercy with which God has treated you. He loves you incredibly. His only son submerging himself in death, so that you could live.
Jesus Christ took on the intensely personal pain of God's anger because you are very precious. Valued more than anything money can buy, in fact you cost God his son.
But Christ was willing to pay that price, and wants you to understand that you are worth a lot to him.
You are valuable because God values you.
Whether you are fat or thin, fast or slow, young or old. If you're unemployed or a CEO, leading 10 church rosters, or plugging away at just trying to stay Christian.
God looks at you and says he loves you, and you are valuable and he's willing to pay his son to rescue you.
God's rescue says you're valuable.
I guess the other important thing to see is that only God's rescue works.
The sole way to sort out your problem with God, comes from God's problem sorter, Jesus.
There'll be any number of options available to try and sort out your life, and prolong death.
Any number of spiritual gurus, or books about talking 10 steps to a better you, or great investment schemes, or housing estates that offer the best community money can buy.
All of those things might seem to make death a distant reality.
But it's there. Every time you pass a cemetery, there's the stark reminder of our problem with God.
God's anger stares us in the face every time we encounter death.
And the only way you can be rescued from that problem: Jesus Christ.
God's offering you a deal you don't deserve. Forgiveness, and life.
Have you taken up God's offer of rescue?