Sunday, 29 April 2012

Dawn breaks only for another night to follow - Lamentations

It is one of those quirks of history.

One that continues to have the power to disturb.

It was on the 9th of Av in 587BC that what had begun three weeks before was completed.  The temple and the city of Jerusalem were finally destroyed by the Babylonians.

Talmudic tradition has it that in AD 70 on that very day, the 9th of Av the Romans destroyed the temple and the city of Jerusalem once again.

The 9th Av is this year 29th July.  For the three weeks from 8th July Jewish people will observe a period of fasting – Tisha B’Av and the three weeks – destruction and renewal.

On the eve of the 9th Av people will gather in their synagogue.

In the synagogue, the curtain is removed from the Ark and the lights are dimmed. After the evening prayers, the Book of Lamentations (Eichah) is read. The leader reads aloud and the congregation reads along in an undertone.

The Prophet who more than any other was caught up in the destruction of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 587 BC was Jeremiah.  He determined to remain in the city when all seemed lost, he had, after all, purchased property in the city as a statement of hope against hope.

But in 2 Chronicles 35:25 we read what Jeremiah did.

Jeremiah also uttered a lament for Josiah, and all the singing-men and singing-women have spoken of Josiah in their laments to this day. They made these a custom in Israel; they are recorded in the Laments.

It was perhaps with good reason that those Greek translators of the Hebrew Scriptures placed Lamentations immediately after Jeremiah.

But in the Jewish Scriptures Lamentations is the fourth book of the Megilloth, the five little scrolls each of which is associated with a festival in the Jewish liturgical calendar.

Lamentations is the bleakest of books.

It is a collection of five poems that are beautifully crafted.

Chapter 1 has 22 verses.
Chapter 2 has 22 verses
Chapter 3 has 22 x 3 = 66 verses
Chapter 4 has 22 verses
Chapter 5 has 22 verses

What is the significance of the number 22?

There are 22 letters in the Hebrew Alphabet.

In chapters 1, 2 and 4 each verse begins with the succeeding letter of the Hebrew alphabet..  In chapter 3 the first three verses begin with the first letter of the alphabet, the second 3 with the second letter and so on.

The final chapter has 22  verses, but no longer an acrostic pattern.

Hebrew poetry as is the poetry in any language, wonderfully skillfully crafted.

Is it that the destruction, the lament, is unremitting – from start to finish, from beginning to end, from A to Z – there is a totality to it.

It begins in utter dejection …

The Deserted City

1How lonely sits the city
   that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
   she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
   has become a vassal. 

2 She weeps bitterly in the night,
   with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
   she has no one to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
   they have become her enemies. 
At its end there is a glimmer of hope … but it is as if the light is extinguished as the book finishes with a question that haunts …

19 But you, O Lord, reign for ever;
   your throne endures to all generations. 
20 Why have you forgotten us completely?
   Why have you forsaken us these many days? 
21 Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored;
   renew our days as of old— 
22 unless you have utterly rejected us,
   and are angry with us beyond measure.

Why should the last chapter not have the sequence?  An oversight, no time?  Or maybe a sense of even greater fragmentation.  Things falling apart that cannot be put together again.

This is a book that works for the Jewish people lamenting the loss of the temple and the destruction of Jerusalem.

It is a collection of poems that works in any place where a city is destroyed and its peoples laid waste.

News that comes from Homs is so disturbing … and so many cities like it.  What is doubly disturbing in Syria is that it is a country hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled to as refugees from the destruction of their cities and their homes in Iraq and elsewhere in the middle east.

There is an unremitting bleakness to these words.

Tears, lament at the fate of a city is something that Jesus shared.

As he approached Jerusalem Jesus too wept bitter tears.  The tears he wept echoed the tears of Jeremiah at the destruction of Jerusalem long ago …  but they anticipated a destruction that was to come.

41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.’

Coming back to Lamentations, the very construction of the poetry invites us to ask another question.

Why should the middle chapter, the third chapter have 66 verses.

For sixty years from 1935 to 1995 Kenneth Bailey’s home was in the Middle East.  Growing up in Egypt and spending 40 years teaching New Testament in seminaries and institutes in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus.  His book Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes draws on ancient, medieval and modern books written in Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac and Arabic.

One thing he observes.

Middle Eastern writing follows different customs from western literature.  In western writing an argument is developed in stages – from a beginning through a development to a conclusion.

If you want to know the message – look to the conclusion.

Do that in Lamentations and it is pretty bleak.

But Middle Easter writing is fond of a different kind of structure.  And the key to that structure lies in the very layout of the Book of Lamentations.

There is a sequence A – B – C – B – A.

The argument reaches its climax not at the end but in the middle.

See how that works in Lamentations and something remarkable happens.

Our attention is drawn to the middle chapter simply because it is three times the length.

It begins intensely personally.

This is the feeling of devastation of someone at their lowest.

It not only resonates for those caught up in the destruction of Jerusalem, this is a chapter that resonates for anyone who senses their world has fallen apart.

In a powerful book on depression this was a chapter that for some described the abject awfulness of depressive illness.

3I am one who has seen affliction
   under the rod of God’s wrath; 
2 he has driven and brought me
   into darkness without any light; 
3 against me alone he turns his hand,
   again and again, all day long. 

4 He has made my flesh and my skin waste away,
   and broken my bones; 
5 he has besieged and enveloped me
   with bitterness and tribulation; 
6 he has made me sit in darkness
   like the dead of long ago. 

7 He has walled me about so that I cannot escape;
   he has put heavy chains on me; 
8 though I call and cry for help,
   he shuts out my prayer; 
9 he has blocked my ways with hewn stones,
   he has made my paths crooked. 
This is the cry of the person whose prayers are not heeded.

It is devastating.

And then something remarkable happens.

In the whole bible, this has to be the bleakest book.

In the middle of this the bleakest book it is as if a light is shone into the darkness, a light that has the capacity to pierce the gloom.

19 The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
   is wormwood and gall! 
20 My soul continually thinks of it
   and is bowed down within me. 
21 But this I call to mind,
   and therefore I have hope: 

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
   his mercies never come to an end; 
23 they are new every morning;
   great is your faithfulness. 
24 ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,
   ‘therefore I will hope in him.’ 
In the most unexpected of places we get to the heart of the Good News of our Faith.

It is when things are at their worst that light shines into the darkness.

Notice what happens here.

This I call to mind.  It is a deliberate focusing.  A turning of the mind.  It is something that gives hope.

It is the steadfast love of the Lord that never ceases.

All may seem to have collapsed but God’s love prevails.

This enters our psyche through a hymn I remember singing so often at school,

New Every morning is the love our wakening and uprising prove.

New mercies each returning day surround your people as they pray.

It is in the writing of Thomas Chisholm, plagued through his life by ill health that resulted in the ending of his ministry after only a year, that these words come so powerfully to life.

Great is your faithfulness
Great is your faithfulness
Morning by morning new mercies I see
All I have needed your hand has provided
Great is your faithfulness Father to me.

It is a powerful passage to share.  I well remember sharing it with someone in moments of deep depression.  Much, much later, they recalled the comments we had shared.  It wasn’t these verses that stuck in their memory.  But the ones that followed.

After speaking of the need to wait, and to wait some more, the writer has a much more oblique word to share …

It is a promise to hold on to when things are not readily coming back together again.

31 For the Lord will not
   reject for ever. 
32 Although he causes grief, he will have compassion
   according to the abundance of his steadfast love; 
33 for he does not willingly afflict
   or grieve anyone. 

There is something special about Lamentations.  And in its very structure.

Steeped as we are in western ways of thinking, we can give the impression that the journey of faith is linear.  From despair to hope.  And if we can follow through the logical sequence from the start through its development to its conclusion all will be well.

There is something in Lamentations to hold on to.  It is more true to life, to the experience I have shared, and to experiences others have shared with me.

We glimpse the grounds for hope – but then we have to return to the awfulness of the world.

Lamentations is true to that pattern.  For after the hope in the middle of the book, the lament returns, as devastating as ever.

In a life where we might on occasions reach the mountain top we have to return to the valley – but let’s bring to mind what we have glimpsed.  And hold on to that promise.

The ninth of Av in that Jewish calendar I looked up on the Internet is described as a day of mourning, a day of hope.

In the midst of all that gives rise to the despair of lament let us find hope in just the way the writer of these words did

21 But this I call to mind,
   and therefore I have hope: 

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
   his mercies never come to an end; 
23 they are new every morning;
   great is your faithfulness. 
24 ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,
   ‘therefore I will hope in him.’ 

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