Inscription: Writing God’s Words on Our Hearts & Minds
Part 58: Wrath and Mercy
August 14, 2011
Scripture reading: Lam. 3:21-26
A neglected book
Q Did you recognize that verse from the worship song?
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases
His mercies never come to an end,
They are new every morning
New every morning
Great is Your faithfulness, 0 Lord
Great is Your faithfulness
“The Steadfast Love of the Lord”
It is a moving, encouraging passage, yet like last week’s sermon, it’s context makes it much deeper and richer.
Q How many of you have read Lamentations?
It’s not a popular book; it has the distinction of being the most depressing book in the Bible. It is a collection of five poems of lament.
· They were probably written by Jeremiah, as he walked through the utter destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, 586 BC.
Lamentations 1:1-4 How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave. 2 Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are upon her cheeks. Among all her lovers there is none to comfort her. All her friends have betrayed her; they have become her enemies. 3 After affliction and harsh labor, Judah has gone into exile. She dwells among the nations; she finds no resting place. All who pursue her have overtaken her in the midst of her distress. 4 The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to her appointed feasts. All her gateways are desolate, her priests groan, her maidens grieve, and she is in bitter anguish.
This is about 11 years after last week’s passage when Babylon conquered Judah, exiled the elite and put their man on the throne. Judah since rebelled (against God’s instruction) and Babylon decided they had enough of this troublesome nation and laid siege to Jerusalem.
For almost two years, Jerusalem was cut off. The city simply ran out of food. Around that time, Babylon broke through the walls and destroyed the city. Lamentations remembers the scene:
Lamentations 4:5-10 5 Those who once ate delicacies are destitute in the streets. Those nurtured in purple now lie on ash heaps. 6 The punishment of my people is greater than that of Sodom, which was overthrown in a moment without a hand turned to help her. 7 Their princes were brighter than snow and whiter than milk, their bodies more ruddy than rubies, their appearance like sapphires. 8 But now they are blacker than soot; they are not recognized in the streets. Their skin has shriveled on their bones; it has become as dry as a stick. 9 Those killed by the sword are better off than those who die of famine; racked with hunger, they waste away for lack of food from the field. 10 With their own hands compassionate women have cooked their own children, who became their food when my people were destroyed.
I cringe reading this passage, especially out loud. It is awful, upsetting, leaves you feel dirty. No wonder it’s ignored!
Q How do you preach on this? And why would you?
But as I read it, I caught up in its poetry, its raw, brutal, and graphic power and realized that we have a modern equivalent of Lamentations in the American Arts:
Q How many of you have seen “Schindler’s List“?
That is one of the most powerful movies made. It is graphic in every way possible – death, nudity, injustice. It is poetry on film, mixing of horrors and beauty, and it ends with hope – that even with such evil there is goodness.
· I consider showing the trailer, but think I couldn’t handle it; it was all I could do not to cry watching it in Starbucks.
If you understand Schindler’s List, then you are half of the way to understanding Lamentations.
It’s one thing to describe a horrific scene – lots of movies do that, but to do it well is another. Schindler’s List didn’t win an Oscar because lots of people died, but because we as the viewer were swept up in the emotions of the event.
Remember how Schindler’s List was filmed in black and white, as if to somehow mute the horrors?
And remember the one little girl in the red coat, forcing us to shift our focus from a nameless mass to one specific person and to follow her story?
Lamentations is carefully written poetry. It is made up of 5 separate poems. Four of them are acrostics, not like those silly Facebook “let’s see what your name means,” but starting at aleph and ending at taw, it is all of their suffering from “A to Z.”
And is uses a unique structure to reinforce the pain: it alternates between 3 and 2 words per line. As you read it in Hebrew, it almost feels like you are limping.
· I actually put on the soundtrack to Schindler’s List while I read Lamentations and was swept away by the harsh beauty.
Like all great art, Lamentations has a point. In Schindler’s List is the power of one man’s compassion. But Lamentations is a showcase of God’s mercy and wrath.
· It’s significant Babylon is never mentioned in Lamentation; that’s like not mentioning the Nazis in Schindler’s List.
NIV Lamentations 2:5-7 The Lord is like an enemy; he has swallowed up Israel. He has swallowed up all her palaces and destroyed her strongholds. He has multiplied mourning and lamentation for the Daughter of Judah. 6 He has laid waste his dwelling like a garden; he has destroyed his place of meeting. The LORD has made Zion forget her appointed feasts and her Sabbaths; in his fierce anger he has spurned both king and priest. 7 The Lord has rejected his altar and abandoned his sanctuary. He has handed over to the enemy the walls of her palaces; they have raised a shout in the house of the LORD as on the day of an appointed feast.
God has risen up against his people. All this has happened to them in punishment of their wickedness and idolatry, just as they were warned.
Not just that, but also for this ongoing disobedience. In Jeremiah, God kept saying that he was punishing them by allowing the Babylonians to rule over them, but they could lessen the pain by submitting to it, yet they refused.
Again, preaching this stuff is a challenge: How does this apply to us? Does this mean that natural disasters are still God’s judgment?
“AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals. To oppose it would be like an Israelite jumping in the Red Sea to save one of Pharaoh’s charioteers...” Jerry Falwell
Jerry Falwell, after 9/11: “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.”
Or Pat Robertson saying that the Hurricane Katrina was judgment for abortions in America and the Haiti earthquake (in which up to 200,000 died) was because they had made a pact with the Devil.
Q Could they be right?
Remember what I said about errors traveling in pairs? We tend to go to one extreme to avoid another. We tend to either misunderstand God’s wrath or his mercy.
These men misunderstand God’s wrath: They were not prophets, God did not appoint them. They seem to me to be opportunistic crackpots who used tragedy to promote their own agenda.
There is a huge problem with their pronouncement of judgment: It completely misses the Biblical pattern – God warns, warns some more, then warns some more with specific threats, then follows through, then explains.
· God is not like a abusive father that smacks his kid then makes up a reason, which is how some of you view him.
These guys are looking at it after the fact and saying “it must have been because of this personal soapbox of mine.” Without revelation from God (such as the prophets had), we lack the perspective to know what God causes and what he allows.
Is God punishing me?
But more personally, we need to know if the disasters in our lives are God’s judgment. Some of you think whenever anything bad happens, it means God is punishing you.
Q So when disaster strikes you, how do you know if it is punishment?
If we follow the Biblical pattern:
Q Have you been blatantly and knowingly ignoring God?
Not a “I had a bad thought one,” but intentionally and consistently ignoring him speaking through his word, through godly counsel, and through your conscience.
Q Is this disaster the result of such disobedience?
If so, maybe God is bringing punishment, in order to push you to do what’s right – God’s punishment is always redemptive, for the pursue of our good, but I am getting ahead of myself.
But the other error is to say that God never punishes. God is love, he could never do anything like this, etc. The popular response to things like this is “That’s in the OT.”
· If I have learned anything from preaching it is that we need to read the OT more, not less.
In fact, we would be much happier, more normal Christians if we understood the OT better, as you will see in the upcoming “Radically Normal” series.
The problem isn’t that God is loving in the NT and vengeful in the OT, it is that we have a weak view of God.
Q Have you ever had a caricature done at the fair?
Do you know how they are made? You exaggerate the prominent features and deemphasize the rest. That’s what we do it God, over-emphasize his merciful, compassionate characteristics in contrast to deemphasizing His justice, holiness, and wrath.
· What you end up with is a weaker, funny looking god.
A clear picture of God
God is a God of love and justice, mercy and wrath. The problem is ours, not his. We have a low view of God that reflects our culture more than the Bible.
This is a modern problem. Previous generations overemphasized God wrath, at the expense of God’s love.
Q We joke about fire and brimstone sermons, but how many have you really heard?
If you remember the story of Jonah, the part of the story of Jonah that bothers us is the thought that God would wipe out an entire city of 600,000, men, women, and children. But Jonah and his readers were bothered by the fact that he didn’t.
This passage is the clearest and most complete revelation of God in the OT. In fact, it’s is alluded to many times throughout the Bible. Not until Jesus do we have a clearer picture of God.
The context is that Moses asks God to show his glory. In other words, Moses ask God to describe himself:
Exodus 34:6-7 6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”
Wrath is good
Here is a how to understand God’s wrath in a way that is consistent with love and forgiveness:
Q Do you remember the moral outrage you felt when you watched Schindler’s List?
God’s wrath means that he feels the same way, that he hates the injustice, the suffering, and wickedness.
· And we should be glad that he does.
Sin is destructive – it takes everything good and corrupts it. It’s been destroying your every relationship and made you miserable every day. The fact that God hates it more than you, and is committed to wiping it out, should thrill you.
· God’s wrath is the full force of his goodness directed against evil.
That is why God’s wrath is a core component of his goodness. It should comfort us that God against what is against me.
Wrath to mercy ratio
In describing his character, seven of the eight descriptions highlight his kindness. We see a similar “kindness to wrath ratio” in Isaiah when he speaks of a day of vengeance and a year of favor (61:2).
· God’s wrath is a small component of his goodness, yet it is a vital component.
Iron is a very small part of our diet, about 1/50,000, yet it is vital. What happens if we don’t get enough iron? We become anemic: sluggish, fatigued, lacking strength.
· Failure to understand and embrace God’s wrath, leads to an anemic faith, weak, thin, lacking vitality.
His mercy never fails
With all this, I want to be clear that the main point of Lamentations isn’t wrath. The core isn’t the consequences of sin. The core (quite literally) is something else:
Q Remember the passage we started with?
That passage is strategically placed in the middle of book: There are 5 poems in Lamentations, it is located in the third poem, and it is in the middle of that poem.
With all of the pain, judgment, and suffering of Lamentations, this is what was at the very core of Jeremiah’s message:
Lamentations 3:22-33 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.
And all this leads to the very pinnacle of book, line 33 out of 66 lines:
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.
God does not willingly afflict or grieve us. The literal Hebrew for “willingly” is “from his heart.” It is not what he wants to do, but it is necessary at times, as the next 2 ½ poems will show, but it is not his deepest desire.
· The core of Lamentations, and indeed the core of God’s character is mercy and love.
The two big points
As you read Lamentations, with all of its destruction, punishment and pain, two points should stand out personally:
1. This is what sin and disobedience does.
We’ve all allowed ourselves to enjoy the short-lived pleasures of sin. We push from our minds the reality of the long-term effects, and the fact that one sin inescapably leads to another.
· Lamentations graphically illustrates the consequences of unchecked rebellion against Him.
It grieves him see you suffering in sin, and to see you bring suffering to other. He must punish sin; for him to ignore it would be to cease to be good.
· But his desire is to show mercy.
2. God is merciful and forgiving.
It doesn’t matter what you have done, God still loves you. The message of the cross is that God has done everything within his power, short of overriding our will, to show mercy.
· PPT: Please text Janna; service is almost over: 333-4505
Q & A
· Community group
· Read Lamentations while listening to Schindler’s List soundtrack.
· Memorize and mediate on Lam 3:32-33