Friday, 26 June 2020

Restore us to yourself, O Lord (Lamentations 5)


So, we have reached the end of the book of Lamentations.  It has not been an easy book.  The people of the southern kingdom of Judah had persistently rebelled against God.  God had sent prophets like Jeremiah to call them back to himself in repentance.  But the people listened to religious teachers who told them what they wanted to hear.  These false teachers had a theology of peace.  They said, ‘look, the temple is in Jerusalem and so there is no way that God will destroy this city.  There will be no day of judgement.’  Then the day of judgement arrived.  The Babylonians surrounded the city for three years as its inhabitants died.  Then they breached the walls and took the people into exile.  It is worth noting that what took place was foretold in the book of Deuteronomy.  But there is hope for us.  Deuteronomy may have spoken of the curse for disobedience, but we know that Jesus has taken that curse upon himself.  For Deuteronomy said, ‘cursed is anyone hung on a tree’ (cf. Galatians 3:13).  Jesus hung on that tree as he died on the cross for the curse due to our disobedience so that, in Christ, we might enjoy God’s blessing.     

There were some very positive verses in the middle of chapter three.  The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness (3:22-23).  What amazing words to come out of Jeremiah’s mouth, given that he is looking at the devastation caused by God’s judgement!  Even when life is hard, we must remember that steadfast love of God.  He will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according the abundance of his steadfast love, for he does not willingly afflict the children of men (3:32-33).  In fact, we can look beyond any circumstance and remember that this is how we know what love is: Christ lay down his life for us (1 John 3:16).

So how will the short book end?  Let’s see.

Remember God (1).

Remember, O LORD, what has befallen us; look, see our disgrace (1).

In this closing chapter the people of Judah plead for God to restore them.  The people begin by asking God to remember.  When I think of God remembering my mind is brought to the book of Exodus, when the people were in slavery in Egypt.  During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help.  Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God.  And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.  God saw the people of Israel—and God knew (Exodus 2:23-25).

What does it mean to ask God to remember, after all he does not have a problem with his memory?  It is a call for God to do something.  It is a call for God to act in line with his promises.

One of the things that we learn when we study the book of Lamentations is that when we are down and out, we are to approach God with raw honesty.  Jesus asked, ‘Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him”; and I will answer from within, “do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed.  I cannot get up and give you anything”?  I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs.  And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you’ (Luke 11:5-9).

What are the people asking for?  They want God to see their disgrace.  God had entered into a relationship with the people of Israel and Judah.  They were supposed to be a holy and special people.  But they have sinned.  They have not being holy.  They were supposed to be a blessing to the nations.  God has judged them and now they lie in ruins.  Things can’t stay like this.  How can God’s love and goodness be shown to the world when his people lie in rubble? 

We look at our own sin and we think of the disgrace.  We want to be like Jesus, but in so many ways we are not.  We are crushed by the fact that oftentimes habitual sins like lust and pride disgrace us.  We struggle with bitterness and we find it so hard to forgive.  ‘Remember our disgrace Lord and change us from within.’  We pray for holiness, for we are to be God’s holy people, and everything else is a disgrace.

Get real (2-18)

Verses two to eighteen recall the woes that they have just experienced.  They have lost the Promised Land.  They have become fatherless, and their mothers are like widows.  They are enduring economic hardship.  There is mention of terrible sexual crimes.  All the joy has gone from their hearts.  ‘They were homeless and hounded; horrified and hard-pressed; heart-broken and hopeless.  When they prayed for the disgrace to be removed this is what they meant’ (Lee McMunn).

Why would you bother recalling all the bad things that have happened to you?  Why tell God these things, for he already knows?  It because they are not running from reality, they are facing reality.  We aren’t simply to try to forget the terrible things that have happened to us, we bring them to God.  We don’t have to pretend things are rosy when they are not.  We are to be real with God.  But that does not mean that we stop and wallow in self-pity.  We are asking God to do something about it.  When we fall again to that same temptation, we tell God about it, and we ask God to change us from within.  When old bitterness resurfaces, we don’t hide it from him, but ask him to give us more grace.  Where do you need to be real with God, acknowledging that things are not as they should be, and asking him to come to the rescue?

Ask God to restore (19-22)

In verse nineteen the people move from their plight to focus on God’s character.  But you, O Lord, reign forever; your throne endures for all generations.  Our only hope is when God is true to himself.  We appeal to the God who is slow to anger and abounding in love.  We trust the God who does not treat us as our sins deserve but according to his loving kindness.  The God who shows faithfulness to a faithless people.  The God who loved us before we loved him and promises to keep loving us to the end.  The God who has put a new heart in us and inclines us to follow his ways.  God not only has the ability to help us, he has the desire.

They want to be saved from their disgrace.  They want to be restored to God.  Restore us to yourself, that we may be restored.   Note that it is God who needs to work if people are to be restored.  We pray for our non-Christian friends and neighbours that God would give them spiritual life.  We pray for those who are living the life of a prodigal that God would bring them to their senses.  We pray for ourselves, ‘create in me a clean heart, O Lord, and renew a steadfast spirit within me’ (Psalm 51:10).

But what do we make of the last verse—unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us?  Will God restore them?  Will his anger be turned away from them?  There seems to be uncertainty for the generation that Jeremiah belongs to.  One preacher explains, ‘I think this is a great ending for an Old Testament book.  As we read it, we are being reminded that this cannot be the end of the story.  It pushes us to read on as we ask, is there a happier future?’

The truth is that there will be dark days ahead for the people of Judah.  They will endure years of exile.  But has not given up on them.  In the days of Ezra and Nehemiah there will be a return and restoration, but that restoration seems incomplete.  The story is not finished there.  The Promised Messiah will come.  He will turn people back to God.  He inaugurates a new covenant where, I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.  And I will be their God, and they will be my people (Jeremiah 31:33).  God turns us back to himself.  Why haven’t you packed in your faith?  Because he has kept you from falling.  Why can’t you be content when you are distant from him?  Because he works within you to will and to act according to his good pleasure.  Why do you run home to him when you realise that the pleasures of sin bring emptiness and pain?  Because he will never stop drawing you with chords of love. 

But we know that in this life we will not be perfect.  We lie to ourselves if we say that we have no sin (1 John 1:8).  We are now forgiven and there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  But we still struggle with temptation and sin.  We are still waiting for the day when full restoration will come.  Jerusalem was destroyed, but there is a heavenly Jerusalem that awaits the Lord’s return (Revelation 21:1-4).  On that day we shall be like him because we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2).  God’s people will be fully restored.  There will be no more disgrace.  God’s people will perfectly reflect God’s glory.  In the meantime, we purify ourselves as he is pure’ (1 John 3:3).

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