Lamentations 4-5:22

Jeremiah opens these last two chapters with a montage of video clips piled one on top of the other, the way a movie shows scenes of daily life in the city where it takes place. But these aren’t happy shots of contented family life in a thriving economy. They are scenes from the aftermath of an ancient apocalypse.

The first is of young men in the gym, shirtless and gleaming, their chests bulging. These men were once called Jerusalem’s “fine gold” with physiques,”worth their weight in gold.” Now dull and gaunt, they languish against the crumbling rocks, propped up by charred timbers, scattered like empty clay pots, 4:1-2.

The camera of Jeremiah’s pen turns to an ostrich in the desert, well known for leaving its eggs after laying, abandoning motherhood and nurture all together. “My people have become heartless like ostriches in the desert,” the voice over says, 4:3.

He zooms to an infant’s tongue, stuck to the roof of its mouth for thirst. Outside, voices of children drift in through an open window nearby where the infant lies, listless and gaping. They’re not playing games; they’re begging bread. Silence answers. Nothing. 4:4.

There’s a flashback of beautiful people in Southern Kingdom shirts, lounging beside a pool, pulling off tails of colossal shrimp, guzzling cocktails in the sun. The camera pans along mounds of present rubble where the rabble used to gather. Club regulars pick through piles of ash looking for bugs. Their clothing, now tattered, flaps like rags on the line. 4:5.

The voice over speaks, “The punishment of my people is greater than that of Sodom, which was overthrown in a moment without a hand turned to help her,” 4:6. Greater than Sodom’s punishment? What could be worse than fire and brimstone rained down without warning from heaven, burning everything in sight, turning the running woman yonder into salt?

And I realize, this is worse. This isn’t burn-and-done. This is burn-with-hunger-until-your-skin-turns-black: “blacker than soot; they’re not recognized in the streets.” They’re shriveled, dry like a stick, 7-8. Twenty minutes of Sodom-size agony cannot compare to slow death by famine and thirst. The voice explains, “Those killed by the sword are better off…; racked with hunger, they waste away,” 9.

The camera approaches a young woman from behind. She’s at her stove, her apron tied twice around her waist. She doesn’t sing as she stirs the boiling pot. Steam rises. The camera angle opens up as it enters the room. The kitchen is empty. The camera cuts to her tear stained face. She pours stew in a cup. A baby rattle lies at her feet.

Quiet as a whisper, the voice says, “With their own hands compassionate women have cooked their own children,…their food when my people were destroyed,” 4:10.

Jeremiah pens of priests who pick their way over dead bodies in the street, their long robes red and blood-soaked. The men who used to greet them, “Rabbi!,” now yell, “Go away! Unclean!” 4:14-15.

Outside the city, enemy soldiers swoop down on citizens as they flee over mountains; lie in wait for them in the desert. They rape women and children. The king is captured. Well-networked, he was their only hope of help, 4:18-20, 5:11.

The upper crust hangs by their hands along walls that still stand, awaiting exile or death. Elders get no respect. Slaves who are left oppress others, bereft. 5:8, 12.

There’s no music, no joy. Young boys stagger under loads of wood they’re forced to carry but cannot bring home without buying. More mourning, more dying. Bodies are left lying. 4:19; 5:4, 8, 11-15.

The agony of this widespread horror is felt even by the most vulnerable, the children. Not only were they not protected by their parents, they were brutalized. There should have been a baby eating that soup, not in the soup. If this is what the “compassionate women” did, I cannot imagine what hard-hearted women were capable of.

Jeremiah puts his camera-pen down and picks up his prophet-pen. He must explain.

Why has this happened? Because of “the sins of [the] prophets and the iniquities of her priests,” who killed God’s true prophets and then lied to his people. And it’s because of their own sin, “Woe to us, for we have sinned!” 4:13, 16.

How has it happened? “The Lord’s anger has given full vent to his wrath; he has poured out his fierce anger. He kindled a fire in Zion that consumed her foundations,” 13. In case it’s not been clear, God’s pissed. This is his blitz.

What to do? The people had waited and watched for outside help, but none came, 17. Jeremiah had tried to help them, but his words hadn’t moved them. They didn’t repent; judgment came. He doesn’t bring them more words from God at the end. He’s already said all he can say. There’s no “try harder, do better” message now. There’s no “you got what you had coming,” or “you shoulda listened.” None of that would help. Jeremiah knows words are not what they need.

What they need is a rescue.

So Jeremiah goes to God with questions and a plea. Only God can help them now. Jeremiah remembers who God is, the one still on his throne–the one who reigns and will always reign. And he asks God why he forgets and forsakes them for so long, 19-20. Maybe its been months–or years–since the walls fell and the Babylonians poured through like a flood.

His last words of Lamentations are sobering. They stand out for their truth and their doubt. “Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure,” 21-22. Jeremiah gives God an out. He asks for restoration, unless… Unless God won’t. Unless God has utterly rejected them. Unless God is angry with them “beyond measure.”

The tradition in Jewish synagogues after reading the last verse of Lamentations was to go back and read verse 21 again, the one about asking God to restore them. Ending with God’s angry-and-forever rejection was too darned dark, (Harrison, http://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/lamentations-5/).

I don’t want to end with it either. I’m surprised that Jeremiah does, since he wrote words of hope yesterday that sounded and resounded with hanging-in-there-no-matter-what faith because God will come through, Lam 3. But today, he doesn’t inspire me.

And I don’t need him to.

The “weeping prophet” wasn’t perfect, and he didn’t trust perfectly, either. While he’s inspired me over the last week with his faith-from-the-pit, he fails me at the end. He ends in some understandable confusion and doubt about God.

But God didn’t include Lamentations in the Bible to tell me to be like Jeremiah. The message of Lamentations is that the only hope for any of us is to ask God to restore us. He’s our only help. If he doesn’t turn us back to him, we just won’t go. None of us. We’ll stay lost and left out of his love forever.

And now that I think about it, I believe Jeremiah gets that. Reading verse 21 more closely, I see that he asks God to restore them to himself, “…that we may return.” Jeremiah’s meaning, if I’m understanding him rightly, is, “God, we can’t repent if you don’t do it in us.”

After all that’s happened on his life-long road with God’s people, Jeremiah’s not thinking it’s a matter of them pulling up their boot straps and heading home to God. He knows better than anybody by now: if God doesn’t turn their hearts to them, they surely can’t. Jeremiah’s point is the best one possible for a prophet who’s had all the right words thus far: “I don’t have enough hope for us. But we don’t need me. We’ve got the God who still reigns.”

I’m touched by Jeremiah’s honest confusion in the end, God. How he doesn’t pretend to be hopeful. He doesn’t end with tales of your past faithfulness or with how his people should be faithful, too. He ends with an honest begging for your restoration, hoping against hope, asking for help when he’s hopeless himself.

Thank you for letting me see you, the God of All-Hope-Against-Hope, my only hope in this life and the next. Thank you for this peek into the past, and for how it pushes me to you. This might be the most inspiring faith of all, the faith that looks around and says, “You’re all I’ve got, and I’m not letting go.”

Hebrews 2

“We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding…how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” 1-3.

Already I’m confused. My mind snags on the news that the angels’ message was binding, and I have no clue about any angels’ message What was it? I look back in chapter 1 to see.

Verse 6 says, “when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says ‘Let all God’s angels worship him.'” Of course. The night Jesus was born, the angels sang in the sky over the shepherds’ heads. Their message was an announcement, and it was worship.

Remember what they said? “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace to those on who his favor rests,” Lk 2:14. The “peace to those he favored” was the angels’ message. “Glory to God” was the worship.

Hebrews says this message of “peace to favored ones” is binding. But who are the favored ones? I feel like I’m solving a riddle.

I put “God’s favor” in my Bible app search bar and right away, this verse pops up, “‘In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.’ I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation,” 2 Cor. 6:2. Bible-writer-Paul urges his friends to respond to God’s call to be saved and says God helps them respond. “Today’s the day to be saved, guys. Don’t miss out.”

God’s call has never been only-to-some-and-not-to-everyone. He wants every last person to respond to him. God’s the All-Inclusive-God, at the High and Hard Rock Resort, the one who plans a party and invites the whole world. If you’re reading these words, you’re invited; you’re favored, too. (Check out Jesus’ story about the lost sheep in Luke 15:3-7.)

Besides that, all your expenses are paid. The all-inclusive-God gives you an all-inclusive-package. That’s his favor to you. Will you respond to his message of peace?

So now I understand, the angels’ message (peace with God for everyone) was binding to everyone on earth. Everyone is held accountable, and we must respond. If even the message of a choir of angels holds us accountable to respond or be left out of God’s party, surely God’s message in Jesus himself makes us all the more accountable.

This is what he meant by saying “pay more careful attention…to what we’ve heard.” The news of Jesus is what we’ve heard. Salvation was first announced by God with the angels and was then confirmed by Jesus and those who heard him. God himself validated Jesus as Savior, too, by signs and wonders and miracles that he did, and the Holy Spirit who was given to those who believed, 2:3-4.

There’s a lot of compelling reasons to believe in Jesus, a lot of testimony to the truth of him. There’s punishment associated with ignoring him. And the invitation to the all inclusive High and Hard Rock Resort eventually expires. “How will we escape if we ignore so great a salvation?” 2:3. The answer is we won’t. If we don’t respond with faith, we’ll be lost. We’ll “drift away” and get left out, 2:1.

The “good news of Jesus” is the same as the “peace with God” the angels sang about. Hebrews says that since Jesus has come, we need to do something about him.

Like, now.

Psalm 103

This is a psalm of worship and praise for God’s “benefits.” More than just health care and a 401k, these benefits cover grandkids and AAA. David says to remember them, and to praise God for them, and then he helpfully names what they are.

It sounds to me like a list of God’s All-Inclusive Life Perks. Since lists help me see what’s being said, I made one. I hope it helps you, too.

God’s All-Inclusive Life Perks

He forgives all your sins.

He heals all your diseases.

He rescues your life from the pit.

He crowns you with love and compassion.

He satisfies your desires with good things.

He renews your youth like the eagle’s.

He works righteousness and justice for the oppressed.

He made himself known to Moses and his people.
(This is code for “God gave them his words and took care of them.”)

He’s compassionate and gracious.

He’s slow to anger.

He’s abounding in love.

He won’t always accuse.

He doesn’t hold onto anger.

He doesn’t treat us as our sins deserve.

He doesn’t do paybacks either.

His love for us is as high as the heavens are above the earth.

His forgiveness is as wide as the east is from the west.

His compassion for us is like a loving father’s for his kids.

He remembers we’re only human.

Because of Jesus, he knows what it’s like to be human.

His love is with us from “everlasting to everlasting.”

His goodness is with our children and grandchildren.

His throne is in heaven.

His kingdom rules over all.

The kicker?

These perks are for those who keep his covenant and obey him, code for believe in Jesus and do what God says, 18.

I’m stuffed full, God. I can’t take in another wonderful thing. I feel like I just had dinner at Rodizio Grill. So. Much. Meat. This is more than I can hold. Believing just one of these benefits “for real, for real” is about all I can handle today.

The one that stands out for me right now is that you don’t do paybacks. The exact wording in my Bible is you don’t “repay us according to our iniquities,” 10.

I’m thinking it means you don’t make me suffer the consequences of every poor decision, mistake, and deliberate sin. Your MO is grace. There are plenty of times when consequences come, and they teach me, but you’re not looking to have an exact one-to-one ratio with me of mess-ups and gotcha-backs.

You know my heart. You see my humanity. You accept my half-hearted performance and my weak praise. You forgive my forgetting. You cover me with kindness. You’re easy to please. You’re not looking to zap me when I go the wrong way. I’m surprised again by your goodness, and I remember it’s because of Jesus who already paid my way. Yay!

“Praise the Lord, O my soul, and all my inmost being, praise his holy name.”

My take away today is praise–praise for the Rescuer (Lamentations), praise for the resort (Hebrews), praise for the perks (Psalms). You’ve done it all, God. You’ve cooked up this fabulous plan to treat us to life beyond our wildest dreams. The God who thought up beaches and sunshine, bugs and birds, water and air and land and sky, surely can be trusted to include all the essentials and all of the indulgences.

You announced your plan with angels. You sent your Son to secure it. And you confirmed it by your apostles and prophets and poets who wrote and spoke their experience of it. And as if that weren’t enough, your Holy Spirit moves in and helps us tap into all the goodness you have for us now, until that day comes.

I mean, what haven’t you thought of?

I wonder if the reason folks don’t flock to you faster is because they’ve got the idea (from the enemy and his minions) that life with you isn’t glorious, that you don’t get it about getting the most out of life and grabbing the gusto?

For goodness sake, you invented gusto…and the joy that goes with it.

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