Scripture Reading: Lamentations 3
There’s a well-known true story told by Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate, Elie Wiesel. In his book, “Night,” he tells of the inhumane suffering he and his fellow Jews experienced at the hands of the Nazi’s. The following are a few paragraphs which describe what happened one time when he was 16 years old in a concentration camp.
One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all around us, machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains— and one of them, the little servant, the sad-eyed angel.
The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a child in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him.
This time, the [head overseer of prisoners] refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him. The three victims mounted together onto the chairs. The three were placed at the same moment within the nooses. “Long live liberty!” cried the two adults. But the child was silent.
“Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked. A sign from the head of the camp. The deed was done. Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting. “Bare your heads!” yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping. “Cover your heads!”
Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. But the third, he was too light; the child was still alive. For more than half an hour, he died so slowly under our eyes. Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “Where is God now?”
And I heard a voice within me answer him: “Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows.”
During and after the Holocaust, the question has often been asked, “Where was God?” Where’s God when we suffer? And it’s not just a question that people of faith ask, but also those who claim no faith, yet because they’re keenly aware of the colossal injustices that human beings perpetrate upon each other, they’re driven to wonder, “Where’s God?” Sadly, but understandably, many have abandoned their faith because their answer to this question was either, “God chose not to help” or “There is no God.” Or even the most despairing of all answers, “God is dead.”
This morning, I’d like to suggest another response to the question, “Where was God during the Holocaust, during the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides – really, during any such atrocity?” Is say that God was indeed there. God was there, standing next to those three hanging in the gallows, just as Elie Wiesel realized when it happened. I believe that anywhere there’s human suffering, God is right there.
I know it doesn’t make sense to most of us that a loving, caring God would allow these horrible things to happen. Unfortunately, this inability of ours to fully understand the ways of God has shipwrecked the faith of many people. That’s why it’s vital that we understand at least this much, that our inability to fully comprehend God doesn’t mean that he doesn’t care, or isn’t there for us when we are hurting. We can’t limit God to a simple math formula, if a=b, and b=c, then a=c. That’s now how it works with God
So, how does the Poet of Lamentations see and understand God? Well, to be honest, he doesn’t give us a consistent perspective of how he understands God’s role in their suffering. Just to quickly recap, the book of Lamentations is a 5-part funeral song written for the fall of Jerusalem after Babylon’s army came through and destroyed it, leaving behind the weakest and sickest people – including the author of Lamentations.
In chapter 1 he paints of picture of their suffering, and seems to acknowledge that they themselves were somewhat to blame for their own suffering; that they had just paid the price for not heeded the warnings of the prophets. In chapter 2, the poet unleashes his anger toward God, and pretty much lays the blame for their suffering at God’s feet. He accuses God of planning their destruction, and then carrying through on his promise to wipe them out. And now, in chapter 3 his tone softens a bit, and we start to see a first glimmer of hope.
The first 18 verses continue the theme we’ve heard all along – one of suffering. In v. 19 he says, “The thought of my suffering and homelessness is bitter beyond words. I’ll never forget this awful time, as I grieve over my loss.” But then, for the first time, we hear the first bird of the early dawn chorus. “Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this,” and then he tells us what he remembers.
“The unfailing love of the LORD never ends! By his mercies we have been kept from complete destruction. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each day. I say to myself, ‘The LORD is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!’ The LORD is wonderfully good to those who wait for him and seek him!” (3:19-25)
For whatever reason, the Poet was given a reprieve in his heart. Yes, he was fully aware of their awful situation, and acknowledged that he’d never forget it for as long as he’d live. But for a moment, God reminded him of a truth that’s even more real than human experience, which is that God love us, and that his love never ends; that he’s faithful, and that his faithfulness never ends. Despite our suffering, God’s love and faithfulness remain.
This reminder of God’s love may be what drives him back to his earlier perspective, which is that it’s ultimately their own sin which is to blame. Beginning in v. 39 he echoes that point: “Why should we mere humans complain when we’re punished for our sins? Instead, let us test and examine our ways. Let us turn again in repentance to the LORD. Let us lift our hearts and hands to God in heaven and say, ‘We have sinned and rebelled’” (vv. 39-42a).
And yet, if you keep reading it seems he can’t quite convince himself of this view. The communal confession of sin is obligatory, and is followed by blame of God for failing to forgive. He writes, “Let us lift our hearts and hands to God in heaven and say, ‘We have sinned and rebelled, and you have not forgiven us.’” (v. 42).
The fact is, for the Poet there’s no resolution of the problem at hand. On the one hand, he suggests that God both helps and harms (v. 38). But he also acknowledges that God doesn’t enjoy hurting people or causing them sorrow (v. 33). Is God being pulled in two directions? We find here a God who, on the one hand, causes human suffering and is aloof to our confessions, but at the same time loves us deeply and hates human suffering.
Maybe what we’re discovering here in chapter 3 is that God is actually vulnerable. Maybe there are times when God’s forced to act by a principle or force outside of his divine control.
Have you ever thought about God as being vulnerable? I realize that idea may make some of us feel a bit uncomfortable. A vulnerable Almighty God?
Granted, the the God in the Old Testament tends to be presented as a relentless, chastising warrior. However, we do read about a suffering agent of God in the book of Isaiah. In the latter chapters of Isaiah we read of the “Suffering Servant.” Isaiah says of this Suffering Servant,
“There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him. He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care. Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins! But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed” (53:2-5, New Living Translation).
Does the description of the Suffering Servant remind you of anyone? Maybe Jesus? Christians believe that Isaiah’s Suffering Servant is, in fact, Jesus.
In Jesus, then, we get a new perspective of God’s nature, that he’s vulnerable. We believe that Jesus was fully divine. In his personhood, he fully encompassed the divine nature of God. And as God, he cried – literally. Out of sadness at the news of the death of a friend, he openly wept. He was moved by compassion to feed hungry crowds. He took the time to listen to the stories of hurting and marginalized people. And ultimately, his vulnerability was on full display when he allowed himself to be crucified – a punishment that was intended for criminals. Jesus is the Second Person of the Godhead, and the manner in which he lived his earthly life demonstrated the fact that God is willing to be vulnerable for our sake.
We could even say that God suffers when we suffer. The Apostle Paul tells us to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12.15). If we mere mortals can feel another’s pain, don’t you think God can do the same? He is, after all, the author of our feelings and emotions. Anything we can do, he can do even more so! So it’s really not a stretch to suggest that when we suffer, God also suffers in some way. He’s not aloof and disconnected from our suffering.
So, here’s a possible take-home for this week. If and when you find yourself in place of suffering, and it seems God is far off and unaware of what you’re going through, maybe the truth is he’s right there beside you. And maybe his silence isn’t a sign that he doesn’t care or isn’t listening. Maybe it’s a sign that he IS listening. Think about it this way. We know that when we’re sitting with a friend who’s grieving, the best thing we can do is listen. And listening usually means not talking. I believe that when whenever we’re suffering, and we’re sharing that with God, he’s right there with us, listening, and in some way, feeling our pain.
God’s vulnerability doesn’t make him less powerful or less able to make things right in our world. He’s still Almighty God. But as Almighty God, he’s able to an, more importantly, willing to enter into our human experience and suffer right alongside us.
God is alive. God loves us. God cares about us. That is the Good News for us today.