Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Morning Mercy"

Message preached October 6, 2013
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Lamentations 3:19-33

Order of Worship

listen to this in mp3 format

          No matter how hard I try, I am not an evening person. When it comes to resolving conflict, for instance, bedtime has never been my best time for doing so. Over the years I’ve marveled at couples who take seriously the apostle Paul’s instruction to “not let the sun go down on your anger(Ephesians 4:26), by hammering out agreement before sleep. For me, that has usually been an exercise in failure. I am not, as I said, a night person.

         “Now I lay me down to sleep” time is often when my inner demons come out to torment. Now, those who rest nearby might say that all-too-quickly after my head hits the pillow, my snores come out to torment them. “Blissful sleep?” you ask. Hardly. For better or worse, I am somewhat addicted to the radio at night, using the talk over an ear bud to quiet the inner voices demanding attention. I liken it to those college classes I sat through after lunch, when the professor’s voice was like a lullaby. Some say a preacher’s voice can have a similar quality.

         No, I am not a night person. Give me the morning any day. When the sun rises, the earth is bathed in promise. Things that appeared hopeless in the darkness look different in the light of day. Pessimism shifts to optimism. My view of myself changes as well. At bedtime, I tend to see every mistake I have made through the day, sometimes even every slip-up and sin of my entire life. “I’m a horrible, awful person,” my inner judge proclaims, while my inner defense attorney is already asleep. In the morning, however, he’s awake and ready to go... Most of the time.

         I know that not everyone finds morning to be such a glowing time. I’ve learned to avoid certain persons in my household, if I can, until they have made their peace with the new day. Sometimes that takes a while. My brother-in-law, for example, looks like he has just ascended from hell as he sits with his multiple cups of coffee. Me? Well, I may look the same, but something has changed from the night before. Call it “morning mercy.” A new day has dawned, full of possibility.

         Our scripture on this morning is full of “morning mercy,” even as it also contains the poetic “wormwood and gall,” the bitter and poisonous taste of defeat. I say “poetic” because this book in the Hebrew portion of our Bible is not merely a depressing rant over the troubles of life. An artist’s hand has been at work here, even amid corporate and personal pain and despair. Chapter 3, for instance, is what we call an “acrostic” poem - a poem, mind you!  Its 66 verses (remember, verse numbers were a later addition) are divided into groups of three to make 22 sections. The three lines in every section each begin with the same letter in the Hebrew alphabet, beginning with Aleph (the first letter in Hebrew) in verse one and ending with Tav (the last letter in the alphabet) in verse 66.

         Looking past the technicality of what I’ve just pointed out, we see the artistic inspiration of order being brought out of chaos. When bad things happen, it feels like the world is falling apart, but here a poet’s hand is pulling together and building up. The very act of describing trouble is often the first step in moving beyond it.

         “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” African-American slaves once sang. And as the words rang out in melody and harmony, it became a deliverance song, ending with “glory, hallelujah!” So, also, this lament - traveling from “wormwood and gall” to “great is thy faithfulness.” Call it “Mourning Mercy” - “mourning,” as in grief, moving from despair in the dark to the “steadfast love of the Lord” as the sun rises, “new every morning.”

         Now, few of us are big fans of lament. If anything, we seek to deny the trouble we’ve seen, believing that to give voice to our sorrows is to dwell on them, and dwelling upon them gets us nowhere. There is a measure of truth to that reasoning. Many are those who seem stuck in the muck of their own problems, talking endlessly about what’s wrong but never taking the steps necessary for overcoming it. Hearing the same complaints over and over makes you wonder if they, in reality, are somehow drawing some sort of benefit from the situation they bemoan.

         Even so, “lament” has gotten a bum rap. There must be something beneficial to these complaints, however. If not, why would we have had handed down to us the book of Job, and a good portion of the Psalms as well as similar selections from other books in the Bible, and this five chapter poem with its depressing title? “Lamentations” are important to voice, otherwise we allow those troubles we see to wreck havoc and do their damage within. Is not depression sometimes anger turned inward?

         It feels strange to read these laments. Take Psalm 137, for instance. “By the rivers of Babylon,” God’s people in exile sat and wept as they remembered home. “On the willows there we hung up our harps,” was the cry. “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” All this is fine and dandy until we read the end of the Psalm, where anger is voiced against their captors. And this devastating closing statement of vengeance takes our breath away: “Happy shall they be who take away your little ones and dash them against the rock!” Lament can be raw - an open wound seeking air for healing.

         This morning’s scripture passage, like the book of Job, turns the focus upon God. Unlike Job, however, it is not asking why troubles are happening. It’s assumed that God’s people have had a role to play in how messed up things have become. Isn’t that usually the case? Rare are the times when we are absolutely innocent in the middle of our problems. There is usually a grain of truth in every accusation against us. The seeds of our present troubles often have been planted by us. We can see our own handiwork all-too-clearly. Mind you, I’m not talking about certain calamities (like diseases or natural disasters) that are way beyond our ability to control, let alone instigate. Even through such trials, though, turning toward the Lord is a crucial move.

         The book of Lamentations, like Job, sees God as the One who has brought about these troubles, or at least allowed them to happen. Whereas Job is like a lawyer trying to get God on the witness stand to answer for what has happened, Lamentations is more like a painting which - with words - illustrates the “feel” of it all. These words are not really an indictment of God, as in Job, though it may sound that way. The Lord, however, is the focus.

         In the verses leading up to this morning’s reading, it says, “He (God) is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding(3:10), “He shot into my vitals the arrows of his quiver(3:13), “He has filled me with bitterness, he has sated me with wormwood. He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes(3:15‑16)... Something within me cringes as I read those lines, for rarely am I so bold as to say such things to my Creator. However, God does not desire polite conversation from us. Our ‘civility’ can mask how we really feel at times, deep down. And that is where God wants to reside. This is prayer language, folks, and a real relationship with the Lord involves how we really think and feel.

         My soul is bereft of peace,” the lament continues. “I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, "Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the LORD(3:17‑18). Have you ever trod the territory those words explore? It’s okay to say so. If you need to give yourself permission, remember that this is in the Bible. If words don’t come easily to you, turn here. Once upon a time I needed such permission. Going through a personal bout of depression, my psychotherapist, an ordained minister, encouraged me to use my gift in music to compose something along these lines. The words escaped me. So, I went to Psalm 120, a lament, and wrote an angry song which helped pave the way for something new in my life.

         The beginning verse of this morning’s scripture lesson seems a continuation of the complaining. However, it is from this low point that hope interrupts. It starts out: “the thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me(3:19‑20). I know that feeling all too well. You? ... At this point in the poem, as the Hebrew letter Zayin gives way to the letter Heth, “mourning mercy” breaks through.

         Here is an affirmation of faith that takes our breath away. We would not expect it to sprout from this soil, but it does. The words are not a bromide, intended to simply help those who suffer to feel a little better about themselves and God. It is more like a resurrection of hope that rolls away a stone of grief. From the perspective of that mustard seed faith of which Jesus spoke, this is an Easter morning melody sung to ears which cannot quite yet hear. Listen again.

         The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’ The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD... For the Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone(3:22‑26, 31-33).

         Of course, this Biblical poem doesn’t end there, though we might wish it would. The words of anger return (3:43-54), though by the end of this prayerful poem (or poetic prayer) God is recognized as having heard the lament, the cry in the night, and speaks, “Don’t be afraid(3:57b). ... “You have taken up my cause, O Lord, you have redeemed my life(3:58), the poet then prays.

         Last Tuesday evening was a rough one in my household, as my constant companion of the last few years suffered and died in my arms. I know Pepper was just a cat, but I am not ashamed to say that I cried and mourned his passing. “You better have a special place in heaven for all your creatures,” I said to God in lament. Okay, when it comes to tragedy, this is not very high up the scale. Many of God’s people around the world are experiencing dire circumstances and persecution even as I speak, that likes of which I cannot begin to imagine.

         Still, within the song of lament, as we are empowered by God to give voice to our darkness, no matter where it lies on the “Richter” scale of hardship, the counter melody of the steadfast love of the love rises from the ashes. This new song within the old song does not discount the lament. It doesn’t say, “Oh, you shouldn’t feel that way.” It simply rises on the horizon, slowly but surely, like the sun on a brand new day, with God’s morning mercy.

(The song, "The Steadfast Love of the Lord," puts Lamentations 3:22-26, 31-33, 40-41 to music.)

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Lamentationss.

©2013, revised from 2004 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

return to "Messages" page

return to Long Green Valley Church page