The Silver Lining of Suffering
In the Name of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
The city has fallen. These words hit the prophet Ezekiel like a ton of bricks. Jerusalem, Israel’s political and spiritual center, was no more. The wall was gone. The Temple was a smoldering heap. The people were dead, dying, or taken captive. Imagine hearing the news that Washington, D.C., or New York or Boston had been wiped off the map. Imagine hearing that most of the people in the city were dead. The few that were left were sick and dying. There was no food and little shelter. Great landmarks in American history – the old North Church, the Empire State Building, Wall Street, the Capitol Dome, the Washington Monument, the White House – were no more. They’re smoke and ashes.
Imagine being there. Ezekiel was thousands of miles away. He had been taken by the Babylonians years before Jerusalem fell. But Jeremiah was there. He saw it. He saw the armies of Nebuchadnezzar surround the city. He saw the stranglehold of starvation that the siege brought upon the people. He saw children dying of hunger. He saw families eating their dead children. He saw priests slaughtered in the Temple. He saw the furnishings of the Temple taken as plunder. He saw the unburied corpses of the cities defenders. He saw Israel’s king try to run away with his army, only to be caught, blinded, and dragged off in chains. He saw the walls torn down and the city burned. He saw the best and brightest of Israel taken to Babylon, some for seventy years, some never to return. He saw it, with his own eyes, and he recorded a great lament for the city. That’s where the name for the book he wrote comes from, Lamentations. This book is Jeremiah’s act of mourning for the lost city of Jerusalem. Hear his tearful words: [The LORD] has laid waste his dwelling like a garden; he has destroyed his place of meeting….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. The Lord determined to tear down the wall around the Daughter of Zion. He stretched out a measuring line and did not withhold his hand from destroying. He made ramparts and walls lament; together they wasted away.
For five chapters he describes the destruction of the city, the destruction of the land, the outpouring of the wrath of the LORD God almighty. And verse after verse after verse you’re waiting for the shoe to drop. You’re waiting for that inevitable moment when Jeremiah shrieks, “WHY GOD? WHY?” You’re waiting for Jeremiah to shake his fist angrily at God. You’re waiting for him to rage and foam and sputter. You’re waiting for him to renounce such a brutal, vengeful, spiteful, terrible, murdering God
But he doesn’t. He says: Jerusalem has sinned greatly and so has become unclean. He looks around. He sees the dust and ashes, the death and destruction, the carnage and the cannibalism, and he says, “That seems about right.” Jeremiah’s conclusion matches that of the inspired historian in 2 Chronicles: The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy. Or as 2 Kings puts it: Only the tribe of Judah was left, and even Judah did not keep the commands of the Lord their God. They followed the practices Israel had introduced. Therefore the Lord rejected all the people of Israel; he afflicted them and gave them into the hands of plunderers, until he thrust them from his presence. The divine reckoning had come. As Paul told the Galatians, God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Jeremiah himself says: Why should any living man complain when punished for his sins?
Are you so even-keeled? In the past year your retirement accounts have taken dramatic dives, perhaps been wiped out. Jobs have been lost, sometimes more than once. Pay is reduced. Shifts are shorter. Whole industries have disappeared or are reorganizing. Health problems have cropped up, and refuse to take care of themselves quickly. In fact, they only seem to grow in severity, and cost. Unborn children have been stricken with horrible illnesses and diseases. Doctors haven’t always proven to be as smart or as helpful as you’d hope them to be. Health insurance is being cut, reduced, or eliminated. Bills have mounted to the breaking point. People who owe you money have welshed on those deals. Homes have been foreclosed upon. Mortgages have become less manageable. Tensions have developed among friends and families. Relationships have fallen apart. There have been miscarriages. Friends and relatives have drifted away from the church or fallen away completely from the faith. Death has struck unexpectedly, rapidly, repeatedly. We lift up our eyes to the heavens, and we say, “Why?” And we haven’t yet sinned. There is no sin in wondering why God has done what He’s done. The sin comes when we begin to yell at God. When we demand of God that He do things as we would do them, that His ways aren’t just not our ways, but they’re the wrong ways. Our sin comes when we refuse to grant God the place on the throne of heaven that is His and take it for ourselves because in our almighty wisdom we know better than He does how things ought to run.
Our sin comes from a lack of self-awareness. Before yelling at God, look at yourself in the mirror. Perhaps you’ve earned what you’ve received. Perhaps you’re reaping what you’ve sown. Don’t assume that God is so unjust and spiteful. Perhaps it’d be better to assume that you have been more Israelitish than you think. Perhaps it’s better to assume that you have drifted away from the LORD than that the LORD has drifted away from you. Perhaps it’s better to not assume that God is laughing in heaven as He watches you twist and squirm. Perhaps it’s better to not assume that God is unaware of what’s happening or unable to handle it.
Because everything He’s revealed about Himself is the exact opposite. In the midst of earthly life, in the midst of all the discipline you receive for your sins, in the midst of that is the truth that God’s great love assures you that you have not been consumed. In fact, His great and loyal, steadfast, undeserved love is such that the grief He inflicts upon you because of your sins, He’s willing to take away. He does not reject you forever. He does good to the one hoping and seeking. His compassion is great! It’s new every morning! It’s the return from exile seventy years later. It’s the rebuilt walls of Jerusalem by Nehemiah. It’s the rebuilt Temple under Zerubbabel and Haggai. It’s the little girl raised from the dead! It’s eternal life in the midst of earthly death! It’s heaven’s glories snatched from hell’s jaws! It’s the medicine of immortality, it’s the perfect waters, it’s the Holy Word, given to the likes of you and me. You and me!?!?! It’s the words of Paul: You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. This is the LORD that is our portion. This is the LORD to whom we look, the Savior, Jesus. When everything is gone, still, we can say, We are not consumed. When everything around me says, “Scream at the top of your lungs,” we can wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. It has already come. We have seen our Salvation on that bloody cross. We have seen our Salvation in that empty tomb. We have seen our Salvation rising into heaven promising us that He is taking care of us in every possible way. We have seen the LORD be good. We have seen His compassion and His unfailing love. He did not spare His only Son. How will He not also…give us all things?
In the midst of the massacre in Jerusalem, the prophet Jeremiah walks and cries. But he also sings. He sings the song of faith. He sings the song that sees a Savior beyond all this suffering. He sings a song that sees a Savior who does all our suffering, who bore our cross for us, to give us strength so that we might bear our own crosses. In the midst of death, Jeremiah sings of life: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young. Let him sit alone in silence, for the Lord has laid it on him. Let him bury his face in the dust— there may yet be hope. Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him, and let him be filled with disgrace. For men are not cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men. Amen.