Monday, January 14, 2008

Preaching, emotions and the book of Lamentations

If you are committed to expository preaching you will want to work hard at understanding the text you are dealing with in the context of the unit of thought, chapter, and book that it is in.

In addition to this you seek to be sensitive to the connections in the text to antecedent Scripture, the architectonic structure of God's revelation (covenant theology), and the fulfilment of OT typological themes in Christ. In the case of Lamentations there is the crucial importance of the curses of Deuteronomy 28 and the Psalms (especially the reference to Ps. 48 and 50 in Lam. 2:15).

That said there is surely more to expository preaching than a right understanding of the text, if by what we are referring to is an intellectual grasp of its meaning. Entering the world of Lamentations involves us passing into a dark and tragic landscape. Emotionally it is draining and painful. Consider the anguish expressed in 2:22:
You summoned as if to a festival day my terrors on every side, and on the day of the anger of the LORD no one escaped or survived; those whom I held and raised my enemy destroyed.
How terrible it must have been to experience the retributive judgment of God in this way. How agonising the loss. Can you preach this text rightly without knowing something of the emotional impact that it makes?

There is, perhaps, the added poignancy of the suffering of "my people" and the death of children (2:11-12, 19-20, 22)

As I prepared to preach on this text I sat down and remembered an event close to home.

In October 1966, in South Wales, not too far from where I grew up, a massive slag heap of coal slurry high above the village of Aberfan hurtled down the mountain and engulfed the local junior school. On that terrible day 144 people lost their lives, 116 of them were children. A generation was wiped out.

One of the fathers who lost a son on that day said of the impact of the Aberfan disaster, “It was a grief spread throughout the community. This total grief was frightening I suppose because we didn't know if we would get over it.”

The journalist John Humphrys was there that day as a young reporter. He witnessed the agonising scene of fathers desperately trying to rescue their buried children:

The knowledge that they were digging for their own children was indescribably awful. They'd rushed up from the coal face obviously the moment they heard what happened. Their faces were still covered in coal dust and there were streaks of white running down their faces - sweat, and tears. It was ghastly beyond belief.
It is incomprehensible to read these words and to be detached and unmoved by them. The only comparison that I am seeking to draw between this event some forty one years ago, and the events of 587 BC concerns the depth of sorrow and anguish involved for the respective communities.

How can it be possible to teach the very texts about the heartbreaking lament of Jerusalem's siege and destruction and be unmoved?

I had three big applications from Lamentations 2.

My final application, which I will develop in another post, concerned the lost inheritance of the Land, City and Temple and the inheritance that can never be lost which believers have in Christ (" inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you" as Peter puts it, 1 Peter 1:4). The lost inheritance rested on the obedience of the people (Ex. 24:7-8), our future inheritance rests on the grounds of the obedience and suffering of Christ.

The second application was the connection between the suffering of the city (under the covenant curses) and the suffering of the Saviour (Gal. 3:10-14). The mocking of their enemies in 2:15 was a sign of God's retributive judgment (2:17). The NT equivalent of this is Mark 15:29-30. The mockery of Christ by his enemies is a sign that he is the sinless substitute bearing the wrath of God.

The first application concerned judgment then and judgment to come.

After a great tragedy or disaster the causes are investigated. Could it have been prevented? The danger of judgment for Jerusalem was public knowledge through the written word (Deuteronomy) and the preaching of the covenant enforcing prophets. There had been a catastophic failure to expose the sin of the people (2:14) and so the Lord carried out his Word which he commanded long ago (2:17). Scripture records these great acts of judgment by the living God to warn us of the danger of our sin, the great danger that the Lord will become like an enemy toward us forever.

Yet who would imagine that the God we have offended so much would give his own Son to save us from the judgment we deserve?

Robert M'Cheyne and Andrew Bonar were once talking about what they had preached the previous Lord's Day. "On Hell," said one, to which the other asked "did you do it with tears?"

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