Looking Backward

Here is the manuscript of a sermon I preached on January 3rd, 2021. It was also a New Year’s reflection with the goal of helping my congregation process the previous year using the worship practice of lament. If you’d like to listen to it, the video version can be found here: https://youtu.be/-iTIm_py-Bs

I also provided sermon notes to those listening. These notes contained prompts to help you write out your own lament prayer. Those notes can be found here:

Looking Backwards: And Lamenting the Year 2020 with Psalm 79

Good morning. Well, I was actually slotted to preach this message last Sunday, but Kevin graciously stepped in for me at the final hour after there was need for my wife and I to quarantine. Thanks Kevin!

And if you remember, his sermon was all about the person of Simeon in Luke’s gospel. Simeon is an often-forgotten Christmas character, but one that really should be highlighted more as his faithfulness is something that we should mimic.

However, the holiday of Christmas, or at least in the way that we celebrate it within our tradition, is now over. What’s on the horizon for us is this New Year.  

2021 – Will it actually prove to be better than 2020?

Look, I know that this past year, for most of us, was rather disappointing. Last year around this time, there was such excitement. People were going to have “2020 vision.” Remember that phrase? Lofty plans were made. New goals were established. Dreams for the new decade were thought up.

But then began the rumors of a virus quickly spreading around the eastern part of the world. And those rumors became more real when people began experiencing symptoms of such here in our country. Weddings and family vacations were cancelled as the death toles rose higher and higher.

And then came the race riots. In the midst of a global pandemic, our nation dove even deeper into turmoil. Dividing lines were drawn. Ideological factions were formed, and groups began competing with other groups by deciding which phrases to chant and then figuring out who could say them louder and with more force.

But then pile on top of this the ongoing problem of political unrest. And then pile on top of that the economic worries that many of us have. You could even add to the stack the social worries and the effects of isolation. And that’s not even to mention all of the personal medical issues, or normal year-to-year woes that have only been heightened in such a time as this.

We could go on with this for a long time, but I think the point that I’m trying to make is clear enough.

2020 was not the best year for almost all of us. But what about 2021?

Introduction

If you’d like to turn in your Bibles to the book of Psalms and specifically chapter 79, we are going to begin reading there in just a moment. But before we do, let me just say a few things about the book in general.

Psalms is a book of poetry and songs. It was the hymnal of ancient Israel. It was the hymnal of Jesus and the early church. And it contains 150 different writings created over a span of several hundred years. 

And there are a lot of different ways that we could categorize or break down this book. If you’ve got a study Bible, you might notice that the ancient Hebrew editors have already split the text up into 5 portions: chapters 1-41, then 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, and 107-150. But besides these book divisions, we could also break up the Psalms into genre or type. And some see seven genres. Some see nine genres. Some see four genres.

But what is clear is that the Psalms, by and large, can be split up into certain moods. That is, 60 percent of the songs and poems that are contained within this book are joyful. And then, the remaining 40 percent aren’t.

There are songs of celebration and then poems of lament. There are tunes of triumph, and then psalms of sorrow.  There’s upbeat happy hymns, and then there’s imprecatory hymns which might mirror expressions found in modern-day punk music or in hip-hop.

Again, the book of Psalms is 60 percent celebration and then 40 percent lament. Our scripture is split almost down the middle in its expression of these two moods within its worship.

So, why aren’t we?

Lament is a big part of the Bible.

Psalm 79 is a lament psalm, as well as Psalm 13 that was read earlier in the service. But there’s an entire book called Lamentations. And if we were to follow a strict after-Christmas reading like some other higher liturgical churches might, our reading this morning would be from Matthew 2:13-18 which ends in a New Testament expression of lament.

However, if we were to crack open our pew hymnals, we’d likely find that the vast majority of the songs there aren’t lament. They’re mostly songs of celebration or triumph. And if we were to turn on a Christian radio station, it’d be the same.

As a Christian culture, we are allergic to lament. But I propose that lament is exactly what we need to be practicing as we begin looking backwards at the year 2020.

So that’s what I’d like us to do.

Psalm 79 can be split into three major movements. And as we visit all three, we are going to first talk about what they mean. Then, we will discuss why it’s important for us to express things like this too. And then, we are going to put it into practice by actually writing out our own laments within today’s sermon notes in real-time.  

The Psalmist describes Israel’s troubles to God using heart-felt and honest language (Psalm 79:1-4)

The superscript that appears before this Psalm tells us that it was written by someone with the title of Asaph.

Asaph was the name of one of David’s temple singers, a Levitical priest. But his name later became a title that many Levitical singers took on, sort of like how certain professors in colleges take on the names of their predecessors within their job descriptions. The writer of this psalm worked and sung within the tradition that Asaph started.

Because, if David was alive and reigning on the throne somewhere near 1000 B.C., this psalm was written around the 580’s B.C. or right after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian armies.

Last time I preached, I talked about the book of Habakkuk.

Well, Habakkuk and this Asaph wrote around the same time. The historical context that the both of them were writing about is the same. So, let me just remind us all of that background so that we can be more informed about what’s being written.

Israel, or more specifically the southern kingdom of Judah, had been living relatively peacefully for about a hundred years. Because of idolatry, the northern kingdom had fallen to the Assyrians, but the Lord spared Judah from Assyria’s warlord armies.

And within that time between the Northern kingdom’s fall and the Southern kingdom’s destruction, Judah did begin to sort of get their act together. King Josiah found the Torah law scroll, something that had been lost for quite a while. And he began making major religious reforms in Jerusalem because of it. There was also an economic boom, and the rich in the land really felt their pocketbooks expand because of that.

But prophets like Habakkuk, Amos, and Micah were still pleading with the people to repent and to turn form their wickedness. That’s because God people resumed sacrifices in the Temple and other pious acts like that, but they still weren’t doing justice, or loving their neighbors, or caring for the poor and the marginalized. They were following some of the law but were missing the heart of it.

Because of that, God promised judgement. And as we can see from this Psalm, judgement did come.

O God, the nations have come into your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.”

In 586 B.C. the nation of Babylon marched into the capital city of the Southern Kingdom and burnt it to the ground. But they did more than just destroy buildings. They destroyed bodies. They brutally murdered Israelite men, women, and children. They took the smartest and the strongest of the people as slaves and send many as exiles into foreign lands. They left much of the dead to rot on the street as food for vultures and eagles.

It’d also be hard to overstate how much Israel was spiritually brutalized by this too. It might be hard for us to understand this because we have nothing like it within our religious expression here in the United States at least, but to the Jews in the Southern Kingdom, God lived in the Temple.

To many of their minds, and despite Ezekiel telling them to the contrary in Ezekiel 10, God’s presence dwelt within the holy of holies. And because of this, it was commonly understood that nothing bad could ever happen to Jerusalem as the Lord would always rise up to fight off evil. No invader would ever be able to breach the walls of God’s holy Temple because God was inside!

But, again, that thought was proven false.

God did send judgement on the people. Babylon did come with weapons drawn and blood in their eyes. And that reality is reflected upon honestly and openly within this Psalm 79. 

For our purposes today, I want you all to notice a few things with me from this first movement.

Don’t miss that the first thing that the author does is invoke the name of God. He brings God into his lament. He invites the Lord to listen. He expects God to bend his ear. And that, actually, is what makes a lament different than just a general complaint.

I think that what turns some of us off to adopting the practice of lament is that we are so used to Paul’s language in Philippians 2 about “not grumbling” that when we are faced with the desire to express our frustrations, doing so sort seems like an unfaithful act. We’re also familiar with the story of Israel’s wilderness wandering, and how God was angered with the people’s incessant pleas for the luxuries they had in Egypt, and we ourselves don’t want to make the same mistake they did.

But lamenting and complaining, as is represented in scripture at least, are two separate types of actions. When we complain, we usually don’t purposefully bring God into it.

Some of us might flippantly use God’s name in a curse-word sort of way when we complain, I guess, but we usually don’t consciously invoke God to act when we find out that our car has a flat tire, when we accidently burn the food we were cooking, or when our kids wake us up too early after staying up until midnight on New Year’s Eve.

But even when our grumblings or complaints do involve God, like Israel’s did when they were in the wilderness, that’s still different than lament.

A lament, remember, is an expression of worship.

Asaph, and those who followed in his tradition, wrote and sung laments because they knew who God was as well as how faithful He’d been to his people. And while complaints like the ones given by Israel in the wilderness were done in a way that attempted to malign or belittle God’s character, laments always appeal to God based on confidence in His character.[1]

We complain about God in saying that He is bad or what He’s doing is bad. We lament when we express that the world we live in is bad, but God is still good.

Here’s a second thing I want you all to notice, and I also think this is another reason that many of us don’t incorporate lament into our faith practices.

I have a really tough time expressing my emotions. I just didn’t grow up in an environment where that was a normal thing for guys to do. And it’s not like I’m adverse to it, but it just makes me uncomfortable to open up, and so I avoid it whenever possible. Emotional intelligence wasn’t really highly valued within the circles that I was in growing up. And I know that isn’t an uncommon thing.

A lot of us are afraid to express ourselves in a truthful and honest way. Some of us have even been taught that even experiencing deep emotions is sinful in and of itself, and we subconsciously learned psychological tricks that allow us to bury them somewhere deep inside our minds.

But that is not biblical!

Look at how raw and open this psalmist is in his writing. And remember that the emotions we feel aren’t the problem. When we are overcome by them and act out in sinful ways, yes, but the feelings themselves aren’t sin.

Mental toughness is not a virtue, but having a tender heart is.

So, like I mentioned earlier, let’s put this into practice. You might have noticed that our sermon notes have three spaces for personal reflection within them that correspond to the three major movements of our text. And there’s not a lot of space there, I know. You might just want to write a few key words and then fill in the rest later.

But as you begin to describe your 2020 to the Lord, just like the psalmist described Israel’s troubles, I want you to use open and honest language. Be real with God.

So, take a moment, and truly describe to the Lord your year without feeling the need to hold anything back.

An appeal is made to God, inviting Him to act on behalf of His people and asking Him to forgive their sin (Psalm 79:5-12)

Psalm 79 continues with a strong, and somewhat unsettling appeal for God to set things right.

It’s first a prayer asking for justice. It’s then a prayer asking for forgiveness. But it quickly shifts once again into a plea for vengeance.

Verse 5 begins by referencing God’s jealous wrath that “burns like fire.” He then moves on to mention the Lord’s anger and wishes that it could be poured out on the nations that are mocking his people.

The Psalmist doesn’t just allude to what many would consider God’s unpopular attributes, though. He appeals to God’s compassion in verse 8. That is, he asks for the Lord to send his compassion speedily as he is the God of salvation, the One able to deliver them and forgive them of their sins. He truly recognizes that Israel was in the wrong and that their unwillingness to listen to God’s prophets was what got them in this mess.

But then the psalmist again moves back into an appeal for God to act according to his vengeance. He prays that God would destroy Babylon so violently that all of Israel’s neighbors would be able to bear witness to their bloodshed. His wish is that the nation who destroyed them is met with destruction and humiliation seven times worse than what Jerusalem experienced. 

And I don’t know about you, but the language expressed here, and in other psalms like it, has always bothered me a bit.

I don’t usually speak like this psalmist in my own life. And definitely not in my prayers! In fact, can’t think of single time where I’ve ever asked God to make sure that someone experiences a violent end. However, I also am aware that I’ve never lived through something as terrible as what the author of this psalm went through.

I’ve never seen my house burn down in front of my face while simultaneously witnessing multiple members of my family being dragged away from me by armed soldiers. I haven’t had my social and theological foundation rocked like the Israelites did when the Temple was destroyed. My family has experienced its fair share of rough times, sure, but my life has trended upwardly for the most part. So, I’ve never needed strong language like this.

But let me also make two comments about that strong language expressed here.

If, like me, you find yourself somewhat uncomfortable when reading intense expressions like this in the scriptures, sit with that. Don’t just move on. Don’t write it off. Because that uncomfortableness you’re experiencing is only but a very minute fraction of what the person who wrote that scripture experienced. It’s also pales in comparison to people you know who have suffered unspeakable tragedy and trauma who might truly find such use for this type of language.

So, if you’re uncomfortable, good. That’s exactly how we should feel.

But secondly, remember that the book of Psalms isn’t Deuteronomy or a Pauline letter.

Psalms aren’t commands. They aren’t “thus saithe the Lord’s.” While the Psalms are very much scripture, they don’t have the same canonical function as books like Genesis, Leviticus, or Romans do. The various authors who penned these poems and prayers were writing just that: poems and prayers. They were expressing their emotions and not necessary trying to teach the people of Israel heavy theological concepts or utter divine decrees.

No, Psalms, and especially lament psalms like this one are honest and truthful asks. They are a cathartic act of laying everything out on the table, socially acceptable or not, hoping that the Lord will ultimately sort things out in His good and perfect will.

And we can see from verses 5-12 that this author is just wrestling with both the necessity for forgiveness and the traumatic experience of the Babylonian invasion. And he puts it to paper, knowing that the God he serves is able to sift through his disorientation and bring about what is actually necessary.

But what about us?

What do we need to ask God to sift through? What appeal should we bring to the Lord in this moment as we reflect on and lament over this past year? 

I’m going to invite you to continue writing your own lament. But do so with honesty. And if necessary for you, you have permission to use the language of your heart because the God we serve can handle it. Write out your appeal to God. And in just a moment, we will begin to wrap things up by looking at the last verse of Psalm 79.

The Psalmist asks God to reorient His people in order to help bring them back into praise (Psalm 79:13)

Psalm 79 ends with a glimmer of hope.

Or, it at least ends with a statement conveying trust that the Lord will one day allow the author to feel the hope that he knows is real but isn’t yet able to process completely.

If you are into artwork, specifically paintings, you might be familiar with a pretty famous piece titled “The Peaceable Kingdom.”

We will put an example of the painting on the screen, but there are actually 62 different version of it all painted over a period of time by the artist Edward Hicks. If you google “The Peaceable Kingdom” on your phone now, you’ll be able to see some of the other versions too. But if you look carefully, and if you can get past how some of the animals he’s painted are rather creepy looking, you might notice that the painting is a stylistic depiction of Isaiah 11.

“The Peaceable Kingdom” by Edward Hicks. Image found here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Edward_Hicks_-_Peaceable_Kingdom.jpg

In Isaiah 11, God’s prophet tells of a day when the Lord’s ultimate reign and rule will be realized. When the Messiah comes, there will be an economic leveling, those who had practiced evil will be judged accordingly, and war will be no more. In fact, when that day comes, peace will be so prevalent that there won’t even be friction between the human kingdom and the animal kingdom. Babies will be able to play with cobras. Cows and bears will eat together. Leopards will nap with goats, and lions with lambs.

Again, Hicks uses the symbolism of Isaiah 11, mixed with peaceful acts in his own time like Native Americans and Quakers taking communion together, as you can see in the background here, to depict scenes of what heavenly peace might look like.

And we can’t say for certain, but it seems like Hicks was obsessed with creating these peaceful images because of the lack of it in his own life.

Edward Hicks was born in the United States right after the Revolutionary war.

His father, a British loyalist, abandoned his family almost immediately after Hick’s birth. And his mother then died when he was a year and a half old, leaving him orphaned. But a family friend then took him in, and Hicks worked on their farm for a while, painted coaches for a while, and eventually settled into a job as a preacher for the local Quaker congregation.

But the Quaker life wasn’t easy for him either.

Edward loved to paint. And he used painting as a way to make money because preaching didn’t pay much at all. But to the Quaker denomination, painting was a vein and worldly act, and he was shunned because of it. So, he then tried to give it up for a time and farm for money, but his farms all failed leaving him in financial ruin.

Lament was something Hicks knew well because peace was very much a stranger.

And these paintings became his way of asking God to help reorient him and point him towards the promises of scripture. They were a visible reminder to him of what was to come in the future.

Now this is a topic we are going to be talking about this a lot more next week in his sermon on looking forward into the new year, but a reorientation towards hope is also a major movement in many lament psalms.

It’s not in every Psalm. Psalm 88, for example, has no resolve. But many of them do including our Psalm in verse 13.

But notice that even there, the resolve towards praise isn’t quite all the way realized. Verse 13 starts off with a conjunction. God, after you do this, then we will be able to praise you. It’s sort of like the author didn’t know how he could thank God in that dark moment, but trusted God enough to know that he one day would.

Just like Edward Hicks, the author of this Psalm put ink to paper, and artistically crafted his prayer with this final plea for reorientation and a promise of future praise.

And as we wrap up this rather chaotic and peace-less year, maybe you too are struggling with finding the right words to praise God. Maybe you know in your head the hope that Jesus’ death and resurrection bring but you’re just having a hard time really feeling it in this moment. Maybe the heartache of 2020 seems almost overwhelming to you right now.

If that’s the case, it’s time for you to write your own plea for reorientation. Ask God to help you see His promise of future hope. Ask God to reveal to you His peace now brought about by His son Jesus. And if you’re able, express your trust that He will do these things for you, and commit yourself to praise.

Let’s take one final moment to write our personal prayers for reorientation. And after a short pause, I will wrap this up with a prayer of my own. 

Conclusion

When we lament, we honestly describe to the Lord our present pain knowing that He is lovingly listening. We then appeal to God to act on our behalf knowing that He will sort through our disorientation and bring to bear what is necessary for us according to His will. And then, we pray asking Him to reorient us around hope because God truly is faithful and good to His people.

Let’s pray:

Lord God, my year has not gone as I expected it to go. Lord, my wife and I moved to Alpena on almost this exact day one year ago. We thought that we’d be enjoying your good gift of starting a family, living within walking distance from a beach, and fellowship with a new church body. What we got, though, was distance and discomfort. This pandemic took a lot from us. It took away many firsts. My wife gave birth to our new daughter without the welcome of our family close by. And video chatting with those who aren’t able to experience Tilly’s growth in person is tough. Holidays have been weird. Friendships we hoped to cultivate have been stunted by walls and periods of quarantine.

God, have mercy on us. Dissolve and trace of the Covid-19 virus. Give us back the time we have lost because of it. Allow us to regain the weeks and months that have been robed from us because of illness.

But, Lord, thank you for dashing my expectations. Thank you for teaching me even when it’s hard to see the point in the moment. And thank you for the hope of knowing that you are still on your throne reigning sovereign over all things, even in a year like 2020. It’s in Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.”


[1] This point was taken from Dr. Glenn Packaim’s article at: https://www.ntwrightonline.org/five-things-to-know-about-lament/

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