SERMON TEXT: EVERYBODY HURTS – Exploring the book of lamentations
About 13-14 years ago, at the Church I ministered in just East of Johannesburg, we did a preaching series called “Songs that Speak”. In it we reflected on the words of a variety of popular secular songs and how perhaps God could speak to us through the lyrics of those songs. One of the songs we reflected on was the 1993 REM hit song called Every Body hurts. The lyrics are really simple:
When the day is long
And the night, the night is yours alone
When you're sure you've had enough
Of this life, well hang on
Don't let yourself go
'Cause everybody cries
And everybody hurts sometimes
Sometimes everything is wrong
Now it's time to sing along
When your day is night alone (Hold on, hold on)
If you feel like letting go (Hold on)
If you think you've had too much
Of this life, well hang on
'Cause everybody hurts
Take comfort in your friends
Don't throw your hand, oh no
Don't throw your hand
If you feel like you're alone
No, no, no, you are not alone
If you're on your own in this life
The days and nights are long
When you think you've had too much of this life to hang on
Well, everybody hurts sometimes
And everybody hurts sometimes
And everybody hurts sometimes
So hold on, hold on
Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on
No, no, no, no you are not alone
Over the past 28 years since the song was released it has proved enormously popular. It has been covered by a number of other singers and bands, like Joe Cocker, The Corrs, and even a Catholic Priest, Father Ray Kelly from Old-Castle in County Meath when he sang it at his opening appearance on Britain's Got Talent.
What makes it so popular and perhaps also so powerful is that it captures a universal human experience of pain and suffering. It is a song that almost everyone can relate to because it helps us to get in touch with our own pain, our own suffering, those times when we have felt like giving up, those times when we have had to hold on, those times when we have felt alone and when the day has felt like night to us.
I believe that one of the reasons for the enduring power of the Bible is very similar to the enduring popularity of REM’s song ‘Everybody Hurts”. Like REM’s song, a large part of the Bible’s power is that it captures universal human experiences. Through most of its pages, the Bible describes ordinary people, in familiar situations of conflict, situations of pain, of trials, temptations, and situations of deceit and betrayal. And so the Bible is a bit like a mirror, through which we see ourselves.
One of the things that the Bible does is remind us in a powerful way that (in the words of Jesus) in this life you will have tribulations. We live in a world where suffering is an ever-present reality. It is one of the inescapable facts of living in this world. No-one is exempt from the suffering of this world. Even Jesus, who Christians refer to as God’s Son was not exempt from suffering.
And so it seems quite symbolic that in the heart of the Bible, almost near it’s centre we find a short books of 5 poems called the Book of Lamentations. Lamentations is a book that has sometimes been ascribed to the Prophet Jeremiah, but most scholars suggest that the author is unknown.
The Book of Lamentations consists of five poems of lament. Poems of weeping and wailing, written as a response to the most catastrophic and devastating experiences in the life of the Jewish nation up to that point. After 500 years of living in the land of Israel or Palestine and establishing themselves in the land, after a two year siege, in the summer of 587 BC, the Babylonian Army stormed Jerusalem, the capital city, destroying it completely, along with it’s temple. It was all decimated. Gone. And large portions of the Jewish population shipped off to live as exiles a foreign land, amongst a foreign people, who spoke a foreign language.
It would have been a little bit like if Nazi Germany having invaded Northern Ireland, decimating the city of Belfast and its central places of worship, uprooting people from their homes and ancestral lands and deporting large portions of the population to live somewhere in new Nazi Reich, being treated as foreigners and outsiders and being forced to learn and communicate in German. If we can begin to imagine that, then you have an inkling of how devastating this must have been for them. They had lost everything.
In response to this devastating upheaval, an anonymous Jewish poet wrote five poems of lament to express the devastating sense of grief, anguish and distress that they had experienced in the Babylonian invasion.
Tim Mackie makes the point that the design of these five poems is very intentional. Each of the first four poems in written as alphabet poems. This means that each verse begins with the next letter of the alphabet. And thus it is as though the poet is expressing the full extent, the A-Z, of the suffering of the people of Israel. He also suggests that the ordered and linear structure of the poems stands in stark contrast to the disordered pain and confused grief of the people of Israel. The poet is seeking to express in words, emotions and feelings which are ultimately inexpressible.
The first poem focusses on the grief and shame of the city of Jerusalem which is personified as a widow called ‘Lady Zion’ and also referred to as the ‘Daughter of Zion’. She grieves alone. She has lost everything. No-one comes to comfort her.
The second poem focusses on the fall of Jerusalem. The poet interprets the fall of Jerusalem as God’s punishment due to the people’s sin. In a world view in which God was understood as being responsible for all the events of life, this was a natural thing to do. But it is an interpretation that raises a number of questions. Does God really punish people using foreign invading armies who come in, pillaging, raping and murdering, even little babies? As much as this was the sincere interpretation of the author of the poem, it is an interpretation that I would struggle with.
I have a sense from reflecting on the life of Jesus, who we call the son of God, that living in the way of God is no guarantee against suffering and certainly does not mean that God will protect one from invading armies. The Book of Job reminds us that even the righteous suffer. In fact Jesus seems to suggest in places that those who are faithful to God may in fact suffer even more than others as a result of their faithfulness.
The third poem is the longest poem in the book. Instead of having just one verse per letter of the alphabet, this poem has three verses per letter. The central character in this poem is a suffering man, who stands as a representative of the people and who speaks out their grief and suffering. In this section of the book, the author has drawn language from other parts of the Bible, from the book of Job, from some of the Psalms as well as from the Suffering Servant poems of Isaiah. In the midst of the pain of lament and grief, this poem offers the only words of hope in the whole of the book of Lamentations: “Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed, for his compassion's never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfullness.” (3:22-23)
Even in the midst of this great and devastating suffering, the poet continues to believe that at the heart of life there is an essential goodness that will not abandon them forever. And so he writes: “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.”
In a verse that Jesus quotes in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel, the poet writes: “Let them offer their cheeks to the one who would strike them...for the people are not cast off by the Lord forever, though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love.” (3:30-32).
The fourth poem is a description of the two year seige that lead to the fall and destruction of Jerusalem. In this poem, the poet contrasts the glories and blessings of the past with how terrible things became during the siege of Jerusalem.
As Tim Mackie summarises: “The children used to laugh and play in the streets, but now they beg for food. The wealthy used to eat lavish meals, but now they eat whatever they can find in the dirt. The royal leaders used to be full of splendour, but now they are famished and dirty and unrecognizable. And the anointed king from the line of David has been captured and dragged away.”
The Fifth and final poem is different from the other four because in the fifth poem, the poet has abandoned the alphabet structure. As Tim Mackie puts it, “It is as if the poet cannot hold it together any-more, and his grief has exploded into chaos. The poem itself is a prayer for God’s mercy, written on behalf of the people of God. The first line: “Remember Lord what has happened to us, look and see our disgrace. We have become fatherless, our mothers are widows, women have been ravished, princes have been hung up by their hands, elders are shown no respect, boys stagger under loads of wood”. In verse 15 “Joy has gone from our hearts; our dancing has turned into mourning.”
The poem ends with a plea for God to restore them: “Restore us to yourself O Lord, that we may return. Renew our days as of old, unless you have rejected us forever.” (5:21-22).
Tim Mackie puts it like this: “Suffering in silence is just not a virtue in this book. God’s people are not asked to deny their emotions but voice their protest, to vent their feelings and to pour it all out before God.”
One of the interesting things about the book of Lamentations is that God does not speak. God is seemingly silent. The voice of God is not heard. And that too is often the feeling and experience of many who suffer in this world, the seeming silence of God.
While the voice of God is not heard to speak in the book of Lamentations, we do hear the whisper of God’s voice in other parts of scripture reminding us that in the midst of our hurt and pain, even though it may seem like it, we are never alone:
Psalm 139: 11-12 “If I say ‘Surely the darkness will hide me, and the light become night around me’, even the darkness will not be dark to you, the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”
Psalm 23:4 “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...you are with me”.
Matthew 28:20, the final verse in Matthew’s Gospel, the words of the crucified and risen Christ: Surely I am with you always.
In the REM song we hear these words:
So hold on, hold on
Hold on, hold on,
No, no, no, no you are not alone.
SERMON - Rev. Brian Moodie
Exploring Revelation – Epilogue - Reflections of our Inner World.
In my 20's I read a biography of Carl Jung that made a big impact on me. Carl Jung was one of the great early modern psychologists. He was both a student and a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, but very soon began to explore far beyond the framework within which Freud worked. At a time when science was on the ascendency and people were more and more viewed simply as physical beings with firing synapses in the brain, Carl Jung through his explorations of the human mind, as well as the explorations of religious traditions and myths of cultures all around the world, asserted the reality of the spiritual, and the depths of the inner life.
In a BBC interview which aired during October 1959, Carl Jung told John Freeman about growing up as a pastor’s son in the Swiss Reformed Church. As a boy he went to Sunday services and believed in God. In response John Freeman asked whether Jung still believed in God. Jung answered,
"Now?" Jung asked and then paused: "Difficult to answer. I know. I don’t need to believe. I know."
For Carl Jung who clearly valued his Christian heritage, but who didn't consider himself a Christian in any traditional sense of the word, God was a reality to be experienced, not to be believed in.
Carl Jung also asserted that dreams were one of the ways in which human beings can get in touch with the world of spirit and through which God, the Divine Intelligence and Deeper Wisdom of Life could speak to human beings. Mythology for Carl Jung was also a way in which human beings, often using dream like imagery could give expression to the inner world of the psyche and the soul.
One of the principles on which Carl Jung operated in working with dreams is that all the symbols and characters within a dream are in fact symbols for different parts of ourselves. A similar assertion can be made with mythology. All of the characters in mythology can be seen and interpreted as symbolic representations of ourselves. This approach has been very influential, even in the interpretation of our Christian Scriptures. It is an approach that suggests that all the characters in the Bible, can be interpreted as symbols of the soul and of the human psyche.
This approach can be used of almost any passage of Scripture, but over the past few weeks, as we have explored the book of Revelation, it has made me wonder whether this interpretative approach may in fact offer a very helpful and creative way to interpreting the book of Revelation.
There is something very dream-like about the book of Revelation. In dreams, you often have images flowing one into another in a way that is often difficult to make sense of at first. That could be a fair commentary on the book of Revelation. In a dream like way, the book flows from one scene to another, as imagery and symbolism gives way to further imagery and symbolism.
And so, what might it look like if one were to adopt this approach of interpretation and apply it to the book of Revelation?
Firstly, the opening image of Christ, with white hair and sword coming out of his mouth could be interpreted to represent the higher wisdom within us.
The Seven Churches could represent the various dimensions of our conscious selves as we interact with the world. There are parts of us that are faithful to our higher principles, and there are parts of us that are unfaithful and very easily and quickly compromise. There are parts of us that are apathetic, neither hot nor cold. In the midst of the letters written to these seven churches, there is the image of Christ standing at the door knocking. It could be interpreted as an image of our higher self, knocking at the door of our conscious life, seeking to have space within us.
In the next scene we see the throne of heaven and we encounter the Lamb seated with God on the throne. The Lamb could be interpreted as representing the child-like innocence within us. Our original innocence and purity.
A detail that I have not yet mentioned in our preaching series are the saints or martyrs that are trapped underneath the altar of God in chapter 6 . It is interesting imagery. In the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, some Anglican Churches and some Lutheran Churches, this image of the martyrs trapped beneath the altar led to the centuries old-practice of placing relics of the saints, bones, teeth, pieces of clothing etc... underneath the altar in the Church. That is just an interesting aside. But from a spiritual and psychological perspective, this image of the martyrs or saints trapped beneath the altar is a very powerful symbol of those parts of ourselves that have been denied, repressed and even disowned within us. If we are to grow to full spiritual and psychological maturity, it will require that we get in touch with these trapped and disowned parts of ourselves that long to be free and whose prayers rise up deep from within our hearts crying out for recognition.
A number of years ago, I went to counselling with a much older colleague in the ministry. He worked with the enneagram as a tool for spiritual and psychological growth. He shared some of his own story, how he had found himself in a place of depression and psychological difficulty. He had been trying to model his own life and ministry on another minister who he held in very high regard, and yet he he found himself in a very dark psychological place where he felt disconnected with God and with himself. As he began to work with the Enneagram he began to see firstly that he was in fact a very different personality from the colleague that he so admired. He realised that trying to emulate this well respected colleague he had actually begun to lose touch with the uniqueness of his own personality. It was as he began to explore the 4th personality on the Enneagram, the artist, that he began to realise that there was a buried artist within himself, that he had been in touch with as a child, but as he grew into adulthood, he had left it behind, forgotten and even denied. In trying to emulate someone else, he in effect discovered that the artist within him had become like a martyred victim of who he thought he should be. The artist within him had become denied, hidden and trapped under the sacred altar of his life.
He discovered that as he began to make time each week to give creative expression to the hidden and forgotten artist within him, drawing and painting, he very soon began to come to a place of much greater psychological balance and ease. It raises questions for all of us: What parts of ourselves have we denied. What parts of ourselves have we in effect martyred and left trapped and crying out under the sacred altar of our lives?
The next images that we encounter in the book are three sets of judgements that are poured out upon the earth. I wonder if these sets of judgements could be interpreted as the spiritual and psychological fallout that begins to happen when we deny and disown important aspects of ourselves. Sometimes it can begin to feel like our inner world is beginning to cave in on top of us.
The next dream like image that we encounter is the Beast. Is it possible that the Beast in the Book of Revelation could represent our unevolved animalistic behaviour. It is part of ourselves, and shouldn't be denied or disowned, because when it is denied and disowned it can rise up from the sea of our sub-conscious life and begin to wreak all sorts of havoc in our lives.
I think it is also true that sometimes things that we think are Beasts in our lives turn out not to be beasts at all. A few months ago, Wendy had a very interesting dream. In it she was being pursued by some kind of monster or beast. It was quite scary. But when the beast caught up with her and she was forced to face it she discovered that it had a face as soft and lovable as a puppy.
Closely related to the beast in Revelation is the dragon who is a symbol of evil and darkness and chaos within us. There again, the dragon is an aspect of ourselves. We all have a dragon within us. The potential for great evil exists within each and every human being. Most human beings prefer to pretend that the dragon does not exist within us. We prefer to identify the dragon as existing outside of ourselves. But as we saw in one of our earlier weeks, the line between good and evil does not run between people, it runs through every human heart. When we deny the dragon within us, the danger is that we become blind to it. Because we only want to see ourselves as good, we fail to become aware of the potential for darkness too. I think the English saying about keeping your enemies close applies equally on an inner psychological level. When you become aware of the dragon within you and are thus able to keep an eye on it, it is much healthier than pretending that it doesn't exist and therefore becoming blind to its influence in our lives.
The beast and the dragon are also accompanied in this section of the book by a false prophet. Is it possible that the false prophet is a symbol of our own self-delusion and the unwillingness to see the truth of ourselves?
Some would suggest that the beast and the dragon are images of self-centeredness, self-interest, self-gratification, self glorification and even self-righteousness. These are the characteristics we would apply to someone who we might describe as egotistical.
The image of the warrior Christ in Revelation 19 could stand as a symbol of the warrior within each of us. While there is an innocent lamb within us that needs to be enthroned in our hearts, there are also times in our lives where we need to live with enormous courage, and to muster up within us all of our energies to meet the challenges of our lives and the challenges of our inner world. The warrior Christ in Revelation 19 who is called just and true represents the mustering up of our inner energies in acts of courage that are not for selfish and self-centered purposes, but rather for altruistic purposes that are just and true.
The image of the burning lake of fire and brimstone which is often popularly interpreted to represent hell could represent the pain of remorse, self-condemnation and the searing pain of guilt, while the second death in this same passage represents the destruction of all our 'man-made' and un-evolved conditions, thus echoing the idea of the fire representing the process of spiritual purification.
The Temple of God could represent the presence of God and the Mind of Christ within us, that as we grow to greater and greater spiritual maturity, the Mind of Christ and the Presence of God become greater and greater realities in our personality and experience.
And lastly, the New Jerusalem could represent the fully evolved and fully mature soul that is now at one with Divinity, represented by the marriage with the Lamb. The river that runs through the centre of the holy city representing the spirit of God flowing freely through the life of the one who has grown to spiritual maturity, bringing blessing and refreshing to others.
And the tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nation represents how the life of one who has become one with the Divine becomes a healing presence within the world.
This is just a rough exploration today, but it perhaps helps us to catch a glimpse of the riches of Scripture. They don't only have to be interpreted in one way. Like a diamond that reflects light in different directions and can often reflect many different colours, scripture can be viewed from different perspectives, revealing different levels of meaning and different aspects of ourselves as we grow to greater and greater maturity in relations to the Divine.