Lamentations 1: 1a, selected verses, & 5:21


Over the past months I have tried to call attention to the plight of the Christian Church in the 21st century. I believe this is essential information for every church and especially a church that is in the process of calling a new pastor.

In many ways, the state of the church is not a pretty picture. Bill Easum in his book, Dancing with Dinosaurs, describes the church is caught in a crack in history.  We are in-between what was and what is emerging.  The hard part of this dilemma is that we don’t yet know what is emerging so we don’t know what to do.  The only thing we know for certain is that what we’ve been doing is no longer working.

The situation is dire but it is not hopeless.  We have our work cut out for us but there is no need for despair.  Anyone who knows the Bible or the history of the church will say: “Been there, done that.”

Indeed, both the story of the Bible and the record of church history are testimonies to how God pulls us through when we get stuck in the miry places.  That’s one way the psalmist describes hard times.  Psalm 40, vss. 1-2 says: “The Lord heard my cry.  He brought me up…out of the miry places.”

That’s the situation for the church today. We’re in a miry place. The miry places find us lamenting former days when things were good and wishing for things to get better.

That is the set up for the next sermon series.  Our worship theme for July and August is: Former Glory, Future Promise.

Lament and Hope

For a second scripture lesson today I want to read from the Book of Lamentations in the Old Testament.  This book is 5 chapters of lament describing the anxiety of the people of God after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

The book begins: How lonely sits the city that once was full of people.  How like a widow she has become; she that was great among the nations.

Then follows woe after woe: She weeps bitterly, no one comes to the festivals, her gates are desolate. She remembers all the precious things that were here in days of old. Her gates have sunk into the ground; guidance is no more, her prophets see no visions from the Lord. My eyes are spent with weeping, my stomach churns. The joy of our hearts has ceased; our dancing has been turned to mourning.

This goes on for 5 chapters. If you didn’t know better you would think this lament is your own pastor wailing about the crisis in the church in the 21st century. Yet we should note how the book of Lamentations ends.  In the final verses it says: Restore us to yourself, O Lord…renew our days as of old.

For 5 chapters the writer has pinned about Israel’s former glory but in the end he comes back to God’s future promise.

Yearning for the Former Things

We know the feeling – yearning for the former things.

Sick at heart and dim of vision, the people cry out to God.  And look at what they ask God for.  Look at the solution they proposed to God:

Restore us – renew our days as of old.

Restore us to our former glory.  Make it like it was.  Take us back to the way it used to be:

When the city of Jerusalem was full of people.

When attendance at the Temple was at its peak.

When we were the envy of the nations.

When young men sang songs and old men saw visions.

When there was dancing in the streets.

We know the feeling.

All of us, to one degree or another, at one time or another, have wished for the good old days. I’ve always wondered – how far back do we want to go?  Surely not before 1929 because that was when the ice cream cone was invented.

Most churches can find in their history some point at which, they imagine – those were our best days.  Some of you have heard this.  In one church I served we literally packed the house on Easter Sunday.  I was standing in the back with the lay worship leader and the choir waiting for our cue to process down the center aisle with great pomp and circumstance.  All around me people were oohing and aahing about the crowd.  And the lay leader said to me: “When Charlie Webster was here, it was like this every Sunday.”

It takes little experience and even less insight to talk about the good old days, to remember our former glory.

And that’s what the writer of Lamentations is doing when he pours out his heart to God asking that Jerusalem be restored to the days of old.  This kind of thinking was common in ancient Israel and it is equally common in the church today.  They should have known better and we should know better.  God never takes his people back.

God’s restoration plan for Israel; God’s rebuilding strategy; was precisely not to restore the past.  The past may have been wonderful but it is still the past.

Here’s something I want you to write down.  Find a pen and a scrap of paper or a post-it note and write this down.

As Christians, we cannot let the glories of the past dull our hope for the future.

We must not consign the greatest work of God to days gone by.

Because I know some of you will not take the time to write it down, I’ll repeat it.

As Christians, we cannot let the glories of the past dull our hope for the future.

We must not consign the greatest work of God to days gone by.

God’s Future Promise

Israel would have done that.  Left to her own devises, the people of God would have limited God; they would have constrained God; they would have blocked out whatever future promise God had for them by focusing on some former glory.

Their vision of what God can do would have been limited to what God has done.

They would have consigned the greatest work of God to days gone by.

And they would have missed out on what would become their finest hour.

Into the midst of Israel’s lament; at the point of her deepest travail; when she was stuck in the miry place pinning for the good old days, came the prophet Isaiah.

He stood before a people stuck in a miry place and answered their lament.  But the word of God the prophet brings is not a promise to restore the past.  God says: “It is too light a thing that you should be restored as the survivors of Israel.  [No] I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach the end of the earth.  (Isaiah 49: 6)

It is too light a thing that you be restored to prominence in Jerusalem. It is too small a thing that you be renewed to do what you used to do. No, in the future you will be, not just Jerusalem on a hill; you will be a light to the nations. “And you shall go out in joy and be led back in peace.  The mountains and the hills shall burst into song and the trees of the field shall clap their hands. (Isaiah 55: 12)

Not because of what God has done in the past, but because of what God will do in the future. Not because you have been restored as in the days of old, but because you have been born anew for the days ahead.  Not because you have been returned to your former glory, but because you have been reclaimed by God’s future promise.

Then came the fulfillment of that promise: “…in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled…Joseph and Mary went from the town of Nazareth…to the city of David called Bethlehem…When they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  And she gave birth to her first-born son and laid him in a manger…”  (Luke 2) “And you shall call his name Jesus…”  (Matthew 1:21

Our Finest Hour

What a shame it would have been if God had only restored Jerusalem instead of sending Jesus.

Does any of this resonate with us, a church caught in the miry place of the 21st century?

What a pity it would be for us, if all God can do at Riverside is more of the same, more of what he has already done. What a shame it will be at Riverside if we know nothing of God’s future promise. What a great failure it will be at Riverside if we have fond memories but no great vision.

We are already 2 decades into the 21st century. The church is at a tipping point. All the measures of church effectiveness condemn us. We really aren’t doing very well.

Some are predicting the demise of the church. I do not believe that.  I don’t believe the church is finished. I do acknowledge that the church is in a miry place. The church, without question, is caught in a downward spiral. But I am confident that God will raise up committed churches to meet the challenges of the day. And, I am hopeful that Riverside will be one of those churches through which God will, once again, beat the odds.

Ours is a moment of great opportunity. We are in a good position. We are calling a new pastor. That means the window for change is wide open. Organizations typically take their biggest strides forward when a new leader comes. But it’s an opportunity, not a guarantee.

If we call a pastor who understands what Jesus taught us, that you don’t put new wine in old wineskins; and if he recognizes that he was trained to serve congregations that no longer exist – then we will be able to meet the challenge of the days ahead. But if we call a pastor who thinks the ministries that worked 10 years ago will meet the spiritual needs of people today; if he believes his previous work has adequately prepared him for the task at hand; if he believes he already has the skills he needs – then we will miss the opportunity God has given us.

If Riverside Presbyterian Church recognizes that the world we grew up in no longer exists; that America has moved from a churched to an unchurched society; that this shift impacts everything we do, and if this is seen not as a threat but as a new opening for ministry; if we develop a holy discontent with the way things are; if we see this alien culture as a conduit or vehicle for sharing the historic gospel, and if we adjust and retool accordingly – then we will be well-positioned to take on this very different world.

But if Riverside believes the way forward in the 21st century is to faithfully reclaim the strategies that worked in the 20th century – then we will not find our way out of the miry place.

Bill Easum says: “If churches work to improve what they have been doing, they will die.  The best way to fail today is to improve upon yesterday’s successes.”

So, the burden falls equally on the new pastor and on Riverside.

How will we see the new pastor? Will we expect him to step up to the high standards set by former pastors or step out of the box to become a visionary leader? Will we want him to cut loose or cut back?

There’s an old story that goes back to the days before wireless microphones.  The preacher’s lavalier mic was attached to a long cord that plugged in somewhere on the floor.  One morning the preacher was getting excited and pacing back and forth across the stage with the microphone cord in his hand.  As he crossed the stage he would dramatically whip the cord, first one way and then the other so he wouldn’t get his feet tangled up.  In the midst of his enthusiasm a little boy sitting near the front leaned over and asked his mother: “If he gets loose, will he hurt us?”

Will our new pastor be tethered to some long cord of tradition or will you turn him loose?

Will you bind him to the memories of some former glory or will you cut him loose to discover God’s future promise?

Will you, like ancient Israel, ask God to restore Riverside to the days of old, orwill you ask God to do a new thing?

The psalmist said: “The Lord heard my cry.  He brought me up out of the miry place.”

Will you allow God to bring Riverside up out of the miry place? Or, to mix my metaphors – Will Riverside be just another stick-in-the-mud?