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Experiencing God's Faithfulness

Original Date: 
Sunday, November 15, 2015

Lamentations 3:19-26 The Christmas Experience: Experiencing God’s Faithfulness

Operation Unwrap Christmas
I know that one of the big complaints about our society lately is that the Christmas season seems to be starting earlier and earlier. We just get through Halloween, and the Christmas decorations start going up in the stores. Now the big push is for Black Friday sales that start two weeks before Thanksgiving.

And I’m not helping matters any. This year we wanted to do a small group campaign based on Christmas, and in order to get through it all before Christmas week, we had to start this week. So we’re two weeks from Thanksgiving, and already I’m talking about Christmas. When I asked Tori Rasmussen, who leads our decoration team, if we could be decorated for Christmas already this week, she said: “Absolutely not!” She said all I could have for these next two weeks is this tree.

I can’t help but think that all this early emphasis on Christmas has to be especially painful for our children (doesn’t anybody think about the kids?) When I was a kid, waiting for Christmas to get here was hard. After Thanksgiving, when the Christmas Trees went up and the visits from Santa at the community center would take place and the gifts would start to appear, it was so hard to be patient waiting for the day when we could actually open our presents. I can’t imagine how much harder it is now, what with an extra three or four weeks of Christmas reminders.

In fact, my brother and I weren’t that good at waiting for the big day. Our parents would put our gifts under the tree as soon as they were wrapped, so they’d be there for two or three weeks before we could open them. But my brother had ways around that. He wanted to know what was in those boxes, so if Mom and Dad went away on a date, Operation Unwrap Christmas would commence.

It was a regular Mission: Impossible sort of thing. He’d post our younger sister as the look out, get out an exacto knife and some scotch tape, and then he’d very carefully slice open the wrapping paper, find out what he was getting, and then replace the tape so no one could tell. (I, of course, was totally innocent!)

We went several years where we knew exactly what we were getting well before the time for opening presents came around. Of course, I think my folks caught on. Because after awhile the only gifts my Mom would wrap were packages of socks and underwear—you know, the kinds of things responsible parents are supposed to buy their kids whether it is Christmas or not—and the good presents, the real presents, would only come out at the last minute.

But, anyway, my point is that waiting for Christmas is hard. As Tom Petty used to sing: “the waiting is the hardest part.”

In a couple of weeks, the official church countdown to Christmas will begin. It’s called “Advent.” It’s the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. Advent means coming, and the season of Advent is meant to heighten our anticipation of Christ’s arrival. Advent is a season of waiting.

And so, as we begin this Christmas Experience series, I want to talk about waiting. The passage I’ve chosen to preach from today is hardly a Christmas text—it isn’t about Christ’s birth or even a prophecy of it. But it is definitely a waiting text. It’s Lamentations 3:19-26:

19I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.
20I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.
21Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:
22Because of the Lord 's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.
23They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
24I say to myself, "The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him."
25The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him;
26it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.

Our big idea this morning comes from that last verse: It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good to wait for God. Waiting for God is an important part of our faith.

What I’d like to do is make two observations on waiting from the text, and then at the end I’ll give some coaching for waiting.

God’s Waiting Room
My first observation: Waiting on God is Never Easy. The Bible is very upfront about the pain that we will sometimes encounter in this life. Consider the first two verses of our text, verses 19 and 20:

19I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.
20I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.

The book of Lamentations was written by the prophet Jeremiah in response to the destruction of Jerusalem in about 587 BC. It is a very sad book. A “lament” is a passionate cry of sorrow and grief. Jeremiah describes the horrible destruction and loss of life and starvation through siege that accompanied Jerusalem’s fall. He describes the city weeping bitterly as the people are carried off into exile (1:2-3).

You get a sense of Jeremiah’s sadness in these verses. Look at the words he uses: affliction, wandering, bitterness, gall. His soul is downcast. This is a very dark period in the history of Israel. It is a very dark period in Jeremiah’s life.

There is a definitely a sense that Jeremiah is waiting on God. He is wondering when things are going to change.

Jeremiah understands that God is sovereign over what is happening. As a prophet it was his job to warn Jerusalem that this sort of destruction was coming. He predicted that God would judge Israel. But that doesn’t make it easy. That doesn’t make it any less painful.

In the verses just before these Jeremiah makes it sound as though he has been abandoned by God. “He has walled me in so I cannot escape” (v. 7). “He shuts out my prayer” (v. 8). “He drew his bow and made me the target for his arrows.” (v. 12).

There have probably been times in your life when you have felt the same as Jeremiah. In our Bible Study, Kyle Idleman describes it as being “in God’s waiting room”. Those circumstances where you are just waiting for answers, waiting for the situation to change, waiting for God to do something different. Idleman gave some examples: the young man who was in a car accident and now was hooked to a ventilator and a feeding tube, with his family waiting to see if he’ll wake up. The couple whose friends are all having babies, but they don’t seem to be able to conceive; waiting to see if they’ll ever have children. The single young woman wondering if Mr. Right will ever come along, waiting to see if she’ll ever be married.

You’ve probably had experiences that felt like being in God’s waiting room. Maybe you feel like you are there right now. Let me share the story of Marshall and Susan Shelly, as he told it in an article for Christianity Today called “Two Minutes to Eternity”:

*I was with my son his entire life. Two minutes.

He entered the world of light and air at 8:20 p.m. on November 22, 1991. And he departed, the doctor said, at 8:22.

It seemed a very short time. Too short. My wife, Susan, and I never got to see him take his first steps. We barely got to see him take his first breath.

I don't know if he would have enjoyed softball or software, dinosaurs or dragonflies, machines or math. We never got to wrestle, race, or read—would he have enjoyed those things like his older sisters do? What would have made him laugh? Made him scared? Made him angry?

Those questions swarmed around my soul in the days following my son's arrival and all-too-hurried departure. So many things I wondered. But one question loomed larger than all the rest, haunting me for months: Why would God create a child to live two minutes?

Many tragic deaths can be blamed on human cruelty or foolishness. A stray bullet punctures a tenement wall and kills an infant. A driver loses control of a car and careens into a group of schoolchildren on the sidewalk. Senseless. Heartbreaking. But at least I know where to direct my anger.

With my son, no direct human responsibility could be charged in his death. It was a "chromosomal abnormality" called Trisomy 13. One of the 23 sets of chromosomes developed a third appendage. Despite genetic tests and the expert opinions of doctors, we discovered no known cause for this condition.

As far as I was concerned, this was a design flaw. And the Designer was directly responsible.

I remember the first time I heard the term "Trisomy 13." It was the same hour I first saw my son—as ghostly black-white-and-gray movements on the sonogram screen. In silence, Susan and I watched the embryonic motions as Dr. Silver manipulated the ultrasound, measuring the cranium and the femur and viewing the internal organs.

"Is everything okay?" I asked.

"Let me complete the examination, and I'll give you a full report," he said. I noted his evasive answer and hoped this was merely his standard procedure.

Moments later, he announced his observations in a matter-of-fact voice: "We have some problems. The fetus has a malformed heart—the aorta is attached incorrectly. There are missing portions of the cerebellum. A club foot. A cleft palate and perhaps a cleft lip. Possibly spina bifida. This is probably a case of Trisomy 13 or Trisomy 18. In either case, it is a condition incompatible with life."

Neither Susan nor I could say anything. So Dr. Silver continued.

"It's likely the fetus will spontaneously miscarry. If the child is born, it will not survive long outside the womb. You need to decide if you want to try to carry this pregnancy to term."

We both knew what he was asking. I was speechless. Susan found her voice first. Though shaken by the news, she said softly but clearly, "We believe God is the giver and taker of life. If the only opportunity I have to know this child is in my womb, I don't want to cut that time short. If the only world he is to know is the womb, I want that world to be as safe as I can make it."

We left the medical center that July afternoon stunned and saddened.

"Pregnancy is hard enough when you know you're going to leave the hospital with a baby," Susan said. "I don't know how I can go through the pain of childbirth knowing I won't have a child to hold."*

Imagine that: carrying a child for nine months knowing that once you deliver, the child will not survive.

Some of you don’t need to imagine, you’ve lived it. Or, if not that scenario, something similar:
• waiting for an adult child to turn back to the LORD;
• waiting for it to feel like you and your spouse are on the same team again, and not constantly at war;
• waiting for the lab results to show cancer levels are going down, not up;
• waiting for your spouse of 55 years to remember your name when you walk into the room, instead of the constant fog of befuddlement;
• waiting…

Waiting on God is never easy. We’ve all felt like we’ve been in God’s waiting room.

The LORD is Good
But here’s my second observation: Waiting on God is Always Worth It. The Bible promises that hope put in the Lord is never misplaced. Verse 21 is the hinge verse of our passage:

21Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:

There’s an incredible change of tone at this point in the book of Lamentations. Such a dramatic change, in fact, that some scholars wonder if it could even be the work of the same author. Some speculate that a later editor added these verses; in an attempt to soften the thoughts about God. But that can’t be. In the original language, this chapter of Lamentations is an acrostic, with each stanza beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. It’s a carefully crafted poem, and if you take any verse out the whole pattern falls apart. So it had to be the product of one author. These verses belong here. Verses 22-26:

22Because of the Lord 's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.
23They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
24I say to myself, "The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him."
25The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him;
26it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.

In spite of his pain and despair, Jeremiah turns to the Lord and finds hope. In spite of the devastation all around him, Jeremiah seeks the Lord and knows that He is good. Even as he waits he knows that he can trust in God’s mercy. God does “bring grief” (v. 32), He does “afflict” (v. 33)—but His aim is always to save.

Let me go back to Marshall Shelly’s story:

*Summer turned to fall, and we were praying that our son would be healed. And if a long life were not God's intention for him, we prayed that he could at least experience the breath of life. We longed see that reminder of God's Spirit, the Pneuma, flow through him like a gentle wind.

Even that request seemed in jeopardy as labor began November 22. As the contractions got more severe, signs of fetal distress caused the nurses to ask, "Should we try to deliver the baby alive?"

"Yes, if at all possible, short of surgery," Susan replied.

They kept repositioning Susan and gave her oxygen, and the fetal distress eased.

And then suddenly the baby was out. The doctor cut the cord and gently placed him on Susan's chest. He was a healthy pink, and we saw his chest rise and fall. The breath of life. Thank you, God.

Then, almost immediately, he began to turn blue. We stroked his face and whispered words of welcome, of love, of farewell. And all too soon the doctor said, "He's gone."

Within minutes, our pastor, our parents, and our children came into the room. Together we wept, held one another, and took turns holding our son. My chest ached from heaviness. Death is enormous, immense, unstoppable.

The loss was crushing, but mingled with the tears and the terrible pain was something else. I'm not sure I can describe it.

At the births of my three older daughters, I'd felt "the miracle of birth," that sacred moment when a new life enters the world of light and air. The pneuma, the breath of life, fills the lungs for the first time. Now this moment was doubly intense because the miracle of birth was followed so quickly by the mystery of death. The pneuma was here and now gone.

"It feels like eternity just intersected earth" was all I could say to our pastor. The pain of grief was diminished not at all, but it blended with the weight of overwhelming wonder at the irresistible movement from time to eternity.

"Do you have a name for the baby?" asked one of the nurses.

"Toby," Susan said. "It's short for a biblical name, Tobiah, which means 'God is good.' "

We had long thought about the name for this child. We didn't particularly feel God's goodness at that moment. The name was what we believed, not what we felt. It was what we wanted to feel again someday.

The words of C.S. Lewis, describing the lion Aslan, kept coming to mind: "He's not a tame lion. But he's good." We clung to that image of untamed and fearsome goodness…*

When we come out of God’s waiting room we don’t always end up with what we think we wanted. The Shellys would have loved a miraculous healing for their son, they prayed for a misdiagnosis that did not come. They had only two minutes with their son before he moved on to eternity. But in spite of the tragic outcome (from their perspective) they knew they could continue to trust in God.

The same goes for Jeremiah. The truth is: for the next 600 years Jerusalem was an inconsequential city. The nation of Israel never again attained the heights it had before the Babylonian exile. But then, one quiet night in the city of David, when the time had fully come, God entered into the world in the flesh of a tiny baby. It wasn’t what anyone expected, but it was precisely what the world needed.

And in that child we find our salvation. Because God, in His great mercy and love, sent his Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to die for our sins and rise again so that we would have the assurance of permanent life, permanent joy, permanent personal relationships that will outlast the bounds of death.

The message of Lamentations can be summed up like this: “Life is hard. God is good.” Even if we have to wait until heaven, waiting on God will always be worth it.

Coaching for Waiting
So what do we do? When we find ourselves in God’s waiting room, when it seems like it is always winter but never Christmas, what advice is there for waiting on God? As I look at the text, there are three things I see that we can do. I call it coaching for waiting:

First, Count on Tomorrow’s Compassions for Tomorrow’s Problems.

Look at verses 22 and 23:

22Because of the Lord 's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.
23They are new every morning;

God is compassionate. He has great love. And His compassions are new every morning. “Morning by morning new mercies I see.”

Here’s the point: one of the things that makes waiting so hard is that we spend so much time worrying about what might happen, what could happen. It’s painful because we project the worst possible outcomes, and then we stew. “If this happens, or that happens, how will we ever get through it?”

But here’s what the Bible says: His compassions are new every morning. Every day, He has new mercies. So whatever comes, whatever problems we encounter tomorrow, He promises that He will give us the mercy we need to get through it.

John Piper writes:

The strength to live tomorrow will be given tomorrow, not today. And it will be given. Our task today is not to have the strength needed for tomorrow's burdens. Our task today is to live by the mercies given for today, and to believe that there will be new mercies for tomorrow. Today's mercies do not include strength for tomorrow; they include faith that tomorrow's unseen mercies will be sufficient for tomorrow.

I can't express how important I believe this is for the living of the Christian life—for children, for teenagers, for college students and young adults in the work world, for middle-aged people facing major life changes, for older people with tremendous uncertainties before them, for single people and married people. It's important because of how natural and strong is the impulse in our hearts to want to feel sufficient today for tomorrow's challenges. We don't like it when the gauge reads "empty" at the end of the day, and we have to go to sleep—if we can—not feeling the power for tomorrow's troubles…

This truth will save your life again and again, if you grasp it and live it. Because how many times in life do we come to the end of our resources and say: there isn't anything in here anymore. I am depleted. One more straw and this camel's back will break. And we despair that tomorrow will just be rolled on to today's depleted condition.

And at that moment we desperately need this truth: God will not expect you to carry one more straw with these present mercies. When the next straw is added, the mercies will be new.

Second, Trust in the Track Record of God.

So how do we know that we can count on God to give compassion for tomorrow’s problems? How do we know that He’s going to come through? Well, consider what He has done in the past. The second half of verse 23 puts it like this:

Great is your faithfulness.

When you apply for a new job, one of the things your potential new employer wants is a list of past places you’ve worked and contact information for references. Why? Because past performance is one of the best indicators of future behavior. If you’ve been a good worker in the past, you’ll probably be a good worker in the future. And the same goes for God. Since He has been faithful in the past, we can count on Him to be faithful in the future.

When young David volunteered to fight the giant Goliath, King Saul had serious doubts about his ability to survive. David replied with a story of God's faithfulness. He told Saul that when he had been a shepherd God had kept him safe and for that reason he believed he would be kept safe again. "The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine" (1 Samuel 17:37). He simply drew on the past to get God's promises for the future.

Several years ago I read about woman named Gladys Aylward who served as a missionary in China before World War II. When the Japanese army invaded northern China, she was forced to flee, taking about 100 orphans with her. As she led the children into the mountains, she despaired of ever making it to safety. After a sleepless night, she was reminded by a 13-year-old girl of Moses and the parting of the Red Sea. "‘But I am not Moses,’ she replied. ‘Of course you aren’t,’ the girl said, ‘but Jehovah is still God.’"

God is faithful. You can trust Him.

Then, third, Treasure Him Above All Else.

Verse 24:

24I say to myself, "The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him."

The word “portion” in the Bible has to do with inheritance; it’s a person’s share, a person’s possession. It comes from the book of Numbers, when Moses was dividing the Promised Land among the 12 tribes. Each tribe got their portion, except for the Levites, who were set apart for service to the LORD. God said to them, in essence, “You get no portion of the land because I am your portion.” (cf. Numbers 18:20)

And now, Jeremiah tells himself that the Lord is His portion. In other words, he treasures God above all other things. He realizes that nothing in the universe is more valuable than God. God is the Peal of Great Price. The Treasure Hidden in the Field. Though his flesh and his heart may fail, though the crops may wither and the cattle stalls might be empty, he knows that the Lord is the strength of his heart and his portion forever. He knows that he can be joyful in God his Savior. (see Matthew 13:44-46; Psalm 73:26 and Habakkuk 3:17-18)

And the same goes for us. Waiting on God is never easy. But waiting on God is always worth it. He sent His Son into the world as the greatest present the world ever saw, to secure our salvation and to show us His great love. When He is your greatest treasure, then you know that however your time in the waiting room ends you can be sure that He is being good to you.