“Ah! How…” That’s how they felt. So that’s finally how they named it: their book of laments. They lamented as they looked over their nation. Cheeks stained with tears. Jerusalem was just rocks and holes. Judah a famine. And those taken far away…they cried too. They looked west to the horizon where the sun of their Jerusalem had set. Their dreams had melted away – golden beautiful things. They longed and lamented for Jerusalem too – idealized it, desired it, to be there again. But they couldn’t.
Lamentations, the Bible book, is filled with Israel’s laments. In its third song, God’s people cry out: “I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of [God’s] wrath. He has driven me away and made me walk in darkness rather than light;” and vividly much, much more (3:1-2, NIV84) It’s a song from the time Isaiah predicted in his sweeping prophecy. More than 100 years beforehand, he had warned how it would be: “…the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, …the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged…the Lord has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken.” (Isaiah 6:9–12, NIV84)
By chapter 42, Isaiah was beyond warning and had prophesied the thing as done, was speaking to the people in the situation they would find themselves over a century later:
22 [T]his is a people plundered and looted, all of them trapped in pits or hidden away in prisons. They have become plunder, with no one to rescue them; they have been made loot, with no one to say, “Send them back.” …they would not follow [God’s] ways; they did not obey his law. 25 So he poured out on them his burning anger, the violence of war. It enveloped them in flames, yet they did not understand; it consumed them, but they did not take it to heart. (Isaiah 42:22–25, NIV84)
Until lament was all that was left – perhaps lament was all they had become – a shade of themselves, a shell, sadness and sorrow only.
In this kind of dark night of sin, despair is the thing that happens when you realize that there is nothing you can do – no hope of resolution, of re-collecting life, no sense of yourself… Often it comes after fear, in the midst of fear, for real reasons. You’ve been in the fires – the heat of destroyed relationships, smoldering remains; the flames of temptations that sear you. The waters have threatened to drown you – debts you cannot escape, endless cycles at work, depression. And you acutely understand, that it isn’t just the cancers and nuclear war and the loneliness – the dark, dark places this world goes and promises… It’s also the dark, dark places we find in our own hearts – the dark things we harbor, the sticky-black things we have hidden, the sinful things we’ve hoped – and how they stain us. They make us afraid because all we thought we were turned out to be false, and we fear: maybe with God too… and because there’s nothing we can do except be lost and lament. There is despair..
In Advent we cry, but it something else entirely. Hear its beauty in Isaiah 43. Look at the first two words… If there has been darkness… If you have felt lost in your sins… If despairing about what to do… If afraid or lonely or guilty or troubled… here is something new. It’s like the joy of a first child. It’s walking into your first house. It’s sliding the ring onto that other person’s finger. It’s that moment when you can look back at everything else and confidently step into something new… And he invites you to have it every day: “But now, this is what the Lord says…”
That’s actually very fitting and timely…God breaking in to declare something to despair. If you search it, one of the antonyms of despair is actually “faith” – trust in something. People make promises all the time – that things will be better, that you can forgive yourself and the darkness will go away, that there will be a cure, that they will do this or that… Notice, the one who speaks is actually able to create what he promises. He created everything else, after all. Israel he formed and grew into his people over ages. You he knit together in your mother’s womb, brought you into this dark world, washed you into his light and love in Baptism’s waters. There he recreated you; he named you. It’s eminently true of Israel, the nation he named himself – but also of you, God’s Israel by faith – those who bear his name, Christians. St. Paul said it, “You are not your own, you were bought at a price.” ”I have redeemed you,” he says to Israel. “I purchased you. For you I would sacrifice whole nations to make you my own and keep you so.” And he bought them and he kept them so that he could do the same for you. That emptiness, that lost way of life, the perpetual lament of sin and this dark world and how all it promises is garbage and a shadow…and all the guilt of sins and the hellish dark they promised…from all that he bought you “with the precious blood of Christ.” Infinitely more valuable than a person or a nation of people – perfect God himself poured out. So that this might be your reality, this your courageous cry, your confession, your faith:
[he]has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. (Luther’s Small Catechism, Explanation of the 2nd Article)
This is most certainly true – it is, right now – and for you, about you – so that you need not fear. You do not give into that idolatry, that selfish thing that believes this is all there is, this darkness. No. Through the fires, in the waters, you will go and he will hold your hand, and you will not be scorched, you will not drown. Not because you have perfected things or found the right ways to light up life… No, only because he is the holy, mighty one – and you are his precious, honored people, his handiwork – and he has in mind that you will be for his glory, which will not ever fail.
In this way, as the night of sin wanes, he is calling out his own, his Israel by faith, you and others from wherever they are. He calls us so that we are not in despair. We are not alone in the darkness. In these Advent hours and days and years in which we anticipate his coming then, when we long for something better, we cry – but not in lament. Ours is the courageous shout of faith. It says, “O Adonai! O Mighty Lord! O Jesus Christ…drive away the dark night of despair! For you have redeemed your people. Now…keep us in your light.”