Today, we begin a new worship series: the city of God. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be thinking together about Jerusalem to see what particular insights into truth and God and the truth of God that this significant city offers us. We’re going to be talking some about history and geography and Scripture. we’ll get into politics and theology, and, maybe, if you’re lucky (!), into the politics of theology.
We begin, perhaps apparently oddly, well into the history of the city—not with its beginning, nor with its glory, not its beauty or religious or political significance, but with its loneliness. We begin our worship series on the city of God in the lonely city.
And, in truth, when you consider the Judean hill country, it is a lonely area. Remote. Desolate. Harsh. You don’t go very east very far at all from Jerusalem to enter the desert. Still, the earliest occupation of this particular place goes back way before David to the early Bronze Age (3300 to 2200 B.C.E.). For purposes of comparison, David was about 1000 B.C.E.—up to some 2,000 years later. There is evidence of the name—a form of the name Jerusalem from letters dating back to around 1900-1800 B.C.E. and there’s not much argument that the name goes back to “two words, yeru ‘foundation of,’ and shalem, who may have been the Canannite god of twilight” [Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “Jerusalem,” in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, I-Ma, Volume 3 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008) 246]. That’s interesting, don’t you think? The name of the city goes back to the essential nature of a time between light and darkness.
The earliest occupation of which there is evidence was located south of the temple mount. South of the modern old city. Outside the walls of Jerusalem we’ve at least seen in pictures. The earliest occupation was established around the Gihon spring—the area’s water source—from which the Siloam pool was filled and from which Hezekiah’s tunnel was constructed. There are city walls around that spring that date back from between 1800 to 1600 B.C.E.
So not only was there a town or a city there, but it was big enough to have defensive walls. Now why anyone would have wanted to take this particular city—why there had to be walls remains somewhat of a mystery. There wasn’t much to distinguish this place from any other Judean hill town. The city really had nothing to commend itself. A poor water supply. Higher hills on three sides. Didn’t lie on any of the major trade routes. [Murphy-O’Connor, N.I.B. Dictionary, 247] But as “[e]mpires grew up in Egypt and Mesopotamia, … Palestine remained a mosaic of city-states” [Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, The Holy Land: An Oxford Archeological Guide (Oxford: University Press, 2008) 1]. And Jerusalem was not insignificant. In the mid 14th century B.C.E., Abdu-Heba of Jerusalem in letters to the pharaoh of Egypt mentioned “a town belonging to Jerusalem, Bit-Lahmi by name” [Murphy-O’Connor, N.I.B. Dictionary, 248]. Bethlehem. Isn’t that interesting?
So why did David pick Jerusalem? Well, it was established already as a significant city. That’s important. But more importantly, it was not included in the division of land into the twelve tribes. It was technically included in the tribe of Benjamin’s land, but it was not a city of the Hebrew people. No one could claim privilege. Kind of like Washington, D.C’s supposed to be—not part of any one of the states, but a federal district created to be set apart as the capital. And so, the lonely city, Jerusalem became the city of David, not vice versa.
To further consolidate the tribes, David brought the ark of the covenant to the city of David. He set aside land for the temple his son, Solomon, would build, higher up the ridge, north of the city—looking down on the city—looked up to by and from the city. David so very deliberately linked his authority to the authority of God—creating political capital in developing the mythology of the throne of God—the city of God—the home of God—the mountain of God—Zion.
So in addition to the geographic loneliness in the Judean hills and the political loneliness of an independent city unclaimed by any of the tribes of Israel, there’s also a theological loneliness. How could any place on earth claiming to be the home of God not possibly be lonely? Because surely any place close enough to God to claim God as resident, must know enough about God to know, there will always be more of God that is never at home in one place than there is of God fixed in one place.
David’s successful strategy also created a future theological tension, because if all-powerful God is so closely identified with a particular place and people, what happens when those people are threatened militarily? What happens when they are defeated? When that place is destroyed? What happens to the promises of this God? the covenants made with a people? This theological tension, manifest through history, poses the implicit question: if this is indeed God’s home, why is it subject to the whims and power of Egypt and Assyria and Babylon and Persia and Greece and Rome? Which takes us right where we need to get to this morning. For taking precedence this morning over the geographic and the political, the historical and the theological loneliness is an experiential one.
Our text, you see, from Lamentations, places us in Jerusalem during the Exile. We wander the empty streets of a defeated—a destroyed, looted, and emptied city. We make our way through the rubble of the city’s razed walls, the wreckage that was the king’s palace and the ruins of the temple—which all stood strong and proud and are now but dust and debris—which was all full of life and is now defined by death, decay and the extreme deprivation of the few who remain. And we need to honor the specifics of the text that is our focus this morning.
Now one scholar has suggested that Lamentations shouldn’t necessarily be so tied to the Exile. He argues for the possibility of another date—another time of profound tragedy in which associations with the Exile were made [Kathleen M. O’Connor, “The Book of Lamentations: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume VI (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001) 1015]. Whatever the actual date—whatever the actual circumstances prompting the writing, we know the truth, don’t we? Deep truth named always has a relevance beyond any immediate circumstance. And the book of Lamentations is, in any case—whatever the provenance, a collective outburst (a collage of interwoven voices and impressions, images and experiences)—a corporate (not individual—though isn’t it interesting that the images used to express this corporate grief are taken from the experience of individual grief—the grief of a widow, for example, or a woman betrayed)—a corporate outburst of grief and pain, sorrow and anger—of loss and disbelief—a deep woundedness, an outraged protest, a massive disorientation.
And yet, within the searing honesty of its raw emotions, Lamentations is, interestingly enough, such a highly structured book—so incredibly carefully and intentionally composed—organized and structured. It’s comprised of five poems, four of which are acrostic—a deliberate literary form with individual lines of a poem corresponding to the sequence of letters in the alphabet. The Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters, and all the poems of Lamentations have 22 lines or some multiple thereof. The first and second poems of Lamentations are each 22 verses of three lines each (66 lines), while the third is 66 verses of one line each. The fourth is 22 verses of two lines each (44 lines) and the fifth and last one (the only one not an acrostic) is nonetheless 22 verses of one line each [O’Connor, 1018]. So looking today at Lamentations 1:1-6, we literally have the abc’s of Lamentations—the beginning of an order. Imposed on all the chaos of tragedy is a logical framework that, conceptually, is the basis for communication—the basis for the word—and the word of God.
But—but within this order—this structure—this foundation for words, there is no word of God—no word from God—in Lamentations. It’s a collection of voices searching for God—querying God—angry at God, and in the face of this—in response to this—there is only divine silence.
I don’t know how many of you have taken the opportunity to listen to John Adams “On the Transmigration of Souls.” It’s a piece commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, the Lincoln Center’s Great Performers and an anonymous New York family post 9-11. Adams weaves together the sounds of a city (footsteps, cars going by, brakes, sirens, the sounds of people laughing or shouting—the normal sounds of a city) with a nine-year-old boy repeating the word “missing” over and over again: “missing,” “missing,” “missing.” Against sustained choral notes, friends and family members of the missing then recite random names of the missing. Some are identified not by name, but by relation: “my brother,” for example. The chorus sings words taken from missing persons posters hung around the ruins of the world trade center in September and October of 2001 and from the New York Time’s series, “Portraits of Grief:” “We miss you.” “We love you.”
Says John Adams, “What I discovered about the language of these messages was that it was invariably of the most simple and direct kind. No one stunned by the shock of a sudden loss like this has time nor inclination to speak or write with eloquent or flowerly language. Rather one speaks in the plainest words imaginable. When we say ‘Words fail’ in situations like this, we mean it. So I realized that one of the great challenges of composing this piece would be finding a way to set the humblest of expressions like ‘He was the apple of my father’s eye’, or ‘She looks so full of life in that picture’ ” [http://www.earbox.com/W-transmigration.html].
Commenting on the work as a whole, Adams said, “I want to avoid words like ‘requiem’ or ‘memorial’ when describing this piece because they too easily suggest conventions that this piece doesn’t share. If pressed, I’d probably call the piece a ‘memory space’. It’s a place where you can go and be alone with your thoughts and emotions. The link to a particular historical event—in this case to 9/11—is there if you want to contemplate it. But I hope that the piece will summon human experience that goes beyond this particular event” [http://www.earbox.com/W-transmigration.html]. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Deep truth named that always has a relevance beyond any immediate circumstance. A collective outburst of grief and pain, sorrow and anger—of loss and disbelief—a deep woundedness, an outraged protest, a massive disorientation. Oh yes, Lamentations.
So we have a date … or lots of them. Sometime after 587 BCE or sometime after 9-11, 2001 C.E., to name two. We have a geographic location … or many: Jerusalem, New York City, to name two. We have contexts set within within the international politics and relations of history. And most importantly, most profoundly, we have the intense and charged suffering of an entire people.
Jerusalem is often named a thin place—a place where earth and heaven touch. Today, we acknowledge its thinness, but as a place where earth and heaven touch not in wonder, not in joy or in love, not in divine authority or power, but in grief and suffering. Not in the assurance of faith, but in doubt and questioning. Not in conclusive answers, definitive explanations, absolute affirmation, but in God’s silence in the lonely city.
The middle poem of the book of Lamentations (chapter three) does include a few verses of affirmation and hope: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him’ ” (Lamentations 3:22-24). Some like to suggest that hope is thus the heart of the book. Others maintain hope is overwhelmed by the experiences of grief and pain and sorrow [O’Connor, 1021]. They note that while the first and second poems are both 22 verses with 66 lines, after the third poem is 66 lines, that the fourth is only 44 lines and fifth only 22 and not even an acrostic. There’s a breakdown in the structure, in other words. Hope cannot hold the center.
The word for today (such an important word) is that there are no easy answers here. No answers at all, in fact. And sometimes, that’s what we need: the raw recognition that in the face of the depths of what we experience, there is nothing that can be said. Other than naming the pain—crying out the pain, there is nothing that can be said. That’s where well-intentioned people often fail—and, so often, well-intentioned people of faith. That’s where ministers often fail. There are times in which there is no word of God and shouldn’t be. No word of comfort. God forbid any explanation or justification. No word of promise. Just absolute grief mingling with intense rage and utter disbelief.
Why is it that we start a series on Jerusalem with Lamentations? Why devote a worship to desolation? Because it’s one of the most honest places to start. Because it’s a place Jerusalem knows so well. It’s the aftermath of war and violence, terror and terrifying response to terror. It’s the ravages of religion hijacked. It’s death and torture. Not just the cry of defeat but also of abandonment and betrayal. It’s the silence of God amidst unspeakable suffering. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jerusalem knows this.
And it is this lonely reality of profound suffering that must be addressed by people of faith—must be accounted for without words—for anything else to have any integrity at all. If God fails to enter into such moments—such experience—silently, if religion fails to honor such silence, then to hell with it. But to find God silent in the face of human grief—to know religion as silent, is to find the respect, the dignity, the validation—with which to begin an ascent out of hell—to reclaim a center that didn’t hold, but that remains central.
Is that good news? Is it a gospel word for our worship? Maybe not for you. Maybe not for you today. Maybe not for you any of your days. We can hope! But should such a day come ….