The words of Nehemiah..while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant,.. and also about Jerusalem. They said to me, “Those who… are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven..
Since my people are crushed, I am crushed; I mourn and horror grips me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people? Oh that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears!
(Jeremiah 8.21- 9.1)
Restore us again, O God our Saviour, and put away your displeasure towards us. Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger through all generations? Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you? Show us your unfailing love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation. I will listen to what God the Lord will say; he promises peace to his people, his saints – but let them not return to folly. Surely his salvation is near those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. Love and faithfulness meet together, righteousness and peace kiss each other. Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven. The Lord will indeed give what is good, and our land will yield its harvest. Rightousness goes before him and prepares the way for his steps.
I don’t know if you think of lamentation as a form of worship, but I do. When the psalmists and prophets come before God with the desperate “How long, O Lord?!”, they are worshipping the almighty God, placing him in the position of ultimate authority, and recognising his sovereign power and will at work behind all that happened in the world around them. Their example gives us confidence to follow them in bringing to the throne of God all the things that trouble us in the world, not least the parlous state of the Church of Christ in many parts of the west.
We, like Nehemiah, should be moved to mourn as we consider the state of our part of the worldwide church – a body discredited, mocked, marginalised, torn within by division, polluted by heresy and undermined by chronic lack of confidence in the power of the revealed word of God to transform lives. Truly, our walls are torn down and our gates destroyed as if by fire, we should hang our heads in shame and horror and cry to God for mercy.
In reality, we are perhaps so used to the state of things that we have not allowed ourselves to feel, let alone express these emotions. But surely, if we take time to let God show us these realities, we ought to catch something of his grief for the condition of his people – and then our lamentation might, like Nehemiah’s, become a prayer for action, for change, and a plea for God to intervene and to use even such fragile instruments as ourselves in that mission of restoration.
We are a sinful people; the church is made up of those who have realised how broken they are, and how much they depend upon God’s mercy. So when we cry for God to intervene to restore his people, we are not claiming that we have earned or deserved his favour, but rather are reminding him – and ourselves – of our dependence upon his grace and unmerited favour. God’s glory is revealed not in the efforts of christians to build the church, but in the power which God displays in lives which he transforms, in the faithfulness which he grants to frail humankind, in the unity which he grants to fractured congregations and creates as he draws people to himself from all nations. It is for the loss of his glory that we weep when we consider our churches today; and for the restoration of his glory that we pray when we cry “How long, O Lord?”.
In our lamentations, may we not lose hope, but rather be encouraged, like Nehemiah, to ask God to use us in his plans for restoration. May we return with the psalmists to the great faithfulness which God has shown to his fickle people, trusting that the promises will yet be fulfilled, and our land will indeed yield its harvest – to his glory and for our blessing!