MY DRINK IS A FLAMING THIRST
Lamentations 1: 1-6, 12a
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
October 6, 2019
This is not what I would call “a happy sermon” because this is not a happy text. To be honest with a biblical text is not only to honor the meaning of the text, but also to honor the mood of the text. And the mood of this text is anything but happy.
I ran across a striking phrase this week: My drink is a flaming thirst. That phrase comes, not from the book of Lamentations or from one of the psalms, but from the pen of an American poet named R. W. Gilder, who fought as a Private in the Battle of Gettysburg, and later became editor of a magazine in New York and published numerous books of poetry. My drink is a flaming thirst encapsulates the mood of this passage from the book of Lamentations.
Our time is a time of flaming thirst. If you believe the TV commercials, you might say that the greatest thirst is for a cold Budweiser, but commercials don’t go much deeper than that. We come to church because we know that there is a thirst much deeper than that.
We thirst for many things: for meaning, for hope, for justice, for strength, for love. These are personal flaming thirsts. But there is also a common thirst for security and peace, and especially a thirst for integrity. In short, we thirst for our leaders to behave. We thirst for our Congress to be something other than partisan. We thirst for our President to behave with dignity and kindness. We thirst for the world to behave because we don’t want to see the images of violence that we see on the news every day. We thirst for a lot of things, and it is a flaming thirst.
Our generation is discovering, as every generation must discover, that such a flaming thirst can be quenched best by tapping into the reservoir of the spirit. Notice, I did not say tapping into a particular brand of Christianity, or even tapping into Christianity alone, as if only Christianity has access to things of the spirit. There is a deep human thirst, present in all religious searching, which can only be quenched by the spirit.
With that said, I still want to commend the Christian faith to anyone who recognizes that flaming thirst in themselves. An adequate faith must be broad enough to encompass the most extreme emotions of life. There is loose in our country rampant rah-rah religion, which seems to confine faith to cheerleading, and every worship service is like a high school pep rally. Such religion does provide emotional release; it generates a great deal of excitement; and it attracts great crowds who know all the cheers by heart. But a cheerleading religion fails in this one particular: it is not broad enough or deep enough to encompass all the experiences of life.
A cheerleading religion would never claim the book of Lamentations, for example. This book is a series of carefully constructed dirges lamenting the fall of Jerusalem in the year 586 BC. I say “carefully constructed” because each of the five chapters is a separate poem complete in itself, and for the most part the poems are alphabetic acrostics, each succeeding verse beginning with a letter in the Hebrew alphabet in order. The only exception to that is the third poem, which is a personal lament and has a different poetic structure. But the point is that they are carefully constructed poems written by a very skillful poet.
These poems go where rah-rah religion fails to go. They go to the depth of human pain and despair. They go there, not with pious platitudes, which would fit on a bumper sticker, but with language of overwhelming disaster. Our reading this morning was only about a quarter of the length of this first poem, but if you read it all, you can get a sense of the absolute despair, the deadening hopelessness of their situation. These poems reach out to the extremes of human life, the places where our thirst is truly a “flaming thirst,” and look unblinkingly at the nightmare of despondency.
When I was the Interim Pastor of the First Baptist Church in America, I preached a series of sermons on the psalms, and I asked the congregation to choose their favorite psalms for the sermons. You can guess which psalms came up first: the 23rd of course. Then there was 121 and 139 and 100–all beautiful and meaningful psalms. But one member thought he would challenge me: he chose Psalm 137: By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. It is a heartbreaking psalm. It enables us to sense the depth of their bitterness when we reach the last verse and see their anger boiling over with bitterness: Happy are those who take your little ones and dash them against the rock.
There are those who ask, “How can such language of cruelty be in the Bible?” And the answer to that question is that the Bible encompasses every human emotion. Our religious faith reaches all the way out to the extremities of human life as we know it—all the way out to where our thirst is a flaming thirst.
It is no accident that the two central rituals of the Christian faith involve liquid. Baptism, the ritual of entrance into the church, uses water as a symbol of burial and cleansing. The Lord’s Supper, on the other hand, has us drinking something that has been crushed, something that has been pressed down until the juice has been extracted. And it reminds us of the blood of Christ, because his life was crushed out of him even though he was innocent of wrongdoing. We use the ancient words of Isaiah: A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53: 3). We do this, not because our Christian faith is sad or depressing. To the contrary! We do this because our faith reaches all the way out to the worst that life can do, to that flaming thirst described in the poetry of Lamentations, and there our spiritual thirst is quenched.
That same Civil War poet who spoke of my drink as a flaming thirst, also spoke of the memory of a mountain trail that had a granite stone along the way up the hill. On the stone was cut a worn and defaced image of Christ, which he would often pass. Underneath that image were the words of Lamentations 1: 12: Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow….
This poignant lament, written long before Christ, nevertheless comes to mind whenever we pass this way. We will take the cup to our lips. Some of us will sip it, others will throw it back in one gulp. But we will know that our faith reaches all the way to the extremities of life and says, “God is there—even there, too.”
Man of sorrows, what a name! For the Son of God who came.
Ruined sinners to reclaim. Alleluia! What a Savior!