September 22, 2013 – 18th Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah is often called the weeping prophet and in this morning’s passage, we get a glimpse of why he’s called that. Chapter seven and the first part of chapter eight has again laid out the people’s “perpetual and unrepentant backsliding”1 and the impending doom facing them. (Until I started reading Jeremiah for this set of sermons, I thought backsliding was just a Baptist word. Now I know it’s from the bible.2 Although I believe it appears just once.)
What we hear this morning is a very different voice from the words of judgment that precede this passage.
READ Jeremiah 8.18-9.1
This passage from Jeremiah has that very familiar line about a balm in Gilead. And you might already be humming in your mind, “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.” And the choir will sing that hymn later in the service.
Gilead was a region east of the Jordan river known for its healing ointments–probably derived from a plant that grew in that area. People went there for healing. It might be that if you couldn’t find an answer for your medical issue with your home town doctor or the big city doctor, you made a pilgrimage to Gilead to find healing.
Only in this chapter in Jeremiah, there is no healing. Even in Gilead. Some of the people over whom Jeremiah weeps are already dead. “O that my head were a spring of water…so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people” Jeremiah laments. And apparently, the woundedness of others is so great that there is no healing.
Jeremiah cries not for physical wounds as much as spiritual wounds. These are not wounds that can healed with a special salve or prescription ointment. This is a disease of the spirit; a poison in the soul. The people have turned away from God even when God has sent prophet after prophet after prophet to warn them. The people have assumed their religious rituals in the holy places will be enough to satisfy God while they continue to live greedy, self-serving, self-absorbed, fearful lives. They make most important what is not important. They can recite the law and the ten commandments but it doesn’t change their lives a bit. God has given them every opportunity to turn their lives around and return to a right relationship with God but they keep saying, “I’m not really interested.” Jeremiah, one of the many prophets sent by God to woo the people back to God is “burdened by their refusal of insight, recognition, contrition and repentance.”3 And so he weeps.
“O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night.” Have you ever felt like that? That if you let yourself cry, you would never stop? Day and night you would weep.
If you were here last week, you might remember that I said one of the things that makes reading the book of Jeremiah difficult is there are sudden changes in who is speaking. The tone and subject changes abruptly and often it is not clear just who is the speaker.
While I’ve talked so far as if these are the words of Jeremiah, I think it’s just as easy to hear these as the words of God. And perhaps it is more significant if these are the words of God lamenting, weeping endlessly, for the people. And not just any people but “my poor people” or in some translations “the daughter of my people”4–both of which sound like terms of endearment.
What is it like to hear these as God’s words?
“My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.”
God’s people are feeling deserted by God. They ask, “Is the Holy God not in Zion?”
And then there’s what could be God saying, parenthetically, “Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?”
The people again lament that God appears to be absent. “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”
Then we hear God’s lament again, “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me…why has the health of my poor people not been restored?”
And then even God has the capacity for endless crying, “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people.”
It’s not clear if God is weeping endlessly or if God wishes to weep but cannot. Perhaps God is longing for the relief and exhaustion of crying.
If it is God speaking in this passage, we might imagine God as a betrayed lover or a yearning parent. What if we imagined God in Jeremiah like the yearning father in the parable of the prodigal son? He’s done all he can to support and allow his child to grow up and make his own decisions and now he is cut to the heart by those decisions. If you love someone–parent, child, partner, niece or nephew, grandchild or dear friend–it is agony to watch them make choices in their lives that you know will bring them pain and suffering. But ultimately you know you cannot step in and fix everything or make all their decisions for them or make it all better (even though we often try for quite a while).
What if these verses are God’s “lament for…people who are feeling deserted by…God”?5 One commentator says it is the people’s “own behavior that has them trapped, but as anyone who has taken part in a 12-step recovery program can attest, it is hard to identify the rationalizations and excuses that perpetuate destructive habits. Wanting to change destructive behavior does not always produce the means to do so. [God] hears their desperation and their panic and mourns for them in their agony.”6
When the people lament, “Is the Holy God not here with us in Zion?” God would say, “Yes! I am here. But not the way you expect me.” “The people have bought into a gospel of ‘cheap grace,’ expecting God’s protection and deliverance, at no cost to” themselves.”7 With no change of heart or life.
And don’t we still practice that kind of religion in our own day and time? We want our own personal American dream with a little side of God to make everything okay. We’re not particularly comfortable with Jesus who says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Our own self-interest and greed and fear drive our choices much more often than does our trust in, or obedience to God.
And if you think that’s a little harsh, I’m right in there with everyone else. The messages all around us are to get what we can while we can before someone else takes what could belong to us. We live in a culture that sees all our resources as scarce and those who are entitled to them better hold on to them now or they will end up going to people who are not worthy of them. We fear what will happen if someone gets in line ahead of us or gets more than us or gets a piece of the pie we think they don’t deserve.
Most of the time we think we’re making our choices because they are practical, reasonable and expected. But most of the time, if we’re honest, we barely recognize our role in turning away from God. And then we might hear God’s call to live in a different way and we, who have grown comfortable with our life the way it is, say, “I’m not really that interested.”
What we see in the prophets (and you may have experienced this in your own life) is that “we rarely change until we are forced to, until our pride and vanity are stripped from us.” Sometimes, as one writer says, “the pain we seek to avoid may be the very one that both opens the door to the divine and reintroduces us to right relationship with our fellow humans.”8
That is hard to say broadly in a sermon because there are so many variations on pain and so many qualifications I want to add. And so many circumstances in which I would not say this just yet.
It’s one thing to say something like this to someone in a tender conversation in my office–to tentatively wonder about the possibility that God might be present in this suffering. Never that God desires or wills the suffering. Never that the suffering of violence afflicted by someone else is ever something to submissively endure. And never that any of us wishes for suffering or pain. But given that life includes pain–it is mostly inevitable–do we not sometimes experience that “our pain can be the very path to grace”9?
But before we ever get there, perhaps it is enough to recognize that God weeps too. God weeps for all that is lost. For all that is wounded. For all that is dead. God feels pain and suffers too.
I wonder if in those times when God seems absent, if God is weeping, or longing to weep, and we have a hard time recognizing this part of the face of God.
But if God weeps, then we, too, are invited to weep. For all that is wounded and broken and lost and dead.
When we have experienced disaster or trauma, we typically shut down emotionally–for good, self-protecting reasons. In time, “weeping awakens sorrows, and releases buried feelings from [our numbed] spirits.”10 In this weeping, God invites us back to knowing and feeling. In this weeping, God invites us back to life.
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1 George W. Ramsey, “Exegetical Perspective – Jeremiah 8.18-9.1” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010) 75.
2 Jeremiah 8.5
3 Dwight M. Lundegren, “Homiletical Perspective – Jeremiah 8.18-9.1” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010) 77-79.
4 New American Standard Version translates it this way.
5 Sharon Peebles Burch, “Pastoral Perspective – Jeremiah 8.18-9.1” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010) 76.
7 Ramsey, p79.
8 C. E. Morgan, “Grace Hurts – Conversion in Flannery O’Connnor’s Fiction” Christian Century, 21 August 2013, 34.
10 Kathleen M. O’Connor, Jeremiah: Pain and Promise (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 68.