Sermon for St. Mary’s Anglican
Date: August 30, 2020
Scriptures: Jeremiah 15:15-21, Psalm 26:1-8, Romans 12:9-21 and Matthew 16: 21-28
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts together, be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
My Wound Incurable
A number of years ago now I saw the movie Field of Dreams and was intrigued by the story it told about Ray, an Iowa corn farmer with only a limited number of acres. One day when Ray was out on the tractor he heard a voice that told him he should build a baseball diamond in the middle of his field. Uncertain, afraid and yet feeling strangely compelled to do so, Ray began ploughing under the young corn and marking out a ball diamond being assured by that same, strange voice which said: “If you build it, they will come!”
Day after day Ray and his wife worked on the ball field; planting and tending the grass, installing the back stop, the pitcher’s mound, the dugouts and even erecting a small set of bleachers. One day a ball player from the distant past appeared on the field and on subsequent days, other ball players who had long since died, also appeared and Ray, his wife and daughter watched them play. And when Ray began to hear their conversations and talked to them, he realized that playing again was a huge thrill for these long dead players who were suddenly able to hear the crack of the bat and the sound of the ball hitting their gloves – it fulfilled a deep longing for them.
At first Ray was very happy for them and understood then why he had been prompted to build the ball diamond. But after some time he started to feel resentful because he didn’t see how this huge investment of time and money, was bringing him very much in return; his own deep wishes are not being realized at all and he was barely able to pay his bills because he had less corn to harvest. Finally one of the characters asked Ray: “What is the matter?” He hemed and hawed for a moment then blurts out and says “I want to know, what’s in it for me?”
There is something of this same sentiment in the prayer of Jeremiah that is recorded our Old Testament Lesson this morning. But there is also something that I think is deeper and more profoundly affects the prophet’s sense of purpose. In the text we find Jeremiah praying to God and on this occasion, the prayer is a prayer of complaint or perhaps a lament. He voices a sense of frustration and personal pain that goes beyond what Ray, the Iowa farmer expressed. Jeremiah’s very life is in danger. The reason and purpose for continuing his prophetic ministry is in jeopardy as well. His enemies are real and they are threatening. And perhaps even deeper, the call of God that he received early in his life now seems like a sham and God’s promises, well, it is as if even they don’t apply anymore.
How did it come to this? When Jeremiah received his call from God, God made it clear that he would not have an easy job, that his message and his role would be to “pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow and finally to build and to plant.” (1:10) Understandably, Jeremiah was uncertain at the time as to whether he was up to the task or even if he wanted it. But the calling was so clear and the desire to be of service to God and to speak His words was so strong; that he committed himself to be God’s prophet. He took great courage from the promises God made to him at that point: “I will make you ‘a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall’.” He was even more encouraged when God said that even though the King, the princes, the priests and the people all opposed him, “they shall not prevail against you.” (1:18-19). “I can do this and I want to do this” thought Jeremiah. And so his ministry began.
It was not long though before Jeremiah faced opposition; his direct messages to the people, to God’s people who lived in Jerusalem and the surrounding territory in Judea, were not well received. Furthermore the nation was in disarray; the enemy (Babylon) was threatening to take over the city and the country while in Jerusalem the king and his court officials tried to figure out what to do. They wouldn’t listen to Jeremiah nor would they obey the commands of God. Over and over again, God, via Jeremiah urged them to turn back to a life of faith, to obey his commands and to act righteously; but it was all in vain.
Jeremiah is portrayed in the Bible as a prophet who is deeply passionate about God and about his people so when he proclaimed God’s messages, he felt them: to him they were both the living words of God and warnings for the people about their actions and their future if they did not change their ways. And when he spoke to them he wept over them. In 4:19 for example he says “My anguish, my anguish, I writhe in pain! Oh the walls of my heart? My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war.” This was not an easy task for the prophet nor was he able to keep his own emotions in check; this was certainly not a 9 to 5 job for him where he could leave his work stress “at the office” and return home to relax and rest easy. His prophetic work took an emotional toll on him. It is not surprising then that at some point, Jeremiah is not able to go on doing this without a personal crisis brought on by the stress overload.
We know about this kind of stress. These past few months we have learned via various news reports about the difficult work that happens in hospitals and especially in the Emergency and Intensive Care departments in different parts of our country and in the USA. Nurses, doctors and other hospital personnel who have been caring for the COVID patients are burning out from the hours and hours of work they have put in and from the stress of uncertainty and fear that working in this kind of environment brings. A number of weeks back I read of one such person, a very talented and committed Critical Care Doctor who finally burned out and had to leave her work altogether.
So we can understand that Jeremiah is now in bad shape and understand why he might pray the kind of prayer that is in our text this morning. What perhaps started out as a minor complaint, turns into something much more painful and deeper. All of the disappointment and frustration, the worry and the anguish of knowing that disaster is coming has been very difficult. Added to this the fact that his fellow countrymen are not paying any attention to his message of warning; has made Jeremiah question his calling and God’s promise.
There is a famous painting of Jeremiah by Rembrandt, the Dutch painter from the 1600s. I do not know which particular episode in Jeremiah’s life was the inspiration for the painting but the artist has captured the prophet in a state of anguish. The vivid contrast between light and dark accentuate the struggle between hope and despair while the downward look indicates a deeply reflective posture such as a conversation with God might bring out. It is as if Jeremiah is wondering how long he can go on.
Let’s now turn to the prayer itself as we find in chapter 15 beginning at verse 15. Jeremiah begins with a short but telling phrase: “O Lord, you know” or as an older version of the Bible translates it: “O Lord, Thou knowest.” Packed into that short phrase is the conviction that God does know: He knows what is coming in terms of disaster to the people of Judea, He knows that he as a prophet has given that message to the people of Judea and He knows the toll this work has taken on his life.
Of course God knows this but as part of his prayer, his lament, Jeremiah reminds God and perhaps reminds himself that God does know these things; He knows how bad things are. Sometimes this short phrase is a simple but powerful reminder of who God is and sometimes it is enough to give an individual fresh courage and faith. But not in this case. I sense in these opening words both a hint of despair and a challenge; if God does know,then God could and should be doing something different and could and should pay attention to his faithful servant Jeremiah. Does he intend to challenge God? I think perhaps he does – his comments a few verses later suggest that perhaps he is doing just that – we will talk about that later. For now let’s notice that the prophet makes two initial requests: remember me and visit me. These are simple and basic needs that Jeremiah has and are stated openly and clearly as someone who has experienced such actions in the past.
Jeremiah then reflects back to an earlier time in his life when there was both clarity and the enthusiasm for doing God’s work. “Your words were like rich food, I ate them and delighted in them,” he says and then goes on to say “I am called by your name, O Lord God of hosts.” He goes further – “I have been faithful for instead of spending time with the party goers I carried the burden of the message you had given me to deliver to the people.” These are claims of fidelity; they indicate a long and committed life of faithfulness. Having that long term relationship with God is, I think, the reason he feels he can both complain to God and push Him to provide reassurance and comfort.
But Jeremiah has even more to say: “now I feel such incredible pain and I am trying to understand ‘why this pain does not stop and why my ‘wound is incurable’.” This is raw emotion and incredibly honest, it is hard to think what more he might have to say to God in this prayer. The prophet appears to be on the edge of despair.
But Jeremiah then adds something that is even stronger when he says to God: “You, Lord God, are like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.” This final comment pushes the boundaries as to what is normally part of a lament to God.
Without question what we have here is incredible honesty on the part of Jeremiah: he tells it as he feels it. He has prayed other prayers in his life which are recorded in earlier chapters of the book of Jeremiah but this is surely one of the most gut-wrenching and confrontational. But has he gone too far?
As I thought about this prayer and about the way in which Jeremiah seems to confront God, I wondered if this is really the way one can or ought to pray to God. Have I as a creature, as a human being the right to challenge the one who made me? Interestingly enough, it is Jeremiah who tells the people a story of the clay and the potter a short time later and in that illustration he asks that very question: can the pot say to the one who made it, why did you make me this way? The inference is in fact that “No, the clay cannot or should not say this to the potter.”
So how does God respond to Jeremiah?
The very first thing God says is not a word of comfort or encouragement. Instead God responds to the challenge Jeremiah threw in God’s face when he suggested that God was like a “deceitful brook”. God says to Jeremiah “if you turn back, I will take you back.” I think God is saying to Jeremiah – “you have gone too far, your attitude and your remarks are too strident; you need to say what is precious and not what is worthless.” Now God does not come down as hard on Jeremiah as one might expect but neither does he let him get away with the accusation that He, the Lord God, is a brook that fails to produce water.
God continues in his response to Jeremiah by saying “what you, Jeremiah, need to do is exactly what the people of Israel need to do: you need to turn back, to repent. They are just like you – they too seem to think I am ‘water that fails’. Furthermore, Jeremiah, you need to model a turning back to God.”
Having made it clear that Jeremiah has overstepped his right as a creature before their creator, God suggest a way back. It is the prophet’s choice. Moreover that choice can be a living demonstration of exactly what the people of Jerusalem ought to do. The possibility is there for Jeremiah to turn back to God and for the people to turn back to God as well. He is, after all the Lord God, their creator and their only hope of salvation.
So where does that leave us? I do not know if your situation is comparable to Jeremiah’s but all of us do struggle at times and some of us perhaps have looked despair in the face and found ourselves teetering on the edge as it were. As I prepared this sermon and reflected on the prayer of Jeremiah I came up with two concluding thoughts:
Firstly, it is ok to pray honestly to God, to spell out our love for Him and His words as well as our disappointment and deep discouragement as to how things are going. God is not shocked nor does he condemn the deep and painful cries of our hearts. He can take our anger and frustration.
This is the thing with the Bible. We might want to shy away from the kind of expressions of raw pain and desperation that Jeremiah cries out but the Bible does not. The Bible is a realistic book: many are the Psalms which speak of pain, confusion, frustration, disappointment and anger. In our Psalm this morning the psalmist prays: “O take not away my soul with the sinners nor my life with the bloodthirsty in whose hands is wickedness.” He prays this way because he can feel the tug of despair in his heart and is afraid that he might be lured into a life of ease and futility – he does not want to go there and so he prays. We are given permission to do the same.
Secondly, God will accept those who turn or return to him – this is no small thing. Try to imagine a world in which there was never the possibility of acceptance. Imagine always having to carry around your own sense of failure and the frustration that accompanies it and never, ever being able to lay that down and receive love and forgiveness. Imagine feeling lost and never having the option to be accepted, to be forgiven and to be welcomed home. It would be a lonely and dark existence indeed.
So then if or when you find yourself in a desperate kind of situation, you have the option to voice that pain to God and hear His response as Jeremiah did. It may not be all sweetness and gushing grace that you experience but if you choose to “lose your life” in this way, you will most assuredly “find it” in the presence of a holy and loving God. Amen.