Wednesday, January 04, 2012
Over the years Jeremiah has become one of my favorite places in the Story to meditate, ruminate and munch scripture. He is one of the few biblical characters I've ever taken the time to read a novel about, Thom Lemmons wonderful Jeremiah: He Who Wept. (See How Jeremiah Was Made) Last night I was up laaatttteeeee as I skimmed Jeremiah and settled on chapter 20 for some lectio divina time. I have written down some reflections that emerged in that period with God's word. Here they are ...
After 20 years of full time ministry in Churches of Christ the life of Jeremiah is more meaningful to me than ever before. There have been plenty of rumors and whisperings, complaints about kids, about the wife(s), about divorce, about facebook, sermons are to long, sermons are to short, you're in the ministerial alliance, you're not in the ministerial alliance, illustrations are not real enough, illustrations are too real, you are to scholarly, you preach from the Old Testament, you don't preach what I grew up with, you meddle with my life, being fired ... anyone in ministry long enough has dealt with all of these complaints and sometimes the sheer pettiness of it all. Jeremiah dealt with it all too.
Jeremiah is frequently called the "weeping prophet." He was just a kid when the Lord called him to the ministry (1.6). We read "Before I was formed in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations" (1.5). His ministry is characterized by uprooting and tearing down (1.10). God said "today I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the kings ... and the people of the land (1.18). Jeremiah lives in a terrible time and his ministry will be full of misery and heartache. God did give a message that he did not always like to share. It sounded unpatriotic. It sounded unreasonable.
After preaching for approximately 25 years in Jer 20, five more than I have been currently, the people of God hate the Preacher more than ever! He has been jailed, nearly beaten to death in response to his sermons, he has been destitute, cold and hungry. The people of God believe Jeremiah is actually a false prophet who has betrayed the nation of Judah and had formed an alliance with her arch enemy - Babylon. A message had been sent throughout the land that the "madman who acts like a prophet" is to "be put into stocks and neck-irons" - Jeremiah was that madman (29.26-27, NIV). Twenty five years has taken its toll on Jeremiah. He is tired of being God's man. It hurt too much - both physically and emotionally. He is worn out and just wants out!!
The Bed of Roses
As we look at ch. 20, Jeremiah has just preached a sermon in the temple courts, using a clay jar as an illustration (we know illustrations can get you in trouble). He dramatically throws the jar to the ground declaring this is how God is breaking Judah herself apart (19.10ff). Pashur, a temple officer, did not like the sermon and was deeply offended. He literally had Jeremiah arrested, thrown in jail and beaten - for what amounted to treason (20.2). Jeremiah was released in the morning. In the face of this opposition to his sermon, Jeremiah is strong like a pillar and solid like walls of brass while dealing publicly with critics.
Once the action settles and the prophet is alone with his thoughts, however, he falls apart. Jeremiah had had enough! Listen to his gut wrenching words. Listen to a man who gets brutally honest with God. This is prayer in the raw and his honesty is literally shocking:
O Lord, you deceived me, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming words of violence and destruction. So the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long. But if I say, "I will not mention him or speak any more in his name," his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot. I hear many whispering, "Terror on every side! Report him! Let's report him!" All my friends are waiting for me to slip, saying, 'Perhaps he will be deceived; then we will prevail over him and take our revenge on him." (20.7-10)
Some feel Jeremiah's rage against the storm is on the verge of blasphemy. I do not! This is authentic faith. I love the Hebrew Bible's integrity! God has overpowered Jeremiah. Or at least that is how he feels. Jeremiah is saying, like some psalmists, "why don't you leave me alone!" Why do I suffer since I am in your service? The "congregation" mocks him, his so called friends actually are biding their time to see him flub up and then they can revel in it.
Can we hear the burning emotion in this prayer? It is hard to miss. Does God get angry with Jeremiah for accusing him of lying? That is bold! Indeed what is revealed is the depth of authenticity in the relationship between Jeremiah and his Lord. God respects those who are in covenant with him. Yahweh is not threatened nor angered by Jeremiah's outburst. What faith is revealed. How you ask? Because Jeremiah is not afraid, he does not "play it safe," in his prayer. He lays it on the line because his life is on the line. Only a heart supremely confident in trust and faith in the kind of God Yahweh is dares to pray like this. This is prayer from a bed of roses - full of beauty and thorns.
Fire in Our Bones
From the early days of my life 20.9, "his word is like a fire in my bones, has been proof texted in sermons on evangelism. But I never heard a sermon on this verse in its context. Jeremiah's words are hardly positive to him. They are negative. God's Word is an alien, all consuming fire that is beyond the preacher's control and he wants to get rid of it. Jeremiah, after 25 years, is not under the delusion that being a prophet was some glorious easy task. The opposite is true. Being a prophet is the last thing he wants to do. We all must admit there are times in our lives when we have felt like Jeremiah but were perhaps not quite as secure in our relationship with the Lord to verbalize our frustrations as he did. But perhaps it really is necessary to grow into authentic biblical God-honoring faith.
Even with his bold raging against the storm, Jeremiah still has unconquerable faith in Yahweh. He knows that he will be taken care of in the ultimate sense. He has suffered but the God of Israel has been there. Hear more words in his prayer ...
"But the LORD is with me like a mighty warrior; so my persecutors will stumble and not prevail. They will fail and be thoroughly disgraced; their dishonor will never be forgotten. O LORD Almighty, you who examine the righteous and probe the heart and mind, let me see your vengeance upon them, for to you I have committed my cause. Sing to the LORD! Give praise to the LORD! He rescues the life of the needy from the hands of the wicked (20.11-13).
In the midst of his rage, Jeremiah confesses the Lord will eventually make things right. He has put his life in the hands of God and that is a fearful thing to do. Yet according to the Story of God in the Bible that is, ironically, the safest place to be.
As I reflected last night on this brutally honest text I was reminded in my prayer that God has often, and mysteriously, approached his Creation from a position of weakness and powerlessness. From that "power base" he interweaves glory with suffering to bring honor to his name. Israel suffered slavery. Jesus left equality with God to become flesh to suffer alongside us. God used that suffering in Egypt and in the life of Jesus - especially at the Cross - to set the captives free, to set creation free, to conquer death. In Jeremiah's life he became a Suffering Servant because God's people had abandoned him. They deserted him and it would take a man who could get dirty to bring them back. But the truth and fact of the matter is that Jeremiah failed! There was Jesus the Nazarene and the powers declared him, like Jeremiah, a fraud and failure. That is why they killed him. Yet God declared him to be True and the "winner" and opened his tomb. It was through Suffering that victory emerged in the healing of the world ... and made Jeremiah a winner too.
Faith is Sometimes a Thin Cord
Even though Jeremiah knows God will reverse the world's verdict one day ... even the verdict of God's own people ... that still does not take away the loneliness and misery he experienced and felt in the here and now. In verses 14-18, the Prophet sinks even deeper in the abyss of despair. His words can, and will, make your heart hurt - if it is a heart of flesh. These words of prayer show faith hanging on by a very fine thread. They are words of raging against the storm. In my twenty years of preaching, when I have been viciously attacked for some minor infraction (often no infraction at all except somebody's opinion) by the very people I have prayed with, sat with, buried, married, struggled with and the like, I can be honest enough and say that though I never prayed with Jeremiah's boldness I have "wondered out loud" in prayer ... Jeremiah gives no quarter to those who place value on facades in faith. Jeremiah has become Israel personified: He is Wrestling with God! May we become authentic in our faith ...
"Cursed be the day I was born! May the day my mother bore me not be blessed! Cursed be the man who brought my father the news, who made him very glad, saying, "A child is born to you-- a son!" May that man be like the towns the LORD overthrew without pity. May he hear wailing int he morning, a battle cry at noon. For he did not kill me in the womb, with my mother as my grave, her womb enlarged forever. Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?" (20.14-18)
Verse 14 is nearly as shocking as verse 7! Our western pious sensitivities are unprepared for the brutal honesty of biblical faith at times. But there Jeremiah gives voice to such pain that we dare not become vain wise men like Job's comfortless comforters after he voiced almost the same curse (cf. Job 3). But Jeremiah also once said, on a prettier day perhaps, "the human heart is deceitful above all things" (17.9). Jeremiah's cry is simply that of hundreds of disciples who have endured Dark Night(s) of the Soul - Why Lord Why?
God's love and protection have been eclipsed by the pain he is experiencing. He sees the evil. He sees the suffering. He sees the pain. The wicked prosper and the righteous are persecuted and maligned - just as he is. He preaches the Word of the Lord and is jailed for treason. He delivers a sermon with powerful illustrations and he is beaten. He serves God and is thrown into a slimy mud pit. He cries out in protest in this prayer! Why, O Lord? Why?
Final Reflections on Rage, Grace & Honest Faith
Jeremiah's prayer ends in misery. There is no reply from heaven. No still small voice. Only dreadful silence! God has heard the prayer of his suffering servant. I believe ... (I surely do believe this because of Jeremiah 8-9, See God's Tears or Mine?) ... that the God of the Universe's eyes welled up with tears for the sake of Jeremiah. Jeremiah did not understand. God did not and does not delight in the pain of Jeremiah. God did not take joy in that any more than in the abuse by the people Jeremiah preached too. But Jeremiah knew his preaching was not going to save his family, his friends, his nation and that was even more suffering than the abuse from his audience. But God did shed tears and he listened to his man rage against the storm. In the venting there was grace.
Can we identify with Jeremiah? Can we pray like he did? I think Martin Luther, who also knew a great deal about suffering had a wise and biblical perspective on Jeremiah. He said it was easy "to condemn this impatience [in Jeremiah] and call attention to the need of patience, these are merely speculative theologians. If you will listen with actual experiences of practical life, you will understand [Jeremiah]. Stories such as this one are too great we should dispute them in only theoretical fashion" (quoted in Theodore Laetsch, Jeremiah, p. 179).
Any disciple who has experienced the tactics of Satan knows how wearing the battle can be. Jeremiah speaks for all of us - thank God for him. Praise God that he opened up in honest prayer. Thank God he gave us a prayer for the kingdom.
God never censures his man because of these bold words. In fact even though the word is not here, you will never find a moment of greater grace in the life of Jeremiah! There are few passages in the Bible where the contrast between humanity and God's magnificent grace is brought in sharper focus than right here. With the storm blowing with all its fury, Jeremiah can only turn to Yahweh and vent - even Rage against the Storm! God is big enough, God is loving enough, God is gracious enough to allow Jeremiah to find healing for his soul by casting his hurts and disillusionment upon him. Just as Jesus has told us too. That is what Jeremiah did.
Then God sent him to preach ... again!