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Sermon Series: Jeremiah (summer 2002)
Hard WordsAugust 22, 2002 - August 25, 2002 Printer-friendly version
Isn’t it amazing how a mother’s wisdom can stay with us? It always makes me smile when I remember a choice proverb my Mother imparted years ago. One that frequently comes to mind is "If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all." As I recall, my brothers and I were good at using this piece of advice to give each other backhanded compliments. "My, Merideth, that dress makes you look like a great, big, marshmallow." You can’t deny that a great, big marshmallow is a good thing. I learned to accept these observations, even if they weren’t easy to hear. Another adage my Mom used was "If you have to do something you don’t want to do, do it graciously." Wise words. These words come back to me every time I embark on a less than desirable task. Her words have served me well.
This passage from Jeremiah speaks to both these old sayings. God has asked Jeremiah to say something less than nice (In fact, the message was as hard to speak, as it was to hear). And Jeremiah is not gracious in his reply. Sometimes God’s word is hard. It’s hard to hear, it’s hard to bear witness to, and it’s hard to act upon.
I would venture to guess that Jeremiah wasn’t much fun to be around. Picture how he must have looked to the people of Israel. The word of God is hard. He must have looked a ranting, raving lunatic. Jeremiah is called to proclaim judgements against Judah and Jerusalem, because the people had turned their backs on God. God’s judgment is coming; it’s real. What is so apparent in this text is the inner conflict Jeremiah feels about the hard word of God, and the fact that he is compelled to speak it. Jeremiah loves his people. The message he brings is horrible news … Jerusalem will be destroyed, and the people will be captured and lead away to live in exile. In and of itself, this message causes Jeremiah great pain and anguish. He must bear witness to the terrible fate of his people. Not only that, but God compels Jeremiah to be the spokesman for this terrible news – God requires Jeremiah to act on God’s word. Listen V. 9; " if I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in and I cannot."
The final insult is that as a result of what God calls him to do, Jeremiah is scorned and despised by the very people he loves. V. 7 "I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’ For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long." The word of God is hard. Jeremiah had a difficult task. Let’s be thankful that God doesn’t raise up many prophets for this sort of message. Or is that really true?
Is the name Sherron Watkins familiar to you? About a year ago, Sherron was compelled to write a letter to her boss. The letter contained scandalous information, and she knew that it would probably cost her her job. She knew, too, that her co-workers (her friends) would be hurt by what she had to say, and they would probably hate her. Yet she was compelled to write it, and in so doing she touched off the biggest corporate collapse in history. In Sherron’s letter to her boss Kenneth Lay, she expressed her concern that Enron would "implode in a wave of accounting scandals." Sherron is a committed Christian. She refused to go along with the hoax, though she stood to gain tremendously from it. Despite seeing the company coming apart, Sherron never sold her stock. Instead, she turned to her Pastor and the people in her small group to gain discernment on the right thing to do, and she did it. God’s word is hard.
Sherron Watkins had a terrible weight to bear, as did Jeremiah. But they are people, as you and I are people, and it’s likely that the inner conflict they felt when responding to God’s word, is very similar to our own struggle, when God asks us to do something we don’t want to do, or to bear witness to something that’s beyond our ability to bear. We’re given an inside perspective of Jeremiah’s turmoil. V.7 "Oh Lord, you have enticed me and I was enticed, you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed." These are strong, hard words, approaching blasphemy. The Hebrew word for what is translated here as "enticed" could also be translated "seduced." By using these words, Jeremiah suggests infidelity or unfaithfulness, as in a marriage covenant. This is the language of lament – a personal prayer of anguish. Jeremiah laments six times through the course of the book. No wonder that Jeremiah is called the "Weeping Prophet." God’s word is hard. The lament is an ancient form of prayer. It’s an authentic, honest response to God, when God’s word is hard. The language of lament is extremely personal, even intimate. These are things you would only dare say to a lover, an intimate companion with whom you’ve lived and walked through difficult times. You wouldn’t say these things to someone you didn’t know very well, or care very much about.
We don’t lament much anymore, at least publicly. Appropriately, our prayers as Christians center on praise, and thanksgiving. There’s a story about an old, faithful pastor, who’s awakened in the middle of the night, to come to a dying man’s side. He offers a prayer as he jumps out of bed: "Thank you Lord, for this opportunity to serve you. Help me get there in time." As he pulls on to the main road heading out of town he hits a pothole, and blows out his front tire, again he prays: "Thank you Lord for keeping me safe, now give me strength." As he gets out of the car to change the tire, a steady stream of sleet and rain begin to pelt him, a third time he prays: "Thank you Lord, we need this precipitation." When he finally gets the car up on a jack, a passing truck races through a puddle and soaks him clean through his overcoat. The pastor stops, looks heavenward, and says, "I trust your judgment, Lord, but if this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so many enemies." God’s word is hard to act upon sometimes.
Are our lives as Christians so good that we don’t have things to lament? Don’t count on it. God asks us to bear witness to countless cruelties and injustices – every day there are there are accidents, murders, natural disasters, manmade disasters, war. We endure unspeakable illnesses and witness the death of loved ones. We have plenty to lament, there’s lots of suffering. Perhaps, in polite, 21st Century America, we think it’s irreverent, disrespectful and perhaps even sinister to express our grievances against God. Are we afraid God is too small? A lament gives us words to speak when, in the face of great pain, words fail us. Through the ages, laments have given people a voice to protest and argue with a God we cannot otherwise comprehend, and God has given us the freedom to do so.
In December 1997, my husband, Carl, was diagnosed with colon cancer. The days that followed the diagnosis were agony. I cried constantly. My fear and anxiety were blinding. One day, after a week of such torment, I was driving on a country road, when I heard four distinct words: "It will be alright." Not the language of the King James, but soothing, confident words. I immediately felt a release of the fear. But in the next few moments, I began to wonder… "What does ‘alright’ mean?" I wanted it to mean that Carl would be alright, but that wasn’t what I heard. "It will be alright." As I watched Carl go through 4 surgeries, 2 rounds of chemo, and radiation treatment, I held on to those four words. "It will be alright." I shared them with Carl. It didn’t feel "alright" most of the time, but we had hope. Two years later, when we finally knew that Carl was dying, I got mad; really angry. "What do you MEAN by ‘alright?’ THIS IS NOT ALRIGHT. My husband is dying. He’s suffering. I’m tired."
"It will be alright."
In the darkness after his death, when I couldn’t face life without him, when I wanted to die, it wasn’t alright. It would never be alright again. I couldn’t pray, so I read 13th Psalm over and over again – it’s the one that starts out, "How long, Oh Lord…" Then, as the thick wall of grief around me slowly came down, brick by brick, it was alright. I was alright. Carl is alright. God’s word is hard – and true – and comforting.
The lament is a brutally honest, genuine response to God. God doesn’t respond to laments with anger. There are no lightening bolts when we dare argue with God. God responds to a lament with comfort, with peace. When we turn to God, with any genuine emotion, it’s pleasing to God. It’s when we don’t turn to God that God gets angry. The Israelites turned their backs on God. That was their first and worst mistake. All their problems stemmed from this one shortfall. They turned their backs on God. It’s easier sometimes to pretend we don’t hear the hard word of God. "Let’s not think about that right now." We delay responding to God’s inevitable will.
A lament isn’t just whining or complaining to God. Do you see what happens in the midst of Jeremiah’s lament? Just when he’s getting up a head of steam…(he’s asking for retribution against his enemies)…he stops and gives praise to God. Look, V.13 "Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers." What is this about? In every lament we find in the Bible there is always an element of praise. It’s as if the lamenter is saying, "Though you test me and try me, Lord, yet I will praise you." Even before deliverance, in the midst of his despair, Jeremiah praises God, in advance, for the justice and mercy that is forthcoming. That’s the difference between a lament and just an ordinary gripe session. Jeremiah’s not whining – he’s railing against God, with the full assurance that God is big enough to handle it, and then he praises God, and gives thanks.
Perhaps the best illustration of lament is from Jesus. Listen to this passage from Mark 14: "They went to a place called Gethsemane; and [Jesus] said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’ And going a little further, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want but what you want.’" In this anguished cry of despair, we glimpse the intimacy that exists between Father and Son. There’s a complaint, but there is also praise and complete obedience to the hard word of God.
The most important gift of the prayer of lament is that it provides us with an opportunity to transform our pain into praise of a God who is greater than any complaint we may have. In Jesus Christ, God enters into human suffering. God suffers with us and for us. As Christ hung on the cross for our sins, God entered into the lament with us, and transformed our brokenness into graced filled mercy and the promise of joy-filled eternal life.
How is the hard word of God manifested in your life? What is required of you that is beyond your ability to endure? Where is your exile? Let’s offer our laments to God who feels our deepest pain and hears our most bitter complaints, yet still promises to walk with us. Let’s give praise to a God who is greater by far than the most unspeakable suffering known to us.
To contact Merideth Mueller about this sermon, please email or write to: Brunswick Presbyterian Church, 42 White Church Lane, Troy, NY 12180