15 O LORD, you know; remember me and visit me, and take vengeance for me on my persecutors. In your forbearance take me not away; know that for your sake I bear reproach. 16 Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts. 17 I did not sit in the company of revellers, nor did I rejoice; I sat alone, because your hand was upon me, for you had filled me with indignation. 18 Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Will you be to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail? 19 Therefore thus says the LORD: “If you return, I will restore you, and you shall stand before me. If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall be as my mouth. They shall turn to you, but you shall not turn to them. 20 And I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you, declares the LORD. 21 I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.” (Jeremiah 15:15-21 ESV)
The story of Jeremiah is a tough one. He is called the ‘weeping prophet’ among other things because his message that God told him again and again to deliver to the people of Israel is a tough one – God has had enough, judgement is coming, turn back before it is too late. Jeremiah did as he was instructed – and over a long ministry of decades he spoke again and again to kings and officials, to priests and prophets, and to the people – and the response he got continually was flak, rejection, hostility, and even physical assaults and imprisonment. We can imagine people’s response to the ultimate in nagging – if that’s what they regard the message and the person to be – you get fed up, you’ve had enough, you want the message stopped and the person gone. But what if this nagging isn’t nagging but pleading, crying out that destruction is coming – how then does the pleader, the watchman, the life guard so to speak, keep going in the face of such stubborn hostility? With great difficulty! And that’s why there is a considerable portion of Jeremiah labelled as ‘complaint’. And one of them was our First Reading today.
Jeremiah wants God to intervene – somehow – in any way that will vindicate Jeremiah. He feels forgotten. Forlorn. Marginalised – partly because a prophet’s role was not just speaking, they often enacted or dramatised their message so that word and action, word and sign matched – and so he sat alone. We’re not sure where but since so much of Jeremiah’s work was among the officials and since palace and temple are in the same precincts – it is not hard to imagine Jeremiah isolated in the temple or maybe he no longer entered it at all at times – and that was causing him grief and sorrow. Am I doing what you want, Lord? Am I deluding myself? Are you tricking me or are you telling me the truth?
And Jeremiah somehow receives a message from the Lord to keep going, that God will give him the words to say that are precious to God and not worthless – even though his hearers have shown no sign of listening and will still regard his message and himself as worthless. But Jeremiah will prevail and they will not ‘turn him’ away from the Lord; indeed he will be like a fortified wall of bronze and they will still fight him – so no relief there – just God’s promises that the people will not prevail against Jeremiah – wear him down, make him give up – and even though the people will do wicked things and be ruthless towards him, God will deliver and redeem him.
We have Jeremiah’s complaint and God’s reply. How do we understand these messages which we’ve effectively overheard? Carefully.
It might be easy to say the world is getting worse and Christians are increasingly isolated, so buck up, things are going to get worse – and life often does have a self fulfilling prophecy about it – so it probably will – or at least we’ll think so. If we had church last Tuesday (29 August) we’d have observed the beheading of John the Baptist – and it’d be easy to think of his death as confirming the battle lines between good and evil, truth and lies, Church and the world.
However it also might be easy to say that since God doesn’t communicate to us as he obviously did with Jeremiah this is interesting but not relevant to us – we’re not prophets chosen from before birth. Jeremiah’s context is also so different from ours in that he was speaking into a theocracy – church and state are almost one – the king exists to support, maintain, pay for all the runnings of the temple and he is to have a general look-out that the priests were doing their job properly. Why? Because since the time of the tabernacle and then the temple, God was dwelling among his people safely, blessing them as they faithfully worshipped according to God’s instructions and faithfully lived out their lives at home and work and with other nations based on their relationship with God. Jeremiah’s role is because the kings and officials were leading the people astray – and Mannaseh, the current king, regarded as one of the most wicked had even sacrificed his son in the house of the Lord – not to the Lord obviously but to other gods. As the saying goes, the fish rots from the head, so whether this was the event that spurred Jeremiah to call the people back or one of the many other horrible and idolatrous incidents, we don’t exactly know. What you have to think about though is that this is not like the United Kingdom becoming Satanic but what it would be like if Ascension / Good Shepherd did – and if what was done here – right now – was in the name of Satan. I say this to give you the emotional effect – but also to highlight that this sort of change if it occurred takes time but the creep is inexorably disastrous if not stopped.
The issue Jeremiah faced was truth – what is God’s truth – and in his time and place it wasn’t what the king and priests and prophets were saying or doing – and over his long ministry it overall got worse – though there were periods of respite and faithfulness when there was a good and faithful king on the throne.
What is suffering? What is persecution? Who says so? Was John the Baptist a martyr or just an unfortunate victim of the capricious use of power? The answer can be both while Herodias was probably not thinking of attacking Judaism, she just wanted John dead because he had the audacity to speak truth to her based on what
God had said in the past. She and Herod and most people were ignoring what God had said but she didn’t like it that John had called Herod out on it.
Today in our time and place of separation of church and state – variously interpreted around the world – and especially with Christianity not holding theocratic power but varying levels of cultural influence and moral weight – we in places like the UK, Australia, and America need to be very careful about thinking we’re persecuted, that the end is nigh so to speak, that doom is just around the corner when we think of Christians who do live in countries antithetical to Christianity or when we open our history books and see how the Church has used state power when it had it. The New Testament was written in the Roman Empire and Christians were still told to obey authorities and seek to live peacefully with others – and one of the best passages for this is our Second Reading today. You might want to read it again when you get home – Romans 12:9-12 – oh, read all of Romans 12 … and 13 too while you’re at it – for a perspective on what Christian discipleship is about – following Jesus into our relationships and situations – not looking for fights, trusting God to resolve hassles, live peacefully as far as you can – and living not as society does but as Jesus and his Word leads, directs, and guides. Of course it’s not easy – personally or socially or even at times in the church – sin is everywhere but we are called to follow Jesus who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Can we complain? By all means. God knows what you are thinking and feeling anyway but saying it to God – in other words praying it – makes you see it in a different way and since God is active, he will reply. We, of course, want him to fix the problem, fix other people, take away the pain – and he might!! – but more than likely he will guide us through his Word to promises that he hasn’t left us, to declarations of understanding, to getting us to look away from ourselves for a moment and to Jesus, and there we receive a new perspective that we are not alone, that we are called to faithfulness one day at a time, that despondency is an insidious attack on faith and while we mightn’t think we can hang on much longer, we probably can for one more day. I think that’s why Jesus taught us to pray one day at a time!
Who’s to say how good or bad our life is? We all have opinions about other people but finally we’re the ones who tell ourselves what the situation is like and how we’re feeling. And to those words – whatever they are – Jesus comes along and says, ‘Don’t be afraid!’ and also ‘Peace be with you’ and he rolls up his sleeves and serves us so we can keep going, not matter what.
And mysteriously – and miraculously – Jesus’ disciples do!
- Jeremiah 15:15 - 21