Based around Jeremiah 20:7-13.
In one episode of the TV show ‘The Simpsons’, Lisa says to Homer ‘Dad, do you know that in China they use the same word for crisis as they do for opportunity?’ Homer, not renowned for his language skills, replies “Yes! Crisertunity!”
I’ve been reminded of this exchange most days for some weeks now; we seem to be living through times of crisis when the very fabric of our society seems to shift as Government seems to be fumbled, accidents and terror attacks take dozens, if not hundreds of lives, and our national institutions and relationships with other countries look like they will undergo massive changes.
We have the crisis; we just don’t yet seem to be seeing much opportunity.
In fact, we probably need a prophet to help us out; not a pollster, pundit or astrologer, but a good, old fashioned, Old Testament prophet. The Biblical prophets had pretty straight forward job descriptions; To explain the plan and purpose of God and tell us what he will do in the future, and to turn people away from evil and back towards the will of God so that they might be saved.
But they were also men.
Tonight’s reading from Jeremiah isn’t the usual ‘fire and brimstone’ we might expect from the Biblical prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekial. It’s the words of a man who is expressing the anguish and torment within him – partially, as he sees it, from being a prophet of the Lord.
Jeremiah began prophesying around 620BC in the reign of Josiah, and continued through a time of massive unrest when the fate of Judah itself – like many other small nations of the Middle East – was being sealed by the rise of the larger empires such as Egypt, Assyria and Babylon, and by the time he finished his writings – around 587BC – Jerusalem had been destroyed and the majority of the people had been taken to exile in Babylon.
Amongst the prophets one thing that is interesting about Jeremiah is that he wasn’t shy about telling us that he was human; he wrote several verses that are often summed up as expressing feelings of ‘woe is me!’. These are called his confessions, or his lamentations.
Tonight’s reading is the last and longest of these lamentations, and like the previous confessions it showed something of the inner turmoil and unrest that Jeremiah felt. I think that these confessions make Jeremiah more human in many ways than the other prophets. If you think about it, his job on a day to day basis was not an easy one.
Jeremiah’s grumbles are written in a format and structure that would be familiar to anyone who has a knowledge of the Psalms. The ‘Lamentation Psalms’ are psalms in which the writer is directly addressing God on the event of some calamity; more than that, they frequently have a direct complaint against God, and some theologians have argued the ‘Lamentation’ is too wishy-washy a word to associate with these Psalms, and that we should just use ‘Complaint’. Because that’s what’s happening – the Psalmist is addressing a complaint to God – either for himself or for the community as a whole. If you want to read a couple of these Psalms, take a look at Psalm 13 or Psalm 74.
Jeremiah starts by accusing God of deception; basically Jeremiah feels that God conned – some translations use the word seduced or enticed – him in to the job of Prophet. One of my commentaries uses the phrase ‘God had been excessively persuasive’. In the second part of Verse 7, Jeremiah starts complaining about his own situation “I am ridiculed and mocked”, and then in Verse 8 continues in this vein; by preaching the word of the Lord he’s put himself in the position of being insulted and vilified by the people.
Verse 9 is Jeremiah feeling sorry for himself again; he’s experiencing that major problem of a prophet of the Lord in that even if he’s reluctant to speak the word of God – in this case to protect himself – Holy Spirit will be working within him to compel him to speak out – as Jeremiah himself puts it, the word of God is like a fire in his bones trying to burst out, and he can’t stop it.
In Verse 10 Jeremiah again regales us with the activities of his ‘friends’ who seem to be waiting for him to make a mistake, and his enemies, who’re waiting for him to prophesy again so they can take their revenge on him. This wasn’t an unusual fate for prophets – on more than one occasion in his career Jeremiah was beaten up for speaking God’s work when the people didn’t appreciate it.
We can probably all feel for Jeremiah – he’s between a rock and a hard place; compelled by the Holy Spirit to do the right thing, but scared for his life and well being if he does; friendless, feeling sorry for himself, stressed; perhaps even powerless – what’s the point of prophesying the word of God if no one listens and some even regard you as a liar and troublemaker?
There’s a quote from Gandhi – “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win” – that Jeremiah would have probably appreciated. Because in Verse 11, he remembers just who he has got on his side; the Lord God. In Verse 11 Jeremiah re-states his trust in the Lord, and in Verse 12 he requests that the Lord punish his enemies.
And finally – in Verse 13, Jeremiah praises the Lord.
Because despite his grumbles, Jeremiah has been promised by the Lord that the Lord will be with him through his work; and even in the depths of this lamentation, in Verse 11, he reminds himself of that “The Lord is with me like a mighty warrior”.
Do you think it feels a bit odd to be complaining and grumbling at God? I know it does to me, sometimes, but at other times I have to admit that I’m tempted to start my prayers with “Hey, Lord, where ARE you right now? We need some help here!”
But I think that the desire of God isn’t that we have a ‘fair weather friend’ relationship with us. I think he wants us to be able to come to Him ‘warts and all’ – to be able to bitch and grumble at whim when we feel things have gone pear-shaped – because it is only through honesty in relationships that true relationships grow.
Like Homer Simpson, we’re not immune to the crises of modern life. Nowhere in the Bible – Old or New Testament – does it say that being faithful to God will give you a ‘Get out of trouble free’ card in life.
Right now, MY heart is full – personal issues, terrorist attacks, the Grenfell Tower fire, political crises and scandals. “Lord, where are you? We’re here; we’re suffering; your people are crying out. I am suffering; I am crying out too. Where are you? “
But then, like Jeremiah, I remember “The Lord is with me” – and I start looking for His work. And I remember the words of Jesus to his followers “And I am with you always, to the end of the age.” I have His promise; like Jeremiah, I can take the promise of the Lord and work with it; it may not be easy, but I know that, no matter what, God is with me. And all of us. We need to have faith, and look for His works.
Reader Joe Pritchard