Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, June 25, 2017
Scripture: Jeremiah 20:7-13
“My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain!
Oh, the walls of my heart [are bursting]!
My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent….”
“And you, O desolate one:
What do you mean that you dress in scarlet,
that you deck yourself with ornaments of gold,
that you enlarge your eyes with paint?
In vain you beautify yourselves….”
“Run…run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem,
look and take note!
Search her squares to see if you can find [but a] single man,
[a single] one who does justice and seeks truth;
that I may pardon her.
Though they say, ‘As the Lord lives’, yet they swear falsely.
“Like a basket full of birds, their houses are full of treachery;
[and this is how] they have become great and rich,
[this is how] they have grown fat and sleek.
They know no bound in deeds of wickedness;
they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless,
to make it prosper,
and they do not defend the rights of the needy.
Shall I not punish them for these things? says the Lord,
and shall I not [surely] avenge myself on a nation such
“An appalling and horrible thing has happened
in the land [among my people]:
the prophets prophesy falsely,
and the priests rule at their direction;
[and] my people love to have it so,
what will you do when the end comes?”
These few verses from Jeremiah, chapters 4 and 5, represent well this book that goes on like this for 52 chapters. These few verses represent well not only the substance of God’s condemnation for the nation of Judah and its neighbors; these verses represent equally well Jeremiah’s own, personal dilemma.*
What I mean is this: if you read through Jeremiah, you will find it difficult to know where Jeremiah’s speaking and God’s speaking starts or ends. With Jeremiah, he seems so often so totally immersed in God’s own passion and indignation and profound hurt that he seems as a man possessed and taken over by God entirely.
When Jeremiah was a much younger man, God came to Jeremiah, and Jeremiah says, “Then the Lord put forth his hand and touched my mouth, and the Lord said to me, ‘Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.’” (Jeremiah 1:9)
Jeremiah recalls this experience in chapter 16: “Thy words were found, and I ate them, and thy words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I am called by thy name, O Lord, God of hosts.” (verse 16)
But, as Jeremiah discovered over and over and over again, to take in the word of God as though it were food and drink for one’s soul and body…that was to open yourself to see things that few of us have the heart to see: to see your nation as God sees your nation, to feel as God feels at what is happening, to know in his gut, as he said, this “appalling and horrible thing [that] has happened.” (Jeremiah 5:30)
Several times Jeremiah will complain to God of the hardships which being the bearer of God’s word has caused him.
The first time Jeremiah does that, he in effect tells God, “I’ve served you. I’ve faithfully proclaimed your word to these your people. But, nothing changes! If anything, the wicked grow stronger; their plans succeed; they thrive, as though you yourself, God, were on their side! Do something, why won’t you! (Jeremiah 12:1-2)
Well, God just gets right back up in Jeremiah’s face, and says, are you kidding me, Jeremiah? We’re just getting started here!
“If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses?
And, if in a safe land you fall down, how will you do in the jungle of Jordan?” (Jeremiah 12:5)
God’s response to Jeremiah reminds me of a story my friend and pastoral colleague, Drexel Rayford, once told me. I don’t think he’ll mind me sharing it with you this morning.
Drexel was doing one of his clinical hospital rotations which was part of his PhD work. His PhD supervisor, as well as his floor supervisor that day at the hospital, was Dr. Wayne Oates. Dr. Oates, who is now deceased, was one of the preeminent practitioners and writers and teachers in pastoral care in this country.
Drexel said he was conferring with Dr. Oates there at the nurses’ station about a patient’s spiritual care, and Dr. Oates asked Drexel how things were going for him in his work. So, Drexel began telling him about how he was really feeling jammed up and overwhelmed and wasn’t sure how he was gonna get it done and so on and so on.
When Drexel finished his exhausting list of how things were going for him, Dr. Oates said, “You know, I’ve learned something very important from my own experience in just those situations…you want to know what I’ve learned?”
Of course, Drexel was eager to get this little pearl of wisdom from the great Dr. Wayne Oates…”yes, Dr. Oates, please tell me,” he said.
Dr. Oates said, “O.k., first, just turn around and be still and close your eyes.”
Drexel did that: he turned around and closed his eyes, and got all still and centered, ready to receive this great truth from Dr. Oates. Well, he got it all right when Dr. Oates then gave him a swift kick in the seat of his pants. And, it worked…Drexel said it was the right advice at the time that he needed, and he somehow got it all done.
First time around, that Jeremiah complains and accuses God of being a big do-nothing, well, God gives Jeremiah a kick in the pants: this has been the easy part, Jeremiah; you’ve gotten the early morning chores done, now it’s time to go work in the fields in the full heat of the day.
True to God’s prediction, things did indeed get harder and harder and harder. Preach though he would, act out the prophecies as well as he might dramatize them, all his efforts seemed like blowing smoke upwind…all he got was blowback.
Our Scripture this morning which [SHIRLEY ?] read for us is Jeremiah’s sixth and final complaint recorded for us, and it is really something else entirely: “O Lord, thou has deceived me, and I was deceived.” This is the language of innocent love betrayed and abused.
When I was a sweet innocent adolescent of 19…yes, my adolescence went well beyond high school…I moved up to northern New Jersey early one summer to work. And, no sooner had I gotten settled in there, that I met and was smitten by an equally sweet and innocent Irish lass by the name of Bridgett.
It turned out to be quite the summer romance for this young one so new to the ways of love, and by that, I mean me, not Bridgett.
Well, as summer began to wind down, so did Bridgett. We seemed to be arguing and growing distant and suddenly she just cut me off entirely with no explanation. I was utterly confused and hurt and lacking of any explanation. Until, Barbara, who knew Bridgett much better than I did, took pity on me and invited me to go have pizza with her one evening at one of the nearby taverns.
Where Barbara sort of eased into the topic of how things were going between Bridgett and me. She was smart about this..she let me tell her the symptoms of this relationship mysteriously turned belly up. All the while she already knew the cause of this sudden romantic demise. Barbara said to me, “Gary, didn’t you know, Bridgett’s engaged.”
“Duh…what’s that you say?” “Bridgett’s engaged and her fiancee’s been away all summer but he’s getting back pretty soon. That’s why she’s dropped you. You didn’t know that going in?” No, didn’t know that; never occurred to me, cause from my side of things I was all set to keep up a long-distance relationship with my sweet Irish love. Well, we ate more pizza, and we slow-danced to the jukebox, and I felt somewhat comforted there in her embrace.
My poor, pitiful story of innocent, dumb love betrayed, is but a drop in the bucket, I know, compared to the deep waters of hurt you yourselves may have gone through. But in the broadest of outlines, my experience of young loved betrayed and perhaps you own experience reflect what Jeremiah says here: this word for deception Jeremiah throws in the face of God is not from the realms of business or law. It is from the realm of the most intimate of human, romantic and sexual experience that has been abused.
At its worst, this word Jeremiah uses speaks of a man who lures a young woman to take sexual advantage of her whether by enticement or by force (e.g., Exodus 22:16) That is the sense in which Jeremiah accuses God here in chapter 20, verse 7:
“O Lord, you seduced me to take advantage of me, and I was thoroughly duped by you; by your strength you overwhelmed me, and I had no choice but to give in. And, now, everyone laughs at me at every chance they get to throw it in my face.”
That is some harsh rhetoric that Jeremiah uses to accuse God of betraying him. But, it’s language typical of this book, because God draws on this same kind of language to compare how God views the way the citizens of Judah have treated God. Drawing on vocabulary of human love and intimacy and sexuality God bluntly accuses these people of terrible wrongs.
God speaks this way to the leaders, both political and religious, there in Judah; God calls to account, sometimes in course terms, the wealthy and the middle class who profit at the cost of the poor and powerless. God also turns this righteous indignation to the surrounding nations as well.
Chapters 46 through 51, God begins naming the other nations, one by one by one, cataloguing their abuses and spelling out their punishments if they continue as they are doing.
No people gets a free pass from God, whether the nation here now before Jeremiah claiming for themselves the glorious title—“ God’s people”–or the nations scattered about them who make no pretence whatsoever of serving the God of Abraham.
Not then nor now does God who is Divine Judge over all nations ever countenance greed, nor does God turn away from the unjust treatment of others, nor will God excuse those who lightly take up the name of God on their lips and or the symbols of God on their letterhead.
What God says through Jeremiah, God says right on through to the pages of Revelation: it is all one and the same in the sight of God. Whatever pretense it uses, such behavior draws from the same, horrendous, and unacceptable, cesspool of idolatry.
“Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
broken cisterns, that can hold no water.”
Whether a people claim the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, or they claim some other god or no god at all, if the ethics that come of it are the same—the abuse of the poor and the powerless–then it is the same in God’s sight: God judges all nations, God calls for the repentance of all nations, and God will prosecute all who persist in the short-lived fruits which their idolatry produces for them.
Jeremiah did not live to see God’s people repent. Instead, Jeremiah lived to experience right along with his fellow Jews, the bitter harvest of what they had sown. In 587 B.C., the Babylonians swept down through Judah, slaughtering and pillaging, until they reached the gates of Jerusalem.
After they cannibalized everything of value in the houses of the rulers and the powerful, after they stripped everything of value from the house of God, the temple built by King Solomon, the Babylonians leveled the city walls along with every significant structure within it, including the Temple.
A few leaders and soldiers managed to escape Jerusalem before it fell. They fled south as refugees to Egypt, seeking the Pharaoh’s protection. By this time, they realized that Jeremiah was indeed a true prophet of God. So, they took Jeremiah captive and forced him into Egypt with them. He was their insurance policy, as they assumed God would not let Jeremiah to be killed. (Jeremiah 42-43). That’s all we know of Jeremiah’s final days on this earth.
None of us are cut out to bear witness alone of God. Few are the women and men who can tolerate for long the lonely mantle of God’s prophet, such as Nehemiah struggled to do.
We must live this faith as part of a like-minded and like-faithed community of believers, whether a small house church, or a larger congregation such as we enjoy here at UBC, or in a much larger church of thousands; it is together in community that we must bear witness of God.
The Spirit of God infused Jeremiah so fully that, even in the worst of his disappointment, he could not quit God. As our Scripture recites for us in verse 9, Jeremiah admits,
“If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”
Today is the third Sunday in the Season of Pentecost. I think perhaps that is what those first Christians might have said on that Day of Pentecost, when the Spirit of God descended on every single one of them, young and old, women and men. “There appeared to them tongues of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak…as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:3-4)
It is a holy, burning fire of God’s Holy Spirit too long shut up within our bones, wearying us as a church with holding back, may that Divine Fire now burn brightly through University Baptist Church to speak as God gives you to speak. Together, we bear this sacred burden and this sacred joy of calling all to repent and to turn to God and to live a life true to God.
Through the grace and glory now make plain through the Gospel of our Lord Jesus, Amen.
*Exegetical notes are from Robert P. Carroll, Jeremiah: A Commentary, OTL (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986), pp. 395-401; and Gerhard von Rad, The Message of the Prophets, D.M.G. Stalker, tr. (NY: Harper & Row Publishers, 1965), pp. 161-188.