We begin this morning’s sermon with an introduction to Jeremiah by Fredrich Buechner, who has a superb way of describing the characters (term used intentionally) that fill our Biblical narratives. He begins by saying:
The word jeremiad [from which the prophet’s name is derived] means woeful and thunderous denunciation, and that derivation is no mystery. There was nothing in need of denunciation that Jeremiah didn’t denounce. He denounced the king and the clergy. He denounced the recreational sex and extramarital jamborees by the people. He denounced the rich for exploiting the poor and then he turned around and denounced the poor for deserving no better… When some of them took to indulging in a little human sacrifice on the side, he appeared with a clay pot which he smashed into smithereens to show them what God planned to do them as soon as he got around to it. He even denounced God himself for saddling him with the job of trying to reform such a pack of hyenas, degenerates, ninnies. “You have deceived me”, he said, shaking his fist. You are like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail” … and God took it.
But – the people didn’t. When he warned them that the Babylonians were going to come in and rip them to shreds as they richly deserved, they worked him over and threw him into jail. Then when the Babylonians did come in and not only ripped them to shreds, but tore down their precious temple and ran off with all the expensive hardware, he told them that since this was God’s judgement upon them, they better submit or else; whereupon they threw him into an open cistern that happened to be empty.
Later, when he mentioned that, Babylonian occupation or no Babylonian occupation, the people should stick around so that someday they could rise up and become a new nation again, a bunch of them headed over the border into Egypt, taking Jeremiah with them, kicking and screaming all the way… What became of him in Egypt afterwards is not known, but tradition is that his own people got so exasperated with him that they ultimately stoned him to death.
So, to say that Jeremiah was not particularly beloved by the people of Israel is no understatement. Frankly, he called a spade a spade, and gave them a message that was not necessarily what the people wanted to hear. Yet, despite all the despair and denunciation, Jeremiah did insert a message of hope, despite all the doom, which truthfully, they had brought upon themselves by not faithfully following God. In his prayer, he speaks a new word of divine possibility that is not grounded in present and visible circumstances. He prays of the new possibility of the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the reconstruction of the Israel as the people of YHWH.
To make better sense of this prayer, it is helpful to look at the events in the previous chapter. Just prior to his prayer, which we read this morning, God has given Jeremiah the directive to go now and buy a farm, just at the peak of the destruction of Jerusalem; just before land values are about to tank, God instructs Jeremiah to buy a farm in his ancestral village, which just happens to be right in the path of the advancing Babylonian army. To say it another way, Jeremiah is commanded by God to buy back his family farm just at the moment when the military threat must have made the land all but worthless, and the prospect for productive work of the land was nil. Jeremiah was commanded to act in what would have been considered an uncommonly foolish way by his peers. But Jeremiah is assured by God that this is a proper and required move, as “the right of redemption”. In this directive, God is promising that in the time to come, the land will again be productive and inhabited. In other words, what is worthless now will again be valuable in the future. Here, God contradicts the current facts with the hope and promise of the future.
And with that promise of hope, Jeremiah comes to God in prayer. As with others whose prayers we have examined, he begins a doxology, words of “dazzled” praise. He acknowledges God as the creator of heaven and earth. He recalls God’s wonderous works in the Exodus, reaching out to them (and us) with “strong hand and outstretched arm”, concluding with the declaration that “Nothing is impossible for you, God”. His prayer is a celebration of God’s capacity to work newness – in a new heaven and a new earth; in a new son and heir; in a new people of Israel. And he includes even us in the promise, that all things can become new for each of us! That out of our despair, when our lives are falling apart, God can make a new creation in and of our lives.
BUT (of course, there’s always a “but”) all of the creation, all of us, are subject to obedience to God. This prayer reminds us of God’s gracious fidelity, but at the same time, of God’s uncompromising lordship. We are reminded that all generations are answerable to God. As Walter Bruggeman tells us, “there is no escape from the summons of covenantal obedience”. I can’t help but wonder if choosing to live within the boundaries of the covenant is a way to keep us safe from our own poor choices, and thus, we reap the benefits that come with Godly living; while conversely, making choices that go against the covenant bring with them their own negative consequences.
Yet, through it all, God continues to show steadfast love to the people of Israel. Despite the miserable response of the people of Israel to God’s fidelity and generosity, God continues to love the people, while allowing them to experience the consequences of their choices. The divine judgement over Israel’s disobedience? An inescapable outcome of Israel’s behavior. They are left to their own devices to deal with the assault of Babylon and the consequences of war, which includes disease and famine and pestilence.
Therefore, regardless of the circumstances, regardless of divine punishment and reward, Jeremiah speaks a word of hope in his conversation with God. It is a reminder that despite living within an unsettled faith and unresolved life, God invites us to come to him in prayer. And when we come in prayer, God, who might seem hidden and mysterious, will be at work in and beyond our lives and in the world in ways far beyond our humble understanding. God is a God of generous fidelity, while allowing us to experience the natural consequences of our actions.
In closing, I would like to share a little story that might summarize how we can hope in God when things around us might make little sense:
A family was awakened by their smoke detector in the middle of the night to discover the house was on fire. The father ran to the upstairs bedroom of his children and carried his eighteen-month-old baby in his arms while dragging his four-year-old son by the hand.
They were halfway down the stairs when the little boy remembered that he had left his teddy bear in the bedroom, so he broke free from his father’s hand and ran back to the bedroom to retrieve it. In the furor and confusion, the father didn’t notice that his son wasn’t with him until he got outside. But now, the little boy was trapped by the flames and smoke in his second story bedroom. Smoke swirled around him and he coughed and cried out from the upstairs window, “Daddy, Daddy! Help me!”
His father yelled from below, “Jump out of the window! I’ll catch you!?
In the darkness and the smoke, the little boy yelled back, “But Daddy! I can’t see you!”
His father shouted back, “That’s okay, son. I can see you! Jump!”
There will be days when find ourselves in the pits of despair, our vision of the future completely obscured; but we know that we can trust in God’s steadfast love to provide us a way out, if we listen and trust. God will go alongside us when we step out in faith, despite how murky the circumstances may seem. May your trust in God carry you through this week and beyond. Amen.