Jeremiah’s Lament

Jeremiah’s Lament
Rev. Doug Floyd
Jeremiah 20:7-13
Pentecost +3

In his book Being Christian, Rowan Williams discusses hearing God’s Word. “[W]hen you see a group of baptized people listening to the Bible in public worship, writes Williams, “you realize that Bible-reading is an essential part of the Christian life because Christian life is a listening life. Christians are people who expect to be spoken to by God.”[1] This value upon listening to the Word of God and listening for the Lord of the Word to speak to us is one of the great hallmarks of the Reformation. Hearing the Word of God in English was a key part of the English Reformation. Thomas Cranmer and others provided all the churches with a Book of Homilies to be read during the course of the year. These twelve sermons addressed specific issues facing the churches and in particular focused on key themes of the English Reformation.

In the first homily Cranmer writes that the books of Scripture “ought to be much in our hands, in our eyes, in our ears, in our mouths, but most of all in our hearts.”[2] He continues, “the one who profits most is he who is most attuned to its message, who is most inspired with the Holy Ghost, whose heart and life are changed by what he reads in the Word.”[3]

Even as we read and hear the Word of God, we expect to hear THE Word of God, the address from on high. The Word that calls us into life and truth. The Word that lights our way. In my own journey, the most dramatic sign of encountering the Spirit of the Lord came in reading Scripture. Suddenly, this book that I had been reading since High School came alive. Someone was addressing me, convicting me, calling me.

In college, I had the pattern of starting the day with five Psalms and one chapter from Proverbs. On one winter retreat, I rose early in the morning to read and pray. I walked down to the gym to be alone and to read and reflect. Another guy was already sitting there reading. So I took a spot on the opposite wall and sat down to read. Soon there were about a half dozen of us, starting the day in Scripture. When I finished reading, everyone else was still busy reading and praying. I didn’t want to be the first one finished, so I reread the Proverb 2. Then I reread it again. It was almost like I was competing to see who could stay in there the longest. I kept rereading it over and over. Then everything changed. I wasn’t reading Proverbs 2, it was read me. Someone was reading me. It was like a light that turn on inside. Or better yet, it was like I could hear after being deaf. The Word of God resounded in me, challenged me, came alive in me and prepared me for the days ahead. I saw how the whole Proverb was about wisdom concerning the ways of God that would protect me from untamed desires that could seduce me from the path or discouragement or frustration that would drive me from the path of righteousness and into the way of wickedness and death. It spoke directly to me own struggles while also preparing me for the dark struggle that would overwhelm me in a couple years.

Just simply reading through Scripture can attune us to listening. For many years, I’ve had a habit of reading through the Bible each year. It doesn’t have to be a reading through the whole Bible each year, but some regular reading plans can help keep us listening, waiting, and attuning our hearts to the stories, songs, proverbs and more. There are also times to pause and sit with a text. To read it and reread. To study it. To research it. There are so many good free commentaries online, any of us could easily hear the reflections of saints across the ages on most any text.

Let’s pause a moment today over today’s Jeremiah passage. In one of the most daring accusations in Scripture, Jeremiah cries out, “O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed” (Jeremiah 20:7).  This word deceive also carries a sense of seduction. It is almost like Jeremiah is saying, “Lord you seduced me into speaking for you and then you turned on me.” But not only God, but all the people. Jeremiah continues, “I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me” (Jeremiah 20:7). Later he will say, “Cursed be the day I was born” (vs 14) and “Cursed is the man who brought news of my birth to my father” (vs 15). He even seems to wish that he would have been killed while still in the womb. These are strong words.

As we reflect on this passage, it might help to back up and refresh ourselves on the story of Jeremiah. In chapter one, we learn that Jeremiah was the son of priest and that he was called to his prophetic ministry in the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign. If we read 2 Kings 22, we discover that Jeremiah’s father played an instrumental role in the revival during Josiah’s reign. Jeremiah comes from a family that serves the Lord and has served the kingdom in restoring true worship to the nation and turning the hearts of the ruler and the people toward the Lord.  And yet, judgment is still at the door of Judah. The idolatries of previous generations including Josiah’s father Manasseh were so great that the revival will not stop the impending judgment.

Jeremiah’s calling is to announce that coming judgment, the judgments on the known world, and the reasons for these judgments. At times, it sounds like Jeremiah is announcing the end of the world. And he is in a way, but he also offers for hope for a future day of God’s promised restoration. When he is prophesying coming judgment, no one believes him. In fact, they get angry with him. He is beaten, thrown down a well, rejected, mocked, cursed, and despised. His ministry is seen as a joke, and worst of all, he is seen as a betrayer to his own people when he tells them to submit to the attack from the Babylonians.

Throughout his ministry, he will offer a series of laments for this post, this ministry of public humiliation, this reminder of judgment. Today’s lament is the most intense lamentation.  God calls him to rail out against his own people, to experience rejection from his own people, to enter into the great suffering himself. He grieves the hardness of the people and he grieves the coming judgment.

The Lord will speak through Jeremiah’s words long after his ministry has ended. Years later, when the Jews are exiled in Babylon. They will read and pray Jeremiah’s words again. His grief will give them words for their grief.  Though his message seemed to fall flat when he declared it, that same message will help the exiled Jews understand their estate, know that God was present with them in the dark, and even give them hope. Both Ezekiel and Daniel reference the words of Jeremiah.

So his ministry that seemed a complete failure continued to minister to future generation. The Spirit of God is still working through these words of Jeremiah. As we read these words, we not only try to understand the original context of the words, we hear them through the voices of saints across the ages, and afresh in light of our present age.

They continue to give voice to our own struggles and griefs. Most of us will not prophecy of impending invasion, but we may experience times of discouragement. Times when the Lord seems silent. In Jeremiah, we encounter a fellow disciple who feels abandoned. His prayer becomes our prayer. In his waiting, we learn to wait.

His praise becomes our praise. In the silence of God’s reply, he finally lifts his voice in praise, “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hand of evildoers” (Je 20:13). There are times when the song of praise rises from the weary, anguished soul. These songs are a sweet aroma.

In one of his darkest moments, Richard Wurmbrand began to question how a God could allow his servants to be so abused. Tortured in prison for 14 years, he knew Jeremiah’s ache firsthand. One day after a guard spit in his mouth, he broke. For some reason, that little humiliation was worse than the physical tortures. Back in his cell, he had no prayers for his struggle. He had no response for his sense of abandonment. So he danced. He danced before the Lord in worship.

While you may not have been tortured, you may know times when it feels like God has abandoned you and forsaken you in middle of the struggle, in the middle of your pain or questions or sorrows. There are times of grief when the tears no longer flow and the heart simply aches in pain. I have walked through these places, wondering if I ever would see the light again. There have been times I was ready for death, ready give up from the inner pain that choked my soul.

The cries of Jeremiah, the Psalmist, Job, and others gave me words for my hurt. I found comfort that I was not the only one. And in a strange sense, these writers helped me to realize how little I knew of suffering. In some mystery, I rested in their faith, in the faith of those who went before, in the communion of saints, and ultimately in the faith of Jesus.

As we read Jeremiah’s words, we see yet another way of hearing these words. Through the voice of Jesus. Throughout church history and especially during the Reformation, the saints believed that all Scripture was leading us to Jesus. So we listen to the context when it was first proclaimed, we listen in light of history including our own, and we listen in light of Jesus.

It is his faithfulness that sustains our weary souls. For Jeremiah’s anguished prayer anticipates one who would pray, live and enter into the depths of this anguish in a way no human has ever experienced. In his prayer, I see a glimpse of the prayer, of the grief, of the loss of Jesus. “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” Jesus enters completely and fully into the exiled human heart that has turned from the Father and fallen into endless darkness. He enters the depths of sin and death. He rescues the sin weary soul from the path of destruction and leads them in the way, in His way, in His life, in His truth.

In His grace, He allows His servants to step into times or seasons of great struggle and great silence. But we are not alone. Even in the deafening silence. Jeremiah had not been abandoned but he was allowed to taste the anguish of the soul in exile. His prayer echoes across the generations and continues lifting up the wear traveler toward the Savior of our souls. Christ meets us in the silence and expands us to know His love and life more fully and truly.

In some ways, I believe that our prayers and groans in that place of desperation become intercessions for others lost in the dark. Charles Williams speaks of the co-inherence of all things, meaning that we are all bound up by the Spirit in Christ and they serve one another even in our anguish and pain, and that our very lives can become prayer for the weariness of others.

Today in Jeremiah’s words of despondency, we hear the Word of God encouraging us: Christ is present in the midst of our own struggles and confusions. Let us not grow weary in well doing, let us not lose heart in the dark. Rather, let us rejoice in the absolute faithfulness of God who in working in us and through us to reveal His kingdom.

[1] Williams, Rowan (2014-07-23). Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (p. 21). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.
[2] Cramer, Thomas. An Exhortation to the Reading and Knowledge of Holy Scripture, modern-language version from the Cranmer Theological House (p. 2).
[3] Ibid (p. 3).

Image details: Jeremiah sits amidst the rubble of Jerusalem, after its siege and destruction in 586 B.C. Lithograph by B. Weiss after E.J.F. Bendemann.

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