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Pentecost 14

The Rev’d Charles Everson

Sep. 2, 2023 • Year A, Proper 17 • Jeremiah 15:15-21

 

During a recent pastoral conversation, someone asked me, “Father, will God reject me for being angry with him? Because I’m mad at him and a little ashamed to feel that way” (my paraphrase). In this morning’s lesson from the book of Jeremiah, we see that God can indeed handle our anger, and he can even handle a human being saying to him, “Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like a dried-up spring”[1] as one translation puts it.


The context of Jeremiah’s lament is the late seventh and early sixth centuries BC. Of all the Hebrew prophets, Jeremiah is the one who shares the most about himself, both in terms of biographical facts and his psychological state. He was a priest from Anathoth near Jerusalem who was active from the 620s until after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple at the hands of the Babylonians. His entire life and prophetic ministry were shaped by the destruction of the kingdom of Judah and with it the Temple in Jerusalem some 40 years later in 587. When the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and forcibly removed a good chunk of the Hebrew people to serve as slaves in Babylon, it felt to them like the world was collapsing in on itself. Doom and gloom. Like the other biblical prophets, Jeremiah occasionally is critical of the Hebrews’ acts of social injustice, but he’s most concerned with Israel’s whoring after false gods and the devastation of the nation that will inevitably ensue.[2]


Jeremiah’s message wasn’t well received as is typically the case with the Biblical prophets. His fellow priests in his hometown threatened to kill him, and the king had the scroll of his prophecies burned. He was imprisoned more than once. One of his most horrific experiences was when his captors in Jerusalem cast him into a deep, dried-up cistern with muck at the bottom with the clear intention of leaving him there to die.[3] It is no wonder that Jeremiah says, “under the weight of your hand I sat alone”[4]. This phrase “sat alone” is borrowed from the book of Leviticus—it’s the permanent isolation inflicted on a person with leprosy.[5] That is how alone and separated from God Jeremiah felt.


I don’t blame Jeremiah for resenting God and seeing his prophetic mission as a source of torment. After he shares his deep lament to God, God responds not defensively, but with a call to Jeremiah to “turn back.” While the Hebrew verb used here typically means “to repent,” Jeremiah had no specific sin from which to repent. So what did God want Jeremiah to turn back from? Perhaps he wanted him to turn from his deep sense of inner torment and come back toward God and the outward mission before him. God’s response doesn’t suggest that he was offended by Jeremiah’s doubts, but rather that God would not let Jeremiah remain there, trapped in a dark night of the soul.[6]


Friends, there is nothing good that comes from hiding from God, or from refusing to acknowledge your anger or bitterness toward God. If you feel alone, tell him that. If you’re mad at him, say it. Be brutally honest. I promise you, God can take it. Not only is it psychologically helpful for you to come to terms with the way you feel, it’s also spiritually helpful in that by baring your inner soul to the One who knows you more intimately than you know yourself, you open the door for the Light to shine on whatever darkness you’re experiencing. But know that opening that door with such honesty doesn’t always result in getting the response you want from God. Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann reminds us, “The hazard of such honest prayer…is that [God] can be equally honest and therefore abrasive in response to prayer.”[7] God continues in his response to Jeremiah, “I will make you for this people a fortified wall of bronze; they shall do battle against you, but shall not prevail over you. For I am with you to rescue you and to save you.”[8] This is nearly a verbatim quote from Jeremiah chapter 1 when God first called Jeremiah.


God responds to Jeremiah’s lament by reminding him that the suffering he has experienced is just as God said it would be when he first called him to this prophetic ministry. God reminds him that his perseverance is the very means by which the people decide to repent of their sins.


Suffering is not for sissies. Our Lord Jesus Christ himself suffered greatly at the hands of the rulers of his day, even to the point of death. All of us who follow him in faith were “buried with Christ in his death”[9] in the waters of baptism, and we hear in today’s gospel lesson that those who want to follow him in faith are to deny ourselves and take up our cross. Our suffering in life is in a sense self-inflicted in that it is an inherent part of being a Christian.


But some of us suffer more than others. The pastoral conversation I mentioned earlier was with someone who had recently been diagnosed with a progressively degenerative disease at a fairly young age, a disease with no cure that comes with it lots and lots of pain and suffering. He was angry with God, not because he thought his disease was God’s fault, but because God allowed it to happen, despite his faithfulness in prayer and worship throughout his life. He was initially ashamed to mention his anger at God to me, but naming it helped him begin to turn a corner in how he viewed his situation. It didn’t make it any easier to accept, but it allowed him to feel God’s love for him once again, a feeling he was too hardened and bitter to perceive.


In the face of suffering, God calls us to be both honest and faithful. It is only when we are brutally honest with God that we open the door of our hearts and allow the light to shine in all the dark corners. It is only then that our hearts are open to hear God’s everlasting promise to his people, “I am with you to rescue you and to save you.”[10] It is only then that we remember that our burial with Christ in his death leads us to share with Christ in his resurrection. Amen.


 

[1] Verse 18; the first half is NRSV, the second half is Robert Alter’s translation. Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019), 914. [2] Alter 850. [3] Ibid. [4] Vs. 17, NRSV. [5] Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds. The Jewish Study Bible : Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Translation. Oxford ; New York :Oxford University Press, 2004. The reference is Lev 13:46. [6] David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown. Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, 5. [7] Walter Brueggemann, A commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 114, as quoted at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2189, accessed 9/2/2023. [8] Alter v. 20. [9] BCP 306. [10] Ibid.

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