Grace Presbyterian Church
September 18, 2016, Pentecost 18C
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; 1 Timothy 2:1-7
The reputation of the prophet Jeremiah has contributed two different turns of phrase to the English language. The word “jeremiad” refers to a speech, whether written or extemporaneous, characterized by stern criticism, judgment, or warning of impending harm. The passage we heard last week, from the fourth chapter of the book of Jeremiah, would be an example of the kind of speech that inspired that word.
But the prophet has also inspired the phrase “weeping Jeremiah.” Such a phrase can describe the prophet himself or one who engages in a sustained lament, with weeping and sorrowing made evident both in word and action. That’s the Jeremiah we find in today’s reading.
Last week’s reading was remarkable for calling the people “stupid” (4:22) and for depicting a world in which the very act of creation was undone, blow by blow, due to the people’s unfaithfulness and God’s judgment. To be sure, there’s a lot of that kind of thing in Jeremiah, including in the verses of chapter 8 that precede today’s reading, and in the verses beginning with 9:2 as well. Here, though, for these few moments, the prophet turns aside from pronouncing God’s denunciation and divine judgment on the people, and instead weeps for them.
Or possibly weeps with them.
Or it might be God doing the weeping.
Or it could be basically everybody weeping together.
Let’s try to sort this out.
You’ll notice that at the very end of verse seventeen, just before today’s reading, the speaker of that previous section of denunciation was clearly identified as the Lord. The next time we see such a phrase, is 9:3, by which time Jeremiah’s lament has clearly passed, and the tone of denunciation and judgment has clearly returned. That shift of tone seems to start with 9:2, when weeping for “the slain of my poor people” (9:1) gives way to denouncing the people as “adulterers” and “traitors” and the weeping is pretty clearly over.
In short, this passage of lament sits in the middle of, and interrupts, an extended jeremiad. But within the lament it’s not always easy to tell who is lamenting.
A few places are clear; the passage in verse 19 (it might be in parentheses in your Bible) about provoking to anger with their idols is pretty clearly a sentiment being expressed by God, with its first-person point of view. The surrounding passages in verses 19 and 20, which might be in quotation marks, are similarly clear in being a sentiment being expressed by the people of Judah more specifically.
But verses 18 and 22, as well as verse 1 of chapter 9? That’s harder to tell. One could stretch it to represent the cries of the people, but the more obvious answer would be that Jeremiah is here laying aside his prophetic sternness and grieving for the people and their suffering, however self-inflicted it might be.
This isn’t a lesson that many modern-day would-be Jeremiahs seem to have learned.
It’s altogether too easy to find those who are all set to pronounce judgment who are, to put it delicately, entirely too happy about doing so. And sadly, this particular condition is pretty widespread among preachers. Politicians can be bad about it too, but this kind of gleeful reveling in the anticipated suffering of the judged is pretty endemic among a certain class of preacher.
You know the type. Good chance they have a “TV ministry,” giving them a nice big platform for their pronouncements. At minimum they’re preaching to a congregation much larger than this, if they aren’t set up on a cozy looking set with cushy chairs and couches. They cherry-pick bits of scripture from hither and yon and stitch them up into a prediction of dire judgment on the social groups they just happen to hate, or retroactively pronounce the latest natural disaster as God’s judgment on the afflicted city or state (except, curiously, when it happens to be their own). And they couldn’t be happier about it. Gloating, practically, that some city is underwater or that fifty people were shot dead, or whatever disaster might have befallen us that we haven't heard yet this morning.
Jeremiah would not understand these people, I think, and he might be prompted to unleash a jeremiad of his own upon them. The man who writes “my joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick” literally the sentence after saying “See, I am letting snakes loose among you, adders that cannot be charmed, and they shall bite you, says the Lord” is not a person who rejoices in the judgment it is his calling to proclaim. That judgment is sure, and it is unrelenting as we heard in last week’s reading, but it is no cause for joy. It is cause for weeping, for grief, for mourning. It is cause to weep with the ones who suffer, no matter how much it is true that they might have brought that judgment on themselves.
Jeremiah was pronouncing judgment right up to the beginning of this lament, and he launched right back into pronouncing judgment immediately after this lament, but all of that judgment did not negate his sorrow for his people. That seems a fairly obvious way of reading this passage, but it may not be the only one.
It is possible, on the other hand, that the grief being pronounced here is not only Jeremiah’s. The sorrow, the weeping that Jeremiah is pronouncing may well be that of none other than God.
It is Jeremiah’s habit to interject “says the Lord” every so often, as we heard in verse 17, as if to remind his readers and hearers that Jeremiah isn’t just blowing off steam or making up these dire judgments just for kicks. It is a harsh word he is called to proclaim to God’s covenant people, one that promises pain; one that promises that God’s covenant people, who have for so long assumed that God would always cover for them no matter how much wickedness they indulged themselves in, are about to find out how wrong they have been; one that will establish to them once and for all that God is not a “get out of jail free” card for whatever spiritual crimes they may commit. But there is no joy for Jeremiah in proclaiming this hard word, and it seems very much that there is no joy for God in having Jeremiah proclaim it, either.
The people’s laments recorded here are those of a people who do not understand. Jeremiah’s laments (and God’s possibly) are on the other hand quite clear on what is going on. Even the legendary healing balm found in the distant region of Gilead are of no help to the people to ease the sorrow that is to come. Yes, this is the scriptural reference that gives us the spiritual we will sing at the end of this service today, but I’m not sure that Jeremiah would agree with the way the spiritual answers his question.
What then of us, in the face of this portrait of weeping?
We modern-day Christians, or some anyway, have a pretty good knack for imagining ourselves to be persecuted, to be suffering when those we imagine as “evildoers” prosper. And it’s not too hard for us to find someone on whom to pin that “evildoers” label upon. But what happens when the tables turn and our “enemies,” the "bad guys," are the ones who suffer?
If we take today’s lament seriously, we weep with them.
We don’t gloat, we don’t get all triumphalistic and rub it in their faces. We weep with them. We weep together.
If we want to call ourselves followers of God, we’d better find a way to mourn with those who mourn, whether they are “our kind” or not. We’d better be able to weep with those who weep, rather than recoiling from them or reassuring ourselves that they deserve it. We can be on our knees in prayer, or flat on our faces in weeping, but the defensive crouch is never an appropriate position for the child of God.
Come, let us weep together.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal)
#634 To God Be the Glory
#440 Jesus, Lover of My Soul
#787 God Weeps With Us Who Weep and Mourn
#792 There Is a Balm in Gilead