Some Christians have traditionally thought of God as largely having virtually no emotion beyond anger at human sin. Yet such a notion is more Greek than biblical. The living God of the Bible is quite capable of feeling a wide variety of emotions, including great grief.
There is great sadness in the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. Yet one of its interpreters’ first and greatest challenges is identifying just who feels it. Jeremiah 9:3 injects a “declares the Lord” into this text. Yet the respected biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann calls that insertion “textually insecure.” In fact, “declares the Lord” is not even in some ancient manuscripts.
As if to perhaps help its readers, the New International Version of the Bible inserts quotation marks beginning with the second part of verse 19. Yet it’s hard to imagine those quotation marks are divinely inspired. The original Hebrew certainly doesn’t include them.
Yet perhaps it doesn’t really matter whose grief is expressed in Jeremiah 8 and 9. After all, both God and the prophet grieve God’s rebellious Israelite people’s rebellion. After all, true prophets, both ancient and modern, share God’s heart for God’s people and entire creation.
Jeremiah and God grieve because Israel is spiritually sick. Historically, even when she wasn’t faithful to God, she had always expected God to be there when she needed the Lord. Now, however, Israel feels as if God has absented himself. “Is the Lord not in Zion?” she asks in verse 19. “Is her King no longer there?”
Sure, Israel has imprisoned and endangered the Lord’s prophet (Jeremiah 36-39). Sure, she has traded in worship of the living God for worship of other gods (Jeremiah 5:7). Sure, she has forgotten the poor and outcasts who live in her midst (Jeremiah 7:5-7; 8:10; 22:16-17). Sure, Israel has harmed God’s good creation. Sure, she has essentially broken her covenant with the Lord. Yet she still expects God to “have her back.” Israel expects God to continue to be her God who manifests God’s presence in “Zion.”
This invites Jeremiah 8’s preachers and teachers to explore how similar attitudes naturally persist among God’s adopted sons and daughters. It’s easy for us to assume that no matter how poorly our churches, communities or countries care for God’s creatures and creation, God will stay with us. It’s tempting to assume God will never let us suffer the consequences of our sins against God, each other and God’s creation.
In some ways, God’s judgment of Israel’s unfaithfulness stands at the center of the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. “Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their worthless foreign idols?” God angrily sobs in the second part of verse 19. Israel has tried making Zion a kind of “good luck charm.” She has tried idols. It’s as if Israel has turned everywhere but to the living God. Verse 20 even hints that she’s seen harvest time and summer as kinds of good luck charms.
Most of us assume that it’s Jeremiah who speaks the words of chapter 8:21 and following. Yet with a little imagination, we can easily picture God as saying them as well. Jeremiah has and will continue to rail against Israel and her sins. In fact, he has just finished one of his most strident indictments of her in Jeremiah 8:4-17.
Yet because Jeremiah’s scolded and punished fellow Israelites are “crushed,” the prophet is devastated too. He describes his heart as “faint,” literally, “sick” (18). His pain in some ways mirrors Israel’s. “Oh, that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears,” the prophet (or perhaps the Lord) says in Jeremiah 9:1 and following. “I would weep day and night for the slain of my people.”
It’s a bit puzzling that the Lectionary ends the reading for this Sunday at this point, almost in mid-thought. It’s as if in order to preserve the theme of Jeremiah’s grief, it deliberately omits Jeremiah’s almost angry wish to distance himself from his Israelite family members, friends and neighbors. Yet grief and anger can share space in the human heart. So Jeremiah 8 and 9’s preachers and teachers may want to read and explore further into chapter 9. Certainly anger and grief can share space in the 21st century.
News of terror attacks continues to flood the media. The plight of this terror’s victims who have tried to flee it breaks our hearts. Violence continues to claim squatter’s rights in North America’s homes, neighborhoods and communities. Rich people continue to get richer and poor people poorer. It ought not just grieve God’s adopted sons and daughters. It also ought to anger us.
Yet in some sense the question at the heart of this text remains: Is there “a balm in Gilead,” as the beloved hymn asserts? Is there a doctor in Israel’s house who can heal Israel and humanity’s “sin-sick soul”? As Robert Gench points out, it may seem like an odd question. He calls Gilead “outside the normal channels of religious and political authority.”
Yet this reference, my colleague Scott Hoezee notes, injects a note of hope and grace into an otherwise sad text. God, after all, essentially answers, “there is a balm in Gilead.” There is a physician in God’s creation’s house. There is healing for God’s people’s wounds. God doesn’t let God or God’s prophets’ deep grief get the final word.
God breaks the apparently relentless cycle of violence and recrimination, apostasy and revival with which humanity seems so deeply and hopelessly in love. God patiently sends prophets, priests and kings to call God’s children back to himself. They continue to proclaim God’s truths, often at great risk to themselves.
Yet, finally, no human prophets, priests or kings can fix the mess we’ve made for ourselves. No physician or medicine, no matter how hard they try, can cure what really ails us. In fact, no creature or part of God’s creation can finally assuage God and God’s faithful people’s grief.
Healing must, in one sense, come from outside, even as, in an incarnational sense, it comes from within that creation. As Hoezee reminds us, God himself replaces the springs and fountains of tears (9:1) with a fountain of blood that flows from the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world. The balm of God’s amazing grace comes not just to Gilead, not just to Israel, but also to the whole creation. God sends the Great Physician to heal God’s people, creatures and land, waters and skies.
It, of course, comes at an awful cost. There is no doctor or pharmacy bill that matches the price God paid for Gilead’s balm. The cost of God’s people and creation’s healing is, after all, the very life of God’s one and only natural Son, Jesus Christ. God, in one sense, only heightens God’s grief over God’s people’s rebellion by letting Satan and his goons do their very worst to God’s Son, Jesus.
Yet God lets neither Israel’s spiritual sickness nor Jesus’ unjust crucifixion get the last word. In raising Jesus from the dead, God gives life not just to God’s Son, not just to God’s adopted sons and daughters, but, in fact, to God’s whole creation.
In his striking book, Now and Then, Frederick Buechner writes about the helpless longing and heartsickness of a parent over a wayward child: “To love another, as you love a child, is to become vulnerable in a whole new way. It is no longer only through what happens to yourself that the world can hurt you, but through what happens to the one you love also and greatly more hurting.
When it comes to your own hurt, there are always things you can do. You can put up a brave front, for one, and behind that front, if you are lucky, if you persist, you can become a little brave inside yourself. You can become strong in the broken places, as Hemingway said. You can become philosophical, recognizing how much your troubles you have brought down on your own head and resolving to do better by yourself in the future …
But when it comes to the hurt of a child you love, you are all but helpless. The child makes terrible mistakes, and there is very little you can do to ease his pain, especially when you are so often a part of his pain, as the child is a part of yours.
There is no way to make him strong enough with such strengths as you may have found through your own hurt, or wise enough through such wisdom, and even if there were, it would be the wrong way because it would be your way and not his. The child’s pain becomes your pain, and as the innocent bystander, maybe it is even a worse pain for you, and in the long run even the bravest front is not much use.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 18, 2016
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 Commentary