By now your congregation is probably getting tired of sermons on Jeremiah. Truth be told, you may be as well. I mean, it’s just one message of darkness after another, sorrow upon sorrow with no hope. Why keep going when we know the Lectionary has scheduled 4 more in this litany of woe? (That’s 2 months out of a year devoted to the weeping prophet!) Enough already! Why go on?
Well, for one thing, there is a pattern here, or better a progression. We started with God’s call to Jeremiah to become a prophet who would uproot and destroy (Jeremiah 1). Then, Israel’s sin was specifically named (Jeremiah 2), though the lectionary inexplicably treated that subject out of canonical order. Again out of order, the possibility of hope was held out for Judah in Jeremiah 18. Then in Jeremiah 4 we heard the darkest message of judgment and destruction. Now in Jeremiah 8 we witness the sorrow all of the above has created in Judah, Jeremiah, and Yahweh. Our little passage reads like a gigantic teardrop.
If we follow the canonical order of Jeremiah (rather than the rearranged order of the lectionary), we seem to be walking a trail of tears that begins with Jeremiah’s call and moves through sin and judgment and sorrow to the possibility of redemption if Israel repents and repents to God. If I were to preach on this long series of Jeremiah’s words, I would entitle the series “Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.” My emphasis would be on those next words of Psalm 23, “for you are with me.” That’s one reason I would stick with these dark readings from Jeremiah. They do take us somewhere helpful.
That “somewhere” is a place no one wants to be, but it’s a place all of us will land at some point in life. We’ve seen this place too often in the news. We saw it quintessentially after the disaster of 9/11. We see in the daily mass shootings in America, in the endless pictures of car crashes, in the incomprehensible suffering of hurricane victims. That is, we see it wherever people’s lives have been stupendously upended and they sit stunned in the wreckage of their lives. All they can do is weep and weep inconsolably because the thing that has happened to them makes no sense.
That was doubly the case for ancient Israel when they were finally dragged into Exile, leaving behind a land that had been devastated in every way. They had always believed, presumed, that such a thing could not happen to them, because their covenant God was with them. Why, he was right over there in Jerusalem, particularly in the temple. That place gave them assurance that no one could conquer them. Now, here they sit in the ruins, in a foreign land even, absolutely stunned that this could have happened to them. And weeping inconsolably. It’s a place no one wants to be, but all of us will be at some point, because this world is, as an old baptismal form put it, “a veil of tears.” So, preaching on this text gives us the opportunity to bring the gospel into a very dark place.
As always happens in real life, catastrophes raise a host of questions. That’s what we have in our reading. “Is Yahweh not in Zion? Is her king no longer there? Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their worthless foreign idols? Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why is there no healing for the wound of my people?” A cacophony of voices rings through this sad text, and sorting them out is no easy task.
Verse 18 seems to be Jeremiah calling for “my Comforter in sorrow,” because his heart is faint or sick. The announcer of doom is heartsick with sorrow over the doom that is coming. Is he calling Yahweh to comfort him? That’s a strange turn, given that Yahweh is the one who will bring the sorrow, but all of us who have grieved deeply know that strange turn.
Verse 19 puts the questions of the Exiles in the mouth of Jeremiah. Or is this Yahweh listening to the cries of his sinful people? That is the key question in these verses, and I will return to it once we’ve considered the individual verses. Let’s assume it is Jeremiah voicing the heartbroken questions of God’s people “from a land far away,” that is, Babylon. Where is our God? We had always believed that his presence in the temple in Zion made us impervious to attack. That old temple tradition had proven to be mistaken. And now that we’ve been conquered, we don’t know where God is.
In verse 20, God responds with his own question, an oft repeated question in Jeremiah, expressing God’s confusion and disbelief over Israel’s idolatry. “Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, their worthless foreign idols?” It’s quite a picture of God, isn’t it? God is, indeed, in Zion, but his people have left him by pursuing foreign gods, in spite of all he had done for them over the centuries. Yahweh cannot understand it. And he is deeply angry.
After years of denying God’s anger, ignoring the prophets’ warnings, and continuing their sinful ways, Israel has finally gotten the message. It’s too late. It’s over. They put it poetically: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” They are crushed.
Knowing they are crushed crushes Jeremiah. Or is it Yahweh speaking in verses 21 and following? It seems to be Jeremiah speaking, expressing complete identification with his compatriots. He is not the dispassionate prophet Amos seems to be, announcing doom with no emotional involvement. Jeremiah is a model preacher, speaking faithfully for his holy God and identifying compassionately with God’s unholy people.
John Holbert uses this text to speak a hard word to modern preachers. “No preacher has the right to assault the people he/she has been called to serve, forgetting that he/she is one of them…. The preacher is in the audience of every sermon…[Jeremiah] is a model for any modern preacher who would speak the harder truths of the gospel.”
That is very true and important, but that is not the message of Jeremiah 8 and 9. We must be careful not to psychologize the message of this weeping prophet. However much we should identify with the deep passion of the prophet, our focus must be on the deep passion of God. Yes, Jeremiah wept inconsolably for God’s people, as expressed so painfully in Jeremiah 9:1. But was he doing that for himself, or for God?
That finally raises the question I’ve hinted at in previous comments. Who is the subject of the pronouns here? We can easily identify Israel in verses 19a and 20 and God in verse 19b. But could it be that the “my” and “I” in the other verses is actually God? Is this a picture of God weeping over his sinful people? Is God heart sick over their sin and the punishment he will visit on them? Does God “weep day and night for the slain of my people?” Can we even imagine a sovereign, holy, just God weeping his eyes out for his people’s sins and suffering, even as he inflicted that punishment for their sins? It’s hard to imagine, but it’s comforting, too. Even a punishing God is not a hard hearted God. Even as he punishes he is broken hearted.
This gives a whole new depth to those famous words quoted before: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Yahweh is “with me” even to the depths of my sorrow, not just spiritually with me, but emotionally and psychologically.
Indeed, God is even physically with me, as God incarnate. Even if my reading of the pronouns in this text is wrong and we cannot say that God in heaven weeps, we can surely say that God in the flesh weeps (and he, by the way, is in heaven after his resurrection and ascension). God incarnate was prophetically called “Man of Sorrows” who was acquainted with grief because of his identification with our sin and suffering.
We saw that from time to time as he walked this earth, at the graveside of Lazarus (John 11:35) and on the hillside overlooking Jerusalem (Luke 13:34-35), a text that has deep ties with Jeremiah’s hard words about Jerusalem). And recall how the writer to the suffering Hebrews spoke about the one who is greater than all the salvific figures and rites in Judaism. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet without sin (Heb. 4:15).” “Because he suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (Heb. 2:18).”
What an immensely comforting word to people sitting stunned in their sorrow! When you can’t find God anywhere, the Gospel of Jesus Christ tells us that he is sitting right beside us weeping along with us. When there is no balm in Gilead and the pain will not stop, “my Comforter in sorrow” is with me on this trail of tears through the valley of the shadow of death.
All these words about sorrow reminded me of the classic work on grief by Elizabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler, in which they identified the “five stages of grief.” Remember? They were denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. A careful and creative reading of our text for today may reveal some of those stages of grief. Is Israel in the depression stage? God seems to be in the anger stage. Reminding people of that book may help your people get in touch with the dominant mood of the text.
As I got in touch with that mood, I recalled a book I read years ago. Remember The Book of Sorrows by Walter Wangerin? I don’t remember the plot, but the title seems to fit the whole prophecy of Jeremiah, and this text in particular.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 22, 2019
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 Commentary