Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 18, 2022

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 Commentary

“This hurts me more than it hurts you” our parents assured us as they doled out some form of punishment or another.  Timeouts, groundings, restrictions: our parents wanted to claim the greater pain was theirs in the issuing of the punishments than ours in the receiving of them.  We, none of us, believe this when we hear it as children, and our parents seem to know this, which is why they often follow up the “This hurts me more than it hurts you” line with a kind of corollary coda statement: “Someday when you’re older you’ll understand.”

Insofar as the Israelites were able to hear God saying how heartbroken he was over the suffering of his people, you get the feeling they would not have believed that, either.  After all, most of the time prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah and others were telling the Israelites that their suffering was coming from the hands of God himself, that this was punishment for their unjust lives, their failure to follow Torah, their wanton embrace of foreign idols and the despicable religious practices that often went along with such idolatrous cults.  You get the sense that in response to some of the laments contained in Jeremiah 8, a lot of the Israelites would have said, “Well, you could have spared yourself the hurt, dear God—you would not have found us asking you to whack us again and again!  Go easy on yourself, Lord, and then we’ll all be happier!”

But if we take God and Jeremiah’s words at face value, then we do have to conclude that God’s reaction to even the punishment and just suffering of his people is testament to a fundamental fact in the Bible: God really does desire our flourishing in this creation.  God did not say “Let there be light” in the beginning only to end up with a world so filled with darkness, with the valley of the shadow of death, with human spirits shrouded in depression and anxiety.  God did not say all of the other “Let there be . . .” statements in Genesis 1 that filled this cosmos with life and variety and a hyper-abundance of every good thing only to see a parched cosmos that gets depleted by wanton human greed and a selfish disregard for the limits God set into place in order to foster flourishing and shalom.

God cannot and will not go along with practices that work against his gracious creation designs.  Consequences can and must follow when shalom is vandalized and God’s image bearers are abused as a result.  But how it hurts the Creator, whose intent all along was flourishing, to see diminishment, even if the circumstances are such that he himself must allow it (or even to some degree must inflict it).  And the closer a person is to the heart of God—as Jeremiah and the prophets were—the more reasons one feels to weep along with God, to feel eventually as though your very head was a fountain spewing forth torrents of tears.

As I often told my congregation as a preacher, when bad and sad things happen in this world (tsunamis, earthquakes in Haiti, cancer, disease, and genocide), everyone in the world with an ounce of sensitivity in his or her heart asks the hard question of “Why?”  But for believers in God, the pain is more acute since we have a better sense of how things should be in the first place.  Worse and even more painfully however, we also have to ask those questions and parse our answers (insofar as we can find any answers at all, that is) while still clinging to our ardent believe in a good God who superintends the universe.  The atheist may ask “Why?” the same as the believer, but the believer has a much longer road to travel in dealing with the aftermath of the question.

Our hearts are anguished because God’s heart is anguished.  And yet . . . somewhere in the pathos of these verses in Jeremiah 8 and into Jeremiah 9 we can detect more than a hint that the day will come when there will once again be “a balm in Gilead” and a physician in the land.  God, being God, is not going to let his own heartbreak (or that of his true servants like Jeremiah) have the final word.  Something is going to be done to snap this cycle of destruction and death and diminishment that has been gripping this creation for ever-so-long now.

The fountain of tears will one day be replaced with a fountain of blood that will flow from the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  The balm of grace will come to Gilead and to all the earth.  The Great Physician will come and heal the land, the earth, the peoples.  Praise, and not lament, will be the last song for the universe.

Jeremiah 8, and really most of the entire book of Jeremiah (and including the Book of Lamentations, to which the Year C Lectionary will very shortly direct our attention) is not the happiest thing you will ever read.  Yet somehow contained even within the unhappiness and just below the surface of the judgments and laments there is something else: hope.

But even the salvation God ended up working really did hurt him more than it hurt us—in fact, we were spared the final hurt since God took that upon himself through Jesus, the Son of God.

And just maybe now that we’re a little older, we understand.

Illustration Idea

In ways we cannot fathom, eternity and time twine together in a kind of double-helix within God.  Somehow God is the eternal, all-knowing God and he’s the God who is with us and who moves along with us in the real-time of our lives.  There is a way for the eternal Creator to be with and to relate to his very finite, temporal creatures here on this earth.

As such, how our lives go, for good or for ill, affects God, grieves and wounds God at times.  God does not merely view a single image, all at once, of how history goes but moves with it.  The bad news is that this means God really has had and still has innumerable reasons for divine heartbreak.  The good news is that somehow out of that heartbreak grace emerges.  Grace comes because God’s heart breaks, because God is loving and tender enough in the first place for his heart to break.  A lyric in a Carly Simon song of some years back said, “There’s more room in a broken heart.”  Something like that seems true of God: the grace that washes over our lives seeps through the cracks of his tender, broken heart.

And when that grace in turn comes to us, our hearts break because of the unexpected beauty of it.  God keeps coming to us, even in our bloody tawdriness, and says, “Live!”  And in the end, he gives up his very life through the Son to make just that possible.  As bad as it gets, for God and for us, God’s heart remains as good as it gets.

Throughout the Bible it is clear that God’s redemption always aims to reclaim what makes for true life in the ways God set up the world in the first place.  God’s Word to us is always, “Live!”  God wants to free us to be what we were made to be.  But without this touch of the Creator and Redeemer God, we’ll never know what really makes for life.

C.S. Lewis once pointed to cynics who claim that the only reason people are Christians is because they want to go to heaven.  And maybe sometimes we also worry that heaven is a kind of bribe, that we maybe wouldn’t really live for God if we didn’t have the hope of that later reward.  But that’s nonsense, Lewis rejoined.  The things that heaven offers–beginning with the presence of Jesus–are interesting to us precisely because we’ve already been made new.  There are some rewards that do not sully our motivations in life.  You don’t want to read poetry unless you already love poetry.  So if one day you do sit down and read a book of poems and so exercise your love, it doesn’t cheapen the original love you have for poetry.  So also if you want heaven, it’s because you already love God.  Otherwise heaven would be no more intriguing for you than a book of poems would be attractive to a man who despises poetry.


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