Most of us began ministry with a rather romantic notion that we would be the ones who would change the course of the church, at least our little corner of the church. Knowing we are called by God we launched headlong into the work. We marked a course for success (whatever that may look like) confident that we would be able to accomplish great things for the Kingdom.
Soon, however, we were confronted with the realities of ministry. No matter how eloquent and true we may be, unless the people in our assignment hear and heed the Word of the Lord, our effectiveness will be nil. Just as we speak through a set of filters determined by training and experiences, so our parishioners hear through filters of their experiences and culture. Predispositions matter.
Such is the case with Jeremiah. To say his task was difficult is an understatement. Proclaiming the message of God never is easy. Jeremiah’s ministry was made even more difficult by a lack of receptivity. He was not saying what his hearers wanted to hear. Bruggemann puts it this way. “Jeremiah spoke to the people with glazed eyes that looked and did not see. They were so encased in their own world of fantasy that they were stupid and undiscerning.” (Bruggemann p.59)
Such lack of receptivity left Jeremiah much like many preachers of our day, discouraged.
This gives us the backdrop of Jeremiah’s lament and God’s response found in our passage this week. This is a deeply personal lament. In these verses, he is not speaking to the metanarrative of exile or even to God’s capacity to act receptively. Jeremiah realizes his role is lonely.
Vs 15-18 Jeremiah’s Lament
Verse 15 begins with a declaration of God’s understanding and compassion for Jeremiah’s predicament. In an oddly understandable way, his frustration is even deepened by the reality that God is able. Yet God seems unwilling to act on the prophet’s behalf. God is longsuffering toward his people but Jeremiah indicates he would like God to pay attention to his suffering!
Verse 16-17 recalls the enthusiasm with which Jeremiah accepted the call. He took great joy, even delight in the words that came from God. He was thrilled to be a representative of the Lord God Almighty. In contrast to the pleasures around him, he removed himself from the revelry of daily life and instead he was filled with indignation. This gives us the picture of a grieving prophet and foreshadows the sorrow of captivity. As Psalm 137 indicates “By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’”
By the time we come to verse 18 we see the prophet in full blown self-pity. We can almost hear him say, “Why me, Lord? I don’t get why I am the one suffering here! It’s just not fair.” At this point, there is almost a wavering of his confidence in God to get him through his difficulty. He even goes so far as to suggest God may be like a spring that fails.
Verses 19-21 God’s Response
God does not mince words as he opens his discourse with a call to repent. Jeremiah’s words may be true but his attitude stinks. It seems Jeremiah has fallen victim to the temptation to believe he is the protagonist in his own story. His assignment is to serve and not to be served. He is called to be a spokesman for the living God. For the prophet, restoration is all about returning to the proper order of things. God does not relinquish his role as protagonist in this narrative. The role of the prophet is to speak worthy words on behalf of God.
The last part of verse 19 reminds me of a game of reverse “chicken.” The prophet and the people seem to be at cross purposes. Instead of racing headlong toward one another they are moving farther apart. But like “chicken” we are left to wonder who will flinch first. It seems that God is saying “keep your focus on me and not on them.” The implications of misdirected focus are far reaching. In a desire to be loved and accepted by the people, the prophet is tempted to turn to them (the people). Clearly the temptation is to compromise and make the message more palatable or popular. Instead the prophet is challenged to hold steady and let this people come to you (the prophet).
In our day, as in every generation, we see a wide gap between the standard of God and the practice of the people. Thus we can fall into the trap of modifying the standard. Is it possible we personalize the rejection and, wanting to be liked, we seek to protect our reputation by capitulating to the vision and imagination of the people over the divine vision and imagination of the Kingdom? Often, we forget the message of the Kingdom is aspirational and not simply pragmatic. Compromise of the message can rob the Gospel of its power to transform. We can find ourselves no longer challenging people to love recklessly, give generously and trust unswervingly in Christ. Instead we can yield to a self-promoting and self-centered approach such as is found in the so-called “prosperity gospel.” We may find ourselves telling people what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear.
The Lord reminds Jeremiah that his message may well be offensive to the people. In fact, he tells him that they will fight against the prophet! (vs.20) In the end, however there is a word of hope. God is on the side of his servant. God will be true to his word and salvation and redemption are the end game with God. It is so easy to lose sight of the fact that God is playing for the long game and we are often short sighted. He has not forgotten his promise nor has he lost sight of his purpose.
Preaching the Passage
It might be helpful to engage the question, “How do we deal with rejection?” We do not disengage from society but we do not, as J.B. Phillips translated Romans 21:2, “let the world squeeze us into its mold”. Instead we, 1) repent of self-centered motivations or self-pity and 2) maintain the message we have been given (the Gospel), then 3) we rest in the reality that God has not abandoned us. We serve a God who is playing for the long game. His redemptive purpose will be accomplished. It is amazing how God uses the most difficult challenges of our lives to accomplish his redemptive purposes both in and through us.
Bibliography: Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1978)\ Abraham Heschel, The Prophets: An Introduction (New York: Harper and Row, 1962) LaSor, Hubbard & Bush, Old Testament Survey (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996) Alex Varughese, New Beacon Bible Commentary: Jeremiah 1-25 (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2008)