Ladies and gentlemen – we have 2 very challenging, off-road, all-terrain, Bible readings to look at today. So, fasten your seat belts, we’re in for a rocky ride.
Jeremiah is not a happy bunny and he’s not going to keep that fact to himself. He feels that God has conned him, seduced him, enticed him – that God has found a vulnerability and taken advantage of it.
You see the prophet Jeremiah has been given a thankless task. On the one hand he’s to tell the people of Israel and Judah that God loves them like a groom loves his bride. But on the other he’s to proclaim that at any moment they will be hit by a cataclysmic event because of their repeated disobedience and self-interest. The world he knows is about to die. He grieves for Jerusalem in the same way that Jesus would cry over it centuries later (Luke 19:41-45).
The people readily believe the first bit but not the second. Of course, God loves us, how could anything possibly harm us? Jeremiah becomes the object of ridicule, even to his so-called friends. Those around him think that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
But he can’t help himself for saying what he must. He describes it like a burning fire shut up in his bones if he tries to resist. The call to be a prophet is more than an invitation. It’s part an enticement and part yielding to an overpowering force. He can’t stop himself.
Stuck in the middle
Who would be a prophet? Stuck in the middle, mediating on behalf of God with man – and vice versa. Even at his commission in chapter I, he’s told that he’ll have 2 opposing roles: To destroy and to overthrow and then to build and to plant. Someone once said that if you truly love someone, you feel their pain. Jeremiah loves both God and man – and feels the pain of both.
So, here we see Jeremiah lashing out at the position that he’s been put in, giving full vent to his frustration, pointing the finger at God. Jeremiah is a person handling grief.
We see the agony but, by the end, we see joy too. By the end he’s saying: “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord!” We don’t know what happened, but something has changed inside him. Jeremiah now sees God as an ally rather than an opponent. He’s hardly charitable to his enemies though. He’s clearly made some progress, but his anger is still there – it’s just directed at another target.
And our Lectionary reading finishes there on a positive note – but, in the Bible, Jeremiah goes back to complaining again in the next verse. Typical, isn’t it?
But aren’t we a bit like that though? We get some newfound confidence and just as quickly it goes again. We put a new trust in God only to plunge back into lamenting our situation again.
And those of us involved around the church – don’t we also feel some of that frustration that Jeremiah felt? That sometimes it seems like we’re putting a lot of effort in but there’s nothing to show for it. Recently, Justin Welby described the numerical decline in the Church of England as being his own personal failure.
If nothing else, this passage shows that it’s OK to be completely, totally, blisteringly, honest with God about how we feel. If God is God, then he’s big enough to take it. We can talk about the frustration and exhaustion, the hurt and exasperation.
Yet Jeremiah finishes our verses with those words of thanksgiving. It reminds me of Psalm 22 which starts with the verse quoted by Jesus on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” At the end, though, the same psalmist can say: “They will come and tell of your righteousness to those newly born, speak forever of the wonders you have done.”
We might be uncomfortable with these 2 ways of thinking being in the same place. But both the psalmist and Jeremiah were able to hold those extreme thoughts together. Are we also called and challenged to not say what we think God wants to hear but to both be more honest about articulating our true feelings towards God and giving thanks for God’s work in our lives? To hold both lament and praise together at the same time? To grieve for a loss and celebrate a life.
In Matthew’s Gospel, gentle Jesus meek and mild is anything but. He fits right in with the straight-talking, no holds barred language that we’ve just seen from Jeremiah.
His coming doesn’t bring about peace but rather confrontation. There will be dissension and altercation, strife and turmoil. His coming will bring conflict even within close family circles.
But hang on. That’s not what we signed-up for is it? Yet in many parts of the world today that’s the reality even now of following Jesus. Or we might think of Rev Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Archbishop Oscar Romero, who were both killed for their faith and opposition to the political regimes of their time.
It’s quite likely that Matthew was writing for a Jewish audience in the early church where exactly these things were happening. Followers of Jesus were being turned out of their family homes and placed at odds with their kith and kin. There was no grey, ambivalent area here. You were either for Jesus or against him. It was something that Simeon predicted all the way back when Jesus was a baby in the temple (Luke 2:34).
Of course, the disciples had already shown courage in leaving the security of their own homes and families to follow Jesus. We know that they all ended up in some sort of collision course with the powers that be. Jesus highlighting the horrors to come is a way to help the disciples manage the fear of what was ahead. Just like Jeremiah, Jesus names it and he confronts it.
Even now, within our worldwide Anglican church, we see divisions about how we think about such things as human sexuality or immigration. Trying to heed the commands of Christ and live faithfully often causes tensions and uncertainties. For some here that might mean challenging fraudulent practices at work, calling out dishonesty, and potentially suffering the consequences.
God’s call matters
This passage in Matthew obliges us to really test our convictions and think about how we engage with the communities in which we live. Because these things matter. God’s call on us matters. It takes us beyond our comfort zones and into the realm of risk.
If we really take up our cross, then it put us with those on the margins. That might put us up against people with vested interests in the status quo. But in the giving of ourselves, we find our true selves. In the midst of all the turmoil, we’re told not to be afraid. Even the hairs of our head are counted.
Let’s pray that in the middle of all the conflict and division in which we might find ourselves, that we also find the deep awareness and conviction that God is present in the world, present in mercy and in compassion.
Newness from grief
This might all seem quite bleak. But, for the theologian Walter Brueggemann, if we just deny that anything is wrong and sugar-coat the truth then we will never move on, we never move away from the pain. Indeed, he says: “it’s only grief that permits newness.” Both Jeremiah and Jesus are articulating the pain in God’s own heart – and the voicing of it allows for healing. “For I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, says the Lord” Jeremiah 30:17
Jeremiah might be a confused personality, but he understood that publicly voicing hurt, a hurt shared by God, then allowed God to demonstrate how deep was his love and compassion – and that not doing it left God one-dimensional.
Jesus too, understands the heart of God and he cries for Jerusalem. He hints at the conflicts that will soon land on the disciples. But the crying also suggests the triumph which is to come, that the current order will pass away. But we have to choose – we can’t love the old and receive the new.
Not so unlike
In some ways, you and I are not so unlike the prophet Jeremiah, or Jesus for that matter. In his book ‘Being Christian’, Rowan Williams says this: “Being Christian, we are in the middle of two things that seem quite contradictory: in the middle of the heart of God and in the middle of a world of threat, suffering and pain. Jesus has taken his stand right in the middle of those two realities and that is where we take ours.”
As Brueggemann concludes, the gospel, the good news, throughout history and today is that “in God’s attentive pain, healing happens. Newness comes. Possibilities are presented”.
Or as Paul puts it, in today’s passage from Romans: “Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
Out of whatever pain and grief that you and I may be in right now, may we too know newness of life. Amen
‘Newness from grief’ was delivered by Ian Banks at Christ Church Walmersley on 25th June 2023. It was based on Jeremiah 20:7-13 and Matthew 10:24-39.
- For Abraham Heschel’s take on Jeremiah https://drisha.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/handout_abraham-joshua-heschels-jeremiah.pdf
- For more on Jeremiah https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-12/commentary-on-jeremiah-207-13-5
- Brueggemann, W. (1986). Hopeful Imagination. Fortress Press.
- Williams, R. (2014). Being Christian. SPCK
- Greenberg, P. (2010). The Complete Psalms.
- And for Matthew https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-12/commentary-on-matthew-1024-39-4