Rather unusually for me, this was a rather more expository sermon than I normally deliver.
I wonder how often we listen in on other people’s conversations, either inadvertently because we happen to be nearby, or deliberately to discover something of interest or importance to us. It’s not always advisable, but it’s actually quite easy to find ourselves doing it. But what if were able to eavesdrop on the conversations that some people have with God?
Let’s take Rowan Williams as an example. I wonder, hypothetically you understand, what Uncle Rowan might have said to God recently? Say, about 2 weeks ago, during General Synod perhaps? Because he the public eye, we don’t have to eavesdrop on what he actually said; things like “I long to see women bishops in the C of E” and also “I long for there to be … provision for those who continue to have theological reservations on this subject.” Yet, I wonder, as the deeply prayerful man he is known to be, whether in his private spaces with God, he allowed his frustration to show, and suggested that God placed a ‘plague on both their houses?!’
In this passage from Jeremiah we are being given quite deliberately, the opportunity to eavesdrop on two conversations. One between a prophet and his colleague priest, and the other between the same prophet and God.
We hear the first of these conversations in three ways:
● as a passer by watching an altercation between two priests by a Temple gate in Jerusalem;
● as a Jewish slave of the Babylonian empire denied a homeland and a place of worship by the actions of our forbears;
● and today, as the inheritor of this ancient text looking through the lens of a new covenant found in Christ.
If we were passing the Upper Gate of Benjamin shortly before the fall of Jerusalem, we would quite possibly have recognised both the characters who stood at odds with each other.
One was the outspoken critic of the nation’s greed and idolatry who called the people to reform and repent, and who prophesied in the name of God the destruction of not just their Holy of Holies but of their city and their nation.
The other, nominally a priestly colleague of the first, was the legal guardian of the Temple precincts, known probably for his placatory blindness to the greed and violence of the nation, and keen to protect his position and his family.
One was fresh from the stocks, derided, ignored, denounced and whispered against; the other maintained the status quo by denying the truth of God by force.
Seeing them confronting each other was probably no surprise, but perhaps as an eavesdropper we would have sensed the change of focus in the prophet’s words. For this priestly official of the temple, the word of God had suddenly got personal, very personal indeed. It was no longer words spoken against a nation with whom God had lost patience, but with a leader of the people, whose very family, wealth and person would be exiled and destroyed. To hear someone so exulted be confronted by news of their own death and burial anywhere outside of Jerusalem, as a result of their own jealousy and pride, must surely have shaken the idle listener if not the thick-skinned guardian of the Temple.
But would that eavesdropper really have considered that all that Jeremiah spoke affected them? Or, because nothing had actually happened to anyone since Jeremiah had first proclaimed God’s vengeance, would it have been dismissed as someone else’s problem, and simply become an incident to gossip round the next street corner?
Hearing the description of that incident read, several decades after the event, as a Jewish slave in a foreign land, knowing that all the prophet Jeremiah had spoken had come true, must have stung. The blame for your own situation could be laid fairly and squarely at the door of the Temple priest, and those like him who had ignored the word of God, for the sake of their own position and gain.
Living in the context of the exile that Jeremiah had foretold, perhaps contemplating the loosening grip of the Babylonian empire on your life, and the long dreamed-of return to Jerusalem, listening to that story could have inspire a waryness to the motives of your leaders, and a considerable motivation to be faithful to God in all things. And yet, and yet…
Today, we don’t eavesdrop on the prophet’s words from a nearby gateway, or read the account like a history book written in hindsight. Now, through the lens of the Gospels, we watch the persecution of Jeremiah by his fellow priests, and see in it a precursor of the persecution which Jesus suffered at the hands of the Scribes and Pharisees 600 years after these events, when once again God’s covenant people were not open to the word of God being proclaimed among them within the Temple Courts.
Is Jeremiah’s accusatory prophesy over Pashhur so far removed from Jesus’ condemning the money changers in the Temple within sight of the chief priests and teachers of the law, in Matthew 21? No, it isn’t.
Is it so far removed from those who speak out against tax avoidance and un-necessary brand dominance at the Olympics, or those that are concerned for injustices in milk prices, or the secularisation of our education system? No, it isn’t. But, do these contemporary voices speak in the name of God, or simply from a sense of general moral outrage?
Because, as I’m sure both our Archbishops are only too well aware from personal experience, like Jeremiah, if you are called to speak what you understand as God’s truth, in the public sphere today, you are likely to be derided, denounced and whispered against, ignored by many of those to whom you speak.
Little surprise then, if when Christian leaders have their personal time out for a private conversation with God, they get more than a little peevish, and lament their lot. Just like Jeremiah.
For the second part of the passage here is no piece of poetry or the account of a public display of weakness, but a written testimony to a “vocational crisis, caused by the prophet’s distress at being stuck between an insistent God and a resistant people”, designed perhaps to bring about the remorse or repentance of those still in exile for whom it was recounted.
Jeremiah, is not the only person in the world ever to have felt backed into a corner by God, with no way out but to fulfil a calling that they know will bring hardship, persecution and the reproach and misrepresentation of even those that should be their colleagues. It is perhaps a case of entrapment rather than deception, because Jeremiah 1 shows that no deception has been involved. For it is clear from the outset of Jeremiah’s calling that he recognised God as putting the words in his mouth, and that those to whom he proclaimed their own idolatry and wickedness, would fight against him, what he said, and the God he stood for.
If we look again through the lens of the Gospels, are the sufferings of Jeremiah really so very different to those that Jesus warns his disciples of in John 16, knowing as he did that the authorities would put them out of the synagogue, or ordinary people kill them thinking that by doing so they were offering a service to God? (John 16:2)
In fact is this lament of Jeremiah’s, condemned by some since as blasphemous, really so very different from Jesus’ cry from the cross “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”! (Mark 15:34)
Yet, Jeremiah’s complaints do not stay focused on the God that placed him in this situation. He knows that he is in the service of God’s compelling truth, and that is why he must speak it, a truth that speaks out both against the violence and destruction of a nation against its own faith and people, and of the violence and destruction that will be ranged against them by external forces. Jeremiah cannot be true to his calling under God by being silent.
So Jeremiah’s sharpest complaints are against his persecutors, and his only request of God is against them, that God might judge them by their actions. It is not that God doesn’t know his cause, for we know it is the one to which God called him, but it is one that his own humanity requires him to lay before God so that he forces himself to acknowledge God’s ownership of the situation in which he feels trapped.
Tough though he is finding the ministry of prophet, he acknowledges God as a mighty warrior, fighting as foretold on the side of the truth Jeremiah proclaims. So even at this his lowest ebb, the prophet is able to silence his own complaints with thanksgiving, full of confidence in God’s deliverance.
Surely that was a word of hope to those in exile in Babylon. God can be trusted, and will fulfil the prophesy they were to read about later in the account of their exile that “When seventy years are completed in Babylon, God would come to them and fulfil his good promise to bring them back to Jerusalem.” (Jer 29:10)
Again through the lens of the Gospel, Christ prophesies that he will die but rise again (Mark 8:31) but then be taken from from his people so that the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth (John 16:12) can bring God’s people back to a place of relationship with him, a new Jerusalem. God’s word of truth, through prophets like Jeremiah down the ages to Christ’s own teaching, can be trusted.
So, where does all that leave us today?
Firstly, it poses us questions about whether our private conversations with God have integrity.
Do they really reflect the anguish of serving God faithfully, and if they don’t, why don’t they?
Is it because we are like the unfaithful idolaters ignoring the truth that God is speaking into our hearts, directly or through the mouths of others, and we can’t therefore look God squarely in the face and pour out our hearts to him?
Or is it because when we have been obedient to his calling, and found that true to his word, God has placed us in some darn tight uncomfortable corner where we are forced to say things that make us unpopular or do things that cause us emotional pain or turmoil, we feel we shouldn’t lay it all before him and cry out in our distress: “Lord, you got me into this mess; now get me out again!”?
Secondly, we are being posed questions about the level to which we embody the word of God.
We proclaim in our creed that we believe in the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, that by those means we live in a relationship as close to God as the one that Jeremiah witnessed to. Yet, is our faith in God visible as something which burns within us in such a way that it drives our behaviour and our thinking in every waking moment, both the public ones, and the private ones?
For all the torture, the gloomy prophesy, the sense of being trapped in a God-given situation over which a mere human has no control, the frustration at man’s inhumanity to man and unfaithfulness to God, this passage should give us hope!
We have a God who is with us, and though he sees us for who we are, we live in that new covenant relationship of forgiveness through Christ for what is past. With utter honesty we can lay before God our fears and frustrations, and we can always start afresh each day to witness to God’s faithfulness and sing the praises of the one who upholds in all we do in his name and for his glory.