The following is a manuscript for a fifteen minute sermon, so it is slightly longer than posts normally are on the Writer’s Block. Notwithstanding the additional effort on your part, dear reader, I invite you to take some time to read it anyhow. (I think the content is quite worthy, but I’m very biased.) Or, you can skip reading altogether and listen to it.
I invite you to open your Bibles to today’s Old Testament reading, Jeremiah 14. Our first reaction looking at this is probably, “Dude, Jeremiah, quit cramping our style, buddy!” Jeremiah is admittedly a very tough read. In fact, after the lection was read this evening, Fr. Brian leaned over to me and said, “Good luck with that one!” It’s for this reason that I believe Lent is the perfect time to read Jeremiah. He was a sullen and overly-sensitive man who loved a good rant and never failed to utter a juicy curse on somebody. This makes Lent the perfect cover to preach him to you. All his cynicism and judgment can be unleashed on us, and if we are disturbed by it (like I often am if I may be honest), we can just blame it on Lent. Judgment is on our minds right now anyway, right? So let’s buckle our seatbelts friends, dive into Jeremiah, and prepare to feel judged.
Before we give Jeremiah too much of a hard time, however, we must acknowledge that he had a point. If you lived through what he did, you might understand that his disposition is not cynicism really, but extreme heartbreak for the sinful idolatry of his own people. In the 400 years since King David, God’s people had only slid deeper and deeper into her depraved delusions, rejecting prophet after prophet God sent to call them back: “Repent or God is going to send you into exile.” By the time God sent Jeremiah on the eve of Jerusalem’s destruction in 586, he only gave him one simple message to preach: time’s up for repentance; you’re going into exile!
The severity of Israel’s problem is dramatically illustrated by how she consistently gets the wrong message from God’s attempts to get her attention. In the face of drought and threat of invasion, how do we see Israel responding? Does she turn to God in reverent humility? If you turn to verse 12, we see Israel offering sacrifices and offerings—she seems to be engaged in her own Lenten piety! But is her expression of contrition and faith sincere? Read on to verse 13. You see, here Jeremiah laments the false teachers and prophets who keep telling Israel that all the judgment Jeremiah is prophesying won’t happen. “Everything’s fine” they keep saying. “You guys aren’t really that bad. Just keep bringing your sacrifices (and our paychecks) and we’ll make sure God is appropriately appeased toward you. Nothing bad will happen, you’ll see.” And what’s worse: the people willingly bought into this!
Jeremiah’s response to this nonsense is to use their very liturgies of worship against them. What we have in our passage here are actually two examples back to back of a literary form common to Israel’s liturgy called a “lament.” The basic structure of a lament is really quite simple and predictable, and the people of Israel would have recognized it well. There is first an appeal to God with a description of the current plight. We have a drought, verses 2-6. We have a foreign army at our gates, verses 17 and 18. This is followed by an request for God to help, often with some kind of confession of sin, and an appeal to God’s character. Our sins testify against us, verse 7. Do not forsake us, for we bear your name, verse 9. Remember your covenant, verse 21. Then, from all the many other examples of lament liturgies we have in the Old Testament, what we’d expect to hear next is a word of comfort from God, an assurance of help to come. And what do we find?
Verse 11, “Then the Lord said to me” be comforted my people? Not quite. “‘Do not pray for the well being of this people.’” Verse 1 of the next chapter, “Then the Lord said to me” don’t worry Israel, I’ve got your back? Try again. “’Even if Moses and Samuel were to stand before me, my heart would not go out to this people.’” Whoa.
This reversal would be akin to something like this. Your heart is heavy when you come into church on Sunday morning, and you pray the words of confession with boldness: “Lord we confess that we have sinned against you…” And you’re eager to hear the comforting words of the absolution, to feel the weight of this sin lifted from your shoulders. And just as the priest opens his mouth to offer you those words—those sweet words you hear at this point every Sunday—instead he says, “You know, every week you guys come in here with the same stuff you commit over and over, and you just keep doing it. God told me in a vision that he’s not going to absolve you this time. So I’m not going to absolve you either. Now go home. The service is over.” Whoa, indeed. This is the kind of stuff Jeremiah is dealing with.
And their challenge is also ours, as this season is designed to remind us. Lent is a beautiful season to reflect deeply on those ways we still manage to turn from God. But for this reason, Lent can also be a very dangerous season. We are liable to think that all or contrition, all our lamenting, all our soul searching and fasting is actually a service we render to God. We are liable to think that by confessing our sins—yes, by admitting that we are hopeless—that we are somehow putting God in a position where he is bound to help us. In short, we are liable to treat the grace God has provided for us in Christ and his Church with flippancy. (“He’s merciful. He’ll forgive me. Right?”) You see, one the clearest signs that we human beings are in an awful state is not just our many sins, but the way in which we abuse the means God himself has given us to deal with them. This idea is replete throughout the Scriptures; nothing receives such harsh rebuke from God and his prophets than false religion. We are reminded of how Jesus reserved his harshest judgments not for out-and-out atheists, but for the very religious Pharisees. To abuse the very religion God himself has authored, to treat his gracious disposition with flippancy, is to summit the height of idolatry. We understand now why Jeremiah let loose the way he did.
What are we to do with this? This is where our pal sullen ol’ Jeremiah comes to our rescue. This is why I love Jeremiah; he had a very sensitive soul. You see, he didn’t actually like preaching judgment and woe. (In fact, some of the most powerful passages in this book record Jeremiah asking, in fact begging God to let him stop.) So he doesn’t leave us here, but rather he offers beautiful words of comfort to offset the woe. Jeremiah is not asking us to give up on “religion” or religious things. He is calling us to remember the true object of it all. Even in his mocking lament here, Jeremiah provides us with the crucial corrective to an abuse of religion. As we approach the throne of grace for mercy, we invoke not our confession, not our fasting, not our orthodox piety, but God himself. This idea is expressed in one of the most beautiful concepts in all Scripture: God’s Name. For your Name’s sake, O God!
To invoke someone’s name in the ancient world is to claim their authority. This concept is not so far removed from us as we might think. I work for the President of Gordon-Conwell, and one my responsibilities is to make contact with people and groups outside the Seminary on his behalf. When I pick up the phone and say, “I’m calling on behalf of Dr. Hollinger,” in a very real respect, I am no longer the one really talking. When these people deal with me in this capacity, they know they are really dealing with the President of the Seminary and not me at all. The invocation of his name makes this clear.
And so it is with God. When we call on his Name, we are in a real sense speaking to him on his own behalf. We are inviting him not to consider us, but to consider his own declared interests, to remember who he has revealed himself to be in the world. Jeremiah makes clear how this works in three ways:
First, he appeals to God’s name as if to God’s very character. Verse 8 “O Hope of Israel, it’s Savior!” Remember who you have told us you are! You are the one who saves, even though our sins cry out against us. Verse 22 “Do any of the worthless idols bring rain? No, it is you O Lord our God.” You are the true God, far above these dead idols we make for ourselves. Show how much greater you are than them!
Second, he appeals to God’s name as if to God’s reputation in the world. Verse 9, “why are you like a man powerless to save?” Won’t our defeat at the hands of our enemies make them think they defeated you? Verse 21 “Do not dishonor your throne,” by which Jeremiah appeals to the Temple. If the Babylonians destroy it, won’t they think their gods are better than you? This is how conquering armies in the ancient world perceived their victories, and Jeremiah knows it. O God, don’t let them think they beat you! You’re the one true God!
Third and perhaps most importantly, he appeals to God’s name as if to God’s promises to his people. Verse 9 “You are among us Lord!” You promised to dwell in our midst! You promised to be with us! When God makes a promise, God intends to see it through. He’s not fickle in this regard like we so often are. What’s more, Jeremiah knows that God has tied his fate to his people in this world, so surely he cannot let them pass away. The proof is yet again in the Name: “You are among us Lord, and we bear your name!” Or again in verse 21 “Remember your covenant with us and do not break it!” Here Jeremiah pulls out all the stops. You aren’t like us God, who do break the covenant! You are higher than us in this: you keep your covenant! Do not be like us, but rather look kindly on us and have mercy on us.
Now wait a minute. I just finished telling you that God answered Jeremiah’s prayers with a big fat NO! How can I possibly see comforting words in this? Let me tell you, God may have sent the people of Jeremiah’s generation into exile for their sins, but he did it just so he could bring them back again! He did it precisely for his own Name’s sake, so that by his power to deliver his people even at the height of their misery and wretchedness, they and all the nations would know that the Lord alone is God, the Lord alone is mighty to save, the Lord alone sees his promises through. Jeremiah knew this. That’s why he prayed this way. Therefore, it is to the Lord alone we appeal when we bring to him our sins and contrition, in Lent or any other time.
And God didn’t just answer Jeremiah’s prayer by bringing the Israelites back physically from exile. He sent us his very self, Jesus the Messiah of God, to bring us back from the sin that made our exile into death inevitable in the first place. Now when we pray, we don’t presume to offer anything to God. Instead, we place before him the mighty name of Jesus. You ever wonder why we end our prayers with “in the name of Jesus”? Ever wonder why the confession we say every Sunday—our own lament liturgy—hinges on the words “for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ have mercy on us”? Well here’s the reason! Oh Lord, we have sinned! But look how in Jesus you have utterly vanquished all our sin and hid our true selves in you! Oh Lord, our conduct betrays us and the world mocks your church. But look how by inscribing your name on us—we are Christians after all—you share your glory and dignity before a mocking world with us! Oh Lord, we despair in the trials of this broken world. But look how you’ve promised in Jesus to bring us all home! It is upon his righteousness, his mercy, his gentle kindness we rely. It is in the name of Jesus we pray, O Lord!
It is really good to read Jeremiah in Lent, because he teaches us how to take full advantage of Lent without falling prey to the dangers of Lent. He teaches us that the only thing we have to offer God is not our religion, or our fasting, or our confessions. All we can really offer is our own brokenness. Hear me: this is not an invitation to skip Lent and anything else “religious.” Quite the contrary. My point is to call us to remember when we do these things what we do have to offer to God: his own Name; his own testimony about himself in the world. The name of Jesus Christ, by which he assures us of his goodness towards us despite ourselves. The name of Jesus Christ, by which all the nations will know that he alone is God who saves. The name of Jesus Christ, by which we alone approach the throne of grace with confidence. In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
Sermon preached at Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church in Danvers, MA during Choral Evensong, Sunday, April 3, 2011, with Father Brian Barry officiating and the Choir of Christ the Redeemer singing.