Monday, September 24, 2007

Where Are You?

Where Are You?
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
September 23, 2007
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

© 2007 by Christopher D. Drew

Sermon Focus: The people are at rock bottom now, and so is their prophet, Jeremiah. The nation faces further loss and famine. It seems that God has not come through, and that all is lost. Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 is one of the most poignant texts of either the Old or New Testaments. This text tells us what it can be like when everything we think God should do does not come to pass.

Sermon Function: To teach listeners that our will for God is not necessary God’s will for us. God, who lives in relationship with his people, hears the lament like any other prayer. This text gives us permission to cry out in frustration in the midst of our unexplained agonies. And the text teaches us that when he hit rock bottom that an earthy remedy won’t help us. Only the love of Christ can heal the brokenness of our hearts. And only Jesus Christ can restore us when we have broken away from God and cannot find the way back ourselves.

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This is now our fifth week of six in the prophet Jeremiah, can you believe it? We talked about God’s divine prerogative as supreme judge over all, and how we can be assured that God’s judgment is just, merciful, and loving. As Christians, we know, through the testimony of Holy Scripture and the witness of the Holy Spirit, that our Judge will be Jesus Christ, who was himself judged and found worthy of all glory, laud, and honor.

This week, we turn to yet another subject that weighs heavily on the minds of many people. What does it mean when God seems not to respond to the cries of the faithful for relief? What does it mean for us when we hit rock bottom? How do we respond? What does this tell us about God, and what does tell us about our understanding of Him?

Let’s listen now to God’s word.

[Read Scripture - Jeremiah 8:18-9:1]

Opening Remarks

I’m going to get right to the point today: Humans beings, right from the beginning, suffer from a singular temptation: To replace the God who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, the God who judges us justly and with mercy, the God who out of his boundless love created us, with a different god, the god we want God to be. This is a problem with a long and extensive history. Adam and Eve were not content to live in the glorified reality of new creation. They were tempted by the serpent, who slandered God by claiming that he was withholding something from them that they deserved to have, the knowledge of good and evil, the knowledge of God. They were tempted with all the trappings of God’s office, and because of that illusion, they fell.

We are all prone to this temptation. No one is exempt, because there is this sinfulness in us that persists, even while we still have in us a remnant of God’s divine image in us. With everything we know about God, and about Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, we are still tempted, when things don’t go our way, to throw out the whole idea of the Triune God in favor of an idol we have better control over. A God created in our image, rather than the other way around.

You and I have stories we can tell to one another, stories about the times when we felt like God was not around, when God was AWOL, when God was absent. Usually, these stories come at the major crisis points of our lives.

Some of us have stories about struggling with disease. Some of us must contend with destructive addictions that control us and prevent us from reaching our full potential. Some of us are placed into the situation where we have to face our own mortality or the mortality of a loved one with whom we cannot bear to be parted.

Our trials our not limited to our individual struggles, either. Our nation has undergone its own cultural struggles. Revolution, civil war, world wars, and now wars in response to terrorism. It has become impolite to talk about some of these things from the pulpit. But I will today. Who cannot say that they wondered where God was when those magnificent, beautiful towers fell down in Manhattan. I had stood on the top of one of those towers, overlooking the hum of the big city as the sun set over the waters. Who could do this kind of thing? Where was God? When those towers were destroyed on September 11, I wasn’t even in the country. Separated from friends and family, I tried checking every internet news website I could think of. Nothing. Internet traffic was out of control. I called my sister in Salt Lake City to see if she had any news from her desk at KUTV, a local network affiliate. I heard sobs and felt her tears over the phone. The nation was experiencing a tragedy of such proportions that all you could feel, besides the anger, the fear, and sadness, was the loss of something profound in our society of individual achievement – we lost of sense that we actually were in control of what was going on in our lives. And it is that loss of control that today’s serpents know how to exploit.

What amazed me about that experience was how, for a time at least, people recognized that the social fabric was critically important. Expressions of faith actually found increase in the weeks and months to come, before the illusion of our control began to reassert itself, as it always does, when the patterns of daily living slowly calm themselves in the standard rhythm, the rhythms that give us that illusion that we can somehow, if we simply will it enough, control our own lives to the point where we don’t have to even acknowledge, on a regular basis, our own individual mortalities. That is for another time, for someone else.

Text Transition

Our faithful prophet Jeremiah is experiencing a crisis. He warned the people of Judah and Jerusalem repeatedly, and in the strongest terms, that their idolatrous view of God would lead them to destruction. He was ignored. The people relied on their status as the elect of God to save them. Having rediscovered the Law of Moses, they now hoped that their blind obedience to legal regulations would save them. But God demands more from us, he demands our love and faithfulness. And now judgment has come to the people, and there is chaos, destruction, and tears of lament, that the jewel of the people, Israel, and its seat of public worship and the presence of God among them, the temple, has been destroyed.

In response, Jeremiah penned these words, some of the most poignant in either the Old or New Testaments:
My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: “Is the LORD not in Zion? Is her King not in her?” (18-19)
Where are you, God? Why have you not intervene to save your people? Why is this happening to us. Are you no longer living with us, in your house, the Temple?

The reason for this is offered by God: “Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?” (Jer 8:19 NRSV). The people have turned to their own ways, and have rejected God. How can this path not lead to ruin?

Jeremiah has a sense of foreboding now that the worst is coming. “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” (Jer 8:20 NRSV). The harvest is past: Nothing came forth. The summer has ended: None of the expected summer fruits have come forth. The prospect is for famine.

Jeremiah then expresses his profound sympathy for his people. He is a member of the body who is suffering this judgment. “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me” (Jer 8:21 NRSV). The prophet here gives us an example for those of us who are called to help others in the midst of suffering. We are a member of the human family, and when a member suffers, we join in that suffering. We are not called to deliver empty platitudes when someone is experience the worst trials of life. We are called, instead, into solidarity with them. To be present with them as representatives of God’s people.

“Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” (Jer 8:22 NRSV). Gilead was incredibly fertile, and produced plants that were used to make highly valued balms for medicinal purposes. The illness of Israel’s sin is, as we see here, beyond the power of earthly remedy.

“O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (Jer 8:23 NRSV). Yes, indeed. A fountain of tears is shed over the loss of what we think we control. I remember when this happened to me, years ago, when I felt totally alone and abandoned by everything and everyone. Tears of despair. Tears of depression. Tears of anger and frustration at what was happening to me. Who has not shed such tears? Even Jesus Christ himself shed tears at the sight of Lazarus’s mourning family. One wonders if perhaps Jesus had this passage from Jeremiah in mind when, he wept over the city of Jerusalem.

And in the face of this tragedy, Jeremiah longs for escape. “O that I had in the desert a traveler’s lodging place, that I might leave my people and go away from them! For they are all adulterers, a band of traitors” (Jer 9:1 NRSV). Get me out of here. Get me away from this faithlessness, and hypocrisy. Give me a way out of this illness that pervades my body, or my mind, or my soul. I want it to stop, but it can’t stop, so I want to escape. Good God, help me to escape this torment in my soul, this tragedy afflicting my people, who have become traitors, blind to your steadfast love and your just judgment.

Good Lord, where are you?

Disillusionment from Our False Idols

Yes, it is during the crises of live that we are sorely tempted just to jettison the whole faith “thing.” Some already have and make try to represent this as a step toward finally achieving psychological normalcy. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the “Religion” section of Barnes and Noble the next time you visit. You’ll find an astonishing variety of titles in the “Religion” section that are about the wonders of atheism, book that preach against that final “illusion” of faith that prevents us from being fully human. This is additional evidence of our temptation to idolize ourselves. It’s so much easier for us to try and kick God out of our lives than to contend with the question of who God is, how God works, and how God loves us. Suffering, which used to be thought of as a sign of an opportunity for displaying spiritual discipline, has now been cast in the role of devil.

But all of this is just further evidence that we need to look deeper, to seek further the God who loves us. Because all of our false idols about God eventually crumble when we discover that they don’t accord with the reality of our lives. And that can make us very angry with God.

This passage from Jeremiah, then, teaches us two significant lessons.

First, Jeremiah shows us that it is okay to lament and complain to God when we are in the midst of suffering. Our relationship with God is infused with Joy when we realize that we can come to God both in thanksgiving for everything we have been given, but also when we realize that we can come to God when we have need to complain and beg for forgiveness and healing. Jesus Christ, the perfect revelation of God, who lived with us and gave us the full measure of what it means to be loved by a God who wants to save us, himself cried out in agony those famous words on the cross, from Psalm 22:1, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” My friends, if Jesus himself could cry out for deliverance, so can we. And we should at all times cry from deliverance, because we need it more than ever, in a culture that encourages idolmaking of the self.

The second thing we are taught is to jettison many of our preconceived notions about God, which we then turn into idols we worship. Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book The Preaching Life, writes about the death of Christianity in Europe and about the rejection of God during the 1960s in the wake of the Kent State and Mai Lai massacres, wrote this about the prevailing environment:
“God was not good. God did not answer prayer… All bets were off. Human beings were free to construct their own realities from any materials at hand and to express themselves any way they pleased. When lightening did not strike, their confidence grew along with their fear: that perhaps they really were alone in the universe after all.”1
We live in an similar era of disillusionment and spiritual discomfort. But that can be a good thing, because, as Taylor writes, “in the place where all of our notions about God comes to naught – there is still reason to hope, because disillusionment is not so bad.” Why is that? Here’s the reason: “Disillusionment is the loss of illusion – about ourselves, about the world, about God – and while it is almost always painful, it is not a bad thing to lose the lies we have mistaken for truth… Disillusioned, we find out what is not true and are set free to seek what is – if we dare.”2

For us, each time God declines to follow our rules and to yield to our expectations, this is, as Brown writes, yet another of idol that we’ve propped up that now must be set aside. It is a lifelong journey, one that sanctifies us, because we become close to God the more we seek him. But we are unable to go the full distance because of our sinfulness, our tendency to raise up yet other ideas for who God is. The issue is this, God is way above what we can possibly imagine.

And that is why we require a Savior, one who is the full expression of God’s love and desire to be with us. One who Himself, while fully God, yet condescended to live with us, as he does today, right here, and right now, in the exhibition of that love and desire for fellowship that we rehearse and lay open for the world in our worship, in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and in the love we show to one another, when things are going well, and especially when we find ourselves in the midst of suffering.

What encourages this preacher is that I can see you present with those who suffer, witnessing to God’s love in your ministry. You visit the sick. You take care of each other when you need help. You prepare meals for those who cannot. You sit with those who are lonely. You deliver communion to those who cannot be with us. And you pray constantly through the ministry of prayer quilts and in your faithful attendance at worship here in the church. Keep up this sanctifying mission of the church, my friends, because you will find that it will yield within that peace that surpasses all understanding, so that when you are called to bear witness during a time of suffering, you will be able to do it, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Given at First Presbyterian Church, Portland, Texas.

1Taylor, Barbara Brown. The Preaching Life. Cowley Publications: Cambridge, 1993, p. 5.
2Ibid., p. 8.