Sermon - 6th May 2012
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is also available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Jeremiah is not the easiest of the Old Testament prophets to read. He is, how shall I say, gloomy! You wouldn’t ask Jeremiah round a meal and he wouldn’t be good company in the pub! His fate was to be called to minister in incredibly difficult circumstances in the history of Judah – the southern kingdom of the Jewish people. Today’s passage is set around the year 594 – some six hundred years before Jesus and he’s addressing not only his own King, Zedekiah, but also the ambassadors of the various nations which surrounded Judah – Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre and Sidon. His message was not to rebel against the over-lordship of the Babylonians and he wore an animal’s yoke to graphically symbolise being subjugated.
At the time the powers in the region were Egypt to Judah’s south and Babylon to its north. In their power play all the nations in between had to choose sides or choose to remain neutral. In much the same way that the various European countries in much of the second part of the 20th Century had to choose to join either Nato or the Warsaw pact with only a few, Ireland and Switzerland being the obvious examples, choosing to remain neutral. When the superpowers are raging it’s often best to quiet, keep out of trouble and try hard not to be noticed. This was Jeremiah’s message to the other small nations and his message to his king.
It was a message that was deeply unpopular and ended up with Jeremiah being imprisoned in dreadful conditions and then imprisoned in slightly better conditions. To speak out against the powers of the day isn’t easy.
To have such a difficult ministry clearly takes its toll and Jeremiah experienced doubt and difficulty in his faith due to the circumstances he found himself in. In his prayers, dotted throughout the book, he reveals his feelings to God: “I for my part was like a trustful lamb being led to the slaughterhouse, not knowing the schemes they were plotting against me…” (11:19). He asks God “why is it that the way of the wicked prospers? Why do treacherous people thrive?” (and he’s quite clear that he wants his enemies smote!) He feels sorry for himself saying that it was a disaster for his mother to have given birth to him (15:10) and thinks that all his contemporaries curse him.
His prayerful sense of sorrow, self-doubt and feelings of uselessness were reflected in our clip from Rev. Here the inner-city Anglican priest feels sorry for himself after getting a bad review of one of his sermons and after a dreadful Remembrance Day service. Of course his mood isn’t helped by the ever present, and ever snide, archdeacon. All this sends him into a huge pity party. He tells God of his doubts and questions but his mood isn’t helped by the children in the church primary school who torment him. It seems his ministry is getting as awful as Jeremiah’s.
We all have bad days. We all have days when questions seem to overwhelm us, when we don’t know why bad things happen to good people, why God doesn’t intervene in the world to make it better, why the wicked seem to get away with it all the time. We all have days when we say things which make us unpopular or when people get at us because of what we believe. Hopefully we don’t get to the despair of Jeremiah or Rev Adam, but we can relate to their pain, their despair and their doubt.
Doubt isn’t the only problem
If we read more of the story of Jeremiah we can see that doubt isn’t the only problem. Doubt came when he let other matters control his life. He lost trust in God’s sovereignty so the difficulties he experiences seemed very great – he’d lost perspective. He began to doubt that God loved him. This happened in Jeremiah’s life. At the beginning of his ministry, he was very brave. He accused the people of turning away from God. God was like ‘a supply of fresh water’ for him (2:13). Now, he is feeling full of despair. He cries to God. He says: ‘Lord, I think that you have changed. You are like a supply of water that became dry. So it stopped’ (15:18).
Clearly Rev was having a crisis of faith. In one scene we didn’t include in the clip a friend asks his wife if Adam had lost his faith in God. His wife answers “no, but he wonders if God has lost his faith in him.”
When we get into similar situations – when we get distracted by big things but which take us away from our sense of God’s sovereignty we can start to doubt too. In these situations the doubts come not from an intellectual difficulty but because of other factors like disappointment, bitterness, and self-pity.
In our clip we can see that Adam was disappointed with the critique of his sermon and parish. He is bitter about this and about how the children at the school give him a hard time – he calls them “feral” yet, in fact, they were very well behaved (even though I suspect the girl questioning him knew exactly what she was doing!), and he feels self-pity. In the episode he gets steadily more drunk as the day wears on and makes a fool of himself at a party before being gathered up by the police and taken to the old lady’s flat at the end of the clip. Jeremiah was disappointed that his ministry seemed like a complete failure. He called on his fellows to trust in and return to the Lord and they didn’t. This led to him feeling bitter and culminated in self-pity believing that no one knew what it was like to be in his position.
There is an important lesson for us here. We too can feel disappointment when things don’t go as we plan. A relationship or friendship fails – often amidst recrimination and we can feel disappointed. A job can end – through disagreement, retirement, illness or redundancy and we can let ourselves become bitter at how things have turned out. We can feel that no one understands what it’s like to be in our own position. No one else knows what this illness feels like. No one else knows what it’s like to have to put up with this situation. No one else knows what it’s like to have my problems. We find ourselves having a pity party to rival Jeremiah or Adam in our clip. It’s easy to do – if you don’t believe me watch a group of clergy together when they think they are alone and see how we whinge!
There is, of course, a way through all this. There was for Jeremiah and there was for Rev Adam and, there is for us.
The first thing that Jeremiah had to do was to change his perspective. All his thoughts were about his nation and what was going to happen to it. He condemned them for their lack of faith in God but he forgot to be completely sincere himself. Jeremiah was concerned that the people returned to a right relationship with God but in chapter 15 God reminded Jeremiah “if you return, then you can serve me” (15:4) Jeremiah was full of pain and despair and God came to him and reminded him about his calling. Adam gained some new perspective too when the police took him to the old lady’s flat. He had been so turned in on himself he forgot the people he was called to serve. The police had spent all evening trying to find him so he could bring some comfort to a dying woman. When faced with this most basic of priestly tasks he changed his perspective and it seems to have helped his sense of doubt. Sometimes we need to change our perspective when we’re becoming too focused with our problems, our pain, bitterness and doubt. Changing perspective is very helpful and allows us to get a glimpse of things from God’s own perspective which lifts us out of our own myopia.
The second thing both our characters did was to remember God’s faithfulness. In the book of Jeremiah God is constantly reminding him of God’s own great faithfulness to Jeremiah in the past and encouraging him to believe that faithfulness will continue. The crisis moment for Adam was when he remembered that powerful reading from Isaiah outside the dying woman’s flat – words which reminded him of his own ordination and sense of calling. We also need to remember God’s faithfulness in the past and realise that there is no reason to believe that God has changed. God has brought us this far but isn’t going to leave us nor forsake us if we continue to follow Him and respond to his call on our life together as a church and our individual lives.
Both Jeremiah and Adam in our clip realised they had to trust God despite their own feelings. We get many glimpses of the prophet’s feelings in the book of Jeremiah and we see many of Adam’s feelings as he enjoys his pity-party. Their feelings weren’t a reliable indicator of the state of the world nor the mind of God yet they both acted as if they were. It’s not surprising, it’s a basic human response. We let our feelings influence us unduly. We may not come to church as “we don’t feel like it”. We may let down a friend as “we weren’t feeling up to meeting them”, we may end a friendship as “the feelings weren’t right” and in doing so forget that our feelings are transitory and change with our behaviour. We’re used to thinking that our feelings effect our behaviour – and that is certainly true. But it’s a two way street, our behaviour effects our feelings. If we act in different ways our feelings will change. If we act for the better, our feelings improve.
Finally, Adam and Jeremiah realised they needed to continue to pray. Adam prayed for and with the dying woman. His life is given routine by the morning and evening prayer that all Anglican clergy are required to say. Jeremiah realised that he needed to continue to pray to give vent to his feelings and to give space to God in his life. I am reminded of the powerful story of the Rabbis in Auschwitz who put God on trial and argued for prosecution and defence about why God had seemed for forsake His Chosen People. They found him guilty – which is quite understandable. But after the trial, they cleared away, found a candle, and said the evening prayers of praise to God. In the midst of their anger and despair they still prayed. It’s a salutary reminder to us to pray – even when we don’t feel like it, even when we’re angry, even when we’re bitter or disappointed. In faithful prayer we find that we make space for God and allow him to hear our doubts, needs, failings and anger. It makes a difference.
Help us when we doubt.
Help us to work out what’s going on,
To understand our feelings,
To move beyond disappointment and bitterness,
To change our perspective,
To remember your faithfulness
To trust in you not our feelings,
And, Lord, help us to pray and give time to you
In all we do.
All this we ask
In Jesus’ name.