God's Grief

Jeremiah 17:5-10; 18:1-11                                               Summer Series:  Top Ten

Elizabeth M. Deibert                                                          24 July 2016

Our Stephen Ministers have been studying a book called Facing Feelings, and our last two months we have addressed two of the three chief negative emotions:  Fear and Anger.   But why consider these emotions?   When would we ever be dealing with fear or anger?   I don’t have any of that.   Do you?   Ha!   Fear and anger seem to be the most prominent emotions in public discourse right now.  Fear and anger were stoked last week in the Cleveland convention and I bet we will see them paraded again for political gain this coming week in Philadelphia.  Fear and anger seem to be seeping out of the pores of our society now.  Could it be that by focusing on them, we are stirring them up?   Don’t get me wrong – I am not minimizing any of the violent events of the last months.  But equally horrible is the time we spend feeding on them like vultures on a dead carcass.   It’s not just the media but all of us and relentless commentary in the social media as well.   

Think about this with me:  When you have a family member (spouse, child, parent, sibling) who gets on your nerves, does it help to keep thinking about and analyzing how that person irritates you, or is it better to discuss the problem with the person and hope to move on to a different pattern of behavior -- both people, both sides?   I’m very good at dwelling relationship problems.  I can spend three hours taking apart in my head a conflict that lasted 30 minutes.   Sometimes that is creative when I look at myself and consider my own faults, my need for reconciliation and some creative way to achieve that reconciliation, but if I’m just stewing about the other person, the other party, the “enemy,” it builds resentment.   I think we’ve been building up a lot of resentment in our country.  There’s a lot of blaming, finger-pointing and not so much consideration of how we, ourselves, on our side of the aisle or the world, could be contributing to the on-going problems of the world.

Well, you might be wondering, what in the world does that have to do with Jeremiah, the weeping prophet?   Well, Jeremiah helps his people look at themselves, at their responsibility in their troubles.   Jeremiah confronts the political and religious powers regarding their rebellion against God and determination to please themselves instead of God. 

He points out at great risk to himself their unjust and dishonest practices, their careless behavior toward the most vulnerable members of society, and their military policies that seek security with no regard for the sovereignty of God.   Jeremiah shows us God’s heart.   God grieves over us when we are turned away, when our lives are a mess, and when we as a collective people are misguided.   Jeremiah surprisingly says, “Give in to your captors, the Babylonians.   Work with them.   Seek their welfare, their peace, and you will find yours.”   This was not a popular message then or now.  

Last week we considered Isaiah’s message which was largely aimed at comforting the disturbed, while today Jeremiah’s aim is to disturb the comfortable.  But it must be said that each prophet is both disturbing and comforting, just as good preaching should.   Let’s be courageous enough to hear the disturbing message from God through the voice of Jeremiah and the power of the Holy Spirit in our midst.

Jeremiah 17:5-10

Thus says the LORD: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD. 6 They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. 7 Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. 8 They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit. 9 The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse-- who can understand it? 10 I the LORD test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings. (NRS)

Jeremiah 18:1-11

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 2 "Come, go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words." 3 So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4 The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. 5 Then the word of the LORD came to me: 6 Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7 At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom,  that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8 but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. 9 And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. 11 Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings. (NRS)

 

On this week-end between the two political conventions, let’s agree that a decision to put our trust in any political candidate is misguided.   Thus says the LORD: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD.  But in November we should prayerfully cast our vote for the leader, whom you believe will help us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.  (That’s the Prophet Micah) We are not called to exit from the political process.   No, we are to remember that mere mortals will lead us to parched places in the wilderness.   It’s no wonder we are so disappointed with our leaders.   We try to turn them into gods.   But the human heart is devious, above all else.   It is perverse.   Have you ever noticed that in a political candidate?   Perversity of heart?   Yes, we all fall short of the glory of God, and it is those who do not know they fall short, who are in the worst predicament.   For until you realize how desperately you need God’s grace, you do not have eyes to appreciate it.   Pray for humility and for grace – God’s unmerited favor toward us.   God’s determination to get us turned in the right direction, living the generous life of goodness and humility, not the selfish life of brute strength and stubbornness. 

Jeremiah spoke to the people, using the analogy of a potter and the clay.  God knows whether we need to be a mug or a bowl.   God knows whether we need to be vase or a platter.   God knows when we are not centered, in submission to the hand of the Potter, and we start to wobble out of control.   Then God cannot fashion anything good out of us.    I haven’t done a lot of pottery, but when I was ten years old I got a cool pottery making kit for Christmas.   Loved it.  Then at Montreat when I’ve had extra time, I have enjoyed going to the pottery to watch or engage at the wheel.    Here’s what I know about clay:  it needs to be moist and moldable.   It needs to be warmed by the hands of the Potter.   Sometimes the Potter needs to take it off the wheel several times to get it properly centered before anything beautiful has the possibility of emerging.  

Have you ever been taken off the wheel by God, pounded in all directions, and then thrown back on?   These are the humbling experiences of life.   These are times when after all the disruption, we finally stop trying so hard to shape our own lives according to our wishes, and we give ourselves over to God’s control.   Then the Potter has some moldable human clay with which to work, to create a beautiful piece of art.   

Then there’s the trimming and the firing.   I like to think of trimming and firing being later in life activities.   Losses make you trim down to essentials.   The aging process is a drying, when you are less flexible, major change is more difficult.   Then there's glazing, and the firing of death and resurrection.  And the beauty of God’s handiwork is complete.

What Jeremiah wants to make clear is that God is sovereign, not the political or religious powers, not the enemy, whether it is Babylon or ISIS, not the perverse heart, not the clay, not you and I, but the Potter, the One who is molding life, breaking down and building up.   Tearing out and replanting.   God’s intent to bring about the change God wants.   Israel wanted God to do everything needed through the power of their King, but God said, “No, your king is misguided, evil. You are abusing the weak.   You are not following my ways.”  So I will give you over to the Babylonians to humble you.

Jeremiah is helping people to understand that they might learn from being weak not strong, that they might benefit from being captive not captor.  He’s saying that IF they trust in the Lord, they can endure the heat, and still be vitality alive.   They can live through a drought and be unafraid, non-anxious.   So can we, people of God.   Jeremiah expresses the grief of God over the people’s choices.   He expresses the inner turmoil of God over what to do with their unfaithfulness.  

What a sublime irony, as Abraham Joshua Heschel, best Hebrew scholar says:  what a sublime irony for the Creator of the heavens and the earth to be so melancholic and defeated,

“They went far from me, and pursued what is worthless and became worthless?   They have forgotten me.   They are stupid and have no understanding.  Let my eyes run down with tears night and day, and let them not cease.”   God grieves over our individual and our communal sin, our turning away to idols.  

And Jeremiah tried to help the people see that it was not their military might, nor their strength as a nation, nor their purity of race that mattered.   It was their commitment to live as God’s people, to be molded and shaped by God, people who trust that their future is in God’s hands, and that with God the future is filled with hope, when they are humble and pray to God and seek God’s ways.

Trusting in the sovereign goodness of God we can face our feelings about all the changes around us (our fear anger, and our sadness over loss) and deal with them appropriately, in courageous and kind and clear ways that dignify other people. 

 

Jeremiah reassures us that when we are threatened, God is not distant, but very much engaged with us, suffering with us, and working with us to rebuild our lives.   Jeremiah makes it clear that it is not our enemies that have control of our destiny, but God who longs for us and loves us with an everlasting love.  As we will affirm in our Declaration of Faith today, evil forces often make us wonder about the power of God for good, but in Christ, we see God sharing our agony over evil and breaking the back of evil by bearing the worst that it can do to us.   We know that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  We know that in the end evil will be finally overcome by God’s goodness.   That gives us courage to combat evil, to learn from it, and to endure it.  Scripture tells us in multiple places that we humble ourselves, and that we should find a way to love our enemies and bless those who persecute us.   That notion would be hard to sell at a political convention, but it is the true way of Christian faith.