Pastoral Prayer: Lord God, we show up and follow our liturgy, our order of service. We expect that you will show up on time and here in our place. But, like Israel we have neglected to turn to you in faithfulness and away from our week long efforts at self-justification. We fail to repent. Despite our inaction, we witness your action to bring the balm of healing that we need. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.
Patty’s Dad, Carl, has a garden that would make Glenn Cummings’ look like my 4 X 8 raised beds. It is his first year with this garden spot. We visited he and Louise a couple of weeks ago. Corn stalks stood taller than me. Tomato plants grew to Patty’s eye level. Rows and rows of cantaloupe. Carl already has plans for his crop rotation next year.
Sitting there in the living room Carl told us of his long hours working the garden. He told of a severe sunburn he received in exchange for tending his garden spot. Carl went in the house and straight to the Aloe plant. He took a leaf from the plant, broke it open and rubbed it on his skin reddened by the sun. No blisters. No pain. The Aloe was the healing balm he needed.
Sometimes we reach for the wrong solution to our pain and suffering. Many of you know Oklahoma won its case against Johnson & Johnson for its “false and misleading marketing” of its drugs, including opioids. Perdue Pharmaceutical filed bankruptcy aware that the verdict in the Oklahoma case would likely lead to a loss of their own. These so-called experts led consumers to believe these highly addictive drugs were not in-fact addictive. These pills would be the balm that would help manage their pain.
The resulting deaths attributed to these addictive pills has caused great suffering for families whose only hope was that their loved one would find relief from the pain.
For Israel the pain was real. Only their pain was a result of trusting their own experts. Those whose role in the social-religious fabric of their lives had not been willing to point out the character of the people follows the character of their God. When they choose ways that contradict the character of YHWH, their God, they ceased to represent YHWH, their God, but instead represented one of the other gods to which they pledged allegiance. To say this was unique to Israel is to miss that we have grown into doing the same thing.
If you have ever accused another, or been accused yourself, of being a different person at church than, say, at work or school or with your family, or in any other area of your life, then you know Israel’s experience. That is, Israel had not forsaken their liturgy – their pattern of worship in the Temple. This was after all the place where they expected to meet YHWH. In fact, it came to be that the people, and those whose responsibility it was to lead them, maintained their appearances by going to Temple. And they thought that as long as they maintained this practice nothing else mattered. Whatever they did after Temple, like follow after other gods, take up other habits of thinking that informed the way they treated the widow, orphan, stranger or immigrant need not look like YHWH was at work. After all, that was the Sabbath. We’ve been to church.
It was as easy a split to spot then as it is today. You could say it was an inverted yield curve. Their expectations could not be met with the same habits they had come to practice. What were they to do? Blame God for not showing up at Temple. After all, they went to the Temple and nothing changed. It must be God who abandoned them.
And we do the same.
If that was not bad enough, Israel knew their history and the promise that entailed. They would be God’s people and YHWH would be their God. It was just a matter of timing. They called back to the high point of their history, King David. And, every period thereafter a group of people held onto the hope that God would make Israel great again. It did not matter what the people did with their time. What mattered to them was that God kept his promise in their time. Like, when things got difficult. They wanted God to rush in. Never mind that they had not given their time to YHWH, that is their devotion. They full expected that no matter what, God would do what he promised when they wanted, when they were ready.
Maybe you get the picture by now. Israel is a stand in for all of us. I don’t mean that somehow Israel is not important in the narrative of God’s story. What I mean is that we cannot think that somehow we have in our own history done anything different than what we witness Israel do.
When they, and we, choose something different to do with our time than devote our lives to YHWH – which by the way does not mean become a pastor, preacher, missionary, or enter a Christian vocation. It does mean that our lives are now hidden with Christ in God and that becomes the way we reflect on our story – its past, present and future. Now, let me say, that pastor, preacher, missionary or other Christian vocations have fallen on hard times. Some of that is our own doing. I mean, when pastors/preachers and others whose claim a Christian vocation, peddle something other than the Gospel, then whatever we have given ourselves to is our god and our decisions end up looking more like the sort of tribalism that ebbs and flows within human history.
The idea that God is for me and not you is actually foreign to the Scriptures. Those who tout that line generally do so as cover for asserting their privilege over others. That is certainly not the way Jesus got anyone’s attention. He did not tell the religious leaders of his day, “Good job,” for maligning Rome or for, “Way to go,” for getting in bed with Pilate.
One of the ways this happens is that we lose the plot line of the story in favor of turning the story into principles to live by. Now, don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with choosing to emphasize the ethical demands of following Jesus. However, when we make the move to emphasize God’s principles over the plot line of the ridiculous love of God, then we have made a new Law out of those principles with which we then become guilty ourselves of breaking every one of them. For remember, to build your house on a new law is no different than building on the old law which we are told, “to break one is to break them all.”
This is our modern day idolatry. We inform others of our biblical principles by which we live in order to justify ourselves before others and God. It is our way of saying to others we are more righteous and holy than you. It is cover for all the ways we chose the place and timing for God to act for us and others. It is to make the same mistake we witness here.
What are we to do?
In the mountainous region east of the Jordan and north of Moab an aromatic resin, likely taken from a small balsam tree, was offered as an healing agent. This balm of Gilead held out hope for healing.
When Jeremiah adopts and expresses God’s own sadness over Israel, the question then, and now, becomes, “Is there no balm in Gilead?”
What shocks us is not the disobedience of Israel, or us. We have read this before. We have lived it. In fact, Paul, in his sermon last week, noted that preaching through Jeremiah is hard because it seems to be a book where Jeremiah is the hammer and everything is the nail. It is a good thing the Lectionary only offered five readings from Jeremiah this Church Year. But as he also pointed out, the surprise is often that in the midst of what we read as judgement, God does, says, the unexpected. Here we are in Jeremiah 8 and we are treated to something more shocking than the God who throws us a curve ball when we think judgment is only about Divine Retribution.
God is sad. In fact, if we understand that either Jeremiah conveys God’s words, even taking up God’s own feelings, we find the depiction of God crying to such a degree that we have often taken this to be Jeremiah’s self-description.
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.
Like a brooding parent, God is portrayed as experiencing sadness over the behavior of God’s own children. It is more than sadness.
What are we to do?
The real question is to consider is, “What does God do?” Faithful parenting is not letting a child do as it wills. That is simply a recipe for adult disasters. There is an alternate reading to the Proverb – train up a child. We often emphasize, I think rightly, that it is important to help shape our children. By the way we do this intentionally or unintentionally. It is utter silliness to think that we do not influence our children. We do. In fact, when we bought into the lie that we will let them decide for themselves so as not exert undue influence, so they can be themselves, so they can do you, we have actually decided they should form themselves. The alternate reading to the Proverb is that to train up a child without the boundaries provided by parents is to raise children without boundaries – or, as adult disasters.
We used to think, because science told us so, that children were formed to be who they were before they enter adolescence. Today we are told that the human brain continues to develop into our mid- to late 20’s. Maybe there are cultural reasons for this. That is not our primary point. Instead, it means that parenting continues after graduation. In fact, as we get older, if we are wise, we will continue to learn from our parents. The way this occurs is surely different.
And here is what we mean by paying attention to what God does and not Israel.
Despite the blame God takes for not being where the people want him to be in the way they want him to be, despite the blame God takes for not being on time according to the schedule we keep, God suffers with the people in the midst of their own suffering. Look again at the words used to describe how God feels –
Joy is gone.
Grief is upon me.
My heart is sick.
I am hurt.
I am dismayed.
The imagery conveyed is hardly of a God who is happy to bring retribution. He is not. Retribution is not justice, at least not as we find it in God’s action toward Israel, or us.
God’s great suffering with us is fully expressed in the suffering Servant, Jesus the Christ.
When we ask what are we to do is to think somehow we may save ourselves from ourselves, from the powers that influence us above all others. It is to think that maintaining our appearances make us right before God. God makes us right in Jesus the Christ. There. That is what God does in the face of a people who have decided not to look for God, to follow after God.
There it is that is God’s place – with people. We witness this in the Word become flesh. There is it is, that is God’s timing – with people who confound and sadden Godself, all the time. Abandon that God if you will. What we find in Jeremiah is that God doesn’t abandon. God works to reconcile and restore.
If there is anything to do for us – it is in response to what we witness.
But, make no mistake, God is still with us. That is the scandal of the Gospel, that God will do for us what we will not do for him, even when it brings God great suffering in Christ.
I generally take a manuscript with me to preach each week. However, the preached message is often a bit different than what you will find here. The preached message may be found here.