Conditions to Prepare
Sometimes all we need to hear is a couple of words to awaken the memories of stories that shape who we are and who want to be. For our faith, the two words are: the exile. Two words taking our emotions and imaginations back to the story of Israel’s judgment and scattering. The emotional connection to a people who have lost everything, the character forming endurance and anticipative future captured in an epic story in which the conditions—physically, psychological, and spiritually—prepared the people of God for the way of Jesus, and continues to prepare you and I for the way of Jesus today. Preparing us to participate in the subversion of rebellion, an overthrowing that doesn’t always look like overcoming, and to persevere in the certain but rarely sudden transformation of our true and holy identity.
Jeremiah, the griever and reluctant prophet who thinks himself too young and to obscure to be used by the LORD, is appointed by the LORD, created for this very moment in salvation history (Jer. 1:5) to declare to the exile generation words meant to reverberate within you and I,
And the LORD said to [Jeremiah], ‘Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.’ (Jeremiah 1:10)
The same declaration is repeated by the God himself in chapter 31 (v.28), during the announcement of a new covenant, a new thing that the LORD will do upon the earth for his name (v.22), his people, and the entire world. Subversion—overthrowing of the rebellion—Israel’s sin, and the entire world’s. Perseverance, patient trust that the ground left fallow (4:3) will be the place of a new temple (build) and a new people (plant); God at work even when we don’t see the work.
God’s people, with their identity stripped away, their emotions laid bare before the hot near-eastern sun as they traversed the trail to Babylon, as they settled in cities throughout a vast and ever-shifting empire, found roles to play in societies much different than they had known, married, had children, started careers and kept their faith. These were the conditions of the exile. The people of God dispersed, the visual accompaniments of their power, authority, and false hope—both human and divine—demolished. And, God quietly at work, and his people quietly living by faith, assured of what is hoped for, living with conviction of the things not yet seen (Heb. 11:1).
The emotions of the exile—loss, abandonment, anger, confusion, sorrow—produced in the people who persevered a devastation of sin. The people needed to feel the weight of sin, their sin and the sin of the world they inhabited. Only when sin—rebellion, idolatry, arrogance, apathy, self-determined religion, immorality, violence—sank deep within their psyche could the appropriate emotion of grief produce repentance that was fruitful not simply recycled. It is the devastation of sin, the emotion of grief, which I would like us to consider this afternoon.
What’s the Issue? Sin.
It is quickly evident in the prophets why Israel is in the predicament that they are in. They have decided to live in a way that is not God’s way.
As children, we rarely grasp the magnitude of our actions. Crossing the street to greet a friend seems like a good thing. 30 feet from grass to grass and a laughing embrace with a playmate! What does not factor into our immature mind is the probability of a two tons of metal and fiber glass intercepting our enthusiastic adventure.
Nor, as budding youth, could we discern the long-term effects of sleeping only at the moment of physical exhaustion and consuming every sweet thing our heart desired. Diabetes, stunted growth, obesity, underdeveloped synapsis; none of which crossed our minds’ when we fought to stay up late and threw fits for one more treat, or ‘tasty’ as my children so adorably petition.
Likewise, as daughters and sons under the guidance of our parents, did we ever consider that the rules of our home as anything more than oppressive restriction or merely stingy limitations to keep us in check? Never could we have comprehended that the way of home was for our good, that somehow, the boundaries of our path would help us become good and healthy humans.
Can you remember the moments in which we perceived a sense of independence—whether on the playground as mom chatted with friends, in the unsupervised secret of our bedroom fantasy land, at a parentless home down the street, or in the empowerment of bicycles--unbound we dashed into a way of life that seemed right for us.
It is the way of Israel that has led to their exile. ‘Way’ is mentioned over 40 times in Jeremiah, another 30 plus references are made to paths, roads, highways, going up, went after, course, walk, following etc. Jeremiah’s opening pronouncements make clear the issue is the mindset, attitudes and subsequent actions of Israel’s life: their way of life,
Have you not brought this upon yourself by forsaking the LORD your God, when he led you in the way? (2:17)
Your evil will chastise you, and your apostasy will reprove you. (2:19)
Yet I planted you a choice vine, wholly of pure seed. How then have you turned degenerate and become a wild vine? (2:21)
How can you say, ‘I am not unclean, I have not gone after the Baals’? Look at your way in the valley; know what you have done—a restless young camel running here and there, a wild donkey used to the wilderness, in her heat sniffing the wind! Who can restrain her lust? (2:23-24)
As a thief is shamed when caught, so the house of Israel shall be shamed: they, their kings, their officials, their priests, and their prophets… (2:26)
I said, How I would set you among my sons, and give you a pleasant land, a heritage most beautiful of all nations. And I thought you would call me, My Father, and would not turn from following me. Surely, as a treacherous wife leaves her husband, so have you been treacherous to me, O house of Israel…because they have perverted their way; they have forgotten the LORD their God. (3:19-21)
The issue is not simply ignorant, naive children going about their own way in the world full of wonder, but a people whose heart had become sickened, unable to discern good and evil, deceitful and untrustworthy.
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds. (17:9-10)
Obey my voice, and I will be your God and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you. But they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsels and the stubbornness of their evil hearts, and went backward and not forward. (7:23-24)
Your ways and your deeds have brought this upon you. This is your doom, and it is bitter; it has reached your very heart. (4:18)
No matter how much the Lord would plead for them that ‘sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is against you, but you must rule over it’ (Gen. 4:7), they failed to listen—hear and obey. They went their own way.
What ‘way’ did the children of God go? The way of every other nation and people before them, whom they found themselves amongst, and who would come after them. A way that made, at best, God equal to, more commonly, secondary to the controlling forces of the world—whether divine beings or human philosophies and technologies. A way that looked to politics, power, wealth, violence, and associations to thrive in the world. A way that reduced religion to heartless obedience. A way that ignored the poor, enslaved the destitute in economic restrictions, and developed a numbness towards the weak. A way that aspired to have everything, and more, that their neighbor possessed. A way of directionless ambition. A way that stopped listening to God’s word—through Scripture, leaders, and the Spirit.
We call this way of Israel and the world, sin. A way that diminishes, neglects, forgets, or outright opposes God as Creator, King, and establisher of the way (Psalm 25).
The worldwide infection of the sickness of sin means none of us is immune. We cannot help but believe God is less than he is, forget that he is holy other and in control, neglect to give him thankful credit and recognize his intimacy and love, and, at times, with brazen forethought choose another way, our own way. Whether with intention or indifference, we ‘have changed glory for that which does not profit’ (2:11).
No person, likes correction, rebuke, negative consequences to the way he or she is living. So, consider this with me: When your sin, and the sin of our community; is clearly confronted and laid out before us, what emotions are immediately stirred up within you?
Perhaps, like most people, including the people of Israel, your immediate and impassioned reaction to sin is:
- Anger. Perhaps anger at the one rebuking. Maybe the sin of others. Maybe even your own sin. Maybe being caught. Angry at failing, anger at feeling judged. Anger at God for feeling such feelings.
- Shame. Disgraced because you were in the wrong, worried what people will think, feeling small.
- Defensiveness. Justifying a slip up, excusing a mistake, questioning the severity of the issue.
- Dismissiveness. What gives anyone the right to judge you? Why even dwell on such things?
If you are honest, you know the universal nature of and common responses to sin to be true in you. If you are honest, you do not enjoy having it pointed out. No one does.
Perhaps as one who voluntarily enters a group to follow Jesus with others and gathers to worship, you accept the revelation of your sin, but you want to move past it as quickly as possible. I am no different. There is nothing in me that enjoys focusing on sin. We all have a desire to expedite or diminish the emotions of sin. A desire that causes us to push back on correction and rebuke.
Proclaiming ‘repent’ is never a good way of making friends. To be one who points out sin and pronounces direct destruction is a task only the humbly subservient or arrogantly twisted undertake. Much more attractive is the role of harmony declarer. One who foretells the end of punishment, the restoration of good fortune; rather than doom. Obviously! This is the very reason why Jeremiah’s appointment to be the mouth piece of God at this crucial point in history comes with a caveat,
‘…dress yourself for work, arise, and say to them everything that I command you. Do not be dismayed…They will fight against you…’ (1:17, 19)
As is the case today, there is no shortage of harmony declares, called lying prophets, in Jeremiah’s time. In their ignorance and/or arrogance they perceived in the deception of their own minds (14:17) that what the people needed when confronted with the implications of sin—destruction and exile—is to hear peace, a quick dismissal of the issue. Twice in Jeremiah is it said that these masquerading marauders,
…have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. (6:14, 8:11)
Can you hear their invitation?
Sure, you messed up, but we all do, often. Don’t dwell too long on your sin, just confess it, following the customary protocol for repenting, and soon enough all will be made right. That’s what God does! Stay positive! Knowing full well that God would never ‘pluck up and break down, destroy and overthrow’, he wouldn’t’ want you to feel devastated, just trusting in his plan to avenge the wrong of the world.
In contradiction to the sweet lies and quick dismissal of responsibility, Jeremiah declares and demonstrates a deep emotion necessary for the way of Israel to be turned onto the way of Jesus. He weeps.
A Father’s Judgment
Three weeks or so ago, I had a conversation at a local coffee shop about how a friend perceives God. I had just finished up reading through Jeremiah in preparation for this month’s sermons. As is my habit, I was studying at the bar at Cultivar. Over the last four years I have found it to be a great place to seek after God in the middle of ordinary conversations that have little awareness of God in them!
This particular afternoon, another regular, let’s call him Steve, whom I had struck up a friendship with, noticed my studies and kindly asked what I was reading. I told him that I was reading through Jeremiah and the story of God’s people experiencing judgment and being exiled from their home land. I know Steve has a good working knowledge of the bible, and regularly banter through a theological or spiritual ‘inkling’ of his. However, at the mention of judgment and exile, I expected an abrupt end to our conversation. After all, no one likes to talk about sin.
To my surprise, Steve took the conversation personal. He described how, in his own faith drama, while he knows that Jesus is different, he feels like God the Father, especially in the Old Testament, is harsh, and that reading through books like Jeremiah makes him feel like God is just out to judge him. What he knows about God and what he feels about God seem at odds.
Do you feel, like Steve, that God enjoys pointing out and punishing sin?
I wouldn’t blame you if you did. Our texts over the last few months been especially bursting with rebuke. Add on top of that, I am sure you have met people who seem to get a kick out of calling out sin in others, in the world; calling down doom and disaster. Appearing to take more joy in condemnation than in salvation. Do you ever picture God that way?
When the subject of sin is brought up do you, regardless of age and upbringing, find yourself like a child, expecting, even dreading punishment? Do you feel embarrassment at the disapproving and disappointed glare of a parent? Do you picture the Father looking to catch you in your wrong doing—whether a mess up or mischief?
Let’s be honest, reading the prophets over the last several months could easily reinforce the vindictive perception of God towards sin and sinner. So much destruction, so much rebuke, so much ruin, so much apparent unconcern for the sinner in the midst of sin.
Of course we know that God is kind and merciful, that much of the pain experienced by Israel was by their own doing, and that there is never rebuke without a promise of reconciliation, ever. However, like chapter two of Lamentations, we feel what Steve expressed,
The Lord has swallowed up without mercy all the habitations of Jacob… (Lam. 2:2)
The LORD has done what he purposed; he has carried out his word, which he commanded long ago; he has thrown down without pity… (Lam. 2:17)
Early this week, I had a similar conversation to the one with Steve, this time in my home with a friend from our Gospel Community. After a fabulous meal of “Fritos Sriracha Chili Dogs”, we were chatting about the goings on of life and some areas of curiosity, particularly truth. My friend, mentioned that the idea of James that ‘Mercy triumphs over judgement’ (2:13) is a difficult truth for him to exercise in the practicals of daily life. He grew up in a loving home, but a home that was, in his own words, ‘black and white’. Wrong and right (truth) were clear and transgressions were quickly dealt with.
As parents, he and I both struggle with discipline. Not that either of us think it best to not discipline our children; rather, in what ways and at what times do you extend mercy over judgment? How can we be both disciplinarians and loving, compassionate fathers?
My conversation with Steve and with my friend that evening wound up in the same place; a wrestling to perceive, not with our minds, because we were there, but with our emotions, our feelings, that God is someone who isn’t, scolding us, constantly pointing out sin and enacting punishment. And, in both conversations, the Spirit reminded me that God weeps.
Turn with me to Jeremiah 8 and let me show you something quite amazing.
A God Who Weeps
Jeremiah begins the chapter describing the condition of the people’s hearts and the ways and deeds that have led to this moment in salvation history (8:1-9). He then continues with a declaration from the LORD, stating the implications of their failure to listen, what sin will cost them—loss, pain, destruction, uprooting, loneliness, etc. All hard things to bear. And then God says this,
My joy is gone; grief is upon me, my heart is sick within me. Behold, the cry of the daughter of my people from the length and breadth of the land: ‘Is the LORD not in Zion? Is her King not in her?’ ‘Why have they provoked me to anger with their carved images and with their foreign idols?’ ‘The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.’For the wound of the daughter of my people is my heart wounded: I mourn, and dismay has taken hold on me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of the daughter of my people not been restored? Oh that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people! (8:18-23)
While some argue that it is Jeremiah who is grief stricken, emptied of tears; there is strong textual evidence (‘declares the Lord’ precedes and follows this section, with no direct suggestion of change of speaker) and scholarly findings that believe God is the one weeping. At minimum, as Jerome comments, this passage ‘can be understood as spoken both out of the persona of the prophet and the persona of the Lord.’ Jeremiah conveying in his emotions the emotions of Lord, just as his words would be the words of the Lord.
What we are being exposed to in Jeremiah 8 is the heart of God breaking over sin. The emotions of God poured out for his treasured people, ‘weeping is a particularly powerful bodily manifestation of emotional disturbance…’
‘…the punishment that [God] brings is doubly painful to [God]. [God], weeps, wails, and laments over the loss of a cherished relationship, and weeps too because [God] must inflict the angry blows that threaten the relationship (9:11-15). The text describes these tears… [produced by] grief [of] greater volume than the tears of his body can produce…which should cause Israel to repent and repair their relationship with [God] to end the divine tears and save themselves.’ 
Let the picture painted by Jeremiah sink into your imagination. God the Father, devastated by sin, overcome with grief, drained of emotion. Not simply at the action done against him by his beloved children, but at the loss of relationship with the ones he loves with such incredible passion. Crushed that he has to be the one to bring about the pain that will separate; that he will be the one to punish. Even if that punishment is just and the best thing for who is children are meant to be.
This passage came to mind in my conversation with Steve and my friend from our Gospel Community. God takes no joy, no delight in punishment. In fact, from the voice warning Cain to rule over sin or it will rule over him, to the marriage day covenant at Mt. Sinai, to the voices of Isaiah, Amos, and others 100 years prior warning and pleading repentance; God has been persistently loving, cherishing, and saying to his children:
Don’t go that way. Don’t’ walk down that path. Don’t follow that desire. If you do it won’t end well! Come on now, my little ones, don’t make me have to be the bad guy here. Daddy doesn’t want to do this. I will, because I love you. So, just stop, think about where you are about to go, what you are about to do.
It’s not unlike dinner at my house. Lily, my sweet little girl, while at times courageous and often prone to rule following, just does not want to eat what is on her plate. She wants something else. Something she thinks is better. The rule is, that we eat what we have been given; both out of respect and because mom knows more about what we need to be healthy than we do. Despite her knowledge of the rule, she will complain, mope, or even refuse to do what is best. In those moments she has a choice to make. Follow our way or go her own. Going her own way will end in immediate bedtime or removal of a beloved toy. She has been warned, many, many times. And as we sit there, grumblings under her breath, fake nibbles, her will flexing against the way; she hears me say,
‘Do what is right baby girl. Do what daddy tells you. I don’t want you to miss out and go to bed. I don’t want to take away something you enjoy. I will. Because I love you. But I don’t want to. Don’t make me do it. Do what is right baby girl. Do what you know you should do.’
Extending every ounce of mercy and grace, knowing full well there will be a point of either submission or judgment. She will follow the way, or she won’t.
Reading of God’s anguish and tears, grief and mourning I think of these dinner moments with Lily, and cleaning up room moments with Cohen(!). I am not looking to find my children in the wrong. As their dad I am trying everything I can to help them find and follow the right way. I take no joy in punishing, and yet I know that if I don’t train, correct and rebuke they will not be healthy and good adults.
God’s emotions in Jeremiah are is incalculably multiplied compared to my emotions in these moments. His mourning, like the pleas of the prophets, meant to draw us into repentance. To feel what God feels, love and grief.
And, there is one more remarkable thing that is happening here, God is showing us that mourning sin, weeping over sin, is a way of overcoming rebellion.
Read with 9:17-21,
Thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘Consider, and call for the mourning women to come; send for the skillful women to come;
[These are women trained in liturgical laments, trained to help us express and feel the difficult emotions of life in light of sin and of God] let them make haste and raise a wailing over us, that our eyes may run down with tears and our eyelids flow with water. For a sound of wailing is heard from Zion: ‘How we are ruined! We are utterly shamed, because we have left the land, because they have cast down our dwellings’
Hear, O women, the word of the LORD, and let your ear receive the word of his mouth; teach to your daughters a lament and each to her neighbor a dirge. For death has come up into our windows; it has entered our palaces, cutting off the children from the streets and the young men from the squares… (9:17-21)
God’s tears are not reserved only for Israel. In chapter 48 God weeps for Moab, which would have stood out to the Israelites but should not be a surprise to us gentiles. After all Jeremiah was a prophet to the nations (1:5).
Weeping trails off after chapter 14 however. Showing a movement of detachment, brokenness in relationship. The people first making the break—like the prodigal son—and then God’s detachment, stopping his ears, like a father whose children wail at punishment necessary but severe, corrective but uneasily borne (15:1, 16:5).
Yet, what we notice in the weeping of God in chapter nine is first, that God mourns over sin with us in verse 18.
‘God…unites himself with them by adopting the manner of one sharing in their suffering, so that whatever the people experience he says that he experiences and feels.’
Second, we are taught to mourn sin so that we can listen, have, ‘our ear receive the word of his mouth’ (v. 20). The weeping over sin trains us, as the author of Hebrews, in the context of our faith history and the suffering of Christ reminds us,
‘For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.’ (Heb. 13:11)
And lastly, mourning our sin, weeping over sin, connects relationally to God, trains us to listen because we share the emotions of God (Ps. 51; 2 Pet. 1:1-4),
‘Yahweh expects the [mourning] women to have the effect that prophecy has not. The [mourning] women will move the people of Israel to weep with [God] and Jeremiah…Throughout the book, the word of [God] as expressed through Jeremiah generates anger, resistance, and disbelief rather than grief and repentance. In this passage, [God] hopes that the [mourning] women can bring the people together with God and prophet and that their shared tears may serve to recreate and reinforce their relationship.’
When we are devastated by sin, let the emotions of sin—our own and the worlds’—penetrate deep into our soul, we can know the heart of God—for us and for the world. When we are trained by the exile to weep at the devastation of our sin in relationship to our Father, our hearts of stone are transformed into hearts of flesh, rebellion overcome by eyes that are filled with the same tears as our grieving God, and ears that can listen—hear and obey. Because we know that there is no pleasure in punishment, only an invitation to a way of life, the way that is life now and forevermore.
‘Yahweh’s experience of the punishment is sorrow rather than satisfaction serves an important function. It maintains a seemingly broken relationship and offers hope that Yahweh will heal the pain.’
A hope that does not put to shame those who hold to it. A hope that is fulfilled in Jesus. The one who wept in the garden, devastated by the implications of your sin, my sin and the sin of the world. Taking on the pain, suffering and death due you and I so that the kingdom might come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Confess & Receive
Let me be devastated by sin. Feel what you feel at my betrayal and weep at the brokenness of the world. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight Father, so that you are justified in your correction of me and true in your judgement of me. In indifference and with intention, I have chosen other ways. Be gracious to me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy overcome my rebellion. Wash me thoroughly from my evil and cleanse me of my sin!
The broken flesh, shed blood, and resurrected body of Jesus Christ, __________ has made you clean! Washed you so that you are whiter than snow. With joy and gladness, let your weeping heart rejoice. God has overcome your rebellion with sacrifice. He has created in you a clean heart, renewed a persevering spirit within you, brought you into his holy presence, given you his Holy Spirit, and with extravagant enjoyment, delightedly never stops calling you his child! Go, and lead others in the Jesus way.