Jeremiah Part 1: Called to Cry – The Conflicted Prophet

Timid and terrible.
Fearful and ferocious.
Full of tears, yet hard as steel.
He woos his hearers like a lover; he stabs like a sword that blazes with fire.

“a poet of grace and a prophet par excellence…
hard as a rock while being torn apart inside”

He gave his name to the longest book of the Bible.
A preacher, a poet, a political prisoner.
Today we will meet this man.[1]

1000 years before he was born, around 1500 B.C.
God demolished the power of Pharaoh.
He led his people out of Egypt and made a covenant.
It was like a marriage, but the romance was rocky.
Like an unfaithful wife, Israel kept turning away.

Prophets rose up to call them back.
Minstrels who sang of God’s love and longing.
Clairvoyants who saw where rebellion would lead.
Soothsayers who spoke this hard truth.[2]

Their success was mixed.
At times, Israel wept and returned home like the Prodigal.
At others she put God’s spokesmen to death.

As the conflict between God and his flock grew to a climax,
Onto the stage of history, in Jerusalem, stepped another prophet, named Jeremiah.

Solitude, Marc Chagall, 1933

Solitude, Marc Chagall, 1933

One: The Call

Let’s read how his peculiar career began.
The date is around 626 B.C.
Jeremiah was probably just a teenager.

The Lord gave me this message:
“I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb.
Before you were born I set you apart.
I appointed you as my prophet to the nations.”
“O Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I can’t speak for you! I’m too young!”
The Lord replied, “Don’t say, ‘I’m too young,’
You must go wherever I send you and say whatever I tell you.
And don’t be afraid of the people, for I will be with you and will rescue you.
I, the Lord, have spoken!”
Jeremiah 1:4-8

I find these stories of calling haunting.
They raise tantalising questions, such as
What is it like to be called by God?

A tentative suggestion, a courteous offer,
to be considered at a convenient time?
I’ve heard it said the Holy Spirit is always a gentleman.

Or a lightning bolt from a clear sky, an alien invasion from an unknown world,
an earthquake that shatters your existence?[3]

Was Jeremiah ambling down the street one afternoon after work,
suspecting nothing, listening to his iPod.
then, bam!, the Hound of Heaven pounced, and nothing was ever the same again?

Or did God’s call well up gradually within?
A conviction that slowly deepened over years,
Until at last, all the threads of his history converged to an inevitable conclusion.
We don’t really know.[4]

Have you experienced some sort of call from God?
Which way was it for you?  Or something else again?

As for me,
I’ve been raised in the church.
I’ve done nothing that would make the tabloid press.
I’ve never been startled awake by an audible voice, or seen the hand of God write across the sky.
Maybe that’s why I feel wistful about passages like these.
Sometimes I wish God would speak to me more plainly.
Give me a clear mission and purpose in life.

But, if I’m honest, part of me draws back.
The thought of God’s calling makes me nervous.

“he yearns to run, to go underground, to escape a destiny outlined by God”

Look at Jeremiah:
When God said, I’ve got a mission and I have chosen you.
Did he leap for joy?

“This is what I’ve longed for all my life!
Thank you Lord!  Let’s go!”

Not quite.
He tried to wriggle out:
I’m not eloquent enough.
I’m not mature enough.
I’m just an ordinary bloke, not a mystic visionary saint, a street-preaching activist.
No, I can’t!

Honourable Sir,
Respectfully acknowledging thy gracious offer,
With sincere lamentations,
At present I feel I must decline.

In Jewish tradition, Jeremiah flat-out said to God:

“I do not want to serve you as your prophet.  I am scared.
They have tried to kill all your prophets – they will try to kill me.”
(Wiesel, 105) [5]

But here’s another question:
Did Jeremiah really have a choice?  Do we?

God had chosen him before he was born.[6]
I guess that was a comfort;
it also meant there was no escape.
He could hardly say no.

God says, “Don’t worry Jeremiah.
I choreographed the dance of your chromosomes.
I handcrafted you in your mother’s womb.
I have been preparing you before you knew my name.
Do not fear, because I am always with you.
Yes, you will be my prophet, and yes, you can!”

It’s often like this in the Bible:
God calls someone to a task and they are less than enthusiastic.
Think of Moses, also shy of speech, or Jonah sailing the opposite way.

I can relate to that!
I am timid like Jeremiah.
Twenty years ago, I hated public speaking.
I never thought I could be a preacher.
But the Christian life does not depend on me and my strength.
It’s all about the power of God
Have you experienced that?

For now, back to Jeremiah.
What exactly was God’s message for the people?

“Listen! I am calling the armies of the kingdoms of the north to come to Jerusalem.
I, the Lord, have spoken!
They will set their thrones
at the gates of the city.
They will attack its walls
and all the other towns of Judah.
I will pronounce judgment
on my people for all their evil.”

Jeremiah 1:15-16

If Israel chooses to live without God.
If the nation rejects God’s way of justice and mercy and compassion
for a dog-eat-dog society where might is right,

Then in the end, God will give them they want.
He will withdraw his protecting hand,
and let them live like the godless nations.
Who, as it happens, have much bigger armies …

This was the message.
An urgent warning, a cry of terror to come,
Their last chance, the final call.


Two: The Cost

That was his task, and Jeremiah obeyed.
He preached with passion, he performed live parables, he penned shocking poems.
He sought for words that would pierce the soul.
Anything to shake his people awake.
He confronted worshippers in the Temple.
He disturbed the king in his palace.
He stood at the crossroads of Jerusalem,
and begged his people to take the right road, to choose the way going back to God.

How did the good citizens respond?

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality”
T.S. Eliot

Jeremiah tells us:

I am mocked every day;
everyone laughs at me…
these messages from the Lord
have made me a household joke.
Jeremiah 20:7-8

They thought he had escaped from the Jerusalem loony bin.

In a way, not much has changed.
If we follow Christ today, our way of life might seem a joke.[7]
If we serve God in a world that does not fear him.
There might be a cost.

There was for Jeremiah.
After the smiles, the smirks, the sarcastic sniggers.
When the novelty wore off.
Jeremiah started to get up their nose, his words got under their skin.

A prophet is a watchman who sounds the alarm,
When all you want is peace.[8]

“The prophet’s word is a scream in the night.
While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven”
(Abraham Heschel) [9]

And he makes others feel it too.
Jeremiah’s holy howling was worse than cats snarling outside your window at night.
His neighbours were losing their sleep.

“Let’s destroy this man and all his words,” they said.
“Let’s cut him down, so his name will be forgotten forever.”…

“Like a character in a bad novel with too many mind-boggling escapes, Jeremiah again avoids death”
Kathleen O’Connor

“We will kill you if you do not stop prophesying in the Lord’s name.”
Jeremiah 11:18-21

This wasn’t persecution paranoia, all in his mind.
Jeremiah was arrested, beaten, threatened with death.
More than once he had a narrow escape.[10]

It wasn’t just his body that hurt.
Imagine trying to help someone you love, and they resent your interference.
Ask the parents of a rebellious teenager.
“I hate you Mum!” – how does that feel?
That was Jeremiah.

He loved his people.  He was desperate to warn them and save them.
But they saw him as their enemy – as a traitor to the nation.
The enemy armies were near.
Jeremiah weakened morale, he told the troops to surrender, he jeopardised Jerusalem’s defence.[11]

His sermons made him an outcast.
What’s worse, God told him not to marry, not to mourn or rejoice with others. (16:2)
After a hard day prophesying, Jeremiah couldn’t even go to the pub.
All he had to drown his sorrow was his tears.

Even your brothers, members of your own family,
have turned against you.
Jeremiah 12:6

I never joined the people in their merry feasts.
I sat alone because your hand was on me.
Jeremiah 15:17

“Jeremiah is the suffering prophet, the weeping prophet, the life and soul of the funeral” (John Goldingay, 1984).

One of my favourite things about Jeremiah
Is that he had the classic artistic-depressive temperament.
Like a poet, he experienced

“Seeing too much and feeling it
with one skin layer missing”
(Robert Lowell) [12]

He had moments of elation, of intimacy with God:

Your words became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart
Jeremiah 15:16

Yahweh, you trickster,
with a flick of your finger
you whirl me about—
this way, that, a weather—
vane in your wild weathers,
whim, tornado, mood.
Daniel Berrigan

Then he sank into the pit of despair.
He remembered how God had promised:

“I am with you and will rescue you” (1:19)

So where was God’s comfort?
Jeremiah felt betrayed and abused.

Your help seems as uncertain as a seasonal brook,
like a spring that has gone dry.
Jeremiah 15:18

O Lord, you misled me,
and I allowed myself to be misled.
You are stronger than I am,
and you overpowered me.
Jeremiah 20:7 [13]

Physically, God did keep his promise:
whenever Jeremiah faced death, someone popped up to rescue him.
But emotionally, it all seemed too hard.
He wanted to resign, to hand in his notice, to cancel his contentious calling.

But if I say I’ll never mention the Lord
or speak in his name,
his word burns in my heart like a fire.
It’s like a fire in my bones!
I am worn out trying to hold it in!
I can’t do it!
Jeremiah 20:10

God had assured him, I formed you in the womb.
Now Jeremiah screamed back,

Oh, that I had died in my mother’s womb,
that her body had been my grave!
Why was I ever born?
My entire life has been filled
with trouble, sorrow, and shame.
Jeremiah 20:17-18 [14]

I love the way the Bible gives us real prayers, raw prayers, religiously-incorrect prayers.
Not smiley face, everything’s sweet, don’t rock the boat prayers.

Do we know God well enough to pray like Jeremiah?
Or are we too respectable?
Have we lost the art of lament?

So Jeremiah is not doing well.
lonely and rejected and afraid of being killed.
And the cost of his calling went even deeper.

A prophet is a go-between, a mediator.
He stands in the breach between God’s anger and God’s people. [15]
in the courtroom of heaven, the prophet represents both parties:
he is attorney for the prosecution and for the defence.
He might well feel schizophrenic!

“Like a friend holding someone back at a budding bar fight, the protest prayers of the prophet restrains God’s fists from clobbering God’s people”

Jeremiah stands in the Council of God (23:18)
he delivers God’s accusation of sin.
So the people treat Jeremiah the way they treat God.[16]
With disdain and abuse and rejection.[17]

Jeremiah also stands with his people.
And defends them before God.

I stood before you and pleaded for them
and tried to protect them from your anger
Jeremiah 18:20 [18]

The people told him to shut up and go home.
In effect, God said much the same.

“Pray no more for these people, Jeremiah.
Do not weep or pray for them, and don’t beg me to help them,
for I will not listen to you.”
Jeremiah 7:16

Don’t pray!  What a remarkable command! [19]
Isn’t a prophet supposed to intercede for his people?
But the time has come when it is too late
the people’s heart has become too hard to change.

In 587 B.C., the army of Babylon attacked Jerusalem.
After a siege of 18 months, the city was destroyed.

Did Jeremiah at least have the satisfaction of saying “I told you so.”?
Not at all.  He wished he’d been wrong.

When God’s judgement fell,
Jeremiah’s own home was destroyed.
The innocent prophet went down with his guilty people.

My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
my heart is sick…
I hurt with the hurt of my people…
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!
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

Jeremiah shared the pain of Jerusalem, assaulted by the Babylonians.[20]
and he felt the pain of God, cast off by his people.[21]

You could say he had the worst of both worlds.
Caught between the Rock and a hard-hearted place,
Jehovah and Jerusalem.[22]

Deeply in love with them both,
Jeremiah’s heart was torn apart.
He was cut to pieces in the crossfire.


Three: the Cross

Despite what it cost,
For 40 years – though almost no one listened – Jeremiah kept on preaching.
He remained faithful to the twin loves of his life: his God and his people. [23]

“Truth never dies, but it lives a wretched life”
Yiddish proverb

Jeremiah makes me ask myself:
Do I know God, obey God, love God like he did?
Do I care about the people around me like he did?
Do I want to?  Am I prepared to pay that kind of price?

2500 years later, this tormented Hebrew prophet still packs a punch.
And he leads us to the core of our Christian faith.

Halfway through the Gospels, Jesus asked his disciples,

“Who do people say that I am?”
“Well,” they replied, “some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah,
and others say Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.”
Matthew 16:14

Jesus as Jeremiah – had you thought of that?[24]
Both wept over Jerusalem.[25]
both were often alone and misunderstood, ridiculed and rejected,
even by their family and neighbours.[26]

One day Jeremiah preached in the temple.
It angered the religious leaders.
he was arrested and beaten and put on trial.
The priests pushed for the death sentence.[27]

Does this sound like Easter to you?

Jeremiah even said

“I was like a lamb being led to the slaughter.” Jeremiah 11:19

Some scholars think he inspired the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. [28]

That’s appropriate, because
in many ways, the work of Christ followed the same pattern as Jeremiah’s life.
But much more deeply, scaled right up to the ultimate degree. [29]

Jeremiah stood on God’s side, but was himself a sinful man.
Jesus was fully divine.

Jeremiah suffered with his people.
Jesus became fully one with humanity.

Jesus was 100% on both sides.
And that took him to the cross.

There his body was pierced by human rebellion against God.[30]
His soul was shattered by God’s judgement on sin.

Jeremiah sometimes felt neglected by God;
with greater cause, Jesus cried out:
“My God, Why have you abandoned me?”

Jeremiah asked God to forgive his people, and God said no.
At other times, in his pain, Jeremiah prayed:

Let my persecutors be shamed…
destroy them with double destruction!
Jeremiah 17:18 [31]

As he hung on the cross and passers-by mocked,
Jesus spoke to the Father in their defence, in our defence. (1 John 2:1) [32]
he prayed “Father forgive them”  (Luke 23:34)
and this time, God said yes!

in our war, in my war, of rebellion against God,
The Son of God himself freely stood between the enemy lines.
In a way that Jeremiah’s pain could not, the suffering of this Servant brought hope and healing.
in order to make peace,
Our Lord Jesus Christ was cut down and killed in the crossfire.

While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son
Romans 5:10


Conclusion

You can see why Jeremiah is named the Weeping Prophet.
His calling had a cost.
He lived at a unique time, so it’s unlikely that we will suffer as much.

But I believe that the pattern of Jeremiah’s life, the pattern fulfilled in Jesus,
Should also shape our lives today.

Whether or not there is a bolt from the blue or a voice of thunder,
we are all called to walk closely with our God.
And to care deeply about those he has placed around us.

We are all called to share God’s grief over the brokenness of his world, to intercede for it.
And invite our family and friends to meet our Father in heaven.

Like the prophet, we are called to be mediators, to stand in the gap between heaven and earth,
In other words, to love the Lord with all our heart, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

For Jeremiah, that had a cost
If it never makes us uncomfortable or seems slightly inconvenient.
If we never feel that tug of tension, we are probably not being fully faithful. [33]

If you do sometimes feel that tearing in two,
As God promised, the prophet, so he promised us:
“I will strengthen you and I will help you.”
God will be with us, as you and I obey his call.
The call to live in the pattern of Jeremiah.
To follow the lifestyle of Jesus.
To share the costly love of the cross.


[1] “a spiritual genius, a moral giant, a man of God, who was also a vulnerable soul of intense integrity”, who could have been a great statesman or philosopher or general with his talent (White, 1992).
[2] so, in chapter 1, we find, “what do you see Jeremiah?”,  And “say whatever I command you.”
[3] “Batter my heart, three person’d God”, John Donne.  Many biblical call narratives involve being touched with holy fire.  Moses and the burning bush, Isaiah and the burning coal, Paul knocked off his horse and blinded by a bright light like lightening.  Philosopher Pascal’s mystical experience of fire.
[4] “But whether small or great, and no matter what the stage or grade of life, the call rings up the curtain, always, on a mystery of transfiguration – a rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth.  The familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for the passing of a threshold is at hand….  the ‘call to adventure’ signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual centre of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown.”  (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell, 1949, 52)
[5] “Like Jonah, he yearns to run, to go underground, to escape a destiny outlined by God” (Wiesel, 122)
[6] In Christ God chose us before the creation of the world (Ephesians 1:4)
[7] Francis Schaeffer said Jeremiah “provides us with an extended study of an era like our own, where men have turned away from God, and society has become post-Christian” (Schaeffer: Death in the City)
[8] As T. S. Eliot wrote, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”  Regarding a recent melancholic Welsh poet-priest, it has been written “Reading R.S. Thomas’s poems has become like reading the prophet Jeremiah… we find the same tenacity of theme and purpose; the ability to look without blinking into the misuse of the raw material of humanity” – David Scott
[9] “The prophet is a man who feels fiercely”, “an assaulter of the mind”, with “deep sensitivity towards evil… a fellowship with the feelings of God.”  “The prophet hears God’s voice and feels his heart.” (Heschel)
[10] “He is like an action figure who escapes one catastrophe only to fall into another and survive every time…  Like a character in a bad novel with too many mind-boggling escapes, Jeremiah again avoids death as Jerusalem falls.” (O’Connor, 2011, 73, 78)
[11] He was “a man with whom the whole land strives and contends” (15:10), even accused of deserting to the Babylonians (37:13).  “He who loved his people, whose life was dedicated to saving his people, was regarded as an enemy…  What protection was there against such backbiting?  No one could look into his heart, but everybody was hurt by his words.  Only the Lord knew the truth.” (Heschel)
“Truth never dies, but it lives a wretched life” – a Yiddish proverb.
[12] I found this in a book that could also illuminate Jeremiah’s psychology, “Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament”, by Kay Redfield Jamison, 1993.
[13] Heschel translates the Hebrew of Jeremiah 20:7 more literally as
O Lord, thou hast seduced me,
and I am seduced;
thou hast raped me
and I am overcome.
And comments (describing our gentle and dramatic types of call):
The call to be a prophet is more than an invitation.  It is first of all a feeling of being enticed, of acquiescence or willing surrender.  But this winsome feeling is only one aspect of the experience.  The other aspect is a sense of being ravished or carried away by violence, of yielding to overpowering force against one’s will.  The prophet feels both the attraction and the coercion of God, the appeal and the pressure, the charm and the stress.  He is conscious of both voluntary identification and forced capitulation…  the willing response of sympathy to persuasion… [and the] sense of being utterly delivered up to the overwhelming power of God…  (145)
In Daniel Berrigan’s poetic rendering:
Yahweh, you trickster,
with a flick of your finger
you whirl me about—
this way, that, a weather—
vane in your wild weathers,
whim, tornado, mood.
[14] Jeremiah has been called the 2 Corinthians of the OT (Goldingay, 1984).  As for Jeremiah, God also turns down Paul’s prayer for removal of his thorn.  In fact, at his conversion he was told, “how much he must suffer.”  Acts 9:16.  “In my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”, Col 1:24.
[15] cf Moses interceding for Miriam (Numbers 12:13), Aaron (Deuteronomy 9:20) and all the people (Exodus 32:32)
[16] “Because he embodies the word of God… he suffers what that word suffers… as it is with God, so it is with Jeremiah.” Fretheim, 2002, 355
[17] And so Jeremiah becomes himself the most damning piece of evidence in the prosecution’s case – the way they treat him is visible proof that the Israelites are guilty of rejecting God.  What’s more, as a righteous and innocent man in Jerusalem, Jeremiah is perhaps himself the strongest argument for the defence (Jeremiah 5:1)
[18] “Like a friend holding someone back at a budding bar fight, the protest prayers of the prophet restrains God’s fists from clobbering God’s people.”  http://deforestlondon.wordpress.com/2013/07/02/fearless-prayer-learning-from-the-jewish-tradition-of-protest-against-god/
[19] 7:16, 11:14, 14:11, 15:1
[20] In Jewish tradition, Jeremiah accused God of seducing him, because he was called to the nations, but first he is sent to condemn his own people Israel.  So he said, “Woe is me to be destined for such a bitter task!  I am like a priest who discovers in the course of punishing the unfaithful woman that she is none other than my own mother! So I am consigned to deliver the news of exile and destruction to my people, who are as dear to me as my own mother!”
[21] “Their hearts are sick because they have been unfaithful to God and their lives are threatened. Jeremiah’s heart is sick because he feels God’s pain over the people’s infidelity” (Dempsey, 2007, on Jeremiah 8:18). Jeremiah is “a poet of grace and a prophet par excellence who knew, firsthand, the bittersweet experience of what it means to be madly in love with God and what it means to be madly in love with God’s people” (Dempsey, 2007)
“the tension of a twofold identification, with God in his anguish and indignation, and with Israel in her anguish and high calling” (Goldingay, 1984)
“This is the burden of a prophet: compassion for man and sympathy for God.”  (Heschel 46)
[22] He is “stuck between an insistent God and a resistant people” Caught in the Middle: Jeremiah’s Vocational Crisis, Fretheim, 2002, 351.  He is “hard as a rock while being torn apart inside” (Carol Dempsey, 2007)
[23] 47 times in the book, he says “return”, come back to God.
[24] For many similarities, see “Jeremiah and Jesus: Warning, Lament, and Comfort” at http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Holidays/Summer_Holidays/Tishah_B_Av/Jeremiah/jeremiah.html
[25] “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me.”
Matthew 23:37
But as he came closer to Jerusalem and saw the city ahead, he began to weep.  “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes.  Before long your enemies will build ramparts against your walls and encircle you and close in on you from every side.  They will crush you into the ground, and your children with you. Your enemies will not leave a single stone in place, because you did not accept your opportunity for salvation.”
Luke 19:41-44
[26] When Jesus’ family heard what was happening, they tried to take him away.  “He’s out of his mind,” they said.  Mark 3:21.  Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”  Mark 6:4
[27] The priests and prophets presented their accusations to the officials and the people. “This man should die!” they said. “You have heard with your own ears what a traitor he is, for he has prophesied against this city.” Jeremiah 26:11
[28] Chapters 36-45 are sometimes called “the Passion Narrative of Jeremiah.”
[29] “In the prophet we see decisive continuities with what occurs in the Christ-event.  God’s act in Jesus Christ is the culmination of a long standing relationship of God with the world that is much more widespread in the Old Testament than is commonly recognised” (Fretheim, 1984, 166)
[30] The people passing by shouted abuse, shaking their heads in mockery.  Matthew 27:39
[31] Also 11:20, 18:19-23
[32] “He is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.”  Hebrews 7:25
[33] Indeed, “all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”  2 Timothy 3:12.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”


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