08/15/21 “Standing In the Need of Prayer”

Jeremiah 25:1-7; Jeremiah 18:18-20

In Genesis, the Lord says to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years.” Exodus tells us that it was actually four hundred thirty years. In Numbers, God declares that the Israelites will wander in the wilderness for forty years. Through Jeremiah, in the verses just after today’s passage from Chapter 25, God warns that Judah will be slaves of Babylon for seventy years.

Four hundred years, forty years, seventy years of turmoil, confusion, grief, loss, fear. And yet, none of them strike me with the force of Jeremiah’s words: “For twenty-three years, the word of the Lord has come to me, and I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened.”

I suppose you could imagine Jeremiah speaking these words with outrage or anger. He could be speaking with great passion and power. But what I hear is weariness. I hear discouragement. I hear sorrow over the task he’s faithfully carried out for years with no discernible change in the world around him or in the hearts of his people. I hear resignation to carrying a burden he can’t put down—the burden of a hard task that brings loneliness, rejection, and danger with no end in sight.

I’m not sure why I read his words this way. There’s no indication in Scripture about the mood he’s in. Maybe it’s because those other stretches of bad fortune happened to large groups of faceless people, and these twenty-odd years were lived by one man whom we’re getting to know.

Maybe it’s the times we live in—times that are beset by problems that just seem to go on and on. We were hopeful that the pandemic would have been long over by now. Instead, the virus continues to change, the scientific evidence evolves, the medical advice is adjusted as needed, and public policy continues to fluctuate. It’s been a long haul, and there’s no real end in sight in spite of the vaccine.

And it’s not just the pandemic. It’s climate change causing wildfires and floods all over the world. It’s political infighting, between parties and within parties. It’s social problems that we just can’t seem to solve. And that’s all on top of our personal struggles. My mom used to say, “Sometimes I’m sick, and sometimes I’m tired, but sometimes I’m just sick and tired of being sick and tired”—a sentiment shared by the civil rights heroine Fannie Lou Hamer. I don’t think I’m alone in being sick and tired—of COVID and of all the other stuff, too. So, when Jeremiah says that he’s been hanging in there for twenty-three years, I may be reading my own feelings into his words.

But Jeremiah certainly would have had good reason to feel sick and tired. For twenty-three years, he had been proclaiming bad news on God’s behalf. He had passed along God’s heartbreak and disapproval of the people’s idolatry. Jeremiah called the people out on the social injustice they allowed. He called out the false prophets who were more interested in boosting their own popularity by telling the people what they wanted to hear rather than recalling them to their covenantal identity. He called out the priests and the political leaders who used those false prophesies to justify their own actions and assured the people that they could continue doing exactly what they wanted with no fear of negative consequences. They worshiped trees and stones. they disregarded the poor. They ignored the Sabbath, and the temple was treated as nothing more than a cover for bad behavior. No wonder if Jeremiah was feeling burned.

But Jeremiah suffers from more than feeling trapped in a job with no discernible success. He’s lonely. Even his own family and neighbors tried to undercut and slander him. He remains unmarried and childless, as instructed by God. He’s heartsick over his people, whom he loves, and he fears what’s coming.

Jeremiah must have felt the scorn of his people as he carried out a kind of prophetic performance art, as directed by God. For a long time, Jeremiah wore an unwashed loincloth that represented Judah as a soiled, tattered rag. At God’s instruction, Jeremiah preached in the temple and in all the gates of the city, especially the People’s Gate, where the royalty would see him. At the Potsherd Gate, Jeremiah took an earthenware jug and smashed it into bits before an assembly of elders and senior priests to show how Jerusalem would be destroyed. This was all during King Jehoiakim’s reign. Later, under King Zedekiah, God would tell Jeremiah to make a yoke for himself, with straps and bars, to wear while speaking God’s warnings, not just to Israel but to all the surrounding nations as well, bidding them to place themselves under the yoke of Babylon.

At God’s instruction, Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch wrote down all the oracles that Jeremiah had been speaking, to be read in the temple. Eventually the scroll made its way to the palace where, as it was read, Jehoiakim sliced off pieces, column by column, and threw them into the fire. The people just ignored Jeremiah or laughed at him.

Or worse, they threatened his life. The people of his own hometown plotted to kill him. Later, the leaders of Judah would decide they’d had enough and begin to formulate their own plots. “Come,” they said, “let us make plots against Jeremiah…let us bring charges against him, and let us not heed any of his words.” They’ll ignore his preaching and they dig a pit as they plan to murder him.

After the pot-smashing incident, Pashhur, the chief officer of the temple, struck Jeremiah; some scholars think Pashhur ordered Jeremiah to be beaten. Then he was placed in the stocks in one of the most prominent places in the city. These stocks, which were used for false prophets, were meant for more than just restraint and humiliation. They were an implement of torture, contorting the body so that it was nearly doubled over.

Later still, after Jeremiah preached in the temple courtyard, the people demanded that Jeremiah be put to death. He was hauled into court, and the priests and the so-called prophets declared to the officials and to all the people, “This man deserves the sentence of death because he has prophesied against this city, as you have heard with your own ears.” Even with a death sentence hanging over him, Jeremiah continued to preach God’s word. Again, he escaped.

God instructed him to make his yoke. Another so-called prophet named Hananiah was so enraged by Jeremiah’s words that he yanked the yoke from Jeremiah’s neck and broke it.

After the first deportation to Babylon in 598 BCE, Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiles, basically telling them basically to shelter in place until the time God has specified was over and calling anyone who said anything different a liar. This enraged one of the accused, and he wrote back to Jerusalem, calling for Jeremiah’s punishment.

One time, when Jeremiah tried to leave the city, he was accused of desertion, arrested, beaten, and imprisoned for many days in the cistern house. As events began to unfold as Jeremiah had prophesied, King Zedekiah sent for Jeremiah and asked him for a word from the Lord. In fear for his life, Jeremiah pleaded with King Zedekiah not to send him back to te cistern house, and he was sent instead to the court of the guard of the palace. Jeremiah continued to preach about the fate of the city if it didn’t surrender, further enraging the officials who claimed that he was discouraging the soldiers and remaining residents. Again, they demanded his life, and King Zedekiah handed him over. They lowered him into a cistern full of mud, hoping he would die there.

He was rescued but remained in prison. As Jerusalem was being besieged by Babylon, King Zedekiah sent for Jeremiah once again and asked him for a word from God, promising not to kill Jeremiah if the news was bad. Jeremiah gave the same message he’d been preaching for so many years, and this time the king…promptly ignored it as he and his predecessors had all along. In 586, the city fell and the temple was destroyed, at which Jeremiah may have said, “For forty years…I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened.”

An insurrection against the governor appointed by Babylon brought yet another group of men to power. They asked Jeremiah to ask God for guidance. God’s word comes to Jeremiah and he reports back: the remaining survivors should stay put: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, to whom you sent me to present your plea before him: ‘If you will only remain in this land, then I will build you up and not pull you down; I will plant you, and not pluck you up.’”

Again, Jeremiah’s word—God’s word—was ignored, and the survivors went to Egypt, taking Jeremiah with them. There, the people continued in their idolatry. Even there, Jeremiah continued to be faithful to his call and to the God who called him.  “For some fifty years…I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened.”

How does someone endure all that? How do we endure the trials that come to us, whether they are years long, or months long, or days long? When we feel like we’re trudging uphill on a rocky path with no end in sight, what sustains us as we keep on keeping on? The same thing that sustained Jeremiah: prayer.

The book of Jeremiah is unique in many ways. In the other prophetic books, we hear God’s word to the prophets. But in Jeremiah, we also hear Jeremiah’s words to God. We are allowed to listen in as Jeremiah prays. One definition of prayer is “a conversation with God, where we both speak to God and listen to what God says to us.” That’s what we’re given in Jeremiah. We hear his conversations with God.

And Jeremiah is not afraid to share his true feelings with God. He shares his anger at his people: “O Lord, do your eyes not look for truth? You have struck them, but they felt no anguish; you have consumed them, but they refused to take correction. They have made their faces harder than rock; they have refused to turn back.” God replies, “Shall I not punish them for these things?”

Jeremiah also erupts in anger at God when his ministry causes him pain: “Truly, you are like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.” He accuses God: “Why does the way of the guilty prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive? You plant them, and they take root; they grow and bring forth fruit…How long will the land mourn, and the grass of every field wither” because of the wickedness of those who live in it? This time God challenges Jeremiah to toughen up: “If you have raced with foot-runners and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you fall down, how will you fare in the thickets of the Jordan?”

Jeremiah asks for understanding in his grief over his people: “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick…For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” God explains: “Because they have forsaken my law that I set before them, and have not obeyed my voice, or walked in accordance with it, but have stubbornly followed their own hearts and have gone after the Baals, as their ancestors taught them.”

Jeremiah despairs of his ministry and even his life: “O Lord, you know that on your account I suffer insult…your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts. Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?” God encourages Jeremiah: “If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth…I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you.”

Jeremiah asks for understanding and guidance. He offers his trust and praise. And in almost every case, we hear God’s response. Throughout the many years of Jeremiah’s life and ministry, he continued in a one-on-one relationship with God through prayer that, I am convinced, enabled him to withstand all that assailed him and enabled him to be that fortified wall of bronze.

Do you know who else made prayer a constant in his earthly life? Jesus, of course. He prayed in the morning and he prayed at night. He prayed after healing the sick and before raising the dead. He prayed when surrounded by religious leaders and with children on his knee. When the disciples returned from their first mission, he prayed with joy. He gave thanks at mealtimes, with thousands in deserted places and with his closest friends in an upper room. On the night when he was betrayed by one of those friends, he prayed for himself, his disciples, and all believers, including us. In Gethsemane, he prayed in tears. On the cross, he prayed in despair and, ultimately, in trust in his Father.

As prayer sustained Jeremiah, prayer sustained Jesus, and it can sustain us. We aren’t facing a life like Jeremiah’s. We aren’t facing execution on a cross. But we know what it feels like to bear a heavy burden we can’t put down. Even the burden we feel privileged to carry, like the care of a loved one, makes us weary. I know. I’ve been there. I’ve known what it feels like to wake up in the morning, already tired at the thought of the day ahead.

That weariness may spring from other sources as well. The job that no longer satisfies but has to be kept because you’re too close to retirement to leave. The friend or child whose life problems bleed into yours, over and over and over again. An estrangement that eats at you every day. The illness or condition that makes every day a challenge. The eroding grind of making do when there’s more to be done than money or people to do it with. It’s the weariness that’s expressed in the old African-American spiritual sung by enslaved men and women: “It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”

We are invited into a sustaining conversation with God by Jesus himself. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Through Jesus, we can approach God as Jeremiah did, not worrying about using fancy words, or pretending everything’s okay when it’s not, but pouring out our hearts. As St. Augustine said, “In most cases prayer consists more in groaning than in speaking, in tears rather than in words.”

When we are weary of treading water in stormy seas, prayer is the lifeline Jesus throws out to draw us to the safety of his arms. When we are feeling sick and tired, prayer like Jeremiah’s is what keeps us close to the God who loves us. In the good times, in the hard times, and in the weary times, we stand in the need of prayer. We stand in need of the conversations with God that sustain us as we sojourn in this world. We stand in the need of the prayer that strengthens us and enables us to endure as we listen to and act on God’s word. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young