Like a Deceitful Brook
August 2, 2020
God as our rock. God as shepherd. God as shield, fortress and sun. These are among the metaphors for God that one might find emblazoned on a coffee mug, tattooed on a bumper sticker or embroidered on a homely wall hanging. The metaphor Jeremiah uses in this passage to describe God is one that is not likely to carry much bumper sticker potential. “You are to me like a deceitful brook,” Jeremiah tells God. “You are like waters that fail.” Oof.
Jeremiah pulls no punches here. He tells God exactly what is on his mind, nevermind the fact that he is comparing the Creator and Sustainer of the universe to a river that has dried up.
One of the things I love most about being a Christian is that I’m required to be honest, especially if that honesty is directed towards God. If I’m upset with God, I can say I’m upset. If I’m angry, I can say I’m angry. The Bible gives us this permission. What I love most about the Bible is its deeply brutal honesty. Jeremiah is one such person in our Bible who dashes etiquette and politeness against the wall in exchange for a raw honesty that cuts and bleeds.
Jeremiah is often cast as “the weeping prophet”, because no other prophetic book contains as much lament or description of the prophet’s woes. If you sit down and read the book of Jeremiah sometime, you’ll quickly find that this prophet is a basket-case, but not without good reason!
Our passage today is one of Jeremiah’s laments. He begins by addressing God with unusual candor and directness, “You! O Lord you know.” I imagine Jeremiah saying this in a tone not far from the tone my mom would use to scold me when I did something wrong as a kid and knew it. “Matt, you know what you did wrong.” Jeremiah is blunt with God, “You know why I’m addressing you right now. I don’t need to remind you.” But Jeremiah does indeed go on to remind God of why he is crying out in distress. I mean, who of us wouldn’t pass up a chance to air out our laundry list of complaints when given the opportunity?
Jeremiah recalls in verse 16 how he remembers the good old days when he entered God’s service with an attitude of delight and joie de vivre. God’s word was fresh and exciting to him, God’s love palpable. But now, Jeremiah’s delight has turned bitter and exhausted. He longs to sit in the company of merrymakers and to live as if everything is normal and nothing is wrong, but God’s word inside of him will not allow him such comfort. Since entering God’s service he has only received indignation, insults, and has suffered greatly on behalf of what he preaches. Jeremiah brought words of warning to the Israelites, warning them that if they did not repent from their injustices and blithe disregard for God, that retribution would be swift. For this, Jeremiah was nicknamed by the people “Danger-Everywhere”, and he was mistreated, ignored and beaten.
For this reason, Jeremiah can accuse God of deceiving him. “You are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.” Like a brook that has run dry, so too the promise of God’s blessing has come up empty for him. Jeremiah assumed that God would support him should he obey the call to ministry, yet his early delight was turned to exhausted bitterness. Jeremiah pulls no punches; there’s no sugar coating things when it comes to “the weeping prophet.” He tells it like it is. This type of honesty can be strangely refreshing.
Jeremiah, I think, is a much needed prophetic voice for us today. Imagine if Jeremiah was alive right now. He would have a hay-day! The laundry list of things we could complain about and petition God for right now seems almost endless. It’s dizzying. As a pastor, each week my struggle is not to figure out what to preach on, but to decide what not to preach on, because the amount of things going on in our nation and in our world is staggering. Do I address the pandemic, systemic racism, or the mental health crisis? Or perhaps I should address the economic collapse, or maybe the frightening use of military force against citizens’ protests, or maybe I address the turbulent and ever-depressing presidential race? And those are just the tip of the ice berg. Jeremiah’s anger, complaints and exhaustion connect him to us in a way that we might not have imagined just four months ago. Witnessing Jeremiah’s own prophetic anger, pain and exhaustion directed towards both God and his own people, can be healing for us.
If there’s one thing we can learn from Jeremiah, it’s how to be honest with God. And what is so incredible about the God we worship, is that our God invites this type of raw, brutal, intimate honesty. The honesty of Jeremiah is indicative of the relationship that exists between him and God. The opposite of love is not anger, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not complaint or doubt, it’s indifference. The anger that wells up between Jeremiah and God, between Jeremiah and his people is evidence of love. Only those who love can experience hurt, anger and doubt. The indifferent are just fine.
Jeremiah is prophetic for us, not just in his words and prophecies, but in how he responds to pain and the exhaustion that accompanies it. This is a hard season of life for most of us, and it’s made even more challenging by the fact that we have no idea when it might end. The list goes on of things we must worry about: our health, our finances, our job, our rent or mortgage payments, our mental health, our friendships and family members. We go to church and must sit outside on a hot black top. We turn on the news and are met with an endless barrage of images, charts, graphs and stories that are just as disconcerting as yesterday’s. Perhaps like Jeremiah, we ask God to bring down retribution on our enemies, on those people who [fill in the blank]—those people who don’t wear masks in grocery stores, or maybe it’s those people who are forcing you to wear a mask; perhaps you want retribution on those crazy Republicans or those good-for-nothing Democrats. There is no shortage of people to direct our hatred towards these days.
But like Jeremiah, we long to sit again in the company of merrymakers, we long for life to return to normal. We are exhausted, we’re at our wit’s end. God’s promise of blessing seems to us at this moment like a deceitful brook, a stream we thought would be ever-nourishing, yet has dried up. We thought the Christian life would be easier than this; we thought blessings would pour forth at every turn, but our lot is one of burden for our world. As Christians we know we can’t turn a blind eye, we know we can’t pretend this isn’t happening and pretend there aren’t more needs than we’re able to adequately meet. It would certainly be easier to live that way, with our heads in the sand, but the Gospel requires us to live life with our eyes and hearts wide open, which will always invite pain.
There is comfort in Jeremiah’s own laments, because we know we have a place to bring all of these sorrows, these worries, these angers and frustrations. A place we know we will be heard. God invites Jeremiah’s laments, his complaints, his anger and his exhaustion. This is a relationship, and there’s no real relationship without honesty. Jeremiah remains in touch with his own pain, and with the pain of his people. He brings it to God. Where else can he take it? At a moment when Jeremiah is all out of answers, when he’s at a breaking point and ready to be done, he comes to God with intimate honesty.
As we all know from our own intimate relationships, there must be reciprocity for them to work. Honesty reciprocates honesty in a relationship. And as is often the case in scripture, God answers the prayers of his people often not with the response they expect to hear. Theologian Walter Brueggemann offers the reminder, “The hazard of such honest prayer, as we shall see, is that [God] can be equally honest…in response to [our] prayer.”
God’s response to Jeremiah’s honesty is curious and unexpected. The Lord responds, “If you turn back, I will take you back, and you shall stand before me. If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth. It is they who will turn to you, not you who will turn to them. And 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, I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.”
God doesn’t scold Jeremiah for his brutal honesty or for his complaints. Instead, God effectively picks Jeremiah up, dusts him off, and calls him back out on mission to serve his people on behalf of God. This may seem quite insensitive on God’s behalf. Doesn’t God see that Jeremiah is exhausted and worn out, ready to quit? It seems like the proper response to Jeremiah isn’t to assign more work, but to give him a break. Oh how he longs for a break! He longs for the ability to disconnect from the pain of his people, to bury his head in the sand just for a little while.
But God invites Jeremiah to stand back up and to press on. I read God’s tone not as one of a scolding father, but as an encouraging mother, helping her son up after falling off his bike. “Come on honey, get back on the seat, you can do it. I know that fall hurt, but you’ll get it.”
God invites Jeremiah to tear his gaze from his circumstantial woes to a renewed focus of God’s mission in the world.
My second year of seminary was a really difficult one for me. I suffered anxiety attacks frequently, which manifested itself as an uncontrollable nausea that would come on quickly and unexpectedly, no matter if I was in public or private. Some of those weeks were miserable. At the time, I was still working part-time as a chaplain at the psychiatric hospital. Each Friday would roll around when my shift was at the hospital, and I usually dreaded it. I had so much other stuff going on that I was too exhausted to want to go. I had mountains of homework and chronic anxiety attacks among countless other reasons I could pile up to support my decision to stay home. But each week I faithfully went. I can’t claim that it was a sense of integrity or anything righteous about me that drove me to go. Perhaps it was God’s Spirit or my fear of letting people down, but whatever the cause, I went. And each week it was very difficult work. I sat with people suffering from illnesses and traumas I can barely imagine. It was emotionally exhausting. But each week, almost without fail, I returned home with a renewed sense of God’s purpose in my life and in our world.
There’s something about attending to other people’s pain that provides a sort of cure for our own pain. It doesn’t magically make our own pain, our own anxieties, our own fears go away, but it does put them in perspective. We were created by God to be a people of love and compassion. When we exercise this love and compassion for people in our communities and world who are hurting, we do discover a renewed sense of purpose, and renewed sense of life that beckons us beyond our own circumstances, beyond our own woes. Not that our circumstances or woes are unimportant; as we’ve seen, God welcomes us to bring these to God in prayer and petition. But God doesn’t leave us there. God calls us back out on mission to our hurting and broken world. It’s all too easy to become paralyzed by our circumstances, our pain, our worries; it’s all too easy to envy normalcy and the return to what once was; it’s all too easy to put our head in the sand and wait for things to get better. But God calls us back out on mission to the world.
Like a loving mother, God gently encourages us to get back on the bike and keep peddling.
Our laundry list of complaints, hurts and frustrations is long. God hears these. And God loves us too much to leave us where we are, on the ground beside the bike.
How might God be calling you out on mission during this season of life? Who can you share your love and compassion with this week?
As a church we’re going to use this season to lean in to the difficult stuff. Next week I’ll begin a sermon series on racism, looking at the history of racism in the church and how it still exists at present and how we as a community and individuals can be engaged in anti-racism work. Then I’ll do a series on mental illness. These are tough topics, but like Jeremiah, God is calling us back out into the broken and hurting places in our world.
We are God’s hands and feet. So let’s walk forward hand in hand (metaphorical, of course!), open to wherever God may be calling to be love, to be compassion, to be hope. Amen.