Sunday, June 13, 2021

Pain and Promise: When the Floods Rise

The psalm we just heard - Psalm 13 - is a psalm of lament. A song written from a place of deep despair and darkness. It suggests to us the nature of our reading today from Jeremiah, which also suggests a time of difficulty. Mostly the difficulty that Jeremiah, the prophet, experiences, from to help the people and their leaders understand their need to turn back to God, to put aside the ways that are contrary to those of God. To repent and seek God’s forgiveness.

To this point, I haven’t provided much context for either the book of Jeremiah or the Prophet Jeremiah. For today’s reading, in particular, this background becomes helpful to know and understand.

Roughly a century before the beginning of Jeremiah’s mission, the northern kingdom had fallen to Assyria. We heard stories of this last fall - the twelve tribes that made up the kingdom of Israel split in two. Ten tribes in the north, forming a nation called Israel. The remaining two tribes in the south forming Judah. So, 100 years before Jeremiah, this northern kingdom had been defeated by the Assyrian Empire, never to return again. They became known to Judah as the “lost” tribes - eliminated forever. This haunted the remaining two tribes in the south. Terrified of being overrun by the Assyrians from the north. But, also, of another growing threat in the north. This time from the Babylonians. 

It was during these hundred years that King Josiah made sweeping reforms, centering the worship of Judah in the temple in Jerusalem in an attempt to bring the people back from worshiping other false and strange gods, worship that had led them to horrific practices, including child sacrifice. Josiah believed that this false worship would lead directly to national disaster and exile as punishment for their failure to honor their covenant with God. So, for a time, there was a brief respite for the southern kingdom. But, not for long. Because Josiah’s successors did not follow his lead. Soon, the Babylonians attacked Judah and began a two-year siege of Jerusalem. 

It was in the midst of this time that Jeremiah was called by God to denounce the wayward behavior of the people of Judah. As you can imagine, he was not a popular public figure. He was jailed over and over by successor kings because, although speaking the Word God gave to him, his message was unwelcome by the political leaders. And the people. It is during one period of confinement where our story today is located - during the reign of King Jehoiakim. 

We read in Jeremiah, chapter 36.

In the fourth year of Judah’s King Jehoiakim, Josiah’s son, this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Take a scroll and write in it all the words I have spoken to you concerning Israel, Judah, and all the nations from the time of Josiah until today. Perhaps when the people of Judah hear about every disaster I intend to bring upon them, they will turn from their evil ways, and I will forgive their wrongdoing and sins. So Jeremiah sent for Baruch, Neriah’s son. As Jeremiah dictated all the words that the Lord had spoken to him, Baruch wrote them in the scroll. Then Jeremiah told Baruch, “I’m confined here and can’t go to the Lord’s temple. So you go to the temple on the next day of fasting, and read the Lord’s words from the scroll that I have dictated to you. Read them so that all the people in the temple can hear them, as well as all the Judeans who have come from their towns. If they turn from their evil ways, perhaps the Lord will hear their prayers. The Lord has threatened them with fierce anger.” Baruch, Neriah’s son, did everything the prophet Jeremiah instructed him: he read all the Lord’s words from the scroll in the temple.

The king sent Jehudi to take the scroll, and he retrieved it from the room of Elishama the scribe. Then Jehudi read it to the king and all his royal officials who were standing next to the king. Now it was the ninth month, and the king was staying in the winterized part of the palace with the firepot burning near him. And whenever Jehudi read three or four columns of the scroll, the king would cut them off with a scribe’s knife and throw them into the firepot until the whole scroll was burned up.

The Lord’s word came to Jeremiah after the king had burned the scroll containing the words written by Baruch at Jeremiah’s dictation: Get another scroll and write in it all the words that were in the first scroll that Judah’s King Jehoiakim burned.

The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. It won’t be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant with me even though I was their husband, declares the Lord. No, this is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. They will no longer need to teach each other to say, “Know the Lord!” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord; for I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins. --Jeremiah 36:1-8, 21-23, 27-31 (CEB).

Why does it happen that sometimes everything just falls apart? When we experience chaos, such as that which we experienced over the past 15 months or so, which may not even yet be over as much as we might wish it to be? 

Our traditional Lutheran theology has taught us that “bad things happen” because of sin and human brokenness. This is true, although sometimes it is also true that bad things just happen. Yet, by far they happen because of human action. Certainly, we saw that this past year, as we could see human failure and pride impact and perpetuate the growth of the pandemic - growth and expansion that did not have to happen. Hundreds of thousands of lives that could have been spared. 

All because of our sin and human brokenness.

We also saw the rise of civil unrest and disobedience in our nation last summer, perhaps really seeing for the first time through an apocalyptic-type unveiling of the great injustice in our systems. Systems that keep people of color, the queer community, women, the poor and others on the margin in bondage. That drive and maintain inequality. Not that we, as individuals, necessarily want this. But, perhaps, that we have been less than willing to notice it before, or to simply ignore it, unwilling to step out of our places of comfort. 

All because of our sin and human brokenness.

And, then, there’s the deep division in our world. A seemingly epic struggle that has taken its toll on so many relationships. So many families. So many churches and their pastors. I know of this toll on pastors because I spent a few hours this past week, just sitting and listening. As colleagues literally wept over the division in their congregations, and how many of them have become targets themselves of the vitriol and anger that hovers just below the surface, ready to strike at any time. Not to mention the heavy load that so many of us have been carrying. And the exhaustion, too. Perhaps, the same exhaustion you’ve felt. Is it any wonder that something like 25% of pastors in the church are seriously considering leaving the ministry or have already left?

All because of our sin and human brokenness.

When did you feel most broken in this past year? Was it as we saw pandemic numbers spike, the curve of deaths skyrocket? Or perhaps it was in the summer as we watched the video of George Floyd or heard the horrific story around the death of Brionna Taylor? Was it during the days of protests and civil disobedience? Or perhaps you can’t even remember such a time because you have tried so hard to put it behind you. To not think about it. To pretend it away. To leave behind the despair and the grief and the sense of hopelessness. Too often, as theologian Walter Brueggemann writes, we are afraid to sit in Saturday. You know, Saturday, right? That day after the Friday crucifixion, when the disciples, too, likely had to face their own fear and grief. Their own complicity. Their own sin and human brokenness. Not knowing that Sunday would come. 

Perhaps, we should sit longer in Saturday. Feeling lost and alone. Crying out to God, like the psalmist, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

But there is this obscure message - this obscure gospel message - in today’s Jeremiah text. The command by God to Jeremiah to write his words - to write God’s Word - down. Ensuring that this Word will endure forever, notwithstanding any human desire to ignore or erase it. This Word that comes to us. This New Covenant. This Word Incarnate that meets us where we are. In our messiness and chaos. In our human sin and brokenness. That abides with us. Even when we don’t fully realize that, in our guilt and despair and suffering, God has been present with us all along. Right there, beside us. Preparing to lead us to a new day. And a new way of being. 

But, for today, let’s just sit now for awhile in Saturday. Recognizing our sin. And brokenness. Our complicity. But, also remembering and holding fast to the one truth, as the psalmist does, too, that God is faithful. And forgiving. And that soon, we will sing again. Amen.

Preached June 13, 2021, online with Grace & Glory Lutheran, Goshen, KY, and Third Lutheran, Louisville, KY.
3rd Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Jeremiah 36:1-8, 21-13, 27-31; Psalm 13

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