Excerpts of Jeremiah chapters 4, 8, & 9

These chapters of Jeremiah’s laments preface the days leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. When Josiah was king of Israel, launching religious reforms, Jeremiah was a young prophet. But when Josiah is killed in battle, Jerusalem starts its free-fall with a quick succession of kings and the rise of the Babylonian Empire. King Jehoiakim takes the throne, reversing any reforms initiated by the former King Josiah. He dies a few months before the Babylonians advance on Jerusalem in 597 BCE. King Nebuchanezzar captures the royalty and a few temple treasures, but waits 10 more years before destroying the city or temple. Jeremiah had warned of the impending fall of Jerusalem, but the people are in denial because they thought Jerusalem would always be safe. 

Commentator R. E. Clements: “Jeremiah addressed a people who were so self-assured in the rightness of their cause, and in the backing God must give to it, that they discounted the possibility of harsh Babylonian reprisals against them.

They believed that God made a covenant with King David that his line would never be broken AND that God dwelled IN the Temple. It was this belief that God was on their side no matter what that led to reckless and disastrous foreign policy.

Jeremiah predicts impending doom.

A scorching wind from the desert roars towards my poor people, not to winnow or wash. My people do not know me; stupid children. They are wise in evil-doing, but know nothing of doing good”.

Harsh words. What we know about wind in the ancient world is that wind of a certain strength was helpful agriculturally to separate wheat from the lighter chaff which blew away. But THIS wind is filled with disaster and divine frustration. It’s purposes are not for winnowing or cleansing. Jeremiah says it is a sign of God’s anger kindled against a people for their lack of attention to justice and righteousness, and their attraction to other gods and idols.

Jeremiah foreshadows environmental doom.

The skies without light. The mountains quaking!
No sign of human life and All the birdsare gone!
The vineyard a desert; all the cities were smashed before God’s awesome anger

Jeremiah creates a vision of the earth returning to its primeval state  before creation – on the verge of chaos where all ecological elements are compromised. 

Blooming Cactus: The destruction of Jerusalem came over 20 years of slow failure at all levels of national life – it was a foreign policy failure, as well as a failure in values, spirituality and faith. The nation was like a tree rotting in its core. From the outside it still looked like a strong oak, with its branches spreading upwards and leaves providing a canopy of shade. But when Babylon arrived, it exposed the inner weakness of the trunk, which had been hollowed out and was ready to crumble.

Howard Wallace, from Feasting on the Word: This is not an easy passage to dwell on. No easy answers. It is an invitation to stand in silence, the silence where no people live, no birds sound, and contemplate the possibility of complete destruction. Perhaps this is the voice from war-torn places. Perhaps it is one way to be in solidarity with those who have experienced such destruction and devastation. Perhaps it is the foreshadowing of the kind of ultimate destruction we hold in our own hands, through weapons and war, or through destruction of the environment. In the ways we might contemplate destruction – we also begin to accept that this destruction arises out of our own behavior.

Earlier in chapter 8, Jeremiah tells the people that they need to stop pretending that nothing is wrong, stop turning away, stop ignoring voices of the wounded and oppressed, stop silencing those who testify to the wrongs that have been done to them. Jeremiah looks at the wounds & hears the cry. His response is overwhelming grief and sorrow. The book of Jeremiah continues to be relevant in every age. Sadly, demoralization, corruption and suffering are not limited to any one culture or timeframe. Our nation suffers from its wounds as well. We face potential catastrophe. Jeremiah challenges us to behold the wounds, try to understand what caused them, realize there is no quick fix. 

The prophet Jeremiah grieves with a tormented soul akin to what St. John of the Cross and other mystics describe as the dark night of the soul, with no immediate assurance that things will get better.

8:18 Jeremiah cries out:“My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.”
Chapter 9 begins: “If only my head were waters, my eyes a fountain of tears that I might weep day and night for my poor people!” 

When Jeremiah speaks for God in 8:21 “For the brokenness of the daughter of my people I am broken

George Ramsey, in Feasting on the Word: writes that the Hebrew term for brokenness is one that is used in the breaking of pottery.

Much like the forgotten pile of broken pottery I discovered in Port Townsend on Friday – piles of broken pottery plant bases covered in blackberry vines. Broken shards that we will use to write our lament.

In 8:23 the prophet asks whether there is a Balm in Gilead, referring to a place known for healing, medical care and for the resin from balsam trees, which can create a medicinal soothing ointment, a balm. The Bible references Balsam 3 times. Genesis 37: a caravan from Gilead carries Joseph off to slavery in Egypt with their cargo of balsam. The other 2 references are found in Jeremiah where there is hope for a balm to heal their problems. Perhaps asking if there is a Balm in Gilead is a rhetorical question, to emphasize the depth of the spiritual and moral crisis Israel faces. In this moment, the prophet doubts such a balm exists. I imagine a few of you are humming the tune in an affirmative YES that “There is a Balm in Gilead”. Certainly the refrain of this spiritual dares to respond with hope in the face of hopelessness, demonstrating courage in the face of despair.

African American theologian Howard Thurman reflects on the refrain of this spiritual: “The slave caught the mood of this spiritual dilemma and with it did an amazing thing. He straightened the question mark in Jeremiah’s sentence into an exclamation point: ‘There is a balm in Gilead!’  This is a note of “creative triumph” in the face of despair.”

But Jeremiah asks us to not rush to assurance too quickly.  Instead, he invites us to pause and observe God’s grief and God’s love for the vulnerable, for those who are mistreated, victimized, abused. Our rhythms of worship do not often offer the spiritual practice of communal lament. This kind of deep despair feels like Holy Week, and yet here we are in Ordinary Time peeking in on these disconsolate verses the lectionary offers. Is it any wonder this is the first time I have preached these texts of ch. 4 & 8? Jeremiah’s words offer an opportunity for us to grieve together, to create space for shared lament, to surrender to the overwhelming sorrow, and not rush to fix our anxiety and discomfort.

Is there a balm in Gilead to undo the genocide and ethnic cleansing of cultures from indigenous people here in the US, in Canada, other places – Africa & Eruope? Is there a balm in Gilead to justify separating children from their parents and placing them in unsanitary, comfortless cages? Because there is no easy answer, no cheap grace, Jeremiah ends the lament with a cry.

Anathea Porter Young writes: We desire rites of assurance, comfort, hope, talk of resurrection, reconciliation. On the day we allow ourselves to grieve together, we must not move too quickly for a quick fix that won’t fix it. It only submerges us into denial. We cannot rush lament and grief. This grief is not about our personal lives. This is a grief of a nation. Jeremiah and God weep for the people.

The church is called to feel, to embody and to proclaim the passion of a God who identifies so closely with the people that their wound is God’s heart wounded. The church is called to proclaim a passion for the truth and justice that resides in God’s heart.

So let us take a moment of silent reflection and ponder the brokenness of the world. Write down on your broken shard the places you see, you feel the brokenness in the world, in our community. The brokenness of the people is our brokenness.

Let us Pray: Holy One, we want to live well and faithfully, but we are overwhelmed by the state of the world. News of global warming, international conflict, hate crimes, gun violence, and human rights abuses flood the headlines and saturate our conscience. We believe we must change, and we are overwhelmed and often fail to act. Forgive us, God, and grant us the courage and perseverance to wrestle with the change to which we are called. Amen.