Sunday 22 September 2019
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 25C
Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then have my people not been restored to health?
The prophet Jeremiah cries out in lament to God. Why has this happened? Where have you gone? Why haven’t done something to change this intolerable situation?
Jeremiah was called as prophet of God during a particularly trying time for Israel. They were faced with powerful enemies on every side. To the south was the ancient Kingdom of Egypt. To the north were the Assyrians. To the east was Babylon. Israel stood at a major crossroads in the Middle East. Every regional power with dreams of empire had to pass through Palestine in order to expand. Israel was constantly threatened simply because it stood between the great powers of the area.
God’s people felt that they needed protection, so they made an alliance with Egypt. But that actually made them less safe than they were before. Now they weren’t just neutral ground for armies to march through. Now they were allied with the enemy. Now they were a target. And they were no match for enemies like Assyria or Babylon.
We don’t know exactly when this part of Jeremiah was first uttered or when it was first written down. We don’t know the exact context in which it is best understood. What we do know is that it comes from a time when Israel was under great threat, or when it had been devastated by foreign armies.
And in the midst of this destruction and desolation, Jeremiah asks where God is. Why did God allow this destruction to happen? Why didn’t God do something to stop this calamity?
When we face hardship, or tragedy, or destruction, that is the one word that we have such a hard time dealing with: why. Why are there so many destructive fires and storms? Why are people’s homes destroyed? Why do I have this illness? Why did my parent, or my sibling, or my child have to die? Why is he sick? Why did she leave me? Why can’t I find a job? Why? Why?
Because there has to be a reason, doesn’t there? There must be some reason that God is punishing us, punishing me. What was my failing? What is it that I did wrong to invite God’s judgment? What do I need to change so that God will stop doing this to me?
Unfortunately, this text doesn’t help us very much with that question. Jeremiah is convinced that Israel has fallen on hard times because they have been worshiping idols instead of the one true God.
It’s possible that that’s the case. But it doesn’t mean that every time we suffer hardship it is because God is angry with us. Not every tragedy has a reason. Not every hardship can be explained. In fact, most of them can’t be explained.
Why does one person survive cancer and another die? Why does one person live into old age while another dies in their prime? Why does one person live in relative health while another suffers from chronic illness? Why does one mind stay sharp while another fades? Why does one relationship last while another deteriorates? Why is one community struck with disaster while another remains untouched?
Sometimes there are explanations to these things. Sometimes we can assign a reason. But much of time, perhaps most of the time, we cannot. Hurricanes aren’t God’s punishment for sin. Earthquakes aren’t divine retribution for consorting with the devil. Illness is not punishment for immorality.
There are Christians who claim that, though. There are Christians who are quite happy to tell us which sins provoked the latest natural disaster or illness. And it’s true that some parts of the Bible do suggest that calamity is a punishment from God. But there are other parts, like the Book of Job, that strongly protest against that idea. Jesus also argued against that idea when he spoke about a group of Galileans whom Pilate had killed, when he talked about the eighteen people killed when the tower of Siloam fell, and when he healed the man born blind. None of those people were experiencing the wrath of God on account of sin. That’s what Jesus says.
And yet, when we experience hardships, we do try to grasp for answers. Sometimes we blame it on the actions of others. Sometimes we turn the blame in on ourselves. Sometimes we assign it to divine action. Because there must be some reason. There must be some way to explain it.
When our daughter, Naomi, died 18 minutes after she was born, amongst all the care and support we received, we also got quite a lot of truly unhelpful sentiment. We heard things like, “God must have needed another angel.” And I don’t blame people for saying it. In times of tragedy, we want to try to be helpful to one another, and most of the time we just don’t know what to say. Coming up with a reason for loss seems like it would be helpful. It’s a way of trying to answer that nagging Why?
But most of the time there is no reason. It’s not because we did something wrong. It’s not because God is angry with us. And it’s not because God needs another angel. Some tragedies are simply tragic, and there is nothing to do with them but to lament.
But that is often the last thing we think of doing in the face of tragedy. Instead, we try to ignore the hurt and focus on the positive. We try to find things to be thankful for and deny the way we actually feel.
With this, Jeremiah can help us. He cries out to God in pain. And he is not happy with God. “The harvest is past, the summer is ended,” he says, “and we are not saved.” You’ve had enough time, God. Why aren’t you doing something? “Is the Lord not in Zion?” he asks. “Is her King not in her?” If you are here, then why haven’t you intervened? Why haven’t you stopped this mess? This is not how things are supposed to be.
This is a very raw cry of emotion. If you notice, some of the words are God’s words, and some of them are Jeremiah’s. But there is no indication when one speaker stops and the other begins. It’s just a confused jumble of pathos.
And Jeremiah closes this lament with a powerful set of images:
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 is not afraid to face his true and painful feelings. He is not afraid to lay his whole self before God, with all of his hurt, with all of his anger, and with all of his sorrow. He is not afraid to confront God with all that he is.
In our culture, we are trained to hide and deny our pain. We are conditioned to pretend like everything is fine, to show a mask to the world. We are so practiced at it, that we even try to fool ourselves. Even when it is just us alone with God, we deny our hurt, as if we think that God can’t handle it.
The more we deny, though, the greater the pain. It just grows and grows with no release.
But if we can take our pain to God, then there is a balm. If we can bring all our trouble and set it at the feet the Lord, there is healing. Don’t be afraid to cry. There is healing in the tears. There is release in the crying out. There is power in the lament. Those tears are holy water.
And in time, healing does come. It may not happen all at once. It may not happen quickly. It may not happen the way that we want. But our God does provide. Our God does lift us up. Our God does hold us in loving arms, does care for us in our need, does heal our wounds.
If God cared enough about us to send God’s own Son, to live our life, to share our pain, to die our death, then God will certainly bear our burdens. God will certainly bind our wounds. God will certainly heal our hearts. And God will certainly walk the journey with us, all the way to its end and beyond. Thanks be to God.