Vessels holding a fountain of tears

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Jeremiah 8:18-9:3
October 13, 2019

 

 

        I’d ridden my bicycle down to the marina to meet with some friends late Friday. It was after dark when I left. With a rather bright LED light on my handlebars, I wasn’t worried. But about halfway home something flew into my right ear. The bug dug down deep and as it fluttered its wings. I stopped. I’d always thought the saying, “a bug in your ear,” was a metaphor. Now I was shaking my head and pounding it, in an attempt to free the bug. I was going insane. I rode on home and about every 15 seconds the insect would have saved enough energy to flutter again for a few seconds. Coming into the house, I called out that I needed help. Donna, after checking with the Mayo Clinic website, warmed up some oil and poured it into my ear. It was supposed to flush the bug out, but it never came out. Eventually the bug stopped fluttering. I assumed it drowned. Yesterday morning (which is why I wasn’t in Bible Study), I went to urgent care. They were able to remove the bug. It was a big bug and counting its antenna was over an inch long. That may not sound big until you consider the size of your ear canal.

As a good Calvinist, I’m glad that’s over. That constant fluttering drove me crazy. It forced me into action. I felt a bit like those in Jerusalem did about Jeremiah. This man with his rants drove them crazy, only they didn’t heed his words. But, unlike that bug, Jeremiah had an important message to share.

Today we continue our walk through the book of Jeremiah in our series titled “Prophecies and Pottery.” Listen carefully to our text, for we’ll hear the line of scripture from where the familiar spiritual that we just sang, “There is a Balm in Gilead” comes. The unknown writer of this spiritual answers a question that Jeremiah asks, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” Yes, the Spiritual answer, there is balm and it’s found in the work of the Holy Spirit and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. This song gives hope to people who had little hope.

         Professor James Cone, writing about the African American musical tradition, said that spirituals do not deny history. They don’t deny that there’s a lot wrong in our world. Instead, spirituals see history leading toward divine fulfillment.[1] Or, as Martin Luther King was fond of saying, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Our faith does not automatically replace all that’s wrong in our lives or our world. Instead, it’s a hope that is ground in the goodness of the Almighty who, in time, will make all things right. Many of us have had to deal with disappointment. Jeremiah is a poet for such a time. Jeremiah reminds us that sometimes it takes tough love for us to be molded and fired into a vessel that’s useful. Let’s listen to God’s word to us today: Jeremiah 8:18-9:3.

         Let’s imagine ourselves in the 6th Century before the Common Era and join Jeremiah. Having left the city, the prophet walks alone, across what should be a grain field. With each step he kicks up dust. The immature stalks of grain, long dried under the desert sun, crunch under his feet. This should be the time of the harvest, but there are no men out swinging sickles nor women gathering sheaves. The grapes and the figs and the olives area also shrivel on the vine. The harvest has failed. There’s going to be hunger. And with Nebuchadnezzar’s army on the loose, there won’t be a chance to trade for food. Jeremiah’s heart is heavy. As he looks back toward the walls of the city, he cries. He images the bloated bellies of the young and the riots when there is no more bread in the market.

The sentry assigned to the tower on the West Wall had just come on duty as Jeremiah left the city. He follows the dust of the prophet. Squinting under the hot sun, he notices Jeremiah’s glance back at the city. “What a crazy man,” he thinks, as he wipes the sweat beading up on his forehead. “It’s good he’s gone.” Unlike Jeremiah, the sentry feels secure behind the strong walls surrounding the city. Yes, he worries about the drought, but the religious leaders have things under control. “Don’t they?” “The gods will provide, won’t they?”

Kicking the barren ground, Jeremiah recalls the promise of the harvest. All the work that went into it, was the plowing and sowing were all in vain? Dust is the only crop that’s in abundance and Jeremiah tastes it with every step. He continues walking. When the city’s walls are finally out of sight, he rips his robe, falls to his knees, beats his chest, and cries out to the heavens. “The harvest is past, the summer is over, and we are not saved.”

          “We are not saved.” What painful words. It’s tough being a prophet, bearing the burdens of a people. Yet, as he cries, he hears something. A voice? Can it be God’s voice? “I’m disappointed. Why have they provoked me to anger with their images and foreign idols?” Yes, it’s God, speaking judgment on the Hebrew people.

It must have been in late August or September when Jeremiah issued the prophecy. In Israel, the grain would have been harvested in late spring or early summer. If that failed, there was still hope for in July and August, the grapes, figs and olives were harvested. If that, too, failed, the people were in a pickle, for there would not be a chance for another harvest until the next spring.[2] “The summer is over, and we’re not saved,” implies the hopelessness of Jerusalem.

Our passage shows us how Jeremiah’s emotions are tied up with God. His joy is gone. He is in grief, as is God who we are shown grieving as a spurned spouse might grieve upon the divorce. Ezekiel, who was a contemporary of Jeremiah, has a vision of God leaving Jerusalem and allowing the Hebrew people to reap the fruits of their idolatry.[3] Essentially this is what Jeremiah envisioned. God has become so flustered with his people, that God abandons them. What we see here is a harsh example of tough love.

 

         Jesus told those in the synagogue in Nazareth that a prophet is never accepted in his hometown.[4] Certainly, this was the case with Jeremiah, who cried bowls of tears as his people not only continued to ignore God, they also abused him. At the beginning of chapter 9, he wishes that his head was filled with water and that his eyes were a fountain for he could cry day and night. What an image of a prophet who loved his people and who, yet, feels so helpless.

During his life, Jeremiah was considered a traitor. He challenged the king, the ruling authorities, the priests, and the military leaders. He was a thorn in their side, always speaking out for justice and for true worship of the one true God. In Scripture, we are not told what happened to Jeremiah, except that he was taken to Egypt with some who escaped there after the fall of Jerusalem.[5] One legend has it that Jeremiah kept on with his prophecies and rants and finally people had enough, like I did with that bug, and they stoned him.[6]

        While Jeremiah was considered a traitor in his life, looking back we cannot help but to see that he was a true patriot. God’s people are not called to be loyal to a king or even to a nation. Our first loyalty always belongs to God and when we fail to put God first, we risk hardship, judgment, and perhaps even defeat. Do we have the faith and the perseverance of Jeremiah? Are their Jeremiahs in our society today? If so, do we listen? Or do we tune him or her out, or worse, mock and abuse?

         You know, on the 22nd, we’re going to have our first community forum to discuss civility. If we want to build a better society, which is one of the goals of the church as we are to be a part of building God’s kingdom, we must listen to others. I hope you plan to attend and to tell others about the forum. Go to our church’s Facebook page and like the event and share it with others on your page. We have got to get our community and our nation on a new direction. We need to be about listening to all voices, even the voice of a Jeremiah, crying a fountain of tears. Only by listening to others who challenge us, like Jeremiah challenged Jerusalem, will we be able to build a better society.

         Let’s go back to that day, some 2500 years ago, and join Jeremiah once more… The heat of the day is over when Jeremiah starts back toward the city. Having wrestled with God through lament, Jeremiah is more assured than ever of God. Ahead, the city David claimed his capital, is magnificently lighted by the setting sun. As the even breeze picks up, Jeremiah picks up his pace.

The sentry, near the end of his shift, can’t believe his eyes. Emerging from a cloud of dust he’s been watching on the horizon is the prophet. He’s coming back. Why? He’d expected Jeremiah to have fled to another land. But as much as Jeremiah wants to, he cannot abandon his people. They may lack faith. They may be adulterers and traitors and idolaters, but they are still his people. And they are still God’s people. And he’s God’s prophet.

Jeremiah’s presence in a decaying society reminds Jerusalem of God’s judgment. Although the Almighty is disappointed and deeply hurt by his people’s idolatry, God never forgets Israel. God’s faithfulness once saw the nation through slavery. God will see them through defeat and exile and eventually restoration.

Jeremiah’s beat by the time he reaches the wall. The sun has set, and the stars are popping out. The air is more humid. “There will be dew in the morning,” the sentry remarks as he allows Jeremiah to enter through the locked gate. “Yes, Yes, I think you’re right,” Jeremiah responds. “The dew will be welcomed. It will remind us of how Almighty God, the God of Abraham, faithfully fed our ancestors in the wilderness.” Amen.

 

 

If any would like to be anointed with oil, as a reminder of our faith in Jesus Christ, come forward during the closing hymn and Elder Laurel McKeith or I will be glad to make the sign of the cross on your forehead.

 

©2019

[1] James Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1972), 86 as quoted by LindaJo H. McKim, The Presbyterian Hymnal Companion, (Louisville: W/JKP, 1993), 393.

[2] J. A. Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 306, n. 9.

[3] Ezekiel 10. While Jeremiah and Ezekiel are contemporaries, their ministry was to different groups of God’s people. While Jeremiah remained in Jerusalem, Ezekiel was called to be a prophet to the first wave of those exiled in Babylon.

[4] Luke 4:24.

[5] Jeremiah 43.

[6] Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979), 61.


Comments

Vessels holding a fountain of tears — 5 Comments

  1. Oh wow, that must have been awful. That’s one of my fears, that a bug will get stuck in my ear and I won’t be able to get it out without going to the ER or something. Glad they were able to get it out for you.

  2. Thanks for all your concern. I wonder if I should have placed that story later in the sermon, for it seems (even in church) the thing people remembered.

  3. Argh! Yes… I had trouble getting past the bug story to continue on to the sermon. Are you preaching from Jeremiah by choice? Our sermon yesterday was from Jeremiah, but it’s the OT reading in our Lectionary a couple of Sundays this month.

    I wish you well on your “Civility Series”.

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