We don’t often glimpse much of the interior life of the characters in the Bible. Scripture tells great stories about what the ancient heroes of our faith did and said, but little about their thoughts and feelings. The great exception in the Old Testament (other than the Psalms) is the prophet Jeremiah, who has a lot of passages like our reading for this morning.
Jeremiah is a long book—fifty-two chapters—and most of it is like the other prophets. Over and over again, Jeremiah begins, “Thus says the Lord,” and then delivers God’s message to the people. Given that Jeremiah lived in a dark time, when his people were turning away from God and suffering pretty severe consequences for it, his messages tended to be depressing or scary.
We have heard a few of his grim messages in the last couple of weeks. So, last Sunday, we heard Jeremiah, speaking for God, announce that “my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but they do not know how to do good” (4:22). As a consequence, Jeremiah said, “thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation” (4:27).
That sounds grim, and it is grim. It is also typical of the prophets who all say a lot about sin and punishment.
We’ll get to some good news in a minute, I promise. But there is a reason we read the hard parts of the Old Testament. The Church wisely invites us not to skip to the good news too quickly. The Church invites us to sit with the grim news for a minute first.
When we do that, when we pause with some of the more troubling passages of Jeremiah, we can hear them speaking to our situation, helping us to see more clearly what we might otherwise miss or ignore.
All is not right with our world, just as all was not right with Jeremiah’s. Many of our leaders seem unconcerned with justice and truth. Too many of us are skilled in doing evil don’t seem to know how to do good. Many of our people are hurting.
Jeremiah names those problems for us. It is like he holds a mirror up to contemporary America. That is a gift, if a sobering one. It doesn’t help to pretend that things are different than they are, to bury our heads in the sand. We need to see our situation for what it is if we ever want it to change.
In his warnings, Jeremiah is like the other prophets. But Jeremiah offers us a second gift as well, one that is less common in the prophets. Many of the prophets seem almost to relish the destruction that is coming on their people. But not Jeremiah. After warning the people about what will come if they don’t change their ways, Jeremiah laments their fate in passages like our reading for this morning. These are the passages that make me love Jeremiah.
He says, “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick….For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” Is there no way for my people to experience true healing?
Looking at sin and suffering all around us can be painful. It certainly was for Jeremiah. And yet Jeremiah refuses to look away. Jeremiah hangs in there, despite all the sin and suffering. Jeremiah hurts with his people. That takes strength. That takes moral courage.
We need that same courage today. Our problems can seem overwhelming at every level, from global climate change to political corruption and dysfunction, to illness and personal finance. When problems threaten to overwhelm us, as they sometimes do, the temptation is ignore them or else to give up in despair. Jeremiah felt the temptation; he tells us so. But Jeremiah refused to ignore reality or to give up. Jeremiah remained engaged even when it was hard. Jeremiah’s example can help us to do the same.
And now, finally, we can get to the good news of Jeremiah. Jeremiah sees the pain of the world around him. Jeremiah suffers the pain of the world. And despite everything he sees and suffers, Jeremiah knows that God is at work. Jeremiah knows that God is at work, even in the hard times when we cannot see God’s hand very clearly. God is at work bringing hope out of despair, life out of death. In the hard times, Jeremiah holds on to a vision of God’s kingdom and of God’s love for us even now.
And, at the very darkest moment in his nation’s history, when his people were about to experience a brutal conquest and exile, Jeremiah spoke a word of hope. As we will hear over the next few weeks, Jeremiah promised a day when God would forgive his people, when God would make a new covenant with his people, an unbreakable covenant written on their hearts (31:31-34).
The covenant Jeremiah promised was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. And in a few minutes, we are going to baptize little Aryanah, bringing her into the covenant that Jeremiah foresaw all those years ago.
Today we celebrate. Baptisms are one of the most fun things we do. I thank God for the gift of Aryanah herself and for her baptism. On this day, we celebrate Aryanah as God’s beloved child. At the same time, we celebrate the fact that God forgives all of us and loves all of us and helps all of us to be the people that God created us to be. What could be better than that?
But we are making a serious commitment this morning. We commit as a community of faith to doing what we can to raise Aryanah in the Christian faith and life, to help Aryanah grow into the full stature of Christ.
It would be great if Aryanah could grow in Christ without ever experiencing any pain or trouble. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. Aryanah will have her struggles along the way. We all do.
On our hard days, we can take a perverse comfort in Jeremiah. We can take comfort in the fact that even great prophets struggled at times. Sometimes we need to lament, just like Jeremiah. Sometimes Aryanah will need to lament. We know that.
The task to which we commit ourselves this morning—Aryanah’s family and friends especially, but all of us—is to give Aryanah the tools she will need to get through the hard times that will inevitably come.
Our task is to teach Aryanah the love of God in Jesus Christ. Our task is to help Aryanah absorb Jeremiah’s vision of hope so deeply that even on her hardest days she never entirely forgets that God is at work in and around her. Our task is to help Aryanah know, deep down inside, that nothing can ever separate her from God’s love, that she is sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever, that despite all the troubles around us, this is God’s world and God’s love wins in the end.
I pray that we can hold onto that good news ourselves, and that we can effectively share that good news with Aryanah and with everyone else who needs to hear once again the good news of God’s love.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan