The Reluctant Prophet

18-Jun-17

Jeremiah 20:7-13

Jeremiah is sometimes called the “weeping prophet”, sometimes called the “naked prophet”, but always the “reluctant prophet.” Jeremiah did not like his job at all. In fact, he resented it. His task as prophet brought all kinds of grief to him. Not long before he wrote the poem that is our passage this morning, Jeremiah had been arrested and beaten at the order of the then high priest, and placed in the stocks over night. It turns out that the high priest had no tolerance for Jeremiah’s preaching, and he was hoping that by having Jeremiah beaten up and publicly humiliated in the stocks, that Jeremiah would quit his preaching and find another line of work.

That’s something that the high priest and Jeremiah had in common, actually. Jeremiah would have loved to have quit his job. He hated it. The problem was, though, that he couldn’t quit. There was nothing he could do about it. He’d been called by God to preach, and preach he must.

Now granted, Jeremiah did not have a happy message to proclaim. His task was to warn his fellow Hebrews about the up-coming exile to Babylon. The Babylonians were quickly becoming a major world power, and soon their armies would attack and overrun the people of God, and carry them off to Babylon where they would serve for many years as slaves. Jeremiah’s message in his sermons was full of doom and gloom and violence and destruction. And of course, nobody wanted to hear that kind of stuff, especially not the religious leaders. Jeremiah’s preaching didn’t make any sense. God’s people had already lived as slaves in the oppressive environment of Egypt, surely a loving and mighty God would not allow something like that to happen again. It was just plain absurd. It would never happen. Jeremiah was clearly off his rocker; he was a spoon shy of a place setting.

And I am sure, that at times Jeremiah felt that way about himself when his message was completely rejected. If all these people think that I’m nuts, then maybe I am.

So let’s dive into Jeremiah’s ranting and raving, and see if we can’t learn something.

Jeremiah is about as angry at God as anyone can possibly get. In the second half of this poem, which we’ll not get to, but which I encourage you to read, Jeremiah curses the day that he was born and everything imaginable about it. And that’s because he sincerely believes that he has been ill-used by God.

And that’s putting it rather mildly. In verse seven, Jeremiah uses words to describe his call to ministry that border on the nearly blasphemous. Normally, calls to ministry are described in much loftier terms. Jeremiah’s description of his call is definitely “R” rated. Jeremiah says, “Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed”, You lured me into this and I fell for it. The language is strong and it speaks of deception and evil motives on God’s part. “You have overpowered me”, Jeremiah says, “and you have prevailed.” Those words are used in other parts of the Scriptures, but they are usually translated as “seduction” and “force”, and the usual and expected consequence of that seduction and force. They mean exactly what you think they mean. Most of us in ministry would agree that we had little control over our calls to ministry, but we would most definitely not use those terms. But Jeremiah is hopping mad.

And he’s mad, because his ministry brings him no joy. He’s become a laughing stock, an object of derision, and a target of mockery. And the problem, as he sees it, is that he has no good news to proclaim. Every time he opens his mouth to speak the words of God, he speaks only of violence and destruction. And again, he indicates that he is being forced to do this. “Whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, violence and destruction!” I have no control over my message, and obviously, no one wants to hear it! I hate the words I must speak, and of course, there’s no positive response at all! I firmly believe that Jeremiah had hoped, as all preachers do, that his words would lead to repentance and changed lives. That is, after all, God’s ultimate intent in calling preachers into ministry. But none of that was happening for Jeremiah. And so, because the response from the people was altogether wrong, he came to loathe the very words that he was preaching.

And so he resolved to quit. I’m outta here, I’m done, I’m history, I ain’t gonna preach no more! In the face of persecution, the logical response is to shut up, to stop talking, to withdraw, to abandon one’s call. Jeremiah says, “I will not mention [God], or speak any more in his name.” But even that didn’t work. The word of God within him was fire! No matter how much energy he put into staying silent, he could not imprison God’s word within him. It wanted to burst out of him like a raging fire. Keeping God’s word within him was literally wearing him out, making him weary. It was harder keeping it in, than it was letting it out. Even at quitting, Jeremiah considered himself to be a failure.

But when he let it out, it was just as bad. There were whisperings behind the scenes. People were plotting to destroy him. The plan was to discredit him by denouncing him as a false prophet. The not-so-secret schemers were planning to prove that he was preaching not the word of God, but something else entirely. That’s kind of ironic, because even though Jeremiah knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was preaching God’s word, he hated the message as much as his hearers did.

Even his friends had given up on him. They were watching him like a hawk, seeing if they could catch him doing something wrong. The phrase that is translated, “my close friends,” is literally “the people of my peace,” in Hebrew. The people who had once supported him, who had once been the source of his peace, have turned against him. “Perhaps he can be enticed,” they say, “and we can prevail against him, and take our revenge on him.” Those are the same words that Jeremiah used in verse seven to describe what God had done to him. God had overpowered Jeremiah, and now the people of his peace were plotting to do the same thing. This was an utterly devastating experience for Jeremiah.

In verse eleven, there is a subtle shift in the tone of Jeremiah’s lament. He comes to a rock-bottom affirmation of his faith. When all else is lost, when life reaches its lowest ebb, faith remains, and faith will prevail. For Jeremiah, it’s all he’s got. It’s the only thing left. He reminds himself that God is still at his side. He’s still convinced that God has ill-used him, but he knows that historically, God has been faithful, and he’s depending on God to be faithful now. He knows that his enemies, his friends, those people formerly of his peace, will not ultimately prevail over him. They will do their best to make his life miserable, they will try to conquer him, they will seek revenge, but they will not win. In the hour of crisis, Jeremiah will recall God’s ultimate promises of presence and power. Its all he has left.

In verse twelve, he’s even beginning to ponder the possibility that some of the events of his miserable life just might be for his own good. We talked about this last week. Jeremiah says, “O Lord of hosts, you test the righteous, you see the heart and the mind.” I don’t like it one bit that you’re testing me. I can’t tell where all of this is headed, I don’t know for sure what the outcome is, but you know my heart, and you know my mind. You know the good, the bad and the ugly of it. I’ve just expressed most of the bad and the ugly, and I’ve done it honestly, and I’m still hopping mad, but you also know that I’ve committed my cause to you. So please do something to help me through this mess. Even though my enemies and the former people of my peace are plotting revenge against me, I know that I’m not allowed to respond in kind. Vengeance is not mine. It’s yours. But I sure would like to live long enough to see your retribution on those who are seeking to destroy my life. That’s a powerful prayer.

Verse thirteen seems to be so much out of place, that some scholars don’t even think that it came from the hand of Jeremiah. Even the editors of our pew Bibles have set it off and apart from everything else.

But I’m absolutely convinced, though, that it came from Jeremiah’s hand, and that it belongs exactly where it is. Jeremiah had a subtle change in attitude at the beginning of verse eleven, and now that transformation has come to full bloom. The ranting and raving is not over; it picks up again with full force in verse fourteen, but Jeremiah has just taken a deep breath. And boy, do we all sometimes need to do just that. Sometimes in the middle of the ranting and the raving, we need to stop and take a deep breath. We need to quit spewing venom, and breathe in the Spirit of God. And that’s just what Jeremiah has done.

In spite of his terror and trauma and feelings of devastation, deep, deep in his heart, there is still a song, and Jeremiah has the good sense to dig it out. He breathes in the Spirit of God, and when he exhales, out comes a song of praise. In times of abject and deep crisis, breathing in the Spirit of God is absolutely essential. And its essential not only because it stops the ranting and raving and the lamenting for a time, but also because the only thing that we can do after breathing in the Spirit is to exhale a song of praise to God.

Sing to the Lord;

Praise the Lord!

For he has delivered

the life of the needy

from the hands of evil doers.

God, help us to breathe in your Spirit more and more. And help us always to sing out your praises.

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