Have you ever wished there were such a thing as a real, actual complaint department?
I certainly have. After I have waited two hours at a gate at the airport, only to be told that the crew for my plane would not arrive for another hour or so, I really have the need to complain to somebody about that. When my new electrical device, designed to make life easier, comes with instructions written in Korean which I cannot read, when I am put on hold at my doctor’s office and have to listen to Barry Manilow sing for fifteen minutes, I want there to be somebody - anybody - who will show me a little sympathy and empathy when I name my plight.
In today’s Scripture we encounter a first-class complainer, and may we just say that complaining is not the most attractive characteristic in the world, but sometimes you just have to do it. And our friend today, the fed up, grumpy prophet named Jeremiah had a beef and he was really in a state about it. He was mad at no one less than almighty God, who had called him to be a prophet. But so far, things weren’t going well at all in the prophecy department.
Being God’s mouthpiece had turned out not to be the most glorious vocation in the world. The people wouldn’t listen to him. He regularly suffered abuse and ridicule. All this was happening, by the way, in Babylon where the Hebrew people have been driven into exile from their home land. They were unhappy. They began to forget where they came from. They began to flirt around with the gods of the Babylonians, for heaven’s sake. They forgot the Holy One of Israel, whom alone they were to worship and serve.
And so, the prophet complained to the Lord. “Listen, Lord, if you are almighty, how about throwing a little might around on my behalf?” the prophet pleaded. “And if you’re the Lord of mercy, how about showing me a little mercy. I suffer all the time; my pain is unceasing. My wounds won’t heal. I’m miserable,” the prophet says to the Lord.
A winsome fellow Jeremiah was not, but he really does capture what it’s like to be frustrated with God. I don’t know whether anyone listening has ever been frustrated with God, but I can tell you that I have from time to time. I’ve asked God why certain things happen. I’ve asked God to help. I’ve asked God, “Why me?” I have complained to God, I will confess. But neither Jeremiah nor I are the only ones to gripe before God. In the Bible the number of complainers would fill a couple of football stadiums. I mean, just think about how the Israelites, only forty-five days out of Egypt and thirty-nine years to go before getting to the Promised Land, they immediately became put out with the Lord. They complained that the water the Lord had provided them tasted too bitter for their liking. They griped that they were hungry. In due course, of course, the Lord sweetened the water and caused manna to fall down from heaven every morning. Of course, the Lord had not forsaken them, but when bad things happen, God often gets the blame.
Did you know that of the 150 Psalms in the Bible, sixty-seven of them are categorized as laments or complaints? Take Psalm 6: “O Lord, don’t rebuke me in your anger. Be gracious to me, O Lord. I’m languishing down here.” The 22nd Psalm: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me? I cry day and night, but you do not answer. And by night I find no rest.”
The words My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? are found again in the Bible. They’re found on the lips of Jesus as he was dying on the cross. It seems that even our Savior had a moment in which he felt as if he had been abandoned by God.
Jeremiah the prophet was not dying when he complained to the Lord. But he did sound as if he wished he were. Deep anguish, frustration, anger - anger at the one who had commissioned him admittedly in a very tumultuous and troubled time. But he was having an especially rough time of it. Then again though, whatever time it is, whatever place it is, speaking for God has never been easy. It’s hard and heartbreaking work, isn’t it? There is so much that is not right in our weary world in any age. Who will name what’s wrong if the prophet doesn’t? Who is going to call out the lies that are being spoken as truth? Who is going to identify the evils all around us? Prophets are desperately needed, desperately needed to save us from ourselves.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” the jail where he was incarcerated for participating in nonviolent demonstrations against segregation and against the vicious racism of the day. In the letter he writes - listen to these words - of the do-nothing-ism of the complacent when so much is wrong and needs to be righted. He called out the religious leaders of the day who urged him not to push so hard, not to be in such a hurry for justice and righteousness to be done.
In his time, Jeremiah called out the religious leaders. There were a lot of sweet-talking prophets around who appealed to the people because they told them what they wanted to hear. You could sum it up this way: God is in heaven and all is right with the world. Now, don’t tell me anything that will bother me. I grew up in the south in the 1950’s and I never heard a word in the church that I attended about race or segregation. I never heard a word about the desecration of the Jewish synagogue that was just two blocks away from our church. God is in heaven and all is right with the world? No. Prophets help us remember what needs to be done.
Well, to tell the truth, Jeremiah could not have been very easy to listen to. He was living proof that popularity and prophesying don’t go together. And yet, prophets and prophetic communities are essential to the human race. Prophets are sent by God to raise their voices and wake up the sleeping conscience of self-satisfied societies. Here’s a good question the prophet can help us answer: What is breaking hearts today? Prophets know and they would tell us what needs to be fixed if we would only listen.
As time went on during the exile, Jeremiah became ticked off at everybody, human and divine - God, the people, even his mother. My mother taught me never to talk ugly about my mother. We southerners certainly don’t ever talk ugly about our mothers, but Jeremiah writes: “Woe is me, my mother, that you even bore me, a man of strife and contention to the whole land!” His real gripe, though, was with the One who had given him is prophetic work to do. “Lord, I did what you asked me. Your words became my words. I delighted in them. I spoke the truth. I don’t understand why my pain is unceasing – my wounds uncurable! Back in the early days, I felt you were with me. It was as if you had given me a running brook brimming with fresh water to keep me going, and then the brook dried up! Now I have nothing to go on. Back in the day, you took care of me, but now you act as if I don’t matter to you anymore.”
As Jeremiah laments, we begin to realize something very important is going on. Beneath the prophet’s complaints lie two of faith’s deepest questions. They are simple, but they are so profound:
Dear God, have you forgotten me?
Dear God, do you still love and care for me?
There was a line in a prayer of confession in a worship service I participated in not long ago. This is how the line went. “Holy and Merciful God, you alone know how often we have sinned in forgetting your love.” How often we have sinned in forgetting your love. That’s the root of it all, isn’t it? The sin of forgetting God’s love. That’s when we start to live as if everything is on our shoulders – that we have just been put down here for some reason, we can’t figure it out, and we are left to our own devices. So, everything depends on us. We’re not a part of a bigger picture and there’s no one there to hear our prayers with any sympathy or any empathy. That’s what Jeremiah was feeling. He had forgotten. He had forgotten that God had sustained him all along the way so far and that he could certainly infer from that that God would see him through to the end.
Well finally, Jeremiah is through with his complaint list and the Lord is ready to respond to the prophet. Not words of sympathy or empathy particularly, but straight true talk about what will happen next.
“If you turn back [to me], I will take you back, Jeremiah. If you can keep on uttering what is precious and not worthless, you can continue to speak for me. Then the people will turn to you and you will not turn to them. Yes, they will fight against you, but they won’t prevail over you, for I am here to save and deliver you.” Jeremiah is going to keep his job. He is not given a pat on the head and told to take a nap.
Spiritual writer James Finley says this: “God does not protect us from anything but sustains us in everything.” Whatever lives people live in any time and place, the people will experience joy and delight, but there will also be tragedy and defeat, loss and travail. That’s reality, but here is a more profound reality as we see with Jeremiah: God always had had his back and God will always have our back. Christ will always be at our side. The Holy Spirit will always breathe life and hope into our often-sagging spirit.
The most important question in a crisis has never been this one: “Why did this happen to me?” Who knows the answer to that one anyway, other than to say that the rain falls on the just and the unjust. I do know the answer to the two more critical questions. You heard me mention them a moment ago.
Dear God, have you forgotten me? Answer: No.
Dear God, do you still love and care for me? Answer: Yes.
Friends, you would not be listening to this broadcast today if God had not brought you safe thus far. You can bet your life that God will have your back always until the time when you will be led home. Haven’t you gotten through everything you’ve had to deal with, every loss, every grief, every setback? Haven’t you endured it? Yes, you have because you’re here, now, today. Well, the Lord did not relieve Jeremiah of his duties, and I don’t think his life was going to get much easier for him, but the Lord sustained him in everything he had to face.
I like to imagine that when Jeremiah’s work was done and he himself headed for the high heavenly places, he was greeted at the gate, and he heard words something like these, “Welcome home, good and faithful servant, you old rascal you.”
May it be so for us all.
Let us pray.
Forgetful rascals that we all are, O God, in one way or another, we pray that you would receive us into the everlasting arms of your mercy and hold us close in your everlasting love. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.