The recent movie, Paul, the Apostle of Jesus Christ, captured some aspects of the life of the first Christians very powerfully. They are living under constant threat of death. Those caught are burned alive if they refused to burn incense to Caesar. The fear of death, however, is not something that defines their identity. They are Christians, and their identity comes from Christ – alone. Christians were those who loved others, in imitation of Christ. Such love naturally overflowed in compassionate care to those around them, particularly the poor, an idea alien to the Romans. But as the persecution increases, the small band of Christians find themselves faced with an impossible choice. To stay in Rome would mean inevitable death but to leave would be to abandon the least, the poor. To walk away would be entirely legitimate, but what was God calling them to do? The movie does not resolve the question. It is an existential that most people face in small or big ways. The faith aspect simply increases the odds.
I have heard such scenarios several times. I remember the case of a teacher, deciding whether he should quit his job in the face of increasing odds. He loved his work and he was teaching in a school for challenged pupils, those coming from troubled backgrounds which had become more and more difficult. The school, of course, also had all the regular challenges most schools face, in terms of funding and administrative issues. If he left, he could find a better job. But it would be difficult to replace him and it would make the problems there worse. As COVID-19 continues to rage, we have a new respect for the medical professionals, at least in the UK. But their work was always difficult. They’ve always worked with serious systemic issues which tend to vary along with the latest politics, while also dealing with the regular challenges of being in a caring profession.
More immediately, of course, the brutal treatment and death of George Floyd at the hands of a corrupt policeman caused huge outrage across the world and rightly so. But it now seems to have taken the form of mob-rule, spilling out into looting and destruction. The initial anger against an unjust action of one policeman has spread to all cops, most of whom work very hard to serve in a very difficult and many times unrewarding profession. Some have been killed, others injured; some have found poisonous substances in their food served to them in restaurants, and many suddenly find that they are simply not allowed to do what they dedicated their lives to do, caught between politics and mob-rule. Should they leave or continue to serve?
I’m thinking of all these today, as we hear from Jeremiah, the most pained and miserable of all the prophets. The prophets had an impossible job. They had to carry and embody the Word of the Lord, a word which came many times in confrontation to a people who had gone astray. In the case of Jeremiah, he was chosen by God to be a prophet from a young age – even from the womb (Jer 1:5). And he had to go before kings and priests and tell them that their lives as they knew it was coming to an end. God had passed judgment on Jerusalem and they would be conquered by the Babylonian army. God’s will was for them to give up and surrender to the Babylonians. And Jeremiah was preaching at least a decade if not more, before his prophecies would come true.
Jeremiah is unique among the prophetic books, in that it contains a lot of the prophet’s own musings, his struggles and pain. He disputes about them freely, not holding back with the God who has called him, the only one he can talk to. All of these lamentations, these disputes are entirely negative and mournful. The one we hear today is the only one which ends in a note of praise.
As we come to this lament of Jeremiah, he has just been man-handled by the temple guards for prophesying against the Temple (Jer 20:1-3). They’ve had him thrown into stocks, holding his hands, neck and feet in a contorted position for a day. He’s been humiliated. Those he considered his friends have abandoned him, and are even plotting against him. The people have made one of his frequent prophecies “terror on every side” his nickname. He is alone, humiliated and in pain. His mournings give the sense of someone who longed for a more ‘normal’ life. He looked for the approval and acceptance of people, but even his friends had turned against him. It is entirely possible that he was a sensitive soul who felt the pain of his people keenly, and even more the pain he was causing them through his words. But even as he would try to escape his call, he finds that he cannot, because this call on his life, the Word he carried, burns like a fire, it will not let go (Jer 20:9). He can find rest only within it; this is what his vocation is about, this is intertwined with who he is.
In the midst of his mourning, he realises that his God has not abandoned him; he is with him, just as he promised he would be (Jer 1:8). And it is there, as he turns away from the misery all around him and sets his eyes on God and on his promises, he finds relief, his misery turns to praise (Jer 20:13). This movement is frequently found in the psalms of lament. No amount of trying to make sense of his situation from the outside can help. It makes sense only within his call and the faithfulness of God. He is the only one in whom he could find peace, even as the storms raged.
This praise of Jeremiah, however would be short-lived, it was something with which he had to regularly struggle. We do not know how all these prophecies were brought together in the Scriptures, Jeremiah would have been uttered at different times. The inspired author, in bringing them together, however, places one of the darkest laments of Jeremiah right after this song of praise we just hear. Here Jeremiah curses even the day of his birth, wishing he had died in his mother’s womb (Jer 20:17). The first part of this book closes on this note of immense pain. We are not given God’s answer to his complaint, like in his other disputes. But it is not without reason that this finishes here, because the same book opens with God’s call of Jeremiah from the womb. Jeremiah’s voice resounds even today, several thousand years later. For someone with a call so great, there could be no middle ground. The darkness threatening to consume him was immense, but so was the surety of the promise of God on his life. To hold onto the promise would be a daily struggle, but in that he would find peace, even a song of praise. This however, is not some kind of positive thinking or a battle of will. Jeremiah, as we hear, had “committed his cause” to God. He could complain so freely only because he finally, trusted God and had given himself to him. It was God’s word which was burning in him, which was in itself holding him. Underlying his pain can be discerned the friendship Jeremiah had with God, and the invisible hand of grace, holding him, even as he would struggle against it.
Not all of us, thank God, have the burden that Jeremiah carried. But there are enough struggles in our lives. Whether it be the teachers, doctors, police or any other profession, we can constantly find ourselves overwhelmed against impossible odds. Not everything we do however is necessarily part of our calling; it is entirely right and wise to walk away from some. Others affect us much more deeply and only the light of God’s promise can give strength and clarity amidst impossible situations. Marriages falling into painful times, fathers and mothers at home could find themselves overwhelmed with raising their children. At these times, couples could do well to recall the promise God has made them at the altar of his constant faithfulness. Like the persecuted Christians, the strength, the peace, the meaning of our lives comes from our identity, not from the surrounding. Sometimes, we can find resolution and peace that lasts. At other times, the promise we hold onto is that God is with us. And he will deliver us through it all. The night will come to an end and our struggles in it will produce immense fruit. And we will even find a song of praise in the night.