The Lessons of Jeremiah
Sabbath Day Sermon, Saturday 4 May 2002
"Why did I ever come out of the womb? To live in toil and sorrow and to end my days in shame!" (Jeremiah 20:18, JB).
I remember many years ago, when I first started a a private school in Oxford, having to interview and select a teachers for posts within the school. There were many applicants, all of whom were highly qualified and most of them were enthusiastic. I recall one young woman in particular who posted me an application which she had obviously spent days preparing. She sent me a whole curriculum for a course to show me that she was dedicated and would do her very best to do a good job. As I recall, I think she was an historian. There were several applicants for the post and all but one would fail. All but one would receive a letter from me saying I was sorry but someone else had been offered the job and had accepted it. I knew that many who had failed would receive their letters with heavy hearts, especially the young woman who had been so enthusiastic. It pains my heart even reliving those moments as I tried then, as I do now, to try and place myself in their position. For I can well remember the first time I applied for jobs -- dozens of them -- and getting one rejection after another, sometimes after I had travelled a long way for an interview. But in the end I was led to where I was supposed to be.
You know, it is a hard thing to take failure. Some people take it in their stride and others take it so deeply that they may even commit suicide. People have different sensitivities and dispositions. Now, I wonder if someone listening to me today has never faced failure in his or her life? Someone who has passed every examination he has ever sat, whose business has prospered, whose marriage is as happy as can be, whose family has grown up to be a real credit to the parents, whose health has never once let him down; honours have come his way, with the attendant public recognition. There are those for whom this certainly appears to be the case, though of course the outside world never knows what skeletons stand within the domestic cupboard. For most - indeed, for all, I would suggest - failure is part of life's experience, and for some, a life of failure. I'm sure I've told you the story of the man who wrote the song "Jingle Bells", who experienced one failure after another, for whom nothing ever went right. And yet he has left us a happy song about sleighs and bells rushing through wintery landscapes which almost every child in the English-speaking world knows and loves.
Today I want to share with you the story of a biblical failure, or at least what seems to be one, and it is the tragic story of Jeremiah the prophet. Given that his day is not at all unlike our own in terms of not only national but universal apostasy from the truth, I hope that some of you will derive some insights and comfort in what may presently be a difficult situation for you.
We begin with Jeremiah the person. He was a shy and sensitive man whose unexpressed hopes would have been met by a quiet rural life on his property at Anathoth, a few miles north of Jerusalem. His forebears had lived there continuously ever since one of them, the only famous one, had been banished there by King Solomon for backing his rival to the throne of King David, his father. Jeremiah had no wish for the court life where his illustrious ancestor had fought and failed, no hankering after city life, no day dreams of publicity and nation-wide recognition. For him, the trivial and common tasks which the case of his property required, was all he asked, and which provided the background for his real love - the exercise of his superb poetic gift, the skill to capture with fascinating words, the every changing patterns of the world of nature which pressed upon his keen observation and finely tuned spirit in his beloved Anathoth. Seeing him quietly walking across his fields, occasionally stopping to watch and listen -- there you have Jeremiah, a lonely man, refined, and seeking nothing for himself. Only the few would appreciate such a man as this.
And then wholly unexpected -- and if the truth must be told, wholly unwanted -- the call came to Jeremiah to be a preacher of what is right and wrong, not only in private but in public life, the one thing he hated. No one can tell exactly how the call came, except to note that it was through two visions of an almond tree and an overturned cooking pot. But however it came, it thrust him out, not only on to a public platform he loathed, but the public platform in the capital city, with all its clashes between kings, courtiers, and priests. And not only this, but to execute that unwanted ministry without support of family, wife or children, a man utterly and completely alone. And as if that was not sufficient, to fail in his ministry, receiving no rewards but mockery, persecution and exile, till finally the curtain fell upon his shrunken life somewhere in Egypt, a martyr to the people he never ceased to serve.
I warn you, I doubt you will warm to Jeremiah -- few do. But inasmuch as the sour taste of failure does not altogether miss our palates, we ought not to turn down without more ado the sorrowful picture of this sorrowful man, of whom, strangely enough, yet perhaps not so strange, the people of Galilee were reminded when they encountered Yah'shua of Natzeret (Jesus of Nazareth) 600 years later on.
Now there are lessons to be learned here. Firstly, perhaps, the lesson the failure tests the strength of our character. Take the story of the young mother in Dublin to whom was born in 1932 a victim of cerebral palsy. Unable to speak or control his limbs, there was no sign that an intelligent or sensitive being inhabited that tortured, misshapen little body. Yet the mother never ceased to believe that such existed if only it could be found. In spite of having a husband who was a bricklayer and a large and lusty family to care for, she gave time every day attempting to bring even a glimmer of recognition to the pictures she showed him and the songs she sang. All however failed. She could not always stifle her tears over those failures. Yet this went on until one day with his left foot she saw the child deliberately pick up a piece of chalk. That was the start of a climb which took years to bring him to a useful life. The child grew to be a successful artist and playwright.
How many of us possess the strength to go on in the face of failure, perhaps years of failure? How easy to give up at the first difficulty, to relapse into self-pity, to grow resentful of those more fortunate than we seem to be. How easy to become bitter with life in general and God in particular. Even in the realm of sport there are bad losers, and in all arenas of life.
It may be that some of us have not yet learned to look upon failure as an ingredient in character-building. But to whom would you go in a time of personal crisis -- the man or woman who has had it all easy, or to the one who has faced failure without giving up? They would not understand. They would have been too successful. They have never known the sour taste of personal defeat.
During the Second World War a motor torpedo boat spotted six survivors clinging to a drifting little raft off Tobruk, their vessel having been sunk by an enemy dive-bomber. They were more like corpses than survivors. But when the crew of the salvage boat began to haul them aboard, one cried out, "Wait, not yet!" Across his legs lay a seaman slowly dying. It was probably only a few minutes they had to wait, but it seemed like hours. When it was all over he climbed aboard and simply said: "It was his first trip under my command." Not till a month later did he add, "He was my young brother."
Strength of character comes to those who face with courage and say little, the tough patches in life, and one of the toughest is failure. The book of Jeremiah reminds us of the necessity to face up to this, if we are ever to be men and women of character.
Secondly, failure tests our friendships. I am sure you have heard of stories where people have failed a friend simply because that friend failed. True friends stick with you no matter what happens. As the saying goes, "You can tell your friends when things go wrong." I suspect, to our shame, we have all let someone down because they failed and we didn't want to be associated with their failure. But if we have, I hope we have regretted it and never repeated it again. Recently we saw the touching film, The Elephant Man, and how this very sensitive and cultured man was rejected by everyone except initially a dedicated surgeon because he was so horribly malformed. But what about those who are malformed by sin inside? Would you abandon a friend because he took a wrong choice in life-direction or would you continue trying to minister to him in loving concern? Most of us would do so with an errant son or daughter, but what if there were no family connections, and therefore outside the Gospel with no obligations of commitment, friendship and care?
Jeremiah had this experience. Apart from the African who picked him out of the water cistern when his enemies attempted to drown him, he possessed only one friend, his scribe, Baruch, whom he picked up in Jerusalem. This faithful man stood by Jeremiah through every failure, even rewriting the whole of Jeremiah's prophecies when King Jehoiakim, incensed by the contents, destroyed the scroll by dropping it in the fire. And what is more moving than those modest words of thanks to Baruch by Jeremiah at the close of his book?
"You do not know who your friends are till things go wrong." Failure tests our friendships.
Thirdly, failure tests our faith. And how Jeremiah's faith much have been tested! How often, up against the pattern of repeated failures which his life produced, must he have doubted the loving kindness of Yahweh ever to call him to be a prophet! And of these struggles we are left in no doubt, for unique in his book are those outcries (sometimes called 'Confessions'), which let us peer into the misery of his soul where he was hardly satisfied. Not content with the cruel question, "Why?" he even cursed the day of his birth, and in at least one terrible failure of common compassion, cursed his enemy with diabolical ferocity. Even the worm will turn!
But he that is without sin in questioning the worthwhileness of faith in Yahweh when all it appears to bring is failure, let him cast the first stone. I won't, and I hope you won't. Perhaps we can be grateful that Jeremiah lets us see him at his worst as well as at his best, for the knowledge of it brings him closer to ourselves. Yet for all this Jeremiah never did desert. He stayed with his ungrateful people to the end and kept his faith, proclaiming till it cost him his life somewhere in exile down in Egypt.
And was it a mistake that Jeremiah was called to this life and death of martyrdom? Can we not see that he was allowed to experience every prop to the formal religion of his day being kicked away, so that in sheer desperation he might reach out to the profound truth that the heart of religion is in the heart and not in forms and ceremonies? So he climbed out to a place no one had climbed before, and proclaimed there the New Covenant - the most striking revelation of the Gospel of Christ in the Old Testament:
""The time is coming," declares Yahweh, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them," declares Yahweh. "This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares Yahweh. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, 'Know Yahweh,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," declares Yahweh. "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more" " (Jer.31:31-34, NIV)
It takes suffering, sensitivity, failure, and possibly even degradation and humiliation, to really understand what the heart of true faith is all about. And there came a day when a greater than Jeremiah, seated at a table with twelve men, one a traitor, reached out His hand, as it were, and greeted His predecessor of long ago, echoing his words: "This is My Body ... this is My blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins" (Matt.26:26,28, NKJV).
We can never be absolutely sure of all the why's of life - why we were placed in the circumstances we were, why we have had to suffer, and why we have had to fail. But one thing we can be absolutely sure of: none of it is ultimately purposeless, and in the end we will see them as great blessings both for ourselves and for others. And though evil may happen to us because of the choices of other wicked people, nothing that happens to us is without Yahweh's permission. I have known people who have led lives of abject misery to suddenly have their lives dramatically turned around and to become powerful forces for good and redemption. And though we may be tempted to think that the terrors they went through were cruel and meaningless, it is not so. Remember also that this life is not all there is - it is but a passing phase of a much greater and longer life, a mere wink in terms of eternity. Nevertheless it is perhaps the most critical of all the phases in our spiritual existence - painful, yes, but ultimately liberating and upbuilding. The repercussions of our failures and sufferings, if they are not self-inflicted because of rebellion or stupidity, are always beneficial for us and others who come under the sphere of our influence. And even if we have been stupid, you would be surprised how the Almighty Yahweh is able to use even this to our ultimate good.
Failure tests our characters, our friends and out faith, and must ultimately, therefore, be edifying, though often it never reveals itself in such positive terms until long after the dark days are over. Failure and opposition can be the raw materials of our subsequent spiritual strength. Is this not the message of Jeremiah's illustration of the shapely vessels coming off the potter's wheel? In their making, the clay frequently failed and broke, but it was remade into an even better vessel. All great lives have this as their secret, and so now, in retrospect, I no longer envy those who have experienced no failure or opposition. They have faced and incorporated into themselves the bitter experience of failure and been enabled to do so because they believed in the promised forgiveness of God.
How different such a message is to the contemporary fad of "health and wealth" and "signs and wonders" in the modern Christian churches, where people, brainwashed with secular liberalism and capitalism, avoid difficulties at all costs and seek the path of least resistance? But such as do this always turn out to be spiritually flaccid, weak and - ultimately - faithless, for they are so unprepared for the storms when they finally and inevitably come.
You see, the problems we face in every generation are tailor-made to meet not just our personal needs but also those of the Body of Christ everywhere. We are not only here to work out our own salvation but to be emissaries of our Lord. We are New Covenant Christian Witnesses, ambassadors on a mission, and the credentials to be such are frequently, if not entirely, tied to our own character development. We are not just here for ourselves, but for the wider Body. And as such, therefore, we must learn to shift the centres of our consciousness away from "I" and to "us". And we are all "us". This is an obstacle course which can only be successfuly completed if we all help one another, for alone we lack the ability to survive. Even Jeremiah had Baruch, just as I, in my ministry, have had a small handful of stalwart and faithful helpers whom I can number on the fingers of one hand, without whom I would never have succeeded. And I hope that in turn I have been able to be a support to them.
The site of a dead body of the Messiah on a cross was the ultimate picture of failure. The disciples all scattered afterwards, deeply distressed and confused. But it did not turn out as badly as they supposed. The "failure" turned out to be a victory - a stupendous, cosmic victory! Is it therefore possible that our failures are destined for victory also? I believe so - and I passionately believe so. For I have seen the power of Christ turn desperate lives into victorious lives. In the last four days I have witnessed such a transformation from utter darkness to brilliant light! So even in the face of seeming hopeless and failure, there is still faith, hope and love. And we all know what the greatest of these is. Amen.
This page was created on 3 May 2002
Last updated on 3 May 2002
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