Prophet of Tears

(Jer 8:18-9:1; Lam 1:1-3, 3:19-23; Luke 13:31-35) – J G White
11 am, Sunday, September 22, 2019 – UBC Digby

The fertile Annapolis Valley is strewn with broken corn stalks in the fields, apples pummeled to the ground, and even the giant squash are in such short supply that the famed Pumpkin Regatta in Windsor is cancelled, this year.

“The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” So cried out Jeremiah, in the Middle East, in the 6th century BCE. Earlier in chapter 8, the word of the Lord was: “there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered…” (8:13) “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.” (8:18) “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears.” (9:1)

There are many occasions for tears in human life. You might have quite a few yourself, right now. Jeremiah found many, back in his day and age. He is known as ‘the weeping prophet.’ He was called upon to speak many warnings and judgments upon his own people, and upon the nations around him. And it was hard. The message was at times a heavy burden for Jeremiah; it was like a fire in his bones!

It seems he felt this so deeply, and was so sad for his fellow Hebrews who had gone astray. And he was sad for the disasters that were coming upon them. He lamented the loss of their good relationship with God.

Jeremiah has to lament, or he just wouldn’t make it. He has to let it out. Let the tears out. The anger. The disappointment. The fear. The heart-ache for his people. We read together from the Bible book of Lamentations, which has been credited to Jeremiah. The words of sadness pour out, for the Hebrew people who were in trouble. It was their own fault, and the fault of their enemies, I’d say.

A lament – a prayer of sadness and regret – goes hand in hand with what Richard Foster called ‘the Prayer of Tears.’ Weeping can often be praying, and at its best, tears end up being powerful and beautiful.

John Chrysostom wrote: The fire of sin is intense,  but it is put out by a small amount of tears, for the tear puts out a furnace of faults, and cleans our wounds of sin. (De Paenit

There is a tricky thing about reading this big book of Jeremiah – fifty pages. The events and prophetic speeches are not all in chronological order. As with other things recorded in the Bible, getting the order of things is not always important. The human authors and the Spirit had other ways of organizing the biblical material. 

And here, in Jeremiah 8, it is not completely who is speaking the lines. Is it mostly Jeremiah? Or is he speaking the word of the LORD? And are they like the words of Lamentations: they become poetry for the whole people to claim and name and refrain?

Maybe it is all of the above.

So, when we read, My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick, it is Jeremiah’s words, but is this what God is saying, feeling, expressing? For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Jeremiah the prophet of old, he cries, yes; but God also weeps for the people.

God weeps. We read this in scripture. We have that verse about Christ, famous for being the shortest verse in the Bible. In the old, Authorized Version, John 11:35 reads, “Jesus wept.” Creator God has to lament too; as Jeremiah of old shows us. This is the loving nature of the Trinity.

I never shall forget the first time I heard the modern hymn, ‘God Weeps.’ It was at a Baptist Peace Camp, in Wolfville. You know that there is a Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, do you? Well, perhaps twenty years ago, they met in Nova Scotia. The worship leader was an amazing musician. And he introduced this powerful song, ‘God Weeps.’

God weeps at love withheld,
                   at strength misused,
                   at children’s innocence abused,
and till we change the way we love,
                                                              God weeps.
God bleeds at anger’s fist,
                   at trust betrayed,
                   at women battered and afraid,
and till we change the way we win,
                                                             God bleeds.
God cries   at hungry mouths,
                   at running sores,
                   at creatures dying without cause,
and till we change the way we care,
                                                              God cries.
God waits   for stones to melt,
                   for peace to seed,
                   for hearts to hold each other’s need,
and till we understand the Christ,
                                                              God waits.
(Shirley Erena Murray © 1996 Hope Publishing Company)

All the scriptural story of God weeping, of the prophets crying out, of the people lamenting what seems to be their fate… it all is preserved for us to influence us. To lead us to lament and cry. And be turned toward the light of a new day.

The people weep. The words of the prophet becomes words for the whole people of God, and for us, all these thousands of years later.
Is there no balm in Gilead? 
Is there no physician there?
Why has the health of my poor people
not been restored? (J 8:22)

  This verse inspired a hymn, a spiritual. We will sing it at the end of our time. And what do we sing? 
There is a balm in Gilead
to make the wounded whole,
there is a balm in Gilead
to heal the sin-sick soul.

It takes the word of Jeremiah 8:22 very personally. Maybe we think of our own salvation from sin and evil, and the healing of the soul brought to us by the cross of Jesus. 

The verses of this spiritual, interestingly, speak of being discouraged about one’s ministry, our work for God in the world. Thinking our work is in vain. Not being able to preach or pray like the great apostles. Simple discouragement. And we sing it together.

It is the work of all the people that can be hard. It is our shared failures that can be big. It is our deep losses that call us to lament together.

Joyce gave us just a glimpse of the big gathering of Baptists last month called Oasis. One of our action items, was to agree upon a Resolution in Response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and to claim an Apology to the first peoples of this land. Here is one example of a community lament, of sorrow for sin, of confession and repentance: turning around. Let me quote at some length from our statements. And these are but short excerpts.

We as Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada acknowledge that we have not lived in right relationship with the Indigenous peoples of this land. While we have in theory affirmed that everyone is created in the image of God (Gen 1:27), we have not recognized in practice the inherent, God-given dignity of Indigenous peoples. Despite the hospitality offered to our ancestors, we have not acknowledged the long-standing historic and official claim of Indigenous peoples to this land. We have not kept the promises our forebears made in the form of treaties, specifically the Peace and Friendship Treaties (1725-1779). And even when some of our own, such as Silas T. Rand (1810-1889), spoke out against colonialism, we ignored or silenced them.

Whether we recognize it or not, our prosperity in the Maritimes came in part through injustices and abuse done to Indigenous peoples. Our houses, our schools, our retirement homes, our churches — all of these sit on unceded territory governed by official treaties of peace and friendship. We might have claimed ignorance in the past, but ignorance can no longer be an excuse for inaction. As Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada, we recognize and confess our complicity in the Residential Schools and in the broader system of colonialism. We mourn the broken relationships we have caused between children, families, communities, the rest of Creation, and God, and we must humbly ask for forgiveness both from God and from Indigenous peoples.

Though we are late coming to an apology, as Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada, we come in a spirit of humility and proclaim our alignment with and endorse the apology given by CBM’s Executive Director Terry Smith in 2016.

Here are a few words from the Apology itself, now our Apology:

We are grateful to those who served and led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and affirm the excellent Calls to Action. We renounce the Doctrine of Discovery and Terra Nullius by which European Christians took that which wasn’t theirs, sadly in the name of God and the Church. It is untenable, unacceptable and wrong for them to have done so, and we acknowledge our ongoing complicity through our failure to call out and stand against these systemic acts of injustice. We acknowledge that we have benefitted from them and ask your forgiveness.

Along this pathway, we will call upon our churches to renounce all forms of injustice and discrimination. We shall embolden our churches, schools and institutions to embrace the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous peoples. We will encourage our churches to participate in opportunities for education and the resetting of our relationship.

The New Testament book of James says, ‘confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” (5:16) And, as Psalm 30 says, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (30:5)

Jeremiah the prophet wept.
God weeps; Jesus weeps; the Spirit prays with sighs too deep for words. 
We weep. That joy may come with the morning.

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