There’s a young man I think about a lot. He’s not that young any more, but when I met him twelve or thirteen years ago he was probably college-aged. We ended up playing pool together at a bar in Oak Brook Terrace, Illinois. I used to have a lot of important pastoral interactions in bars.
Anyway this guy was a graduate of a very strict local Christian school. He had come to reject the faith he’d been taught, but in a particular way. It wasn’t that he’d come to the conclusion that it was all made up. It was that he’d become angry. He was angry at his church, his school, and at God. Really sincerely, passionately angry--the way I would imagine being angry at a former friend or an estranged parent. That’s actually how he put it. He said that God appeared to him as an absentee dad, who missed out on everything and then showed up with a nice toy truck to try to make up for it.
Now I will say that back then, and still today, I was not able to really empathize with this young man. I had certainly felt awe toward God, the fear of God’s judgment, the terror of God’s absence, the love of God’s grace, bafflement, distance, simple lack of belief. I’d felt all of that, but never that kind of anger.
I do not envy it. There was anguish in the man’s words that I do not wish to experience. But I am grateful that he was willing to share that experience with me. Because it is not a rare experience.
It’s there in our passage from the prophet Jeremiah today. Jeremiah is a remarkable figure in the history of prophecy. He was fully engaged in the religious and political conflicts of his time, which was the end of the kingdom of Judah in the last decade of the 7th and first decade of the 6th century BC. He was arrested more than once, put on trial for his life, clapped in stocks, was nearly assassinated, and ultimately died in exile. He was consistently unpopular.
And in our passage today, he is venting his anger at God. God put this prophetic call on Jeremiah. God appointed him over kings and nations. If he speaks he is attacked, and if he keeps silent he is in agony as God’s words burn within him. You gave me these words to eat, he tells God. I avoided celebration and rejoicing. “Truly you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.”
It’s as if the prophet is seeing one of the stream beds that cut across Dallas. You can tell from a distance that there are trees and a downward slope. Evidence of water. But when you get there, the bed is dry. Or when you see water shimmering in the desert and it keeps disappearing as you draw near--a mirage.
This is how the prophet speaks of God. You gave me this task and then you vanished.
We can hear this same anger in the voice of Peter today. He has just before declared Jesus to be the Messiah and the Son of the Living God. But when Jesus shows his disciples that he must be betrayed and arrested and executed, Peter reacts angrily. This must never happen. It’s as if Peter’s blessed vision of the Son of God has turned out to be a mirage.
There is power and there is love in this anger. This anger is the voice of one who loves God better than he understands God. Peter loves Jesus but does not know what Jesus is doing. Jeremiah loves God but does not understand what God is doing.
And if you are like me, the dissonance between loving God and understanding God will resolve as doubt. Maybe this whole thing was mistaken. Maybe I missed something somewhere. If you are like me, that is a feeling to notice and pay attention to. It may be a sign that we need to retrace our spiritual steps. For me it is often a sign that I need to rededicate myself to daily prayer, or just go and do something stupidly kind and generous to capture a hint of God’s presence again.
But if you’re like the leader of the apostles, or if you’re like Jeremiah the prophet, the dissonance between loving God and understanding God may make you angry. And that’s not entirely bad, as long as you recognize the love and ask for more understanding.
Peter, after all, will eventually understand what Jesus does in his crucifixion. Peter will follow him to a death on the cross.
And in the same way God responds to the prophet: turn back and I will take you back. You will stand before me. If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth.
The people will turn back to you--you will not have to yield to them. You will be a bronze wall; they will attack you but not overcome you. And I will rescue you.
God has not abandoned the prophet. God has not fled like a mirage. God is there in the prophet’s rejection by the people, and in the Messiah’s betrayal and suffering. They are still working together. And despite the prophet’s anguish--through the prophet’s anguish--God is still making use of him.
“If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth.”
Perhaps this is exactly what Jeremiah needed to hear. Speak the truth, however hard or costly, and you will speak for me. Perhaps this is what many of us need to hear, in our own ways. Do what is right, however lonely or hard it is to do, and you will be my hands. Go where I lead you, and not where you may wish to go, and you will be my feet.
There is ultimately no substitute for doing the right thing. There is no substitute for speaking the truth. So much of life is taken up with convincing ourselves that there is a substitute for doing the right thing. The need of the moment. The grasp for success. Our own anger or alienation which justify to us the compromises we make.
But none of that is real in the end. There is only God and the road that God calls you to. The path of the lonely, unpopular prophet. The path of the rejected Messiah. The way of the cross. The costly discipleship. The right thing in this moment.
Jeremiah does not want to be rejected by God. Jesus is not eager to die. Peter is not spoiling for a fight. The followers of Jesus are not supposed to be excited to bear their cross. That young man I talked to all those years ago, who looked at God as a neglectful dad buying trinkets, wanted love, not anger. In every heart the desire to love and be loved by God burns, however we smother it. Even in the heart of the devil himself, believe it or not. And the hard, beautiful truth is that in this world of sin and death there is simply no way to separate the love of God from the cross. And in the life of the believer there is no way to separate the experience of the cross from God’s love. Because it is through the experience of the cross that God touches our brittle hearts, that God strengthens our feeble hands, and fills our mouths with words of truth and songs of praise.
Please pray with me.