Sunday 5th July 2015, Trinity 5, evening

Jeremiah 20.1-11a

by Revd Chris Palmer

I’ve occasionally mentioned Richard Rohr’s book, Falling Upwards: A Spirituality for the two halves of life. I once went right through it and pulled out all the comparisons between what he calls the first half of life and the second half of life. Just a few will give you an impression:

First Half                                       Second Half

Surviving                                         Thriving
Commandments                           Beatitudes
Certainty                                         Doubt
need to have what you love        able to love what you have

But one of those that I found strangest when I first read it is this:

Fighting the devil & winning       Fighting God & losing

Well I was reminded of that when I read the first reading for this evening. Because Jeremiah complains that he has been beaten by God:

‘O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.’

But not only that, later in the reading, he uses exactly the same words to talk about what his enemies plot for him: ‘Perhaps he can be enticed, and we can prevail against him, and take our revenge on him.’

And Jeremiah is confident that in the face of his enemies, God is a fighter: ‘But the LORD is with me like a dread warrior, therefore my persecutors will stumble.’

The problem is that even if Jeremiah’s opponents lose, that doesn’t mean Jeremiah wins. The LORD may be ‘like a dread warrior’, but he won’t be recruited as Jeremiah’s mercenary to fight his battles. God only ever fights his own battles – and, as Jeremiah discovers, that means learning to lose.

‘O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughing-stock all day long; everyone mocks me.’

Jeremiah faces that terrible sense that many people in history have also had, that the option of doing what God wants or running away from God are equally unpalatable. He had a go at failing to be the prophet, at refusing to speak God’s words:

‘If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name”, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.’

Jeremiah discovers that trying to defend himself against God is a self-defeating behaviour. And in that he joins Jonah and St Paul and many others throughout myth and history who have discovered that you can’t defeat the Almighty.

And that may be uncomfortable, but at least we can sort of accept that, with the somewhat injured metaphor of fighting. But some of the commentators on this passage point out that the translations are tame.  The word translated ‘enticed’, is used in a sexual context many times in the Old Testament and means ‘seduced’; and the word translated ‘overpowered’ is used elsewhere used to talk about men seizing women in order to force them into sex.

‘O Lord, you have seduced me, and I was seduced; you have seized me and forced yourself on me.

And having accused God of raping him, Jeremiah reflects that, like the victims of sexual assault in many cultures, he’s ended up the humiliated one: ‘I have become a laughing-stock all day long; everyone mocks me.’

By reviving the metaphor we can see how strong Jeremiah’s accusation and lament are. God has used him beyond anything acceptable, and then left him at the mercy of society’s scorn. It’s all very well for Richard Rohr to say that our truest and fullest selves are discovered by fighting with God and losing; and it’s all very well for St Paul to say that the potter can do as he pleases with the clay and the clay can’t complain; but by likening God’s action to sexual violence, Jeremiah puts God on the side of wrong, fair and square.

Now it would be easy for me to try to explain this away or justify God; but, gosh, God certainly doesn’t need me as his defence council. And in any case any explanation of God’s cruel demands I could give would be a bit like Job’s comforters – who offer theologically ‘sound’ but entirely vacuous explanations for Job’s suffering.

Both Job and Jeremiah sit with the sense that their creator, lover, and advocate has become their enemy, rapist, and oppressor – without trying to escape the problem either by giving up on God or giving on themselves. They doggedly stay with the pain and make their protest against God – in Job’s case of course for many pages of the bible. And somehow it is through staying there that in the end the clouds begin to break.

What is our equivalent: the anger we bear towards God, the sense of betrayal, the belief that God has failed in his duty, the feeling that God has abused us or others? Or it may not be so much directed at God as such, but at the world in general: I didn’t deserve this; that shouldn’t have happened to them; it’s so unfair.

And in these situations the temptation is either to give up on God or give up on ourselves. The giving up on God turns from venting protest in prayer and song to ignoring God, running away, forgetting, and living as if God doesn’t exist. Or there’s a giving up on ourselves; sometimes this is couched in religious term: I really was in the wrong, I’m an awful person, and God’s was right to punish. Down that path lie scrupulosity and religious addictions. Or it’s not religious at all, but simply a total collapse of self-esteem and a retreat into a deep sense or our own and humanity’s worthlessness.

And, of course, in one sense these are the easy options. They are the options that release the tension, that at least give us a coherent narrative, which we can then tell ourselves is the truth.

The alternative is to live with the tension: staying angry at suffering but not letting anger destroy us; keeping up a protest against injustice that doesn’t become self-defeating bitterness; acknowledging of our own deep sinfulness whilst still believing that we are deeply lovable. And above all, doggedly holding God’s eye as long as he holds ours.

And strangely, strangely this turns out to be a place of freedom. Not a place of easy, superficial happiness, but a place of reality, of truth, of faithfulness – where we thrive and become whole.