Complaining to God

Jeremiah files this complaint against God this morning: “Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.”

Jeremiah thought he had been faithful to God but that God had not been faithful to him.

It was certainly true that God had put Jeremiah in a very difficult position. The message that God gave him to announce to his people was one of judgment and destruction for their obstinate refusal to honor their unique relationship with him, leaving him no other choice but to allow the Babylonians to besiege and raze the walls of Jerusalem, the magnificent gold-plated temple and the House of David.

Jeremiah thought that God had set him up for a fall at the hands of his nation’s leaders, who interpreted Jeremiah’s message as an act of treason. Indeed, they persuaded their fellow citizens that it was Jeremiah who had lost faith in God’s determination to protect their nation at all costs, even from the ominous threat of the Babylonians, just as he had hundreds of years earlier when it was the Assyrians who posed a lethal threat to the capital city, but whose army was visited by a plague, forcing them to withdraw, even as the people of Jerusalem dug an underground tunnel to a secret spring of water that would allow them to hold out indefinitely against anyone who might besiege them.

The leaders of Israel argued that Jeremiah, if he was a true prophet, should be bolstering the faith and morale of God’s people in the face of their enemies and not warning them that there was nothing they could do to avert a looming national calamity but to negotiate the best terms they could for their surrender and submission to the authority of the world’s current imperial superpower.

Jeremiah’s political opponents were so persuasive that even he began to waver and to doubt the message God had given him, words that were initially a joy and the delight of his heart. But now he felt that his spiritual supply line, the river of grace from God that had sustained and directed him thus far, had suddenly been withdrawn and had failed him.

What God said in response to Jeremiah’s complaint contains a universal truth that applies to each of us who would seek to follow Christ, to do God’s will, either as individuals or together in what we believe to be God’s mission for us. We can get ahead of ourselves and of God. We can become hasty and impatient trying to accomplish his purposes in our own strength. God asks Jeremiah to reconsider his point of view. It wasn’t that God had failed in his determination to give Jeremiah everything he needed to fulfill his calling as a prophet. The river had not failed. Rather, Jeremiah had walked away from that river in an unrealistic expectation that his adversaries would agree with him and accept God’s message, but God never promised that he would win over his opponents and thereby validate his calling as a prophet.

Thankfully, and this should be an encouragement to any of us who fail to trust God’s will for us, Jeremiah heeded God’s invitation to reconsider his complaint. He turned back to God, to the river that had not failed and would not fail him so that God might keep his promise to make Jeremiah a fortified wall of bronze. The political and religious establishment continued to resist him, but they did not prevail against him. In the end, when the Babylonians were at the gates, and everything Jeremiah had prophesied was about to come true, it was they, the leaders, who turned to Jeremiah, and not Jeremiah who had once been tempted to turn to them for their approval. He trusted that if God had his back, if he remained in contact with his grace, that grace was indeed his joy, the delight of his heart and the life that he could offer without the fear of losing it at the hands of any adversary or under any circumstances.

Jeremiah exemplifies what is true for all of us, the fact that we must sometimes choose between God’s will and his approval and the competing and conflicting wills and approval of this world, between the security and status that God offers us as his beloved children, bought with the blood of his Son, on the one hand, and that which we vainly seek apart from him.

Jesus underlines this truth in his relationship with Peter and the other apostles, men who were also tempted to think they could find a never-failing stream of life in the things of this earth apart from the costly sacrifice of God’s undeserved and unearned favor toward them. Even he, as the Messiah, would have to obey his Father’s will and offer his life to maintain a lifeline to his heavenly Father. Jesus teaches Peter that the only way we can secure our life is to spend the life we have been given in faithful service to God, that river who does not deceive nor fail us, but who teaches us how to give away the life he has first given us through the example of his Son so that we might receive it and secure it back again from him forever.

The massive flooding in the greater Houston metropolitan area, and the unparalleled losses that millions have suffered, provides us with an opportunity to find our life by pouring it out into the lives of the victims through the Episcopal Relief and Development Fund, the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army or through countless other channels of grace. In so doing, we become part of God’s riverbank, God’s supply line, to them, no less than they have been the supply line for much of the gasoline that keeps the Eastern seaboard moving.

Last week I listened to a political pundit analyze several speeches by the president on a variety of hot-button topics by pointing out three different colored lines on a graph that moved up and down as each speech progressed, each colored line representing the approval or disapproval of three different groups of citizens: Republicans, Democrats and Independents.

We can summarize the entire thrust of the gospel today by pointing out that a fourth and a fifth line are missing on that graph, the line of God’s approval or disapproval of what we are saying and doing and the line of our approval or disapproval of what he is saying and doing. Those lines are very important. Jesus is saying that they matter more than our approval and disapproval of each other. Straying from those lines will be detrimental to us all, whatever our political persuasion may be. That is why the moral, social, political and economic education of our people is so important in a democratic form of government, so that together we might hear and accept the voice of God when we hear it, rather than responding to appeals that can be so misleading precisely because they are not centered in God’s will.

The Holy Scriptures have been given to us for that reason, that we may discern the God line and begin to trust it and to be guided by it. The Bible helps us turn away from our complaints and frustrations that arise from our limited perspectives and turn back to the stream of God’s grace and favor. May the renewal of God’s grace be the first step we take in becoming a wall of bronze with the strength to influence the world around us to seek and find the only life that is life, the life we have found in giving our lives away, following the example of our Lord and Savior himself, Jesus Christ. AMEN.