A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on September 19, 2010.
Some may question or even object to a sermon about heartsick faith. We prefer upbeat worship services, upbeat messages, and upbeat everything. People who endure heartaches, tragedies, disappointments, and other injuries all week don’t want to hear what we read about in Jeremiah 8:18-9:1. They may not want to have much to do with Jeremiah at all. His prophecy is so full of pathos, grief, and pain that Jeremiah is known as “the weeping prophet.” Who wouldn’t prefer “praise and worship” preaching over preaching inspired by “the weeping prophet”?
Jeremiah was a PK—his father was a priest. While he was young Jeremiah experienced a prophetic call from God that led him to become a religious, political, and social dissident for the rest of his life. Political and religious leaders in Judah trusted the fate and welfare of the society on political and commercial relationships. Jeremiah preached that trusting political and commercial alliances amounted to disloyalty to God. And Jeremiah constantly warned that God had condemned Judah to political, economic, religious, and national death—at the hands of a pagan nation society at that—because Judah was disloyal to God.
The religious and political leaders of Jeremiah’s time believed the nation of Judah would outlast anything and everything. After all, Jerusalem was its capitol, with the temple that Solomon built which housed the Ark of the Covenant—the very presence of God with the nation and its leaders. The idea that Judah and Jerusalem might fall, let alone be over-run by people following pagan religion, and that the nation might even be forced into exile was unthinkable, defeatist, and even considered treasonous.
So Jeremiah became an enemy of the state. One time he was imprisoned in a well. After one king ordered his prophetic sermons to be burned Jeremiah directed his assistant to write them again and read them publicly. The preacher would not back down and the society would not heed his warnings.
Jeremiah’s warnings about Judah’s death came true in 587 B.C. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon invaded Judah. Jerusalem was destroyed. The temple was burned and sacked. The political dynasty that started with King David ended. Leading citizens of the society were deported to Babylon. As Walter Bruggemann has vividly stated, public life in Judah ended. Judah died and became a cultural cemetery. Jeremiah became a heartsick prophet to a heartsick people. His writings present us with a moral and spiritual case study on heartsick faith.
The deaths of our kingdoms are heart-sickening events. Anyone who suffered the death of a loved one, marriage, a business, professional, social, or a religious venture knows that death is a heart-sickening event. But like the national and religious establishment of Jeremiah’s time, we prefer to believe that death will not happen to our cherished relationships. We think our kingdoms are too precious to die. God loves us too much. God needs us too much. Things will work out. We are too big, too important, too necessary, too religious, too patriotic, and too _______ to fail.
But Judah died. Babylon eventually was conquered by the Persians. The Persians fell to the Greeks, who were later defeated by the Romans, whose empire eventually ended. The Spanish domination of world affairs ended, as did the Napoleonic Empire of France. The same thing happened to the British Empire. Our kingdoms are not too big, too important, or too anything else to die. Because the deaths of our kingdoms are always heart-sickening events, we must learn to live with heartsick faith.
Heartsick faith is painful faith. The pain almost leaps from the page as we read Jeremiah. My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick (Jer. 8:18). It is hard to tell whether Jeremiah speaks for himself or for his people. It is not hard to see the pain. These are words of sorrowful faith.
At Jeremiah 8:19 we read about “the cry of my poor people.” This is faith wrestling with pity. At 8:21 we read “[f]or the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.” These are the words of grieving faith.
Verse 22 reads: Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? The moral, political, religious, and spiritual health of Jeremiah’s people demanded a remedy, a cure, a treatment. The mountain region of Gilead was well-known for its gums and resins that were supposed to have healing properties. But some wounds are too deep and some diseases are too deadly to be treated by our medicines. When the therapies and remedies we believe in don’t work for our bodies, relationships, ventures, and other kingdoms, we need a faith that will sustain us through the anguish of declining health, fortunes, and dim futures. When “[t]he harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved,” [v. 20], we need a faith that will sustain us.
Jeremiah 9:1 reads: O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people! Violence produces a special kind of pain, and violent death leaves survivors with a special kind of grief. We who have mourned the violent deaths of loved ones know what it means to weep until our eyes hurt. We wish we could weep our pain away but we can’t. We need a faith that will sustain us not only when our kingdoms die, but when our kingdoms are murdered, looted, massacred, slaughtered, raped, left to rot, and we run out of tears.
I know we want praise and worship faith, but the bitter reality of living is that our kingdoms die. They become diseased and die. They suffer wounds, whether self-inflicted or caused by others, and die. Sometimes our kingdoms are murdered. We need a faith that will sustain us through the pain we experience when our kingdoms die.
Where is the “good news” for us as we live with heartsick faith?
God is everlasting. Our kingdoms are temporary. We must remember the difference. No matter how long our kingdoms endure, history teaches that there is a time for our relationships to begin and a time for them to end. We may argue about whether the end is near or here, but at some point the end will certainly come to our personal, political, commercial, and other human relationships. We must remember that no matter how long our kingdoms last, they are temporary. These are not ultimate relationships. Our kingdoms die and we wrestle with heartsick faith because our kingdoms are not God.
Unfortunately, we tend to invest the kind of faith in our kingdoms that only deserves to be invested in God. We tend to define living by the rules of those preliminary kingdoms instead of God. So stock market rules define our notions of wealth. The insurance and medical kingdoms define our notions of health. The political, military, and business kingdoms tend to define our notions of power and status. The entertainment kingdom tends to define our notions of influence. The family kingdom defines living for some people.
And when those kingdoms die—as they always will—we must learn to let them go. We must learn to grieve them while remembering that God has something else for us. We must learn to “hold to God’s unchanging hand.”
When our kingdoms become how we ultimately define reality they have become our idols—the standard by which we determine meaning, purpose, and value to life. Heartsick faith forces us to see the difference between the temporary relationships we are tempted to idolize and what is essential, true, and everlasting. Heartsick faith reminds us, for all our pain, to “build your hopes on things eternal.”
Heartsick faith refines our hope by reminding us that God is sovereign! People of faith are not exempt from the heart-sickening contradictions of life when their preliminary kingdoms die. Being God’s people doesn’t mean we won’t get off course. We aren’t guaranteed to be popular or even respected—look at Jeremiah. The agony and anguish of Jesus during his crucifixion—”My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”—show that sometimes it may seem that we don’t even enjoy favor with God!
But the deaths of our kingdoms are not the deaths of our hopes. We are people of Resurrection. We look beyond our Calvary experiences. Beyond the deaths of our kingdoms, there is reason to hope. Beyond the bitterness of injustice, there is reason to hope. Beyond the viciousness and villainy of people, there is reason to hope.
Because we pray “Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory forever,” our heartsick faith can bristle with hope. Because the grace of God is wider, deeper, stronger, and longer than every kingdom and any kingdom-killers, we can live with hope.
This hope inspired African slaves to change Jeremiah’s search for a balm for the pain of his people from a heartsick question to a heartfelt exclamation of hope. Despite the murderous, villainous, and heinous brutality of slavery, came something more than a question and more than a cry. So we did not learn to sing, “Where is a balm?” We have not been taught to sing, “Is there a balm?”
Instead, we sing: Sometimes I feel discouraged, and think my work’s in vain, but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again. There is a balm in Gilead, to make the spirit whole. There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.
People who live in the power of God that inspires that hope can survive the deaths of their preliminary kingdoms. They can live with heartsick faith. They can weep in faith, question in faith, and even be bitterly angry in faith, and still sing because they live by the power of hope in the kingdom of God.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.