Scripture: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
What are some things that make you cry?
Don’t worry, you don’t have to answer that out loud. I’m sure we can all think of the obvious answers: the death of a loved one, a breakup, any very bad news of one kind or another. Sometimes we might cry when we’re angry, in the middle of a fight with someone, or out of sheer frustration—I cried the other day when I couldn’t bend over enough to tie my shoes. (It had been a long day.) Maybe sad movies get some of us; or there’s a certain song that reminds us of a certain memory; maybe some of us even cry at happy occasions like weddings and graduations. Some of us are bigger criers than others, of course.
But you wouldn’t think a prophet would be a big crier. You’d think a prophet would be more someone standing apart from the people he or she is prophesying to and angrily pointing a finger at everything they’re doing wrong. And you’d think a prophet would be pretty thick-skinned; if you’re going to forecast the destruction of nations and kings, like we talked about last week, you’re going to need to be prepared for people not to like you very much, and not break down in tears every time that becomes obvious.
But if that’s our image of a prophet, then Jeremiah breaks the mold, because Jeremiah is known as the Weeping Prophet. We hear it here: “My heart is broken,” he says. “Because my people are crushed, I am crushed.” “Is there no balm in Gilead?” he famously laments, knowing that Gilead was where the trees grew that produced that soothing ointment; if there was no balm in Gilead, there wasn’t any anywhere. And he cries even because he doesn’t have enough tears: “If only my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, I would weep day and night for the wounds of my people.”
So—what was it that made Jeremiah cry?
You may remember from last week that whereas Isaiah was writing during the time when the Assyrians were taking over the Ancient Near East, Jeremiah writes later, maybe a hundred year later by now, when the Assyrian Empire is on its way out and the Babylonian Empire is on the rise. And the people of Judah, with Jerusalem as its capital, have managed to lay low, pay some tribute, and get through the whole Assyria thing relatively unscathed, but as the Babylonian army marches its way south, that is looking less and less like it’s going to be an option this time. The people of Judah are in trouble. Like, really big trouble.
And you remember that when threats surround us from every direction on the outside, where do the prophets want us to look? On the inside. And on the inside, Judah has actually just undergone this whole period of religious reform under King Josiah, centralizing worship at the Temple and standardizing rituals and purging any sign of Assyrian religion that might have crept its way in during their rule. That sounds like it should be good news, but instead what it’s done is made people too sure of themselves. They’re going through all the right motions, maybe, but their hearts haven’t really changed; they’re still greedy and deceitful and self-righteous and going around oppressing the orphan and the widow; they may have gotten rid of their Assyrian idols, but they are still worshipping other things besides God, like for example money; only they imagine they are holy, and God should be stepping in to save them. In fact, they seem shocked that God doesn’t seem to be doing so. “Isn’t the Lord in Zion??” they say.
So it’s both of those things, I think: the knowledge of what is coming and how bad it’s going to be—and it’s going to be bad, because in a decade or two the Temple in Jerusalem will lie in ruins and the people of Judah scattered throughout the Babylonian Empire—and the knowledge of what has brought his people to this point, that makes Jeremiah cry.
It’s amazing to me, in a way, that Jeremiah could know his people so well, could see their sin and brokenness so clearly, and still call them his people, and still cry for what was coming. He could have stood opposite them, pointing his finger (and he did some of that), but he also cried, for them and with them. Maybe because he knew his fate was entwined with theirs—or maybe because for all their brokenness, he really did love his people.
But maybe that’s not so amazing to you. Maybe you know what it’s like as a parent or a partner or a friend to see someone in a spiral of self-destruction, to know that the responsibility lies only with them and there’s nothing you can do, and still feel your heart break for them, and still shed tears for the inevitable end that you see coming. Maybe that’s what Jeremiah’s tears are like.
Or maybe, we could even say, that’s what God’s tears are like, because it’s actually not very clear whether these words we are hearing are God’s or Jeremiah’s, and when you’re dealing with prophets, that’s the point: their words are not just their own. Maybe Jeremiah feels like this about his people and everything they’re about to face because, in fact, that’s how God feels.
And it’s here where a prophet’s job gets all jumbled up, because their job is to speak to the people on behalf of God, but sometimes their job is also to speak to God on behalf of the people, or maybe sometimes even to cry to God on their behalf. Tears go both ways.
But whichever way we look at it, maybe one aspect of living more prophetically is the capacity to weep on behalf of God’s people.
My friend Kim spent our first year of seminary as a chaplain intern at a maximum-security women’s prison. I always enjoyed, and/or appreciated, the stories Kim brought back from her time at the prison. I know Kim saw and heard a lot there, and she got to know the stories of a lot of women.
One day Kim was assigned to make her chaplain rounds in the building where the mental health patients were housed. She was still relatively new, so she ventured in, saying hi and asking how everyone was doing. As she was doing this an older woman came up to her, leaned in close, and said, “Are you who we confess to?”
And Kim said, “Uh, I guess.” So she and this woman went into a private cell to talk, and as soon as they sat down, the woman burst into tears. And not just a few tears, but sobs racking her body as she rocked back and forth and said, “Oh God. Oh Jesus. Oh God.” Kim was like, “What’s going on?”
The woman cried out that her youngest son had just committed suicide. It was the third child she had lost: one to a car accident, one to cancer, and now one to suicide. And then the woman cried out: “And it’s all my fault!”
So Kim tried very pastorally to assure her that it wasn’t her fault, that there was nothing she could have done, but the woman wouldn’t hear it: “No!” she said. “Don’t you see? I killed three people, and now three of my children are dead.” Kim tried every theological argument she knew—about grace and forgiveness, about how she doesn’t believe in the kind of God who would do that as revenge, and all the woman did was become more agitated and say, “No! No!” until finally, Kim just began to cry too.
And they cried together for a few minutes, until the woman reached for a Kleenex, sniffled a little, took Kim’s hand and said “Thank you, Chaplain.” And then she left.
I don’t know exactly what happened there and I don’t think Kim does either, but I suspect that tears said what theology couldn’t: that someone shared this woman’s pain, deserved or undeserved. That even as she faced the consequences of her actions, as she saw things, that not everyone was rejoicing at her misfortune; that, in fact, someone who even represented God to her would let her heart be broken, too.
Were Kim’s tears for God on behalf of this hurting, broken woman? Or were they for this hurting, broken woman on behalf of the God who loved her? I think Jeremiah would answer, “Yes.”
There’s a saying I love: May my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God. Let me ask you this: what are some things that you think breaks God’s heart? (Maybe poverty, homelessness, racism, materialism, complacency, war in Syria, suffering after natural disaster…)
Now let me ask you: Is your heart broken by those things?
That’s a real question. We know the answer is supposed to be yes. But is your heart really broken by those things? It’s so easy to be overwhelmed by all the need and brokenness in this world, and maybe by our complicity in it, that sometimes maybe all we do is keep walking or change the channel or vow to think about it later, and we dismiss those heartbreaking things and move on without really allowing ourselves to feel the world’s pain. And I get it: you can’t just around feeling everyone else’s pain all the time; you’d have to get some serious counseling for that. But then maybe sometimes we keep up our guard so much that we don’t let ourselves feel it at all.
But Jeremiah was on to something: sometimes the only way to make a difference in anything is not to stand there and point fingers at people and say, “You should fix this! Someone should fix this!” but to let ourselves actually enter into the pain and the brokenness of it all.
Doesn’t that sound like what God eventually did: when even the weeping of the prophets didn’t work to bring people back to God, God entered into the pain and the brokenness of this world Godself. Jesus became the prophet who brought the people’s pain and brokenness to God, and brought God’s wholeness to the people. And by the way, some would call Jesus the other Weeping Prophet. He wept for his friend Lazarus, who died, and for Lazarus’s sisters who came running to Jesus with grief and blame because Jesus hadn’t saved him sooner. He wept for Jerusalem, knowing not only that his own death was impending but that in a few decades, the Temple would once again lay in ruins, this time at the hand of the Romans. “If only,” he said, “if only you had known the things that made for peace.” Jesus allowed his heart to be broken on our behalf.
Somehow, knowing that God allows God’s heart to break on my behalf makes me a little more willing to allow my heart to break on behalf of others.
When Paul describes the kind of Christian community he’d really like to see in his letter to the Romans, he says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” Apparently this is our job not just as potential prophets, but as Christians, too. And I think it starts with being willing to see the pain of others, deserved or undeserved: to not walk so quickly past, to not so quickly change the channel, to not want so badly to protect ourselves from that pain; but to linger for a moment, to keep reading, to sit with that hurting person, maybe even to let ourselves cry.
My friend Nancy told me story from when she worked at a Christian camp years ago. It was the kind of camp where the kids all lived and did their activities in groups, a certain group all week. And instead of having all their activities programmed for them, they got to decide as a group what to do, whether it was hiking or canoeing or archery or any of those camp staples. It was an exercise in Christian community, deciding on these things together and working through their disagreements.
One group of kids had decided that they wanted to go hike Old Rag at the end of the week, and so all week they worked up to this big hike that would be the culmination of their camp experience. Only the day before their big hike, one of the kids in the group sprained his ankle, and he had to spend the day in the infirmary, instead.
What would you have done? You’ve worked up to this hike all week, and it’s not like you can make this kid better, anyway.
They decided not to go to Old Rag. They decided, instead, to stick around close to the camp so they could check in on their friend, and so he didn’t miss out on the one thing they all wanted to do.
Maybe we simply call that kindness. Dare we call it prophetic?
Well, does it speak a word from God into that situation? That God cares about this one person who is hurting? That God feels his pain and as a result, his friends are willing to, too?
Maybe something like that is more prophetic than we know.
It’s always worth it to remember that even for the Weeping Prophet, tears don’t have the last word. Even through his tears, Jeremiah sees a future in which God’s people are in love with God once again, and able to enjoy what it means to live as part of God’s covenant community, back from exile, in the land that God had promised them. But sometimes we need to know that someone is willing to cry with us before we can see that vision for a good future, don’t we? Then we can believe the words of the Psalm: “They who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy, and those who set out in despair will return with arms full of blessing.”
And maybe helping others see the Reign of Heaven here on earth simply begins sometimes with seeing someone’s pain, and letting ourselves cry.