The messages of the Old Testament prophets frequently fail to inspire us to love God more. Instead, they can lead us to question the God we came to know as “Love” in Sunday School. God does not seem very loving when God compares the people of Jerusalem to whores who deserve to lose everything. In fact, for a 21st century reader the God of the prophets can seem difficult–intolerant–even downright embarrassing.
Most often when I write about the prophets, people respond by defending God. For many, the feeling is that “God doesn’t punish people for doing wrong”. Others quietly turn away. Still others remain silent, hoping this God will go away when we get to Jesus. If these ideas resonate with you, you are in good company! Still, I’m going to ask you to further consider these challenging scriptures.
When I read Jeremiah, I hear a people who understand that they have done wrong. In the religious imagination of the time, they heard God’s mournful cry, recorded it, and took the words with them into exile. And, I believe they heard God right at the time. I believe God wants us to know, in this time, that our actions can hurt God–and God’s people; that when we lose sight of the Holy One, we are scattered, broken, and lost. It is God’s cry for us to return which allows us to find our way again.
Often when I listen to people wanting prayer, they will speak about how they feel God is disciplining them, teaching them. It is uncomfortable watching someone take on blame. And sometimes they must be challenged. But, at other times, it is unholy to get in the way.
This week, a pastor friend in New England was wondering why her church wasn’t attracting as many to worship in recent weeks: “we might have to go to 3 services rather than 4,” she said, so ”we are spending more time in prayer, wondering where we haven’t given enough to God.” I tried to dissuade her, to tell her it wasn’t God’s work that attendance was down, it wasn’t something she did. From her descriptions the causes seemed more worldly than that. But as soon as I started down that road, the Holy Spirit left the conversation. It was a feeling of tiredness that overcame me and a flatness of speech that followed. Today, I ask myself, who am I to say that God isn’t trying to get her and the church staff’s attention?
If you come to me for prayer in a time of trial, I’m not going to talk to you about how God is disciplining you. But it is likely you will. It is likely that you, like the voice that is Jeremiah, are wondering what it is that has left you feeling so distant from God, as well as so far from the life you thought was yours. As it was for Jeremiah, as it is for my pastor friend, as it is for me now, we have a choice. We can believe God isn’t in it at all–or we can believe that exile and similar experiences are what God intends to help us cling to the one that matters most, sending us to our knees, and allowing God to send us out to do what we would not have before imagined.