This afternoon, I share Jeremiah’s pain.
In August, I began a long march through the book of Jeremiah. More importantly, I am forcing my church to march with me through this book, seeing as how I am their pastor and this is our Sunday morning text for the foreseeable future.
The prophetic work of Jeremiah is tough sledding, to be kind. God birthed him to be a prophet, a prophet with a message of judgment. And for 40 years, he preached a message of the impending disaster that was the Babylonian army, a message that was horribly fulfilled in 587 BC with the complete and utter destruction of the city of Jerusalem. Those who survived the calamity were taken as captives back to Babylon where they lived the rest of their days. And all of this was God’s work and God’s judgment.
Jeremiah was not a popular preacher, to say the least. His fellow priests threatened him with his life if he continued to prophesy (see Jeremiah 11.21). He was scoffed at, rejected, and mocked by the people of Jerusalem. And who could blame them? Even today, who wants to hear the words of judgment over and over and over and over and over…
My spirit is heavy as I prepare again to preach on yet another chapter of Jeremiah, another warning of impending judgment, another call to repentance. Is there anything in this book worthy of joy or happiness? Would that Jeremiah knew the words of Paul: “If there is anything worthy of praise, think of these things” (see Philippians 4.8). But no, all Jeremiah knew was grief upon grief. We even call him “The Weeping Prophet,” because on his tombstone must have been written, “I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me” (see Jeremiah 8.21). Jeremiah was the original wet blanket.
When my children were younger, one of their favorite books for me to read to them at bedtime was Tell Me Something Happy Before I Go To Sleep by Joyce Dunbar. And I can’t help but think that my congregation is thinking the same thing when they come to church. Pastor, please tell me something happy or else I will go to sleep during your sermon! And I am sure the people of Jerusalem were tired of Jeremiah’s endless negative droning. I know at times, I am. Even Jeremiah got tired of his own message!
But as my spirit wants to cast aside the text of Jeremiah for this Sunday’s sermon, something in my soul knows we need it like never before. We need to hear the warnings of both the Old Testament and the New Testament. We need to hear the horrible details of what the aftermath of God’s judgment looks like. For if we don’t, we can quickly and easily forget that it could happen again.
I had the unique honor of visiting Dachau, one of the many German concentration camps where millions of Jews were murdered in the 1930s and 1940s. Built in 1933, it housed over 200,000 prisoners in its 12 years of use. Over 41,500 were murdered. The ovens that burned their bodies still stand. I have looked into the ovens with my own eyes.
On the grounds of Dachau still stand the administration building, a few barracks, the crematorium, and several different memorials built by different religious groups. One memorial, the International Memorial, contains the ashes of unknown concentration camp victims and the words “Never Again” written in Hebrew, French, English, German, and Russian.
As emotionally devastating as it was to visit a place like that, it is vitally important to remember. For only in remembering can we uphold the promise we made to the victims of the Holocaust: “Never Again.”
Could God’s judgment fall upon a nation that has changed gods once again (see Jeremiah 2.11)? Could God’s judgment fall upon a nation that calls itself “a Christian nation” and yet commits adultery (and other sexual immoral behaviors), murders (including abortion), lies (i.e., politics), and worships the work of its hands (i.e., consumerism) (see Jeremiah 7.8-10)? Would God dare to pluck up and break down such a great nation as the United States of America (see Jeremiah 1.10)?
If the Bible is any record of God’s work in history, the answer is yes, yes, and yes.
Which is why we need the Book of Lamentations. Reading Lamentations is like visiting the concentration camp of Dachau. It is a painful walk through unspeakable horrors. But unless we look, we cannot stand firm upon “Never Again.”
And so, I leave you with the first chapter of Lamentations, a chapter that describes what the city of Jerusalem looked like and felt like after it fell to Babylon in 587 BC. And if the warning of what could be does not cause us to fall on our knees in confession and repentance, then we are beyond hope and destined to be plucked up by the One True God.
How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations! She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave. 2 She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her; they have become her enemies. 3 Judah has gone into exile because of affliction and hard servitude; she dwells now among the nations, but finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress. 4 The roads to Zion mourn, for none come to the festival; all her gates are desolate; her priests groan; her virgins have been afflicted, and she herself suffers bitterly. 5 Her foes have become the head; her enemies prosper, because the Lord has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe. 6 From the daughter of Zion all her majesty has departed. Her princes have become like deer that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer. 7 Jerusalem remembers in the days of her affliction and wandering all the precious things that were hers from days of old. When her people fell into the hand of the foe, and there was none to help her, her foes gloated over her; they mocked at her downfall. 8 Jerusalem sinned grievously; therefore she became filthy; all who honored her despise her, for they have seen her nakedness; she herself groans and turns her face away. 9 Her uncleanness was in her skirts; she took no thought of her future; therefore her fall is terrible; she has no comforter. “O Lord, behold my affliction, for the enemy has triumphed!” 10 The enemy has stretched out his hands over all her precious things; for she has seen the nations enter her sanctuary, those whom you forbade to enter your congregation. 11 All her people groan as they search for bread; they trade their treasures for food to revive their strength. “Look, O Lord, and see, for I am despised.” 12 “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger. 13 “From on high he sent fire; into my bones he made it descend; he spread a net for my feet; he turned me back; he has left me stunned, faint all the day long. 14 “My transgressions were bound into a yoke; by his hand they were fastened together; they were set upon my neck; he caused my strength to fail; the Lord gave me into the hands of those whom I cannot withstand. 15 “The Lord rejected all my mighty men in my midst; he summoned an assembly against me to crush my young men; the Lord has trodden as in a winepress the virgin daughter of Judah. 16 “For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my spirit; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.” 17 Zion stretches out her hands, but there is none to comfort her; the Lord has commanded against Jacob that his neighbors should be his foes; Jerusalem has become a filthy thing among them. 18 “The Lord is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word; but hear, all you peoples, and see my suffering; my young women and my young men have gone into captivity. 19 “I called to my lovers, but they deceived me; my priests and elders perished in the city, while they sought food to revive their strength. 20 “Look, O Lord, for I am in distress; my stomach churns; my heart is wrung within me, because I have been very rebellious. In the street the sword bereaves; in the house it is like death. 21 “They heard my groaning, yet there is no one to comfort me. All my enemies have heard of my trouble; they are glad that you have done it. You have brought the day you announced; now let them be as I am. 22 “Let all their evildoing come before you, and deal with them as you have dealt with me because of all my transgressions; for my groans are many, and my heart is faint.” (Lamentations 1.1-22)
O Lord, may we never become so evil and so faithless that you intend this kind of disaster for the nation in which we live. O Lord, revive us again so that we can turn from our wicked ways and be saved.
(Dr. Todd Pylant is the Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Benbrook in Fort Worth, Texas, and the author of Word of God Speak and If: the Conditionality of the Gospel and the Danger of Apostasy.)