Jeremiah 33:14-16 – Longing for Justice and Righteousness

Jeremiah by Marc Chagall, 1956

The Lord said:

I made a wonderful promise to Israel and Judah, and the days are coming when I will keep it.

I promise that the time will come
when I will appoint a king
    from the family of David,
a king who will be honest
    and rule with justice.
In those days,
    Judah will be safe;
Jerusalem will have peace
and will be named,
   “The Lord Gives Justice.” (Contemporary English Version)

Jeremiah is known as “the weeping prophet.” From the very beginning of his prophetic ministry, Jeremiah was given a message that Jerusalem and Judah would experience God’s wrath and be exiled to a foreign country. 

The prophet Jeremiah was faithful to his calling. Yet, he loved his homeland, and it grieved his heart to know that everything familiar around him would be either altered or destroyed. All would change because God’s judgment was coming.

The Lord gave Jeremiah an unpopular message, especially since Judah was enjoying a time of abundance, economic stability, and relative freedom from war. No one took Jeremiah seriously. Initially, when Jeremiah began to spread his message of gloom and doom, he was perceived as a kook, and no one took him seriously. 

But Jeremiah did not let up. The eye-rolling turned into annoyance, and then, over time, contempt. Judah’s king and the governing officials tried to silence Jeremiah as being subversive and unpatriotic. As a result, Jeremiah was imprisoned several times.

Jeremiah, in today’s Old Testament lesson, is under house arrest. The city of Jerusalem is under siege by the Babylonian army. Jeremiah’s prophecy is knocking at the door….

But the people are not listening, believing they’ll be delivered by God for two reasons:

1) They see the Babylonians are evil pagans who do not recognize the One true God, so, obviously, God would never use such an ungodly army to overthrow the people of God, right!?

2) They have the temple and the true worship of God, and God would never let the temple be desecrated, right!? 

So, the people of Jerusalem felt immune from any kind of terrible judgment, as if being God’s people with God’s temple would ward-off any disaster.

The siege against Jerusalem lasted over two years. During that time, the people of Jerusalem went from cocky and confident to having a very rude awakening. Horrible disaster was upon them. At their lowest point, with barely any food, and atrocities occurring throughout the city, Jeremiah’s word from God was a message of grace. 

The people would not be delivered from their inevitable fate. Yet, God would not wipe them off the map and destroy them forever. There is coming a day when there will be a Deliverer, a just and right Savior from the line of the greatest Israelite king ever, David.

The hardest reality for Jerusalem’s people to accept was that their way of life would never be the same again. It would forever change. Although they continued to practice all the rituals of the temple system and worship, over the generations it had simply become a rabbit’s foot for them – as long as they did their duty, they could walk away and do whatever they wanted. And they did.

That approach got God’s attention. Divine wrath came through the most unlikely of instruments: the pagan Babylonians led by the arrogant King Nebuchadnezzar.

The transition from one way of life to another was excruciating. 

Oftentimes change happens and it’s out of our control. However, what is within our influence is how we make the transition from the previous reality to the new reality. 

A biblical way to deal with difficult changes and transitions is by focusing on God’s promises. There are two pairs of the promise we have within the prophecy of Jeremiah: judgment and grace; justice and righteousness. 

“Justice and righteousness was never meant to be the work of only one person, or one part of society. It should be the foundation of how everyone stewards their lives, as well as an integral, normal part of all of society. Every aspect of this world needs God’s justice and righteousness.”

Jessica Nicholas

By looking ahead with hope to the new future of what God is doing and will accomplish, we then come to grips with present troubles.

Judgment and Grace

All of the Old Testament prophetic books have a rhythm of judgment and grace. The promise God gave to the people through Jeremiah was that judgment was coming; and, that grace would follow on its heels.

Proclaiming only a message of judgment without grace brings despair, death, and hell; there is hopelessness. Conversely, only speaking of grace apart from judgment is oxymoronic – it doesn’t exist because there is no need for grace if there is no judgment; grace is an undeserved mercy given freely by God in the face of our sinful selves.

The siege of Jerusalem was terribly horrific. The details are too graphic to mention. Even the most pious of believers who believed Jeremiah’s message were completely aghast at the level of cruelty and violence done to God’s people.

At the people’s darkest hour, the message of grace came to them….

Justice and Righteousness

A safe, secure, just, and peaceful future will be provided by God. The Lord will not forget the people. Better days are coming. A king will arise. His rule will be just and right, providing protection, peace, and prosperity. God’s people were to keep their heads up looking toward that future in order to help them now in the present.

This requires patience. They must wait.

While waiting, the people need to live in the way God intended before all this terror happened. They are to uphold justice and live righteously because that’s what the coming king is all about.

Justice and righteousness are often paired together in the Old Testament. They’re really two sides of the same coin. We may often think of justice in the punitive sense of giving lawbreakers what they deserve. Yet, biblical justice has more to do with giving someone what they need and deserve to live and thrive as human beings. 

To act justly means to provide essentials like clean drinking water, a safe environment, food to eat, a place to sleep, etc. Righteousness is the relational element to justice. To be righteous means to have right relationships, to connect with people, to move toward them and provide them with all the relational things that people need like respect, dignity, friendship, hospitality, fellowship, etc.

Justice and righteousness go together. Justice without righteousness is at best, impersonal, and, at worst, condescending. Righteousness without justice is a dead faith that wishes well but never delivers. Together, however, justice and righteousness brings love, peace, harmony, well-being, and human flourishing because all the basic necessities of life, physical and relational, are met in abundance.

This is what is meant in the Old Testament when Israel is referred to as “a land of milk and honey.”

Conclusion

For Christians, the time of abundance is here, in Christ. Yet, it’s not here in its fullness. We anticipate, wait, and hope for the Second Coming of our Savior and King. While we exercise patience, we long for better days. A true Advent spirit is a deep longing for justice and righteousness because King Jesus is just and right.

So, what do you long for today? 

I long for justice.

I long for broken spirits to be made right, for people’s healing of both body and soul. I long for the day when children with epilepsy will have no more seizures. I long for the day when individuals and families will not have to contend with cancer anymore. I long for the day when there will be no more depression, anxiety, mental illness, or dementia. I long for the day when people will be free of addictions. I long for the day when there will be no more sex trafficking, death from malnutrition, grinding poverty, corrupt governments, whole families and communities torn by the ravages of diseases, refugees with no place to call home, and devastating natural disasters. 

I long for righteousness.

I long for the day when women and girls across the globe will not be abused and become the victims of disordered power. I long for the day when nations, ethnicities, races, and everyone everywhere will no longer hate each other. I long for every individual to know forgiveness. I long for people to experience the exhilaration of new life in Christ. I long for my community to hear and believe the gospel. I long for peace, harmony, unity, equity, and an egalitarian spirit.

I long for God’s benevolent rule to come in all its fullness, freedom, joy, prosperity, peace, and happiness. I long for Christ’s coming! And I long to be doing justice and righteousness when Jesus arrives!

Maranatha, come Lord Jesus!

Lamentations 3:22-33 – The Need for Lament

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”

The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul that seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.
It is good for one to bear
    the yoke in youth,
to sit alone in silence
    when the Lord has imposed it,
to put one’s mouth to the dust
    (there may yet be hope),
to give one’s cheek to the smiter,
    and be filled with insults.

For the Lord will not
    reject forever.
Although he causes grief, he will have compassion
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict
    or grieve anyone.
(New Revised Standard Version)

We all face situations, at points in our lives, which cause us to grieve. Grief can and does attach itself to any significant change or loss. Bereavement, divorce, surgery, losing a job, bankruptcy, and a host of adverse circumstances are all, understandably, events bringing grief to our lives. They are unwanted events we did not ask for. 

Grief can also attach itself to the positive changes of life, for example, moving to a new house in a new area, an empty nest, getting married, having children, or beginning a new job. These all produce grief, even if that loss and change were chosen, anticipated, or necessary.

The worst way to approach these grief-producing events is to ignore them, minimize them, say they are simply in the past, stuff the feelings down, and just move on. It’s actually unbiblical to take such an attitude because Scripture discerns that we need to lament our losses. We have with Lamentations an entire book of the Bible given to lamenting a grievous loss.

The prophet Jeremiah was called by God to pronounce judgment against Jerusalem. Not only was Jeremiah commissioned to proclaim a very unpopular message, but he was also given a promise that the people would not listen to him, and that Jerusalem would be destroyed with the people being sent into exile – only compounding Jeremiah’s sadness with complicated grief.

The prophecy of Jeremiah is a long extended message of a melancholy messenger preaching exactly what the Lord wanted him to preach. God’s words came true. The people did not turn from their empty worship and wayward lifestyles. And they persecuted Jeremiah for speaking words of judgment. The Babylonians came and tore down the walls of Jerusalem, decimated the city and the temple, and carried off the people into exile.

Jeremiah, in his grief over the ruined city of Jerusalem, wept and lamented the loss of his hometown and the temple. It was only after an extended lamentation that Jeremiah turned his attention toward the love of God, his compassions becoming new every morning, and the hope of a new existence without Jerusalem at the center of Jewish life.

The hope of love, compassion, and new life comes from first lamenting our losses. There are two popular phrases in our culture that need to be jettisoned altogether when speaking with people experiencing change or loss. These phrases, at the least, are not helpful; and, at worst, compound the anger and sadness:

  1. “Get over it!” can short circuit the grief process and puts grieving people in the awkward position of not seeing the power of lament through to its end of acceptance, resolution, and fresh hope. Far too many people in the world, and even the church, remain stuck in some stage or level of grief, unable to effectively move through their grief because others expect them to be joyful and triumphant when they really feel downright awful – not to mention now guilty on top of it for being sad.
  2. “You have to be strong!” is typically said to people who are in a state of weakness. They can’t be strong. We would never think of telling someone with broken bones to have the strength to walk or even drive anywhere without assistance. We understand they need to heal. Yet, we tell this to people with broken spirits, and then can’t understand why they don’t just bounce back from their emotional stupor. That’s because they can’t. Broken spirits, like broken bones, need time to heal.

Embracing lament is the pathway to knowing compassion and becoming a compassionate person, like Jesus. Wallpapering over our losses without lamenting them is at the root of many, if not most, of emotional problems today. 

Jerry Sittser, a Reformed pastor and professor, wrote an important book entitled, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss. Many years ago, he was driving his family’s minivan when a drunk driver crossed the road and hit them head on. In an instant he watched three generations of his family die in front of his eyes: his mother, his wife, and his daughter. Sittser writes:

“Catastrophic loss by definition precludes recovery.  It will transform us or destroy us, but it will never leave us the same….  I did not get over my loved ones loss; rather I absorbed the loss into my life until it became part of who I am. Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it.”

Jerry Sittser

Nicholas Wolterstorff is a professor emeritus at Yale University. In his book, Lament for a Son, he talks about losing his twenty-five year old son to a mountain climbing accident. He has no explanations – just grief. At one point he expressed a profound insight: 

“Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God. It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. But I have come to see that it more likely means that no one can see his sorrow and survive.”

Nicholas Wolsterstorff

We all accumulate many losses over the course of a lifetime. Many are small losses; some are devastating losses. The death of children, disability, sexual assault, abuse, cancer, infertility, suicide, and betrayal are all examples of crushing loss – losses that need to experience lament. 

All these changes are irreversible; we cannot return to how things once were. We must move through the grief by lamenting each loss. And as we lurch ahead, we cling to the words of Jeremiah that because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed and swallowed whole from grief, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning. Great is God’s faithfulness.

So, how do we lament our losses in a healthy way?

  1. Jeremiah remembered his afflictions and his losses. We need to avoid superficial responses to significant events. We must own and feel the pain of the loss before we can begin to see new life.
  2. Jeremiah paid attention to faith, hope, and love. This can only be done if we are alert to the process of grieving. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was the person who identified the famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and resolution or acceptance. We rarely move neatly through each stage. The important thing is that we get to the place of seeing God’s committed love to us not just in spite of the suffering but because of it.
  3. Jeremiah did not minimize his pain and suffering. We must sit with our pain. Do not dismiss your loss by saying others have it worse, or that it’s nothing. Year after year, many Christians do not confront the losses of life, minimizing their failures and disappointments. The result is a profound inability to face pain. And it has led to shallow spirituality and an acute lack of compassion.
  4. Jeremiah prophesied about how Jesus grieved. His message predicted what Jesus faced in his passion. The prophet Isaiah described Messiah as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus did not say “Come on everyone, stop all this crying” but wept with the people. When entering Jerusalem, Jesus did not say “too bad guys, I’m moving on without you” but lamented over the city desiring to gather them as a hen does her chicks. On the cross, Jesus did not say “Lighten up everyone; God is good; he will be victorious!” But instead said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Hebrews 5:8 tells us that Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered.”

Grieving is an indispensable part of a full-orbed spirituality and emotional health. Life does not always make sense. There is deep mystery to the ways of God. The Lord is doing patient and careful work inside of each one of us. While he is busy within our souls, we will likely feel lost and disconnected, not seeing the full tapestry of what he is creating. Weariness, loneliness, a sense that prayers are not being heard, and a feeling of helplessness are all common experiences of God’s resetting a broken spirit.

John Milton’s classic piece of literature, Paradise Lost, compares the evil of history to a compost pile – a mixture of decaying food, animal manure, dead leaves, and whatever else you put on it. Yet, if you cover the compost with dirt, after a long while it no longer smells. The soil becomes a rich natural fertilizer and is ideal for growing a garden. 

But you have to be willing to wait, in some cases, years. Milton’s point was that the worst events of history and the evil we experience are compost in God’s overall plan. Out of the greatest wrong ever done, the betrayal, crucifixion, and death of Jesus, came the greatest good – God transformed the stench of evil into good without diminishing the awfulness of that evil.

People who have truly lamented their losses are not hard to spot. They are:

  • More patient with others with an increased capacity to wait on God.
  • Kinder and more compassionate.
  • Lack pretense and are liberated from trying to impress others.
  • Comfortable with mystery, not having to be certain about every theological minutiae.
  • Humble, gentle, and meek. 
  • Able to see God not only in the glorious and victorious, but also in the mundane, banal, and lowly.
  • More at home with themselves and with God. 
  • Equipped to love others as Jesus did.

Maybe we are always running, working, and playing because we are constantly trying to keep grief from catching up to us. Slow down. Let it catch you. Let grief do its deep and powerful work within you.

*Above painting of Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo (1475-1564)

**Above painting of Jeremiah by Marc Chagall, 1956

Jeremiah 29:1-14 – Bloom Where You Are Planted

This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. (This was after King Jehoiachin and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the skilled workers and the artisans had gone into exile from Jerusalem.) He entrusted the letter to Elasah son of Shaphan and to Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. It said:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.

This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” (NIV)

Whenever I am in a conversation with a Christian, I often ask them what their favorite Bible verse or passage of Scripture is. Hands down, the most often cited verse is Jeremiah 29:11 –

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (NIV)

It certainly is a wonderful verse. Yet, there is a distinct situation and context surrounding that verse about the future, which is very much rooted in the present. The nation of Judah had been invaded and taken into captivity to Babylon. Understandably, the people were longing to go back home. They did not want to be in Babylon. So, Jeremiah (who remained in Judah) sent them a letter, warning them not to listen to false prophets who would give them an easy answer about getting out of Babylon quickly. Instead, he instructed them to make a good life for themselves in their captive land.  He essentially told them to “bloom where you are planted.”

If you don’t like something, change it.

If you can’t change it, change your attitude about it.

maya angelou

The people, although in a place and in a situation which they neither wanted nor expected, needed to be present to their surroundings and settle down. They were to pray for peace, both for themselves and for their captors, because their own success in life was inextricably tied to their geographical place in Babylonia. The sooner the people listened to Jeremiah on this, the better off they would be.           

Plans to give us a hope and future only have meaning for us today when we:

  • Understand that we are to work hard, right where we are, in a place we do not want to be.
  • Pray for that place, its people, and their welfare.
  • Thrive in our present hard circumstance. 
  • Only then, can we look to the bright future of hope.

Our present sufferings are incomparable to the coming glory yet to be revealed. That future hope only occurs if we persevere and find ways of flourishing in the place and situation where we are today. 

So, how will you thrive in the place God has you right now? We always have the choice to practice resilience and make the absolute best of unwanted circumstances – or sit and stew over our misfortune to the point of becoming bitter and hard. It is important to choose wisely.

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought me in safety to this new day.  Preserve with your mighty power so that I might not just wish for a different today and are not able to see what you have for me in this place.  May I not be overcome by adversity, but in all things direct me to the fulfilling of your purposes, through Jesus Christ, my Lord in the strength of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Jeremiah 20:14-18 – Overwhelmed with Grief

By Unknown artist

Cursed be the day I was born!
    May the day my mother bore me not be blessed!
Cursed be the man who brought my father the news,
    who made him very glad, saying,
    “A child is born to you—a son!”
May that man be like the towns
    the Lord overthrew without pity.
May he hear wailing in the morning,
    a battle cry at noon.
For he did not kill me in the womb,
    with my mother as my grave,
    her womb enlarged forever.
Why did I ever come out of the womb
    to see trouble and sorrow
    and to end my days in shame? (NIV)

Perhaps you feel as though you must put on a good face, a decent front for others to see. You don’t like other people seeing you upset or cry because it can be embarrassing. Maybe you believe others don’t need to be burdened with your sadness. The last thing you want is to be a killjoy.

Sometimes you might even put up a front with God.  Maybe you think God wants everyone to be perpetually happy and always sing with the birds in blissful joy and gladness, or whistle while you work. However, that would not be an accurate view of God.

One of the most faithful people in Holy Scripture, Jeremiah, freely and unabashedly lamented before God – to the point of wishing he were dead. Jeremiah, the incredible prophet of God, closer to the Lord than anyone of his generation, was so despondent and ashamed that he wished he were never even born. The suffering and the shame were just too overwhelming.

To say that Jeremiah had a difficult ministry is a gross understatement. He literally had the ministry from hell, prophesying to people who neither liked him, nor his message to them. In the middle of it all, Jeremiah threw up his hands and let out his complaint to God. Jeremiah was in such ministerial misery that he wished he had been a stillborn baby.

Lest you think Jeremiah was sinfully depressed or just cuckoo, he is far from alone in the Bible. King David had no scruples about letting God know how he felt about his dire circumstances. Job, likely the most famous sufferer of all, spent time doing nothing but lamenting his terrible losses for months. What all three of them have in common is that they openly grieved with great tears, yet neither cursed God nor forsook the Lord.

Lamentation is the sacred space between intense grieving to God without blaming the Lord for our significant changes and losses in life. I would even argue that lamenting and grieving before God is a necessary spiritual practice which needs full recognition in the Body of Christ. Please sit with that last statement for a bit and consider how it might become a reality in your own life and context.

Grief can and does attach itself to any change or loss. It is the normal emotional, spiritual, physical, and relational reaction to that injury of the heart. There is only one way through grief. We must tell our story to another. It is both biblical and quite necessary.

Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.”

galatians 6:2, NLT

We need our spirituality to support us in such times – not drive us away through a misguided theology of believing you must keep a stiff upper lip. It is critical to have safe and supportive people in our lives when going through overwhelming circumstances.

“Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion.”

Brené Brown

Our tears are holy. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. The prophet Jeremiah was doing a very godly thing in expressing his grief. And Jeremiah’s lament is what helped steel him for the several attempts on his life that he faced.

Let the tears do their intended work in your life.

God of all, you feel deeply about a great many things.  As your people, we also feel a great depth of emotion when our lives go horribly awry from our dreams and expectations.  Hear our lament as we pour out our grief before you, through Jesus, our Savior, with the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.