This sermon was part of our sermon series on Jeremiah. As with my previous sermon in this series, it was informed by Walter Brueggemann’s 1998 A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming. I didn’t read the reading until I’d done the first part of the sermon; I rather thought it needed a proper introduction!
Doubt and Lament 26th; Reading: Jeremiah 20:7-18
I don’t know if you’ve seen the film ‘Inside Out’? It’s about an 11 year-old girl, Riley. We see her basic emotions of Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger and watch how they influence her actions. Riley has a happy childhood, so Joy is very much in control. Joy sees her job as making sure that at least most of Riley’s memories are happy. But, the problems start when Riley moves with her family from rural Minnesota to the big city of San Francisco. Within Riley’s mind Sadness becomes more important, which Joy tries very hard to stop, with some significant consequences.
Well, this morning we’re thinking about the things that Sadness rather than Joy would approve of. We are thinking about doubt and lament as part of our sermon series on Jeremiah. And some of us will think that is entirely appropriate given the referendum result. While others of us will think that that is totally inappropriate. Which raises one very important point straight away; that most of the time only some of us will be doubting or lamenting, while others of us will not be. We’ll come back to that.
Another point that probably needs clearing up straight away is what we’re talking about when we say ‘doubt’ or ‘lament’.
Doubt is about being uncertain. It’s quite different from disbelief. It’s not the opposite of faith, which is what I think we often hear. Doubt is about asking questions. Doubt is about the gap between our faith and our experience, or between different bits of our faith.
Lament is about how we express our emotions of sadness, doubt, anger, pain, despair or whatever. In the Bible this is often through a psalm, through song or poetry. That’s not compulsory though! So, lament is how people write and speak about those times when things feel rubbish.
So, now we’ve thought about that, we’re going to hear our reading from Jeremiah shortly. As we’ve heard over the last few weeks, God has given Jeremiah a hard and important message to give to the people of Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah. He was called by God to call God’s people to back to following him, to call them to repent and return to the worship and love of God. And if they didn’t, then exile, destruction and death were going to be the consequences. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t go down terribly well!
Also, unsurprisingly, Jeremiah struggled with delivering this message. He was lonely, as virtually no-one wanted to believe him. All this led to physical, mental, and spiritual suffering as he wrestled with the message that God had laid on his heart.
And this is Jeremiah’s response to God. But, one last thing before we read it: on the internet, if someone wants to write something potentially upsetting, they will often give a Trigger Warning to warn people. Well, I rather think that this reading from Jeremiah should have a Trigger Warning. So, here we go:
This is someone who isn’t holding back! This is someone who is lamenting at length and is expressing his doubts, his pain, anger and despair.
Jeremiah doesn’t doubt that God is real, God exists, God is powerful and worthy to be worshipped. He’s spent his time publically declaring what God has told him to say. He has spoken out against his city, his country, his people’s beliefs and actions. He has been faithful. And now he’s telling God exactly what he actually thinks.
Jeremiah does seriously doubt that God has done the right thing, that God has been straight with him. “You deceived me Lord”! That’s strong stuff! But, it’s how he feels. And who can blame him? So, do we sanitise our doubts, our struggles, our feelings? Do we feel that we have to dress up our emotions in their Sunday best before we bring them to God? Or can we be honest with ourselves and with God? “You deceived me Lord”! How does hearing that make us feel? Uncomfortable? And is that a bad thing?
Doubt – the gap between our faith and our experience. Or between different parts of our faith. Which means that there’s different kinds of doubt as well. There’s the doubt when our faith is wrong and our doubt leads us to a better faith. There’s the doubt when our experience is partial and our faith can’t rely on it. Or, it can feel, can’t it, that God isn’t there, that God doesn’t care, that it doesn’t matter anyway.
And it’s not always clear which is which. The arguments over both ordaining women and homosexuality basically boil down to there’s a gap between different parts of our faith or our faith and our experience; which is right?
And this isn’t just unique to Jeremiah. A couple of examples from the gospels. Jesus finds the disciples trying and failing to heal a boy. The father asks Jesus if he can do anything? “Everything is possible for one who believes” says Jesus.
“Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’” (Mark 9:24 NIV)
I believe. Help my unbelief. The struggle between the two. And Jesus heals the boy. ‘I believe; Help my unbelief’ is believing enough, sometimes what is needed to move us on.
Or, right at the end of Matthew’s gospel. The disciples have seen Jesus risen from the dead. They have experienced his new life, listened to his teaching and are now following his instructions. The 11 disciples closest to him have travelled to Galilee to meet with the risen Jesus again. And we’re told this:
“When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:17 NIV)
They are worshipping the risen Lord, the Jesus they have seen dead and buried and is now alive, showing God’s love and power. But still, some doubt. We’re not quite sure what they’re doubting. But they’re doubting in the midst of their worship.
So bring your doubts to worship. In worship have your doubts and see what is transformed. And sometimes our worships needs to make us appropriately uncomfortable: by raising questions, by giving us different ways of looking at things, by sometimes doing things in ways that are different to what we’re used to.
And one way in which the Bible enables us to bring our doubts and despair into our worship is through lament – grief, mourning or sorrow – often as a poem or song. Although that isn’t compulsory for us!
One of my favourite worship songs, is one we that we’ve sung this morning, Blessed be your name. One of the reasons that I like it is that it’s a lot more honest than quite a lot of songs. Like Jeremiah, It’s not afraid to admit that sometimes stuff is hard and things are a struggle. And, also like Jeremiah, it’s not afraid to praise God in the midst of the rubbish, even if it has to be through gritted teeth.
Lament is a lot more common in the Bible than it is in our worship songs. That’s ‘our worship songs’ as in the ones written by Western Christians. It isn’t a criticism of the music group, because there aren’t actually that many songs of lament available to sing in the first place. Lament isn’t something that we’re terribly comfortable with and so we ignore it. But the Bible is a lot more honest than we sometimes allow ourselves to be.
Lament is partly about being honest about our feelings: our hurt, fear, failure, guilt, pain, doubt. And laments, like the one we heard from Jeremiah talk to God and complain to him. In the context of relationship with God. Jeremiah doesn’t doubt that God exists, but pretty much everything else is up for grabs! Lament asks hard questions of God: ‘Why?’, ‘How long?’, ‘Are you listening?’, ‘Are you awake?’.
And Jeremiah talks about his suffering. In some detail and at some length. He doesn’t minimise it.
It’s also common in lament, like we heard Jeremiah do, to praise God as well. But, Jeremiah isn’t afraid to praise God and then go on to talk about his pain and struggles. Jeremiah isn’t afraid that his praise of God isn’t the last word. And that can be the case for us too, sometimes. Jeremiah is honest enough to show doubt even after his praise.
In the film Inside Out, Joy and Sadness end up having to journey through Riley’s mind together. And on the way they both discover why Sadness is so important. I’m going to slightly ruin the end of the film, by telling you, if you haven’t already guessed, that Joy discovers that it is essential that Riley sometimes experiences Sadness, that Sadness sometimes needs to be in control and, as this is a Disney film, that sometimes it is only through Sadness that Riley can make new happy memories. But it’s well worth a watch; it’s far too good to be left just to the children!
Paul says in his letter to the Christian in Rome (Romans 12:15 NIV):
Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.
And that means giving times in our worship for lament and doubt, as well as hope and joy. Because we have a God who loves us as we are. We have a God who loves us to much to leave us as we are, to leave his world as it is. And so sometimes things are hard. But, God loves us and welcomes us to come to him as we are, in the midst of our doubts and sorrows and hatreds and fears and despair. He welcomes that we come to him. He welcomes us with open arms no matter where we are, or who we are.
Thank you loving Lord,
that we can come to you with our doubts,
that we can come to you with our lament.
Be with us in the midst of our struggles, as well as our joy,
our fears and doubts, as well as our hopes and dreams.
Thank you Lord that you love us
and are with us. Amen.