Searching for a Vengeful God
Scripture: Jeremiah 15:15-21
(Following is the transcript of a homily delivered by Amy Norton on September 3. No audio is available.)
Jeremiah was a bullfrog. He was a good friend of mine. I never understood a single word he said…but I helped him drink his wine.
The Jeremiah in today’s scripture was most definitely NOT a bullfrog. He was a prophet…and not a very popular one. People thought he was whiny, they didn’t like what he was saying, and they got mad at him when the things he prophesied came to pass. A classic case of shooting the messenger. Jeremiah’s prophetic message is one we’re familiar with, and it’s not one that folks with authority, who benefit from the status quo like to hear very much.
Jeremiah called for justice for the oppressed, devotion to God over money or power, and reminded those in his own community that silence in the face of injustice often amounts to complicity with it. Jeremiah’s own relatives even conspired against him, he was rejected by his fellow religious leaders who banned him from the temple (and that was a big deal. YUGE.)
The government declares him a traitor and enemy of the state, and Jeremiah is forced to go into hiding, eventually he is found, arrested, and beaten. And all this just for answering God’s call! Oy! The passage we heard today is a lamentation and a cry for justice. Jeremiah pleads with God, “remember me and visit me and bring down retribution for me on my persecutors!”
We can identify with that, I think. Who here has ever watched a crime show? SVU? Criminal Minds? Bones? Father Brown? There’s a reason that crime shows are so many and so long-lived. We want to see them catch the bad guy and we want to see the bad guy go to jail! I admit sometimes in a particularly gripping SVU episode I’ll pause it to read the plot summary to make sure its one of the episodes where the perpetrator actually gets convicted, and if it isn’t, I’ll often stop watching.
Because this is my escapism and I want to see justice served! Real life is filled enough with people who get away with violence, cruelty, and oppression. Real life is filled enough with people who get away with violence, cruelty, and oppression. Neo-Nazis are marching openly in the street and then going off to their jobs as real estate agents, teachers, police officers, and bankers, serving as jurors, even.
Unarmed black men, women, and children have been shot by those who were sworn to protect them and we’ve yet to see an indictment. Our children are learning that sexual assault wont get you jail time, but it may get you the presidency. What happened to justice? What happened to consequences? What happened to Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God, to “Vengeance is Mine, Sayeth the Lord”…where’s my divine intervention? Where is my punitive justice?!
Jeremiah offers the same lament; God, aren’t you supposed to do something? Like, like that big flood that cleansed the earth and gave humanity a ‘redo’? Well maybe not something quite as big as that but couldn’t you at least do something to my oppressors? You helped out Moses with the plagues- couldn’t you at least ruin their tomato crop this year? Won’t there be some kind of justice? They can’t get away with this, can they? I want a perp walk!
And what does God do? Nothing. No plague, no flood, no indictment, no jail time, not one dead tomato plant. Instead of visiting vengeance upon the oppressors, God basically tells Jeremiah to buck up and keep at it. “If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth. It is they who will turn to you, not you who will turn to them.” That’s quite the pivot, don’t you think?
It’s like God doesn’t even acknowledge Jeremiah’s request for divine retribution…what a brush-off. But, there’s comfort to be found in this holy pivot, this sacred subject change. Instead of visiting vengeance upon the oppressors, God reminds Jeremiah, and reminds us that “if you turn back, I will take you back”.
God is not in the business of burning bridges, we are reminded of that promise every time we see a rainbow. God is not a human being whose very mortality creates a desire for the enactment of earthly, punitive justice. We humans want plagues and indictments and the fleas of a thousand camels! And when those consequences don’t happen naturally, we often turn to God to intervene as a fail-safe. But God is not human. As Christ, God knows the pain of oppression and the wounds of injustice, yet God also knows the resurrecting and enduring power of love and mercy.
God reminds us through his reply to Jeremiah that it is never too late to be forgiven. “If you turn back, I will take you back”. And in the words of Stephen L Cook, contributing author to Feasting on the Word, “God’s refusal to ever break clean from us confronts us with an alien mercy. It pulls us in, leading us mesmerized into god’s embrace.” And we need this mercy, since for all our lamentation over the injustices of the world, we all have been complicit at one time or another, even right now. We’ve all benefited off the backs of others in some way, even indirectly; and we could all use a little mercy.
What a wonderful gift this patient, persistent, insistent mercy is. And yet as witnesses to oppression, or victims of injustice like Jeremiah, when it’s becoming clear that the ‘bad guys’ aren’t going to get their comeuppance, we can still feel like we’ve been left alone to struggle with the pain of it all. And what do we do then? We’re only human, and in moments of profound injustice it’s honestly really hard to take a step back and look at the big picture and think “ya know, I guess I’m not so innocent myself, it’s a good thing that God doesn’t have the same impulses I do about wanting anyone who wrongs me or others to be completely shut out and cut off.” Pain gives us tunnel-vision, it’s normal and natural and even Jesus acknowledged his pain, eli eli lama sabachthani, my god, my god, why have you forsaken me?
But we are not forsaken. We know the risen Christ. We know that love outlasts death, that the moral arc of the universe is long but that it bends towards justice. God doesn’t leave us high and dry, to sit out our suffering alone. God’s reply to Jeremiah teaches us that while our obstacles may not be removed, while earthly injustice may persist, with God there is a way through the pain and struggle. God promises Jeremiah, “And I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you.”
In this passage of Jeremiah, we see how self-centeredness (and I don’t mean self-centeredness as in a negative way, but in an inward-facing, self-oriented way) is replaced by a “god-centeredness that enables not only survival, but a sense of God’s presence in the struggle that brings the best from us all, even the promise of overcoming struggle and tribulation.”
We see this theme reappear in Corinthians 10:13, where Paul reassures us that “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing God will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
We also see it in the 23rd Psalm- “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
What’s common in all three passages is that the obstacle, the pain, the fear, the temptation may persist, but God is with us for the struggle. There is no promise of a life free of pain, temptation, or fear. The 23rd Psalm doesn’t describe God leading the psalmist on a detour around the valley of the shadow of death, but God accompanying us through it.
When we go out searching for a vengeful God, we’re searching for a God made in our image, a God that will carry out our short-sighted, human impulses. When we go out searching for a vengeful God, we’re confronted with a God of Mercy, of infuriatingly and delightfully perfect patience. When we go out searching for a vengeful God, we are looking for a way to ease to our anger and our pain…When we go out searching for God, our pain laid bare, we find the shepherd who accompanies us through our darkest valleys, we find the promise of God’s presence in our lives, we find a well of strength and comfort that will never run dry. When we go out searching for God, we find God, big enough to hold all our anger and our pain and our self-righteousness. We find God, refusing to forsake us. We find God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.