Praying Through Darkness
October 27, 2019
Rev. Fritz Nelson
Text: Jeremiah 14-15
As we turn to today’s scripture from Jeremiah I want to start with the question in the bulletin: Where today does your heart cry out to the Lord? I invite you to take a minute, think on that question, and write a short response – a few words at most – on the index card in your bulletin. If you don’t feel like writing, that’s okay.
Set the index card aside. We’ll come back to it in a little bit.
Now a second question: How do we pray when our heart is crying out so loud, when our pain is so deep, when the situation feels hopeless, never ending, far beyond our control, maybe beyond God’s control?
This morning we’re going to let Jeremiah teach us how to pray during those times when the hurt and pain seers us to the point of blindness, when we can barely breathe, barely walk, barely see tomorrow – if we can see it at all. Jeremiah lived during a time when his country, Judah, was literally falling apart around him. In response Jeremiah fills his writings with prayers and cries of anguish for the country he loves. One of those prayers starts in Jeremiah 14. We’re going to take it line by line and let it show us one way to pray in hard times. You may want to pull out a bible and follow along.
Jeremiah starts his prayer with a dose of truth. On top of all of Judah’s political and economic and social troubles, there is a drought. The city gates languish, Jeremiah prays, as the cry of God’s city goes up.
God knows all, sees all, peers deep into our hearts, so we might as well begin with the truth, no matter how deep, how dark, how troubled. I spent much of Friday at a workshop on addiction and mental health organized by my friend Marci Patton who directs the Columbiana County Board of Mental Health and Recovery. In between sessions summarizing clinical information and resources we heard testimony from those who struggle with addiction and mental illness, as well as those who love and support them. We heard testimony of the darkness. Of the hurt, of the pain, of the fear, of the loneliness, of the abandonment, of the anger and how by naming it, by owning it, by praying it, they were able to begin an often long road to healing.
Prayer always starts with where we are. Not where we want to be. Not where we think others want us to be, Not where we think God wants us to be. But where we are. Today. Now.
So take out your index card again and write a few words about where you are today. Where do you hurt? Where do you celebrate? Where do you laugh? Where do you cry?
And now turning back to Jeremiah:
Jeremiah believed Judah was where it was because of its sin. Yes, Judah lived within a trans-national cauldron of political and social upheaval. Babylon would be its conqueror, but Jeremiah believed the faithlessness and corruption of its political leaders opened the gates to Babylon’s destruction. Likewise we’re not always as innocent a victim as we’d like to believe. Not that everything is directly our fault, life is, after all, very complicated, but the sins of yesterday impact the present of today. Through confession we own the role we take in our own struggles. In doing so we move away from the dead end of helpless victimization, name where we’re responsible, and seek forgiveness, healing and renewal.
Take your card again and write a few words naming any personal, or societal, sins at the heart of your trouble.
Jeremiah’s prayer continues:
Having confessed, Jeremiah turns back to God – but God is nowhere to be found! “You’re like a stranger in your own land,” Jeremiah accuses. “A warrior who has no strategy.” And then a confession of faith: “But you, O Lord, are in the midst of us!”
Taking your index cards out again, write a few words that, at this moment, you want to say to God.
At this point in Jeremiah’s prayer, he senses the Lord responding. And its not what he wants to hear.
Wow! Divine slap down. This isn’t as easy as Jeremiah hoped. Judah has some serious work to do if its to return to God’s favor.
On Friday, listening to the testimonies of those impacted by addiction and mental illness, I was surprised at the length of struggle. The anguish, the lament, the struggle, the darkness had lasted years, decades in some cases, and, even though those testifying had reached some sort of positive, new, functional normal, they still struggled daily. And, by the way, it wasn’t as if those testifying were heathens who’d suddenly “seen the light.” One was a pastor. Another a Sunday School teacher. The third a leader of recovery ministries. All people of deep faith who’d experienced the deepest of darkness.
Instead of walking away, Jeremiah continues pouring out his heart to God. Jeremiah and God go back and forth. Jeremiah praying for God to show himself. God responding as to why he won’t. Jeremiah reminding God of his divine promises. God reminding Jeremiah of his people’s sins. Until finally, at the end of chapter 15, God says this:
19 Therefore this is what the Lord says:
“If you repent, I will restore you
that you may serve me;
if you utter worthy, not worthless, words,
you will be my spokesman.
Let this people turn to you,
but you must not turn to them.
I will make you a wall to this people,
a fortified wall of bronze;
they will fight against you
but will not overcome you,
for I am with you
to rescue and save you,”
declares the Lord.
“I will save you from the hands of the wicked
and deliver you from the grasp of the cruel.”
Jeremiah’s prayer is over. He’s prayed himself through another day of what will be a long, long struggle. Tomorrow he will pray again. The book of Jeremiah alone stretches across 52 chapters of mostly prayer. Jeremiah wrote another five chapters of Lamentations, one long anguished cry of prayer and lament. As his world collapses the prayers enable him to endure, remain connected to God and receive a measure of peace and healing.
As you’ve been writing on your index cards you’ve been praying – and we’re going to continue that prayer now. First by singing Precious Lord, Take my Hand. Then by giving you some space to review what you’ve written and listen for how the Lord might be responding. Write that response, if you desire, on your card. Finally we’ll wrap up our prayer by singing Precious Lord once again.