Jeremiah 8:21 - For the wound of the daughter of my people is my heart wounded; I mourn, and dismay has taken hold on me.
Jeremiah had the most difficult job of all the prophets. He was labelled a traitor, a liar. He was persecuted, tortured, lied to, lied about, opposed in almost all he did and said. It resulted in depression (20:7-18), and there is even evidence that he might have been suicidal (15:10). The people of the southern kingdom of Judah are intransigent in their sin and anyone who opposes them or suggests, as Jeremiah did, that God is against them, will be dealt with very severely. And Jeremiah was dealt with very severely, very cruelly.
How is a leader, put into his position of leadership by the call and providence of God, to respond when all his efforts are spurned, no one listens to him, no one even believes that he is sent from God and there is virtually no fruit that he can see from his work? Well, many today would conclude that that he should probably get out of the work he is in because they just know that God calls people to get results.
I was in a gathering of pastors in the early 1980s in which a church planter was giving his report. As he was speaking he suddenly burst into tears and cried out to the rest of us “I am such a failure. I have failed”. His heart was broken and it broke mine to think that his assessment was fuelled by those who were leading him because they wanted results. Jeremiah knew this kind of pain and sense of having missed the call of God upon him. But self loathing was not the only response Jeremiah had to his lack of fruit. He had a broken heart for them because of their stubbornness, their sin and the coming judgement of God that they denied was going to happen.
Here is the mark of a real leader of people. He loves those to whom he is sent to minister. Jeremiah’s love for his fellow citizens of Jerusalem did not garner him great success. It did not garner success at all. Sometimes we get the romantic notion that love will change people’s minds and attitudes and behaviour and they will come around if we only keep loving them. We treat life like a one hour television episode where all the problems seem to get magically fixed in a very short space of time. We speak of the power of love and its triumphs. Yet for all his heart for his people, no one listened to Jeremiah. They responded to his genuine concern for their welfare with hatred and opposition and persecution. And Jeremiah’s heart got broken. Tradition tells us that Jeremiah died a martyr’s death. He never saw people come to their senses. The only supporters he had that we are aware of are his scribe, Baruch (32:12-14) and Ebed-melech, a servant of the king (38:7-13). We are never told that anyone ever came to him to apologize for the horrible way they treated him. At least we are not led to see that anyone did. Jeremiah’s heart was broken because of the sin, the judgement and the hardness of heart, of the people he was sent to minister to. And it won him nothing in terms of fruit in this life. He loved his people.
We speak of the power of love and its ability to change people. And it is true. But there are some hearts so wicked that love bounces off. They are so settled in their evil that nothing can penetrate. Such were the people that Jeremiah ministered to, having been told by God that they would not listen (1:19). But their stubbornness did not prevent Jeremiah from loving them. This is real leadership.
It is hard to work in an atmosphere of unappreciation. To faithfully carry out one’s duties day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year and never get a pat on the back, never see an increase in pay, never get thanked or referred to at promotion time. Not many of us would stand for it. Not many of us would be able to carry on in it. And not many of us would keep silent about the bad treatment and the lack of respect. But Jeremiah not only carried on in a horrible environment, he loved the people who were party to his hardships. This is not human. It is super human. It comes, not from within, but without. It is what God grants those whom He calls to labour in unresponsiveness and impenitence and persecution. It is what God will give us as we continue to live in a culture that has less and less respect for the truths of Scripture and those who hold to them. We hear a lot from various corners of the evangelical world about the evils of our culture. Such assessments may be necessary. But coupled with such critiques should be the kinds of words that reflect a love for the people of our culture to whom we are sent. We are sent to live with them, live out the Gospel before them, preach the Gospel to them and show and tell them of the only God who is worthy of all our loyalty. We will not do it without a heart that aches for their welfare, weeps for their lack of response and loves them with concrete action.
What a calling is ours. Thank you Lord for Jeremiah’s example. Give us, not only his tenacity and perseverance, but the warmth and concern he had for his hearers even as ours, like his, seem to be unwilling to hear.