“Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears!” Jeremiah 9: 1
It is twelve years now since I completed my Master of Arts degree with Trinity College, the Anglican theological seminary attached to the University of Bristol.
I don’t remember sermons very often, I would be hard pressed to tell you what I had said myself the previous Sunday, but I still remember sermons I heard in Bristol. I still remember the sermon I heard during the first week I was there fifteen years ago.
On Wednesday evenings the college gathered for Holy Communion and the preacher on that first week I was there was the vice-principal. Drawing on the Bible story of Jesus reaching down to grab hand of Peter, who was sinking in the water, he preached a moving sermon about the death of his father and about his own emotions. He admitted feeling a sense of anger at the graveside. He could not remember his father, who had reached the grand age of 92, ever giving him a hug in his entire life. It was a sermon about depth of feeling, about deeply felt emotions, about grabbing firmly the hand of God. We all agreed with him. But, of course, I suspect few of us changed the way we were.
We don’t express emotions, it’s not in our culture. We might get worked up about a rugby match or a soccer match, but when it comes to our relationships with people, we maintain a calm reserve. Conducting funerals in parish ministry, like everyone else, I would have shaken hands and said, “Sorry for your trouble.” We don’t go in for expressing ourselves in the way that people do in some other countries, it’s just not us.
But when we turn to Scripture, we are confronted with Jeremiah. Jeremiah would have made the most plain-talking of people look reserved. Jeremiah takes on reality head on, the are no mealy-mouthed words, no avoiding the harsh realities of the situation. But look at how Jeremiah rebukes himself for not being more emotional. “Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears!” The prophet complains at his lack of emotion in the face of all that has happened. He realises that things important to God should draw deeply held feelings. Jeremiah does not regard being quietly reserved as appropriate when it comes to the things of God.
God is a God who expresses emotions. Read through the Bible and the one thing that God doesn’t do is sit there and say nothing, God never speaks in bland platitudes. Read Jeremiah, read the prophet Hosea, read the Gospels. When his friend Lazarus dies, we are told in St John’s Gospel that Jesus weeps. When Jesus looks down on the city of Jerusalem, St Luke tells us that Jesus expresses his grief at the stubbornness and hard-heartedness of the people, “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem.” Read the verses and you can hear the pain in his voice.
Expressing emotion is often seen as a sign of weakness, yet emotion is an expression of how important things are. We tend to be silent in our faith. We seem afraid to express our emotions. Perhaps it’s because we are reserved, or perhaps it’s because we don’t believe things very strongly. Jeremiah realises that there are situations that demand a deep response, that if we are serious about something, then tears may be the only response we can make.
God was looking for a change of heart among his people in those days of Jeremiah, God looks for a change of heart today. He looks for people who take him seriously; people who try to live their lives in a different way; people who realise that there are responsibilities in life as well as rights.
I remember listening to that sermon in Bristol and agreeing with what was said, and when I got to the chapel door I just very reservedly shook hands and said “thank you.” When it came to applying what he said in my own life, I did nothing.
I think we all do that, hearing something is OK, doing something about it is a different matter.
“Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears!” prays Jeremiah.