Calverton Baptist Church, Silver Spring, MD, January 31, 1982; Takoma Park Baptist Church, Washington, DC September 22, 1985
There was a time when I did not really know what it meant to be tired. I still cherish the image of myself as tireless, limitless in energy, able to leap tall buildings with a single bound, the whole bit. I’ll bet you thought the big red “S” on my shirt stood for Smith, didn’t you?
And I guess lots of us harbor fantasies like that. Others may fall, others may falter, but I will prevail. I will manage. The lady in the TV commercial used to say, “Mother, please, I’d rather do it myself,” and we all suspected that was not only her headache talking; that was also her ego talking, that was her invincible self saying, “Don’t tell me I’m weak, don’t tell me I need help. I can do it, I’m Superwoman.
There was a time, I say, when I did not really know what it was to be tired. All sass and vinegar, I thought I could tackle just about anything and handle it. But then something happened.
I don't know quite what it was, but it seemed to have something or another to do with the inexorable march forward of the calendar. I used not to know what it was to be weary, but now there is the forward movement of the calendar and there is too much work to do and there are fast-approaching deadlines to meet and there are scores of meetings to attend at lots and lots of universities, and I am beginning to understand what it is to be tired, so tired I’d call it bone weary. Are you with me?
But of course being bone weary is not special to me, nor is it just a matter of physical endurance. There is a weariness of the spirit, too, there is a groaning tiredness in the spirit which affects not just me, not just church members, but in fact affects the whole culture. In some sense ours is a bone weary world; it has had to grow up too fast, it has had to accomplish too much in too little time. Our world itself is bone weary.
Consider for example how we think of work. Despite the problems of unemployment, despite the acid remarks cast on the poor by the privileged, we are a people who want to work, a people who do work and who work hard. And yet there is ample evidence that we do not find our work satisfying, but rather that we are bone weary about our work. We speak of the fellow who labors in the factory, turning the same nut on the same place on each automobile that comes past him, turning that same nut so long until he becomes a nut himself.
We office worker types face mounting in-baskets, and struggle to move all that paper over into the out-basket, but find ourselves bone weary when we cannot really grasp what difference another ream or two of paper work has made. Bone weary, exhausted, uncertain.
Or there is the world of education. Believe me, I am familiar with bone weary students, not only the ones who have pulled all-nighters to get through their exams, but more important, those who are in school because there is no other place to be, and they are bored, utterly bored, with the whole business. Bone weary.
In fact, we have even invented a new name for the malady. We call it burnout. Have you heard that term? Burnout; we speak of executives burning out, like the electric motor on my furnace just as heating season began -- too tired to turn, to pooped to percolate, burnt out. And isn't it interesting, by the way, that we can refer to ourselves now in mechanical terms? We speak of being burned out, we speak of having our wires crossed, we complain that our circuits are overloaded; in some ways we think of ourselves as complex machines, wearing out and in need of repair or replacement. Bone weary.
But, you know, we do need to see that bone-weariness, weariness of the spirit, was not invented in the 20th Century. It is not simply a contemporary malaise. This powerful sickness at the heart is, I suppose, as old as human nature, and certainly as old as our familiar friend Jeremiah. You see, Jeremiah is that prophet who more than any other pulls back the veil of privacy and lets us see into his own soul. He permits us to watch something of his own struggle with his God and with his own heart. Listen: There is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” Even God's man becomes bone weary. Why? And what do we learn from him? More important, is there a cure for it? To use Jeremiah's own language, “Is there a balm in Gilead, is there healing there?” Let's take a closer look at the weeping and weary prophet, whose mixed and tortured feelings are so profound and yet so much like ours.
First of all, I notice that boneweariness can be brought on by abandonment. We get tired, desperately tired, when our fair-weather friends desert us and we suppose that we are doing all the fighting alone.
There could scarcely have been many in Jerusalem who found Jeremiah's messages attractive; but perhaps some did listen, perhaps some did take him seriously for a while. But the more he cried out that destruction was coming, the more it seemed to delay; the louder his protests that the nation was to mend its ways, the more remote seemed the possibility of anything real to worry about. And, so the already unpopular message became less and less credible. And, more than that, the already unpopular prophet, the already unpopular bringer of the message, became less and less credible. And this he knew; Jeremiah was not immune from the whispering campaign.
“For I hear many whispering. Terror is on every side. ‘Denounce him. Let us denounce him,’ say all my familiar friends, watching for my fall.” How bitter to hear even those you have trusted turning against you! How exhausting to the spirit to find out that you stand alone, that those you thought you could count on for support are in fact gone, faded away, as fleeting as the clouds on a spring morning. “Denounce him, let us denounce him,” say all my familiar friends, watching for my fall. Is that a feeling you've had; is there something there with which you identify?
Perhaps you've worked on some civic campaign, you've worked on some moral issue with all those political overtones; you stuffed envelopes, you wrote letters, you made phone calls, you even made a speech or two – but then you found that no one was with you in the tough times. You know the old saw that when the going gets tough the tough get going? They got going all right, they got up and went, and you were all alone on that issue. Then you will understand the boneweariness of a Jeremiah.
Or you've enlisted a goodly corps of workers to help you with that church project – plenty of folks to mix punch or teach Bible school or paint the fellowship hall. And they all said, “Yes, yes” with their mouths, but in their hearts they were saying, “No, no.” And you arrived at the appointed hour to find yourself all alone with the punch bowls or the restless kids or the paint buckets. How quickly you became bone-weary, how rapidly you were discouraged – because boneweariness is brought on by a sense of betrayal.
Now if something like that has ever happened to you, I wonder if you were as candid as Jeremiah; I wonder if you were as able as he mot was to give full vent to your feelings. Listen to this amazing prophet: “O Lord, thou has deceived me, and I was deceived; thou art stronger than I, and thou hast prevailed.” Lord, thou hast deceived; thou hast left me alone. It's not only my fair weather friends, Lord, but thou hast deceived. Boneweariness: betrayed by friends, betrayed by the Lord Himself. Ever felt that?
You know, I cannot help but think of another who was betrayed. I cannot avoid turning to one whose friend and companion gave him over into the hands of his accusers. I remember one whose best and brightest pretended never to have heard of him. I recall one whose agony his closest friends would not share, they preferred to sleep and take their ease. I know of one who at the moment of his greatest crisis was attended by his familiar friends only at a distance, a great and safe distance. I remind you of one whose heart cried out, at the depth of his trial, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Even the Lord Christ has the boneweariness brought on by the betrayal of those who surround him; even He feels abandoned by God Himself.
If that’s not enough, there’s more. I’d like you to see also that this boneweariness, this exhaustion of the spirit, may be brought on by being out of phase, by our being out of tune with the times. When we live out of phase with what is popular, when we try to live out a life of authenticity instead of a life of conformity, we sometimes end up awfully tired. We get boneweary just because we are trying to swim upstream, just because we feel that inner compulsion to be different, to be individual, to be authentic to what God has called us to be.
Listen again to our friend Jeremiah and to his lament; listen again to the way he describes his predicament: “I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, ‘Violence and destruction.’"
We get boneweary, spiritually worn out, when we are in the constant struggle to be what God wants us to be, but the world is wildly out of phase with that, when they laugh at us. The novelist writes in his book, “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” a picture of the way in which that person who would truly live out his destiny as God calls him to it does so at the expense of easy popularity. The loneliness of the long distance runner; the weariness, the tiredness of that one who finds himself at odds with his culture, who hears himself branded a fool, marked as an oddball, thought of as a stubborn, intransigent fanatic. It's tiring, isn't it, to be out of synch with the world?
Did you hear the story of the Texas rancher who bought up ten ranches and combined them all into one huge spread? Someone asked him the name of his new ranch. “Wal,” replied the Texan, “since the names were all registered, I didn't take out a new one, I just combined the names too. So my ranch is the Circle Q, Rambling Brook, Double Bar, Broken Circle, Crooked Creek, Golden Horseshoe, Lazy B, Bent Arrow, Sleepy T, Triple O Ranch. "Wow," somebody said, you must have a lot of cattle now.” “Nope,” said the Texan. “You don't; why not?” “Wal, not many live through the branding.”
Not many of us live through the branding; we don't feel good after they've pitched the hot, angry words at us. It doesn't feel at all comfortable to be called old-fashioned; it hurts to be thought of as out-of-date or ignorant or superstitious or any one of the thousand and one brands the world puts on us. But again, you know, I seem to think of one who was mocked and scorned and called vicious terms; of one who sat and endured the venom of soldiers and of priests and of even the common folk whom he loved. I know of one whose physical agony was matched by the spiritual agony of hearing them hurl into his face the language of derision: “Hail, King of the Jews; if thou be Christ.” Again even the Lord Christ knows the weariness of being out of phase with the crowd. There is a price to pay for being yourself, and it is the price of weariness.
Now, would you see too, another boneweariness is brought on: by suppressing the desire to witness to the things that matter. We get awfully, thoroughly drained when we attempt to suppress the integrity of our witness, when we simply try to contain the compulsion within us. There are times, you see, when every fiber of our beings wants to share the message which God has given us, and yet we suppress it, we shut it down, we hold if fast – and it exhausts us spiritually.
The most poignant of all of Jeremiah's confessions: “If I say I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name, there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.
Praise God for this kind of weariness! Praise God that in our heart of hearts he has so formed and shaped us that who we are and what we are will finally come forth and be counted! Camus in his novel, “The Stranger” has that pointed story of the two men walking through the streets of Amsterdam until they come to a bridge over one of the canals which lace that city. The one says to the other, "I'll leave you here, I never cross a bridge at night. For if you do, you may hear someone down there in the water, drowning, crying out for help. And then one of two things will happen; either you will jump in and try to save him, and thus endanger yourself; or else you will leave him there and go on your way – but suppressed dives leave one strangely aching."
Yes, that's what the prophet discovered and that's what we know too, at our best: that suppressed dives leave one strangely aching. Our God has given us a message to speak, he has commissioned us with something to do, something to be in this world, and all too often our boneweariness is all tied up with our suppressing the instinct that says, “I need to be involved here, I need to witness to the things that matter.”
You remember that the Apostle Paul cautioned us against growing weary in well doing. And most of us have found out that doing church can be trying, wearing, tough and thankless. But I've said before, and I say again, there is another side, there is another dimension.
There is another dimension, another side, because beyond Jeremiah's lament, there is Jeremiah's psalm: “Sing to the Lord, praise to the Lord; for he has delivered the life of the needy from the hand of evildoers.” At the end of Jeremiah's pain he discovered the Lord who was deliverer, who provided the resources for a singing heart.
But I want to say to you that for us beyond Jeremiah himself, there is more. Beyond Jeremiah and what he knew there is Jesus. There is that one who suffered the worst this world had to offer, that one whose boneweariness grew to enormous proportions as he staggered under the load of a Cross, and more, under the load of a sinful humanity. There is Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, the pioneer and the perfecter, who for the joy that was set before him endured it all, despised the shame, and was seated at the right hand of God.
Yes, Jeremiah, we are like you. We get tired. We get frustrated. We feel betrayed by our friends and thus we get tired. We know, as you did, what it is to be unpopular and out of tune with the whole world, and so we are sometimes spiritually exhausted. And we understand that we have tried to shut in and keep mum about everything that really matters, and it gets bonewearying when you have to contain the very fire of God's truth.
But Jeremiah, you only dimly foresaw what we now know so fully: that God Himself shares that suffering, that he endures that loneliness. We know in ways you never could have known that very God Himself enters into our space and time and gives of himself in that word made flesh, so that never again will our spirits know absolute loneliness. Never again will our souls have to feel that we count for nothing; we know as you, old prophet, could never fully perceive that our weariness and our weakness is made strength by the power of Christ our Lord. His cross is but the prelude to a resurrected life; his weakness is preliminary to his being raised above all powers and authorities, and we are raised with him to be like him. And if for a time we are among those who feel boneweary, then it is only for a time, for in our Lord's economy nothing good is finally lost. And we sing with you, Jeremiah: “Sing to the Lord, praise the Lord, for he has delivered the life of the needy from the hand of evildoers.”