The thrust of the passage - one of those great 'complaints' or 'confessions' that are scattered through the early chapters of the book - is simple: until we are the message, our words will fall on deaf ears.
We often see Jeremiah as a great resource for living in exile - he is the prophet, after all, who told us to get over the fact of exile and get on with living our faith in it (chapter 29). We often apply this to where we are as a Christian community in the twenty-first century, a church living in exile in the ruins of Christendom. Some lament our position; others see the potential in the discomfort of it. Quite a few have yet to wake up to its reality.
But what I really hadn't realised until I read chapter 15 and thought about the task Jeremiah had been given is that the burden of his message was to preach against the Christendom of his day; indeed it is to announce the end of that world. His work is bookended by reference to the fact that Judah was heading for exile and thus its current way of life was being terminated by God (1:3, 52:27b-34). The settlement under which king and priest formed a cosy alliance was being judged by the God each thought they were serving. This is why Jeremiah was so unpopular.
It's also why in the complaint recorded in 15:15-21, Jeremiah speaks of his pain, what Bruce Cockburn so memorably calls 'bleeding wound that will not heal'. It is a wound the prophet has spoken about afflicting Judah in 8:11, 21-22, a wound at the heart of its national life. And though this wound is born of the nation's sin and failure, it still afflicts the prophet who is highlighting that very national failure. Indeed, in response to Jeremiah's complaint, God tells his prophet to repent of his deep complicity in the failure of the nation to be what God hoped it would be.
The trouble Jeremiah finds himself in is that his message and his instinct are out of sync. Peter Drucker, the management guru, tells us that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. He means that the way a company is will always determine what it does, whatever strategies it devises for growth and change. The same is true of the church. Have we for too long trusted our privileged position in the culture that’s given us a special place in the nation? Have we thought that church will always a part of things if we just keep on doing what we’ve always done? Judah did.
Sadly such trust has robbed the gospel of its power to challenge and change lives and ways of doing things. Jeremiah was called to tear down the Christendom of his day, the cosying up of church and state that led to God being neutered. He found it so hard to do because this was his culture, his way of seeing the world and understanding his place in it. He had to change his mind about that (the meaning of the word repent) so that he would begin to see the world and his life in it as God does.
We live in times when Christendom is decaying and the question we have to ask ourselves is this: is it God sending us into exile precisely so that we can embody his message for our society in a new way that will give our words fresh credibility? Will we stop bleating about not being able to wear a cross and start reflecting God’s character and concerns to our neighbours?
Which brings me to the trenchant and prescient observations of my mate George. Maybe on the margins we will learn how to love God and love our neighbour so that we and the communities to which we belong embody the good news of Jesus in such a way that we don't have to wear a fashion accessory to indicate that we're his followers.