I’m going to start with a blanket statement that I hope makes sense. It’s easy to be critical of biblical characters for not following the voice of God in their own lives; yet we so easily fail to listen to the voice of God in our own lives. If we give it a half-second’s thought, we would realize that, most of the time, we don’t just hear a message and then immediately put in into practice. We have to hear it over, and over, and over again. It’s why people come to church more than once in their lives. It’s part of the reason, I think, that preachers tend to have only a few favorite topics that everything else ties back to: we need to hear certain messages more than once.
I would include, by the way, that I need to sometimes preach certain messages more than once before they finally sink in, even for me as the person speaking. Yet, at the same time, we have a belief that people in the Bible should’ve somehow “known better.” We get the sense that, if God were talking right to us, we’d be better at listening. But here’s the thing: how many times has God tried to get our attention, and we’ve failed to listen? And how many more times have we heard, understood, and simply failed to act?
This is what makes the initial chapter of Jeremiah so interesting, I think. It begins with God talking to Jeremiah about how God has known Jeremiah from before he was even born. It’s an inspiring message for all of us, actually: God knew us from before we were even formed in the womb. Yet, when God tells Jeremiah these facts, Jeremiah objects. “I don’t know what to say, God, for I’m only a boy!” Jeremiah says to the Creator of the universe.
“No excuses,” replies God. “I’m putting my words in your mouth, and those words will have power to do remarkable things; power enough to change the world.”
So, let’s talk about Jeremiah a bit. Jeremiah was a prophet. When we think of the word “prophet” today, we most often think of someone predicting the future. Really, though, that’s not the job of a prophet in the Bible. His or her job is not about the future; it’s about the present. Sometimes, that means reading the signs of what’s going on in the present that will determine the future; we actually see that in one of today’s readings. But even more often, it’s about what’s happening rightnow. It’s like being a religious news service, providing commentary on what God sees going on in the world.
Because we have this association of prophecy with telling the future, we most often think of prophets having a special connection with God that gives them these insights. That’s actually a really good way of looking at it; though, again, it’s not that God is giving them knowledge about the future. Rather, God is allowing the prophet to see with God’s eyes, rather than with the prophet’s own eyes.
Well, Jeremiah lived in an interesting historical period. The Kingdom of Israel was, as we discussed last week, divided. Israel was in the north with its capital in Samaria, and Judah (with its capital in Jerusalem) was in the south. Jeremiah lived in Judah, which was prosperous. Israel, on the other hand, was not so lucky.
Over a hundred years earlier (think about this: as distant as we are to the Civil War, basically) the Assyrian Empire came through and attacked Israel. The Assyrians won. Then, they headed south to Judah. The Judeans, though, in spite of their smaller army, defeated the mighty Assyrians, then the most powerful nation in the region. The Judeans took this to mean that, 200 years earlier, they had made the right decision by sticking with the king from the line of David and keeping their worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, unlike the Israelites who wandered away. They figured, as long as they had a Davidic king and the Temple, what could possibly go wrong?
Well, Jeremiah was appointed the prophet to begin challenging that assumption. Jeremiah’s calling was, as we learned in chapter one, “to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” In other words, Jeremiah’s prophecies were going to have a profound impact on the world, and people would be wise to listen to him.
People know that a war is likely coming, because this time, it’s the Babylonians, and they intend to succeed where the Assyrians failed. There are a bunch of people out there who are saying, “Don’t worry so much about it; we have the Temple of the Lord! What could happen?” Jeremiah mocks this position by caricaturing them as saying, “The Temple of the Lord! The Temple of the Lord!” Jeremiah knows, though, that know building can save you.
There’s a great quote out there that God’s message is meant to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” In other words, if you’re having a hard time, a true Gospel message will pick you up; if you’re having too easy a time of life, the true message of God is going to shake up your world! In the case of the Judeans in Jeremiah’s time, they were far too comfortable. They got so comfortable, in fact, that they stopped worrying about following God’s laws – like, at all.
We actually see Christians today who often have similar attitudes. There was just a group last month that claimed the world was going to end in September. It’s a great out, that belief that God is going to fix it all in a neat little bow, isn’t it? I mean, it means that our actions don’t have to be focused on the world at all. We only have to worry about our relationship to God. Don’t get me wrong – our relationship to God is what’s most important. But God asks for a part of that relationship to include our treatment of our fellow humans. We’re not allowed to just say, “Well, it’s all gonna end soon anyway, so who cares?” That’s not a Christian response; the Christian response is to say, “I don’t know when it’s all going to end, but until it does, I’m going to do all I can to love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love my neighbor as myself.”
Jeremiah sense this same streak in people: “Our actions don’t matter, because, hey, God’s going to protect us.” Yeah… well, here’s the deal. Jeremiah accuses the Judeans of “oppress(ing) the alien, the orphan, and the widow,” and “shed(ding) innocent blood . . . [and] go(ing) after other gods.” Those are big charges. In other words, they have not protected the most vulnerable, they have hurt people without a second thought, and they have ignored God in favor of other gods. They have forsaken their essential goodness. And then, according to Jeremiah, they have the audacity to retreat to “The Temple of the Lord! The Temple of the Lord!” for safe-haven.
Jeremiah cries foul. It’s what his ministry is about, at this juncture. This is his time to afflict the comfortable. He is there to show them that being a believer in God is about more than empty words and actions; it’s about making time in your life to listen to what God is telling you to do. As it turns out, the people of Judah aren’t going to amend their ways. The Babylonians come in and ransack Jerusalem. They cart away the wealthiest people from Jerusalem and forcibly relocate them. They remove the king from power, so there was no more promised king from the line of David. And, as a final show of power, the Temple that Solomon had built nearly three hundred years earlier, the Temple built so God would dwell there, the symbol of peace and God’s blessing and righteous worship – in short, the “Temple of the Lord” they were so comforted by –was destroyed completely, leaving only a pile of rubble. There was now no Temple to save them.
It would be so easy to read this passage and say, “Those stupid Judeans. They should’ve just listened.” But, as I’ve been saying throughout this Old Testament sermon series, the Old Testament is not the story of “them;” it’s not someone else’s story. It’s our story. When we hear this story, we have to think, not of where someone else went wrong, but of where we continue to go wrong. If we are the Judeans, what are the messages God is sending us? What are we failing to hear? What are we hearing, but not responding to?
Jeremiah’s unique ministry is one in which people are asked to see what their lives have become, and to amend their ways. Unsurprisingly, they are not able (or perhaps willing) to do so. If we’re being honest, that has a lot more to do with our lives than we’d like to admit. How many, “I’ll get around to that later”s do we have in our faith lives? How many times have we made God an afterthought? How often have we committed in our hearts and our minds to doing something as we sit in the pew, only to waver once we feel the comfort of our couch?
Jeremiah delivers a message that’s uncomfortable. It’s the message, “We are sinners. We’ve screwed this whole thing up.” He gives steps to escape that cycle of sin, but the people of his own time respond just the way we do when we hear about our own sin: it’s just plain easier to keep pedaling along the same way we were going. Changing direction is what’s hard.
In his preaching, Jeremiah asks people to act justly, and says that God will save them from the coming war. I don’t know exactly how effective that strategy can be; I figure, when a war comes, it comes. And maybe completely changing their actions could’ve changed the outcome; maybe faithfulness and obedience to God would’ve somehow altogether prevented the Babylonian army from entering Jerusalem. Maybe, with the right show of faith, God would’ve come down and stopped the approaching army. But instead, I like to think that Jeremiah is offering the Judeans a different type of salvation: the type wherein you learn to live God’s way, whatever the world around you is doing. You can experience a little slice of God’s salvation right here on earth, simply by refusing to be part of the systems that prop up evil, even if it’s easier to just go along with the thing that’s popular. If they had managed to live as God told them to, maybe they wouldn’t have had their city, their country, their Temple destroyed; but even if they did, they would know that they were going to be okay, because God would guide them through it. They would know that, whatever comes, they were living in a way that would make God take notice.
Jeremiah talks about protecting the most vulnerable; he says that the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant have been forgotten, when God has explicitly asked for those specific groups to be protected. In our own culture, we take economic advantage of groups that can’t fight for or protect themselves. Jeremiah asks people to avoid the taking of vengeance and the sin of putting idols before God. Frequently, in our culture, we confuse “justice” with “revenge,” and we believe that “getting even” is our right, forgetting Jesus’ words about forgiveness. We also regularly put our own comfort, our own pleasure, our own economic pursuits, first in our lives, rather than putting God’s will first. There’s nothing wrong with comfort, pleasure, or economic security – but those things are, so often, our very own version of the refrain “the Temple of the Lord! the Temple of the Lord!” They are things that promise safety and security, but ultimately can’t deliver.
So let us truly hear the words of Jeremiah for us today. Let us honor God, not just with our lips, but with how we conduct ourselves every day, and thereby experience a little bit of salvation right here on earth, and learning to trust in God, who knew us before we were even born. We have been called, like Jeremiah, to share words that pluck up and pull down, that destroy and overthrow, that build and plant. Let us use those words, let us use this calling on our lives, to afflict the comfortable, even when it’s us; to comfort the afflicted, even when it’s our enemy; and ever and always to speak the truth of God. Amen.