I remember starting in a new school district in 6th grade. I was the new kid, didn’t really have any friends in my class. I only vaguely knew a couple of kids from playing youth sports in the area, but I had been open-enrolled in another district for elementary school (basically, my parents and I moved, but I kept going to the same school; now, I was finally starting in the district I actually lived in).
Middle school can be an awkward time for any kid, but if you really don’t know where you fit in, and middle school is a time to reinvent yourself, anyway. In that sixth-grade year, I went from being probably the quietest kid in class at my old school, to someone who was constantly sent to the corner of the classroom for talking too much in class. But that was the year I remember really starting on group work for the first time in a classroom; it was the first time I remember being encouraged to talk in class. I learned to rein it in eventually, but that year I was talking all the time. I had a change in circumstance, and it really made a lot of things different.
Similarly, last week, we talked about Jeremiah. Today, we return to him. Last week, we talked about Jeremiah’s early life as a prophet. He lived during the time when Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom) were split, so the whole people of Israel was not united. Jeremiah lived and prophesied in Jerusalem. Specifically, the main part of his job was to give people this warning: “Just because you live in Jerusalem, where God’s Temple is, that doesn’t mean that nothing bad will ever happen here; I know God chose this city to be special, but we have to keep following God!” Of course, no one listened and the Babylonian army came roaring through town, destroying the Temple and getting rid of the king.
Now, that level of destruction would’ve been enough to prove the Babylonians’ power, I think, except they had other ideas. They believed the best way to make some changes was to beat the culture out of people. And the best way to do that was to remove the most cultured people from a place. So the Babylonians took the educated elite – the upper class, even most of the middle class – and all the “influential” people, and removed them. They just took them from their homes, and marched them across the desert to Babylon. They had to leave all their belongings, they had to leave their homes, their land, and they had to make a new start somewhere else.
Now, I’m going to jump ahead a little more than 2000 years. Today is Reformation Sunday. That’s the Sunday on which we remember the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door, protesting injustices in the church. Luther (and our Presbyterian forefather, John Calvin) saw that things in the church needed to be changed. The church, as an institution, held too much power, and it was being taken from the people who were trying to lead faithful lives.
For example, the church had largely decided to stop serving Communion to the people in the pews. There was a fear that people might spill the body and blood of Christ. And since there was a fear that the body and blood of Christ were too sacred for being spilled, they decided the only way to be safe about it was to take them away. Not only that but the preachers had mostly stopped preaching. Not only that, but the messages they did give were in Latin, which meant that the majority of people in churches couldn’t understand what was going on, then they watched someone else take Communion, and then they went home. That was church.
Some brave men saw that this was a time for change. They started preaching that people needed to have Communion. They talked about how people needed to see, read, and hear the Bible in their own language. They talked about how important it was to have preaching in the service, not just Communion, so that people could hear a message that would bring them closer to God.
They had to have a message that was appropriate to their times. In the time of the Reformation, the message that was needed was about greater access for people. The feeling of the Reformers was that God was being kept away from the people, to the benefit of the hierarchy of the church. So they preached a message of openness; a message of a theology that better explained how God was present in the lives of everyone – not just in the pews at church, but out in the world. It was a message of God’s love, and God’s will that we live godly lives everywhere. Just like Jeremiah, their message had to be tailored to the time in which they lived.
Jeremiah’s first message to the Judeans had been a message of warning. He was the doom-and-gloom prophet for a time of abundance. Last week, I mentioned a particular quote about the Gospel, that says that a true Gospel message should “afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted.” Well, in Jeremiah’s early ministry, the people of Jerusalem were definitely the comfortable, so he afflicted them, warning of the danger on the horizon. Now that they’ve been met with that, it was time for the “I told you so” to come from Jeremiah, right?
Wrong! That’s not what prophets do; they don’t rub it in, they speak the word of God. And, in this moment, Jeremiah was no longer to be in the business of afflicting the comfortable. Now, the Babylonians were the comfortable, and the Judeans dragged across the desert were the afflicted, living in a foreign land, away from Jerusalem. What the afflicted need, is comfort.
So what does Jeremiah preach? Well, he does two things. One of those is to say, “You guys should get married, have kids, build a life. You’re in it for the long haul, so live.” That’s pretty good advice for anyone in distress, isn’t it? Live with hope for tomorrow. Jeremiah knew that God always has hope for tomorrow. In the darkest, most tortured point in Israel’s history, Jeremiah’s message was a one of restoration. That must surely have been a hard message to hear; yet, it was the message that was needed.
Jeremiah himself actually buys a field back in Judah, even while away in exile in Babylon. He had been carted away with everyone else, and yet he buys a field. He says, metaphorically with his purchase, that they will return. It’s a powerful message. The message of hope is one that we literally always need, because there’s always a reason to be afraid. Yet, Jeremiah tells the people that God will get them through it. Unsurprisingly, that’s exactly what happens.
Of course, there’s a lot of trouble first. Some people live and die in Babylon, only knowing that world. It’s not like everything’s perfect. And I say that so that the harsh truth of reality is not blunted. It is often true that the greatest moments of joy and triumph we receive in this life follow periods of prolonged difficulty and sadness. That’s not to say that we should seek out difficulty and sadness, and it’s not to say that the joy we feel removes all the bad feeling. Those feelings are very real, and they hurt. It’s just to say that, even for the Judeans, even in a hopeful story, there was still pain and loss. Even the Resurrection of Jesus, the most hope-filled moment in the history of the world, only came about after the suffering of the cross, and the pain and separation of death.
Yet it is that moment, that moment of the empty tomb is the one we need to look to when we’re feeling like the Judeans who were carried away to Babylon. Personally, I think that it’s of the utmost importance that we always keep both messages of Jeremiah in our minds. We live lives of great comfort, relatively speaking. Even the least comfortable American lives better than more than half the world’s population. I just read this morning that if you make $34,000 per year, you are in the top 10% of earners globally. The average American in 2015 (last available year of data) made $55,775 – basically, the majority of our country is in that top tier. So we have to live with the knowledge that we deserve a little affliction. We are the comfortable. Therefore, we must remember that our wealth, our prosperity, our possessions can’t save us from some of the things that will come.
On the other hand, no matter what happens, God is by our side. God is there to keep, guide, and watch over us. And in our moments of deepest pain – those moments of illness, loss, addiction, grief, suffering, family conflict, spiritual struggle – we must remember that the God of exile in Babylon was also the God of return from exile. The purpose of Jeremiah’s prophecies was never just to depress people; it was to open their eyes to the world. Similarly, Jeremiah wasn’t offering a false hope; he was offering eternal hope that lies only in the God who created the universe, who brought a people out of Egyptian slavery, returned them from exile, and brought forth from them the Savior of the world, God in human flesh, Jesus Christ, whom even death could not hold.
And that leads us to the final thought. If Jeremiah preached disaster when things were going well, if he preached hope when things were bad; if the Protestant Reformers offered words when people had none, access when God seemed inaccessible; if the best preaching is about offering what people need to hear in their own time, what do we need to hear today?
That’s the tricky part. We need a lot of messages. We need to hear more about faith and devotion. We need to hear about bringing our lives closer to God. We need to be scolded for keeping our faith at arm’s length and treating it like something we trot out only on Sunday mornings. We need to be convicted of that, and we need to learn to wear our faith proudly. We need to grow closer to God, and let our lives be affected.
We also need to be convicted of what comes from faith. Jesus tells us about how we are supposed to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. But there is a second commandment like it: to love our neighbors as ourselves. We have to put ourselves in the shoes of the other. We must put compassion and empathy first, and leave judgment to the side. We have to wear our faith proudly in our lives, but we must also let it affect how we think about the things going on around us, and let our lives be better reflections of the way Jesus lived.
But if I had to narrow it down to one thing, I think what’s most important for us today is to hear and remember the story of Jesus. While I’ve been preaching from the Old Testament, as a Christian, everything will always come back to Christ and what he means for the world, and for my life. We too easily forget that he was a servant, who lived to serve others and to serve God. We too easily forget that he was the one at the bottom of the social ladder, not the top. We too easily forget that he was born out of wedlock, fled to a foreign country as a refugee, that he worked with his hands, that he was homeless, that he was dirty all the time, that he was smart, that he was not at all “respectable.” And yet, he drew followers to him, and that was the form God chose to take on earth. We would do well to remember that when dealing with many of the people we can so easily look down upon.
Brothers and sisters, hearing a message for our own day is to hear a message that confronts us with the reality that we may be wrong; our culture, our society, may be wrong. It’s the reality that God, more often than not, has something in store for us that we can’t remotely see. And that message means that, in plenty or in want, we have only one course of action: that’s to stand by God’s side. We must follow, because that is the only path through good times and bad. And in the end, we must live the lives God is calling us to lead by seeking God, following God, and putting God first. Amen.