Rev. Andy Ferguson
No one wants to hear from the Prophet Jeremiah these days. He spoke passionately of God’s investment in both national and international affairs. The result back in his time was Israel’s disastrous defeat at the hands of their enemies leading to 40 years of exile. No one is interested in a prophet who is right when being right only leads to defeat. In our recent experience, when religious figures speak out on national and international affairs, the results have been more divisive than helpful AND more judgmental than encouraging. As a result, Jeremiah has gone unread and unpreached – to the relief of congregations and preachers alike. Still, the prophet’s words are recorded in God’s Bible. We are still responsible to ask if there is any Word from God in the ancient words of a prophet who got his message correct -- yet could not help his people avoid disaster.
I. [HISTORY] We must locate Jeremiah in history if we are going to understand his message. We need to identify his time and place; the details are important.
A. Israel was once 12 tribes who escaped from slavery in Egypt. After 40 years in the desert wilderness, Israel crossed the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land. Years passed and this loose collection of people gradually developed into a nation under King David. With David’s leadership, they developed the cities and borders of a real nation. They also developed strains. King David was followed by his son, Solomon, who so oppressed the people, that the northern 10 tribes rebelled and established their own nation. With that, the Hebrews could be found in Israel to the north and Judah to the south. Anyone who reads the Bible can piece together this story as it weaves its way through the O.T.
B. What is not as clear from the Biblical record is the impact of the nations located around the young nation of Israel. This impact cannot be ignored. Recall the map of the Holy Land. To the south of Israel, lies Egypt – the same Egypt the Israelites escaped with Moses’ help. To the west is the Mediterranean Sea. The eastern border is the Jordan River; beyond that is the modern nation of Jordan, which includes some harsh desert. In ancient times, Assyria lay to the north of Israel; today Syria lies to the north with tiny Lebanon standing in between. If you were to go north to Syria, then travel east, you would come to modern Iraq and Iran, the modern names for ancient Babylon. It is interesting that these same nations are still at the center of our concern today.
C. The ancient world where Israel got its beginnings was very different from the world today. Most armies fought on foot -- soldiers armed with weapons they made from farm tools.
1. When Israel escaped slavery in Egypt, Pharaoh could not chase them beyond the Red Sea. His reach did not go very far from the borders of Egypt itself. Once in the Sinai wilderness, the Israelites were free to make their own way.
2. When David became king, his biggest problem was the Philistines only 50 miles away, along the Mediterranean coast. Things were still local.
3. When King Solomon died and the nation divided into Israel/north and Judah/south, Assyria to the north was becoming a world power. Eventually, Assyria invaded Israel and annexed the north for itself, leaving tiny Judah as the only remaining land of the ancient Hebrews. That was in 721 BC.
4. Around 125 years go by; it is now around 600 BC. Judah is still the land of the Hebrews, but Assyria is beginning to lose its influence. The Egyptians from the south and the Iranians (excuse me, the Babylonians) from the north are expanding their territories.
5. Judah was caught at the center of this power struggle. Judah is too small to defend its borders from the stronger nations of Egypt and Babylon. Judah became the frontier between the two larger nations pushing in from the south and the north.
6. The challenge faced by the various Kings of Judah was how to play these stronger neighbors against each other. Whenever one clearly became stronger, the king had to make sure the nation was standing on the correct side. If the balance of power changed, Judah’s king had to be ready to change with it.
This then is the situation to which Jeremiah was born and then called to prophesy.
D. In the political arena which we have just been outlining, Jeremiah believed that Babylon was going to rise in power and that Egypt was going to decline. Plenty of others in Judah believed that Egypt was going to rise and that Babylon was going to decline. This was no small debate. These two great powers often battled each other in that region; the victor would occupy and rule Judah. If Judah was standing with the winning side, then this transition would be pretty smooth. If Judah was standing on the losing side, then this transition would be disastrous. Despite the impression we get from the O.T., nobody had the luxury of being an isolationist. These two great powers were nearby all the time. As a result, it was a time of upheaval; lawlessness was common. Life was hard.
III. The parallels between the ancient times and our own are pretty easy to draw. Egypt and Syria have been in turmoil from that time to the present – something like 3000 years. Increasingly, whatever happens in those nations will have an impact on us. The moat around the United States of America that protected us from problems in foreign lands has shrunk now to the size of a wide creek.
(a) When Saudi Arabia can turn off our oil and (b) Afghanistan can spawn a terrorist like Osama bin Laden, then we cannot ignore the larger world any more than ancient Israel could ignore the bigger world beyond its borders.
A. Too often, we summarize Jeremiah’s message to say, “If you would just behave like good followers of God, then all our problems would go away. Be moral; worship the right way; do not talk with foreigners. We can isolate ourselves in this Land God Promised us, and everything will be fine. But, that was not the situation then; it is not the situation now. I think we have missed the message of Jeremiah.
B. A second interpretation of Jeremiah calls for a nation run on religious doctrine. Generally, nations around the world which follow this approach replace the oppression of political doctrine with the oppression of religious doctrine. This, too, misses the message of Jeremiah the Prophet. The result is that we have quietly set Jeremiah aside as irrelevant to the job of running the country or our businesses or our lives.
C. [THESIS] I hear instead a prophet who is calling his people to be true to themselves by being true to the God who called them out of slavery to become a distinct people. They could not be true to themselves and to God by presenting themselves to the Egyptians and then the Babylonians as whatever they thought the victor was looking for on any particular day. The god we worship shapes our character. If we worship any old god or all of them, then we lose sight of who we are and who our God calls us to be. WE lose our soul as a people and as a nation.
+ When we are playing power games with world powers, then the powerless do not matter. Exploitation becomes the norm and occasional acts of human kindness are reduced to feel-good stories on the evening news.
+ When our faith follows any god any time, then the various and conflicting community and family mores of each one will also be followed.
+ When we are resigned that a great injustice is about to be unleashed upon us, then daily injustice among ourselves gets little attention.
+ When you are about to lose your nation and maybe your life, then taking a little something extra from your neighbor is no big deal.
In contrast, Jeremiah would say: It is a big deal. When we are true to what God has called us to be:
+ We can be faithful to the God who has been faithful to us,
+ We can be just in all our dealings with our neighbors, whether at the corner market or on the world market,
+ We will cherish and honor the families we establish – the same families that sustain us daily,
+ We can live so confident in our beliefs that we are free to be tolerant of those whose beliefs are different from ours.
John Hay, one of President Abraham Lincoln's White House secretaries, reflected on the President that he served:
"In his writings Mr. Lincoln admits us into the most secret recesses of his soul .... Perplexed and afflicted beyond the power of human help, by the disasters of war, the wrangling of parties, and the inexorable and constraining logic of his own mind, he… tried to put into form his double sense of responsibility to human duty and Divine Power. It shows the awful sincerity of a perfectly honest soul, trying to bring itself into closer communion with his Maker." (3).
Lincoln went on to say in his Second Inaugural Address, speaking of the Civil War which was coming to a conclusion and of the slavery that was at the center of it:
Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the slave's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether" (4).
Being true to our God, and ourselves we are better able to address the great powers and the great situations that challenge us daily. President Lincoln was not the last leader in this nation to carry the weight of both faith and daily responsibility. We carry that burden daily; today’s leaders carry those burdens on behalf of the nation. Thus, we rpay for God’s presence and guidance.
IV. So far, we have talked about who-we-should-be as we deal with one another and our God. The passage we read this morning from Jeremiah now tells us something about who-God-is.
For too long, we have read Jeremiah as delivering God’s disapproval and judgment on Israel; he does deliver a message of judgment. But, Jeremiah tells us more than God’s disapproval and judgment. We have imagined the God of Jeremiah as standing in disapproval over broken Israel, ready to unleash punishment without limit. But, Jeremiah reveals a picture of God that is far deeper and richer than that picture.
What Jeremiah shows us is the heart of the God who seeks us with tears. Listen!
18 My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
my heart is sick.
9 O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night
for the slain of my poor people!
God is the god of the tender heart, the God who weeps at the brokenness of God’s own people. It makes a difference that we understand God’s tenderness toward us and toward this nation.
A Hasidic story tells of a great celebration in heaven after the Israelites are delivered from the Egyptians at the Red Sea and the Egyptian armies were downed. The angels are cheering and dancing. Everyone in heaven is cheering and dancing.
Then one of the angels asks the Archangel Michael, “Where I God? Why isn’t God here celebrating?”
Michael answers, “God is not here because God is off, away from the rest, weeping. You see, many thousands of God’s children were drowned today.”
God calls us to live up to the greatness that God offers us. When we fail and when we fall short, it breaks God’s heart.
We are people of faith each day in every place. The word of the Prophet calls God’s people to be true to ourselves by being true to the God who called us out of slavery to become a distinct people. We cannot be true to ourselves and to our God by presenting ourselves to the world as whatever our enemies are looking for on any particular day. The God we worship shapes our character. Standing in the shelter of God, we deal with the nations with integrity, strength and charity.
You see, faith tells us that even on our darkest day, God is not finished with us and with this nation. God still holds the future, and it is good.
As Jeremiah said in 46.27:
27 But as for you, have no fear, my servant Jacob,
and do not be dismayed, O Israel;
for I am going to save you from far away,
and your offspring from the land of their captivity.
Jacob shall return and have quiet and ease,
and no one shall make him afraid.
In 2 Cor 5.7, Paul said, “We walk by faith not by sight.” I disagree. We walk by faith AND by sight. Such is the responsibility of this age.
3. Hay, John, Secretary to Abraham Lincoln, writing in September 1862.
4. Lincoln, Abraham. “Second Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1865.