March 21, 2021
Before we hear from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah today… I want to remind you of some words from last week’s epistle reading… words from Ephesians 2… “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the results of works, so that no one may boast.” I believe that message from Ephesians and this message given through Jeremiah today are connected. See if you agree as we read Jeremiah 31… starting with verse 31. Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you.
READ Jeremiah 31:31-34
This word of hope comes to Jeremiah at a very difficult time in Israel’s history… one we hear about often whenever we read from the Old Testament. Babylon is threatening and Israel is about to be destroyed. Jeremiah is in the midst of all this. The walls around Jerusalem are going to be breached. The Temple is about to be looted and destroyed by the Babylonian soldiers. The people are about to be taken out of the land God promised and put into exile. All the exteriors of their identity… all the exteriors of their faith is about to be wiped out before their eyes. I mean… think about this… what are the stories they tell themselves… the stories that are the basis of their identity as a people called together by God… the stories that form the foundation of their faith? How God led them out of the land of Egypt… through the wilderness… and into the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. Exile undoes that story. Jerusalem… it’s unbreachable walls… the palace of the king… I’m sure these all tied into their belief in the Davidic covenant… a promise God has made for all eternity. As the unbreachable walls are breached… as the palace is looted and destroyed… as the king is taken away in defeat… as these things occur that promise is deflated. Right? How could you think otherwise? Especially as you witness the Temple also being destroyed. The very house of God where God’s presence resided among the people. The holy implements of worship being taken away… melted down for their gold, silver and other precious metals… reshaped and repurposed for other glories not connected with God. The Temple was supposed to last forever. The Temple would never fall. And it’s left a smoldering ruin.
To trust in the Temple… to believe that as long as the Temple stood in Jerusalem God was with the people and Jerusalem would never fall… that’s what other prophets were telling the people. That was their word of hope in the time. Trust… put your trust in the Temple. Of course, we don’t know that from the preserved writings of those prophets… because those words weren’t preserved. Those words were empty… popular… popular words the people wanted to hear and believe in… but empty of God’s spirit. Even as those words evoked the presence of God… God was not present in those words. We know about those other prophets because the words of Jeremiah were kept by the people… even though they didn’t want to hear them at the time… “The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’ – only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching says the Lord.”
A den of robbers. I think we recently heard that phrase being spoken by another prophet come to Jerusalem. Jesus driving out the sellers of sacrifices… overturning the tables of the moneychangers when he entered the Temple of his day. Not a house of prayer. A den of thieves. And that phrase… hearing the words that came to Jeremiah… that phrase wasn’t aimed to just the few… wasn’t just aimed to those who made the Temple Industrial Complex function in all its externality… it was a reminder of all who came into those gates that they were not to trust in those deceptive words… repeated again. The Temple did not save. The proper sacrifice bought in the courtyard did not save. Having the right type of money for this or that did not save. These externals were empty and they deceived. In Jeremiah’s time the people boasted in the Temple… boasted in the walls of Jerusalem… boasted in their place in the Promised Land. And through Babylon… all those things were taken away.
They failed to boast in the one thing that couldn’t be taken away.
So when the exile came to an end… what did they do? They returned and boasted in their place in the Promised Land. They rebuilt the walls around Jerusalem and boasted in themselves. Declared Zerubabbel to be the messiah… the continuation of the covenant God made with David. How well do you know Zerubabbel today? In the time of Ezra and Nehemiah they determined to be pure as a people… and so they sent away all their foreign spouses and children born of mixed marriages. That’s what was supposed to make them pure before God. They created orphans and widows and sent them away with nothing. They oppressed the alien in their midst. Then they rebuilt the Temple and they completely forgot the wisdom given through Jeremiah, instead embracing once again the deceptive words… the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord.
And Saints what happened? What happened to all these magnificent external signs of their faith? The walls of Jerusalem were breached again. Another conqueror made the throne of David vacant. The second Temple… made even grander by Herod… was destroyed by Rome. And Rome eventually remade Jerusalem into a Roman city banning all Jews from the area. Building and rebuilding these externals… we keep doing that again and again… we keep pointing to them and boasting in them… we keep trusting in them as a sign of God’s presence and blessing. But that’s all deceptive words. Externals can be and are eventually destroyed. I think we build and rebuild because it gives us a sense… no matter how false… a sense of control and of assuredness. That something tangible. But through Jeremiah, God says if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another… I will dwell with you. From our reading in John’s gospel today, Jesus says, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” Where is it we imagine Jesus to be today? Where does following Jesus take us? And why would Jesus take us there?
“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Those aren’t words that glorify the externals of faith… those are the words that talk of a transformed heart… a heart upon which the covenant of God has been written through grace… God’s freely given grace. Isn’t that what the last verse of our reading from Jeremiah says… isn’t grace the means by which God will transform the heart? “For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” That’s grace pure and simple. God wipes the slate clean and says to each of us… the love I have shown you… the mercy I have given you… let that be your center and let everything you do flow from there like a river of living water. Let my justice roll down like waters and my righteousness flow through you like an ever-flowing stream. Do not glorify some building or the rituals you practice in them. They can be taken away. Do not boast in the success of your institutions. Institutions rise and fall. Do not think your desire for power and control are an illumination to my ways. Riches are spent. Charismatic leaders come and go and are forgotten. Do not use me to justify your politics or diminish me through your misplaced patriotism. I don’t need your guns. I don’t want your violence. I am not interested in your hate for your neighbor or your ability to be always right in the things you believe to be true… all your empty rhetoric is a bore. Your self-aggrandizement is tedious. If Jeremiah were here today… I think that’s some of the words he would be saying to us. Or to put it another more direct way… Jeremiah would be saying… cut the crap… except his words would probably be more colorful than my words. Jeremiah could get away with it. I’d get in trouble if I said the words that really needed to be said.
The whole world has been shaken by a year of pandemic. Will you continue in your deceptions? The walls are breached. The palace is ransacked. The Temple is destroyed. But because God is gracious still… there is still hope. Center yourself there. Because God still loves… there is hope. Center yourself there. Because God forgives and forgets your iniquity… you can be born from above… follow Christ… take up your cross… and bear the fruit worth bearing… fruit of the resurrection that can neither be taken away nor destroyed. Amen.