The following sermon was delivered at Trinity Anglican Church, Aurora, ON on December 15, 2013 as part of an Advent series on the prophets.
Text: Jeremiah 2:4-13
No one likes prophets; and, I might add, no one likes preaching on the prophets.
They talk about things that make us uncomfortable.
They see everything in black-and-white.
They are religious fundamentalists of the worst kind.
They are joyless spoil-sports.
So why talk about the prophets in the midst of our Christmas preparations?
Why allow them to play Scrooge in the midst of our festivities, to listen to their repeated cry of “Bah, Humbug!”?
We need to listen to the prophets precisely because they tell it like it is.
We need to listen to the prophets because they speak God’s truth.
Unfortunately, hearing the truth is like Buckleys: it tastes awful, but it works.
And yet, it is truth we need to hear because it conveys not only the problem but also the solution, both the illness and the cure.
The prophet Jeremiah doesn’t mince words.
Like a Prosecuting Attorney, Jeremiah brings his indictment against Israel:
– they “went after worthless things” (v. 5)
– they “defiled [God’s] land and made [God’s] heritage an abomination” (v. 7)
– the rulers of Israel “transgressed against [God] (v. 8)
– the false prophets “went after things that do not profit” (v. 8)
– the entire nation has “changed [its] glory for something that does not profit” (v. 11)
– the people of Israel “have forsaken [Yahweh]” and have decided that they know what is best for themselves
Jeremiah, speaking on behalf of God, is making the case that the Israelites, God’s covenant people, are breaking the first commandment to love and worship Yahweh alone and to not make any idols.
By breaking one of the Commandments, the Israelites were breaking all of the commandments.
By breaking one of the Commandments, the Israelites where breaking their covenant with God.
These are harsh charges. And when we consider the context in which Jeremiah spoke these charges, things become even more complicated.
Jeremiah is speaking during a time when Josiah, the King of Judah implemented sweeping religious reforms by outlawing all worship of other gods except for Yahweh. He renovated the Temple in Jerusalem and returned the Ark of the Covenant to the Temple.
And here comes Jeremiah telling the people that they will soon be in captivity to a foreign power, exiled under Babylonian rule.
Here comes Jeremiah telling the people that this captivity will be their own fault precisely because they broke their covenant with God through their idolatry.
Here comes Jeremiah with his harsh words of judgment and condemnation.
No wonder people don’t like prophets! Can you imagine Israel’s reaction to these charges?
Jeremiah, what are you talking about!? Look at all this great stuff we are doing! We are getting rid of the altars to foreign gods and we are starting to take care of the Temple again! There is no way that God is going to do anything to us. Jeremiah, you are crazy!
Naturally, the people were offended at Jeremiah’s message. Jeremiah was attacked by his own brothers, beaten and put into the stocks, thrown into prison by the king, threatened with death, and thrown into a cistern.
Jeremiah and his message continually met opposition. The people did not like what he was saying; they found it uncomfortable and offensive.
Short of killing him, they did everything they could to silence him. It was only until the Babylonians conquered Judah that King Nebuchadnezzar ordered Jeremiah released from prison and treated well from then on.
When we hear of Jeremiah’s treatment, we are naturally outraged. How could such a thing happen to one of God’s prophets?
And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we know that our reaction would be little different from that of the Israelites.
We don’t like to hear that God is judgmental. We don’t like to hear that God is angry. After all, isn’t God all about love, inclusion, and happy things?
However, I want to suggest to you that the rejection of God as judgmental and wrathful is precisely part of the problem faced by God’s covenant people then…by God’s covenant people now.
Listen once again to the conclusion of Jeremiah’s charges: “for my people have committed to evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water” (v. 13).
The purpose of a cistern is to hold water. A desert society, like the kingdom of Judah, would rely on cisterns for its very survival.
If a cistern did not hold water, it meant certain death for that society.
Yahweh is living water, the source of life and abundance.
Israel is a cracked cistern, a reservoir for water that cannot hold water.
Do you hear Jeremiah’s message?
God has promised to provide for his covenant people, to give them what they need for life.
And yet, God’s people have rejected God’s gift of life because they assume that they can be their own source of life.
Do you hear the way that God promises to bless his covenant people and yet they stand in the way by insisting on going their own way?
Do you hear the echoes with the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden?
It seems that we humans just don’t seem to get it.
We want God’s blessing, but we want it on our terms.
We want God’s mercy, but never God’s judgment.
However, is it possible to receive God’s blessing on our terms?
Is it possible to receive God’s mercy without God’s judgment?
The repeated refrain of the biblical prophets is “Absolutely not!”
And this is exactly what makes listening to the prophets so difficult.
It is easier to simply ignore them and to reject their message.
However, if we ignore and reject the prophets because we get hung up on God’s judgment and wrath, we are claiming that God’s judgment and wrath are unnecessary.
But this is a dangerous claim to make because it exposes our desire to make God palpable, to make God into an image that we find suitable.
The rejection of God’s judgment and wrath is the position of the privileged – of those who are well-off enough to think that they do not need God, that they do not need to heed his commands or keep covenant with him.
The rejection of God’s judgment and wrath is to completely miss the overall message of the prophets, to miss what they are pointing to.
Prophets speak God’s truth.
They name sin and in so doing they express God’s judgment and wrath; they express God’s pathos.
And what is the object of God’s pathos?
Death, evil, injustice – the things that destroy God’s good and beloved creation.
No wonder John the Baptist fearlessly called the people to repentance, reminding them of their covenant calling to be a blessing to all nations in the midst of a world broken by corruption, greed, and violence.
No wonder Jeremiah is called “The Weeping Prophet” as he called Judah to end their idolatry and return to the loving embrace of Yahweh.
No wonder Jesus wept at the death of his beloved friend Lazarus.
No wonder the prophets refuse to mince words or compromise God’s truth.
Death, evil, and injustice – through the prophets, God is saying loud and clear “these things should NOT be!”
And yet, as the prophets remind us, these things are the fruit of what happens when we turn our backs on God and go our own way.
When we ignore and reject the prophets, when we refuse to repent and turn back to God, we are putting ourselves in the place of God.
When we ignore and reject the prophets we are admitting that we are complicit in injustice, deaf to the cries of the oppressed and victimized, and ignorant of those who need justice to be served.
The message of the prophets is that God is a God of judgment.
The message of the prophets is that God is a God of justice.
But what does God’s judgment and justice look like? Is God’s justice retributive, seeking an eye for an eye?
When we listen to the prophets, we hear that God’s wrath and judgment are not retributive.
When we listen to the prophets, we hear that the ultimate aim of God’s judgment and justice is restorative. God refuses to let death, evil, and injustice have the final word.
Listen to God’s promise spoken through Jeremiah:
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:5-6).
Do you hear Jeremiah’s message, a message echoed by all the prophets?
Do you hear the Good News that God’s justice is coming? That it is coming in a king who will rule with wisdom and justice?
Advent is a time in which we listen to the prophets with open ears, even though this is difficult because the prophets expose our idolatry and name our complicity in injustice.
Yes, Advent is a time in which we prepare for this coming of this king, in repentance and confession. But Advent is also a time in which we wait with hopeful longing and joyful expectation because we know that we await the coming of a king of mercy and justice.
O come, Desire of the nations,
Bind in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid every strife and quarrel cease
and fill the world with heaven’s peace