Who Are We Listening To? (Jeremiah 23:9-22)

My head is reeling,
    my limbs are limp,
I’m staggering like a drunk,
    seeing double from too much wine—
And all because of God,
    because of his holy words.

Now for what God says regarding the lying prophets:

“Can you believe it? A country teeming with adulterers!
    faithless, promiscuous idolater-adulterers!
They’re a curse on the land.
    The land’s a wasteland.
Their unfaithfulness
    is turning the country into a cesspool,
Prophets and priests devoted to desecration.
    They have nothing to do with me as their God.
My very own Temple, mind you—
    mud-spattered with their crimes.” God’s Decree.
“But they won’t get by with it.
    They’ll find themselves on a slippery slope,
Careening into the darkness,
    somersaulting into the pitch-black dark.
I’ll make them pay for their crimes.
    It will be the Year of Doom.” God’s Decree.

“Over in Samaria I saw prophets
    acting like silly fools—shocking!
They preached using that no-god Baal for a text,
    messing with the minds of my people.
And the Jerusalem prophets are even worse—horrible!—
    sex-driven, living a lie,
Subsidizing a culture of wickedness,
    and never giving it a second thought.
They’re as bad as those wretches in old Sodom,
    the degenerates of old Gomorrah.”

So, here’s the Message to the prophets from God-of-the-Angel-Armies:

“I’ll cook them a supper of maggoty meat
    with after-dinner drinks of strychnine.
The Jerusalem prophets are behind all this.
    They’re the cause of the godlessness polluting this country.”

A Message from God-of-the-Angel-Armies:

“Don’t listen to the sermons of the prophets.
    It’s all hot air. Lies, lies, and more lies.
They make it all up.
    Not a word they speak comes from me.
They preach their ‘Everything Will Turn Out Fine’ sermon
    to congregations with no taste for God,
Their ‘Nothing Bad Will Ever Happen to You’ sermon
    to people who are set in their own ways.

“Have any of these prophets bothered to meet with me, the true God?
    bothered to take in what I have to say?
    listened to and then lived out my Word?
Look out! God’s hurricane will be let loose—
    my hurricane blast,
Spinning the heads of the wicked like tops!
    God’s raging anger won’t let up
Until I’ve made a clean sweep,
    completing the job I began.
When the job’s done,
    you’ll see that it’s been well done.

“I never sent these prophets,
    but they ran anyway.
I never spoke to them,
    but they preached away.
If they’d have bothered to sit down and meet with me,
    they’d have preached my Message to my people.
They’d have gotten them back on the right track,
    gotten them out of their evil ruts. (The Message)

Jeremiah had a hard gig as a prophet of the Lord. And what made it especially difficult was the continual stream of false prophets, preaching their “everything will turn out just fine” sermons in the face of economic injustice, social unrighteousness, emotional denial, and spiritual adultery.

Methinks that Martin Luther King, Jr. must have felt a kinship with the prophet Jeremiah. After all, he was much like a modern-day prophet. In word and deed, he kept asking people to close the distance between the values they espoused and their actual behavior. 

The terrible treatment King and his allies received during the civil rights movement through non-violent marches and demonstrations, brought-out the awful gap between espoused American values of freedom, fairness, and tolerance, and the reality that Blacks really did not possess these in any manner close to the white population. 

Every prophetic ministry compels people to come face-to-face with the disparity between beliefs and behaviors.

Jeremiah knew all about the gulf between expressed values and actual conduct. And he faced a very large chasm between the two. 

Like Reverend King, Jeremiah was imprisoned, had rocks thrown at him, and was jeered for his message of calling people to live up to God’s agenda for humanity. 

White supremacy, or at least white privilege, was taken for granted in much of America before King. In the same way, Israelite privilege was taken for granted in Jerusalem, in Jeremiah’s day. Unfaithful prophets kept proclaiming Jewish supremacy and insisted that the Lord would be on their side of things. 

But the Lord insisted that these supposed prophets have neither attended a meeting of any divine council in heaven nor ever heard God speak to them.

I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who create dissensions and hindrances, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them. For such people do not serve our Lord Christ but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded. (Romans 16:17-18, NRSV)

The spirit of the age simply accepted power, privilege, and pedigree as the norm that ought to always endure. But God thinks differently about it. And so, the Lord sends prophets to call people back to justice, righteousness, and peace for the benefit of all persons.  

The zeitgeist of our own age is one of turmoil, uncertainty – and even chaos, violence, and death. We have our own contemporary self-appointed prophets who proclaim peace where there is no peace; safety, at the expense of others’ protection; militant forms of xenophobia; and an American exceptionalism which places a thin veneer of respectability over the graves of dead people’s bones.

The Lord will not contend with this forever.

An exercise in healthy introspection would be to consider these questions:

  • What are our most cherished values?
  • Where did we get them? Who are we listening to?
  • Are they God’s values? 
  • Who is really in control as the arbiter of values?
  • How might godly values of justice, righteousness, and peace be expressed in our everyday actions and behaviors?
  • Will we seek to engraft such values into our organizations, systems, faith communities, neighborhoods, and governments?
  • Can we work together in humility?
  • Do we have the courage to change, to share power, and to seek the common good of all persons?

Lord, have mercy, and grant us your peace.

All-Seeing God, you know the true state of every heart and every people group. Do your work of making me holy in all I do and say so that your values, and the words and ways of Jesus, might be expressed through me in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Psalm 10 – Backstabbers

Why are you far away, Lord?
Why do you hide yourself
    when I am in trouble?
Proud and brutal people
    hunt down the poor.
But let them get caught
    by their own evil plans!

The wicked brag about
    their deepest desires.
Those greedy people hate
    and curse you, Lord.
The wicked are too proud
to turn to you
    or even think about you.
They are always successful,
though they can’t understand
    your teachings,
and they keep sneering
    at their enemies.

In their hearts they say,
    “Nothing can hurt us!
We’ll always be happy
    and free from trouble.”
They curse and tell lies,
and all they talk about
    is how to be cruel
    or how to do wrong.

They hide outside villages,
waiting to strike and murder
    some innocent victim.
They are hungry lions
    hiding in the bushes,
hoping to catch
    some helpless passerby.
They trap the poor in nets
    and drag them away.
They crouch down and wait
    to grab a victim.
They say, “God can’t see!
    He’s got on a blindfold.”

Do something, Lord God,
and use your powerful arm
    to help those in need.
The wicked don’t respect you.
In their hearts they say,
    “God won’t punish us!”

But you see the trouble
and the distress,
    and you will do something.
The poor can count on you,
    and so can orphans.
Now break the power
    of all merciless people.
Punish them for doing wrong
    and make them stop.

Our Lord, you will always rule,
but every godless nation
    will vanish from the earth.
You listen to the longings
    of those who suffer.
You offer them hope,
and you pay attention
    to their cries for help.
You defend orphans
    and everyone else in need,
so that no one on earth
    can terrify others again. (Contemporary English Version)

Nobody can go through life without having to deal with evil in the form of two-faced people. It’s just part of the human condition to experience it. 

The O’Jays sang about such persons in their 1972 song, Backstabbers: 

(What they do!)
(They smile in your face)
All the time they want to take your place
The back stabbers (back stabbers)
(They smile in your face)
All the time they want to take your place.

The psalmist knew first-hand about such people, all too well. He experienced their lies and their constant thoughts about cruelty to others and doing wrong. He watched their schadenfreude, that is, their delight in seeing others harmed and hurt. Outwardly, such devious people feign friendship; but meanwhile, they inwardly sneer and plot how to destroy. 

Schadenfreude: satisfaction or pleasure felt at someone else’s misfortune.

However, there is a God who sees all of it, both the outward calloused deeds, as well as the inward plotting of insidious works. And, what’s more, God will act.

The problem for most of us, the victims of the backstabber’s blade, is that the time between God seeing and God acting is sometimes far too long. We cry out for justice, and rightly so. God sees and hears. And God acts when it is time to act, without being on our schedule to do it.

Meanwhile, during this awkward in-between time, until God dispenses the divine will on both the evil and the good, the righteous person remains hopeful and confident that their cries are being heard and that divine protection will prevail. The psalmist assures us that the Lord listens to the longings of those who suffer. God offers them hope and pays attention to their cries for help.

Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.

Romans 12:21, MSG

The way to face down the presence of hard-hearted people is to be both active and passive in the right ways: 

  • Actively cry out to God in prayer
  • Actively work for good
  • Take a pass on exacting revenge
  • Take a pass on nursing grudges and hate

If we can encourage one another to persevere in being consistently good, even while in the teeth of evil, it will go a long way toward spreading God’s benevolent and gracious kingdom and seeing God’s moral and ethical will done in our families, communities, and world.

Unfortunately, backstabbers will always be with us, no matter where we go, this side of heaven. Stay calm, don’t let the evil stick to your soul, and step back to see the big picture that vengeance belongs to the Lord… and maybe listen to some O’Jays while you’re at it.

God of justice and righteousness, you defend those who are vulnerable and in need. You will act so that no one on earth can terrify and harm others again. Shoo the bullying and belligerent ways of Satan away so that your heavenly kingdom may take root in the church and the world for the sake of Jesus our Savior. Amen

Jeremiah 7:1-15 – Holding People Accountable

The prophet Jeremiah, Basilica of St Vitalis, Ravenna, Italy—Photo by mountainpix

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 who 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.”

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave to your ancestors forever and ever.

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? I, too, am watching, says the Lord. Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel. 

And now, because you have done all these things, says the Lord, and when I spoke to you persistently, you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer, therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your ancestors just what I did to Shiloh. And I will cast you out of my sight, just as I cast out all your kinsfolk, all the offspring of Ephraim. (New Revised Standard Version)

One of the dangers of the religious life is slipping into the view that possessing a certain thing protects us from all harm – sort of like a talisman or rabbit’s foot.

Today’s Old Testament lesson is a classic example of succumbing to just such a danger. The ancient Jews in Jerusalem, in the days of the prophet Jeremiah, sincerely believed that because they had God’s temple in their city that this would protect them from any kind of attack from the outside. 

What is more, since they viewed the temple as an incredibly powerful good-luck-charm, the people thought that they could do whatever they wanted; they were covered and protected. So, they had no sense of accountability to the holy God whose temple overlooked Jerusalem and saw all of their unjust ways.

An engraving of the prophet Jeremiah by Léonard Gaultier (1561-1641)

Separated by a few millennia, we might see the folly with this magical type of thinking. Yet, it is just as easy for us to slip into the same mentality. 

Whenever we Americans think that our nation is so great that no one will ever take us over; or when we sincerely believe that because we are a missionary-sending nation that God will protect us; or when we buy into the notion that we can live however we want, but God would never judge us!; after all, we aren’t as bad as other nations!; well, then, we have come under the same condemnation as the Jews of old, we need to hear God’s Word for us today.

Jeremiah’s message was uncompromising. He clearly let the people know that while they have been living their hedonistic lives, God has been trying to talk them. But the people refused to listen. The prophet insisted that having the temple in the city is not some inoculation from keeping enemies at bay.

The prophet Jeremiah asserted that the people must change their ways, start living right, and be fair and honest with each other. They need to stop taking advantage of foreigners, orphans, and widows. They cannot kill innocent people and worship other gods, then turn around and invoke the temple as God’s presence and sanction on their security.

Justice is the responsibility of everyone; there are no favorites with God. The Lord does not favor particular people, ethnicities, or nations above others. Because one is an American, or not, makes no difference. Race and gender don’t come into view.

The sovereign God will hold all people culpable for their violent speech and behavior, no matter who they are or where they are from. Oppression, injustice, and spiritual gerrymandering will be dealt with by Judge Jesus, for both Jew and Gentile, man and woman, Westerner and Easterner, young and old.

For whom God has given much, much will be required. The Lord holds all people accountable for their actions.

Holy God, you still speak today through your Holy Word. Help me to listen well and pay attention to what you are saying so that I might honor you through humility and obedience for the sake of Jesus. Amen.

Isaiah 5:1-7 – A Parable of the Vineyard

I will sing for the one I love
    a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
    on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
    and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
    and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
    but it yielded only bad fruit.

“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
    judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
    than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
    why did it yield only bad?

Now I will tell you
    what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
    and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
    and it will be trampled.

 I will make it a wasteland,
    neither pruned nor cultivated,
    and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
    not to rain on it.”

The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
    is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
    are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
    for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. (New International Version)

God is the owner of the vineyard. Israel and Judah are the beloved. The Lord graciously chose them, gave them divine promises, and set his steadfast love upon them. God sang over them with affection and took care of them.

The Lord God put time, effort, and love into the relationship. God anticipated good things, looked forward to a bright future, and expected a flowering of justice and righteousness from the people.

It didn’t happen. The relationship went sour. Nothing but rotten grapes.

God builds. God gives. God sustains…. And God destructs. God takes away. God ends what he begins.

The Lord didn’t put all that work into the people to have them perpetuate injustice toward the poor and disadvantaged. God didn’t choose Israel so that they would then neglect God’s law by mistreating others and ignoring the right.

The bloodshed of the people was that they squeezed and bled the poor to death. The cries and anguished responses of the needy were ignored. There was no mercy. So, God was not about to idly stand by and let such rotten grapes abuse and ruin the good, the just, and the right.

The relationship between and God and God’s people was an ancient love song that went off key and struck a minor chord. The Lord has extreme love and patience… until he doesn’t. There’s no way the just and right God is going to put up with abusive, ignorant, and bad folks forever.

Jesus had this allegorical image of Isaiah in mind when he spoke in parables about the impossibility of good fruit coming from bad vines and trees, and the necessity of removing dead branches. (Luke 6:43-45; John 15:1-17)

If the grapes are bad, the vine is bad. If the words are hateful, sarcastic, passive-aggressive, manipulative, conniving, racist, hurtful, mean, foolish, and either subtly or overtly abusive, then the person has a dark heart and is need of redemption, not excuses.

Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. The wicked heart will not be able to speak ill of others and act hatefully with impunity forever. They will be called to account for their abusive words and actions, whether overtly violent, or subtly undermining.

The righteous heart, however, shall experience divine pleasure and reward, as if the careful construction of helpful and building up words with loving deeds wins first-prize at the great heavenly fair.

The good person loves and does not hate. They are so far from harming anyone that they even pray and wish well for their enemies. They pray for blessings on those who curse them. There is an honest striving to speak good words to everyone, regardless of who they are.

The upright heart thinks the best of everyone and holds nothing over someone else’s head. Such a good heart condemns no one, leaving all judgment to God alone. It is patient with the most exasperating of people, praying they might come to their senses and become spiritually healthy.

The righteous are able to use their speech to admonish their neighbor with care and affection. They freely forgive, happily give, liberally encourage, and use their tongue to speak words of life. Indeed, their speech is wise, humble, full of grace, and above all, loving.

The just and right person uses their hands and feet to build good things for others, especially the most vulnerable and needy among us. They willingly meet needs without bitterness or with a begrudging heart.

If there is a problem with words, it will not do to simply change the speech. That’s because it is a heart issue. And the heart must be willing to change and be transformed by sheer mercy.

If there is an issue with actions, it will not do to merely enforce a change in behavior. That’s because it’s a heart problem. And the heart desperately needs to acknowledge sin and repent from evil.

Fortunately, God is the expert on renovating dilapidated hearts and performing effective heart transplants.

Oftentimes something needs to be destroyed for a building to be erected. There always needs to be a death before there can be a resurrection. New life cannot occur without forsaking an old life.

Believers in Jesus are mindful that our life of faith, hope, and love comes from a death. So, we journey with Jesus along the road of suffering, up Calvary, and are crucified with him so that we might rise with him.

This is the way.

It is the way of repentance, of genuine change, of new habits, of Christianity. So now, let’s go to him outside the camp, bearing his shame. We don’t have a permanent city here, but rather we are looking for the city that is still to come. (Hebrews 13:13-14)

May justice, righteousness, and peace be yours in abundance through him who gave himself for us and for our salvation.

Merciful Father, we pray that violence will be overcome by the power of love; that opposition and division give way to reconciliation; and that the desire for power and control be transformed into the desire for forgiveness, justice, and peace.

May peace be in our hearts so that they are open to the action of your divine grace.

May all humanity – especially the poor, the needy, the least among us, and the lost – feel the warmth of your steadfast love and the love of your people toward them.

May the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control be our breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and may your divine abundance of mercy and justice be scattered throughout our city, our nation, and our world, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the strength of your Holy Spirit.

Amen.