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.

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.

Jeremiah 3:1-5 – Spiritual Adultery

“If a man divorces a woman
    and she goes and marries someone else,
he will not take her back again,
    for that would surely corrupt the land.
But you have prostituted yourself with many lovers,
    so why are you trying to come back to me?”
    says the Lord.
“Look at the shrines on every hilltop.
    Is there any place you have not been defiled
    by your adultery with other gods?
You sit like a prostitute beside the road waiting for a customer.
    You sit alone like a nomad in the desert.
You have polluted the land with your prostitution
    and your wickedness.
That’s why even the spring rains have failed.
    For you are a brazen prostitute and completely shameless.
Yet you say to me,
    ‘Father, you have been my guide since my youth.
Surely you won’t be angry forever!
    Surely you can forget about it!’
So you talk,
    but you keep on doing all the evil you can.” (New Living Translation)

We all have needs. 

As humans, each one of us has a deep hunger for love, intimacy, attention, affirmation, and encouragement. When these needs are met within gracious and loving relationships, especially in the marital bond, then there is genuine happiness and flourishing. 

But when our deep wants go unmet over a stretch of time, smiles are replaced with furrowed brows and confident strides give way to slumped shoulders.

We feel deeply and are moved at a visceral level because we are made in the image and likeness of G-d – a G-d who feels and has great emotion. 

Perhaps we too often think of G-d as some disembodied ethereal brain without any feelings. I hope today’s Old Testament lesson puts a collar on such notions. G-d entered into a loving covenant relationship with Israel. Yet, over time, the people looked for their relational, emotional, and spiritual needs to be met in other gods rather than the One true G-d. 

And it pained G-d’s heart.

G-d felt deeply about the people turning away to pursue other gods. The Lord responded to the people like a jilted lover, agonized by their acting like a prostitute – looking for their intimate needs to be satisfied elsewhere. 

It seems to me G-d was so profoundly hurt because the Lord knows that our deepest and greatest needs can only really be met through the divine covenant relationship. People need G-d.

To put it in the stark terms of Jeremiah’s prophecy: 

  • Are we playing the part of a harlot, running after all kinds of other relationships and things that we wrongheadedly believe will meet the needs of our lives? 
  • Do we sell ourselves to others in the misguided belief that we will find true happiness? 
  • Have we sought other lovers and forsaken our first love of the Divine? 

Everyone has a legitimate need for attention, love, and relational connection. The problem arises whenever we seek to meet those needs in illegitimate ways. That’s what we call “sin.”

The most important thing in life is not our job position, our social status, or even whether we are married with family. What matters most is the kind of person you are – it’s all about who you become. Because that’s what you will take into eternity. You and I are unceasing spiritual beings with an eternal destiny in G-d’s great universe.

Spiritual prostitution – and faith communities acting like spiritual brothels – are far beneath who we are and how we were designed by our Creator.

The pathos of G-d calls us to better than hanging out in a dark emotional shame lounge of sordid characters drinking cheap dandelion wine and smoking nasty cut-rate cigars in smelly old leisure suits.

We belong to G-d.

Our place is in the wide-open sunlit rooms of G-d’s kingdom. We have been adopted into G-d’s family and there is no longer any need for walking the streets and going into dive bars, looking for a quick fix of some damning elixir which promises life.

It behooves us all to become aware and connect with our longings and needs, and thereby allowing the G-d who delights to meet those needs into the core of our being.

Know who you really are. Because in that knowing, there is eternal life.

Jealous God, you are zealous for your presence to be known in the lives of all your creatures. Help me to be aware of the deepest needs of my life. May I find in you the desire of my heart and let you fill me with your infinite grace, love, mercy, and attention so that I will know true peace and joy. Amen.

Jeremiah 31:7-14 – A Restored People

Now this is what the Lord says:
“Sing with joy for Israel.
    Shout for the greatest of nations!
Shout out with praise and joy:
‘Save your people, O Lord,
    the remnant of Israel!’
For I will bring them from the north
    and from the distant corners of the earth.
I will not forget the blind and lame,
    the expectant mothers and women in labor.
    A great company will return!
Tears of joy will stream down their faces,
    and I will lead them home with great care.
They will walk beside quiet streams
    and on smooth paths where they will not stumble.
For I am Israel’s father,
    and Ephraim is my oldest child.

“Listen to this message from the Lord,
    you nations of the world;
    proclaim it in distant coastlands:
The Lord, who scattered his people,
    will gather them and watch over them
    as a shepherd does his flock.
For the Lord has redeemed Israel
    from those too strong for them.
They will come home and sing songs of joy on the heights of Jerusalem.
    They will be radiant because of the Lord’s good gifts—
the abundant crops of grain, new wine, and olive oil,
    and the healthy flocks and herds.
Their life will be like a watered garden,
    and all their sorrows will be gone.
The young women will dance for joy,
    and the men—old and young—will join in the celebration.
I will turn their mourning into joy.
    I will comfort them and exchange their sorrow for rejoicing.
The priests will enjoy abundance,
    and my people will feast on my good gifts.
    I, the Lord, have spoken!” (New Living Translation)

Experiencing restoration is a beautiful thing. Sick and suffering bodies restored to health brings rejoicing. Estranged relationships brought together again elicits singing. Spirits broken by sin made whole again through restoring grace causes shouts of joy.

God is an expert in restoration. Dilapidated communities, broken individuals, and peoples in diaspora can find fresh hope amid challenging circumstances.

Take a look at the actions of God through the verbs in today’s Old Testament lesson:

  • “I will bring.” The Lord gathers scattered people together, as well as making the disparate parts of people into a unified whole again.
  • “I will not forget.” In the gathering action of God, no one is left behind. Attention is given to the stragglers, to those unable on their own strength or ability to journey on the road back to the Lord.
  • “I will turn.” The unfortunate are turned into the fortunate. The underprivileged become privileged. Grief, lament, and mourning give way to joy and a new lease on life.
  • “I will comfort.” A great reversal occurs with God’s intervention. Sorrow is transformed into praise. Goodness is found in abundance because the Lord is a good God.

God calls the people to action, to a response of experiencing the restorative powers of grace. The Lord encourages such behavior because it helps us never forget that no one and no circumstance is ever beyond the renewing grace of God. Notice the verbs which characterize that response:

  • “Sing.” No mumbling here, my friends. No timidity about being off tune. A lonely person, fragmented group, depressed community, polarized neighborhood, or scattered nation restored by God’s merciful grace becomes an exuberant people. Singing organically arises from them.
  • “Shout.” Even the rocks will cry out if the people don’t. A last second win in the sports stadium amongst thousands of fans doesn’t even hold a candle to celebrative shouts of believers gathered and restored.
  • “Listen.” Whenever hearing God’s voice results in restoration, then the desire and motivation to listen increases exponentially.
  • “Proclaim.” Proclaiming good news is a joy and privilege. And in anticipation of Epiphany, the gospel declared to Gentiles is a gracious message of inclusion and hope.

We are helped to picture the incredible restoration of people coming together and gathered by God with two metaphors:

  1. The Good Shepherd. Like a faithful shepherd over the flock of sheep, the Lord actively seeks the lost, brings them home, and continues to stand watch over them as a compassionate guardian.
  2. The Exodus. Just as God redeemed the people out of Egyptian slavery and took them to a good land of abundance, so the Lord shall return those persons exiled from that abundant place and restore them to the peace of settled rest.

The restoring action of God gathers the scattered. The lost are found. That which is fragmented is made whole. Those previously disabled become able. The weak become strong, the sick healed, the hungry fed, and the prisoner freed.

In times of famine, pandemic, poverty, hardship, and scant resources, there is hope. The Lord knows how to restore fortunes and bring untold abundance amid the most difficult of situations.

True joy comes through hard suffering. The pains of childbirth give way to unspeakable joy.

Today is the final day in the twelve days of the Christmas season. God, entering humanity through a woman, in the flesh, began the gracious work of ransoming, redeeming, and restoring a sinful world that had exiled itself from peace and abundance. In Christ, our lives are full of blessing.

Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for the spiritual blessings that Christ has brought us from heaven! (Ephesians 1:3, CEV)

“I am the gate. Those who come in by me will be saved; they will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only in order to steal, kill, and destroy. I have come in order that you might have life—life in all its fullness. I am the good shepherd, who is willing to die for the sheep.” (John 10:9-11, GNT)

May you know and experience the restorative grace of God in Christ today and every day. Amen.