We continue to move ahead in time, though we remain in the Southern Kingdom, such as it is. Jeremiah was born in 650 BCE, about 100 years or so after the events we read about Isaiah last week.
He was born in Anathoth, a small town just north of Jerusalem. He belonged to a priestly family, probably the same one that cared for the Ark of the Covenant after its return from Egypt, and the family to which the high priest Eli had belonged.
If we had time to read all of Jeremiah, we would actually get a pretty good idea of what his life was like. We would also see that he had a tender heart that longed for peace and rest for himself and for his people. This longing must have made his call and his message all the more difficult. The first portion of our reading today is from the opening of the book of Jeremiah, in which he hears what the Lord wants from him.
We’ll start at Chapter 1, verse 4 Listen for the Word of the Lord:
1:4 Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, 5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
6 Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
7 But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, “I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”
9 Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
Jeremiah indeed started his prophetic work when we was very young, while under the reign of Josiah. He generally spoke to the men on the streets, while his relative Hulda spoke to the women, and his teacher Zephaniah preached in the synagogue.
As we turn to the next portion of our reading, at the start of Chapter 7, we see one of his key teachings, a call to return to true worship, not only in the synagogue but as a way of living under the covenant with God. Again, let us approach the Word of God in expectation….
7:1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 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. 3 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.
4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” 5 For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, 6 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, 7 then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.
8 Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 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? 11 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.
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you”
When I read those words about God’s relationship with Jeremiah, I can’t help but hear echoes of the psalmist’s words…
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
And as God continues, I can’t help but recall the assurances God gave to the other fearful, reluctant, fallible, and often young women and men. People like Moses, Gideon, Miriam, Deborah, Joshua. Like Mary, Joseph…
All of whom needed to hear…
Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.
Jesus offered similar words to his disciples…
My peace I give to you. My peace I leave with you.
As you are going into the world, making disciples and baptizing them…
I will be with you.
Paul, who was not with them to hear these words… he got it, too. The God in Christ who knocked sense into Paul on the road to Damascus would be with him in every journey to come.
In fact Paul’s letters to the earliest communities of Christ-followers were full of assurances that the Spirit of the Lord was with them.
That Paul’s prayers are with them.
And that Jesus the Christ was praying for them.
And in Ephesians, we get a sense of how this Pharisee among Pharisees understands the work that all of us are called to in light of Christ’s work in us. Which is not altogether different from Jeremiah’s word…
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself here. We need first to look at what Jeremiah was dealing with in his own context
Jeremiah was needed in a particular time and place. He was called to speak words of truth and wisdom to the people of Israel. From his mother’s first birth pains onward, Jeremiah existed for more than himself, more than his family.
In the same way, from God’s earliest promises to Abram and Sarai, Israel was called to be a people and a nation who would exist for more than themselves.
Generations of prophets had been speaking truth to power, seeking to help Israel live into that vision. And now it was Jeremiah’s turn. And would be for some forty years, in fact.
Josiah, one of the few good kings in the late history of Judah, was a reformer. He heard Jeremiah’s words and sought to bring true worship back to the temple. Unfortunately, not all of his other decisions were as wise. And then Johiakim and Zedekiah were completely off the rails.
Which meant for most of those 40 years, Jeremiah was preaching a hard word. One that the people needed, but didn’t necessarily want to hear.
A word that he knew was going to be mostly ignored.
One that we need to hear, if I’m honest.
Especially if we hope to live into the vision of being the Kingdom of God. And I do mean us…
as in all of us…
One of the things you’ll hear from me on a regular basis is this: the word YOU in God’s conversations and commands are almost always the plural YOU. As in YOU ALL or Y’ALL
Even the most accurate translations can’t overcome the fact that You (singular) and You (plural) look and sound just alike.
Or the fact that our culture is MUCH more individualistic than the Jewish culture in which our holy texts were written. So…we need to listen extra carefully to God’s commands and promises.
For instance, God will be with Jeremiah, absolutely. In fact, his story is filled with ways that God intervenes when enemies plot to kill the prophet. But I will be with you isn’t solely about Jeremiah. It’s about Jeremiah in the context of the people of Israel. I will be with you AND y’all.
Now, to say this is a tumultuous time for Judah would be an understatement. Assyria’s power has waned; the Babylonian Empire is on the rise. Other mid-sized nations are taking advantage of this opportunity to stretch and pillage a bit.
In other words, there isn’t a lot of good news for the people of Israel. And – SPOILER ALERT – by the end of Jeremiah’s story, the inhabitants of Jerusalem will be taken into exile.
Which leads me to a second important idea:
I will be with you is not the same as it’s all good.
God’s presence is not a security blanket
God’s presence is not a magic wand
God’s presence is not a talisman against bad things happening.
So Jeremiah, who longs to offer a word of hope and peace, is called to tell the people that the world is an awful, dangerous, messy place.
That yes, God’s here with us, but not because we’ve doing anything right.
Not because we have the right liturgy or the best musicians.
In fact, we’ve pretty well mucked it all up.
Standing at the Gates of the Temple, watching the people file in, Jeremiah is torn. He knows that worship offers a sense of God’s presence.
It offers some comfort.
But he also knows that it’s not enough.
The people have lost sight of what it means to love God…
All day, every day.
In spirit and truth.
In word and deed.
He knows that a word of Grace is not what they need.
And so right there in the courtyard, Jeremiah speaks God’s judgment, which makes some sense of all those verbs God used to describe Jeremiah’s call.
There are religious and civil structures that need to be torn down and destroyed.
There are habits and rituals that need plucking out
There are actions and perhaps priests that must be pruned.
Not by dropping fire from heaven (which God is certainly capable of)
Not by sending invading hordes- They’ve made that choice on their own.
God sends Jeremiah to remind the people that if they are not experiencing God’s presence in their households,
it’s not because God has left.
The people themselves have have chosen to live and lead and even worship as if God is not necessary.
They’ve got it covered.
They are so sure of themselves, their wisdom, their words, their ways of doing worship that there is no room for God.
I can’t even say that this time of year without thinking about Mary and Joseph. There wasn’t room in people’s homes when God came to be with us and instead found their welcome among the animals.
But that’s over 600 years away yet… Jeremiah needs the king and the people to get reoriented right now. Like Micah and Isaiah before him, Jeremiah reminds the people what God expects of them… what God expects of us:
Full participation in covenant life.
They need to step it up and live like they know that God is the God of justice.
And so he reminds them of the commandments that all of their laws were based on…
Don’t be fooled any more, Jeremiah says…
Don’t be fooled by these false leaders…
God wants you.
All of you… your heart, soul, mind and strength
God wants your loyalty.
When you are at God’s house and when you’re out about.
Your lives should be dripping with honesty, generosity, compassion, love.
Step it up…
Take care of the widow, the orphan and the immigrant.
Don’t hurt innocent people
And don’t pretend you’re following God when you’re offering praise and sacrifices to other gods. You can’t do both.
God is tired of hearing you talk about this place as a safe haven, a sanctuary
And then seeing you go out to lie, cheat and murder.
Or going out and give your time and adoration to idols.
This place has become more like a hiding place for criminals and thieves who use God’s name as a shield for their misdeeds
Don’t be fooled any more, Jeremiah says…
God wants you.
All of you… your heart, soul, mind and strength
Because that is how living in a covenant as a community works
As siblings in the family of God, loving others as themselves, the people of Israel can again develop bonds of faith, hope and love
Bonds that can withstand invasion, exile and oppression
Bonds that can withstand all the pressures of the ancient world
Bonds that can withstand all the pressures of our modern world
The love that makes that kind of bond possible is in each of us and all of us. That love is, in fact, the very core of our being,
made as we are in the image of the God who is three and one.
God of the covenant
God of the cross
God of pentecost
Creator, Savior, Comforter
Father, Son, Spirit
God with us. Always
As individuals and as all the WE’s we can imagine
With us as households
As a community of faith
As a denomination
As the church universal
As children of Abraham
And even as beloved sheep who don’t yet know they have a shepherd
God With us. Always
And always intimately acquainted with our strengths and weaknesses,
Our gifts and deficits
Our fears and our hopes
God is with us. Always.
At the gates
Calling us out of our false worship and self-sufficiency
And into the sanctuary that is God’s grace
Into the fierce grip of God’s love
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
In this week between Thanksgiving and Advent, as we are bombarded with opportunities to worship at the altars of spending and shopping
As tension ramps up between family traditions and inevitable change
As calendars fill and the idea of autopilot sounds really good….
Remember what we await and celebrate the coming of Christ our King…
God with us.
Sending us back out through the gates
Restored. Redeemed. Remade.
Together. The body of Christ,
Created for a purpose
Hear the good news that Jeremiah was called to give.
God loves you. All. Y’all.
God wants you. All. Y’all.
God needs you – All. Y’all.
God love, wants and needs US to be focused and clear-eyed.
All of us… our combined hearts of love
All of the faith, creativity, hope, and strength we can muster
It’s what WE are made for.