26 November 2017
Today, we are in our third Sunday of journeying through the Hebrew Scriptures’ Nevi’im, the books of the prophets … and here, today, we make a distinct move into something new.
That something new – is the Exile. The final fall of Israel to her outside invaders, and God’s people being forcibly taken away from the land of God’s promise.
And the prophet we meet today – this “last days” prophet – is Jeremiah.
In the Bible book order of the prophets, Jeremiah comes second, right after Isaiah. And he’s also in second place when it comes to the physical length of his book – 52 chapters, right after Isaiah’s 66.
Like the other prophets, we don’t know a lot personally about Jeremiah. We believe him to be born into the priestly line in Judah, the southern kingdom (remember that after King Solomon, the northern and southern parts of Israel split, and formed two kingdoms … Israel in the north, with its capital of Samaria; and Judah in the south, with its capital, Jerusalem. Israel fell first to invaders, around 722 BCE, leaving Judah alone as the remaining people of God’s promise, in that land of God’s promise.
In the time line of history, Jeremiah’s bookends are 627 BCE to 586 BCE. He was born in the final days of Judah being its own kingdom … living through the first siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians (598-597 BCE), during which time a portion of the ruling class – including the prophet/priest Ezekiel, were taken off to exile in Babylon.
And Jeremiah died in the midst of a most terrible time for his people. The years 587 and 586 BCE witnessed these events: after a last-ditch effort by King Zedekiah to resist invasion, Jerusalem fell hard to those same Babylonians, with the rest of the city’s remaining population taken off to Babylon and exile; the Temple was destroyed, the city laid waste … and then, that final, terrible event … King Zedekiah himself was taken captive by the invading Babylonians, during which time he witnessed his sons killed before him, and then, after his captors gouged out his eyes, he was also taken away to exile.
As I said, Jeremiah is the “last days” prophet. All the doom and gloom predicted by the prophets who went before him, God’s anger at his people for their two-fold disobedience … going after other gods, and abandoning God’s justice and righteousness, especially as God calls God’s people to take special care of the poor, the powerless, the downtrodden, the elderly, the stranger and aliens in their midst … all that, ignored, flouted, for so long …. God’s justice and righteousness finally, finally had its day, its terrible, terrible day, and it was all witnessed by Jeremiah.
Now – it should be noted – Jeremiah has another identifying mark which is unique among the Hebrew prophets. His secretary and friend, Baruch, is given credit and honor in Jeremiah’s prophecies … indeed, there are two more books of the Old Testament which are attributed – at least, in part - to this Baruch – the book of Lamentations, which immediately follows the book of Jeremiah; and the book of Baruch, which appears as one of what are known as the deuteron-Canonical books of the Old Testament, otherwise called the Apocrypha.
That’s a little history of the man Jeremiah.
Now, as for what’s going on in today’s text … nearly thirty chapters into the book … we know more. Here, Jeremiah is writing – from Jerusalem - to those of the Judean ruling class who have already been taken off into exile in Babylon.
And this is a revolutionary word; a word no one has ever said before, let alone a prophet of God’s word:
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
This first part of Jeremiah’s word is revolutionary because through it, God is calling on God’s people to live in faith and hope, with and toward their Babylonian captors.
Settle in, live as faithful, hopeful people … this is the word of the Lord through Jeremiah for those who have been taken away captive. And more … seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
This is a word which previews and predicts another word, about living with one’s enemies, which Jesus shares some 600 years later, in his Sermon on the Mount:
I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven …
Now, returning to Jeremiah’s word … the second part of our text today was no less jarring to God’s people:
For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the LORD.
The lie these deceiving prophets and diviners were proclaiming, was that everything that had happened … the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the city and the Temple, the Exile itself … this was but a “temporary setback” for God’s people, and God would surely bring all this suffering to a swift end; they’d be back in Jerusalem faster than you can say the name of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar!
But Jeremiah knew the Truth … and told it to God’s people.
For thus says the LORD: Only when Babylon's seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.
The truth was harsh – because of your disobedience, your two-fold disobedience, God’s people – chasing after other gods, ignoring God’s justice and righteousness – because of your disobedience, you will be in exile for an entire lifetime. Few to any who were taken away from the land of God’s promise would be alive to see the day when they would go back home.
In this way the evil that God’s people had done, in going after other gods, in ignoring the cries for justice and righteousness from their poor brothers and sisters – over those 70 years the evil that God’s people had done, would be purged from the land, and God would make a clean start with them.
Now, perhaps this word sounds strange to us. But actually, it’s been a word proclaimed in our own American history as well. And no less than President Lincoln knew it, and quoted it, to the American people. No, we’re not the new Israel, we never have been, and never will be, but we have committed plenty of our own ignorance of God’s justice and righteousness over the course of our own existence … including, and most certainly, today.
To President Lincoln, in his time, facing the evil of slavery, our nation’s ignorance of God’s justice and righteousness at that time was terribly clear. From Lincoln’s second inaugural address, 1865:
If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
Judgment. Remember, this is the first word of the prophet. Judgment, calling people back through repentance, to turn around, to acknowledge and admit their sin, to confess and be forgiven.
But remember that there is another word of the prophet … hope. Hope is the necessary second word of the prophet, the word which rescues God’s people from eternal despair.
Here, Jeremiah remembers the words we heard two weeks ago, spoken by the prophet Amos:
The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.
They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it.
And Jeremiah also recalls the prophet Isaiah’s words, which we heard last week:
(The people) will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry; when they are hungry, they will accurse their king and their gods. They will turn their faces upward, or they will look to the earth, but will see only distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be thrust into thick darkness.
Today, we hear Jeremiah’s great grace-reversal of the words of both Amos and Isaiah:
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
Hope is the word from Jeremiah for God’s people … a future with hope.
Hope – combined with grace. Grace from the exiles – in how they were to treat their captors, and their land, their home for those 70 years … and grace for the exiles … that at the end of those 70 years, they would be brought back to their home … thus, a future, with hope.
Which is, most certainly, also, the word Jesus brings his disciples – and us – in the Gospel reading.
As in Jeremiah, there is a note of judgment along with Jesus’ observation that
Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.
Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
The Word of God remains forever; it is eternal. The same Word of God called out to the people through the prophets centuries earlier ends up being Jesus’ central Word in John’s Gospel – love one another – care most especially for the poor, live lives of justice and righteousness before God and with one another – and “the proof is in the pudding” of who it is that follows Jesus, and who does not. Whether they label themselves with Christ’s name is no matter. Judgment will be upon those who do not keep Jesus’ words; Jesus will call for repentance, so that hope may come to the world through Jesus.
And the way Jesus will send that hope will be through the Advocate … God’s Spirit … Jesus’ Spirit … who has been from the beginning as God and with God, bringing truth and light and hope into God’s world, for the sake of God’s world …
Hope … sent through means … water … word … bread and wine … shared peace … community. In all these ways, God’s hope is sent, is brought, into a world whose hunger and thirst for hope is no less than it was for God’s people, to whom Jeremiah was writing, some 2600 years ago.
Hope … which, on this day which we call Christ the King, we are reminded, comes to us through a very different kind of King … one whose rule is one of peace … but not as the world gives; not a “for show” peace or an “at the cost of this or that” peace … but real peace … whose rule is not marked by fearful or troubled hearts … no, Jesus’ rule is the rule of love, in the flesh, lived out, serving, suffering, dying, raised again … so that the old ways are dead forever and only new life, life in this Christ the King, is what matters and will rule the world going forward.
Powers that be, you are on notice.
Injustice and unrighteousness, you are dead, and soon, gone from God’s world.
Judgment is the word for those who refuse to hear, and repent and obey.
But Hope is the word for those who do, who hear, and repent, and follow their King … the one ruler who truly matters … Christ … the … King.