Monday, August 16, 2010

My First Jeremiad

The following is a transcript of my first sermon, which I preached yesterday, August 15th, at St. George's Anglican in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania.  Numbers in brackets refer to footnotes at the bottom, asterisks to comments I excised in the editing process because of excess erudition.  The readings for this week were as follows:  Psalm 82; Jeremiah 23:23-29; Hebrews 12:1-14; Luke 12:49-56.  This sermon is built around the Old Testament reading.

Where is God? Can anyone here tell me? Or show me? We might simply say, “everywhere,” right? As Christians we believe that God is omnipresent: he is “maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen” (that’s from the creed) and he is “before all things, and in him all things hold together”[1] (that’s from Paul). In our Old Testament reading this morning, God put it this way through the prophet Jeremiah: “Am I a God near by, says Yahweh, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says Yahweh. Do I not fill heaven and earth?”[2] He is in all places at all times, and we can go nowhere where he cannot find us.

We know this is true, as doctrine. But, on a daily basis, how aware are we of God? Do we not often imagine him to be “a God far off”? I will speak for myself and admit that in my weakness I do not always believe and act as though God is present with me, as though he is acquainted with all my ways.[3] When we believe God to be absent, we sin with even less restraint. Those are not the moments in my life that I am proud of, or that I would be very happy to share with a group of strangers on a Sunday morning. Yet I made those decisions, I suppressed what I knew to be true about God, and so did you. All of us here today have at one point or another acted on the tacit assumption that God is not watching.

Please permit me, then, to tell a story about an ancient group of people who did the same. Israel, though the very ones chosen by God to bear his promises to the world, famously failed to live up to their high calling. In Israel’s long and winding road of a history, we find both grace and judgment at work in hundreds of messy stories involving ordinary people interacting with an extraordinary God. Grace because God chose them and stayed faithful to them regardless of their faithlessness, judgment because God did not forever tolerate their disobedience.

In the year five-hundred eighty-six, before Christ, an army of Babylon attacked Jerusalem, destroyed Solomon’s temple and carted off millions of Hebrews to be slaves in another land. It has been called “The Babylonian Captivity” and “The Exile,” and it was one of the most devastating moments in Jewish history. God’s chosen people lost the land God had promised to their forefathers and given to them through the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan. God’s chosen people lost the building where Yahweh himself dwelled—Solomon’s temple, the holy of holies, heaven on earth.

Israel assumed Yahweh to be “a God far off” in the starkest way: by worshiping the fertility god Baal. Honoring and sacrificing to another god implies Yahweh is not who he says he is, that his covenants cannot be trusted, that his faithfulness amounts to nil. So God sent Babylon, called God’s army[4] by the prophet Joel, and they destroyed the keystone markers of Israel’s identity:  land and temple.  They were left with only confusion and despair. They suffered the sharp end of God’s ancient promise to them from the book of Deuteronomy: “If your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.”[5]

In the year six-hundred twenty-seven, before Christ, some forty years before the invasion, nothing could have been further from Israel’s mind. The people of God lived in the land which God had given them, and all was right with the world. But then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah. “Jeremiah!” God says (I’m paraphrasing). “You’re a prophet!” Jeremiah says back, “But I’m only a boy.” “Don’t say that! You’ll speak my words to nations, and they’ll succeed or fail because of them.” Not so bad, right? Jeremiah was certainly handed a big task, and he was inexperienced. But he had God’s reassurance: “I am with you to deliver you.”[6] The turn of the screw, however, comes with the content of Jeremiah’s first assignment. God’s message to Israel? “Out of the north disaster shall break out on all the inhabitants of the land.”[7] What a task that was. First day on the job and already preaching doom and gloom. I can’t imagine (pause).

We can imagine, however, that bringing a message of destruction to a confident kingdom* would not have been easy. From Jeremiah’s story, we see that it wasn’t. His family opposed his work. He enraged the religious leaders and ended up beaten, imprisoned and alone. Even rival prophets went about contradicting his message: “How long?” Jeremiah asks in today’s reading, “Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back—those who prophesy lies, and prophesy the deceit of their own heart?”[8] They recounted dreams and captivated Israel’s imagination with “a God far off,” leading the nation to accept a way of life marked by the absence of God.

It was Jeremiah’s job to call Israel to repentance, to recognize that, in fact, God was not far off but very near. Many of his oracles come as bittersweet supplication, such as God’s plea for his “faithless children” to return in chapter three—he says “I won’t be angry with you! Return to me, for I am merciful.” We see that the God who judges with armies is the God who loves and pleads with his chosen people to return to the sole worship of him. This was God’s message to faithless Israel, and they refused to hear it.

But how could they know? Why believe a naysaying loner when there are plenty of other prophets who say every thing will be alright? God asserts, “Is not my word like fire… like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”[9] It certainly proved to be so. Jeremiah prophesied it and God’s word eventually came to pass, with Babylon’s invasion breaking Israel in pieces. But this became clear to Israel only too late. At the time Jeremiah’s words may have only seemed a crude power-play, playing the proverbial God card in order to legitimize his message. I believe, however, that another message from Jeremiah helps clarify the choice they made as well as the choices we are making today.

Jeremiah, chapter six, verse sixteen: “Thus says Yahweh: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’”[10] Beginning with story of Abraham, through the life of Jacob, the trials of Joseph, the exodus of Moses, and so on, ancient Israel had an even more ancient path laid out in example for them. The people God chose for his purposes always had the measuring rod of covenant, promise and command by which they could judge their lives. They could look to the stories of those who had gone before in order to know who God was, what he was like and what he had to do with their lives. Had they remembered Jacob, they would have known that God is not only near, but close enough to wrestle with. Had they remembered Moses, they would have known both of God’s love for Israel in the Exodus and his anger with them in decades of wandering in the Sinai wilderness.

The false prophets enticed the people, saying, “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!”[11] Something new, unusual, mystical. A feel-good spirituality affirming both the supernatural and the uncomplicated goodness of human life. Baal was a fertility god represented by a cow or calf, itself an ancient symbol of domestic security and stability. Our God certainly loves and blesses safe and happy homes—his original promise to Abraham was to bless all the families of the earth![12] But Baal-worship meant something of an attempt at short-circuiting God’s good intention, seeking prosperous homesteads without reference or devotion to the one true God. Jeremiah’s oracle retorts, “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.”[13] The test of a prophet? Of a spiritual message? Agreement with the story of God so far, a faithful representation and reiteration of God’s relationship with and purpose for humanity. All spiritual messages must sink or swim by this standard.

We may not live in ancient Israel, constantly feeling the hot breath of pagan empires ready to storm through our little strip of land near the Mediterranean Sea. But we do live in a time and place, however, where time-tested securities and inherited values no longer seem as certain as they once were. Our nation is at war in two countries, swinging wildly between political extremes, deeply in debt and struggling to pick up the pieces of a massive economic failure. The confidence and resilience of post-War America have dissipated. Rather than cheer our sure footing as a world leader, we now wonder and doubt whether the king’s men can put Humpty Dumpty back together.

Our national religious life is similarly in tatters. Whereas fifty years ago mainline churches constituted the primary shapers of American religion, today a melting pot of spiritualities and philosophies attempts to eliminate religion from public life altogether. Whether saint or sinner, probably most Americans would have at one time recognized Christianity as basic American religion. As Johnny Cash once sung, “And there's nothing short a' dying / That's half as lonesome as the sound / Of the sleeping city sidewalk / And Sunday morning coming down.”[14] Even rogues and rebels like Cash knew they should be in church, even if they kept away. Today, however, the gospel seems to many as merely one truth claim among many. Our culture suffers a plurality of spiritual options, each seemingly as good as the other. As President Obama has said, we are no longer a Christian nation.

Here, in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, today, August the fifteenth of two-thousand ten, a question presses upon us: “Who ought we to listen to?” How do we tell the Jeremiahs from the false prophets? Like ancient Israel, America, nay, the world stands at a crossroads and God calls us to look to those ancient paths. ** In some sense each day for each individual is a crossroads, a new moment in which we must choose whether we will live as though the Father is “a God near by” or as though he is “a God far off.”

I know from experience that knowing the “God near by” does not happen by a sheer act of will. We cannot force ourselves to live every moment conscious of our Lord any more than we can think about every breath we take, or every time we blink. What then shall we do? We must commit ourselves to constant exposure to the bible’s big story, recalling each and every day the faithfulness of God to his people and the moral and ethical standards he calls them to live by. Through scripture, through prayer, through liturgy and eucharist, we remind ourselves of the nearness of God, we learn how intimately he is involved in our everyday lives.

Let us remember this week those ancient paths tread by God’s people, lives lived in the real world with all its problems, but nevertheless living testimonies to our Father in heaven, and our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

* - orig. "a secure and content ethnic theocracy"
** - orig. "I am not here advocating some aggressive theocratic political agenda, but rather echoing the Bible’s ancient call to 'all people everywhere to repent.'[15]"

[1] Colossians 1:17.
[2] Jeremiah 23:23-24.
[3] Psalm 139:3.
[4] Joel 2:11.
[5] Deuteronomy 30:17-18.
[6] Jeremiah 1:8.
[7] Jeremiah 1:14.
[8] Jeremiah 23:26.
[9] Jeremiah 23:29.
[10] Jeremiah 6:16.
[11] Jeremiah 23:25.
[12] Genesis 12:3.
[13] Jeremiah 23:28.
[14] Johnny Cash, “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
[15] Acts 17:30.

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