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Preached by Rev. Jeremy Keay.
God Story Sermons: Jeremiah (selected verses: Jer. 36:1-8, 21-23, 27-28; then Jer. 31:31-34)
This week our story in the Narrative Lectionary is found in the difficult and enormous book of Jeremiah. With over 42000 words, and some bleak stories, it can be a tough read.
Jeremiah has a reputation, perhaps well-earned, as a giant downer.
But I would agree with our Lectionary editors that we need Jeremiah, and if we dig deep enough, we’ll find the glimmers of hope amidst the prophetic doom and gloom.
His is the story of God’s tenacious grace, even in the midst of dark times.
Today’s reading is a reminder of what a difficult enterprise Bible-making was
Life as a Hebrew prophet wasn’t easy — and this week’s story is a Doozy.
And it wasn’t just because they said unpopular things.
Their whole lives became a sort of dramatic Andy Kaufman, Johnny Knoxville, Yoko Ono style performance art
Like bitter satire that could get you killed.
Part political cartoon
Part court Jester — really dangerous. Dead Serious.
Why All the shenanigans?
Hosea tells us:
The prophet is a fool the spiritual man is mad For the multitude of thy iniquity And the great hatred…
In a nation gone off the rails, either the prophets are fools.
Or they’re the only ones telling us anything true.
Foolish like the time
God asked Isaiah to walk around naked for 3 years “a symbol of the terrible troubles I will bring upon Egypt and Ethiopia.”
“umm, OK, I can do that…”
Hosea really took one for team God —
he maintained a terrible marriage with a sex trade worker, and then gave his children the Names Lo-ruhamah and Lo-ammi roughly translated
Not-pittied and Not-my-people –childhood expressions of God’s displeasure
These texts handed down in the Hebrew prophetic tradition, began as living texts with names like Jeremiah.
These prophets were an organic Spirit breathed embodiment of the national crisis
The pain of the nation fleshed out in a meat and bone person.
Hard truths with theological perspective, divine insight with a God’s-eye-view come to life, and put at risk in the world.
These prophets were the reality of Yahweh’s voice come to life in graphic words of rebuke, comfort and hope, and promise lived and breathed, cried out, and performed.
Spirit-breathed people proclaimed the God message with their lives — even paid for it with their lives.
Propheting was dangerous work.
In city streets, at court, in the assembly, in homes, in the wilderness, at tables, and in back yards and gardens
The fleshy, lived out, calamity of a message
Now and then, when called upon, someone wrote this stuff down.
By this point in the big story, we’ve followed Israel as
God’s promise to a tired and cynical old couple
a growing reality with a messy family dynamic
captive people making bricks for Pharaoh
stubborn wandering wilderness people
military nation building enterprises
a political concern and a brief success as a united kingdom of sorts.
In Jeremiah’s time around 600 BCE, God’s people were in two fractured vassal kingdoms — paying tribute to keep their skin
scrambling for survival as the surrounding empires were redrawing the map and generals were pushing little armies across the table.
The last days of the national project of Israel were coming to an end.
Jeremiah’s world was not a happy one.
And his predictions acted out with all the dramatic flourish you’d expect were, quite frankly, horrifying.
The Southern kingdom of Judah will fall
Jerusalem will be destroyed.
The people will be carried off. Jeremiah 5 tells us:
And when your people say, “Why has the Lord our God done all these things to us?” you shall say to them, “As you have forsaken me and served foreign gods in your land, so you shall serve strangers in a land that is not yours.”
Nations and Kings rise and fall
Amidst all of this people make their plans
Judah can try the Empire route, jockeying for position and power
Worship the foreign gods
Abandoning the God of their ancestors.
But the Jeremiah’s words are clear:
This will lead to your ruin.
And yet, through all this, God doesn’t give up.
The persistent voice of the prophets, page after page after page
42,659 words in Jeremiah alone is an attempt to capture the imagination of the people.
To wake them up and call them back from disaster.
Today’s story is a last ditch effort, a Greycup Sunday 4th quarter Hail Mary pass. *football content!*
Just as Jeremiah served as a living proclamation of God’s heart for Judah,
For the purpose of this story, Jehoiakim King of Judah is the anti prophet an embodiment of everything that is wrong with the nation.
For those who appreciate irony, his name means: He who God has set up.
The son of the popular reformer and child Prodigy, Josiah — Jehoiakim holds court and plays king, even as the nations surrounding Judah plot his doom.
So here in chapter 36 — God gives it another try.
In the fourth year of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Take a scroll and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel and Judah and all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah until today. It may be that when the house of Judah hears of all the disasters that I intend to do to them, all of them may turn from their evil ways, so that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin.
It may be…
Words with some potential left in them.
God holds onto the possibility, the long shot chance that the message will finally get through.
A hope that Judah will listen
So Jeremiah, and his trusty scribe Baruch compile a first draft.
A rendering of God’s judgment on the nations
And God’s intention to make things right with his people.
Already an unpopular figure, Jeremiah is Blacklisted, and for his own safety, he sends Baruch to read the Scroll in the Temple.
And everybody heard.
We don’t know the exact content of the scroll, but this is Jeremiah.
Not the sort to pull his punches.
Not a politician or a gentle persuader.
These are hard words for hard times.
The scroll causes quite a stir.
Naturally the political hacks and the royal officials are in the crowd,
and they bring word to the King’s chamber.
Jeremiah and Baruch wisely go into hiding.
Maybe a lifetime of movies have thoroughly infected my imagination, but at this point in the story I can’t help but picture Jehoiakim as a sort of hollywood gangster.
A kingpin with some thick-necked bodyguards and an entourage.
In recline in his cozy winter chalet.
Surrounded by yes-men and thugs.
There’s a fire in the hearth
Servant girls bring him an oversized tumbler of Scotch Whisky.
Let’s say he’s wearing lots of tacky jewelry
and a big Fedora
silk pajamas maybe?
Fresh back from his massage?
He probably has a little golf green set up in his office. Don’t talk while he’s putting, whatever you do.
Maybe he’s petting a cat or feeding his exotic fish.
Whatever the setting Jehoiakim’s response doesn’t call for much interpretation.
In effort to display all the Contempt he can muster
Jehoiakim casually slices off pieces of Jeremiah’s scroll with his pocket knife.
Line by line
Column by column
The little gangster king makes a great show of burning each piece of the scroll.
And the hangers on in the room don’t even break a sweat.
Just as Jeremiah lived and breathed and shook with passion for God’s message
Jehoiakim embodied and acted out his flippant rejection
Destroying the evidence
Joining a long line of rulers and authorities who exercise violence against the truth
violence against the text
As if silencing Jeremiah would make his words a lie.
As predicted, things do not go well for Jehoiakim or Jerusalem or the kingdom of Judah.
For a short time the little king juggled his diplomatic relationships with Egypt and Babylon, but that didn’t last.
And then Doomsday.
When he’d pulled one double-deal too many, the wheels fell off the cart.
Soon enough Jerusalem was under siege at the hand of the Babylonians,
And Jehoiakim died,
and the people of the city unceremoniously threw his body over the city walls.
He who God has set up.
was thrown down.
And the people of Judah were hauled off to Babylon as captives and exiles.
After this, a great bulk of Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry is an outpouring of sorrow and Lament in the wake of Jerusalem’s destruction. Including the heartbreaking poetry that is Jeremiah’s book of Lamentations. Any of us who might be concerned that our religion is out touch with the pain in the world, might want to read the book of Lamentations.
And even in that heartbroken poetry we read:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
Just as Jeremiah lived out and embodied the warnings to the rebel nation,
Jeremiah wept for their loss.
The living soul of a grieving people.
Mourning and corporate grief personified.
With glimpses of God’s Faithfulness
Thankfully the Narrative lectionary people don’t leave us here.
They know Jeremiah too well. And so they end this story with a glimpse of God’s bigger plan — in Chapter 31.
A bit awkward for our purposes, but critical to understanding this story in the bigger context.
As much as Jeremiah’s prophesies of woe and doom seem to dominate page after page,
Ultimately his words are not the voice of despair. Though he gets pretty close.
sprinkled throughout these writings are assurances of God’s ultimate desire to make things right with his people.
As demonstrated in God’s faithfulness to his people even when they are captives.
God simply does not give up on his people.
Even after they’ve pushed things to the worst possible outcome.
God has bigger plans.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. …
I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
In the midst of God’s people at their very worst, we catch glimpses of God’s best plans for a new covenant.
A new Hope for a hopeless people.
Our hope, as a New People of God, found in the chapters of the Narrative yet to come.
New People — Forgiven even.
And yet, I think it’s safe to say, we still need Jeremiah’s voice as much as ever.
We need Jeremiah’s voice because the world is still a dangerous place.
Filled with casual negligence, arrogance, and ambition of those in power which still leaves whole cities destroyed and their people cast down.
It’s Jeremiah’s kind of crisis when people find themselves under the boots of empire, herded like livestock,
cut down, crushed and used up.
The 20th century was Jeremiah’s century on almost every continent.
Refugees and sweatshop workers, plantation slaves and victims of mass murder in the name of empire.
It’s the story of people who serve as Fodder for history’s cannons and commodities in our factories
Uniform filler — able bodies, young men and women used up for ideologies and despots, national pride and global economies.
And people in power are still shredding documents
Destroying the records
Deleting their files
Another scandal — another cover-up
Violence against the text
Violence against the truth
The Prayers of God’s People
if they’re honest
Are Jeremiah’s Lament
When we join in the Spirit’s Groanings
because the pain of the world is beyond words.
Closer to home, we are often more tangled and enmeshed in Empire than perhaps we would like to admit.
We need Jeremiah’s voice because we know that it’s all too easy to join our culture’s casual negligence.
To enjoy the cozy luxuries our empires and our systems and our economies afford us.
It’s easy to distance ourselves from the consequences of our actions.
To downplay our own power as easily as we
Delete our browser history
Or change the channel
In short — there are a lot of ways to live as though God has no place in this world.
Jeremiah helps us see some of these Hard truths with divine insight and a God’s-eye-view
We especially need Jeremiah
As he reminds us that even in the face of great trouble
Ours is a patient God, who doesn’t give up
He will get his way
And we are recipients of much grace.
More grace than we can know.
And his new covenant makes it possible for us to be
Spirit-breathed people proclaiming
the God message with our lives
Peace and Reconciliation
lived and breathed,
The organic embodiment of God’s Grace
fleshed out in people like you and me.
The lived out prophetic community of God’s people.
Thanks be to God.