“Hear the word of the LORD.” This is Jeremiah’s cry, Jeremiah’s offer. It is the radical claim that the voice and purposes of God can actually be heard by mere mortals. Not just heard, but received in the heart, mind and soul. It is a claim that is at the heart of our life together. The church lives out of the daring assertion that it has been together by the LORD who speaks us into life. It is a word addressed to “the house of Jacob and all the families of the house of Israel”. It is a word spoken to the descendants of Jacob who have received the blessed name “Israel.” It means “the ones who wrestle with God.” So we will not be surprised when the word from the LORD is not a soft, sweet, saccharine spirituality.
Well, to be honest, it does still take us aback when the word from the LORD is hard. We would prefer a message that is constructive, encouraging chicken soup for the soul. Instead we get Jeremiah. Now when someone goes on a rant in the pulpit or at the dinner table people say that they are delivering a “jeremiad”. The Wednesday morning Bible at breakfast group can tell you that we read more than our share of jeremiads as we made our way through all fifty-two chapters of the book of Jeremiah. It is not an easy read. Which goes a long ways towards explaining Jeremiah’s low profile in the church these days. The church is a hard enough sell right now without Jeremiah showing up on Sunday to scare away newcomers. Yet it does not take a student of the New Testament long to see Jeremiah’s fingerprints all over the story of Jesus Christ. The title “New Testament” is, itself, taken straight from Jeremiah. Jesus’ ministry is, in many ways, a re-enactment of Jeremiah’s mission six centuries earlier. Before we write Jeremiah off we owe him a hearing.
The first word out of God’s mouth through Jeremiah is a word of shock and dismay. The ancestors of the present generation have strayed far from God, in search of “worthless things ... becoming worthless themselves.” The people are veering off course. Their leaders forget the one crucial thing - the LORD. The priests do not say “Where is the LORD?” They forget to keep looking for and waiting for the One who “led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives.” Once out of the harsh wilderness and in the land of promise the priests forget to say “Where is the LORD.” We assume that the role of the priest is to say “Here is the LORD.” Often we preachers make all manner of claims that God is here. Jeremiah sees that this can lead to an easy association between our self-interests and the purposes of God. We use God, we shape God in our image, no longer looking for the odd, holy, peculiar presence of God. Imagine if every Sunday the preacher simply asked the congregation to look back on the week behind and to look forward to the week ahead with one question in mind: “Where is the LORD? Where is Jesus Christ?” I suppose it is not an imaginary question. I suppose it is precisely the preacher’s task every Sunday.
But it not only the priests who stray from God. Those who handle the law, the Torah, the teachings of the Way do not know God. They know the texts. They know the commands. They know the arguments. They have taken up sides. But they have forgotten that the texts are not ends in themselves. The law, the way, the teachings are a path to relationship with the living God. And the rulers - literally, in Hebrew, the Shepherds - have transgressed against the LORD as well. They have taken matters into their own hands. They have decided that they know better. And the prophets - the prophets who are to be the mouthpieces of the God who liberated the slaves and gave the commandments - the prophets have become spokespersons for Baal. Baal is the ancient god of productivity, the god of the economy, the prosperity god who promises wealth to those who will bow down and worship at the temple of more. Baal claims to be the source of profit, of growth, of success. Jeremiah says that to become a worshipper of Baal is to run “after things that do not profit.”
This, says Jeremiah, is the situation: the people of God, the covenant partners of the LORD, the baptised followers of Jesus have run off after other gods, other messages, other identities. Of course the people still claim to be loyal. Worship continues. It is still called “church.” But, in truth, the covenant relationship has been broken. The marriage is now a separation. Jeremiah is given the unenviable but crucial task of awakening his generation to its plight. It is the reason that his first sermon is set in a divorce court. “Therefore once more I accuse you, says the LORD, and I accuse your children’s children.” This is a multi-generational problem. It began with the great-grandparents and it will extend to the grand-children. It is not something that can be resolved overnight. We know what it is like to live in the midst of such a multi-generational story. It is called the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools and of the Indian Act in Canada. It is the story of forgetting to ask “Where is the LORD” but, instead, having great confidence that we knew the purposes of God when it came to Canada’s First Nations. It is a story that reveals the ways in which we have strayed from the very God we claim to know and to obey.
Jeremiah portrays God as a prosecuting attorney addressing a heavenly jury: “Have you heard of such a thing anywhere? Has a nation changed its gods even though they are not gods at all? No. Nations love their flags and anthems and identities. They do not replace their identities with those of another nation. Yet my people, the people I saved from slavery and carried through death to new life, have substituted an empty shell for life with me. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate ... for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”
There are times when words from old speeches and ancient sermons transcend the years that have passed since they were first spoken. This past week we remembered again the events of the civil rights march on Washington a half-century ago. At the heart of that march we heard again the prophetic words of Martin Luther King, Jr as he transformed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial into a pulpit. His words were, in some strange and miraculous way, the living word of the LORD. It was a challenging word, a courageous word, a true word.
Then, this morning, we hear the ancient words of the prophet Jeremiah: “my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” Jeremiah’s poetic, prophetic diagnosis is eerily, powerfully true. The problem that is at the root of our anxieties and fatigue and despair as a church and as a culture, as a collective and as individuals is twofold. We give up on living out of the grace and mercy and gifts of God. We abandon a life of dependence on God in favour of independence. The fountain of living water is no longer good enough for us. So we choose to rely upon ourselves, upon our own capacity to make a life, to stay alive in spirit. But the cisterns we use to gather the life giving energies are themselves cracked. Do you recognize what Jeremiah is saying? Jeremiah notices that the closets full of clothes and the investment accounts full of savings are cracked and cannot hold the living water that satisfies the soul. Jeremiah sees that addictions of all sorts are an endless attempt to fill cisterns that are cracked and cannot hold the momentary anaesthetic called a drink or a pill or a thrill. Jeremiah holds up a mirror to a church afraid to place its trust in God when it finds itself wandering in the wilderness, a church busy trying to create its own future rather than to ask “Where is the LORD?”
Jeremiah begins by naming the deep trouble. This is precisely where the New Testament also begins. First with John the Baptist and then with Jesus of Nazareth. Both preach repentance - turning around, changing direction, seeking first the Kingdom of God, the source of life. It means that the gospel always begins with a confrontation, a challenge, a shock to the system. A few years ago the Gospel and Our Culture Network in North America published a little book about the otherness of the gospel. It is titled: “Stormfront: The Good News of God.” The arrival of the word of God is like a storm front that brings with it a whole new atmosphere, a new Kingdom, a new world.
It is a world that we enter here at this table. Here we are invited into the new eco-system of God’s kingdom come. Here we discover that the fountain of living water is the outpoured life of Jesus Christ. In receiving the bread and the wine we turn to God, saying yes to the fountain of life. In saying yes to the God we meet in Jesus Christ we say no to the idols of self-satisfaction and self-absorption. No more junk food for the soul. Here we offer our life to Jesus Christ who offers himself to the world in love. Here we become participants in his self-offering - broken, given, poured out for the world’s sake. Here we see every table in a new light: dinner tables; coffee tables; negotiating tables. Now all our tables are turned. Now they are the location to “do this” - to be broken, to be poured out, to die for one another - “in remembrance of me.” For to die to oneself and to live in Christ is to drink from the fountain of living water and, yes, to be born anew.