Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"The Prophet Speaks"

Text: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-9, 11-14a

Psalm 137:1-6

 

            The words we’re about to hear were written almost six centuries before the birth of Christ.

The author was a Jewish prophet named Jeremiah, son of Hilkiah. Although most of the Jews who had lived in the city of Jerusalem had been captured, carried off, and forced to live in exile in the region of Babylon, Jeremiah himself remained in Jerusalem. From there, he served as a correspondent across the miles to his displaced brothers and sisters in the Jewish faith. We turn now to a slice of that correspondence, reading from the 29th chapter of Jeremiah.

            (Read Jeremiah 29:1, 4-9)

            There is no great mystery as to why the Jews – God’s called and chosen people – were in crisis. For centuries, they had lived in the land which God had first promised to Abraham’s descendants. They overcame their enemies. They had multiplied in number, growing into a great nation, prospering in economic wealth. They ate from the fullness of the fields and drank from the produce of the vine. They appeared to have it all. The language of many of their ancient psalms parallels American national hymnody with which we are so familiar: “O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain.”    

      But the more the Jewish nation was blessed, the further the Jewish nation turned from the Source of those blessings. Gradually, over time – under pressure from voices both outside and within the nation – the people fell into patterns of disregarding God. One by one, those called to lead jettisoned God’s commandments, and the people followed, even making fun of and eventually persecuting those who did try to remain true and faithful to God’s Law. The people turned to other gods – which were no gods at all – like riches, power, position, prestige, every form of vice practiced in connection with cultic pagan religions which surrounded them.

            The leaders of Israel themselves became corrupted, seeking after their own interests rather than the interests of the people they were charged to serve. Instead of acting with justice and righteousness, those in high places promoted injustice, and called it good; practiced self-righteousness, and called it privilege of office. Middle America (oops, a slip of the tongue), middle Israel began to suffer under the self-serving leadership of the nation. The masses became con- fused and conflicted, led by those who were themselves confused and conflicted, as to what was right and what, if anything, was wrong. Values based on godly principles were turned upside down. Morality eroded to the point where immorality became acceptable, even the norm.  

    In the Jewish nation where the wealth was to be shared, and where everyone was to be given equal opportunity under the Law of God, the wealth and power was seized by a few. Most people struggled just to get by. Special interests ruled – both political and religious – as the voices of rank and file were gradually silenced. So in historical hindsight, it is really no mystery at all as to why the nation of Israel – once strong and free under God – was divided, conquered, and displaced. They had it all. They lost it all. Because they had lost sight of the One who gave it all.   

    So the Jewish exiles sit, heads in hands, away from their beloved homeland, not quite sure who was to blame for the tragic condition of their nation. Some held their leaders responsible. Some held their enemies responsible. Some held God responsible: “You’ve abandoned us!” Few held themselves responsible. Their national psalms of thanksgiving for God’s blessings had now turned to psalms of lament such as the one we read earlier: “By the waters of Babylon --- there we sat down and there we wept, when we remembered Zion.” Then comes a correspondence from Jerusalem by the hand of Jeremiah. He writes in effect, ‘Get off your….mourning bench, dry your eyes, and get on with your lives.’ “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.” It sounds like Jeremiah’s saying, ‘Stop feeling sorry for yourselves.’ He goes on to deliver God’s directive: “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.” In other words, ‘Do the best you can in the circumstances you find yourselves. Go so far as to act in the best interests of even those who hold you hostage, for in so doing, you will help yourself while overcoming your enemies.’ Does this not sound surprisingly similar to something the apostle Paul wrote to the church some six centuries later: “…if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Through the words of both the prophet and apostle, God says ‘Stand fast and be my people, even in the midst of those who oppress you.’

            It has been suggested by Old Testament scholars such as Ronald Clements that there were those within the exiled community – those whom Jeremiah refers to as the “prophets” and “diviners” – who were saying to the people: “Look, you’ve done nothing wrong. Everything’s cool. Babylon will be overthrown any day now and we’ll all get back home. Let’s not go blaming ourselves for any of this. Just hang loose.’ Jeremiah warns: “Do not let (they) who are among you deceive you…. for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them….” ‘Don’t be fooled. It is not God’s word they speak. Everything isn’t cool. The truth is, your exile will span the length of your lifetime.’ Jeremiah wasn’t being a pessimist. He was being a realist. He was telling it like it was.

            The power of the prophet’s words – of God’s word – is that it speaks across the centuries, across cultures, and speaks to us when and where we are. And what we often perceive as being pessimistic is just being real. As we look around 21st century America – a nation clearly founded upon God’s blessings – we see a lot of people figuratively sitting with their heads in their hands, not quite sure who’s to blame for the tragically-turning events in our nation. Some hold our leaders responsible. Some hold our enemies responsible. Some hold God responsible: “You’ve abandoned us!” Few of us hold ourselves responsible. All the while, America implodes – bombings of buildings; murders of innocents; theft of people’s identities and fortunes; a criminal justice system which can be likened to a spectator sport; spectator sports which can be likened to a dogfight between humans; abuses of the poor, the elderly, the children, the helpless. How frighteningly similar we have become to pre-exilic Israel, suffering under self-serving leadership within all political parties; confused as to what’s right, and what, if anything, is wrong; values turned upside down; immorality the norm; power and wealth in the hands of the few. And within the borders of our great nation, I wonder if we of the Christian faith might be considered present-day cultural exiles – pushed to the fray and out of the way; rarely taken seriously; often the brunt of jokes; increasingly more often the reviled and persecuted. A once great positive force in our culture has over the last several decades been displaced, forced out, exiled, by a secular humanism at best; by an ethos of unrestrained and unrepentant immorality at worst.

            Yes, I believe the prophet of God speaks to us still. He’s identified the problem. He’s encouraged getting up and moving forward, holding fast as God’s people, even in a hostile environment. And he says more as recorded beginning at verse 11: “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.” To God’s exiled people in 600 B.C. Babylon, and to God’s people feeling increasingly exiled in 2015 A.D. America, Jeremiah offers a prescription for hope. What Jeremiah is prescribing is nothing new. It’s a call to turn away from the present course, and to turn toward God, Source of our individual and national blessings; not a superficial turning, but a heartfelt turning; a responsive turning toward irresistible grace. All the while, our modern-day prophets and diviners, our media heroes and champions say, “Nah, forget all that silly stuff. Toss that old guilt and repentance thing. What we need is less religion and more education; less church and more social programs; less faith in some god’s grace, and more faith in our ingenuity and the human spirit .” As it was in Jeremiah’s day, it is in our day. Sounds enticing, but it’s deception; a well-crafted lie.     

      There’s no denying we’re in days of crisis – our nation, our culture, our church. But we can’t sit around feeling sorry for ourselves. God calls us to stand up and be God’s people; to seek the welfare of our nation, and of Christ’s Church, even when we feel threatened by hostile forces surrounding us. We need – as a nation, as a culture, as a church – to turn back to the One who’s blessed us, and by God’s grace, blesses us still. God will revive us, receive us, and bring us back. “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.” I daresay, the choice to turn is ours.

Heavenly Father, we stand together and stand strong, trusting in Your promises. May we turn, our nation, our culture, our church, our very lives, toward you, knowing that You will revive and restore us. May it be so, and may it be now, in Christ’s name we pray. Amen.