Today we come to Jeremiah, another of God’s prophets in Old Testament times who played a crucial role. Jeremiah came along around 100 years after Isaiah, more or less, and prophesied in the southern kingdom of Judah, in the capital city of Jerusalem, in the years leading up to and beginning the Babylonian exile, so before and after 600 B.C.
Jeremiah brought a lot of very bad news but he also brought some very important, radical good news. His negative and critical writing are the reasons a rant is sometimes called a jeremiad. The terrible warnings God had him issue to his own people and the resulting hostile reactions from his people made his own emotions so raw that he is called the “weeping prophet.” His work was so significant, however, in enabling the survival of the Jewish faith and the nation of Israel beyond the exile, that I want to talk more broadly about his impact than just the readings for today.
You remember that the nation of Assyria had been the dominant regional power in Isaiah’s day, and was the nation that defeated the northern kingdom of Israel. Well, by Jeremiah’s time the Babylonian Empire had defeated the Assyrians and become the new regional power. For a number of years the king of Judah has been “paying tribute” to the king of Babylon to keep him from invading. Jeremiah has been prophesying that Judah will be destroyed by Babylon because of widespread corruption and lack of concern for the poor and needy, the orphans and widows, and because of idolatry and lack of dedication to God. Jeremiah has said that God will use the Babylonians to carry out judgment on Judah. But the king and the people were in denial and still thought they would be okay.
Jeremiah liked to act out his sermons. So he got a yoke that you put on oxen to direct where they will go and said that this was what Babylon was going to do to Judah. He got a clay pot and smashed it to smithereens on the ground and said this is what is going to happen to the nation of Judah. His flair for the dramatic led him to go to the gate of the Temple one day, where he greeted people as they came by saying, “Do not trust in these deceptive words, “This is the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord.” The belief he is undermining was the certainty of the inviolability of Zion, that God himself dwelt in the Temple so God would never allow anything to happen to it. So as long as the Temple was in the middle of Jerusalem and they took care of it, they were certain God would allow no harm. Jeremiah told them that was baloney. He said, “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal and other gods, then come and stand before God in this Temple and say, ‘We are safe!’ only to go on doing all these abominations?” That little display got Jeremiah banned from going to the Temple, understandably.
In time, King Jehoiakim got tired of paying tribute money to Babylon, so he quit doing it. The King of Babylon sent the army to collect. Egypt sent an army to help Judah. Jerusalem sat waiting to see which shoe would drop. It was at this point that Jeremiah dictated to his scribe Baruch the prophecies he had delivered to Judah to this point, and Baruch wrote them on a scroll. Since Jeremiah was banned from the Temple, he sent Baruch to read the scroll out loud at the Temple. It was one last ditch effort – maybe with crisis approaching from every side it would get a hearing. He read it in the high priest’s secretary’s chamber. The secretary was concerned enough about the scroll that he took it to the palace to show the king’s officials. The king’s officials were concerned enough about the scroll that they told the king about it. They told Baruch to go get Jeremiah and hide somewhere – so I guess they had a pretty good idea how the king would receive it.
The king wanted to hear the words, so the scroll was brought and read to him as he sat by the fire. As each section was read to him he would take his penknife and cut that section off and throw it in the fire, and did so until the entire scroll had been burned. He was totally unaffected by the words, by the warning, by the direction, and he disdained both Jeremiah and God’s word to him.
When this was reported to Jeremiah, he pronounced judgment upon the king and he dictated the words of the first scroll to be written down again, plus others. As the Babylonian army approached, King Jehoiakim died and was succeeded by his son, Jehoiachin. When the Babylonians arrived they took what they wanted and they took Jehoiachin and many of the leading citizens as captives back to Babylon. They set up a puppet ruler and gave him the name Zedekiah, and he ruled and paid tribute to Babylon for 10 years.
Jeremiah was not taken into exile, probably to the chagrin of the others in Jerusalem. Jeremiah told the people and the king they needed to submit to the king of Babylon. That’s not what they wanted to do. They wanted to build an army, go to Babylon, win a war and bring their people back. That’s certainly what the exiles in Babylon hoped would happen. Two men among the exiles claimed to be prophets and told the people that God would act soon to destroy Babylon and restore his people to their homes. I daresay this is the kind of thinking we would all have been engaged in, the kind of dreams we would have.
But not Jeremiah. Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiles in Babylon. He wrote, “God says for you to build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat the produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters. Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. You are going to be there for seventy years, then I will bring you home.”
Jeremiah was convinced that the exile was within God’s plan and that it would be lengthy. So the thing to do was quit whining and complaining and plotting rebellion and praying for revenge, and get on with life. That message was not received well to begin with, but over time it was. Otherwise, Daniel and his friends would not have had the opportunities they had, which we will look at next week. Scholars believe much of the Old Testament was compiled and edited during the exile period, and much reflection took place about what went wrong and what to do differently when they returned. So when the time came for the exile to end, there was a people who were prepared to go forth and who remembered who they were and where they were going and what they wanted to be. In addition, a goodly number stayed in Babylon after the exile, so there was a strong continuing Jewish community there. Later in history this community would again be critical to the survival of Judaism.
Jim Newsome goes so far as to say that Jeremiah may have empowered the Jewish people to survive the exile by giving them this word from the Lord. The northern ten tribes of Israel which had been exiled to Assyria 125 years earlier, never returned. They are referred to as the ten lost tribes of Israel. Newsome writes, “Much of the credit for the survival of the Jewish exiles may be laid at the feet of Jeremiah. For it was Jeremiah who provided those words by which the people could come to terms with the tragedy of their nation and, thus, rise above it.” (Texts for Preaching, Year C, p. 547)
Ten years after the first exiles were taken to Babylon, King Zedekiah decided to revolt against Babylon and stopped paying tribute. Again the army came. As they surrounded Jerusalem, one of Jeremiah’s kinsmen came to him with the bizarre opportunity to purchase a piece of family property that was already occupied by the Babylonians. Jeremiah was led by God to preach another of his visual sermons. He agreed to purchase the land. He meticulously took care of the legal documents and getting them signed and gave instructions for a copy of the deed to be stored in a clay jar and hidden for the future. Why did he do this? Because, he said, houses and fields and vineyards will again be bought and sold in this land. He put his money where his mouth was in expressing hope about the future, which surely made a big impression since he was usually so negative.
This time the Babylonians were not so gentle. Homes were destroyed. The Temple was destroyed. Most of the people were taken off into exile. Not Jeremiah. Maybe his reputation preceded him with the Babylonians. He and a small number of others were left. Most of those left wanted to go to Egypt to live. Jeremiah was vehemently opposed to that idea, but he lost and they took him to Egypt with them.
The last segment to look at is the wonderful passage looking forward to a new covenant. It is not easy to date among all of these events, but whenever it was written it addresses the despair which would have been felt by the people after all these crushing blows, and offers hope in rich poetic terms for the future God is preparing.
Chapters 30 and 31 are called Jeremiah’s Book of Consolation. It provides hope and consolation for people who have been crushed and humbled. It provides a vision for a new start for the people of Israel. The current situation was bleak: some in exile in Babylon, some remaining in a devastated Jerusalem; others scattered in the world. All had experienced loss and separation from loved ones, and quite possibly the death of loved ones.
Listen to some of the poetic vision in this section: “Thus says the Lord: The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness.” That is Exodus language. As the slaves led out of Egypt by Moses found God’s grace in the wilderness wanderings, so will the exiles find God’s grace in the spiritual wilderness that is Babylon and also devastated Jerusalem.
And more: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you, and you shall be built.” There follows a description of the return to Israel, filled with symbolic language. From the north and from the farthest parts of the earth, those who are blind, lame, and pregnant – “A great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back.”
The judgment and the redemption are both clearly in God’s hands for Jeremiah: “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock. For the Lord has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.” “I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.” “Keep your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears; there is hope for your future, your children shall come back to their own country.”
The last vision Jeremiah sees about the future is well known to us. It is not only a bridge between exile and return, it is a bridge between the Old Testament and the New. “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.” This will not be a covenant based on laws written on stone tablets like the first one. In the new covenant, “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. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
The 700 year experiment with the Old Covenant which began with the giving of the law during the Exodus had not been successful. The people were unable to keep the law, either the smallest or the greatest or the priests or the kings. Jeremiah saw that God would need to go a new direction, make a new covenant with people, one that was internalized instead of an external authority.
Jeremiah wouldn’t have been able to imagine what that would actually end up looking like. Today is Christ the King Sunday and we are rounding the corner into a new church year with the beginning of Advent next Sunday. We are transitioning to the new covenant, which was initiated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He taught a new covenant, based on the spirit of the law which can be internalized. But most importantly he instituted a new covenant. “This,” he said, “is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for the forgiveness of sins.” In the new covenant grace supersedes law and God through Jesus Christ does what must be done in order for us to be in right relationship with God.
Life is filled with experiences of exile, of loss, of displacement, both individually and in groups. We frequently bring them on ourselves by looking at life only through our own, self-centered lenses, and being unwilling to listen to voices that warn us that unless we change our world is about to be rocked – by a job loss, by a divorce, by a lost game or a lost election. Jeremiah didn’t tell people what they wanted to hear. They didn’t listen and there was a price to be paid. But he gave them the assurance that paying the price didn’t mean God didn’t love them and the relationship was over. God would always love them and would seek a new way to redeem them.
The next task is to learn how to live while in exile. Next Sunday we will examine this task by studying the story of Daniel in Babylon. Why is it important? Because the things we learn in exile are probably the most profound learnings we experience in life. The question: How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
November 20, 2016
Central Presbyterian Church