Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Hostility and Fury: Week One, The Call of Jeremiah

Have you heard the term ‘semiotics?’ Semiotics is study of signs and symbols, which – of course – is something we do all the time. We study road signs and street lights, people’s expressions during a conversation or trends in the marketplace, etc…

What I’d like to do during our Jeremiah series is help us all to become better semioticians, to become better at reading signs; reason being, while I think we see and interpret signs all of the time, I’m not sure we’re either aware of it or conscious of its importance.

And it is important. Just think if you failed to heed a “children at play” sign or a “school zone” sign and sped through a crowd of little ones, possibly hurting someone. Paying attention to signs then becomes the most obvious, most important thing you should have done.

There are signs everywhere in our culture, in our church, in our world – signs that tell us what is going on in people and in society that ought to concern and involve us as followers of Jesus Christ. We ignore these signs to our own peril, and the church becomes meaningless to most people as a result.

Jeremiah lived in a world governed by signs. Ancient Hebrew, Sanskrit, Arabic, and Cuneiform were all “sign” languages; prophecy was always accompanied by signs, either miracles or signs of validation through future events; kings and emperors gave their approval to servants and neighbors through a seal, a sign made in wax. So we’re going to teach the book of Jeremiah through signs and symbols – and we’re going to teach ourselves that the world of the bible isn’t the only world in which signs matter.

Jeremiah 1:5 (The Message)
5"Before I shaped you in the womb,
I knew all about you.
Before you saw the light of day,
I had holy plans for you:
A prophet to the nations--
that's what I had in mind for you."

9bLook! I've just put my words in your mouth--hand-delivered!
10See what I've done? I've given you a job to do
among nations and governments--a red-letter day!
Your job is to pull up and tear down,
take apart and demolish,
And then start over,
building and planting."

The book of Jeremiah, by the way, is actually a reconstruction of the original. Jeremiah had his personal assitant, Baruch, write down his life’s events and his prophecies as a record, but the wicked king of Judah, Jehoiakim, had it burned in the 6th C BC because it was offensive. What we have now are 23 recollections of Baruch and Jeremiah’s memories about the original documents, and their continuation of the story after Jehoiakim. As a result, we have a real chronological mess that spans over 40 years of Jeremiah’s ministry, covering 5 Jewish kings, 4 foreign empires, two seiges of Jerusalem, three personal captivities as well as national exile, and a partridge in a pear tree. This, of course, is why we’ve provided a timeline for you during the course of our study of the book.

If you’re curious about what else was going on in the world – what the world was like – you may want to consider reading the biblical books of Daniel, Hanakkuk, Nahum, Ezekiel, and Zephaniah which were all written during the same time period; or, globally, you might be interested to know that this was roughly the same time period that Buddhism, Taoism, and the Shinto religion were introduced in the East, that Japan’s first Emperor took the throne. Also around this time, the great canal was built between the Nile River and the Red Sea, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were constructed, and Rome was declared a Republic.

In short, this was a time when the ancient world was really coming into it’s own, where human achievement was said to have reached it’s highest peak and mankind knew no limits to progress.

Sound familiar?

Well, our concerns in the book of Jeremiah are actually a bit more localized, for we are looking at the Southern Kingdom of Judah – the more loyal part of the divided kingdom of Israel after the civil war of 928 BC. We are concerned with a country about twice the population of Grand Rapids, living in a land about the size of Yellowstone National Park. We are concerned with the people called “God’s Chosen”, whom He describes as His bride, His son, His flock and His vineyard, and who have broken His heart.

For, make no mistake, this book is about the heart of God for His people. It is the story of an omnipresent God, who sees all things, beginning His Bride to understand that He is always close and always watchful. It is a story of a husband who knows what His wife has been up to. It is the story of a husband whose wife has run off, and Jeremiah has come to serve her papers. He comes preaching a message of fidelity to the ‘she-camel in heat…hunting around for sex, sex, and more sex’ [2.24]

It is this image of fidelity that brings us to our first symbol, the moon, sun, and 12 stars. This is a symbol used to identify Israel, for the moon and sun are Jacob and Rachael and the 12 stars are the 12 sons and thus the 12 tribes of Israel. We see marital faithfulness represented in the marriage of Jacob and Rachael, and even before that in Jacob’s 14 years of labor to be given permission to marry Rachael, and that faithfulness is continuously modeled in God’s dealings with Jacob and his descendants through time.

The issue, you see, wasn’t just that people didn’t care about God – the God who delivered them from slavery, created them, sustained them with His breath and gave them an everlasting promise that they would be special – but that they had prostituted themselves to other gods – gods made out of paper and wood and rocks. God’s complaint against the people was that they had begun flirting with other kinds of fulfillment, and then gradually made their affections manifest and begun sleeping with the enemy. The sexual imagery is not just imagery, by the way, for the people actually were having sex in the temple of YHWH with the priests of the other gods on slabs of stone and rock altars designed for temple prostitution – so there’s a lot more than a pointed metaphor going on in their unfaithfulness.

Independent of personal injury, of how He feels about their apostasy, God challenges their wisdom and logic in their affair with other gods. He compares their affair to someone who leaves a spring of living water – a brook or a river or a stream – and instead builds a well to hold the water they take from the stream; the problem, of course, is that the well can’t hold any water, and what water it does retain becomes rancid and stale. So God asks why they would do this? The fulfillment is less for the people, their contract with God is broken, and they will be punished for their unfaithfulness to the Creator.

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