Thursday, March 23, 2006

Jeremiah: Hostility and Fury, Part Three

I think for us when we start to think about what persistence looks like, it might take different forms. It might take the form of romance, the pursuit of love. It might take the persistence to finish your education, to finish out high school or to finish up college. It might be the persistence of becoming a better husband and father and developing your internal character and who you are. But that piece of persistence is something that I believe God has put into us. It’s something that I think we see represented in the Bible and specifically, in the life of Jeremiah.

This is Jeremiah 25, beginning in Verse 3, where the prophet is talking to the people.

From the thirteenth year of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah right up
to the present day—twenty-three years it’s been!—GOD’s Word has
come to me, and from early each morning to late every night I’ve
passed it on to you. And you haven’t listened to a word of it!

Twenty-three years of preaching to people who didn’t listen [please, don’t let that be foreshadowing].

Not only that, but GOD also sent a steady stream of prophets to you
who were just as persistent as me, and you never listened. They told
you, “Turn back—right now, each one of you!—from your evil ways of
life and bad behavior.

Now, we talked about this a little bit in the previous couple of weeks. We talked about the Temple prostitution, the child sacrifice. We talked about the evil deeds, literally evil deeds that the people were committing – not just different beliefs or different ideologies, we actually talking about things that every human being alive on the planet today would consider wicked and evil.

“Turn back from your evil way of life and live in the land GOD gave
you and your ancestors, the land he intended to give you forever.
Don’t follow the god-fads of the day, taking up and worshiping
these no-gods. Don’t make me angry with your god-businesses,
making and selling gods—a dangerous business!”

“You refused to listen to any of this, and now I am really angry. These
god-making businesses of yours are your doom.”

You know, the consistent complaint of God to his people, of Jeremiah to the people, is that the one god who loves them - their creator, an actual, real god, who intimately knows them, who counts the hairs on their head, who bottles their tears, who values them the way he values us, to where he values every living person alive today and all the way backwards through time—that that god is the only god that they’ve ignored, that instead these people have sold themselves to gods that they’ve made [this is literally as ridiculous as you or I going into our woodshop and making a little carving of a little fat guy, or a dwarf with horns and a pointy tail, or a beautiful lady and then sitting that on our mantel and burning incense to it every night]. God’s complaint against these people was, “I made you and you made them and now you’re worshiping them instead of me. That doesn’t make any sense. It’s a hunk of wood; it’s a piece of stone. Not only that, but in service to these things you’re taking away human life.”

Jeremiah comes really to the end of his tether and at this point in the book. This is the time where Jerusalem, where the whole Kingdom of Judah, gets its comeuppance. This is the time where the bill comes past due. This is the time where judgment finally arrives. Through a series of three sieges, the Empire of Babylon lays waste to the Kingdom of Judah—first in 598, then 597 and then finally in 586 B.C.

Now, there’s a whole host of reasons for these attacks that we can learn about if we do our historical homework. We find out that Judah was involved in double-crossing Babylon. We find out really that the Hebrew people in this story, at this point in history, weren’t always the good guys. They weren’t always good to God and that played out in their relationship with everybody else.

This is something I think we all understand, that you are the same person in your dealings with God as in your dealings with other people—you’re the same. It’s always you.

So, in 598 B.C., Babylon rolls over Jerusalem. They topple Jerusalem’s king, set up a puppet in his place and they leave. They carry away all the valuable things. They come back a year later, because Jerusalem revolts, and they overthrow another government and put up another king. Then, after ten years of putting up with all this garbage, again, from the Kingdom of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar - who we read about in the Book of Daniel, who becomes such a famous king, who, historically, is one of the great world rulers, who you can find just a host of information about online or at any good library - finally says, “Enough’s enough,” and shows up, again, at the doorstep to the Kingdom of Judah. This time, however, he destroys the Temple and carries the people of Israel [except for a few, who we’ll refer to as the remnant] into captivity and makes them slaves.

Chapter 25 takes place just prior to the Babylonian invasion of Judah in 586 B.C. Chapter 25 is where Jeremiah says, ‘for twenty-three years I’ve been begging you to honor God. For twenty-three years I’ve been pleading with you to have a change that actually mattered in your heart...twenty-three years.’

Remember, too, that we are in the midst of ongoing metaphorical language – that of a groom [YHWH], and honeymoon bridge [Judah]. So, while Jeremiah is making his accusations against Judah, God is also saying, ‘I’ve been begging you to be faithful to me, but you haven’t done it. I’ve been calling you to reconcile with your groom. You are my bride, please come back to me.’

I often feel like God says these kinds of things to me. “Dave, you talk all the time about the changes you want to make, the changes in how you process anger or resentment or the hurts that you had when you were a little guy.” It’s like God’s saying, “David McDonald, for twenty-three years I’ve been telling you to forgive the people who hurt you in school. Can’t you get over it? Dave, for twenty-three years I’ve been telling you not to resent church or church people because of the things they did to your dad when you were a boy. Can’t you get over it?”

Jeremiah’s saying the same kind of thing persistently, persistently. Now, that word persistence, from the Hebrew word Hashem, is derived from another word, Shekem, which means shoulder. It comes from the town of Shekem, which sits in a valley between two mountains, called “the shoulders”. When Israel first came into the Promised Land, He had half the people climb up one mountain and half the people climb up the other mountain. They stood on these two “shoulders” and yelled at each other. The one group of people yelled blessings and one group of people yelled curses and it went something like this: “If you love your god and serve him all the days of your life, he’ll bless you.” Then the other group of people would yell back, “If you forsake your god and you run away from him, he’ll curse you and harm you.” They went back and forth and would yell these things at each other from the places, from the shoulders.

That commitment to shouting blessings and curses at one another to remind us of our covenantal obligations - of our relationship to God, of what He meant to us - that persistence that was required not only shaped language but it shaped an entire people. It shaped the people in the way that they understood themselves and the way that they understood their relationship with God.

It shaped Jeremiah and Jeremiah at this point is bringing an indictment against his own people saying, “You’ve forgotten the very people who you are. You’ve forgotten what it was like to have your ancestors stand on those mountains and call back and forth blessings and curses at one another. You forgot what it was like to live in that little town, in the shadow of those two mountains, and prepare to go on a journey. You forgot what it was like that it was God brought you there, that it was God that made you, that it was God that called you and loved you and adopted you as His own, that it was God that married you. You forgot what it means to be persistent.

“But I am reminding you.”

I think it’s good for us to just have people sometimes to remind us, to remind us that there are things that matter beyond our day-to-day lives and operations. There are things that matter beyond just making money and living and subsisting. There are things that matter that go right to the very core of who you are and why you have breath, that really actually matter, that the spiritual life, your life with your creator, that thing which tingles you, which excites you, which gives you conviction and challenges you, which gives you open hearts endures.

We’ve going to use three symbols to try and understand this point in the story. The first one is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Alef. Alef is a symbol for Jerusalem, for the city Jerusalem, because that city was first among the cities of the world and because it was the first love in the people’s hearts. When the Hebrews identified themselves with their city, they understood it to be God’s holy city, the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, the city of King David, the city of God. Just the very idea of that place was special.

I don’t know if we necessarily have a great one-to-one relationship with place today in the way that they did. Maybe “Ground Zero” for us could be considered a place of such sacred importance. Maybe for Catholics Notre Dame or the Vatican could be considered a place of such significance, of such importance, but for the Hebrew people Jerusalem was everything. It was the center of the world. For those in Judeo-Christian history and thought and tradition, Jerusalem was understood to be the naval on the belly of the earth. It was the very center of all that mattered and everything that mattered flowed out of Jerusalem in concentric circles.

Now, if you’re a Lord of the Rings fan at all, you’ll recognize that Minas Tirith, the White City in Gondor is actually designed not only after the understanding of Jerusalem in the Old Testament, but also after the understanding of Heaven, because Heaven – according to some Jewish mystics – is the existential model for Jerusalem, having seven concentric circles flowing from that prime space.

That’s Jerusalem; it’s everything to these people.

You remember we talked about the Northern Kingdom of Israel being carried off into captivity and the Southern Kingdom of Judah where the city of Jerusalem was remaining free until this point in history?

The reason that was such a big deal was because Jerusalem, the center of everything that they valued as a people, was still free. That’s the reason that the captivity that took Judah into Babylon as slaves was so much more devastating to the Hebrew people as a whole than the captivity that took Israel into Assyria, because Judah had Jerusalem. It had the magic spot, the golden jewel, the center of everything.

I wonder if maybe there’s something for us to learn here a little bit about identifying with our city. I wonder if maybe there’s something that God is putting in your heart, some kind of concern for the city where you live or the town that you’re from, if maybe there’s a piece of Jeremiah that’s growing in you that says, “You’re task is to care about where you live.”

My mom grew up in North Carolina, in Winston Salem. She has all these horrible stories of what it was like to grow up there, but when she tells them they become the most beautiful, almost song-like, tales. You get the picture that it was like she was playing with Bambi and Thumper and little butterflies were landing on her shoulders; but then the details of the story are always things her not having shoes because they were too poor. But for my mom to talk to about Winston Salem puts magic in the room. For her to talk about North Carolina, it makes you feel like you’re moving to Oz. She connects total happiness with that part of the world.

I think there’s something that happens to us when we become attached to a place. We’ve talked a little bit about sacred space here at Westwinds. We talked about sacred space being a place of shared memory. It’s not just the ground that makes something holy. It’s not the architecture. It’s the fact that we’re here together. It’s the fact that our story, the story of Westwinds, is a story of endurance and a story of persistence. It’s the fact that we have memories here together and that tonight we’re making a memory again that you’re going to remember for a long time—sitting on the floor, sleeping during the sermon. We’re creating those holy moments in this space, because of what we experience together, because maybe for you tonight is the first time, the first time, that you’ve been encountered with the fact that God desperately loves you and cares about you and the fact that we share in that experience together makes this place a little more important, makes this town a little more important to you.

It allows us to understand the value of Jerusalem to the Hebrew people.

In sharp contrast to the wonder and magic of Jerusalem, however, is the tyranny and dominion of Babylon.

The name Babylon actually means Gate of the Gods. It was home to the Temple of Ninmah, who was the goddess of the underworld, represented as a beautiful woman, who was the mistress of bulls and dragons.

So, we’re going to use a dragon, or a snake, for our symbol of Babylon, which appears all throughout ancient hieroglyphics as the symbol of Babylon.

We talked about Babylon being a world-class city, about Babylon having been the first chink in the armor of the Assyrian Empire, the first spirit of independence that rose up in defiance of a world tyrant. There’s a sense in which Babylon is almost idealized by the rest of the ancient world at this point, because they fought for what that was going to come to them. The Kingdom of Babylon, including the Hanging Gardens of Babylon which were one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, grew so powerful that it endured right up until the time of Alexander the Great.

The relationship between Babylon and Judah was always a little muddied, as they double-crossed each other and turned back on each other numerous times, but Nebuchadnezzar - the king of Babylon – ironically shows a tremendous amount of care and concern for Jeremiah as a person after he conquers Judah.

It’s the weirdest thing; you’d think if anybody was going to oppose Nebuchadnezzar, it would Jeremiah.

And he does.

In fact, he curses him; he calls out awful things to him. He reprimands him for what he’s done to the Kingdom of Judah and to Jerusalem and tells him that his time is coming soon, that he too won’t escape God’s judgment, that Nebuchadnezzar himself in his arrogance - his might, his loftiness - will too face the judgment of God.

And yet, there is a respect for Jeremiah that Nebuchadnezzar and all his high servants protect.

But these two have a fascinating relationship that develops. I don’t know if I’ll call it friendship, but they have this incredible dance that they go through, that, again, if you want to look up any of that, you just find it littered all over the pages of the Book of Jeremiah or Kings and Chronicles. You find it all over the pages of the other prophets or in any history books. You’ll find this incredible tension between them, this mutual regard.

Nebuchadnezzar makes sure that Jeremiah is treated correctly, makes sure that he has every benefit and every privilege. Remember, too, that Jeremiah never got that from his own people. I mean remember all the other priests and prophets, the kings, with the exception of Josiah, with whom Jeremiah served, like threw him in jail. They beat him up, they stripped him, they called him names, they ignored him, they left him to starve or to rot in a hole, not once but three different times, but this foreign ruler extended grace.

Do you understand the like how little sense this makes, how backwards it feels, that the conqueror, that the nation of bulls and dragons, would embrace the one lamb with teeth?

Babylon has forever been a symbol to the Hebrew people of desolation, of destruction. We see Babylon as a symbol of wickedness in the New Testament, as a symbol of injustice, because despite what the whole of the ancient world thought about them, they destroyed the country of the Hebrews.

They destroyed the Temple; they spurned God.

Babylon for us, I think, is an incredible paradox, something we have to wrestle with. We have to ask ourselves how it’s even possible that God could use a wicked kingdom to bring about a just judgment. We have to ask ourselves how it’s even possible that God could hold up Babylon and preserve her as a nation in order for her to be his tenant farmer, his axe, his yoke, his ox, his boiling pot. I mean there’s thirteen or fourteen different images that Jeremiah uses to describe Babylon as an instrument of God’s judgment, that God allowed them to do that.

I hope this creates problems for us as we try and understand why this happened. I hope it forces you to wrestle a little bit with what it means for God to use the snake. Without trying to supply you with easy answers, maybe I can at least put you on an “A” track, that maybe there are times where the story that we find ourselves in, our story, our interactions with God, become muddy. The details become confusing, because we start thinking about somebody else’s story, because instead of thinking about our relationship with God and how that works, we think about what God’s doing in that other place. Instead of first addressing where we are, our relationship with the Creator, our orientation, our persistence, we start thinking about, “How come this?,” and “How come that?,” and “How come this other thing?” While it’s okay to wrestle with those, in fact we encourage you to do so, let’s start at the right spot.

The last symbol we’re going to use is a Sanskrit symbol. This is the symbol that is used in meditation. When you see this symbol, you’re supposed to chant, “Ohm.” It’s a symbol for peace, and if there’s anything that we can see represented in the character of Jeremiah and the character of God, it is the desire for peace - a desire that’s never fulfilled.

We talked about the two shoulders. We talked in our introduction about persistence, about Hashem. We talked about people yelling back and forth and, “If you’ll love your god and serve him, he will bring you peace.” It was always God’s desire for peace, it was always Jeremiah’s desire for peace, “Turn and embrace the god of your fathers; remember.”

For twenty-three years Jeremiah preaches, “Remember,” he preaches restoration, coming back to a place of oneness with God, because of that desire for peace and it’s a desire that’s never fulfilled, not because God is unjust, but because He is just and because there’s never a turn in the hearts of the people.

Jeremiah prophesized in the book that there will come a time where the rules between God and man change, that they are no longer going to be rules about what you do or what you eat or what you wear or how you take a bath; instead, they’re going to be rules written on your heart, instead they’re going to be rules written on a tablet of flesh.

It’s going to be a law of peace.

It’s going to be a law of love, not a law of legislation, of rules, of sub-points and articles, but a law that means something right to the core of who you are.

We understand that God gives us this ability to be connected to him through our hearts. I wonder in you if you were to ask yourself the question about your heart, about whether or not that law is written there and you ignore it, or if that law is written there and you’re blind to it.

I wonder if you’d be willing just to ask yourself the question what that law might mean for you if you embraced it.

Peace is more than just the absence of conflict. Peace is more than just you getting along with your co-workers or your spouse. Peace is something far deeper. It’s the presence of God’s justice, the presence of his love, the presence of him, himself, the awareness of God. Maybe as we talk about all of these things to do with a kingdom so long ago, a person so long ago, maybe the real thing that we’re talking about, the real thing that might matter or be important to you, is not the peace of that place or the persistence of those people, but the peace that’s available to you through your persistence in finding and hearing God.

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