John and I were in Israel and Palestine this spring. We went to holy sites, and it was spring so we saw many beautiful things. But this was also a trip based on social justice, so we spent time in the refugee camps and West Bank of the Israeli-Palestinian region. We saw children and listened to men and women. We read and continue to read. Our hearts ache when we see what is happening in the region today. It’s as if we have a stake in what happens. Well, we all do.
This isn’t, isn’t anywhere near, the first time there’s been turmoil in the Middle East. Jeremiah heard, Jeremiah spoke, Jeremiah acted out the word of God in one of the most troubled times of the ancient Middle East. He witnessed the fall of one great empire. The rise of another, even greater. He saw his own land and people tossed about like flotsam and jetsam on the crest of history. A difficult time to be a prophet. This is his story.
In 600 BCE Assyria was a mighty empire. Assyria had ruled all the Middle East for 200 years of brutal domination. Northern Israel was her footstool; southern Israel bent beneath her foot. To the east a new force was rattling its spears. The armies of Babylon were probing the soft underbelly of the Assyrian empire. To the south was Egypt, ancient and wealthy beyond belief. The three empires crouched like lions facing each other, tails twitching. Between the lions’ paws huddled Israel, the succulent sheep.
In those days most people of Israel worshipped foreign gods. Even the few who were faithful to the one true God hardly knew the correct way to worship him. One day they found an ancient, ancient scroll in the Temple treasure house, a copy of God’s Law and covenant from the time of their great, great, forefathers. The people had forgotten its existence. A thrill surged across the land as they read words their great, great grandparents had chanted. Reform swept through their land as they cast down altars and temples to false gods.
That’s when God called Jeremiah. At first Jeremiah argued back. “I’m too young! I wouldn’t know what to say.” God answered, “Who’s asking you? You’ll say what I tell you to say. You’ll say my words. You’ll be myvoice.
For the first 10 or 20 years, being the voice of God wasn’t so tough. Josiah was king in Israel. Josiah was a good king. As soon as the ancient scroll was found in the Temple, Josiah began to lead his people back to the true faith. But Josiah was also a valiant king. When the three lions fought, Josiah sided with one against two. They killed him. Egypt set a puppet king on the throne of Israel. Egyptian gods and priests pulled the new king’s strings.
Jeremiah was now in his full stride and pride of prophecy. “Hear the word of the Lord! Your hearts are hardened against me,” in the city spaces. “You follow false gods,” in the Temple. “Your worship is shallow gestures and petty offerings. Your sacrifices mean nothing , you hear, nothing to me. You offer spare change from your pockets, not gold from your hearts.”
There is an old-fashioned word in the English language called “jeremiad” which means, a lo-o-o-n-n-ng, angry rant. You can tell where the word came from. “Do you think to make my house into a den of thieves?”
Hear that? Do you remember anyone else who used those words ‘den of thieves’? Jesus did! When he ran the money-changers out of the temple, he said, “Isn’t it written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations?’ But you have made it a den of robbers!” (Mark 11:17).
“House of prayer” – that’s from Isaiah (56:7); “a den of robbers” – that’s from Jeremiah (7:11). Jesus grew up knowing his prophets.
Jeremiah wasn’t winning any popularity contests. The puppet king barred him from the Temple and court. “Don’t you come anywhere near me with your rants,” he shouted. But not even a king can muzzle the voice of God. “Hear the word of the Lord! You people have wandered away from the true covenant with God. A false people and a false king will fall down before their enemies. They will grovel before their conquerors!”
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Now consider this. Jeremiah wasn’t the only prophet of his time. No, there were plenty of others. They claimed to speak the voice of God, too. They were sincere, devout, adamant, too. But they were different in one important way. The puppet king liked them. Of course he did. When Jeremiah said “down”, they said “up”. When Jeremiah said “war”, they said “peace”. The people followed them everywhere. When Jeremiah faced off against the king’s prophets, the people shoved close to watch the sparks fly.
One day Jeremiah lifted a heavy yoke of wood to his shoulders. Then he walked back and forth through the city bowed under its weight, just as, he said, the people would bow under the yoke the Babylonians were preparing for them. One of the king’s prophets yanked the yoke from Jeremiah’s shoulders; broke it in two to show how the yoke of slavery would be broken within two years. The people cheered. “Thus saith the Lord. You can break bars of wood, but I will make you yokes of iron.” The people shuddered. What were they to think? Both men claimed to speak the voice of God. How to tell which was the true voice?
It’s a fair question. How do we know who speaks the true voice of God? ___? Harold Kushner, the rabbi who wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People, says there are two tests. First, the message won’t always be easy. It won’t be popular. Second, it can be hard for the prophet to speak it; it hurts the speaker as much as the listener. Later and looking back, Jeremiah said, when a prophet speaks to flatter a nation’s conscience, he doesn’t speak the voice of God. He won’t hear it any more. His own thoughts are too loud. So he speaks them instead.
In 597 BCE the armies of Babylon swept in from the north laying waste to all of Israel. They lay siege to Jerusalem, slavering over the plunder waiting for them in the Temple and royal treasury. Jeremiah’s rant had proven true. The proof was hunkered down around campfires on farmlands just outside the city walls. Everything Jeremiah said would happen, had.
Then Jeremiah did a strange thing. He had a cousin. His cousin owned land so close to the city the enemy might be already camping on it. Jeremiah told his cousin, “Sell me your farm. Take this gold and give me the deed. We’ll have witnesses. Put one copy of the deed in my hands, the other in a clay jar in the town archives.”
This is not good business sense. The Babylonians were about to seize the city. They would kill and plunder everything they wanted. What use was a title deed to property the enemy were already camped on? Now gold, that would be useful. Can be hidden. Smuggled out. Paid out in bribes. Not only that, this crazy cousin was offering full value for the land, not the knockdown price you’d expect in a time of crisis.
Jeremiah bought his farm. In front of public witnesses he acted out God’s promise of hope. Hope not that their city wouldn’t fall, because it was only a matter of days, but that it would rise again in God’s time and purpose. The people would escape slavery, again. They would farm land they held title, again. God’s covenant with his people would be fulfilled, again.
Then Jeremiah made his final prophesy. For decades the prophet had thundered against the stubbornness of his people. Again and again he’d ranted against shallow gestures and petty offerings. And if words alone could be enough, the people would have obeyed long ago. Jeremiah wouldn’t rant any more.
Because Jeremiah realized. The people hadn’t changed their nature because they couldn’t. Jeremiah realized. The people couldn’t change their nature of their own ability . . . or even by following all the laws in the ancient scroll they’d found in the Temple. Jeremiah realized. There was only one way to change the people. Jeremiah realized it would take a new relationship with God in which all people, not through theLaw of God, but through the grace of God, would be made new in God.
This is why I am so grateful to read Jeremiah this first Sunday of Advent. My heart aches to hear God’s promise of hope for Palestine, for Israel, for the Gaza strip. And closer to home, too. We all long to let go of the sorrows and hurts, our stubbornness and shallowness, all the obstacles and our choices that have made us stumble this past year. To let them go. But Jeremiah tells us we won’t be able to do this on our own. He watched his own people struggle two and a half thousand years ago. They couldn’t, we can’t, release our burdens just by our own efforts. So God is sending us one who can. Who will bring hope and renewal to our lives. Open us to a new-again relationship with God. So we wait, with impatience, and also with hope, so we wait.
Copyright 2012, Emily Sylvester. Used by permission.