August 30, 2020, Standing at the Crossroads, Matthew 16:21-25 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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The book of Jeremiah contains 52 chapters, with 1,364 verses, and our Old Testament lesson today was just seven verses long. That means there is an awful lot of context that needs to be supplied if we’re going to make any sense of the reading. So I want to begin with some context.
Jeremiah is often called the “Weeping Prophet” – not because he does a lot of moaning and complaining, but because he lived at a tragic moment in the history of his people. Jeremiah became God’s prophet during the reign of King Josiah, who was the last faithful king of Judah. The nation of Israel was divided into two kingdoms in those days, and the northern Kingdom, Israel, had been destroyed by the Assyrians more than a century before the time of Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived in Judah, the southern kingdom. God had preserved Judah, with her capital, the holy city of Jerusalem, out of his faithfulness to King David. But still, over the years, Judah too had begun to turn away from God.
So, speaking through Jeremiah, God issued this indictment of Judah:
“My people have rebellious hearts; they have turned against me and gone off into idolatry. Though I am the one who gives them rain each year in spring and fall and sends the harvest times, yet they have no respect or fear for me. And so I have taken away these wondrous blessings from them. This sin has robbed them of all of these good things.
Among my people are wicked men who lurk for victims like a hunter hiding in a blind. They set their traps for men. Like a coop full of chickens their homes are full of evil plots. And the result? Now they are great and rich, they are well fed and well groomed, and there is no limit to their wicked deeds. They refuse justice to orphans and the rights of the poor. Should I sit back and act as though nothing is going on? the Lord God asks. Shouldn’t I punish a nation such as this?”
All through the Old Testament, the downfall of the people of God was that they were enticed into worshiping the gods of the surrounding nations, gods of stone and metal and wood, deities of the earth and the sky, even gods that demanded human sacrifice. And even though the people of Judah had seen that Israel was punished for her idolatry they had still turned away from worshiping the one true God.
And turning away from God, the people of Judah had become a people lacking in justice and compassion. The rich were growing richer and the cry of the poor was going unheard. Again, this is a theme found all through the Old Testament. God tell his people time and time again to care for the fatherless and the widow. God promises to hear the cry the poor and the oppressed. The Law that God gave Moses was set up, in large part, to create a just and equitable society, to protect the rights of the poor and to set limits on the acquisition of wealth.
Jeremiah, then, had been called to be God’s prophet in the time of Judah’s decline, when, for all these reasons, because of their faithlessness and idolatry, because of their greed and injustice, the threat of God’s punishment hung over Judah like a storm cloud. And to make matters worse, there were so-called prophets, approved by the religious authorities, who contradicted everything Jeremiah said. “An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land:” God said, speaking through Jeremiah. “the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule at their direction; and my people love to have it so.” These prophets were proclaiming that everything was just fine, that God was pleased with them, that there was no disaster threatening them. Needless to say, since these prophets were saying what people wanted to hear, they were a whole lot more popular than Jeremiah.
But Jeremiah wasn’t just unpopular, he was hated and persecuted. At one time the people got so fed up with Jeremiah’s doom-and-gloom prophecies, that they decide to throw Jeremiah into a well and let him die. Jeremiah only survived through the kindness of an Ethiopian man named Ebed-Melech who rescued Jeremiah from the mud at the bottom of the well. So Jeremiah’s life was saved. But he was still pretty much universally loathed. And all that should help us to understand Jeremiah’s situation in this morning’s reading, when he says:
“O Lord, you know; remember me and visit me, and bring down retribution for me on my persecutors. In your forbearance do not take me away; know that on your account I suffer insult. Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts. I did not sit in the company of merrymakers, nor did I rejoice; under the weight of your hand I sat alone, for you had filled me with indignation.
Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.”
Jeremiah is bringing an indictment against God. He had become the prophet of God gladly. He had loved the words of God. He had kept himself apart, holy to the Lord. But instead of honor and respect, Jeremiah’s friends and neighbors only mocked and hated him. The more he proclaimed the word of God, the more they hated and persecuted him. “Listen,” Jeremiah accuses God, “you’re like a stream of water that deceives a thirsty man. You’re like a brook that dries up and provides nothing to drink.”
Those are some bold words for a man speaking to his God, I think. But Jeremiah is on the point of despair, he’s ready to turn his back on the whole disastrous prophet gig. He comes to God to say, “I’m done.” And more than that, he accuses God of failing him. But notice, God doesn’t get angry. This is God’s answer to Jeremiah:
“Thus says the Lord:
If you turn back, I will take you back, and you shall stand before me. If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth. It is they who will turn to you, not you who will turn to them. And I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you, says the Lord. I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.”
God promises that he will remain faithful to Jeremiah. He promises that if Jeremiah comes back to him he will strengthen and uphold him. He promises that he will deliver Jeremiah out of the hand of his enemies. “I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze,” God promises Jeremiah.
It’s a crisis point. From his first joy in serving God Jeremiah has become disillusioned. He is teetering on the brink of despair. He feels like God has let him down. He feels like God has given him a calling that is too hard, too painful. Jeremiah has come to a crossroads: a choice between turning back, and going forward, trusting to the promises of God.
Jeremiah lived about 2600 years ago, in a culture very different from our North Country life in the year 2020. But Jeremiah’s experience, of coming to a crossroads of faith, is one that I am pretty sure is familiar to most, if not all, of us. Life in this world can be hard. Sometimes life is painful. And there are times when we feel like God has just let us down. There are times for almost every person of faith when we become disillusioned with the whole faith thing, when it just doesn’t seem to be working for us anymore – and like Jeremiah, we need to come to God and demand an answer.
The writers of the psalms give expression to those crises of faith. Psalm 69 says, “I have grown weary with my crying; my throat is inflamed; my eyes have failed from looking for my God.” Psalm 74 says, “O God, why have you utterly cast us off?” Psalm 88, says, “Lord, why have you rejected me? Why have you hidden your face from me?” And David writes, in Psalm 13, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”
Anyone who has struggled with depression will recognize this crossroads. Maybe you’ve had to deal with a long illness, or a divorce, or the death of someone close to you. An awful lot of people have lost jobs during this pandemic, some people are even facing the possibility of homelessness. In fact, there are more than half a million people in our nation who are homeless right now. I am sure there are a lot of people who are at a crossroads of faith in the uncertainty of this time. Even in less precarious times, people sometimes lose their way as they grow older and become discouraged by the failures or limitations or disappointments of their life, that is so different, so much harder, than the life they had planned or expected.
Whatever brings us to that crossroads, Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, has shown us the way forward. First of all, he shows us that it’s OK to bring our accusations to God. He can take it. We can hurl our disappointments at him. We can even be mad at God. Remember what Jeremiah said, “You’re like a stream that dries up and fails to provide water.” Remember how Jesus himself, in his darkest time, was praying the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Because sometimes in our darkest times we don’t have words of our own to say what we are feeling. Like our Lord, we can use the psalms to express our discouragement, or our anger, or our fear.
And secondly, God’s response to us is never to punish us, or to reject us, or to hit back. God’s response to our crisis of faith, as we see in his response to Jeremiah, is to renew his promises to us. Our faith might fail. In fact, our faith will fail, at some time or other, we can pretty much count on that. But God our Father is always faithful. Life might well be too hard for us. But it will never be too hard for God, and he will bring us through. No matter what you face, God says to you, “It shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you.”
I believe it is because Jeremiah chose to put his trust in the faithfulness of God, even in the midst of disaster, that the book of Jeremiah contains some of the most comforting and hopeful words in all of Scripture. It was to Jeremiah, the Weeping Prophet, that God gave these words: “Behold the days are coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…I will be their God and they will be my people…they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord, for I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more…I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.”