It’s gloom and doom. It’s like Eeyore wrote a book of the Bible. It’s a big, fat bummer.
Jeremiah, that is.
We’re reading through the book of Jeremiah this month at Andrews UMC, so each day I’m putting two or three chapters of this important book of the Bible under my belt. And I’m glad we’re reading it – it is, after all, the second largest book of the Bible. It includes some great stuff like God knowing Jeremiah in his mother’s womb (last week’s Scripture) and God molding us like clay (next week’s Scripture). But in between those lovely images is a lot of… judgment. As an example, here’s some of my daily devotional reading while writing this sermon:
Then the LORD said to me: Though Moses and Samuel stood before me, yet my heart would not turn toward this people. Send them out of my sight, and let them go! And when they say to you, ‘Where shall we go?’ you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the LORD:
Those destined for pestilence, to pestilence,
and those destined for the sword, to the sword;
those destined for famine, to famine;
and those destined for captivity, to captivity (Jeremiah 15:1-2).
Then it goes on to destroying and killing and dogs dragging away the carcasses… you know, just the kind of warm, fuzzy stuff you want to read right before bed.
It’s a bummer, I’m telling you.
But it’s a justified bummer. Jeremiah’s ministry lasted from 627 to 587 BC. During this time God’s people were disobedient to the point of divine exasperation. So God let them have it, and three waves of Babylonian attack came washing over them between 597 and 582. In 587 Jerusalem fell, which means the Temple was destroyed, which means God literally no longer held residence in the Promised Land.
This is not a good time, and Jeremiah’s words reflect it accurately. Jeremiah 3:2-3 is par for the course: “You have polluted the land with your whoring and your wickedness. Therefore the showers have been withheld, and the spring rain has not come…” (3:2-3).
So it’s a justified bummer; but it’s still a bummer. And after several weeks of reflecting on this material, I’m left a little… anxious. Like, I don’t want to end up on the wrong side of this message. Whatever it is that God’s people did wrong, I don’t want to do it.
So – what did they do?
Jeremiah 2:13 gives it to us metaphorically:
…for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns that can hold no water.
It’s as if God’s people have a stream – a beautiful, crystal-clear stream. Up river there isn’t a single thing to worry about: no factories, no farm land, no source of pollution at all. This is just straight-from-the-ground spring water flowing through our town, free for anyone to drink.
But instead of drinking from that stream, God’s people turned away from it and dug a well. It’s cracked so the water inside doesn’t stay clean. It comes out all brown and murky. Some say that it might even make you sick… but the people keep drinking it anyway.
These are the two evils that God’s people have committed: they have turned away from the eternal, living water and turned toward some man-made crap. They have turned away from God with a capital “G” and turned toward gods with a lower-case “g.”
This is what I do not want to do. This is what gets you on the receiving end of Jeremiah’s prophecy. Now it’s true that Jeremiah is ministering before the arrival of Jesus Christ – some 600 years before, actually. And it’s true that Jesus’ death and resurrection changed things by making forgiveness possible in a new, permanent way. So we might be tempted to think that, had all this happened after Jesus, God would have forgiven it.
But Jesus did not die so that we would remain in sin. Jesus died so that we’d be set free from sin (Romans 6:17-18). And hasn’t Jeremiah – with all his serious content – made it very clear that God is serious about sin? God is full of grace and love, but God also has high standards for us. And choosing gods over God is at the top of the list of sins we need to avoid (I mean, literally – see Exodus 20:2).
So we do not want to turn away from God and turn toward gods.
But like so many things: easier said than done.
Turning away from false gods is hard for us because they’re sneaky. We don’t even call them “gods” anymore, but they’re out there. God is supposed to be our King, the ruler of our lives. False gods are anything or anyone else we allow to sit on that throne, anything or anyone else that reigns over us.
These things are fine – good, even! – when we use them as they’re meant to be used. But when we give them power over us, allow them to make decisions for us, we treat them as gods. As Jeremiah puts it:
But my people have changed their glory
for that which does not profit (2:11).
Money can pay our rent but it can’t quench the thirst of our souls. Beauty is nice to look on but it can’t quench the thirst of our souls. Sex is God’s good gift, an act of physical intimacy that matches the emotional intimacy of two spouses – but it can’t quench the thirst of our souls.
Only God can do that.
So we turn away from those would-be gods and we turn toward the one true God.
God is, sometimes, easy to turn to. We show up at church (but that’s just an hour a week). We pray before bed at night (but that’s just a few minutes each day). We read our Bibles (but we can’t walk around all day with our noses in a book).
How do we keep ourselves turned toward God, 24/7? Because those other gods are out there all the time – and whenever we turn away from God, they’ll be ready to grab our attention.
Jeremiah points out something God’s people had stopped doing, something that we must keep doing: remembering God’s stories.
They did not say, ‘Where is the LORD who brought us up from the land of Egypt,
who led us in the wilderness…’
The priests did not say, ‘Where is the LORD?’
Those who handle the law did not know me… (2:6, 8)
It was God who saved Israel from slavery in Egypt; it was God who led them through the wilderness. But the Israelites have forgotten God’s stories.
In order to turn to God, we have to know about God. We need to know the stories about how God created us, and made covenant with Abraham to bless all families, and saved Israel from slavery, and spoke to them through the prophets, and reached out to Israel and the whole world through Jesus Christ. Knowing the stories turns us to God.
When I was a kid, I thought that the Bible worked like a Ouija board – ask it a question and flip it open to see what it will say. Or, ask the concordance a question and see what verse it points me to. These tactics aren’t completely without value, but I’ve found that the Bible works more like a good TV show – like Stranger Things. I just finished watching this series and the story was so good that I can’t stop thinking about it. I wonder why the characters did what they did; I imagine what else might be happening in their world. A good story has a way of sticking with us.
Today is the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11 – and many of us Americans have told and retold stories about that day. We tell where we were when we first got the news and how it made us feel. We talk about acts of tragedy and bravery. Telling these stories helps us remember, and we want to remember because we want to learn from what happened. We remember so that we might act bravely if we ever face that kind of danger. We remember so that we can contribute to a more peaceful world, built on love and not hate. Stories like that don’t just stick with us… they change us.
The Bible’s stories are locked in old languages and thousands of years of history that need translating, which sometimes makes it hard to bring them to life. But those stories are worth digging into, because they are the stories of God and us. The more I read the Bible, the more I know its stories, the more they stick with me like a really great TV show… turning me toward God.
To avoid the mistake of God’s people in Jeremiah’s day we have to learn the stories – learn them and tell them and then tell them again. We must bravely open the Bible to Matthew and commit ourselves to reading a chapter each day until we’ve experienced the resurrection four times over and seen the disciples take the message to the world and received Paul’s letters like they’re our own. Then, having seen how the story ends in Revelation, we start again at the beginning with Genesis. Then, having read them, we begin to tell them. We tell them in Sunday School and in Bible studies. We tell them to our kids at night and to our friends in need of guidance. We tell them… and we turn toward God.
Because only God can quench the thirst of our souls.