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Prophets without Honor: Jeremiah

A few weeks ago, my son and I took a quick trip out to Colorado, to the Golden area, where we went on a few hikes.  On one of the hikes, we hiked down from the highlands where the campground was, down to a beautiful little valley, called Forgotten Valley.  And at the bottom of this valley, of course, was a beautiful little stream.  And that stream emptied into a lake.  And it was just a peaceful spot.  There is something about streams, perhaps especially in the starkness of the mountains, that conveys a sense of peace.  There is something about that running water that fills the soul, doesn’t it?  There is something about the sound of running water, about the power of sticking your feet in a mountain stream that gives restoration.

Now, I promise that I don’t just go to Colorado in order to get sermon illustrations.  But it helps.

Because that’s the image that came to mind when I read today’s Scripture passage.  When the worship leadership met several weeks ago, two of the books of the Bible that they wanted to hear more about were Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  And, of course, as serendipity would have it, the lectionary for this fall had a few passages from – you guessed it, both Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  So, you get Ezekiel next week, and Jeremiah this week.

The two of these prophets fit together because they were both doing God’s work at the same time.  Both of them were prophesying around the time that Babylon was growing in strength as an empire.  Of course, they would march into Jerusalem to destroy the political power structure of the Hebrews.  And eventually they would exile the leadership of the nation off into Exile.  The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel were speaking to the people of God during this time.  And they both had basically the same message: “God told you how you were supposed to live, how you were supposed to care for the vulnerable, how you were supposed to fight for justice.  But you didn’t.  Your arrogance and hubris led to you care more about yourself than others.  To ignore the commands to be just and instead you were greedy and lorded your power over the most vulnerable.  So now your society and nation are falling apart at the seams.  Your priorities are all wrong and you are going to reap the consequences.”

So, for Jeremiah and Ezekiel, nationally, communally, and personally, they were in a difficult place.  Jeremiah tells us that because of the ways that they ignore justice and the vulnerable, God judged their sinful nation.  When Jeremiah spoke, there were some exiles who had already been exiled from Jerusalem.  Others were still there, including Jeremiah, but had not learned their lesson.  By their arrogance and hubris, they thought they would be fine and that the Babylonians would leave them alone.  Jeremiah’s message spoke to the contrary, and he was right.  Jeremiah himself would be led out from Judah as well, into exile and away from all that he knew and loved.  A hard time.

Remember that image of a beautiful stream in Colorado?  Contrast that to the experience of the exiles.  In Psalm 137, the Psalmist tells of this exact context that Jeremiah is speaking about, “By the waters of Babylon, we wept.”  Their captors had sport with them, asking them to sing their favorite songs from their homeland that they were taken from.  And all the Hebrews could do was weep.  They threw their harps into the trees, because they had no songs to sing.

My guess is that few of us here today have been taken away from our homes by fishhooks and exiled in a strange land, but it feels like it sometimes.  How many of us feel like the land in which we grew up has been taken away from us?  Like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, personally, communally, and nationally, many of us feel like we are in a strange land.  Things are different than they once were.  Nationally and across the region, we see political infighting all the time: new heights of incivility in political campaigns, Supreme Court fights over the last couple of years ago marked with unprecedented injustice and political power plays.  In our own community, we see unprecedented political hardball.  Congregationally, we find ourselves in a difficult and uncomfortable conversation in our own church about same sex marriage.  Personally, how many of us are struggling in a strange land?  Our bodies don’t do what they once did and relationships that we could once count on have shifted beneath our feet.  Like Jeremiah, the pleasant mountain stream has become a source of pain, and by the waters, we weep.

Into all of that comes a message from Jeremiah in today’s passage: we will get past this.

Listen again to the words that he speaks to the people.  In the middle of their pain and their chaos, he speaks words of comfort.  In fact, that’s what scholars call this section of the book of Jeremiah, the Book of Comfort, or the Book of Consolation.  Throughout these chapters, Jeremiah speaks a word of hope.  God will redeem us from this pain.  God will bring back our comfort.  We will sing again.

We will get past this.

Now Jeremiah is not glossing over the pain.  He is not saying that it will not be hard.  He is not saying that there are still challenges that await.  When he writes this, it is likely that the Temple is still standing and he is in Jerusalem. But before long, the Temple itself will be destroyed and he will be personally exiled.  He is on the cusp of…”it is going to get worse.”  It will be hard.  But hard is not interminable.  Hard is not impossible.  Jeremiah is not glossing over the pain, but saying that through the pain, a new vision for the nation is being formed.

We will get past this.

Hebrew scholar Amy Erickson writes about this new vision.  She contrasts the arrogance and the hubris and the injustice that led them to judgment in the first place.  The Hebrews were rather full of themselves and didn’t feel the need to take care of each other, or especially take care of the least of these, the most vulnerable among them.  But look at Jeremiah’s picture of God’s new vision, of the picture of hope that he paints.  Look who is taken care of: the most vulnerable.  There in verse 8, we read the immigrant is safe and protected…those from the Northern Kingdom who already lost their homes because of the Assyrians would be brought into the fold.  The blind and the lame will be cared for…indeed they will be at the heart of the community that God is creating.  And women who are pregnant and even those in labor – a rather vulnerable and precarious position, today and especially in those days – will be brought in and protected.  No longer will the vulnerable be on the margins, but they will be at the heart of the community.  As Erickson writes, “vulnerability defines them.”  To a people whose arrogance and injustice and hubris has caused their downfall, this is not a call for revenge: “hang on long enough and we’ll get those punks back for what they did to us.  They will pay and we’ll do the same to them that they did to us.”  No, says Jeremiah, the new vision is a new way of being.  Not a lording over, but community of care and comfort.

We will get past this.  And live a new way.

Now, I don’t know about you, but folks like Jeremiah, usually annoy the heck out of me.  I usually kind of hate folks like Jeremiah.  The person when things are really bad, here comes Molly Sunshine!  The eternal optimist.  The one who says, “It’ll be fine!  Look on the bright side!”  And it is annoying to me because it feels like they are trying too hard.  Do they see what is happening around them?  Or that they are not paying attention to the reality of the situation.  But even if deep down they are right, I DON’T WANT TO HEAR THAT RIGHT NOW.  Let me freak out a little.  Let me be in a bad mood.  Let me panic…it will make me feel better.  Feel more in control.

But isn’t that it.  Isn’t that the consistency of Jeremiah’s message?

You aren’t in control.

Right now, it looks like you are in control, but you aren’t.  Your bad decisions are not the way to run a country or a community of any kind.  And it will all come crashing down.  Even though you think you are in control.  You are not.

And that’s a good thing.  Why is it significant that Jeremiah names the most vulnerable as the center of this new community that God will redeem?  Because who better to teach us reliance, submission, and trust than those who get it?  Who understand what it is like to be sustained and cared for by God and others?  They get it!  And they have a lot to teach us.  So, Jeremiah’s vision for restoration puts them at the center.  Deep down, he believes the promise of God: we will get past this!

Right along that peaceful stream in Colorado, we saw the remains of an historic homestead.  And a placard explaining where these remains came from.  Apparently Anders and Christina Tallman, Swedish immigrants from the late 1800’s, built a homestead in this little valley.  They liked it because it reminded them of their home in Sweden.  There they raised chickens and cattle there and sold them in nearby Black Hawk.  For four generations, in the wake of the civil war, through the Silver Rush and the collapse that followed it, through the Great Depression, the Tallman family farmed this land.

What made it possible?  To eek out a living in the mountains through all those struggles?  Besides their hard work, of course, they had to have that water source.  Clean, sustainable water right by their ranch.  In the form of a beautiful mountain stream.

It is no coincidence that Jeremiah uses that symbol in the final verse in the passage:  “I will let them walk by brooks of water.”  To a people who sat by the waters of Babylon and wept, says Jeremiah, God will give a new way.

“We will get past this.”  God will nourish.  God will refresh.  God will offer grace.

Not the loneliness of revenge.  Or the emptiness of arrogance.  Or the greediness of injustice.  But the nourishment of hope.  “They will walk by brooks of water” and they will be comforted.  They will be refreshed by mountain streams.  They will be sustained by the power of God.

May it be so with you and with me.

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