Jeremiah “Meaning in the Midst of Exile”

Jeremiah 18:1-12; Jeremiah 29:4-14
Sermon by Rev. Pam Strader, West Market St UMC
October 26, 2008

Have you ever had a book that you bought in a bookstore, but when you got home it just sat on the shelf or the bedside table? You keep thinking, “I need to get around to reading that book,” but you just never quite do. That happened to me with a book I had bought on the prophet Jeremiah. What drew me to it was that it was written by Eugene Peterson, the Presbyterian who gave us The Message translation of the Bible. But you know what? I have discovered that sometimes God works in and through my procrastination. Sometimes there seems to be a reason that the timing wasn’t quite right until I actually get to it. That seemed true for me and the book Run Like Horses, by Peterson. I am not sure I would have gotten as much out of it had I read it at another time, or maybe I just would have been drawn to different things in it.

What happened was that this prophet came to life for me, perhaps not so much because of who he is but because of where I am in my life and where I find our world. Jeremiah started getting to me, and I don’t just say that because my husband Joe kept singing that late great 70’s tune “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog” around the house, that got to me too. But this prophet — this amazingly brave, brash, and bold servant of God started messing with me. So, my friends, I invite you to let him mess with you too.

Let’s start with Jeremiah’s call from God. It is beautifully illustrated on the front of your bulletin.
“Before I formed you in the womb,
I knew you.
Before you were born,
I had holy plans for you.
I would give you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5 – adapted)

Before Jeremiah knew God, God knew Jeremiah. He knew him, had plans for him, and gave him to his service. Jeremiah’s reaction?
“No way. I’m a boy. I can’t do this.”

God’s response?
“Yes, you can do this and you will do this. I will give you the words to say, and you’ll say them. I’ll look after you while you’re doing it. Now, I tell you, it is going to be a harsh message — like a pot of boiling water will disaster come down on these people who are worshiping what makes them feel good. You will be as strong as a fort, immovable as a steel post or a bronze wall.” (1:6-8, 13-14, 18a Adapted)

Whoa!! So Jeremiah will have a harsh message for some folks who are far from God, right? Well, kind of. Except the king of Israel Josiah has been a reformer — a pretty good reformer. Unlike his grandfather and father before him. You may have heard of them. Manasseh, Josiah’s grandfather was regarded as “the worst king the Hebrews ever had. He was a thoroughly bad man presiding over a totally corrupt government.” He led the Hebrew people far, and I mean, F-A-R from God. His son Amon followed him to the throne, but the people could not stomach any more. Amon was murdered. His eight year-old son Josiah was placed on the throne.” (Eugene Peterson, Run with Horses, IVP, Downers Grove, IL: 1985, pp. 59-60)

Jeremiah was a young man when the young King Josiah came to rule. This was an amazing time. It was amazing because Josiah was nothing like his father or grandfather. Josiah was a man of conscience. He began by cleaning up the temple in Jerusalem, and by that I mean kicking out the sorcerers and magicians, along with the cultic prostitutes. In the course of cleaning and renovating, an incredible discovery was made. A priest found an old book. He brought it to Josiah and read it to him. Josiah wept and rent his clothing. King Josiah was so moved that he called all the people of Jerusalem together and they stood and listened for hours as the Law, the book of Deuteronomy, was read to them. They heard, many for the first time, what the Lord expected of them and what worship was to look like that was not tied to idols you could pick up with your hands. This began a period called “Josiah’s reform” described in II Kings. Pagan altars were destroyed, the temple was restored to right worship, and the people began to worship the Lord, the one God of Israel.

So life is good. God is pleased. Right? Not exactly. As Eugene Peterson says in his reflection on this episode in Israel’s history, the Hebrews were in the temple for worship, “[b]ut standing in a church and singing a hymn doesn’t make us holy any more than standing in a barn neighing makes us a horse.” (Peterson, 65) Eeww. While appearances may be good, Jeremiah says things are not as they seem. People being in the right place and saying the right words – does not reflect right worship. God tells Jeremiah to go stand in the gate of the temple – the front door of the church and say to the people:

Do you think you can rob and murder, commit adultery, tell lies, worship other gods, buy religious trinkets – then march into this Temple, set apart for my worship, and say, “We’re safe!” — thinking the place itself gives us license to go on with all these outrageous affronts to me? (From Jeremiah 7)

What’s he talking about? He’s talking about presenting the form of religion on the outside without having a transformed heart and life inside. He’s talking about saying holy words in worship but not living out those words in the world. What’s he talking about? He’s talking about the disconnect people have between showing up to worship God on Sunday and not showing up in their work, their relationships, their families, their communities as followers of God. Well, says Jeremiah, I have news for you. You may exhibit one face at church. But God knows the shadow side that comes out in your relationships, at work, at home, in private when you think no one is looking. Our coming to church and going through the form of religion does not blind God to the neglect and anger at home, the lack of commitment in relationships, the manipulation and deception at work, the disregard for truth and justice in our actions — the dual life many of us live.
Things were messy, and everyone except Jeremiah was in denial about it.

That helps us understand the trip Jeremiah makes to the potter’s house, (the passage read at the start of our service – Jeremiah 18:1-12.) God tells Jeremiah to go there. He finds the potter at the wheel. The clay piece the potter is working on turns out badly. But the potter does not throw it away. The potter begins working on it again, shaping it, forming it. That’s what God says will happen to the people of Israel. It is a word of judgment, a word of warning that Jeremiah has to deliver. Yet it is a word of hope that in the hands of the potter, even a pot that turns out badly can be remolded into something new.

The story of Jeremiah going to the potter’s house is classic. You see, God gives Jeremiah the most incredible images with which to prophesy to the Hebrew people. His prophecies are full of analogies. He compares the Hebrew people to a basket of rotting figs at one point and later a broken pot.

Sounds like some of the political pundits talking about candidates these days. What did they think of his metaphors? His preaching? Not much. They continued to ignore him and ridicule him. And at the same time, what was cropping up in the land? Pagan altars were being rebuilt out in the country, out of sight, where the people nurtured their false religion, their side ventures into idol worship and cultic practices. The people showed up at the temple for worship, but also held onto their idol worship. Popular preachers refuted Jeremiah’s condemnations and assured the people they were doing wonderfully, that all was well. “They preach ‘peace, peace” when there is no peace, said Jeremiah (17:11)

When he warned that God’s judgment was coming, that the armies of Babylon were going to destroy them, their response was “Babylon, shmabylon, Jeremiah!” But you know what? Jeremiah was right. The Babylonians did come, did destroy Jerusalem and the temple with it. King Nebuchadnezzar carried off the leaders, artisans, and merchants into exile, leaving Jerusalem a shell — and Jeremiah with it.

And that brings us to this point — on the road. The year is 587 B.C. The exiles are uprooted and forced to travel 700 miles across the Middle East desert to a land they do not know, a people they do not know, and a future they cannot fathom.

I think exile must be one of the scariest things that happens to people. It is a loss of control in one’s life. Things you take for granted are no longer there. It is disorienting and confusing. “The essential meaning of exile is that we are where we don’t want to be.” (Peterson, p. 148)

It is almost like someone comes into your life and rearranges the furniture. Aah. Rearranges the furniture – without asking for your input, without asking you how you might like it arranged. A decision is made or a circumstance is thrown upon you, not of your choosing: Like being called into your boss’s office and being told that you are no longer employed. Like coming home and finding out that your spouse has decided to move out and on. Like receiving a diagnosis of a medical condition that changes your life or the life of someone you love. Like finding out that you did not make the Olympic team after having trained for it for practically your whole life. Like opening up your pension statement and seeing that it is 40% lower that it was the last quarter. Like waking up one day and realizing that your prescription will not be renewed on that medication that helps you float through the day and sleep through the night without having to feel pain or joy. Like looking at your bills and your paycheck and seeing a really big gap. Like coming to worship and seeing that strange woman up there instead of your pastor.

Like . . . fill in the blank. Has your furniture been rearranged lately? That’s a silly question for us as a nation, isn’t it? What is your reaction? Most of us want it fixed. As Kenan Thompson’s Financial Consultant character on Saturday Night Live says when asked about our present financial debacle, we just want someone to “FIX IT.” 1. FIX 2. IT
3. FIX IT!! We want to get back to normal, and quickly. Whether it is illness, a broken relationship, job loss, or a national crisis, we want a quick fix — a prescription, a reconciliation, a new job, or a bailout. But there is something we need to recognize about exile. There is no quick fix. Ooh, we don’t like that in our culture. They didn’t like it in Jeremiah’s day either. So some other prophets told the exiles, “After just two years of exile in Babylon, and you’ll be back home. Don’t unpack. Don’t get to know your neighbors. The things that were plundered will be returned to Jerusalem. It’ll be over soon.”

Jeremiah had a surprising word for the Israelites. “Settle in, allow the king of Babylon to reign over you. This is your yoke, bear it and wear it.” Now folks, this is the children of Israel – the chosen people. It is hard for them to believe that God is not on his way to rescue them from the Babylonians. Weren’t they special? Weren’t they supposed to be spared suffering as the chosen people? Instead, they receive a letter from Jeremiah that he sends from Jerusalem. Let’s listen to what it said.

Oh, good, a word of hope. Plant gardens, marry, have kids, make myself at home here for, for . . . did he say 70 YEARS?
“Now, wait a minute Jeremiah. You mean this displacement, this exile is going to last a while? I’m going to be here, where I don’t want to be, in this situation I don’t like, for how long? What? Well, that is too long. Can’t God do something about this? Come on, give me a miracle. Okay, so you got a word from God. You call that a word of HOPE? What am I to do in the meantime?”

Have you been there? Are you there? Are you in exile somewhere in your life, where you don’t want to be? Want to escape? Want to jump ship? Want to drink or drug it? Want to dole out blame and take it out on others? Want to hurt someone so you won’t be hurting alone?

You know what is amazing to me about Jeremiah? He didn’t preach a message to the exiles from a place of comfort and contentment. He had lived that exile throughout his lifetime as a prophet of the Lord, the God of Israel. The Israelites, they hated him. They ignored him, humiliated him, beat him, threatened to kill him, ridiculed him, and even threw him into a cistern to die. Jeremiah’s words have integrity because he’d been through some — well, let’s just say, “bad stuff.” Jeremiah not only preached to the exiled, he lived a life of exile in his role as a prophet with an unpopular message. His prayers, his arguments with God, the entire book of Jeremiah and Lamentations show us a man, who in his own exile, while grieving and suffering, found meaning and purpose, and grew in his commitment to God.

I know that we are in the midst of the World Series right now. And it is an exciting series. But one of the most exciting nights of baseball this year was the Home Run Derby. This year, a 26 year-old baseball player named Josh Hamilton transformed what I thought would be a ho-hum event at Yankee Stadium into an unforgettable night of triumph and celebration. Josh hist homerun after homerun after homerun, culminating in 27 homeruns in the first round alone. Folks, the people in Yankee stadium were on their feet, chanting “Josh, Josh.” It was unbelievable. Not just because that is an amazing athletic feat, but because five years ago, Josh Hamilton was strung out on crack cocaine in a trashy trailer outside Raleigh, NC. Crack cocaine had become his god.
In an interview with ESPN, The Magazine in 2007, after he had finally successfully completed rehab, been reinstated to play professional baseball, and had been on the roster for Cincinnati for about five months, he had this to say:

“There’s a reason my prayers weren’t answered during those dark, messed-up nights I spent scared out of my mind. There’s a reason I have this blessed and unexpected opportunity to play baseball and tell people my story. My wife Katie told me this day would come. At my lowest point, three years ago, when I was wasting away to skin and bones and listening to nobody, she told me I’d be back playing baseball someday. She had no reason to believe in me. . . By then I’d been in rehab five or six times – on my way to eight – and failed to get clean. I was a bad husband and a bad father, and I had no relationship with God. Baseball wasn’t even on my mind. And still Katie told me, ‘You’re going to be back playing baseball, because there’s a bigger plan for you.’
She looks pretty smart, doesn’t she? I have a mission now. My mission is to be a ray of hope, the guy who stands out there on that beautiful field and owns up to his mistakes and lets people know it’s never completely hopeless, no matter how bad it seems at the time . . .’

This may sound crazy, but I wouldn’t change a thing about my path to the big leagues. I wouldn’t even change the 26 tattoos that cover so much of my body, even though they’re the most obvious signs of my life temporarily leaving the tracks . . . But if I hadn’t gone through the hard times, this whole story would be just about baseball . . . Baseball is third in my life right now, behind my relationship with God and my family. . . Alone I couldn’t win this battle. With Jesus I couldn’t lose. ( Baseball, Thursday, July 5, 2007)

From another translation of Jeremiah 29, “I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for evil, to give you a future with hope.” And now get this part: “Then you will call upon me and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart, you will find me.” (29:13-14)

What is it about us that it is often only when we are brought to our knees by life’s circumstances that we are finally in a position of prayer and submission? God says, “When you seek me with your whole heart, you will find me.”

What happens in exile? Well, that’s up to us, isn’t it? We can complain and blame. We can get angry or depressed. We can retreat or try to escape. We can look for short cuts or pray for miracles. We can even look for a hero to rescue us. Or, we can humble ourselves to its reality and pray to our one true hero, Jesus Christ, to bring us closer to God and to mature us in our faith. Jeremiah is heroic not because he rescued people, led battles, or because he reigned over a kingdom. Jeremiah’s heroism lies in his humanity, his steadfastness in the face of suffering and ridicule, to demand more from God’s people than they were comfortable giving. And when they refused, and ended up in exile, he preached to them about a God who would not abandon them if they would only seek his face.

How timely for us, and for our nation, to hear the words of Jeremiah. He speaks to us of seeking the welfar of our situation — not in our terms, but in God’s terms. Another word for that is to seek shalom: peace, harmony, wholeness. Some would call it learning to be fully human, realizing the potential God hopes and plans for us. One writer puts it this way, “The only opportunity you have to live by faith is in the circumstances you are provided this very day.” (Peterson, p. 153) Oh, that our political candidates, our government, and the people who work in our financial institutions would take that to heart. Oh, that we as citizens would look beyond ourselves to what would personally benefit us to what would benefit the community we are part of called the world.

Some would have us think that we are a nation unto ourselves, that we are to look out for ourselves alone, and within that bubble, many would look only to their circumstances and not that of the poor, the marginalized, the underpaid and over-charged. Some would not take responsibility for themselves, much less others. But in the end, whether we like it or not, we are connected. My mortagage is connected to your bank, your bank is connected to his insurance, his insurance is connected to her pension, her pension is connected to international monetary holdings. My cancer is connected to your hospital, your hospital is connected to her medicare, her medicare is connected to the federal budget, and the federal budget is connected to what we all pay in taxes. So we are kind of like those folks in Babylon. We find ourselves all in this messy exile together.
But you know what, exile may not be such a bad thing. It may be what saves you, because it may be what wakes you up to the fact that what you so much want to control is out of your control. “The Hebrews did not lose their identity, but discovered it . . . The violent dislocation of the exile shook them out of their comfortable but reality-distorting assumptions and allowed them to see the depths and heights they had never even imagined before. They lost everything they thought was important and found what was important: God.” (p. 155)

I don’t know what your exile is. I only know that those exile times in my life have knocked me out of my comfort zone and brought me to my knees. My furniture has been rearranged several times. Those times have lasted longer than I thought I could endure. But the words of Jeremiah have been a lifeline for me. You too may be in the midst of change. You may be feeling lost and abandoned, angry or frustrated. You may feel dislocated from what you have always regarded as home. You may fear what tomorrow brings. Whatever your situation, God has plans for you, plans for your welfare, your path to wholeness, a future with hope if you seek God with your very being — seeking with humility and surrender. Ah, that we as a country and a world could discover in this scary time the One who can see our future, a future with hope, if we only seek God’s face. Do you seek God’s face?

Let us humble ourselves and seek God with our whole hearts that we may find meaning in the midst of exile. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.