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Sunday, March 09, 2008

Sermon for March 9 on Jeremiah

Here is today's sermon text on Jeremiah. For meditation we heard Bruce Cockburn's "If a Tree Falls." Here are the lyrics.

Jeremiah: A Prophet of Passion

The Book of Jeremiah is not an easy read. It is not easy in a couple of ways. It is not easy to follow and to know what he is talking about. One scholar quipped that Jeremiah’s scribe Baruch (the one who compiled the prophecies of Jeremiah) when on his way to the publisher, dropped all of the prophecies. They scattered. When he gathered them, they were all mixed up and Baruch couldn’t figure out what came first. He handed the publisher the box of scattered writings and said, “Just print it.”

There is no chronological order to the book. Many biblical scholars earned their Ph. D’s by trying to figure out the who, what, when and where of this book.

There is that difficulty.

It is not an easy read on another level. The language is harsh. This is not a feel good book. It is not a book for the beach. Jeremiah has severe indictments of the people of Judah, neighboring nations, the kings, other prophets, and the people. He covers the bases.

His language is misogynistic. He likens the unfaithfulness of Israel, that is the worship of other gods other than YHWH, to an unfaithful wife whoring after other men. Here is one example of many from Jeremiah 3:1-2:

If a man divorces his wife
and she goes from him
and becomes another man’s wife,
will he return to her?
Would not such a land be greatly polluted?
You have played the whore with many lovers;
and would you return to me?

says the Lord.
2Look up to the bare heights, and see!
Where have you not been lain with?
By the waysides you have sat waiting for lovers,
like a nomad in the wilderness.
You have polluted the land
with your whoring and wickedness.

It would have been one thing if he used this metaphor equally and compared unfaithful Israel to a whoring husband. But it is always one-sided. Feminist scholars have pointed out that this language in Holy Scripture has had detrimental effects for real women. Jeremiah is not unique. This is a problem throughout the Bible, as a result of its patriarchal character. I recommend Phyllis Trible’s book: Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives.

Another reason that Jeremiah is difficult to read, is that it has had a negative effect on inter-faith dialogue. The condemnation of worshiping other gods than YHWH has had the effect of condemning other religions and faith traditions to the present day. Many forms of Christianity—perhaps the dominant form of Christianity--- have uncritically co-opted these texts in the service of condemnation of other faiths and entire cultures.

In addition to misogyny and exclusivism, we also have the problem in Jeremiah of a supernatural deity who punishes. This is the problem of interpreting events, whether they be political or natural, as acts of God. Still today we have preachers such as the televangelist John Hagee, interpreting hurricanes as punishment for sin. Hagee still says that Katrina was punishment for the sinfulness of the people of New Orleans.

This is important. Before we call Hagee a nut, and he is a nut—a dangerous nut---we need to know that he gets his ammunition from the Bible. Jeremiah interprets droughts as YHWH’s punishment for the sins of Judah. Jeremiah interprets the Babylonian conquest of Judah as YHWH’s punishment for their sins.

I do believe that Jeremiah has wisdom for us today, but in order to hear that wisdom we need to deal with Jeremiah in his time and in his context.

I remember an illustration about the Bible in a sermon in the church I attended when I was in seminary. The minister likened reading the Bible to listening to music on an old Victrola. The record is scratched and gouged. As we hear it, we hear pops and noise. Underneath is music. We have to listen for it and distinguish the music from the noise.

By analogy the Bible contains music. But the noise of patriarchy and problematic theology covers the music. We need the tools of critical reflection to separate the noise from the music.

Jeremiah prophesied from about 610 BCE to 587 BCE. This is the most critical time in Judah’s history. During this period, the Babylonian empire conquered Jerusalem, destroyed its temple, and took the people to exile in Babylon.

Jeremiah prophesies before and during this event. Jeremiah sees this coming. No one believes him. The king doesn’t believe him. The king is surrounded by advisors, prophets, and priests who tell the king that Jeremiah is crazy. We are protected by YHWH. We have the temple. As long as we perform our rituals in the temple, YHWH’s temple, we will be safe.

Jeremiah in his famous temple sermon, tells them that the temple will not protect them. This is where the worship of other gods comes in to play. Jeremiah tells them that they think they can go and worship other gods and then return to the temple and think YHWH won’t notice?

Let’s take a side trip. What did this worship of other gods entail? We don’t really know. There are no apologists for Molech today. Jeremiah mentions at least three times what the worship of Molech was about. This is Jeremiah 32:35. Jeremiah is speaking for YHWH:

They built the high places of Baal in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter my mind that they should do this abomination, causing Judah to sin.

What did they do? Child sacrifice. He speaks more explicitly in 7:31:

And they go on building the high place* of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind.

And in 19:4-5, YHWH is speaking through Jeremiah:

“…the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known, and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, 5and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt-offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind;

We don’t have apologists for Baal or Molech to defend their religion. That is what Jeremiah saw. The people do child sacrifice then come to the temple of YHWH.

Jeremiah is also concerned about justice and basic decency. What really angers him is the injustice to the poor, the orphaned and the needy. From chapter 22, Jeremiah speaks for YHWH:

13Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
and his upper rooms by injustice;
who makes his neighbors work for nothing,
and does not give them their wages;
14who says, ‘I will build myself a spacious house
with large upper rooms’,
and who cuts out windows for it,
paneling it with cedar,
and painting it with vermilion.
15Are you a king
because you compete in cedar?
Did not your father eat and drink
and do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him.
16He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
then it was well.
Is not this to know me?
says the Lord.
17But your eyes and heart
are only on your dishonest gain,
for shedding innocent blood,
and for practicing oppression and violence.

Jeremiah offers his famous temple sermon and he preaches: (7:1-11)

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the Lord. 3Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you* in this place. 4Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is* the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’

5 For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, 6if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, 7then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors for ever and ever.

8 Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. 9Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?

After this sermon, Jeremiah is thrown in jail. The gospels report that Jesus did something similar. He went to the temple in his time and overturned the tables. He said that this house of prayer has become a “den of robbers.” The exact same phrase Jeremiah used.

Jesus was not upset that people were selling things in the temple as is commonly understood. Jesus was condemning the injustice that was going on outside the temple. Robbers don’t rob in their own den. They do their robbing and come back to the den for sanctuary. Jesus and Jeremiah both condemned the use of the temple as a pious sanctuary for those who do injustice and then come and do their sanctimonious worship.

Jesus after that action was arrested. There are many parallels between Jesus and Jeremiah. Both Jesus and Jeremiah weep over Jerusalem as the place that kills the prophets. Jesus’ story and Jeremiah’s story are the same story. They are both prophets with a passion.

That is why Jeremiah is upset. He sees child sacrifice, injustice, and sanctimonious worship as a cover for this injustice.

Another side note. As you go for lunch today, think about this. The worst shift for waiters and waitresses is Sunday afternoon. A college student told me this. Why? Because on Sunday afternoon the Christians come to eat. They are rude, demanding, and lousy tippers. Jeremiah would have something to say to that. You are giving YHWH a bad name when you worship in his name then act like a jerk in the real world.

You and I both know that weather patterns are not the result of a supernatural deity stirring up the waters. You and I both know that nations do not attack other nations because a supernatural deity has turned the leaders of one nation into a puppet to punish the other.

The ancients, including Jeremiah, did think along those lines. Each nation had its own god or gods. The battles on Earth reflected the battles of the deities in the sky. Given that theology, I think that the survival of the Hebrew people and their story is significant. The logical explanation for the defeat of Judah is that the Babylonian god, Marduk, defeated YHWH. When people are conquered, usually, their gods are conquered with them. They lose their identity and must adapt to the gods of the victor.

Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the other prophets said something quite radical in their time. They said that they did not lose their temple and their nation because Marduk defeated YHWH. No, the reason is that YHWH is punishing us and YHWH will restore us again.

Given the limits of this theology, what is better: to have your god defeated by your enemy’s god and be absorbed into your enemy’s culture or to have your god punish you with the promise that you will be restored? Those were the options available. They chose option two.

For us today, we need to understand the Bible on its terms, in its context, in its worldview, including its theological worldview. Then we have the opportunity to take what is helpful and leave what is not. What is not helpful for us is a punishing supernatural deity, at least in my opinion. Yet I understand why they spoke in those terms given the options available.

I am going to close now by asking what is the music of Jeremiah? What is the wisdom we can take from this passionate prophet? A couple of quick things.

First, Jeremiah never liked his job. He is a prophet of lament. He says, to paraphrase: “Cursed be the day I was born. Cursed be the one who did not kill me in my mother’s womb, so that her womb would be my grave.” Jeremiah tries not to speak, but it is like a fire within that he cannot hold.

He does not delight in saying what he has to say. He gets no pleasure in denouncing the sins of others. He is the prophet who suffers with the people. He weeps for them. He has great compassion for his people. He pleads with YHWH not to take vengeance. He loves the people to whom he speaks. They are his people. This is important for modern day prophets. Jeremiah knows that he is indicted even as he indicts.

Second, while his theology of a supernatural deity who punishes is not workable for us, still there are consequences for our actions. If there is injustice, which is imbalance, and we do nothing about it, it will come back to bite us. If we do not live in balance with others including the sharing of resources and in balance with Earth, we will suffer the consequences.

Finally, this past week as I was thinking about this sermon, the Word of the Lord came to me while I was in my car. Here is how it worked. My son had driven my car. You know how it is when your kids drive your car. You get in and the seat is in the wrong place and the radio blasts at you. In this case, he had put one of my cds in the player. It was the Bruce Cockburn cd. The song came on that I played for our meditation, “If a Tree Falls.” As I listened to it I realized, “That’s Jeremiah.” Bruce Cockburn is a modern day Jeremiah. He is passionate. His words are poetic. They indict. They lament.

His music like Jeremiah’s music, offers the possibility of hope and transformation. Jeremiah was also a prophet of hope. A hope that we would hear, that one day we would get it. One day we will know what makes for peace and for blessedness. One day we will put away our sin—that is our inability and unwillingness to love—and we will know a lasting and just peace. I will let Jeremiah have the last word:

The days are surely coming, says YHWH, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,* says YHWH. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says YHWH: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know YHWH’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says YHWH; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

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