Diseases that sap memory, like Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, deeply frighten some people. After all, memory connects us to those we love and even in a way to ourselves. Without memory, we largely become alone in the world. Without memory, in many ways we no longer feel like we belong anywhere.
Memory, however, also in many ways shapes who we are. U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky argues that much of America’s identity is linked to the past we inherit. Things like the Revolutionary War and Civil Wars, slavery and civil rights struggles shape the United States as a country.
Or think about the way memory shapes more personal things. Memories of the parental care we experienced as children shape the way we parent our own children. Memories of the racial prejudice we’ve experienced shapes the way we deal with people of other races now.
Pinsky even goes so far as to bluntly insist, “Deciding to remember, and what to remember, is how we decide what we are.” But what if we can’t remember? Or simply choose to somehow forget? What happens then? Such a decision also shapes what we are.
In the Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday, God indicts Israel for having forgotten. By choosing to forget, she has chosen her identity as one who has divorced herself from the living God.
Of course, Israel’s original identity was that of God’s “bride.” At one time she enjoyed an intimate relationship with God. In language similar to that of the prophet Hosea, Jeremiah uses marital imagery like “devotion” and “love” to describe Israel’s relationship with God.
Yet as soon as Israel entered the Promised Land, she forgot the Lord because she chose to forget what God had done for her. She forgot that God freed her from slavery in Egypt. Israel also forgot that the Lord led her through the wilderness full of all sorts of ominous dangers.
So almost as soon as they settled in the Promised Land, the Israelites turned to worship Canaan’s fertility gods. They assumed those gods, not the living God, gave them their grain, wine and oil. The Israelites faithlessly assumed that the Lord who had brought them through the wilderness couldn’t or wouldn’t help them in a more fertile land.
Public life becomes wretched when any people forget who they are. Religious leaders no longer provide godly leadership. Judges forget the central importance of justice. Rulers forget that power is a loan from God. Prophets forget that they speak for God.
Such disobedience, Jeremiah mourns in verse 7, has a dirtying affect even on the land where it occurs. We generally think of pollution as involving things like acid rain and unclean water. You and I usually link it to things like the loss of wetlands and oxygen-giving forests to bulldozers, housing developments and shopping centers.
Those certainly are prominent aspects of pollution. But in the Bible sin also pollutes God’s land. So Jeremiah insists things like murder, breaking of the law and covenant, adultery and especially idolatry somehow scar and disfigure God’s good creation. Ironically, then, even the most ardent environmentalists pollute God’s world if they sin against God.
Jeremiah is very specific about how Israel polluted the Promised Land in our text. God’s law was the sum of all of Israel’s traditions about God’s words and works. Two groups in Israel, the priests and the prophets, were responsible for passing those on to the people.
Yet the religious leaders who were Jeremiah’s contemporaries knew nothing about a faithful relationship with the living God. They didn’t know about God’s holy character and will. So the religious leaders preached not God’s Word, but what they heard in the religion of Baal. Israel’s rulers before Josiah, too, broke the just requirements of God’s law.
So why does God, in verse 5, harshly pronounce Judah as “worthless?” Because she has literally pursued worthlessness. Judah has become precisely what she has so vigorously chased. Quite simply, Israel has given her heart to gods other than the living Lord. Judah has traded in the worthy, living God for worthless gods.
Think of how extraordinary that is. You and I may trade in our car for another car. We may even, in a sense, trade in our house for a newer house. But would any of us ever consider trading in the living God for some worthless god?
You and I pray that our unbelieving friends and loved ones will turn from their various gods to the living God. We pray that God will use our missionaries to bring people from the death of unbelief to life in Jesus Christ.
Israel, however, according to our text, has done just the opposite. She has exchanged worship of the living God for worship of worthless idols. This is conversion in startlingly perverse reverse. Israel has traded “down.” Such a reverse conversion is downright foolish.
Our living God offers you and me everything we can ever need and more. The Lord offers us eternal life that begins already now. Jeremiah’s Israel, however, traded all this for gods who could offer her nothing. In a vivid metaphor for such worthless idolatry, Jeremiah adds in verse 13 that Judah has dug her own “broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” She has, in other words, foolishly pinned her hopes on gods that “can’t hold water,” that can’t deliver what they promise.
But what does this have to do with those whom we teach and to whom we preach, as well as us? We, after all, don’t worship idols made of stone or gold. Our “gods” aren’t fat Buddhas or mythical characters. But as Martin Luther once said, our god isn’t necessarily made of gold or bronze. It’s quite simply that thing which is most important to you and me.
In the United States, next Monday is Labor Day on which we celebrate the gift of work. School has just started or will soon start for most of our students. A new church year of activities will soon begin. All of those things are wonderful gifts God has given us to use and enjoy . . . as long as we keep them in perspective.
Our work is part of our daily worship that we offer to God. Education prepares people to play a proper role in both society and God’s kingdom. The church also, by God’s grace, helps you and me maintain a healthy daily walk with God. However, each of those things also has the potential to become our god. Our work, our schooling and even our church life easily replace God as the ultimate object of our deepest loyalty and affection.
And if they do become most important to us, they’re little different than a fat Buddha or Canaan’s Baal. When things like our work, our education, our church life, or our families or our recreation become most important to us, they’re our worthless gods.
Israel made herself worthless by worshipping such worthless gods. With this unsealed indictment against God’s people, God essentially takes her to court in verse 9. There God finds Israel’s actions, in light of all God has done for her, simply shocking.
Isn’t it unprecedented, the Lord says, that people would exchange a God who is their glory for “no gods”? Go to the other nations and find out, God says. They have far less reliable gods – yet even they don’t swap gods like Israel has!
So God turns to the “jury,” to what verse 12 calls “the heavens,” and says they should be shocked and appalled at Israel’s nonsense. Then, however, God the Judge pronounces the Lord’s drastic sentence. Our translation renders verse 12, “Shudder with great horror.” Literally, however, the original language means, “be utterly desolate.” In other words, it’s as if God commands the heavens to dry up so that they don’t send any rain or any other kind of moisture.
The inhuman heavens, unlike Israel, respond by obeying the living God. Jeremiah 14 describes the result of this command. Judah suffers through a brutal drought where she can find no water.
So where can God’s parched people, both ancient and modern, find the true “spring of living water” that nourishes forever? In the gospel of John Jesus tells the Samaritan woman, “Whoever drinks of the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
It’s worthless to abandon the Living Water that is Jesus Christ in pursuit of other water, whether it is work or anything else, that can’t satisfy. “What good,” after all, “is it” for us, Jesus asks in Mark 8:36, if we gain “the whole world,” yet “forfeit” our soul?
As God did for Israel, God has freed you and me from slavery, in our case from our slavery to sin, Satan and death. The Lord has brought us into a land that’s so full of good gifts that we can’t even count them all. To abandon all that love shown to us in Jesus Christ is finally “worthless,” doing us no good, giving us only death.
People I’ll call George and Martha were married for almost thirty years when Alzheimer’s’ Disease first snuck and then stormed into her life. As that awful disease took over much of her life, when Martha looked at George, she saw not a husband, but a total stranger. She had completely forgotten what he did for her. In fact, Martha came to criticize George to his face and lavishly praise her first husband who’d been killed shortly after they were married.
Of course, George’s plight didn’t perfectly mirror God’s. After all, Martha didn’t choose to forget him. A ghastly disease simply robbed her of her memory. Yet as painful as this was for George, it was only a taste of the pain God experienced because of any rejection of the Lord who has done so much for us.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 28, 2016
Jeremiah 2:4-13 Commentary