Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 17, 2019

Jeremiah 17:5-10 Commentary

It is hard to see why this text was chosen by the Lectionary for this Sixth Sunday of Epiphany, except that its “blessed/cursed” formulary sounds much like Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, which is the Gospel reading for today (Luke 6:17-26 and see the reading from Psalm 1).  But there’s nothing here about the revelation of the Lord’s glory, unless we are supposed to see God’s glory in God’s ability to search and understand the incomprehensibly corrupt human heart.

That theme of the wicked human heart seems to be the thread that ties together this otherwise disparate chapter.  Some scholars see this chapter as a kind of ugly duckling that is awkwardly placed in the flow of Jeremiah.  It contains the usual prophetic condemnations (1-4, 11), a personal confession of trust (12-18), a sermon on sabbath keeping (19-27), and the piece of wisdom literature that is the focus of our reading.  But this theme of the human heart is a recurring idea (verses 1, 5, 9, 10).  So, I might entitle my sermon on this text, “The Heart of the Matter.”

If you ask the woman on the street to identify the greatest problem facing the human race today, she might answer, “global warming, racism and hate, income inequality, Islamic terrorism, international strife,” or any number of issues that occupy the talking heads in the media.  Chances are that no one will identify the human heart as the main problem at the core of all those other problems.

But Jeremiah seems to point there, when he opens this chapter by saying that “sin is engraved with an iron tool, inscribed with a flint point on the tablet of their hearts.”  That hardened sin is why God is so harsh in his condemnation of Israel, as we heard in Isaiah 6:9-13 last week.  Here in our text, Jeremiah says it’s not just that sin has hardened the human heart, but even more that the heart is “deceitful above all things and beyond cure.”

That word “deceitful” is fascinating because it has the same Hebrew root as the name of Jacob, the deceiver, the schemer, the trickster who would do anything to get his way.  Maybe that’s why the heart is beyond cure; it will always find a way to get its way.  It is inherently self-centered, unable to see itself accurately and correct itself.  It is so turned in on itself that it is crazy; think of the old sign for crazy, fingers turning in circles around one’s ears.  No one can penetrate the craziness of the human heart, not even the person whose heart it is.  As Paul put it in Romans 7:15, “I do not understand my own actions. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

This deceitful, incurable, incomprehensible heart is the root of human sin and misery.  Those whose hearts turn away from the Lord are cursed and those whose hearts trust the Lord are blessed.  It’s as simple as that, says Jeremiah.  There are just two kinds of people in the world—the cursed and the blessed—and the difference is whom they trust.  In a world filled with differences and divided by those differences, that is a revelation.  Maybe that’s the Epiphany here. It’s not black or white, rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, Muslims or infidels, male or female, gay or straight that ultimately matters.  It is where the heart of each person places their trust.

Those who “trust in man, who depend on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the Lord” are cursed.  Jeremiah describes what cursed means with an image of a bush in the desert, where there is no steady water supply.  Such a person will live on the edge of existence, always thirsty for more water, always on the verge of dying, so that when water finally comes in the form of an occasional thunderstorm, it won’t lead to “prosperity” or bounty or abundance. Such a person will survive, but just barely.  Life will be parched and lonely and unfruitful at its core.

Those who “trust in the Lord, whose confidence is in him,” whose hearts rest in the Lord so that their security and hope and strength and righteousness and life come from him, are blessed.  Jeremiah describes what blessed means with the image of a tree planted by a stream that never dries up.  Because its roots are sunk deep in the “spring of living water (verse 13),” the person who trusts in the Lord does “not fear when heat comes,” “in a year of drought.”  Her life is always verdant and she continually bears fruit.  So, she does not live in fear and worry.  Life is abundant for the person whose heart trusts in the Lord, rather than in human beings.

The problem with this analysis of the human race is that it doesn’t seem to be true on a couple of levels.  Some of your listeners will question this simple division of the complex human race.  Surely there is more to the human race than that—who do you trust?  Well, no, says the whole Bible; it really is that simple. Not politically correct, but true to life.  There is one God and how you relate to that God makes all the difference in the world.  It is the main difference in the world.

Other listeners will question the assertion that those who trust the Lord are always blessed, while those who don’t are always cursed.  I mean, does that mean that those who trust the Lord never have bad things happen to them, while those who trust in human might and intelligence only have bad things happen to them?   Clearly that isn’t true.  The Bible itself wrestles again and again with the fact that the righteous suffer while the wicked prosper.  And quite apart from the Bible, we all know people who are live with deep trust in the Lord who stagger from one problem to another. Maybe you are one of them.

Our text doesn’t deny that.  In fact, it acknowledges that heat and drought will hit the lives of those who trust the Lord.  Jesus said, “In the world you will have trouble (John 16:33).”  But those who trust the Lord will continue to flourish and be fruitful even in those times of trouble.  Fear may come and anxiety may linger, but abundant life is guaranteed.  The key is to keep trusting the Lord with all your heart.  Self-reliance, independence, autonomy, pride are self-idolatry and will finally leave you cursed.

And we can’t fool God.  No one can understand the heart, either their own or anyone else’s. But God does.  “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve.”  God sees beyond our behavior and understands the heart.  And God sees how our behavior reveals our heart.

We’ve all heard someone say of a total thug, “But he has a good heart.”  He may be an abusive drunk who beats his wife and kids, terrorizes the neighborhood with his gang, sells drugs to children, and steals from everybody to support his habit.  “But he has a good heart.”

Or we’ve met people who live exemplary lives, but harbor hearts of darkness. I think of a song by the Kinks, a group from my youth, “A Well-Respected Man.”  “Cause he’s oh so good and he oh so fine and he’s oh so healthy in his body and his mind.  He’s a well-respected man about town, doing the best thing so conservatively.”  But he’s oh so greedy and lustful; he can’t wait to get at his father’s money and the girl next door.

God sees deep into the heart and he sees that out of the heart come the behaviors of life.  In the end, we can’t fool God; he will judge everyone by what their deeds revealed about their heart.  It’s still the heart’s trust that matters, but the heart’s trust will be revealed in the behavior God will judge in the end.  This is a gloomy thought, but it is taught throughout the Scripture.  “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him, for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”  (II Cor. 5:10)

There’s something comforting in that doctrine.  It means that deeds have consequences, that no one gets away with evil, that the books will balance in the end, that there is justice, even though we have spent our lives saying, “There is no justice in this world.”  Yes, there is, and it will be absolutely fair and right, because the Lord sees right through all our deceits and self-justification.  So, rejoice!  Everyone will get their just reward.

Except that will mean me, too.  I, too, have a heart that is deceitful and beyond cure.  So, where is the hope in this passage?  Where is the Gospel?  Well, remember that the difference between the blessed and the cursed is whom people trust.  If people will turn from trusting self to trusting the Lord, they will move from cursed to blessed.  When Israel trusted in their own strength and skill and alliances, they were like a bush in the desert.  But when they transferred their trust back to the Lord, he would make them like a tree planted by streams of water.  The word “planted” in verse 8 is a Hebrew word that means “transplanted.”  We will be judged by what we do, but we can be saved by whom we trust.

Yes, but what about all the deeds I have done out of my corrupt heart?  What about the demands of justice?  Can God just forget those awful things?  Well, no.  But the Judge of all the earth is the justifier of those who put their trust in the Son of God who was judged for us.  “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.  He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”  (Romans 3:25-26)

Illustration Idea

Because of all the mass shootings in the United States in the past several years, it is hard to remember the details of any one of them.  But as I worked on Jeremiah 17, I recalled the hard words of the prosecutor in the case of the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting.  You may recall how a deranged man pulled out his semi-automatic rifle and simply murdered one theater goer after another.  The murderer tried to plead insanity, but the prosecutor rejected that plea because of the hardened horror of the crime.  His argument made the headlines, with words that sound a lot like Jeremiah and Romans 3.  “Justice demands death,” declared the prosecutor.


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