Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 15, 2019
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 Commentary
If our last reading from Jeremiah 18:1-11 offered a note of hope (and it did with that fourfold repetition of the little word “if”), there seems to be absolutely no such note in this reading. Which makes it a very tough text to preach today.
Oh, if all we do is explain what the text said back then to those folks, we can make this an interesting, albeit bleak Bible study. But if we want to apply it to the life of God’s people today, we face a major challenge in preaching a Gospel sermon on this text, because there is precious little here that even hints of grace. We might better turn to the other Lectionary readings from Exodus 32, Psalm 51, I Timothy 2, and Luke 15, all of which also deal with sin but in an obviously gracious way.
But let’s not give up too soon. Let’s examine the text carefully to ascertain what it says, and to whom, and why. Then let’s wrestle with how to preach it to Christian audiences and the seekers who might be in their midst.
As we’ve seen in past essays on Jeremiah and as verses 11-12 clearly say, this word of prophecy is addressed to God’s people in Judah and Jerusalem sometime between 626 and 587, probably just before the first or second conquest of Jerusalem. In other words, it was addressed to people who lived in a world very different from ours. How can we bridge the gap between them and us, so that God’s word to them is relevant to us?
That difficulty is multiplied by the nature of God’s word to them. It is a word of unalloyed gloom and doom. It begins with these word in verses 11 and 12 about a scorching wind from the desert, a sirocco. The prevailing winds in Israel come from the west off the Mediterranean and though they might bring the occasional severe thunderstorm, they are for the most part gentle, refreshing, moisture filled, and thus essential to a semi-arid region.
But this threatening wind comes from the blazing desert and it is not intended to bring comfort or even correction (“not to winnow or cleanse”). It is too strong for those positive purposes. This is not merely a severe thunderstorm that might break off a few branches or blow off shingles or an EF 1 tornado that will take off a few roofs and flip over camping trailers or even a Category 3 hurricane that will flatten whole villages and flood entire counties. This wind, clearly a symbol for the ferocious might of the armies from the north, will utterly destroy all of Judah and especially Jerusalem.
Jeremiah conveys the devastation this sirocco will bring in a series of 4 visions (“I looked”), in which he sees the undoing of creation. A careful reading shows a reversal of Genesis 1 and 2. So in verse 23, the created world is returned to the chaos of Genesis 1:2, “formless and empty” (the famous “tohu vbohu”). The celestial bodies that brought light to creation are gone and all is darkness. In verse 24, the mountains that cannot be moved are “quaking and swaying.” In verse 25, humanity (hadam) has disappeared, and even the numberless birds “have flown away.” Verse 26 shows that all signs of civilization are gone, as cultivated fields (“fruitful land”) have become desert and human dwellings have all been levelled (“all its towns lay in ruins”).
Lest we think that Jeremiah’s visions are a figment of the prophet’s frazzled imagination, God himself utters a final word: “the whole land will be ruined…. Therefore, the earth will mourn and the heavens above grow dark….” It’s like the funeral of the world. And it’s all because of God’s judgment, says Jeremiah. Make no mistake; all this devastation comes not from the power of nature or the might of nations, though God may use those means. No, this all comes from God. This will happen, “because I have spoken and will not relent, I have decided and will not turn back.” Our text is as stern and strong a word of judgment as we will find anywhere in Scripture.
Why on earth would God send such a ferocious wind upon his beloved people? (Note that God still calls them “my people” in verses 11 and 22, and he offers that mysterious and incongruous qualification in verse 27b, “though I will not destroy [them] completely.”) But apart from those tiny notes of amelioration, God seems absolutely determined to punish his people.
Why would a covenant God do this? Because his covenant people have completely broken the covenant with their Lord. They have brought this on themselves, says a verse between the two parts of our text. “Your own conduct and actions have brought this upon you. This is your punishment. How bitter it is! How it pierces to the (God’s?) heart (verse 18).”
What sin could warrant such punishment? Verse 22 is very clear. “My people are fools” in the deepest sense of that biblical word: “they do not know me” and therefore “they do not know how to do good.” It’s not just that they had lost all intellectual knowledge of God’s existence and nature. They still prayed and offered sacrifices to and “believed” in their God.
But in their day to day behavior they demonstrated that they had no close relationship with Yahweh and no understanding of what God wanted of them. They were like senseless, brutal children whose only skill was doing evil (think of the British school boys in Lord of the Flies or Chucky from the horror movies). Though they still talked about God occasionally, they lived utterly godless lives, except when they turned to the false gods of the nations. Over the centuries they have unmade themselves as God’s people; therefore God will now unmake them.
And that’s exactly what happened. After years and years of cajoling and promising and warning and threatening, God finally did it, in stages, until the Promised Land looked exactly like the visions of Jeremiah. God did what God said.
Now, what are we to make of that in our sermons on this horrifying text? Rev. Scott Hoezee, Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Seminary, recently described a good sermon in these words. “A sermon heralds God’s deliverance. It is about hope and joy. A sermon should present grace as so beautiful that people want it. A sermon should present God’s kingdom as being such a joyful prospect that you want to get in on it.” I agree. So how can we preach such a sermon on this text?
I can think of three ways. First, we could preach a sermon that emphasizes exactly what Jeremiah 18 says. God judges his people’s sins in the midst of history by the use of both natural and national forces.
Now, we have to be careful that we don’t do what a certain American TV preacher did a while back, when he “prophesied” that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment upon America’s tolerance of homosexuality. Identifying a particular disaster as God’s direct judgment upon a particular sin is dangerous.
But Jeremiah 18 reminds us in a powerful way that God does know, and God does care, and God will act against human sin. History does not just roll along as a close system of cause and effect. The message of the Bible is that God does intervene in various ways, including judgment. And that is good news, because it means that the inmates are not in charge. God will not let human sin finally destroy God’s world and people. He will stop it by acts of judgment, including the Final Judgment. So, it is, in fact, an act of mercy, even grace, to warn people of God’s judgment.
Second, we should not end our sermons on this text on a note of judgment. We have to emphasize grace in the end. And, in fact, a dark text like this give us the opportunity to show grace in all its beauty, because grace saves us from judgment. A deep look at sin and judgment in the terms used by Jeremiah 18 shows us exactly what grace saves us from—our own self-destroying folly and God’s destructive judgment.
“Sin” is such a general word that it is almost meaningless. God’s description of sin in verse 22 gives color and texture to sin, so that we recognize it in ourselves. And “judgment” is such a common word that it carries no threat. But Jeremiah’s vision of the results of God’s fierce anger should capture the attention of a generation raised on dystopian novels and movies. Once we have captured the attention and imagination of listeners with Jeremiah’s vivid images and piercing analysis, we can preach the grace of God in Christ in all its stunning beauty.
In other words, we could preach a hard hitting evangelistic sermon on this text especially if we connect it with the other Lectionary readings for today. In all of them, grace triumphs over sin and judgment. There is a mediator (Exodus 32) and deep confession (Psalm 51). Heaven rejoices over lost ones who repent (Luke 15). Even the chief of sinners can become the most important missionary the world has ever seen (I Timothy 1).
Third, we could use the almost apocalyptic language of this text to preach a contrasting message of apocalyptic hope. Jeremiah’s vision of a world ruined by sin and judgment presents us an opportunity to paint a bright picture of the new heavens and the new earth that God will usher in with the second coming of Christ.
Our world seems to be heading toward ruin even as we preach, whether it’s through climate change or international tension or partisan politics or racial divisions or incurable diseases. In many places, the world already resembles Jeremiah’s 4 visions. Millenials as well as boomers will resonate with the Bible’s alternative vision of a world in which there is no more mourning or sighing or weeping or dying, because swords have been beaten into plowshares, the groaning of a fallen creation has been replaced by the joy of a new creation, and people from every nation and tribe and language are gathered around the throne of the Lamb who shed his blood to make the foulest clean (Revelation 5 and 7).
I just finished re-reading 1984, the extremely grim portrayal of a world ruled by Big Brother. The insanity of that dystopian world was depressing. So I appreciated the Afterword by Eric Fromm. He pointed out that the Enlightenment brought a new literary genre into the world, the utopian novel filled with hope for a new world created by human effort. However, the horrors of WW I and II resulted in the reversal of utopian hopes and the creation of dystopian novels. The leading examples were Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. Fromm points out that even as the Enlightenment brought a hope rooted in a resurgent humanism, the near destruction of the civilization by world-wide war spawned a hopelessness rooted in human evil. That hopelessness is now the dominant mood of our time, says Fromm. And that gives us as Christian preachers a powerful connecting point for such seemingly hopeless texts as Jeremiah 18.
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