Scripture: Jeremiah 2:4-13
At a trial in a small, Southern town, the prosecutor called his first witness—Mrs. Jones. Mrs. Jones was a grandmother figure in the town and she was known to be a straight shooter. The prosecutor thought he had himself a home run of a witness. So to establish rapport with her he approached the witness stand and said, “Mrs. Jones, do you know me?” She responded, “Why, yes, I do know you, Mr. Williams. I've known you since you were a boy, and frankly, you've been a big disappointment to me. You lie, you steal, and you manipulate people and talk about them behind their backs. You think you’re a big shot when you haven't the brains to realize you'll never amount to anything more than a two-bit paper pusher. Yes, I know you.” Mr. Williams was shocked and embarrassed! Not wanting to let the defense attorney have the upper hand he said, “Mrs. Jones, do you know the defense attorney?” Why yes, I do. I've known Mr. Bradley since he was a youngster, too. He's lazy, bigoted, and he has a drinking problem. He can’t build a normal relationship with anyone, and his law practice is one of the worst in the entire state. Not to mention he cheated on his wife with three different women, and one of them was your wife. Yes, I know him too.” The defense attorney prepared to make a run for it, when the judge shouted “Order! Both counselors approach the bench, now!” When the two lawyers had reached the bench, the judge said in a quiet but threatening voice, “If either of you two numbskulls asks her if she knows me, I’ll have you both escorted directly to prison!”
In our passage for today, the prophet Jeremiah uses the image of a courtroom to dramatize and lament the current state of the relationship between God and God’s people. The prophet plays the prosecutor, relentless in his attack, bringing charge after charge against the people. God is the plaintiff, hurt and angry about the people’s unfaithfulness, despite the continued mercy, patience, and affection God heaped upon them. The people, of course, are the defendant, receiving wave after wave of punishing accusations and questions, none of which they can respond to adequately. The first question God asks, “What wrong did your ancestors find in me?,” alludes to a divorce proceeding. In ancient Hebrew custom, when a marriage was to be legally dissolved, the husband presented a certificate of divorce to his wife, citing the thing he found objectionable about her. In this passage, God takes on the voice of an innocent and aggrieved spouse, wrongly abandoned for substitute gods that turn out to be “worthless.” This initial accusation from the prophet Jeremiah continues for nearly 2 more chapters before the prophet breaks down in a cry of lament over the people’s betrayal and destruction.
And it’s not just “the people” who fall under Jeremiah’s condemnation. He leaves no one out: he calls out the priests, the handlers of the law, the rulers, and the prophets as well! Everyone has failed to remember the God that delivered them out of Egypt, kept them alive in the wilderness, and brought them into the promised land. Everyone has forsaken God for idols that do not profit. Everyone is trying to quench their thirst from cracked cisterns that hold no water. It all sounds very negative and dramatic doesn’t it? Isn’t the prophet overreacting? I mean, it can’t really be that bad, can it? This extraordinary sensitivity to evil is a hallmark of the prophets. In his foundational study of the prophets, Abraham Joshua Heschel says,
So what if somewhere in ancient Palestine poor people have not been treated properly by the rich? So what if some old women found pleasure and edification in worshipping other gods? Why such immoderate excitement? Why such intense indignation?...The sort of crimes that fill the prophets of Israel with dismay do not go beyond that which we regard as normal. To us a single act of injustice—cheating in business, exploitation of the poor—is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence: to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world. They speak and act as if the sky were about to collapse because Israel has become unfaithful to God.
Heschel goes on to explain that it is precisely this willingness to feel fiercely that allows the prophets to speak for God. God also loves the widow and the orphan and the immigrant so much that the kinds of oppression we are accustomed to ignore provoke sincere anguish. What might seem initially like exaggeration is actually the only way to break through the walls we construct to keep the pain of others at a safe distance. God uses the prophets to wake us from our slumbering allegiance to the way things are, and transform us into passionate lovers of God and neighbor. We often need the bad news the prophet brings, the shrill alarm he sounds, to shake us out of our numbness so that we can see another way, and live into God’s beautiful alternative with clear vision and purpose.
Evangelist E.V. Hill used to tell a story about a charismatic woman who sat in the front row of his church every week. Her nickname was Eighteen Hundred because she so old everyone said she must have been born in the 1800s. She was the church’s beloved matriarch. But the problem was she used to only want to hear “the good news.” Perhaps she had lived long enough to grow weary of bad news. She would sit in her usual spot while Rev. Hill preached, and right as he began, she would start muttering “Get to good news, Pastor, get to the good news.” As the sermon progressed, her commentary would get louder and louder. The longer he preached, the louder she got. He’d talk about how Jesus died on Friday, and she’d yell back “Don’t leave him there, Pastor. Get to Sunday! Get to the empty tomb” He’d talk about how hatred, sin, and racism are still alive today, and she’d shout back, “Move on Pastor! Go on and get to the good news!” When he finally did get to the good news she would shout “Amen!!” at the top of her lungs, and he’d know that he would be able to finish up his sermon without any further “encouragement” from Eighteen Hundred.
This story reminds me not only that the gospel we have really is good news, but also that in order to appreciate the light of the gospel we have to pass through the darkness first. Christianity is a faith that holds suffering and joy in tension; it is a faith of crucifixion and resurrection, confession and forgiveness, conviction and comfort. It’s difficult to sit under a harsh word like the one the prophet Jeremiah speaks and struggle with what truth it might have for us. It was hard for the people of Judah to hear then, but I think it’s especially hard to hear in contemporary America where we lift up instant self-gratification and shun anything that reminds us of pain and endings and death. We suffer from what Miroslav Volf calls a “pervasive sense of innocence and optimism” that makes us afraid to be self-reflective and adjust our self-image. We love to hear the good news, to come to church and be uplifted, but sometimes we need to be willing to sit with the bad news so that we can remember that we didn’t save ourselves and so that we can fully appreciate the gift of God’s mercy. We must be rightly oriented on the receiving end of God’s good future rather than thinking we are the ones making it all possible.
The harshness of Jeremiah’s rhetoric is meant to shock the people’s heart back into rhythm. But it is not just rhetoric—there is a practical critique contained in the dramatic courtroom scene Jeremiah paints. The passage says the people “went after worthless things.” The Hebrew word for “went after” is the same one Jesus used when he says, “If you want to follow me…” In other words, they became the disciples of worthless things. The Hebrew word for “worthless” is packed full of meaning. Although it’s lost in translation, the word itself sounds like Baal, the people of Israel’s favorite Caananite god. The word’s translation, “worthless,” doesn’t quite capture its full meaning either. It really means vain or empty inside—something with an outer shell that has no substance. The people have committed the cardinal sin; they have disregarded the first commandment: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery—you shall have no other gods before me. They have abandoned YHWH to follow other gods, idols with no substance, and because they are disciples of these empty gods, they themselves have become shells with no substance. Jeremiah reminds us that we take on the character of the god we follow. Our loyalties are decisive in shaping our lives. Or as Jesus put it: where you treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Jeremiah also connects the people’s infidelity—and their impending destruction—to a failure in their worship. “You did not say, ‘Where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?” Sounds familiar doesn’t it? That’s because it is an early liturgical creed of the Jewish people, a phrase that was used in the ancient worship of the people of Israel. The repetition of this phrase is about cultivating memory—the memory of what God has done, of who God is, and of who we are in relation. The metaphor of living water vs. cracked cisterns calls to mind the people’s reliance on God in the wilderness. Even in a place of scarcity, God provided water and manna and brought them out into the land of milk and honey. But once they got comfortable, the people began to think, “We’re doing pretty well aren’t we? Why should we have to keep returning to the source for our water? We are capable enough to have water at our fingertips without the inconvenience of returning to the fountain.” And just like that, they built cisterns for themselves, easily accessible at their whims and perfectly within their control. There’s only one problem with cisterns—they cannot measure up to getting your water from the read deal. They crack, they leak, and they leave you parched when you need water the most. The same is true of all other gods except YHWH. The people wanted gods that did not demand anything from them, that did not challenge them to live a certain way, that they could control, but in return, they found that in their time of need, their gods were empty and so were they.
One of my favorite theologians, James K.A. Smith, writes about how homo sapiens is not the right way to describe human beings. Sapiens means wisdom and refers to the advanced thinking capacity we humans have, but “humans,” Smith argues, “are fundamentally lovers.” We make decisions based on what we love and desire, not based on what we know to be smart or moral. Instead of homo sapiens, Smith says we should be designated homo liturgicus because we act based on what we love and desire, and liturgy is what trains our hearts to love a certain vision of the good life. There are all kinds of liturgies out there in the world, attempting to miscalibrate our desires towards things other than God and God’s kingdom. I’ll give you an example: picture yourself pulling into the parking lot of the shopping mall with the other parishioners and flocking towards the front doors. The architecture feels familiar, no matter what city you’re in. As you enter the Narthex, your eye is drawn upwards towards the heavens. You see artwork all around you that subtly communicates that you can be like the saints in these pictures, you can have the good life, you can be whole if you purchase a certain product. You enter one of the chapels, and are assisted by the acolytes to find the thing you think will quench your thirst. You lay your offering on the altar and the priest behind the counter blesses the transaction. You return to your car after your “worship experience” only to find soon that the thirst returns. Smith lays out equally compelling analyses of other secular liturgies we experience such as sporting events, universities, and political rallies. All these secular liturgies are working to captivate our hearts, and realign our desires towards something that seems appealing at first, but ultimately ends up being cracked and empty. Christian worship is counter-formation to these rival liturgies, counter-formation that seeks to mold our hearts to desire God’s vision of the good life, to bring our restless hearts to the only thing that can give them rest, as St. Augustine said. For this reason, worship is the heart of Christian discipleship. Our worship needs to reflect God’s story and needs to be distinct from the rival liturgies forming our hearts towards other ends, other kingdoms. If our worship looks like the worship of Baal instead of the worship of YHWH, it will leave us restless and thirsty, and lead us down the path to emptiness rather than leading us to drink from the overflowing goodness of the fountain.
In her first sermon in this Prophetic Ministry series, Rev. Efird called us to imagine an alternative to the way the world is, trading in the dreams of our culture for God’s dream. Last week she called us to repair the breaches in our community and world, and that practicing God’s Sabbath is the way we begin to have our desires realigned so that we can be more neighborly and practice justice more freely. Today, Jeremiah shows us that the content of that Sabbath worship matters. Our worship must be deeply rooted in the memory of the alternative community that was led out of slavery in Egypt to worship the one true God in freedom. Our worship must be thoughtful and moving; it must resist the glorification of wealth, power, and self-sufficiency. It must resist easy accessibility and shallow immediacy. Our worship cannot capitulate to the liturgies offered by our culture or our hearts will be directed at a different goal than the kingdom of God. If our churches look like shopping malls and our services feel like sporting events we will not have the resources to resist the dominant narrative, which ultimately leads to emptiness and death rather than abundance and life.
In John chapter four, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. The woman approaches the well by herself at noon, the hottest time of the day, presumably because the rest of the town shuns her for her multiple marriages. Within marginalized Samaria, she has been further marginalized by her own town. Jesus on the other hand asks her for a drink of water, despite the fact that social convention forbade their interaction and despite the fact that the Jews considered the Samaritans to be unclean idolators. The woman desperately wants to break the deadly cycle of isolation she is in, returning to the well alone day after day, ostracized from her community but she is so used to rejection, so numb to the possibility of new life, that she responds to the Rabbi in shock and disbelief. Jesus replies, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is asking you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water. Everyone who drinks of this well water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I give will never thirst.” Jesus’ living water transforms this woman’s life and the life of her town. She returns to the people who have ostracized her and tells them about meeting the Christ, breaking the cycle of isolation and bringing the restoration and new life of God to her community. In this story we see the world that is possible if we dare to take up the transformational vision of the prophets. We see that Jesus embodies the prophetic imagination we have been talking about. Jesus models for us how to live in the alternative reality the prophets proclaim. He is the living water to which Jeremiah calls the people to return. He is God’s free provision that Isaiah spoke of so long ago when he said, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Come to me so that you may live.”
Today, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Jesus ask us these questions: Have we been laboring for something that doesn’t satisfy? What dry wells are we returning to, hoping that they will quench our thirst? What empty idols have we unknowingly given our hearts to? The God of the universe crossed time and space to offer living water to each one of us, especially those of us the world shuns as unlovable. And when we had done our worst, when the one who offered living water lay dead in the tomb, just when we thought the bad news would win, God raised Jesus from the dead so that all may know a life that conquers evil, hatred, separation, and death. Jesus is still at Jacob’s well, inviting us out of our shame, out of our numb commitment to the status quo, away from our cracked cisterns, to come and drink from the living water that quenches our thirst. Drinking living water demands that we resist being lulled to sleep by the idols of our world, and instead take up the true worship of YHWH, which forms our hearts in the way of justice, compassion, and peace. And if we can remain faithful, God promises us the best news of all: an eternal life overflowing with God’s abundance.