Discovering the Prophets: Jeremiah

Jeremiah 13:1-11

Thus said the Lord to me, ‘Go and buy yourself a linen loincloth, and put it on your loins, but do not dip it in water.’ So I bought a loincloth according to the word of the Lord, and put it on my loins. And the word of the Lord came to me a second time, saying, ‘Take the loincloth that you bought and are wearing, and go now to the Euphrates, and hide it there in a cleft of the rock.’ So I went, and hid it by the Euphrates, as the Lord commanded me. And after many days the Lord said to me, ‘Go now to the Euphrates, and take from there the loincloth that I commanded you to hide there.’ Then I went to the Euphrates, and dug, and I took the loincloth from the place where I had hidden it. But now the loincloth was ruined; it was good for nothing.
Then the word of the Lord came to me: Thus says the Lord: Just so I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own will and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them, shall be like this loincloth, which is good for nothing. For as the loincloth clings to one’s loins, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, says the Lord, in order that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory. But they would not listen.

Welcome to perhaps the strangest man in the Bible. That’s saying a lot because Jeremiah has to contend with other strange people like John the Baptist, who was a fairly strange man himself. But Jeremiah stands out as one of the strangest. What made him strange were his characteristics. He not only preached God’s message, but he did weird things to get his point across. Jeremiah was so odd, and so unique, that we’ve even coined a term in English to describe any kind of speech that resembles Jeremiah. We call it a “jeremiad.” A jeremiad is a speech combining criticism and lamentation.

The book of Jeremiah resembles the man himself. It is confusing and disorganized. It starts with the story of Jeremiah as a child. He begins to preach. Then suddenly we are shifted forty years into the future. Then we’re taken back to his young adulthood. Toward the end of the book we are suddenly taken back to the middle of his life. Jeremiah is a confusing book to read because it doesn’t necessarily follow a logical sequence.

This morning I want to introduce you to the prophet Jeremiah in all his oddities, so that you can gain an appreciation for how this prophet of old still resonates with us today. At the outset I’ll say that it is hard to capture the depth of Jeremiah’s life and ministry because it spanned forty years, and so much happened during those forty years that capturing it all in twenty minutes is near impossible.

Jeremiah began his prophesying very early in his life. We are told that when he was a teen or child God spoke to him and told him to go out and speak God’s word. Jeremiah protests, saying that he is just a boy and that no one would take him seriously. God responds by telling him that this doesn’t matter. Jeremiah further protests, saying that people will attack him if he says the things God wants him to say. God tells him that he has two choices. He can decide not to do God’s will, in which case people will attack him anyway and God will not help him; or he can do God’s will and be attacked, but God will be there to help him no matter what happens. Jeremiah agrees to be God’s prophet.

God often speaks to Jeremiah through objects. More specifically, God shows Jeremiah certain objects and Jeremiah learns metaphorical lessons from them about God’s will. For instance, at the outset of his prophetic ministry, God gave him two visions. One was the branch of an almond tree. The other was a boiling pot in the north, tilting toward Judea (as an aside, hundreds of years before the nation of Israel had been split in two—into Israel in the north and Judea in the south, which is where Jerusalem was—and sixty years earlier Israel was conquered by the Assyrians and the population was basically dispersed so that now it was not really Jewish anymore). What do you think God was saying to Jeremiah through the almond branch? To understand we’d really have to see how people of the Middle East view almond trees in the spring. Throughout the winter people would keep a watch on the almond trees because they were always the first trees to bloom. When it bloomed, they knew it was time to prepare to plant. God was saying to Jeremiah that just as people watch the almond tree for signs of spring, God was watching the people for signs of their return to God. Also, God was telling Jeremiah through the boiling pot that trouble was boiling in the north, and if people didn’t turn back to God, it would eventually pour out on the people, leading to their destruction.

As Jeremiah began his ministry, major changes were taking place in Judea. King Manasseh had died, and his son Josiah was now king. Manasseh had been a corrupt king who had managed to keep Judea intact in face of the Assyrians by paying a ransom for their independence. As part of the agreement with the Assyrians, the Jews had to worship the Assyrian gods as well as God (or Yahweh, as the Jews called God). In addition, they had been worshiping the Canaanite god Ba’al along with Jahweh. Many prophets had criticized Manasseh for this, but to no avail. After he died, Josiah eventually began a reform in Judea, outlawing the worship of gods other than Yahweh.

At first, Jeremiah’s message was encouraged the people to quit worshiping other gods, and to devote themselves completely to Yahweh. He told the people that they had been like adulterers and prostitutes, giving themselves over to other spouses, only to return when they were in need. He said that God refused to be a wronged spouse, and that they had to make their decision whether to be committed to God or not. In keeping with this message Jeremiah was led to do what we are told in our passage for this morning. God tells him to take a linen belt to a place near a great river and to bury it. Our passage says he took it to the Euphrates, but I doubt very much that this was the river, since it was over 700 miles away. I think that it is more likely that he did this near the Jordan River. The actual name of the river in Hebrew is not the Euphrates, but simply “the great river.” Anyway, who cares about that? Jeremiah then returns several days later and pulls it out of the dirt. It is ragged and decayed. The point God was making to Jeremiah was that the chosen people had been given a wonderful gift (linen belts were a sign of wealth), and in their dalliance with other religions they had wasted and corrupted God’s love and grace.

Jeremiah also used another metaphor to teach this same lesson. He went to a potter’s house to watch the potter make a pot. Potters were important craftsmen in the ancient world, and watching the potter work would have been a delightful event for families, and especially children. Potters smash the wet clay to get all the air bubbles out, and, placing the clay on their wheels, they form and shape the pots. At times the clay isn’t centered on the wheel, and the forming pot wobbles. It then must be smashed down and recentered, and a new pot formed. This is the metaphor God gives to Jeremiah, saying that because the people have gone over to worshiping other gods, they must now be recentered and reshaped, which will be a painful process.

Under Josiah’s reign, the people quit worshiping other gods and return to a devotion of Yahweh, but then Jeremiah notices a new problem. They are now confusing their faith with a nationalistic fervor, assuming that because they are centered in a worship of Yahweh, anything the nation does must be God’s will. Jeremiah now preaches a message that is even more unpopular than his original message. He tells the people, and the king, that God is displeased because they are confusing the nation of Judea with God, and that nationalism and their alliances with the Egyptians are displeasing to God, especially because they are saying that whatever they do is God’s will. Before they complained that Jeremiah was a pest. Now they call him a traitor and unpatriotic. This is what happens when people speak against nations that confuse nationalism and religion.

Eventually Josiah died, and his sons became kings. They encouraged the worship of other gods, and again Jeremiah preached that God was angry. He told the people that they had become like “Shiloh.” Now I’m pretty sure you don’t know what that means because I didn’t either. It took me a long time to research it and discover the meaning. We don’t get what it means, but the people of Jeremiah’s time knew exactly what he was saying, and they hated him for saying it. Shiloh was the place where the Ark of the Covenant was kept in ancient Israel 500 years prior to Jeremiah. The Philistines had defeated the Israelites in a battle that they had been warned that God was against. When they were defeated, they ran back to Shiloh and grabbed the Ark of the Covenant, assured that it would lead them to victory. It didn’t, and the Ark was taken by the Philistines and held for seven months. It was a travesty. For Jeremiah to say that the people were like Shiloh was him saying that they had taken what is of God for their own purposes, and that they were going to lose it all. Not a message designed to make people happy.

Jeremiah continued to speak out, and especially to the king. Under Jehioakim, he dictated his sayings to his secretary Baruch, and had Baruch read them to Jehoiakim’s counselors and generals. When they heard all that was written, they were afraid and told Baruch to take Jeremiah and hide because they would surely be killed. They gave the scroll to the king, who read each part, cut it up with a knife, and threw it into the fire. After it was all burned, he sought to imprison and kill Jeremiah. So what did Jeremiah do? He dictated another scroll, and put even more negative stuff in it, and read it before the king. Eventually he was imprisoned. Several times after that he was imprisoned and released, and under Jehoiachin, Jehioakim’s brother and successor, Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern to die. A cistern is a large tank or cave that holds water, and when it is low there is not much else in it but deep, deep mud. Jeremiah was thrown in the cistern to waste away, trapped in the mud. People sent by God eventually rescued him.

Eventually, Jeremiah’s prophesies came true. Under Zedekiah, Jehoiachin’s successor, the Babylonians attacked the city. Jeremiah told Zedekiah that this was God’s punishment, and that if Zedekiah surrendered he would be safe, and the people would be treated well. Zedekiah was cocky and believed that he was strong enough to withstand the Babylonians, especially since he assumed the Egyptians would come to his aid. They never did. The Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar, laid siege to Jerusalem for seven months, and when he finally took the city he destroyed it. He took all the artisans, craftsmen, and intellectuals back to Babylon to serve as slaves in what has come to be known as the Babylonian Exile. He captured Zedekiah, put his eyes out, marched him back to Babylon, and had him publicly executed.

Along with thousands of others, Jeremiah was placed in chains to be marched to Babylon, but along the way he was spotted by a Babylonian general who knew that Jeremiah had prophesied for the king to surrender. Jeremiah was released and told that he could go anywhere in the world a free man, including Babylon. Jeremiah said he was called by God to become a prophet to the Jews living in Egypt. And that’s what he did. Of course, you know what his message was to those Jews. He told them that they were like adulterers and prostitutes who had committed affairs with the gods of Egypt. Again, he gave God’s message to those who didn’t appreciate it. Eventually, Jeremiah disappears and we don’t know what happened to him.

When I look at the prophet Jeremiah, I recognize that what he said 2600 years ago is still relevant for today. Specifically I see three messages that still speak to us today.

First, we must be really careful about mixing Christian faith and patriotism. So many Christians today have done just that, not only when it came to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but to other things such as school prayer and the Ten Commandments in courthouses. I have to tell you that, following Jeremiah’s example, I don’t get hot and bothered over these issues. Why? Because I think that when people get up in arms about them they start to confuse the nation and devotion to God. I feel the same way when people argue about whether or not we are a Christian nation. I believe that calling us a Christian nation means confusing our national interests with God’s interests. So many who proclaim us to be a Christian nation use that designation to justify anything the U.S. does. Much of what we do is not what God is calling us to do, but we can’t tell if we confuse ourselves with God’s chosen people.

Again, I don’t get hot and bothered about school prayer and the Ten Commandments in courthouses because they distract us. Like Jeremiah I care much more about the quality of our devotion to God than I do about where that devotion takes place. I believe that if Jeremiah were here today he would tell us to quit worrying about those things, and to start worrying about the extent to which we are grounded in God, and we are letting that grounding lead us to acts of love, charity, compassion for the poor, and devotion to God’s ways. I’m not against school prayer or the Ten Commandments in courthouses. I just don’t think the issue is big enough to cause us to become so angry that, ironically, we act in un-Christian ways in order to promote this supposedly Christian cause. The point is not to confuse our nation with our religion. That’s straight out of Jeremiah.

A second message for today from Jeremiah is that life is always better when we are grounded fully in God. It’s so easy in this age to become grounded in everything but God. We just have too many other options. But Jeremiah’s point is that if we become grounded in God, our lives actually become easier and more blessed. I think you can look at your own lives and discover this. I’m reminded of this all the time from people who appear in and disappear from church. No matter what church I’ve been in, there has always been a portion of the church whom I only see when their lives are going poorly. They start to come to church, and over time their lives get better. Something about church makes people feel better about their lives. Then they disappear again, only to reappear when life gets worse. They are living testimony to what Jeremiah taught, which is that when we’re grounded in God, life gets better and easier, when we’re not it gets worse.

Finally, I think Jeremiah teaches us to have the courage to keep our faith in the face of all opposition. He is living proof that if you care passionately about God, people will question you, diminish you, and possibly even attack you. All of us have been with people, at times, who criticize or ridicule us for our faith. They will tell us that there is no God, and that religion is a bad thing. Have the courage to stand up in the face of them. We will always face these kinds of people, but Jeremiah reminds us that we can’t let their doubts and criticisms rule our lives.

The whole point is that Jeremiah not only spoke 2600 years ago, but he is still speaking today. The question is whether we are still listening.