Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the Lord:
What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me,
And went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?
They 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?’
I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination.
The priests did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’ Those who handle the law did not Know me; the rulers transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal,
and went after things that do not profit.
Therefore once more I accuse you, says the Lord,
and I accuse your children’s children.
Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Kedar and examine with care;
see if there has ever been such a thing.
Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.
Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord,
For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me,
The fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.
Today, we’re in the fourth part of our series on The Prophets. In week 1, we looked at what Isaiah might have said about the growing trend of blaming the poor. In week 2, we looked with Isaiah at what inequitable distribution of wealth can do to a society. Last week, we heard Jeremiah’s call. We remembered God’s sacred call to each of us to be a unique promise to love and care for all creation.
With that, we continue with Jeremiah. In Jeremiah, it’s easy to get distracted by his portrayals of God’s anger. But today, we’re going to look at something else – something important that most people don’t notice. We’re going to look not at God’s anger, but God’s anguish – and how it might shake us awake.
To hear it properly in today’s lesson, we have to hear a little snippet of Jeremiah that comes right before what we heard today. Listen to God speaking.
I remember the devotion of your youth,/Your love as a bride,/How you followed Me in the wilderness,/In a land not sown./Israel was holy to the Lord,/The first fruits of His harvest. (Jer. 2:1-3)
God is remembering the wonderful start God had with Israel. And here’s where we enter today’s reading. Listen to the jolt, the shock. The sweetness of the early days has turned into something very different.
Hear the word of the Lord, / O house of Jacob, / and all the families of the house of Israel. / Thus says the Lord: / What wrong did your fathers find in Me, / That they went far away from Me, / And pursued what is worthless, / And became worthless?
The great Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel helps us see what’s happening:
A great hope was Israel; “the first fruits” were a foretaste of a harvest of blessing. But as time passed, God’s hope was dashed. The people deserted their Redeemer and worshiped instead “the works of their own hands.” God’s pain and disappointment ring throughout the book of Jeremiah.
In other words, God starts by remembering the great start of a relationship. It’s like the pain we feel in a broken relationship, when we remember the early days that were once happy when things were so good. Anguish isn’t too strong a word.
Having said that, God does another surprising thing. God actually examines God’s own behavior, choices, decisions and actions. God asks, “what did I do to cause this? What part did I play?” How many of us have sat with parents, faced with a child who seems bent on destruction, who ask themselves, “what did I do? This is my fault somehow – where did I go wrong?” It’s as if the God who loves Israel so much is sobbing. “What did I do wrong?” God cries.
Of course, we know that the answer is “nothing.” God could not, would not, do anything wrong. God has always acted with perfect guidance, perfect correction, perfect teaching, and perfect love. This includes creating us with freedom and creating an order that contains painful consequences. God mourns the fact that the people “have gone after worthless things, and become worthless themselves.”
This is a disaster of cosmic proportions, because Israel was the place and people and nation where God dwelt in special and unique fullness. Heschel says,
Israel’s distress was more than a human tragedy. With Israel’s distress came the affliction of God, His displacement, His homelessness in the land, in the world….Israel’s desertion was not merely an injury to man; it was an insult to God. This was the voice of God Who felt shunned, pained and offended…. Should Israel cease to be His home, then God, we might say, would be without a home in the world. He would not have left his people altogether, but He would be among them like a stranger, like a wayfarer, withholding His power to save.
In this we find the message to every one of us, and especially to the gathered Church, today. For all human beings who have ever lived have faced the exact same choice that the people of Israel did.
Our temptations may look different, but they are the same: Having been started off so well, will we go after things of value, or go after worthless things and degrade ourselves? For Jeremiah, and apparently for God, this really is the key choice faced by individuals, families, congregations and nations. Will we choose the fountain of living water, or try to keep water in cracked cisterns that hold nothing?
What are the worthless things to which we are so attracted? Those things which reduce our worth and dignity as we choose them? The great scholar Walter Brueggemann describes them as activities which lead to numbness.
Those are the time we flip channels aimlessly in the middle of the night, numbly groping for something to divert our attention, and feel empty afterwards. Or when we restlessly look for something to eat or do or buy, and doing so feel no better than before. That’s a little of what Jeremiah’s talking about.
Underneath this is a kind of seductive, generalized apathy. The dead sense that nothing can really be done, so why try? Or denial that things are really as bad as they are, but even if they were, what could we do anyway?
There is one other seduction that comes to mind, some other worthless choice that we commonly make. I call it “compare and despair.” It’s that tendency that we have to look around a room and see where we rank. Above or below, knowing exactly where we fit. Such a common thing, encouraged in a thousand ways every day, a choice that leads only to isolation, emptiness, and even despair.
And this brings us back to Jeremiah, and all the prophets. Brueggemann calls their gift “the prophetic imagination,” and he does so for a reason. The prophet is to shake people out of their numbness and denial, out of their apathy, through naming God’s anguish and showing a different future that must be imagined before it can be implemented.
Brueggemann tells us that the prophets don’t try to convince with arguments. They try to change hearts with the power of poetry, of symbol, of metaphor. So Isaiah tells us of lions lying down with lambs, and Amos says justice will flow like water. Brueggemann says that the imagination of something better is the most subversive, frightening issue that entrenched authority can conceive. And he’s right.
So for us, the task is to let the imagination of the prophets spark our own. Our modern-day prophets use imagination to paint pictures designed to wake us up. Pictures of a nation and a world where people choose to work together to solve common problems like war, injustice, and environmental degradation.
Of a nation and a world shaken awake and no longer willing to be deaf to the cries of the poor, marginalized and oppressed people by denying that they exist at all – or to hold them in contempt. Of a nation that says we can be more just – and we will do so by rejecting worthless things and choosing instead the living water of God. That God who never forgets, who mourns for us, and provides us with prophets, over and over again, with imaginations to spark our own.
Of course, these imaginations will be ridiculed by those threatened by them – we see that every day in the media. They are in here with us as we try to listen. Under the headlong assault of those who would coerce our allegiance, or at least our numbed acquiescence, we go along. But there is always another way. We have powerful texts and powerful words and powerful symbols right here – symbols that are subversive because they spark our imagination for something better – the goodness that God has always intended for us. For all of us. We gain true worth as we choose what has worth. And as we do so, God’s anguish turns to joy.