|The Prophet Jeremiah as painted by Marc Chagall|
As Hebrew prophets go, I have a warm spot for Jeremiah. I dig Hosea and Ezekiel, too. All three of these boys had pretty wacky ways of getting their messages across, but Jeremiah takes center stage in the Hebrew scripture lesson for Reformation Sunday (Jeremiah 31:31-34). I thought it might be a good idea to give a little historical background on the old fellow.
Jeremiah comes on the scene as a prophet around the seventh century B.C. He’s pretty mainstream when he starts out, but later he does some wild stunts—the weirdest of which (Jeremiah 13:1-11) is walking around in dirty underwear as a graphic demonstration of the depravity of the people who have fallen away from God and justly deserve a family-sized dose of shame. He’s kind of a tragic guy in that he has the dirty job of telling people who are in power stuff they don’t want to hear. Chiefly, he has to tell King Zedekiah that God isn’t going to protect the chosen people—no matter how fond of them God is—from the consequences of their own stupidity. The rulers of Judah think just because they are God’s chosen that they won’t get their butts whooped by the Babylonians. Jeremiah counsels negotiation with the enemy, but Zedekiah’s minions, in their arrogance, don’t want to hear that. They chuck Jeremiah in the slammer and advise Zedekiah to face off with Babylon. The result? The Jews get the crap kicked out of them. Zedekiah’s kids are murdered in front of his eyes, and then Zedekiah has his eyes poked out. The elite of Judah are carried off into exile in Babylon, and Jeremiah lives the rest of his life in obscurity in Egypt (See 2 Kings 25).
In today’s lesson, however, we get the kinder, gentler side of Jeremiah. Here he prophesies that God doesn’t abandon God’s people, and that a new covenant will be made that will be different from the old Law of Moses. The old law had a lot of “thou shalt nots” in it, and I speculate that the people must’ve felt that if they didn’t explicitly do any of the forbidden things then they’d be okay. Unfortunately, that’s a pretty complacent spirituality. God doesn’t want to coerce us with a rule book. God wants us to live the love and compassion which is implicit in the Law. God wants the Law to come from within us.
Fast forward over a thousand years and meet another outrageous prophet—Martin Luther. Luther is also dealing with folks who are hung up on the rule book but are missing the point. He’s part of a church which equates rightness with God with going to church, multiplying prayers, paying to have masses said for dead relatives, and buying yourself a little forgiveness through the purchase of indulgences. The church bosses keep control and line their pockets by keeping folks in fear and ignorance, saying, in essence, “Do what we tell you to do and pay your share or you’ll burn in hell!”
Both Luther and Jeremiah saw societies that needed to be shaken up. Whether the people were trapped by a societal arrogance or by superstitious fear, they were trapped all the same. In the appointed Gospel lesson for Reformation Sunday (John 8:31-36), Jesus exhorts that a real, genuine, and free relationship with God comes only through continuing in his Word. This isn’t about obeying rules, but, rather about letting the love of Jesus live in us—believing that the Son has set us free.
Now, five hundred years after Luther and fifteen hundred years after Jeremiah, I sometimes think we are in need of some more shaking up. I worry that we’ve dumbed-down American Christianity to the point that we see it as assent to doctrine, and, like the folks in Jeremiah’s time, we assume that because we’ve signed on to the right confessions we are exempt from any further discipleship. Or, we might be like the folks of Luther’s day who are wrapped-up in following the rules and judge righteousness by a litmus test of moral “purity” (usually involving same-gender relationships and reproductive rights!). Of course, it’s not for me to claim that such people aren’t “saved.” Who am I to stand in God’s place of judgment? But I do see a need for a constant reformation—for a call to, as Jeremiah says, “Know the Lord.”
I sometimes think we could use another Jeremiah or another Luther right about now.
Why? I see the Christian Church shrinking in America, and I have to guess it’s because complacent reliance on correct doctrine or judgmental legalism just aren’t speaking to this generation. What will and does speak, however, is looking to the man on the cross, and recognizing the depth of the love that led him to give himself up to all of that suffering. Realizing that such love is meant for us has to touch our hearts. That’s when we know the Lord and truly know ourselves.