March 18, 2018

5 Lent  

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Hebrews 5: 5-10; John 12: 20-33

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

            There are many things that are unpopular in the world today. We are about one month from the deadline for filing income tax returns, and I don’t think that I have ever heard anyone say: “preparing my taxes is so much fun, I can’t wait to do it again next year.”  To be fair, I would have to say the same thing about church, I’ve been in this job for over fifteen years, and I don’t know if I have ever heard someone, especially any child say, “church is so fun – I can’t wait to wake up early instead of sleeping in on a Sunday morning and do this all over again next week, sitting in pews is awesome!”

            To this list of unpopular things – taxes, church – I will add one more: reading the book of Jeremiah.  To hopefully prove this point, I want you to raise your hand only if you have read the entire book of Jeremiah – be honest!

            When people ask me about reading the Bible, which book they should start with, I guarantee you I never say, “start with Jeremiah” because the book, to a large extent, is kind of a downer, which is why it is one of my favorite books of the Bible – it’s honest.  I want to preach today entirely on this book on occasion that we hear a very brief snippet of it read today in church.

            Jeremiah was a Hebrew prophet. That doesn’t mean he could predict the future.  A prophet was someone who was able to courageously comment on the present, often by saying provacative and uncomfortable things. 

            What we know of Jeremiah historically was that he was a priest during a critical time in Israel’s history.  Jeremiah was a descendent of Abiathar, one of the two chief priests of King David, arguably Israel’s most well-known king.  David had two priests: Abiathar and Zadok. 

            Here is my crash course on early Jewish priesthood: two priests, Abiathar and Zadok.  Starting with Abiathar: Abiathar was a Levitical priest, meaning he belonged to a priesthood that was prominent during the early formation of the Israelite nation.  The Levitical priests are named after their founder, Levi, one of the first priests appointed by Moses. 

            Zadok, King David’s other priest, was the founder of the Zadokite priesthood, a priesthood that was competitive with the Levitical priesthood for control over the religion in Jerusalem.  Abiathar, the Levitical priest, was banished from Jerusalem by King David’s son, Solomon, because Abiathar advocated for someone else other then Solomon to be king. Why does all this matter?  It matters for our understanding of Jeremiah, because Jeremiah was a descendant of Abiathar, this banished Levitical priest, which means that much of what Jeremiah writes is strongly critical of kingship of Solomon and even the Jewish temple itself which was built under Solomon’s reign.

            Now that might not sound like a big deal to you, but it made Jermiah vastly unpopular during the time it was written. 

            Jeremiah was written over a period of approximately forty years, from 627 BCE to 587 BCE.  This was a very difficult time in the history of the Hebrew people because it was the time in which the small remnant of the Israelite kingdom was captured under the direction of Nebuchadrezzar, ruler of Babylon. 

            With everything lost for the Israelite people, Jeremiah advocates in this book primarily for two things, which also made him unpopular.  Unpopular thing #1: Jeremiah teaches that what remains of Israel, the people that are left, must become acquiescent to the Babylonians as the only way of avoiding complete annihilation as a country and as a people.  This was not a popular message, and Jeremiah was persecuted for saying it. 

            Unpopular thing #2: Jeremiah strongly advocates for a return to the ancestral, earlier faith of Israel.  It is not coincidental that the kind of faith Jeremiah is lobbying for is one of Levitical heritage. Jeremiah was so oppositional to the royal religion in Jerusalem and the worship in the temple that he proclaimed that Israel’s only hope for survival was to return to the commandments and covenants of Moses.  Jeremiah even said that the contemporary religious practices he observed in Jerusalem were a false religion that was sure to fail.   Again, not a message that was popular, especially to those who preferred the Zadokite expression.

            Jeremiah lived to see the destruction of both Jerusalem and the temple he was so critical of.  Was it God’s retribution, or just another incident of earthly violence at the hands of human empire?  Jeremiah believed that the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple was an act of God, though enacted by the hands of the Babylonian army.  He believed that this destruction (unpopular though it was) was necessary so that God could begin a new thing.

            That new thing we hear about in today’s reading.  “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people…I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” This is a rare thing to find in Jeremiah – hope.  But it is there.  Ultimately, Jeremiah finds hope amid religious partisanship and geopolitical conflict. 

            Partisanship and conflict exist today as they did in the past, as do their critics and prophets.  Who is right, who is wrong?  We all have our unique opinions, but it is during divisive times such as we are experiencing in our country that Jeremiah becomes my curmudgeonly unpopular anchor I cling to.  I return to Jeremiah because of his values.  He spoke truth courageously and paid a dire price for it.  His life would have been much easier, and probably more pleasant had he kept his mouth shut.  But he didn’t.  And I am so thankful for that, thankful that because of his labor we have this strange book full of unpopular truths that speak to us today.

            The truth will set you free, but first it’s going to make you miserable.  It always does.  Jeremiah reminds us that though the truth hurts, it is what we hunger for, it is what we need most.  AMEN.