Commentary on Jeremiah 2:4-13
The first step in preparation for worship on August 29 is choosing the lector for this passage.
Can anyone read this passage without being moved to tears? On the one hand, there are the multiple layers of God’s sadness, hurt, and anger at the people’s unfathomable betrayal. What will God’s voice sound like in the voice of the lector–especially knowing that beneath the hurt is God’s loving desire for God’s people?
On the other hand, the thoughtful reader will recognize, in the content of God’s cross-examination, analogies to that betrayal in the life of God’s people, the Church. We, too betray by failing to ask, “Where is the LORD?” We, too fall into easy idolatry by exchanging the glory of our salvation for things that do not profit. A well-prepared rendition of this passage in all its pathos, followed by an equally sensitive rendering of the story from John 4 (I know, I know, it is not the appointed gospel reading, but that does not mean it is banned from the sermon!) could be sermon enough; Jesus says there, “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
In prosecuting the case, God levels several layered and interlocking accusations against a people who have not found it easy–or possible–to sustain faith in the mundane day-to-day world. The hermeneutical challenge is locating analogical connections between the defendant in the text–the “house of Jacob” (and its priests, rulers, and prophets)–and …well…whom? The church will hear itself especially in the accusations having to do with idolatry and thanklessness. The questions of reference get more difficult when it comes to rulers and nations.
Whichever way you solve the referential issue, the nine or so accusations made by God are pointed and rich; spend some of your sermon preparation time dwelling in each one. The heart of the prosecution’s case is idolatry; God comes at the subject in three different ways: the people have chased after worthless things (and become worthless themselves in the process); have “changed gods” (forsaking the one who made them what they are today); and have tried to draw strength from worthless sources (cracked cisterns). I am most intrigued by the sightseeing trip to Cyprus where we learn that nations who worship false gods are more steadfast and zealous than the nation who knows the true God.
Another accusation is that the people have simply forgotten that God was present leading them out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and into the Promised Land. And in that forgetting they defiled the land once they got there. The temptation to spiritualize when moving from text to world bears with it the risk of collapsing the scope of God’s action down to the individual; but the description of the wilderness in verse 6–drought and darkness, a land where no one ever passes through or lives–will resonate with the experience of the dark night of the soul.
Verse 8 is a scathing condemnation of empty, fraudulent leadership–priests who fail to call on God, judges making judgments from the law without knowing the spirit of the Law’s author. This verse comes close to home for preachers and leaders who, from time to time, sense that we are all just “going through the motions.” (Check out the story of the priests of Bel in the apocryphal book Bel and the Dragon for a chilling example.)
However, when I am sitting in the pew of your church on August 29, I do not want to hear what a lousy job we do being God’s people. I already know that. We know that we take God and God’s providence and faithfulness for granted. We know that we put our time and energy into fruitless pursuits–looking for love in all the wrong places. We know that we are more zealous in spreading the word about our favorite rhubarb pie recipe or college football team than about God’s action in our lives. We know that in putting our lives together we draw on the dry wells of human wisdom even as the preacher, liturgy, and hymns keep trying to get us excited about the living waters that are our baptismal inheritance. We know all of that.
But here is the greater perplexing mystery: God knows all of that also; God knew about it when God called the Hebrew people, and God knew it when God called us. So, preacher, I want you to stand up for the house of Jacob and all the families of the house of Israel…and for all leaders in Christ’s Church. Plead our case; answer the hard questions God poses through Jeremiah. Help God to understand–and in the process remind us–why God’s people struggle to stay faithful, thankful, and zealous. We go after worthless things because their “worthlessness” is deferred; their immediate payoff is so satisfying. Yes, we love our god-given land, but as they hymn “This Is My Song” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship #887) reminds us, “…other lands have sunlight, too, and clover…” Yes, God’s acts of deliverance were amazing! But the thrill of walking between the walls of water in the Red Sea or of watching the Ark of the Covenant danced into Jerusalem belonged to people long dead; those are just stories to us now. We want our own vivid experience, our own memories, and (God help us) the stories being told on our little screens feel more real to us.
I will confess that I am not sure where this sermon trajectory might lead. As is the case with some of the lament psalms, the raw truth of such a sermon may be uncomfortable…though still true. But know, too, that Christians do not want their faith life to be a veneer or a fiction. In pleading our case you could also become the means by which God will show us how to fashion a living, vibrant faith even over the long haul when mountaintop experiences are rare. Or perhaps in pleading our case you might help us catch glimpses of how, in Christ, we participate in the liberating mission of God, and in helping others see God active, we might remember what it was like back when God led us out of our desolation.