YEAR C: SEASON OF PENTECOST
(Sunday between August 28 and September 3)
The Book of Jeremiah begins with the prophecies which could be described as ‘plucking up, pulling down, destroying and overthrowing’ (1:10). Those which seek to ‘build and plant’ come later (chs 30ff.).
First, Jeremiah 2 starts by going back to the time of the Exodus out of Egypt. That time is pictured as a ‘honeymoon’ period in a love affair between God and Israel (Jer 2:2-3). Hosea paints a similar picture portraying the wilderness as an ideal time in the relationship between Israel and God (Hos 2:14-15). This was not the only tradition about the wilderness. In the book of Exodus itself, the period of Israel in the wilderness was not a harmonious one. Israel complained bitterly of their situation (e.g. Exodus 16-17). But that is another tradition. What is portrayed in Jeremiah is important here and it is against this picture that the reading for today needs to be seen.
The honeymoon that was the Exodus did not last long as the passage for this week indicates. In it we find God cross examining Israel. God asks what wrong those ancestors found in him that they worshipped other worthless gods. Taken by itself we might presume that the ancestors did do precisely that, worship other gods. The tradition of complaining in the wilderness in the Book of Exodus might lend weight to that charge. But in the context of vv. 2-3, it seems more likely that the question is to be read as a rhetorical one. The answer is that the ancestors found no wrong in God. The ancestors, the generation of Israel which God led out of Egypt, are being silently evoked as witnesses for God against more recent generations. Their faithfulness, as Jeremiah saw it, was a witness to the faithfulness of God who delivered his people from oppression. An interesting twist then comes in the text. God states the ancestors did not ask: ‘Where is the Lord who brought us up out of the land of Egypt…?’ They did not need to ask because of their faith in God even though the place through which he led them was a wilderness, with deserts and pits, drought and deep darkness, where no one lived or went (v. 6). The experience of the wilderness is described in the harshest of terms. There was everything in their initial experience to cause the ancestors to rebel against God and complain. But here in Jeremiah, the assumption is they did not. According to Jeremiah their faith held firm in spite of the hardship.
Eventually, in Jeremiah’s account, God brought Israel ‘into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things.’ (v. 7). Those who settled in the promised land are pictured with everything to give thanks for, but they did not respond appropriately. The priests, God says, did not ask ‘Where is the Lord?’ (v. 8). This is precisely the question the ancestors did not ask but there is a difference between the two quotations. The ancestors did not ask this question because of their trust in God, even in the most difficult circumstances. The priests do not ask the question because they have defiled the plentiful lands God had given them. They have strayed from their faith and the God who was the ‘fountain of living water’ for them (v. 13). The priests did not seek God as was their responsibility; the rulers transgressed and the prophets spoke in the name of another god. They each had forsaken God. But worse still, they had pursued gods who were worthless. This is the point of the vivid metaphor in v. 13. They had foolishly forsaken an ever flowing spring for poorly constructed cisterns that could not hold any water. Foolishness followed faithlessness. Others, who do not know the Lord as Israel has, have not even been so stupid (v. 10).
Of course, even a cursory glance through the Old Testament will suggest that there were many faithful priests in Israel’s history, just as many rulers did faithfully follow Israel’s God, and we know of plenty of prophets (Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah himself etc.) who did not follow Baal. The text exaggerates, or skews its account of Israel’s history, to make the essential point about the present generation’s faithlessness and foolishness. The story does not conclude in today’s reading. The passage is but part of a larger indictment of Israel that runs through chapter 6. At the end there will be a call for repentance (3:1-4:4) and a final statement of judgment (4:5-6:30).
With those points in mind we come back to today’s passage and ask what does it contribute to the fostering of faith among God’s people? It is just this, the question: ‘Where is the Lord?’ That question is worth asking, and answering, no matter what our circumstances. In the case of the ancestors it may have been redundant (according to Jeremiah) because of the faithfulness of the ancestors. Jeremiah sees the question as ‘unfaithful’ in that ancient context. But in the case of later generations the question could be indispensable if asked in a positive manner, i.e. ‘where is the Lord?’ in terms of ‘what is the Lord doing?’, rather than in terms of ‘the Lord is nowhere to be found’. It was the failure to ask that question, to get that ‘God’ perspective on events and discover what God was doing, that was the failure of those later generations. Knowing where God was in their experience, indeed that God was part of it, was the important thing for the Exodus generation according to Jeremiah. Not knowing those things – being foolish enough not to even ask the question – was the shortcoming of later generations.
It might be this question and its relevance to every generation that the preacher will want to focus on. The Gospel passage, Luke 14:1, 7-14, although about another matter entirely, is still relevant in this context. Is not Jesus asking his host and others to ask that very question – ‘where is the Lord in this place and situation?
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