Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson, Dean

Tonight’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah begins immediately after the ending of the reading we heard this morning. I want to take us back to that passage which spoke of the call of Jeremiah to be a prophet, to act as God’s agent and spokesman to the People of God and the nations of the world. Jeremiah is appointed by God but, like Moses before him, immediately tries to get out of the task by claiming he does not know how to speak, and that he is only a boy. The Lord’s response is in Jeremiah 1: 9 – 10:

“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”

In what is a complicated yet fascinating book of the Bible, these few lines can be seen as a summary of the whole of Jeremiah, one of the three great prophets whose work has come down to us. From now until the Feast of All Saints in November, the Lectionary appoints that passages from Jeremiah be read on Sundays – both morning and evening. So it is worth-while spending a few minutes looking at who Jeremiah was and what his message was.

The opening verses of Jeremiah have the prophet tell us exactly how he came to his calling. In a passage often quoted at ordinations we are told he was called from the womb to be a prophet. But what is more interesting is that he came from Anathoth, a small village near Jerusalem in the land of Benjamin. The dating of the call is very specific and we should note both – the dating and the origin. Some three hundred or so years before Jeremiah was active as a prophet, the group of people we now know as the People of Israel, or the Hebrews, were a loosely collected federation of tribal groups, bound together by the worship of the God Yahweh. Their common ancestral story was that Yahweh had rescued them out of slavery in Egypt and led them to the land they now occupied – described in glowing terms as the land of milk and honey. (The sort of way Australia has been promoted at various times of its history in its quest to attract new immigrants.)

Sometime around 1000 BC this motley group of tribes underwent a profound political change. Whereas until then each group had existed largely independently of the others, occasionally joining forces against a common threat, under a series of brilliant warrior leaders a united nation was formed out of the existing twelve tribal groups. The first of these leaders was Saul, followed by David and then Solomon. Saul was king during the bitter wars against the sea people called Philistines, while David would grow in stature over the years until he became the perfect warrior-king, the one who could do no wrong – despite the well documented incidents of his sexual exploits and his readiness to exploit his power to his own financial advantage. His successor, Solomon, is remembered for his lavish building programmes and his legendary wisdom. It was Solomon who banished one of David’s generals to Anathoth – birthplace of Jeremiah.

Not only was power centralised in the person of the king – remember, before this time there was a loose tribal federation – but increasingly, the religious focus moved from a number of holy places or shrines, each with its collection of priests, to Jerusalem and the glorious temple built by Solomon. Over the years the founding story came to be rewritten and expanded until the original story, which we find embedded in the Passover story and the dramatic escape into the desert by a group of Hebrew slaves, changed significantly. No longer was the covenant, formed around the Ten Commandments, given to Moses, the leader of that slave escape, central and pivotal to the life of the people. Instead, both civic and religious life, for there seems to have been no real separation between the two, came to be focused on four particular things viz. the king, the temple, the city and the land.

So strong were these four things in the minds of people, and so central to their identity, that the very identity of God was bound up in them. Hence the king was seen effectively as God’s agent on earth; the temple was really the only proper place for God to be worshipped, supported of course by an ever-increasing number of priests and their hangers-on, along with elaborate ritual; the well-being of both king and city reflected the love and generosity of God in singling this particular people out as “God’s Chosen people”; and, as if that were not enough, the founding story continued to revolve around the idea that the land itself, despite having been occupied before the Hebrews came along, was given specifically to them as their own for all time.

Into this heady mix and religio-political certainty of king, temple, city and land came a number of people. They had a message uncomfortable and unacceptable to the ruling elite. In essence it was that, despite the apparent prosperity of the current age, and the mantra that God had blessed them in this way and would continue to do so, almost no matter what, the current way of life did not reflect that which God required, and disaster would come upon the ruling class and, by trickledown effect, on the whole people. Over the decades and centuries these people, with their uncomfortable message, would challenge the status quo – recalling them to an early story before the politics of kings. Specifically they recalled the people to the ancient story of God and Moses, of Exodus and Covenant. As the rich got richer and the poor poorer, as land was gobbled up by the corporates forcing people into slavery in their own countries, and as the religious authorities in Jerusalem seemed increasingly to say only what their political masters wished them to say, the voice of the prophets, the dissenters, got louder. Jeremiah is in this tradition.

Jeremiah’s message can be summarised in the verses I quoted earlier,
See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.” Jer 1: 10

There are two strong themes here which are essential for an understanding of Jeremiah: judgment and restoration.

Jeremiah is highly critical of the political and religious elite of his day. If, so his message goes, they continue in the way they do, the whole country will be in jeopardy. Indeed, in tonight’s extract from chapter 1 Jeremiah goes so far as to say that God Himself will bring disaster on the country, from a northern power.

“The word of the Lord came to me a second time, saying, ‘What do you see?’ And I said, ‘I see a boiling pot, tilted away from the north.’

Then the Lord said to me: Out of the north disaster shall break out on all the inhabitants of the land. For now I am calling all the tribes of the kingdoms of the north, says the Lord; and they shall come and all of them shall set their thrones at the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem, against all its surrounding walls and against all the cities of Judah. And I will utter my judgements against them, for all their wickedness in forsaking me; they have made offerings to other gods, and worshipped the works of their own hands.” Jer 1: 13ff

No king or political ruler could allow such subversive words to be uttered and Jeremiah, who persisted in his message, suffered greatly as a result. But persist he did, constantly criticising the ruling authorities and the religious rhetoric that reassured people that, as long as they had the temple of the Lord, all would be well. As Jeremiah’s voice got louder, so the ears of the ruling elite got deafer. Eventually crisis did come, in the form of Nebuchadnezzar and his armies. Everything that defined the people of God – king, temple, city and land – came to an end in 587 BC. It was a national disaster of epic proportions. And Jeremiah could have sat back and said, “I told you so.” He did not. Instead, he changed his tune and began preaching a new message, that of restoration. God had not forgotten His people, he would not abandon them forever. One day the Exile would be over and the people return to the Promised Land.

But that is for another time and another day.

For now, remember the two great themes of Jeremiah – judgment and restoration – for we will come across them time and again in the story of God’s people. Over and over again we appear not to learn, and over and over again a Jeremiah-like person appears on the scene – bold and brave, incisive as a critic, and prepared to suffer for the truth. We call them prophets and every age needs a few. The message may be differently packaged and culturally and contextually appropriate, but essentially it is the same: The Lord your God is one Lord whom you shall worship with heart, soul, mind and strength, and, you shall love your neighbour as yourself.