A Sermon by Dr Baden Teague

Reading: Jeremiah, chapters 14 and 31

Prayer: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.


Jesus said, ‘Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.’  (Luke 18:17)  Jeremiah was one of the very few Old Testament prophets who understood this truth, and he looked forward to the day, half a thousand years later, when through Jesus all people would begin to understand this.

Jeremiah is the Old Testament prophet whose writings take up the most pages in the Bible. During Jesus’ ministry the people often thought that Jesus was Jeremiah returned. Jeremiah is the most radical of the prophets, the most far-sighted, the most ready for change. He calls for a new Covenant that will confirm but reach beyond the vision of Moses and the Law. This new Covenant is eventually fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, who is God with us “in our hearts”, Emmanuel. Jeremiah, at first sight, seems to be about judgement, dying and death. But in reality Jeremiah is much more about the step beyond all that, which is hope, resurrection and renewal.

Our reading tonight is from Jeremiah, chapter 14 and I am adding as well his glorious chapter 31 (which we read last Sunday). So then, let’s understand tonight some more about the prophet Jeremiah. Who was he? When did he live and write? What did he have to say? And how can he be of encouragement to us, now, here in Australia?

Jeremiah was born at Anathoth, a few kms north of Jerusalem. He was of a priestly family and he became a Hebrew scholar. Late in his teenage he became an enthusiastic supporter of King Josiah of Jerusalem, the only really good king to serve God and the people. Josiah happened to discover in a clean-out of public buildings a precious book (covered in dust and cobwebs) which was the Torah, the Law, given by God to the people of Israel as confirmation of the original Covenant God had given to the patriarchs, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. The deal was to receive the love of God and to love God in return.

Josiah’s beautiful discovery was a slap in the face to the evil ways of the two kings who preceded him and to the evil ways of the four kings who followed him. Altogether these seven kings, Manasseh, Amon, Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin and Zedekiah were the last seven kings ever to serve in Israel. Only one was good, Josiah. The other six were drop kicks. These six arrogant and evil kings were Josiah’s grandfather, father, three of his sons and his grandson. In Jeremiah’s long life as a prophet he knew them all. And he was called by God to denounce the multiplicity of errors that kept recurring during the lives of all of Josiah’s descendants. Josiah was good but all of his descendants were evil. It was Jeremiah’s job to call them to account. God told Jeremiah to proclaim to them, ‘Judgement is coming; Death is on its way; your city Jerusalem will be destroyed, and your people will be taken in chains to Babylon. Exile will consume you all. It will be the end of the Monarchy, the end of the Temple, the end of the Priesthood and the end of the City of God.’

Chapter 14, our reading tonight, sets out four Deaths for the king and all the people: death by the sword, death by pestilence, death by famine, and death by being kidnapped into exile. In 587 BC that is exactly what actually happened. Nebucadnezar, the King of the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem for 18 months – the people starved, disease was rife, and any breakout ended up being slaughtered. Eventually the Babylonians stormed in and destroyed everything. The 10,000 survivors were marched into exile across what is now the Iraqi Desert. It was by the rivers of Babylon that these captives wept. They had literally lost everything.

The Babylonian Empire had replaced the Assyrian Empire after the battle of Carchemish in the year 605 BC. Carchemish, by the way, on the upper Euphrates River, is exactly where this past month the Turkish Army has so sadly invaded the Kurds of Northern Syria. Less than seventy years after the battle of Carchemish this Babylonian Empire was itself replaced by the Persian Empire. The Exile period of the Jews began in 587 and lasted 50 years (of the Babylonian 70 years) until the Persian Emperor, Cyrus, immediately after his defeat of Babylon set them free and the Jews were at last allowed to go home.

But what were the evils of these last Judah kings and the evils of that whole Jewish society. Let me point to four:

  1. The first was INJUSTICE. They failed to care for the poor, they actually had made slaves of some fellow citizens, corruption was rampant, the king and the ruling class built lavish palaces while burdening all the people with unbearable taxes.
  2. The second was IMMORALITY. They had an outward form of religion but kidded themselves that murder, rape and theft were excusable.
  3. The third was IDOLATORY. Since grandfather Manasseh’s evil reign they were up to their eyeballs in polytheism including high places to Baal and to Molech, these so-called “gods” who were in fact non-entities.
  4. The fourth was INFANTICIDE. For over fifty years now they had constructed an execution place for the sacrifice by death of their own children. This was in the Valley of Hinnom, just outside the south wall of Jerusalem. But God’s message through Jeremiah to all-Israel was that this hellish abomination was intolerable. Those who did this were rejected by God. They would all die.

So then, these were the sins of the people. Judgement was fast approaching. Everything would be lost and the people would go into exile. And they did.

But this Judgement is only the first half of Jeremiah’s story. The second half of the story is the really radical part. Jeremiah the prophet was called by God to proclaim that in this horrible END there would be a BEGINNING. This death would, by God’s grace, become the means to redemption. Resurrection to new life would be the eventual response to this death. And this renewal would no longer depend upon the priesthood, the monarchy, the temple, even the city of Jerusalem.

In Jeremiah’s vision there would be no king (God will be King), there would be no Levitical priesthood (we would all be priests), there would be no Temple of Solomon (every person’s heart would become a holy temple) and there would be no physical Jerusalem (but rather a spiritual Jerusalem real in our hearts and in heaven). Jeremiah’s radical vision was completely new. He said that God will provide a new Covenant, established not in physical things and in mere religious observance but rather “in the heart” of the people. This gift of God would not depend on places and institutions but would be a permanent presence of God in each person‘s heart. A holy life would be lived, no longer merely observed as rituals.

Now this radical vision became the New Covenant that Jesus has given us. It is what the four Gospels are all about. It is the transformation that St Paul experienced and it is the renewing theology that fills all of his letters. Do you remember your surprise when you heard from Jesus that the kingdom of heaven is like a little child innocently (trustingly) receiving God’s grace? Jesus was, in fact, most opposed by the outwardly religious Pharisees whose arrogance prevented them from understanding the importance of a transformed heart. The Pharisees did not understand Jeremiah. And the Pharisees did not understand Jesus. But the truth is that God is love and it is in loving and receiving love that we are transformed. Jeremiah is about “the heart”.

This week the Prime Minister Scott Morrison, gave an address in which he said what he liked about prayer. He was attending in Canberra the annual Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast. In an earlier life, I helped to establish this annual national prayer meeting and I attended it for twenty years in a row. “What I like about prayer”, the Prime Minister said, “and what is so important about us coming together in our parliament and praying, is that prayer gives us a reminder of our humility and our vulnerability. It forms our unity because there is certainly one thing we have in common, whether we sit in the green or red chairs in this place, and that is our human frailty, our human vulnerability. “One of the great misconceptions about religion”, he said, “is to assume it is something about piety (the Pharisees were pious), but it is completely the reverse. Faith and religion are actually first and foremost an expression of our human frailty and that there are things far bigger than each and any of us. “When we come together in prayer, we are reminded that the great challenges we face in this world are ones that we continue to bring up in prayer. And that is what we do when we begin each day in parliament in prayer.”

Jeremiah would agree with this attitude of Scott Morrison’s. Religion is not foremost about being ‘pious’:  it is about having the heart of a child and receiving the grace of God.

Let me conclude by quoting Jeremiah’s chapter 31. These promises of hope are true for us all today.

“Thus says the Lord, ‘Sing aloud with gladness for the Lord has saved his people, the remnant of Israel. A great company, they shall return here.

With weeping they shall come.

I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. There is hope for your future.

Behold the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers … which they broke. But I will put my law within them, and Iwill write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people.

And no longer shall each man teach his neighbour and teach his brother, saying “know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

Behold the days are coming when the city shall be rebuilt, … it shall be sacred to the Lord. And it shall not be uprooted or overthrown any more for ever.”

Jeremiah’s radical vision is a ‘spiritual Jerusalem’ not only for Israel but for all the nations. This is the ‘new Jerusalem’ of Jesus. To the Samaritan woman at the well Jesus said, “God is spirit and those who worship him worship spiritually and in truth.” Jeremiah would have been happy about that.