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Jeremiah: Strong in the Broken Places

September 8, 2013

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 8, 2013. This is the final sermon in our summer series on the major prophets.

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Jeremiah 18: 1-11

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.

Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

Jeremiah is perhaps my favorite of the major prophets because he lived at one of those hinge moments in Israel’s history after which nothing would ever be the same, and he saw the direction of history and God’s hand in it long before any of his contemporaries. But beyond that he is a poet of extraordinary ability, an artist and activist of the soul, dramatizing his preaching with public performance, civil disobedience, long jail stays, and political confrontations, all the while dodging (and no doubt provoking) attempts on his life.

Jeremiah was born in the late seventh century B.C.E. He was just a boy during the reign of King Josiah, one of Ancient Israel’s “great kings” who reformed the temple worship, re-established the practice of Jubilee Justice, redistributed land to the poor, freed slaves, and nationalized the legal system. Jeremiah’s father (Hilkiah) served as Josiah’s chief deputy, and his uncle (Shallum) was keeper of the royal wardrobe. Jeremiah recalls speaking early words of praise for Josiah’s reform, and Jeremiah came to believe that, even before he had been born, God had called him to be a cheerleader for God’s Way (which he believed Josiah embodied), to announce God’s great Yes! to the practice of justice and covenant faithfulness, and to announce a resounding No! whenever the poor took a backseat to other national priorities.

But by the time Jeremiah had grown old, he had witnessed the failure of the reform movement in the hand’s of Josiah’s sons, the neglect of the poor and subsequent political collapse of his nation, the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, and the destruction of the Temple which had stood since the time of Solomon. His nation was no more. The seventy-year exile had begun. All this, he believed, was God’s doing, because the nation had placed other things before the welfare of it’s poorest members.

Jeremiah is the source of much in our faith that we take for granted in the language of our worship and music, and behind many New Testament stories though we may not know them as Jeremian. It was Jeremiah who first said, “My house shall be called a house of worship for all nations, but you have made it a den of thieves”. He spoke of a “day which is surely coming when the law will be written not on stone tablets or scrolls, but inscribed on our hearts,” that the word of God would well up within us like fire in our soul unless it is spoken and shared, he was the first to speak of a New Covenant. It was Jeremiah who referred to the political rulers and religious leaders of his day as shepherds who scatter their flock rather than tend it, who cry “Peace, Peace, when there is no Peace,” and it is Jeremiah who looked forward to the day when “God alone will be our shepherd.”

I find it difficult to read Jeremiah without thinking of Jesus, if for no other reason, than because they both stood over Jerusalem and wept. Jeremiah wept because Jerusalem stubbornly refused to return to God, to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly, and Jesus wept because the same city, 600 years later still refused to hear the voice of its prophets.

Scoundrels are found among my people;

they take over the goods of others.

Like fowlers they set a trap;

they catch human beings.

Like a cage full of birds,

their houses are full of treachery;

therefore they have become great and rich,

they have grown fat and sleek.

They know no limits in deeds of wickedness;

they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan,

to make it prosper,

and they do not defend the rights of the needy.

Shall I not punish them for these things?

And shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this?

I recall an image of Jeremiah that I formed when I first really read him in college – I imagined a large red heart, heaving like a chest, choking back sobs, but leaking big wet tears – and I knew that the heart was God’s. John Calvin called Jeremiah an image of Christ, but that is perhaps because Jeremiah and God shared the same heart.

Jeremiah has been called the weeping prophet because he seems to cry God’s tears, his sighs are like the breath of God caught in the throat, and he will do anything (even seemingly foolish things) to wake his people up, including walking around in soiled underwear, smashing pots and wearing the heavy yoke of an ox on his shoulders, all in public. (Jeremiah was a master of street theater). If only someone would notice and hear what he has to say! He tells people his nighttime dreams, daytime fears, and always, always shows his tears. But to no avail. Jeremiah was ignored, opposed, always with the underdog, lonely. Later generations attributed the Book of Lamentations to him, Israel’s songbook of sorrow, loss, and anguish. In most of this poetry it is difficult to tell if it is the prophet or God who is weeping, and perhaps it doesn’t matter. The point is that both are acutely aware of, and want us to weep for, the pain of our world, the plight of the poor, (and the) hardness of our hearts.

But the people of Jeremiah’s day do not. Their hearts can’t weep, they are hard, frozen, tough.

If a more optimistic Jeremiah told the people that they, like Adam, were made of clay, and were shaped by the loving attention of God; and that God could remake them in that image, the image of God, if only they would soften themselves to the worlds pain, an older and more experienced Jeremiah has nothing but harsh words because he knows only a hardened people who refuse to be reshaped. They are tough and unyielding like a tempered and fired vase.

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So in chapter 19, God speaks a new image through Jeremiah.

“Go and buy a potter’s earthenware jug, and say to the people,

‘I am going to bring such disaster upon this place

that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle.

Because the people have forsaken me and my ways.’

Then you shall break the jug in the sight of those with you, saying

‘So I will break this people and this city,

as one breaks a potters vessel, so that it can never be mended.’”

God will break us, (says Jeremiah), shatter us and the illusions of peace and well-being with which we comfort ourselves, open us forcibly to the pain of the world, the wound of God’s people, in the hope that we will repent, return, open ourselves to those who suffer in our world, learn to walk in God’s ways, practice justice.

I have always been disturbed by the violence of Jeremiah’s images, as if God were saying, Do justice, practice non-violence, love one another, or else! But I recently read “To be broken open is not necessarily to be destroyed. The plow breaks open the earth so that crops can be planted. We break open walnuts so we can get at the nourishment inside. And (as I was reminded this summer at Yellowstone National Park,) there are some variety of pine cones that require the extreme heat of a forest fire to break open and release their seeds for new growth.[1]

But why break us? What is it inside us that God wants?

Nothing less than everything, our very hearts.

Ernest Hemingway once said that the world breaks us all, but some of us grow strong in the broken places. And so, desiring to have hearts for God,  we come here to experience the brokenness of our world as bread is broken and we are strengthened at the table. Through the study of scripture we open ourselves to the way Christ bore that brokenness within himself and we are given the power to do the same. As we pray for neighbors and nations, we are invited to hope and trust in the one who has promised that in Christ all things will be made new, and then we are sent out to offer our selves as agents of the that renewal.

Blessed are those who allow themselves to be melted, molded and filled by God, that they may be useful in God’s Kingdom. Amen.

[1] “Breaking Down, Breaking Open” by Ron Morgan in The Other Side, January&February 2003.

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