Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
In the Academy Award-winning movie Moonstruck, Cher plays the widow Loretta Castorini. Loretta tells us early on that her first marriage was one of love that ended early when her husband was hit by a bus. For her second husband she has chosen Johnny, a very safe man whom she doesn’t love, but who reassures her in his predictability and dependability. As she finds herself falling in love with his brother, Ronnie, she rebels against the idea of marrying for love. She reasons that the first time she let herself fall in love and make a commitment; it didn’t work out. This time she is not going to leave herself open to the pain of loving and losing. She prefers to play it safe, even at the cost of a life without love.
Over and over again in the stories of the Hebrew Bible, we find God’s people Israel making Loretta Castorini types of choices. Committing oneself to God doesn’t always seem the safest choice, as God proves time and again unpredictable by human beings, even seeming to be absent for long periods of time. So, the people turn to more safe and predictable things to worship: carved idols, political power, material wealth. From the golden calf of Aaron in the desert to the time of Jeremiah, the people seem to find it easy to go away from the one who offers them true love while turning to a relationship that seems controllable and predictable and doesn’t make quite so many demands on them. Again, and again God comes to them to remind them they are indeed, “looking for love in all the wrong places.” Again, and again God reaches out in love to draw them back into a relationship which can truly enrich their lives and bring peace and prosperity to the earth. But as the prophets accurately assess, Israel is a fickle lover.
Of course, that particular Biblical theme continues to be replayed in human life even to today. Just as God-through-Jeremiah accuses the people of forgetting the love of God in the lives of their ancestors, so too our memories of God’s grace seem to be short. As God accuses the people of turning to relationships which ultimately do not satisfy as God does, so too do we elevate our relationships to our material goods, our technological ability to control our world, and things that give us immediate gratification over the relationship with God which requires more work and time and care. Sociologists and psychologists write extensively about people’s continuing search for meaning and their need for fulfillment, and yet the one who gives meaning and fulfillment abundantly is ignored by so many.
Jeremiah beautifully illustrates God’s hurt and anger at the actions of Israel; God feels just like any of us who have ever been jilted by a lover. Perhaps that’s the image to lift up from this text that might speak to those for whom religion is either meaningless or so rote as to be irrelevant to their lives. God, the Lover. In the midst of a tradition that was full of God the Judge, Jesus, like Jeremiah, came talking with passion about the amazing extent of God’s love and all the joy God sought to give to us, the Beloved. Jeremiah’s image is of God as a fountain of living water, clean, cool, refreshing, life-giving. We cannot control God the Lover, the Fountain, any more than we could lasso a river. God the Lover is not always safe and predictable. God the Lover, however, wants to bring us life, life abundant.
At the end of Moonstruck, Loretta makes a choice that shocks those who think she has been so practical and smart in choosing to marry the safe man. She chooses for love, even though her lover is a bit of a loose cannon. She knows he loves her wildly and she responds to that love with commitment. We have the feeling as the movie ends that their relationship will not always be smooth, that it will require more work for Loretta than Johnny would have, but that their commitment to one another will bring them more joy than the safe choices either might have made. Choosing to respond to God’s wooing and commit ourselves to God is not safe, sometimes not practical, never controllable, but ultimately more fulfilling and joyful than any earthly allegiance could bring us.
Though he was a native of the town of Anathoth in the northern territory of Benjamin, Jeremiah carried out his prophetic ministry between the years 626 and 586 B.C. in the southern kingdom of Judah and principally in Jerusalem. Our passage comes from his earliest preaching between 626 and 621, during the reign of the good King Josiah. As is well known, after a scroll of Deuteronomy was discovered in 621 while the temple was being repaired, Josiah instigated a covenant renewal on the basis of the Deuteronomic law and carried out a massive reform movement in Judah that was designed to eliminate all traces of foreign syncretism and idolatrous Baal religion in his country (2 Kings 22–23). Our text for the morning illumines the apostasy of the Israelites before that reform, in which Jeremiah undoubtedly participated, was undertaken.
The passage is such a model of Hebrew rhetoric that an examination of its structure serves to uncover its principal message. It is made up of four stanzas, verses 5–6, 7–8, 9–11, and 12–13. The language in verses 9 and 13 reveals that it is a court case of God against the Israelites, with God the plaintiff presenting his case and the heavens acting as the jury. The sentence of the court is contained in verse 13, where God also acts as judge.
The theme of the passage is presented immediately in verse 5, where it is said that the ancestors of the Israelites “went after worthlessness, and became worthless,” that is, they went after other gods. At the end of the second strophe, verse 8, the thought is repeated: the prophets prophesied by Baal and “went after things that do not profit,” that is, that are worthless. The same words are repeated at the end of the third strophe, verse 11: “my people have changed their glory / for that which does not profit”—once again, what is worthless. Finally, at the end of the last strophe, verse 13, the people have “hewed out cisterns for themselves, / broken cisterns, / that can hold no water,” in other words, that are worthless. So the principal thought runs through the whole passage: by committing their loyalty to other gods than the Lord, the Israelites have gone after worthlessness that will profit them nothing. With so prominent a theme sounding from the text, that surely should be the main thrust of the sermon built upon it. It is no coincidence that this Old Testament text is paired in the lectionary with an Epistle and a Gospel lesson that also deal with the outcome of life, with that which profits it and that which does not.
When Jeremiah speaks of Israel’s “fathers” or ancestors in our text, he is referring to Israel’s actions after she entered into the Promised Land. As the immediately preceding verses, 2:1–3, show, Jeremiah shares Hosea’s view that Israel’s time in the wilderness was the time of her “honeymoon” with her divine husband, the Lord, when there was no Baal to come between them (cf. Hos. 2:15). But as soon as the Israelites entered into Canaan, they forgot the Lord because they did not remember what he had done on their behalf. They forgot that the Lord delivered them out of bondage in Egypt and led them through the terrors of the wilderness, “a land of deserts and pits,” “of drought and deep darkness,” where “none passes through” and “no man dwells.” Instead, Israel’s ancestors turned to the worship of the fertility gods of the Canaanites, because they thought it was the Baals who gave them “the grain, the wine, and the oil” (Hos. 2:8). They thought that the Lord, who had led them in the wilderness, could not furnish them the means of life in a sown land. And so they turned to the gods of agriculture and fertility. What a person worships, however, is what he or she becomes. And so they “went after worthlessness and became worthless”—worthless in the purpose and plan of God.
Yet, the God who led Israel through the dangers of the wilderness also provided for Israel’s life in the Promised Land. God brought them to a land “flowing with milk and honey” (Exod. 3:8)—as Deuteronomy puts it, “a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs … a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing” (Deut. 8:7–9). As the Lord provided Adam with a garden to enjoy, so he provided Israel with the fruits and good things of Canaan, and he thought that Israel would enjoy such gifts. God owned the land (note “my land” in v. 7), but he lent it to Israel. Instead, the Israelites “defiled” God’s land. They polluted it.
Jeremiah is very specific about the sins of the Israelites in his time. The priests neither remember the Lord nor teach his law (v. 8). But by “law” Jeremiah means much more than simply statutes and ordinances. Rather, the law or Torah was the sum total of all of Israel’s traditions about the works and words of the Lord, and two groups in Israel were responsible for passing those on to the people, namely, the priests and the prophets. Like some clergy in every age, however, the priests know nothing of a living relationship with God, nothing of his character and works and will, and the prophets are preaching not the Word of the Lord, but simply what they hear in the cult of Baal. As for the rulers before Josiah (lit. “shepherds”), they transgressed all the just requirements of the covenant law.
With these indictments against his people, the Lord takes Israel to court (v. 9). And he finds the Israelites’ actions, in the light of all that he has done for them, simply astounding. Has anyone ever heard of such a thing before, God asks, that a people would exchange their God who is their glory for “no gods”? Go to other nations and find out, God says. Go out into the Arabian Desert and look in Kedar, or cross the Mediterranean to Cyprus. Have those people exchanged their gods for deities who are worthless? Such actions are nonsensical and incredible.
The Lord therefore turns to the jury, to the heavens, in verse 12, and commands that they should be appalled and shocked at Israel’s senseless actions. But then the sentence of God the judge is pronounced. “Be utterly desolate,” the Lord commands; that is, be dried up and give no rain or moisture of any kind. In Jeremiah 14:1–10 we therefore find the result of that command: Judah languishes in a severe drought in which there is no water to be had.
Israel has committed two sins against her God, and she suffers the consequences. First, the Lord declares, “they have forsaken me,” even though I am “the fountain of living water,” the source of life that never fails in good times or bad. Second, in a figure of speech most telling in the arid Near East, God says Israel has dug for herself cisterns that are cracked and can hold no water, no source of life whatsoever. That is, Israel has turned to the worship of the fertility gods of Baal who have no power to provide their worshipers with the necessities of living. (Achtemeier, E. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis For Sunday’s Texts, Volume One [2001, Grand Rapids, MI] p407–410)
Jeremiah turns from God’s nostalgia to more direct diagnosis of Israel’s sin—a diagnosis that is comprehensive horizontally (all … the clans of Israel, 4, not just Judah; the political division and separate fates of the two kingdoms is here deemed irrelevant), and vertically (through all generations since their arrival in the land). All have sinned. And ‘at once we meet that mixture of the perverse, the frivolous and the ungrateful which is typical of all sin’.
God opens his complaint with the question, What fault did your ancestors find in me, that they strayed so far from me? (5a). The question is rhetorical, but there are several possible ways of understanding the point of it. The expected answer could be, ‘None at all’, in which case the point is simply to exonerate God from any blame for the coming crisis. If Israel were suffering all kinds of disaster, it was not God’s fault. Put the blame where it belonged. Or the question could be an invitation for Israel to spell out their grievance in court. For the fact was that some in Israel did blame Yahweh for their misfortunes, or at least for not ending them (2:29, 35; 3:5). They were as quick to blame God as Adam was to blame God for giving him Eve, or as even atheists are today to blame the God they claim does not exist for all the wrong things he ought to prevent if he did. So perhaps God is challenging the Israelites to lay out their case, if they can, in defence of their ancestors. Or it could simply be God’s heartfelt amazement at his people’s inexplicable fickleness. Since he had done no wrong to them, why, oh why had they wandered away from him?
The following verses give no answer to that question, but simply sharpen the diagnosis. What was Israel’s real problem?
(i) The pursuit of what was worthless (5b) The Hebrew is blunt and brutal: ‘They went after the worthless and they worthless-ized.’ The word translated worthless idols is the single word hebel, and it means a puff of wind, a triviality, something of no value, benefit or worth, something completely futile. It is the word regularly translated ‘vanity’ or ‘emptiness’ in the book of Ecclesiastes. And here it is Jeremiah’s verdict on the worship of Ba‘al and all the ritualized sexuality that went with it. The cult of fertility was a cult of futility, in which there was neither substance nor salvation.
But the sting in the tail is the final verb. They … became worthless themselves. They became like what they worshipped—which is a fact of life as much today as in ancient Israel. Worshippers (which means all human beings, for it is our very nature) become like the object of their worship. Since we were created in the image of the living God, to worship him is to become more like him. But when we make gods in our own image, to worship them is to become like them. And so the cult of worthless gods spawned a people characterized by delusion, vanity and emptiness.
Writing as a resident of the Western world, I find this a devastatingly true observation on the hollowing out of a whole culture that used to be rich in Christian assumptions and symbolism (however much defaced by the dubious syncretisms of Christendom). So much that passes for popular ‘culture’ in the West seems empty and shallow. We see the narcissism of self-promoting talentless celebrities, and freak shows like Big Brother masquerading as ‘reality’ television. It is not surprising then that in the collective idolatry that worships such triviality, human beings find their own lives unbearably worthless and futile. And in such a culture of worthlessness, human life itself becomes cheap and expendable. If consumerism is the culture’s supreme god, then humans themselves eventually become consumer goods. We use and exploit one another for our own pleasure or fantasy.
(ii) The waste of what was precious (6–7) Jeremiah here reminds Israel of their historical faith, with a list of things that should have stirred their gratitude but no longer did. But not only did they no longer ask where it all came from (that is, they forgot the Giver), they had actually defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable (7). The contrast with verse 3 is pointed. Israel whom God had made holy had become the polluters of the very thing God had entrusted to them. They had abused it by squandering and belittling the precious blessings of God.
Think of all the blessings of God that we as Christians enjoy. There is our historical faith—beginning with the story we share with Old Testament Israel, but for us of course including the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the New Testament church. But beyond that there is the rich heritage of Christian faith, worship, tradition and history over twenty centuries. And finally, there is the inventory of God’s blessings in our personal lives. How much of this do we treasure and reinvest for fruitfulness in God’s kingdom? And how much do we abuse and squander in careless amnesia?
Those of us who live in the English-speaking Western world are especially vulnerable to this charge, for the Christian resources available to us are simply incalculable. Take the number of Bibles in the English language alone (in a world where there are at least 2,000 languages without any part of the Bible as yet). Apart from the wide range of different translations, there is the almost obscene proliferation of marketing packages. A random check one day in a Christian bookstore offered me a choice of the following ‘Bibles’ (in each case add the word Bible to the word or phrase listed): Devotional, Daily, Men’s, Women’s, Women and Faith, Life Application, Everyday Life, New Spirit-Filled Life, Family Foundations, Discovery, Business, Chequebook, Amplified, Chronological, New Believers, Ultimate Teen, Extreme Teen, Student, Youth, Boys, Faith Girlz, Giant, Slim, Ultra Slim and even the Holy Bible.
But what have we done with this profusion, other than being grossly spoiled for choice? For the level of Bible knowledge and even reading has shrunk among Western Christians in startling inverse proportion to the availability of the Bible itself. By contrast, a brother from D. R. Congo told me that in his congregation, when someone in a family is able to afford to buy a Bible of their own, they cut it up (literally), and share it out among the family so that everybody has some part of this infinitely precious possession.
That is just one example. God has given us so much. What have we done with it in terms of bearing fruit for his kingdom, in being salt and light in the world, in participating in God’s mission?
The third issue is the failure of those in leadership (8) If verse 6 accuses the people in general of failing to ask the right questions in their abandonment of God, verse 8 lays the blame for such national decline where it really belonged—on the shoulders of those who should have known better, the national leaders (cf. 2:26 and 5:5). In this tactic, Jeremiah also followed the example of Hosea.
Jeremiah accuses all four categories of leaders in Israel who have failed in their duty: the priests (since they spent their days in the temple, their failure to ask ‘Where is the LORD’ is all the more astonishing); those who deal with the law (i.e. the legal authorities—which would include priests who were supposed to teach the law and elders who administered justice in the local courts); the leaders (i.e. the political ruling class linked to the king); the prophets (many of whom probably also had a professional role in the temple and palace).
So those who were entrusted with the enormous responsibility of leading the people of God in the ways of God did not even know God for themselves, or have any desire to do so. They were no longer asking the right questions or seeking the presence of God; far from it, they were in rebellion against God. They were just as dumbed-down by the cult of worthlessness as the rest of the populace.
Once again it takes little effort to transfer Jeremiah’s insight to the contemporary church. For are we not also aware that there are pastors who care little for their flock; preachers who never teach the Bible; theological educators who undermine the faith of those they teach; and ecclesiastical leaders who give their blessing to behaviors that the Bible condemns as not pleasing to God?
So then, Jeremiah voices God’s complaint, with its ancient and modern relevance, as he exposes the triple scandal of a cult of worthlessness, a waste of inheritance and a failure of leadership. How can we respond, except in repentance where we recognize such trends in ourselves?
Therefore, I bring charges against you again; the formal accusation is now recorded for the court, as it were. Fundamentally the charge is disloyalty to the covenant relationship with Yahweh. They have deserted the God to whom they were committed. How can Jeremiah convey something of the sheer enormity of what Israel has been doing—to God and to themselves? Answer: by stressing that it was so unnatural that there was no parallel to it (among the nations or in nature), and that it was so irrational that there was no profit from it.
Go west, or go east, says Jeremiah, and you will find other nations worshipping other gods. All Israelites knew that. And they also knew, with smug superiority, that those gods were not really gods at all. They had no transcendent divine reality or power (as ch. 10 will emphasize). But look more closely, urges Jeremiah. Do your research. Do they ever change those gods? No! The gods of the nations are not really gods at all, but at least the nations are loyal to the non-gods they have!
But in stark and unbelievable contrast, Israel knows the one and only true and living God, their Glory (ESV), the only real God of substance, life and power, and what have they done with that God? Swapped him for utter triviality (worthlessness again)! What kind of deal is that, to trade the living God for something as dead as driftwood?
Even the creation itself would be appalled at such inexplicable disloyalty. The heavens had been summoned to witness the making of the covenant; now they must be summoned back to witness its breaking with shuddering horror (12).
The sin of idolatry is bad enough among nations who do not know God. But the prophets (and Jesus) reserve their fiercest condemnation for those of God’s own people who do know the living God and yet reject him for flashy flimsy alternatives. Idolatry among the people of God is fundamentally unnatural and astonishing—and sadly still prevalent. It is to be found wherever Christians live by the same idolatries as the world around them. This applies to any culture, but in the West it includes the pervasive idolatries of consumerism, militarism, racism, uncritical patriotism and self-centred narcissism. Even Christians get sucked into going after such things, loving and adoring them, treating things that are ultimately worthless as though they were of ultimate value, trusting things that are as transient as a puff of smoke as though they could provide total security. What appalling folly, if only we had the eyes of the prophet.
But the tragedy that really broke Jeremiah’s heart was that he saw the cost of all this idolatry in the lives of those around him. They were deserting God and going after all kinds of other seductive alternatives, and yet none of it satisfied. He saw the huge investment of religious sweat, blood and tears in these cults of Ba‘al, the eager longings for success, fertility and prosperity that drove them. And he saw them repeatedly frustrated, for false gods never fail to fail. That is the only thing you can depend on about false gods. Whatever they promise, and whatever you pay, the result is the same: shattering disappointment.
But people who are caught up in the great myths of these idolatries rarely see them for the deception they are (any more today than in Jeremiah’s day). How then could Jeremiah convey the stupidity and the futility of abandoning the living God and trying to fix up their own needs by their own resources? At this point Jeremiah came up with the most memorably haunting picture in this chapter that is full of pictures (13).
My people have committed two sins, he begins. At which point he could have concluded, ‘apostasy and idolatry’, and hearers or readers would yawn with déjà vu. Instead he portrays the first through a picture of absurd agricultural stupidity, and the second through a picture of wrenching physical futility.
Imagine a farmer fortunate enough to have a perennial spring of water on his land. Such good fortune was extremely rare in a land almost entirely dependent on rainfall. Never again would he need to worry about irrigation for his crops. The spring provides for all his life’s needs—directly or indirectly, harvest after harvest. Can you even imagine someone stupid enough to willingly abandon such a priceless asset? What would be the alternative?
Well, imagine the same farmer, hacking away for years in the backbreaking work of carving out a big underground tank in the solid rock beneath the soil. These cisterns, some the size of large rooms, can still be seen in Palestine, and their purpose was to collect the rainfall and store it in hopefully sufficient quantity to see you through the dry season, for irrigation and personal needs (though the water was often stale and infested). But after all the sweat and effort, the rock is found to be cracked and the water drains away. All the effort was in vain. All you hoped for has dribbled away. The whole thing is a pointless, needless waste.
We may think of comparable images in our own day and culture, but Jeremiah’s is hard to beat. He exposes apostasy as the height of stupidity and idolatry as the depths of futility. How can people who have experienced the spring of living water in the limitless grace, love and provision of the living God, turn their back on him? How can those who know God as the source of all that makes life worth living try insatiably to find satisfaction, life, security and fulfilment in the flawed work of their own hands, broken cisterns that cannot hold water?
No wonder Jesus, who grieved like Jeremiah at the heart-breaking struggle of those around him, urged them to find their satisfaction and sustenance in him. ‘Come to me’, he invited, ‘and I will give you rest.’ Picking up and expanding Jeremiah’s metaphor he offers himself as the water of life and the bread of life, the sole sufficient source of life and fulfilment.
Disloyalty and desertion in the face of such divine generosity deserve the scathing denunciation that Jeremiah pours upon them. Broken promises, broken cisterns, broken hearts. (Wright, C. J. H. The Message of Jeremiah: Grace in the End. (A. Motyer & D. Tidball, Eds.) [2014, Nottingham, England] p 63–69)
Humans are almost pre-programmed to look for love. However human history and many many relationships are full of failure in finding love. Jeremiah looks at all the empty places that the Jewish People looked for love. Jeremiah calls upon us all to mend our broken culture, society and lives by turning to God, the one true giver of life. Jeremiah foreshadows Jesus call to come closer to God and leave all the false Gods behind us.
A good place to start introducing this idea is a listing of the many false paths we find to turn down to find love in our lives, and this is only magnified in our life with God. There is only one true God reaching out to us full of love. The other false social, cultural and intellectual gods that fill our lives are just a few of the false paths we chose. The many wrong places we look for God.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
From the Johnny Lee song:
Well, I've spent a lifetime lookin' for you;
singles bars and good time lovers were never true.
Playin' a fools game hopin' to win;
and tellin' those sweet lies and losin' again.
I was lookin' for love in all the wrong places,
Lookin' for love in too many faces,
searchin' their eyes and lookin' for traces
of what I'm dreamin' of.
Hopin' to find a friend and a lover;
I'll bless the day I discover
another heart lookin' for love.
Then you came a knockin' at my heart's door;
You're ev'ry thing I've been lookin' for.
No more lookin' for love in all the wrong places,
Lookin' for love in too many faces,
searchin' their eyes and lookin' for traces
of what I'm dreamin' of.
Now that I've found a friend and a lover;
I bless the day that I discovered
you, oh you; (Source: LyricFind Songwriters: Bob Morrison / Patti Ryan / Wanda Mallette)
It’s a song about looking for love…something that we humans constantly are looking for, whether we readily admit to or not. We look for love from our parents, our teachers, our coaches, our friends. Our lovers, our spouses, and of course, our kids. Additionally, we look for love in the things we pursue…like our Instagram likes and facebook too.
We look for love in the things we eat. For instance, we say, “I love pizza! I love a fine meal! And certainly ribeye! And a glass of red wine.”
Maybe unknowingly, we look for love in the things we do. We search for a feeling of belonging in all that we do. I love to run. And kayak too! I love to hang with friends. Or cheer for UT.
Four Types of Love Defined
Ya know, it’s kinda funny the way we behave. We too, like Johnny Lee, look for love in all sorts of things. Philosophers describe four kinds of love, but as I dig deep, I can see there’s only one that can truly satisfy. We don’t realize that we are searching for love in all the wrong places. We watch Hallmark movies and think eros romantic love is all that we need, or possibly think if we had a BFF, then philos friendship love would fill our hole. Then there is the storge affection that we have for an old sweater or fond memory. But all the time…the love that truly satisfies is found only in agape love, a love that sacrifices for others.
God is Love
This kind of love goes above and beyond. Agape love loves when you don’t deserve it. There is no expectation of receiving something in return. In fact, this sorta love lays it all down in your stead. Agape love is the greatest love that you could ever know. Why, agape love is God love…and continues to give and give and give. Unconditional. Steadfast. And Everlasting. Can you think of anything better?
God love is given so that we can know God. This amazing love laid His life down on your behalf. It is sorta hard to put into words…God love loves you when you don’t deserve it. As a result, stop looking for love in the things of this world. God is love. He loves you. Do you know it? (https://sueaallen.com/2019/05/13/looking-for-love-in-all-the-wrong-places/)
What does the word commitment suggest? It usually evokes a strong sense of intention and focus. It typically is accompanied by a statement of purpose or a plan of action. Very often, we utilize this word in regard to proclamations we may make about the seriousness of our relationships. For example, “I’m in a committed relationship,” or “I’m completely committed to this relationship.” In such circumstances, what exactly are we saying? We take it for granted that the word or the expression means the same thing to all of us. I can assure you that it doesn’t.
These offerings of relationship commitments are typically statements about behavior or proposed outcomes. For example, “I’m committed to you” suggests that I may not be seeking another relationship or that I’m going to be monogamous. The institution of marriage is most identified with the pledge of commitment. It is an undertaking of legal vows to substantiate our pledge to fidelity, if not continued love. However, statistics reveal that even when we formalize our commitments through marriage, there is as much likelihood of failure as success. After all, more than half of marriages experience infidelity, and we’re all aware of the divorce rate. So if our most honored commitments aren’t kept, perhaps we need to understand why that is so.
The difficulty is that we’re making promises about behaviors and outcomes, but ignoring the process necessary to achieve those goals. Imagine a student offering a commitment to attain straight A’s but not devoting themselves to their studies. The commitment simply becomes lip service without the earnest devotion toward achieving the end.
In relationships, the outcomes that I’m referring to are notions such as continued love, happiness, and fidelity. It is mindless to think that we might achieve such outcomes if we don’t focus on the process required to reach these lofty goals. How often do we hear people commit to the process of a relationship? For example, what might happen if we committed to working on and sustaining our levels of emotional intimacy and learning the necessary tools to support that process? Or if we prioritized our intimate relationship by actually valuing the relationship over the less important things that seem to get in the way?
I often ask couples if they’re talking about their issues with one another and disappointingly they suggest that they haven’t the time. And as unseemly as it appears, too often many couples actually don’t spend enough private time together. They can’t recall their last date night. They say that life has gotten too busy. We might imagine that the rates of falling out of love, experiencing an affair, or ultimately a divorce might likely ensue. If not, at least we might expect a prevailing mediocrity in such relationships.
What is an outcome?
An "outcome" is but a momentary snapshot of life. In an instant, we take that snapshot and call it an outcome. In truth, it is just a moment extracted from the flow of our life experience. You can choose to look at the singular behavior or decision that we refer to as the outcome, or you can look at the life process and whether you made a full commitment to that process. What we need to look at is the flow of experience and the quality of how we are choosing to live. The outcome is simply the byproduct of that flow of process. If we learn to commit fully to the process, then the outcomes will be what they should be. But, if we commit merely to the outcome and ignore the process, we’ve sabotaged both. (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/shift-mind/200910/what-do-we-mean-commitment)
It may be hard for us to imagine true commitment to God in a society in which long-term commitment to anything is rare. Over 50% of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. Instead of taking the time to work on a relationship in trouble, many people do what they would do with a broken toaster; throw it out.
This text comes just before Labor Day. One of the big changes in American life in the last century is that the time workers spend with one company has shortened considerably in the last hundred years. Our grandparents often worked at the same place for their entire career. Now workers can no longer count on a boss keeping them and bosses can’t count on worker loyalty to a company over the long haul. That makes it harder for us to imagine someone who would be committed to us over the long haul, such as God promises.
The whiskey priest in Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory has turned to alcohol for his primary relationship and away from God. He reflects on why by saying, “It would be enough to scare us, God’s love. It smashed open graves and set the dead walking in the dark. Oh, a man like me would run a mile to get away if he felt that love around.”
Jeremiah frames God’s charges against Israel like a trial. It would be interesting to imagine God taking each of us to trial, like a cosmic Prosecutor. What charges could God bring against each of us and what evidence to back up those charges could God present? What would be our defense?
“In life, the issue is not control, but dynamic connectedness.” (Erich Jantsch, The Self-Organizing Universe [Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1980], p. 196).
The image of “living water” that Jeremiah uses for God meant more to the people with whom he lived than to those of us who are used to getting our water out of a tap. To describe water as “living” in a dry climate means that it comes from a spring or river. Unlike water that is caught in a cistern and eventually becomes dirty, stagnant and undrinkable, “living” water is constantly being renewed as it moves. It is clean and cold and fresh. Like God, it does not stand still.
In this passage, God is trying to call the people to remember their own history and God’s part in it. One of the main purposes of worship for them, and for us, is this work of remembering. The best way to identify how God is at work in the present is to get clues from how God has worked in the past.
One of the problems New York City has encountered in trying to decide upon a final design for a memorial to the victims of the destruction of the World Trade Centers on September 11, 2001 is that people disagree on how the event should be remembered. Designers understand very well that how we remember an event shapes not only our response to that event, but our future responses to similar situations. The Vietnam War Memorial is a good example of dueling ideas on remembrance. The original design lifts up the pain of that war, a scar in the earth. But some felt we should also remember bravery and heroism, and so a sculpture of soldiers was erected near the Wall. The memorial itself reflects our nation’s divided feelings about that war.
Both of these memorials combine both ways of remembering in our wonderfully heartfelt way. They take you to a new but familiar place all at once. The depth of remembering is not only our individual memories but also our combined memories come echoing down to us.
Many pastors regularly experience the odd theological understanding of blessings and curses lived by most laypeople. When something goes wrong, people will often ask what they have done that God is punishing them. Yet when something goes very right in their lives, they often take credit for their success themselves and don’t bring God into the equation. Jeremiah rightly points out that this was part of Israel’s problem.
In Jeremiah’s time, people made much of their nation being “chosen” by God, set apart, special. They saw that as coming with blessings, but often missed that it also meant they had responsibilities, a mission to be a light to the nations. Anytime any nation or group claims to be chosen but neglects to act on the responsibilities inherent in that designation, they are setting themselves up for a fall.
I recall being very thirsty a few times in my life. But never so thirsty as the men of the USS Indianapolis. This heavy cruiser was torpedoed and quickly sunk after delivering the atomic bombs to the island of Tinian during the final days of WWII. Waiting in the open sea for rescue and set upon by marauding sharks, some of the men succumbed to madness. A rumor swept through the survivors: if you dove down far enough into the ocean there was a layer of fresh water underneath the obviously salty and undrinkable ocean water. Those who believed the rumor were virtually unstoppable as they took dives that led to their death. Such madness reveals the truly perverse nature of sin. We come to believe a lie about the source of life so completely that we become ‘bound for Hell and determined to go there,’ completely unstoppable and an appalling sight to those who by the grace of Christ have regained a modicum of sanity.
According to Miroslav Volf in his book Exclusion and Embrace there are four structural elements in the movement of embracing another person. They are opening the arms, waiting, closing the arms, and opening them again. All four must be there and they must follow one another on an unbroken timeline; stopping with the first two would abort the embrace and stopping with the third would pervert it from an act of love to an act of oppression. (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1996) p.141). Opening the arms sends a signal oof desire for the other person. It represents a creation of space for the other person to enter. It is like a door left open for a friend to enter our home. The waiting to see if the other person will enter our space is a time of anxiety, since one has revealed his or her intent and now awaits acceptance or refusal of the offer.
The embrace affirms but does not smother and it ultimately opens and releases the one embraced. God with open arms is waiting for our response.
The Escarpment Trail in the Porcupine National Forest is an exposed knife-ridge of barren rock. I remember walking along it during a season when the rainfall had been nil. For months. The drought was so bad that the bears had come into the campsites to raid coolers for the ice. So I kept one swallow of water between my wife and I as we laid out our sleeping bags to spend a night on that escarpment. The temperature throughout the night stayed a cool 96 degrees. Dawn came like a blood-red fireball and we gulped that last bit of water to wash the sleep from our throats. And then the race was on – over five miles of barren trail at 5:33 a.m. to reach what might be a stream before we collapsed. An amazing gusher of water rewarded us! Water so sweet we kept a plastic jar of it in our Chicago-based refrigerator for months. Somehow, later in the winter, opening that container brought back the memories of that nourishing water – but the water itself had gone flat. Water only really liberates when it can flow free
Ever wonder what the advertising mavens have used to sell America’s favorite soft drink when Coca-Cola first began? Have a look:
1886 Drink Coca-Cola.
1900 Deliciously refreshing. For headache and exhaustion, drink Coca-Cola.
1904 Coca-Cola is a delightful, palatable, healthful beverage. Coca-Cola satisfies. Delicious and Refreshing.drink Coca-Cola in bottles - 5¢
1905 Drink a bottle of carbonated Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola revives and sustains. Drink Coca-Cola at soda fountains. The favorite drink for ladies when thirsty, weary, and despondent. Good all the way down. Flows from every fountain. Sold in bottles.
1906 The drink of quality. The Great National Temperance. Thirst quenching - delicious and refreshing.
1907 Delicious Coca-Cola, sustains, refreshes, invigorates. Cooling... refreshing... delicious. Coca-Cola is full of vim, vigor and go - is a snappy drink.
The message that communicates best is the same as the gospel – here’s what you need to quench your thirst.
I have begun to wonder at what we’re really signaling with our newest talisman – the ubiquitous water bottle. I think it has less to do with our desire to be thin and has much more to do with some unquenchable thirst for something that is missing in our culture. Is it justice? Is it righteousness? Is it honesty? Is it companionship? Somehow in a nation where water is as close as the nearest tap, we spend hundreds of dollars to purchase the one thing that is free – water. The prophets were confused too, noting ‘why spend money for what is free?’ Jeremiah had it right: we’ve traded something that gives life for something cracked and empty.
God hopes that we learn from the mistakes we make when we put our trust in the wrong things. Such was the case with a small Christian college in South Carolina, Wofford College. In Strength for the Journey: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, Peter Gomes tells about his conversation with a professor at the school. The professor explained that Methodists who wanted to foster godly citizens founded the institution in 1855. At first the school was quite successful and had achieved the largest endowment of any new college in the nation. But in a case of misplaced Confederate pride, just six weeks before Appomattox, the trustees of the college invested the school’s entire endowment in Confederate war bonds. The professor commented, “We have always been a little cautious about misplaced enthusiasms ever since then.”
Just like the people in Jeremiah’s day, Americans today seem to be a people who put their faith in many different things. According to a Fox News poll (10/14/03), 92% of Americans say they believe in God. When it comes to heaven, 82% believe; and 82% report they believe in miracles. Belief in the devil has risen slightly in recent times. In 1997, 63% indicated they believed in Satan, while 71% in the most recent pool said they believe. When it comes to belief in other things, a national poll conducted by the Opinion Dynamics Corporation found that 34% of Americans believe in ghosts, 34% believe in UFOs, 29% accept astrology, 25% believe in reincarnation, and 24% believe in witches. The poll found that there is a difference based on gender. In every topic, women are more likely to believe than men. For instance, women are 12% more likely to believe in miracles, and they are 8% more likely to believe in heaven. The one exception was when it came to UFOs. In that category, 39% of men believe, compared to 30% of women. The study also found that young people are much more likely than older Americans to believe in hell and the devil. Of young people between the ages of 18 and 34, 86% believe in hell, while only 68% of those over age 70 do. When it comes to politics, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to believe in reincarnation (by a 14% margin), in astrology (by a 14% margin), and in UFOs (by a 5% margin).
An important role that prophets like Jeremiah played was to help the people become aware of the problems they had, which oftentimes they were oblivious to. In What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Philip Yancey cites an experiment that Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson did with ants. He noticed that when an ant dies, the other ants carry the dead ant out to a kind of ant cemetery. But, the scientist wondered, how does one ant know if another ant is dead? Do they feel for a pulse? Do they listen for a heartbeat? What the researcher found was that ants determine death based on smell. In particular, when an ant dies, the body produces oleic acid. When other ants smell oleic acid, they automatically carry the ant that has that scent to the graveyard. As a test, Wilson put some oleic acid onto some pieces of paper. Immediately the ants interpreted that odor as a sign of death and carried the pieces of paper to the ant cemetery. Next Wilson placed a drop of oleic acid on some live ants to see what would happen. As he expected, the other ants proceeded to carry those ants to the cemetery, even though the whole time those ants furiously wriggled their feet and antennae in protest. In essence, those ants that had the oleic acid applied to them were saying, “Stop it! There’s nothing wrong with us!” But the ants basically responded, “Yes, you do have a problem. Whether you realize it or not, you’re as good as dead.”
In times of trouble, instead of looking to God, many people look elsewhere for guidance. When the Google Internet search engine tabulated results for 2001, they found that one name that was searched much more frequently after the September 11 attacks was the name “Nostradamus.” In fact, Nostradamus was the male name that was most often searched, followed by the name “Osama bin Laden.”
Throughout the prophetic literature, Israel’s apostasy toward God is often compared to a wife’s unfaithfulness to her husband. Peter J. Gomes of Harvard University suggests that that problem persists in our day. In all aspects of our lives, we shy away from making that deep, lasting commitments that we should. We emphasize our own personal freedom at the expense of any obligation that we owe to the other. In Strength for the Journey: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, Gomes says, “When marriages or relationships break down, more than once I have heard one or the other of the parties say, ‘Oh, I couldn’t keep the commitment; I wanted my freedom.’ Commitment equals bondage, obligation, duty, responsibility.”
The Sun-Sentinel (12/14/03) shared an ancient tale that comes from the land of Tibet, which depicts the perils that are involved when we misdirect the focus of our lives. Once upon a time there were two brothers named Chimi and Deki. Neither of them were good woodcutters, but through the years they had stood with each other to get through even the most difficult times. As they got older, Deki became more selfish and greedy. His brother noticed that sometimes Deki would steal logs that he had cut and sometimes Deki would hide food from him. One day as Chimi walked into the forest to cut some wood, he paused at a deep, dark lake to ponder this change that had taken place with his brother. As he stared at his own reflection there in the water, Chimi began to wonder if maybe it was, he—not his brother—who had changed. As he sat there deep in thought, his axe slipped through his fingers and fell into the lake. Immediately he lunged forward to retrieve the axe, because wood-cutting was the only way he knew how to make a living. But it was too late. The axe had already sunk to the bottom of the lake. Despite diving into the water and searching for it with great diligence, he was not able to locate it. Finally, as he sat there beside the lake, shivering and exhausted, he began to cry. Suddenly an old man stood before him. In his right hand was a shiny new axe, an axe made out of pure gold. The elderly man asked, “Did you lose this?” Chimi was startled by the old man and dazzled by the golden axe. But Chimi shook his head and said, “No, sir. This axe is gold, and mine was only made of iron.” The old man rubbed his beard and said, “Wait here just a moment.” Chimi was stunned with the elderly man jumped into the lake, went to the bottom, and retrieved an axe. “Is this your axe?” the man asked. Chimi looked at the axe closely, but he could tell that it wasn’t his, because this axe was made out of silver. So he told the old man that that axe was not his either. Once more the elderly man plunged in the water, and a few moments later came up with yet another axe in his hand. “Is this axe yours?” Chimi examined it and shouted, “My heavens! Yes it is! How can I ever thank you?” The elderly man replied, “There is no need to thank me. And for your honesty, I would like to reward you.” And he proceeded to hand Chimi the golden axe. “Take this and live well,” he said as he disappeared from Chimi’s sight. When Chimi went to the market to sell the golden axe, he received enough money so that he would be able to live at ease for the rest of his days. At once he went to tell his brother about his good fortune. As he told Deki about what had happened, Chimi said, “And I shall help to support you as well, my brother.” But Deki became enraged. “Why should you be wealthy and not I? I also want to win a reward.” At once Deki ran to the edge of that lake, threw his axe in the water, sat down, and began to weep. Soon the old man appeared before him, holding a golden axe in his hand, and asked, “Is this yours?” Immediately Deki shouted, “Yes, it is!” But when Deki reached out to grab it, the old man and the axe vanished into thin air. “What’s this?” Deki wondered. As he looked down at the lake, the old man stared back at him and declared, “You will receive neither the gold axe nor your own.” Then the old man disappeared. As Deki sat there beside the lake, he pondered his sad fate and realized how his selfishness and dishonesty had caused him such grief. He then began to think about his brother’s generosity and goodness, and he silently prayed that his brother would forgive him for all that he had done. At dawn Deki went to see Chimi. Deki asked, “Brother, will you teach me to be a good man?”Chimi took his brother’s hand, smiled, and said, “I will.” And the two lived happily ever after.
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: Sing aloud to God our strength
People: Shout for joy to the God of Jacob.
Leader: Raise a song, sound the tambourine.
People: Sound the sweet lyre with the harp.
Leader: In distress they called to the Lord…
People: …And the Lord rescued them.
All: Let us worship the Lord.
We confess to you today, Lord God, that often we seek to exult ourselves. We want the best place at the banquet. We take great pains to wear the right clothes, make the right friends, and do the right things, so that others will see us. Forgive us for our pride. Humble us so that our minds and hearts may be solely on you and your will for our lives. Teach us to serve each other and therefore love each other. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Receive and transform our gifts, O Gracious God, and use them for your glory. We dedicate our tithes and our lives to your purpose. Show us your will and your way. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Almighty and majestic God, you have promised to hear us when we pray to you. Today, we boldly bring before you our joys and concerns, our burdens and our celebrations.
We pray for the world that you created. We know that we do not live in the perfect Eden that you intended, but instead we have sinned against you and each other. We have allowed greed, pride, and power to overwhelm love, peace, and joy that you want for us. We pray that our hearts and minds will be transformed that we may see the world through your eyes, and work for reconciliation.
We pray for our community and our church. We pray for church leaders, for the mission of the church, for those who are strong in their faith and those who are struggling. Let us be Christ to one another and reach out to help one another in times of need. Where there is need of forgiveness, let us forgive. Where there is need of comfort, let us offer a listening ear. Where there is need of food and shelter, let us provide. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen