That Jeremiah reading was a real day brightener, wasn’t it? God, here spoken for by the prophet Jeremiah, indicts Israel on charges of faithlessness. It’s almost as though God is in a courtroom, making a case to a jury that God has been wronged by God’s people. This is the sort of passage that a preacher reads and says “I sure hope the Gospel passage is easier, because it’s the beginning of the school year and I’d like to ease into things a little.” The Gospel is easier. But Jeremiah is still there we shouldn’t ignore him, because beneath the angry tone,` there’s something we need to hear. God is reaching out. Let’s make some sense of Jeremiah.
The first thing we’ll want to know is that Jeremiah is writing after the fall of Jerusalem. The Babylonians had laid siege to the city, cutting off supply routes and causing tremendous suffering, and eventually had breached the walls, captured the king, sent the ruling class into exile, and destroyed the temple. That temple was the center of life in Jerusalem, the place where the Jews went to conduct the rituals that marked their lives with God. It’s hard for us to comprehend what a big deal this was, because of the way things are structured. There is no church building that is as important to Christians as the temple was to Jews.
So, this is a remarkably difficult time in the life of Israel, and Jeremiah is tasked with helping the people understand why this had happened. This text isn’t a threat. It’s an explanation, in the form of an indictment. Now, context is nice, kind of satisfying in an intellectual sort of way, but it’s not really something that’s going to be much use to you this week at Duke. So let’s dive in.
What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? They did not say, “Where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?” I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things.
Now we can see some specifics. God is accusing Israel of having drifted from its relationship with God over generations. The whole Exodus narrative is recalled, the liberation from Egypt and wandering in the desert, and the deliverance to the promised land. God reminds Israel, essentially, that their identity, their way of life, their law emerges directly from their connection to God. “Those who handle the law did not know me; the rulers transgressed me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit.”
Baal is a term used to designate one of the gods of any number of societies, perhaps Canaan or Mesopotamia… for our purposes it doesn’t really matter which one so much as that it’s not Yahweh, the God of Israel. So if the prophets were prophesying of other gods, they have lost sight of the God who brought them out of Egypt. If the rulers do not know God, they do not know the law. Israel, God charges, has forgotten who God is, and so has forgotten who they are.
Now, I have yet to hear someone prophesying by Baal here in Durham, but it is the case that we look to gods that are not God. We all do it. I don’t exempt myself at all. We invest our energy in something as though it is the ultimate, the most important thing in the world. Perhaps it’s money. Money is pretty appealing, right? It’s very useful, and we need to have some of it to have a decent life. But then we pursue it and covet it, as though it is our ultimate concern. We let it set our values. Money is an undeniably important thing life, but when we elevate it to a place of worship, we lose sight of who we are. We lose sight of our humanity, of our relationships, of the fact that money is no indication of a person’s worth.
Or power. It often goes hand in hand with money, but the drive to power is a pretty intense force. Like money, it’s not bad in and of itself. Society works better with organization, and good leaders can help people thrive and free up our energy to do bigger and better things. But a lot of people pursue power for the sake of having power. Not because they have some gift or calling to it, but because they want to be in charge.
Or, uh, grades. Grades matter, but they aren’t the reason that people love you or value you. A grade is a judgment of some work you did, not of your basic humanity. But boy do we forget that, especially if you’re used to getting the kind of grades that land you in a place like this. If grades are the only thing you count as valuable here, you’re going to miss out on an awful lot of what makes Duke such a good place, and you’ll probably spend a lot more time being really hard on yourself, too. Hear me carefully. I’m not saying grades don’t matter. I’m simply saying that they aren’t the only thing, and they surely don’t measure your worth. A concern for sure, but not the ultimate concern.
The thing that our pursuits of money and power and grades have in common with the Israelites prophesying of Baal is that in both cases people are trying to conquer the uncertainty of the world. Life can be pretty scary, and the world is complicated and often nasty, and these ultimates, these false gods, are the things we think we can use to control it. If I have enough money, I can make sure nothing bad will happen to me. If I have enough power, no one can mess with me. If I have a 4.0, everyone will think I’m perfect. Blatantly false statements, all of them, but nonetheless they function as creeds for a lot of us a lot of the time. We try to fill the pit of uncertainty inside us with something that won’t help, something that, in Jeremiah’s words, does not profit.
So this indictment we hear today is a call to return. It’s a call we need to hear quite a lot, because there are a whole lot of things vying for our attention, claiming to be the key to happiness. Maybe it’s CBD oil! Maybe not! This is a call to return to the fountain of life, which is probably also the name of a CBD product now that I think about it. It’s a call to return to the source. It’s a call to look at our own commitments and priorities, and to make sure we aren’t chasing after false ultimates. Some healthy skepticism, and a willingness to think critically about your life, it turns out, are pretty useful spiritual tools.
Centering your life on God, despite popular claims, isn’t just like flipping a switch. Some people have that dramatic moment of salvation, but the moment after that they are still scrambling like the rest of us, trying to figure it all out. The life of faith is a patient commitment, and it involves sometimes passing up the promise of a quick fix, of something that claims to be God but is just a reflection of our own desires.
The upside, to be blunt, is that it works. By centering yourself in your calling as a child of God, by practicing your faith, and by exploring it in a supportive community, you can find a peace that money or power or grades can’t deliver. It’s a peace that allows you to do more, to withstand the hard times better, and to rejoice more deeply in the good times. The stress and anxiety of a high-octane college like Duke are, I promise, a lot more manageable when you are centered in your deepest identity.
This is the peace of God, which defies our comprehension. It passes all understanding. And it is always being offered. God invited Israel to it, kept inviting even after the temple fell and it seemed all was lost, invited us through Jesus, kept calling even after the cross, when it it seemed all was lost, and invites us now, through one another.
So I’m really glad you’re here. We are in this together, discerning where God calls us, and helping one another to say “yes” to that call. In fact, we can’t do it alone.