September 16th, 2018
As we noted last time, the moment that Jeremiah appeared in Jewish history was the end of the nation of Judah, the days before 587 when the Babylonians destroyed the capital city, Jerusalem, and the Temple that Solomon had built. Jeremiah, the man, was a poet. He challenged the presumed world of Jerusalem with a proposed world order that God was bringing. His message: that their ease in Zion was a false security and if they did not mend their ways their time would be up. Let me put it another way: the burden Jeremiah carried was that there was a Holy Power with a moral purpose loose in the world and it was not negotiable. That, for the poet, was his way to define God. As is always true, God is that character in the human drama who has a purpose that is not subject to our definitions and desires, and that purpose is moral, which means that it had, in Jeremiah’s day, and has in ours, to do with questions of justice, equity and well-being. Those questions are not subject to rationalization or negotiation. That means that if you run up against that Holy Power with moral purpose you are going to get hurt. The point Jeremiah made, and he echoes Moses in this, is that God is not in any way, shape, or form a kind of projection of ourselves, but is wholly other, who was present and at work in Jerusalem, and whose purpose could not be compromised or bargained away.
Last week I spoke of the poet’s ability to see what others did not, and here, what Jeremiah the poet noted in downtown Jerusalem was that the reality of God had disappeared for the people who ran the city and the nation, so that they did not believe in a Holy Power other than themselves, and knew of no moral purpose that could not be compromised. Thus, in not believing that there was a moral purpose that was non-negotiable, they endlessly negotiated it away.
Now, last time those blunt and sobering words we heard from Jeremiah 6 were delivered on the public steps of the Temple. Some of that oration was as follows: Trust not in empty slogans. Our life with God is provisional! If you truly execute justice; if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow; if you do not shed innocent blood; if you do not go after other gods - I will let you dwell in the land. That relentless if is always there. Our life with God is endlessly provisional, conditional and contingent. Jeremiah put Jerusalem on notice.
Now, we move to the remarkable 36th chapter, a portion of which you heard this morning. The Lord said to Jeremiah, write down all this we have been saying. So, Jeremiah said to Baruch, take a letter and maybe they will listen if we write to them. The poet ordered Baruch, I am barred from going to the house of the Lord, so you go and read it in the hearing of all the men of Judah. Maybe they will repent because God is really mad! It so happened that it was a day of fasting. In the chamber of Gemariah, the son of Shaphan, the secretary, a really important fellow, Baruch read the letter. Well, the mayor and city officials were not sure they had heard it right, so the grandson of Shaphan went to the King’s cabinet and reported, We’ve just heard some highly inflammable material. The cabinet ministers replied, We’ve got to hear this for ourselves. So, Baruch was brought before the cabinet to read the document. That was the second reading. When he finished reading, they asked him, How did you write all these things? Baruch told them that Jeremiah had dictated them. Then the king’s ministers knew they were dealing with dynamite so they said Go and hide, you and Jeremiah, and don’t let anyone know where you are. See, what you have here is plausible denial. They knew they were going to get asked about Jeremiah’s warnings and they didn’t want to have to lie. Furthermore, they told Baruch, if they had to tell the truth (which they didn’t want to) that would put Baruch and Jeremiah in jeopardy. Jeremiah and his secretary had some friends in the government. Get out of sight and we will keep quiet; that’s the best we can do for you.
Presumably when the poet and Baruch were safely hidden, the cabinet reported to the king that the troublesome Jeremiah had an inflammatory scroll, which had been given to the King’s chief of staff, Elishama. The King asked his legal counsel to read the scroll to him. This was the third reading.
As we read the text beginning at verse 22 we hear something remarkable. As the legal counsel, Jehudi, reads the scroll to the King, every three or four columns, he stops to cut off what he has read with his pen knife and puts the pieces in a charcoal brazier. I believe this is the first place in recorded history where the shredding of documents appears! In any event, in vs. 24 we read that neither did the King nor any of his servants who heard all these words was afraid, nor did they tear their garments. Now the fascinating thing about this is that the Hebrew word translated cut in the preceding verse and the verb translated tear are the very same word. So, one most conclude that it was easier to cut the document than it was to cut one’s clothes in repentance. Well, the King ordered that Baruch and Jeremiah be arrested immediately, but verse 26 advises the reader that the Lord had hidden them, which, of course, refers back to verse 19 where the cabinet officials had advised Baruch and Jeremiah to find a safe place to hide. The reader knows, because the text tells us, that it was Shaphan, the Temple secretary, who actually hid the poet and his secretary, but it certainly seemed as if the Lord had hidden them. After all, who would deny that the Lord often chooses to move in wondrously human ways? We cannot escape the realization that this poet knew about politics, the ways of high places, and also about the power of moral tradition. This prophet left no doubt that he had a legitimate political document and was trying to get a message to the King, and the King refused to hear it. So, in verse 27, we are told that when the King had finished burning the scroll, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, Take another scroll and write on it all the words that were on the first scroll. Jeremiah was further instructed to take the new scroll to the King and say that though he had burned the message that the Babylonians would surely come, that would prove futile. In fact, the Lord had another message for the king. You will have none to sit on the throne of David. I hate to tell you this, O King, but I have just terminated my promise to David. It is the end of the dynasty. I will bring upon you and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem all the evil I have pronounced against them, because they would not listen!
So, Jeremiah took the second scroll and wrote all that was on the first and at the end of the chapter we are told that many similar words were added to them. The second scroll was worse than the first. Do you recall hearing a sermon on Jeremiah 36 and what it means? Let me take a stab at it. This chapter is a summit meeting between God and all those powerful people who think they can do anything they want with their lives, such as the King and his princes. The scroll is the repository of the non-negotiable moral tradition of Almighty God. We are heirs to that great moral tradition extending from Moses and David, touching down with Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezra, and ending with Jesus. That is to say that there are nonnegotiable conditions for the practice of human life. That’s really rough on a culture that firmly believes that you can do anything you want, if you are fast enough, quick enough, clever enough to not get caught.
So, let’s play with Jeremiah’s metaphor for a moment. Do you think you can get rid of the scroll? Can the declaration by Moses, and the commandments he brought down, that there is a moral coherence to this world that we cannot mock, elude, or ignore, be silenced? It seems to me that the Jeremiah text is saying that if you get rid of one scroll, there will be another that will crowd you even more than the first. The Bible puts the world on notice. The bad guys need to know you cannot get rid of the scroll. It has to do with economics, politics, sexuality, and with all the practices of power. Jeremiah wants to tell us that there isn’t enough power anywhere to outflank the moral purposes of Almighty God that will never be negotiable.
Therefore, I draw two conclusions. First, the relentless if of the moral law doesn’t have to work supernaturally. It is not a matter of lightning having to come down and strike; rather it rises inexorably out of the historical process. Jerusalem wasn’t destroyed by a heavenly fire but by Babylonian foreign policy. The created order of our world depends on human communities keeping the commandments of moral purpose, and when we don’t, the consequences will naturally follow.
The second conclusion is that we, as Christians, are called upon to act as poets on God’s behalf in our world. And, I mean by that, that we, like Jeremiah, must look for, and call to people’s attention, the inescapable connection between the purposes of God and the processes of history that act as sanctions. For example, we have to see the connection between those practices that destroy our environment and the feelings of our Creator. People generally do not believe that our world is becoming unglued because of moral turpitude. Do we see the moral dimension in the massive disorder of our own society? Can we see any relationship to Jeremiah’s scroll? With God’s help we can, and will.
In the next and last sermon in this series on Jeremiah, we will try to solve the internal contradiction of this book between the conditional nature of God’s blessing and His everlasting love for a disobedient people.
Go To Top Of Page