Reading: Jeremiah 7:1-15
Jeremiah’s childhood might have been with a reforming priest as a father, and a king who worked hard to rebuild the temple, and to devote Judah to following God’s law, but, this was only his childhood and his first few years as a prophet. A couple weeks ago, I mentioned that he was speaking to Josiah — the uniquely good king, who made the mistake of playing politics with the neighboring empires. He died in battle, and just as there was not a king as righteous as he was before him, his successors also were not like him. Jeremiah grew up in a time of hope, now everything seems to be lost.
After Josiah died, the next king, Jehoahaz who `did evil in the eyes of the Lord’, according to II Kings 23:32. Jehoahaz was removed from the throne by Pharaoh Necho II and imprisoned in Egypt. Necho then put Jehoahaz’s brother Jehoiakim on the throne, where he ruled Judah as a Egyptian tributary state for the next 11 years. II Kings tells me that Jehoiakim had to tax the nation severely to pay tribute to Egypt: and that he also did what was evil in the sight of God.
This is where we are at this point: The reform is over. The kingdom of Judah might have a descendant of David on the throne, but he is merely a puppet king for Egypt. He is not devoted to God like his father was — so, Judah is now paying taxes to Egypt, and they are effectively under the Egyptian empire. Once again, there are many competing temples: The people of Judah again worship not only the God of Abraham, but also the gods of their neighbors.
If I read Jeremiah 7-10, there is a range of issues that are being dealt with in this message: The bulk of the section speaks of idolatry, how useless it is for craftsmen to make an idol, and call it a god, how these idols have no power, neither to do good nor to do harm. It also speaks of how God will punish the people for turning away from the Law, and making these worthless gods for themselves.
The passage we read is specifically talking about the ways that everybody turned away from God’s law. What I notice about this passage is how it fits very well in themes not only found in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament as well. James 1:27 says: “Religion that is pure and undefined before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (NRSV). Very similar to this is the account of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25.
In Matthew 25, Jesus separates two groups of people for judgment. Now, for us modern American Christians, this is kind of a challenging passage, because we expect to be judged on our beliefs: The people in this account are judged for their actions. Specifically, they are judged on whether or not they gave the hungry food and drink, welcomed the stranger, took care of the sick, clothed those who need clothing, and visit the prisoners.
When Josiah was alive, and Judah’s religious identity was clear, Jeremiah had the luxury of prophesying against those who believed in God, but sometimes got things a little wrong. Now that Judah bows to Egypt, and the king worships foreign gods, Jeremiah has a whole bunch of people to prophecy against. This passage is surrounded by prophesying against those who make their own gods!
Even with widespread idolatry, and an evil King — Jeremiah finds this as something that is important to bring up: Jeremiah prophecies against those who believe in God, worship God and sacrifice at the temple — yet, they do not live up to what the Torah says about taking care of other people. Even with the national government falling away from God, Jeremiah found it important to critique the social behaviors of those who remained faithful to worship at the temple — a couple good questions are: “Why is this important?”, and “Is this important to us today?”
The second question is easier for me than the first. For the second question, I can mentally go back to the way people approached scripture immediately following the Protestant reformation. During that time, there was a rather harsh re-examination of church tradition, and a radical Back to the Bible movement. When people studied, they noticed that sometimes rules in the Old Testament, that seemed a little silly, were “repealed” in the New Testament. Obviously, things such as the dietary rules don’t apply to us, because of Peter’s vision of being commanded to eat unclean animals. There was an idea that the New Testament had the right to either “repeal” or endorse Old Testament law: Using that standard of interpretation — it applied in the Old Testament, it applied in the New Testament, it applies now. While I don’t think the New Testament is exactly a law-book, repealing and restating rules, in this case this approach makes pretty good sense to me.
The first question is something that I have been thinking about for some time. I think the answer to the first question is also found in a theme that spans the Old and New Testament. My opinion is that the answer to this question lies in the idea of God’s image. One of the things that was going on is that people were trying to create an image of their gods — the idols were supposed to be divine images, even though they were created by human hands.
While this is an uncomfortable truth, the temple itself was simply a building meant to contain God, and locate God in Jerusalem. When David asked to build the temple, God said no; the question was further posed whether God would live in a house built by human hands. While there is a sense that the Temple was deeply respected, the prophets openly question whether God appreciated the gesture. Micah, for example, suggested that they should close the temple doors and never open them again.
I admit, I like buildings, I’d hate to see the doors shut. I like symbols, I find symbols quite meaningful. I read the church fathers, and I’m surprisingly comfortable in an Orthodox or Catholic worship service — I connect with the ideas of high church worship, but there is also something that seems a bit off. What is off is that no matter how much I connect with these symbols, the symbols are very much man-made. While I see that many people find them useful — Solomon was not condemned for building the Temple, none of these symbols are the symbol that God made for us.
Genesis 1:27 tells us the image we have: “And God made humankind in God’s image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” The New Testament continues with this theme — I John 4:20 tells us that: “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” and James 3:9 tells us that with the same tongue, we bless God yet curse our brothers and sisters who are made in God’s likeness.
Here is the heart of the matter: No matter how meaningful, or beautiful the symbols that we make are — they are merely those things that we make, and things that we name as holy. Personally, I see where it is helpful for us to do that — but, the whole world is something that God touched. We look up at the sky, and we see God’s glory. There is a sacredness that is beyond what we do to say something is sacred — Creation is sacred, because God touched — and if we look around, we see the image that God chose to represent God.
In this sense, those who worshiped God were shockingly like the idolaters. Both of them put images forward — one put forward a temple, and all of the symbols of worship; the other put forward gods that were formed by the hands of craftsmen. Both focused the activities of their worship on what human hands created, to the point of neglecting the image that God put forward: Both neglected to honor humans.
There is a reasons why both the Old and New Testament speak of the idea that true worship is how we treat others. If we truly believe that humanity is created in God’s image — then, when we treat our fellow humans badly, especially when we physically harm them we are committing acts of blasphemy, no less than if we disfigured a cross or vandalized a church. God might not have condemned those who built and maintained the temple — but he condemned those who claimed they were truly worshiping God while utterly disrespecting God’s image.
Now, this little truth is something that can be rather challenging to American Christianity. I freely admit that I appreciate symbols — Americans in general get rather excited about symbols. If we look around the room, we can find several — and, this is a place where we don’t really make a big deal about symbols. I know people are very offended when a symbol is disrespected. We find a desecrated cross, for example, very offensive — and, it is very offensive.
Our nation’s Christians too often are just like what was condemned here. We pat ourselves on the back for being involved in worship. We are proud of ourselves because we read our Bibles, and we are good respectable people. Unfortunately, a bad name has been made for American Christianity. It seems we are not known for civil discourse — we are more known for praising God, and cursing our fellow person (who happens to be made in God’s image.) We can be proud that Christian names are written on hospitals, rehab centers, homeless shelters — but, these days, too often we are like the lawyer who asked Jesus: “who is my neighbor?” trying to find a loophole in the command to love our neighbors. If we do not love others, then we also share this condemnation, and have no right to claim that: “This is a house of worship.” May God be merciful, and teach us the way of love.