Sunday, January 22, 2017

Over Nations: Sermon on Jeremiah 1:9-19

We've spent the last two weeks with Jeremiah. And we heard how, since before he was born, this Jeremiah kid was given a job title: “Prophet to the Nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). And in this scene, as a teenager, the Word of the LORD has come to remind him of that, to flesh it out. Jeremiah's objections are no use. He may be young, but he's not too young for God to use. Wherever God sends him, he's going to have to go. Whatever God tells him, he's going to have to say. And he doesn't have to fear, because God is a God of salvation, of deliverance, for him and with him (Jeremiah 1:7-8). Jeremiah hears that, and if that weren't enough, God reaches out and touches him on the mouth. God installs his words in Jeremiah.

And once Jeremiah gets the download, God finally fleshes out what being a prophet to the nations means. “See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms” – not that Jeremiah gets to rule over them like a king. He's not a king. He doesn't have 'rule.' He's a prophet. And what a prophet has is oversight. Jeremiah is an overseer over nations and over kingdoms, and not just his own, but even foreign nations. He'll exercise that oversight through God's words in his mouth – words whose function will be “to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10). And Jeremiah's going to wish he had a lot more opportunity to do the last two.

Here, at the start of his career, he records two more visions, two further youthful encounters with the Word of the LORD, which illustrate the sort of messages he's receiving. This is how the prophet trains. So, still in the days of his youth, the Word comes to him and asks him what he sees. And he sees an almond branch. Which isn't surprising. He lives in a village surrounded by famous almond groves. They're everywhere. Of course he sees an almond branch. But God draws his attention to it, because God wants to make a pun. The word for 'almond' in Hebrew sounds a lot like the word for 'watching.' And so this almond branch is a reminder from God that he will be watching – watching over his own word, watching Jeremiah's ministry and giving life and power to the message Jeremiah speaks (Jeremiah 1:11-12).

Later on, Jeremiah gets another visit from the Word of the LORD. And this time, what Jeremiah sees – maybe it's a vision, or maybe it's literally there in his house – is a boiling pot that's starting to tip over. And Jeremiah notices, as he describes it to God, that it's tilting away from the north and toward the south. That's exactly what God wanted Jeremiah to see – because, as Jeremiah's later prophecies will tell in greater detail, the big message of Jeremiah's life will be a warning about trouble and danger spilling over from the north, the direction of the eventual Babylonian invasion, onto the land of Judah. And so Judah, and especially Jerusalem, will be in hot water for all their persistent idolatry (Jeremiah 1:13-16). But as for Jeremiah, he's to get ready for work; he's being set up and fortified, made strong in the way Jerusalem used to be in a godlier age, so that he can withstand Judah's resistance: “They will fight you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you (declares the LORD) to deliver you” (Jeremiah 1:17-19).

And so begins Jeremiah's career. Jeremiah is a Jewish patriot – he loves his country. It pains him very deeply to have to criticize it, to have to announce judgment against it, to have to even encourage surrender to the Babylonians. It pains him to be told to describe the pagan Nebuchadnezzar as God's servant, using the same language with which Jeremiah refers to Israel's greatest historical king, the pious David. These aren't easy messages for Jeremiah to deliver. Maybe he envied some of the other so-called prophets who got to offer false hope. But Jeremiah relayed the message exactly as he was told – not leaving anything out, and not adding his own opinions.

In his ministry as a prophet to the nations, Jeremiah sent words of warning and judgment, but also future hope, to mighty Egypt (46:2-26). Jeremiah sent words to the Philistines (47:1-7), to the Moabites (48:1-47), to the Ammonites (49:1-6), to the Edomites (49:7-22), to the Arameans of Damascus (49:23-27), to tribes like the Kedarite Arabs and city-states like Hazor (49:28-33), to the Elamites (49:34-39), and finally a small book to the mighty Babylonians (50:1—51:64). And even to many of these pagan nations, even in the midst of stern judgment, Jeremiah offered hope of restoration (e.g., 46:26; 49:6, 39).

Jeremiah's main focus, though, was in prophesying to Judah. He saw new kings, new administrations, come and go – even some who were put in place by the meddling of foreign powers. As a young man, he began his ministry during the reign of Josiah, just as King Josiah started the godly reforms of Judah's worship. Jeremiah was in his early twenties when the 'Book of the Covenant' was rediscovered in the temple archives. He was in his mid-thirties when Josiah died in battle against the Egyptian army at Megiddo; when the pharaoh kidnapped Josiah's son and successor Jehoahaz, and put the elder son Jehoiakim on the throne. Early in his reign, Jeremiah urged the king and the people to repent – but instead, they killed a prophet named Uriah and put Jeremiah on trial (26:1-23). He was saved only through the work of an official left over from Josiah's administration (26:24).

In Jehoiakim's fourth year, Jeremiah warned at the continued idolatry and self-satisfied nationalism of Judah, and warned that the Babylonians would come destroy them for seventy years (25:1-14). Jeremiah offered God's forgiveness (36:3). But Jehoiakim didn't listen; he burned the word of God that Jeremiah sent to him (36:23). Later, Jeremiah criticized his personal building program and his style of rule, and said that King Jehoiakim would die unmourned, and “with the burial of a donkey he shall be buried, dragged and dumped beyond the gates of Jerusalem” (22:19). And, to be sure, after Jehoiakim's waffling foreign policy put the capital city under siege, he died – probably assassinated – and was dumped outside city walls.

His son, Jeconiah (or Jehoiachin), only lasted three months before being rejected by God and removed by the Babylonians in favor of Zedekiah, another of Josiah's sons (22:24-30). Early in Zedekiah's reign, Jeremiah strongly urged the king to fully surrender to the Babylonians (27:1-22). It was to Zedekiah that Jeremiah predicted Jerusalem's great downfall, and urged the royal family to rule with justice for the oppressed or else burn (21:3-14). No one listened: “Neither he nor his servants nor the people of the land listened to the words of the LORD that he spoke through Jeremiah the prophet” (37:2). Zedekiah tried to rely for protection on the same Egyptians who killed his father Josiah – but the Egyptians, Jeremiah warned, would abandon him (37:7-8). So Zedekiah had Jeremiah arrested on charges of treason. Yet still he tried to counsel Zedekiah on the right course of action – surrender to Babylon (38:17-18).

In the end, Jeremiah had no choice but to compare Zedekiah to a bowl of rotting fruit (24:8-10). After Jerusalem finally fell – and it did – Zedekiah would die peacefully in Babylon, mourned by his people (34:4-5). Nebuchadnezzar gave orders to set Jeremiah free (39:11-14). The wise governor Gedaliah was murdered, and Jeremiah urged the Judeans to stay put – but they disobeyed and fled to Egypt, kidnapping Jeremiah along with them (41:1—43:7). And there in Egypt, Jeremiah lived out his last days of prophecy, warning that Egypt was endangered, too, and urging his fellow countrymen to finally give up their idolatry and to obey God's instruction (43:8—44:14). As always, they refused – but that didn't change God's word (44:15-19).

At times when the leaders and the people all blindly assumed that they would be protected by God, or that God would show them special favors, Jeremiah had a different story to tell. The only hope was the eventual Righteous Branch from David's line, whom God would raise up to “reign as king and deal wisely,” to “execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely” (23:5-6). There would be no other hope. If only they had listened. But still, through all his years, Jeremiah never gave up speaking what God had said – no more, no less. Like other prophets like Nathan and Isaiah before him, Jeremiah advised, counseled, and at times encouraged or corrected the kings of the nations, especially their own.

Fast forward, oh, twenty-six hundred years, give or take. And here we are. This week, we've watched the transfer of power to a new administration in the land where we happen to live. For some people in our country, that's a time of considerable happiness and relief. For others in our country, it's a time of rage or grief. It's been a strange thing to watch, the immensity of this division.

And the Church's calling is a lot like Jeremiah's. The Church has not been asked to rule. Individual believers may or may not occupy positions in the government. But the Church, as such, has not been placed on earth as a king. Our role, our calling, is more like Jeremiah's – something like a prophet. We are “set over nations and over kingdoms.” Like Jeremiah, we might love the land where we're born, we may love the people around us – and we should. But Judah's brand of patriotism could never claim Jeremiah's total allegiance, much less his subservience. Much as it pained him, Jeremiah was willing to offend Judah's national pride. He maintained a critical distance and loving engagement with every nation and every king about which the Lord God spoke to him.

And the same is true for the Church, or at least should be. Individually, we might be patriots, in the way Jeremiah was. But patriotism is never our highest value; the calling is. No nation can ever claim our total allegiance. No nation can ever claim to come first, because God's kingdom and his righteousness already do. The Church is given oversight over nations, oversight over administrations, insofar – and just insofar – as God puts his words in our mouth (Jeremiah 1:9-10).

And so the Church has to be ready to carry out her calling. There will be times she has to relay the word of God in a way that will “pluck up,” or “break down,” or possibly even “destroy” or “overthrow” the earthly powers in our land. There will be times that her message has to be one of correction, one of rebuke, one of speaking God's truth to man's power. And whatever our personal inclinations, we cannot afford to be a bunch of yes-men or yes-women, like the false prophets whom Jeremiah opposed, whose main function was to rubber-stamp the king's folly and to tell the people what they wanted to hear. One weakness of the American church in our time is that, because we so often haven't maintained Jeremiah's critical distance, we've acted more like the false prophets – we've been partisans of certain leaders and their agendas, we've bought into their mantras, and so we've lost credibility to speak God's word with God's authority. We can't afford that loss. We need to be like Jeremiah.

There will also be times when the Church has to relay the word of God in a way that will “build” and “plant.” That's the more enjoyable role, and I'm sure Jeremiah wished he'd lived in a time where he could've done more of it. But there will be times that the Church's message has to be one of thanks, one of encouragement, one of gentle affirmation, where we see leaders in society doing something truly and clearly right, in the light of God's word. So far as this nation is concerned, I hope, we should all hope, that we get to do plenty of this.

So the Church, in her oversight, will at times be given God's word to encourage and affirm, and at times given God's word to correct and rebuke, any nation – including this one – and any administration – including the one now beginning the task of governing. Like Jeremiah, we're given strength to speak this word to “kings” – in other words, those at the very top, the highest positions in the land. We're given strength to speak this word to “officials,” or “princes” – in other words, all the rest of our elected leaders. We're given strength to speak this word to “priests” – in other words, opinion-makers who teach their varying points of view. And we've been given strength to speak this word to “the people of the land” (Jeremiah 1:18).

And what word has God given us? It's the truth of the gospel. It's the story of God's love, which became most visible when his Word descended to earth and became wrapped in human flesh as a man, Christ Jesus, who showed love and compassion, who announced the truth of God, who died to break the chains of sin, who rose to restore the life of God to us, who called us together and commissioned us and then ascended into his Father's presence. And that same Jesus is Lord and Judge. He was King over all nations a week ago during the last American administration. He's King over all nations now during this administration. He'll be King over all nations when this administration ends, and even when America ends. And when he returns, all the flags of all the nations, and all the crowns and seals of all their presidents and prime ministers and princes, will be laid on the ground at his feet. Jesus Christ and his kingdom are first, and he is over all and in all. No one can dethrone this King of Kings and Lord of Lords, thanks be to God!

Every world leader, every president or potentate past and present, is answerable to him, and to the word from him that his Church is faithful to speak. His word is a word of justice for men and women, for the young and the old, for the born and the unborn, for the native-born and the naturalized, the immigrant and the refugee, for victims and victimizers, for criminals and convicts, for urban and suburban and rural, for black and white and every other hue of the human tapestry, for people of every walk of life and every nation. And his word is a word of salvation for all of the same, calling all to repent and to trust in King Jesus and to live according to his teachings of justice, righteousness, and mercy.

Maybe we've presumed on God's protection of a nation without taking a step back and asking the tough questions. Maybe we've tried too long to seize the reigns of royal power in the nation, tried to play the king instead of the prophet. Or maybe we've fallen prey to disengagement, thinking that we have no word to speak to kings or princes, that our job is the private world with no bearing on the public one. Or maybe we've fallen prey to obsessive engagement, obsessing over the nitty-gritty of governance and neglecting the bigger picture – tithed the mint of activism, the dill of partisan politics, and the cumin of the Constitution, but yet neglected the weightier matters of God's Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23).

Or maybe we've fallen prey to uncritical support, cheering for our political tribe and booing the other, but according to our opinions and not by the whole counsel of the word of God. Maybe we've harshly condemned an administration before it begins, or maybe we've prematurely pronounced it blessed and a blessing and thereby risk falsely endorsing injustice on God's behalf. Or maybe we've imagined that all praise or blame goes to the king or princes, and that the people of the land are somehow innocent bystanders in the nation's affairs, as if what truly mattered were whether the government were controlled by the people and not whether government and people alike “do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with [the one true] God” (Micah 6:8)?

Maybe we've made all sorts of mistakes and all sorts of missteps. I know I have, at one time or another – but that's what repentance is for. Let's do justice to one another instead of judging one another. Let's return to our calling as the church – over nations that are under God, whether they confess it or not. With Jeremiah's patience, let us speak the word of God, whether to plant or to pluck, whether to build or to break, according as the leader or the people are just or unjust.

But let's never forget what truly comes first: our Lord of Love, our Prince of Peace, the Righteous Branch who calls for justice for all and righteousness from all. May that vision be the one that governs our land, and especially that governs the Church. And may that vision shine from the church as an example with light for all nations from the Light of the World. Open your hearts to nothing less than this risen King and his unending kingdom. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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