Sunday, December 22, 2019

Bethlehem Decision: Sermon on Jeremiah 40-44

Fire. Fire in the palace of the king. He would never use it again – a month ago, Zedekiah son of Josiah had been captured on the plains of Jericho, then blinded and taken away in captivity. Fire. Fire in the temple of their God. They didn't seem to listen to his prophet Jeremiah anyway. Fire in all their houses. Fire in the city. Nabu-zer-iddin, titled 'chief cook' but serving as captain of the bodyguard of the king of Babylon, had come to cook Jerusalem. On a hot July day, he had come to burn it all down. It went up in flame. As for those who'd lived there, Nabu-zer-iddin sent most of them to the processing station, to be deported to work in Babylon and its nearer lands. But he would have to leave some of the poorest residents behind to tend the land here in Babylon's newest province: Judah. The handiwork of burning and smoke.

It's been over four hundred years now since the little town of Bethlehem, just a few miles away, saw a shepherd boy named David be anointed by the elderly prophet Samuel to become Israel's future. It's been centuries since David's mighty men saw Bethlehem under Philistine occupation and crossed enemy lines to bring their chieftain water from his hometown well. Bethlehem had watched, a quiet city proud of her hometown son, as the throne in Jerusalem was occupied by a long sequence of kings down through the years; even when the nation was cleaved in twain by a civil war, Bethlehem watched David's line as the kings sat on David's throne: Solomon, Rehoboam, Abijah, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Jehoram, Ahaziah, Joash, Amaziah, Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah, Manasseh, Amon, Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jeconiah, and lastly that ill-fated puppet Zedekiah. Not all ruled well – most did not. Bethlehem observed their glory but mostly grieved their disgrace. And as the kings persistently disregarded the authority of God's prophets, at last this judgment fell. Babylon had come. Babylon had come twice. Babylon had come now this third time and passed a more grievous sentence.

When the Babylonian army filled the land and put Jerusalem under siege, when the Babylonians breached the city walls, when the Babylonians devastated Zedekiah's forces on the Jericho's plains, numerous captains of the army and their men hid in the hills, preserving their lives. Such was the story of a captain named Johanan, and also the regal Ishmael, a descendant of David and some manner of cousin to Zedekiah. But others also found ways to outlast the siege. One noble family had served Judah's final kings for generations without compromise. Shaphan had been a secretary and financial officer to King Josiah (2 Kings 22:1-10), and he'd had three sons: Gemariah, Elasah, and Ahikam – all three of whom supported and aided the prophet Jeremiah. Ahikam stopped the mob from putting Jeremiah to death (Jeremiah 26:24). Gemariah tried, unsuccessfully, to stop Jehoiakim from burning Jeremiah's writings (Jeremiah 36:25). And when the Babylonians had first come and taken people to exile, Elasah carried Jeremiah's letter to their lost countrymen (Jeremiah 29:3). By the July day when the city went up in flame, Ahikam's son Gedaliah was serving as a sensible and moderate administrator there. Many officials were taken away or slain. But Gedaliah, for his good sense, was not.

No, Nabu-zer-iddin and the other Babylonian leaders could see that they needed a native leader to tend matters in their new province, if people were to be left to tend the land. Gedaliah seemed the best man for the job. And so it was Gedaliah whom the Babylonians appointed as governor, to rule from Mizpah where Samuel had once ministered. Many refugees of Judah returned, and the captains came out of hiding, to gather to Gedaliah as he strove to rebuild a community from the broken burnt pieces, a community that could survive and even thrive even under the heel of Babylon (Jeremiah 40:7-12). When Nabu-zer-iddin gave Jeremiah a choice of where to go and what to do, he chose to live under the protection of his old friend Gedaliah (Jeremiah 40:1-6).

All was well. Months or maybe a couple years passed – we can't say for sure. But a harvest time approached, and things looked good. Only a rumor began to spread. It became a common report among the military leaders that the princely Captain Ishmael, yearning to strike out at the Babylonians as well as collaborating Jews, had fallen under the influence of the rebellious Ammonites and had a nefarious scheme to assassinate Governor Gedaliah (Jeremiah 40:13-14). Captain Johanan approached the governor, explained to him the report, urged him to let Johanan take action. But Gedaliah was a good man – so good as to fall into error on the other side, the side of naive big-heartedness. He would hear no such bad news about a man he'd known as long as Ishmael (Jeremiah 40:15-16). And so one autumn day it happened, as they shared dinner together as equals in the house from which Gedaliah governed. There around the table, as Gedaliah entrusted Ishmael and his lieutenants, they rose up as one, quick as a flash, and rebelled against Gedaliah's hospitality, and ended his life (Jeremiah 41:1-2). Then they went through the house, killing Gedaliah's administrators; they went out to the small garrison of the Babylonian soldiers left behind, and they put them to death, too; and as for the others who lived in the Mizpah community under Gedaliah's protection, Ishmael took them hostage – even some of his cousins, the former king's own daughters, as well as Jeremiah the prophet (Jeremiah 41:3-10).

Ishmael had done his deed – once again, like all the bad kings, a wayward descendant of David was leading the people deeper into trouble, defying the will of God. And Ishmael's purpose now was to take his hostages with him into a foreign land, the territory of the Ammonites, and hide there. But in time, Captain Johanan heard that Ishmael was on the move with hostages. So Johanan bravely chased Ishmael down, and fought a battle to free those in captivity. Ishmael and a few of his lieutenants did escape to their Ammonite refuge, but the hostages were saved thanks to Johanan and the other captains (Jeremiah 41:11-16). A thrilling victory.

But it presented Johanan now with a complication. What Ishmael had done was a profoundly destabilizing act – and as much as they hadn't shared in it, Johanan feared the Babylonians might not make distinctions. All they would see is that Judah had rebelled and killed Babylon's appointed governor as well as her native soldiers, and they might come and exact vengeance by devastating the land further. Last time they had burned Jerusalem – how severe would be their wrath on a fourth visit? Johanan and the other captains, having experience resisting the Babylonians in vain, saw there was no way for their meager forces to withstand it. The only prudent tactical decision would be withdrawal – withdrawal from the land itself (Jeremiah 41:18). So they agreed on a plan to save themselves and the former hostages. But it would involve fleeing into a self-imposed exile, not in Babylon but in Babylon's rival power Egypt. And so the only path to hope, Johanan thought, was in reversing the exodus of their ancestors. Yet as they began to move, many of the rescued hostages were unsure. God had brought their people up out of Egypt; how could they make their own decision to return there? God had promised this very land to Abraham; how could they just desert it, throw away his gift? And so, to settle the question and calm the protests, the military figures grudgingly paused the group's movements at a waystation along the road.

But where they stopped matters – where they stopped matters very much. For centuries earlier, King David had been on the run from his usurping son Absalom, and David and his allies had fled to a place called Mahanaim, where they'd found great hospitality from an elderly Gileadite man named Barzillai (2 Samuel 17:27-29). And when Absalom's rebellion at last collapsed, Barzillai personally came to escort David across the Jordan River and back into his kingdom (2 Samuel 19:31-32). David was thankful – very thankful. He wanted to do great and wonderful things for Barzillai – wanted even to join him to the royal household, have him come live in Jerusalem with him (2 Samuel 19:33). But Barzillai pointed out how old he was, and how little his gesture of support had been (2 Samuel 19:34-36). Barzillai asked to go back home. But, he said, if David wanted to repay Barzillai's kindness, he could do it by favoring Barzillai's son Chimham (2 Samuel 19:37-38). And so as the old man went home to Mahanaim with David's blessing, Chimham went with David (2 Samuel 19:39-40). And evidently, David and his son Solomon would eventually reward Chimham with a portion of what may have been David's own family lands outside Bethlehem (cf. 1 Kings 2:7), land on which Chimham set up a geruth, an inn or caravansary for foreign travelers to rest at on their way to and from Jerusalem. For that's exactly where now, centuries later, Johanan's gaggle of frightened people stop to regroup: at this ancient inn near Bethlehem. “They went and stayed at Geruth Chimham near Bethlehem, intending to go to Egypt” (Jeremiah 41:17).

There at the inn by Bethlehem, the people themselves were indecisive. But they knew they had a choice before them, a choice to be made, a choice on which all was to be wagered: Stay there in the land and wait to see the fallout, or run belatedly back to the land of their former slavery. The military leaders were certain what to do. Only one avenue made sense to their pragmatic minds. Only one road led to self-preservation, and that was the road to Egypt. It had to be done. But it would be simpler to do it if the people fell in line. So there at the inn by Bethlehem, Johanan and the captains solicited the help of a figure who'd been silent for much of the tale: the prophet Jeremiah. The captains led the people to turn to Jeremiah and ask him to pray to his God – note, they call him Jeremiah's God, not theirs – to show them what to do (Jeremiah 42:1-3).

Jeremiah hears them and says he will pray to their God and report back – meaning, he'll gladly ask the question, but they'll have to reckon with the answer, whatever it is, even if it's one they don't like (Jeremiah 42:4). And the people – whom Jeremiah doesn't much believe – swear that they will. They accept their identity as God's people: “May Yahweh be a true and faithful witness against us if we don't act according to all the word with which Yahweh your God sends you to us. Whether it's good or bad, we will obey the voice of Yahweh our God to whom we're sending you, that it may be well with us when we obey the voice of Yahweh our God” (Jeremiah 42:5-6). They make a vow before God that they'll receive and obey God's word as it comes through the one whom they've agreed to send to God, the prophet whom God sent to them. They bind themselves to an oath to submit to the prophetic authority which Jeremiah will exercise. Whether they like what they hear or dislike what they hear, they admit that the only path forward has to be obeying what God says, as Jeremiah will relay it.

Jeremiah, for his part, takes this mission very seriously. So he spends days in prayer, seeking God. And for ten days, God seems to be quiet. Among the people, that's a cause for concern. Perhaps they wonder if God has abandoned them to their own devices. Perhaps they wonder if God wants them to make up their own mind and do things their way. Or perhaps they just figure that each day that passes is a day closer to word reaching the nearest Babylonian garrison about Gedaliah's death and the apparent revolt, and their nerves are getting the better of them. So the clock ticks. Each hour has them trembling. Each day tries the captains' patience. Yet “at the end of ten days, the word of Yahweh came to Jeremiah” – at last (Jeremiah 42:7)! The prophet summons the military leadership, as well as the rest of the people, to all hear the instruction he must proclaim, a word from God himself: “Do not fear the king of Babylon..., for I am with you, to save you and to deliver you from his hand. I will grant you mercy, that he may have mercy on you and let you remain in your own land. But if you say, 'We will not remain in this land,' disobeying the voice of Yahweh your God and saying, 'No, we will go to the land of Egypt, where we won't see war or hear the sound of the trumpet or be hungry for bread, and we'll dwell there,' then hear the word of Yahweh, O remnant of Judah...: If you set your faces to Egypt and go to live there, then the sword you fear shall overtake you there in the land of Egypt...” (Jeremiah 42:11-16).

Now they've heard the word of God declared. The prophet of the Lord has spoken. It is not what the captains were hoping – even though it's a message of mercy and hope! God said to them, “If you will remain in this land, then I will build you up and not pull you down; I will plant you and not pluck you up” (Jeremiah 42:10) – which is the exact same promise God had given Jeremiah for the exiles taken to Babylon (Jeremiah 24:6)! And there at Geruth Chimham, there at the inn by Bethlehem, this remnant left behind is confronted by God's word of mercy and warning. And they have a choice to make. Gedaliah is gone. So what will govern them now?

Two candidates vie to govern their next actions, their decisive course of destiny. On the one hand, they might choose to trust God. They might choose to be governed by the word God spoken through the prophet. They might choose to turn back from their own plans and submit their actions to God's word and face their fears, standing firm (even if trembling) on the promise that God would build and plant them, not pull and pluck them. That's what God intends for them, what God wishes for them. He wants them to listen to the prophet he sent them. He wants them to hear his voice. He wants them to be governed by the word of God. But on the other hand, they could choose to reject the word of God. They could choose to be governed by their own agendas, by their fear and doubt and uncertainty. They could choose to be governed by their resentment of the rebuke they just received, and they could reject the authority of the prophet and the word he's spoken.

The ball's in their court, you might say. The choice is theirs, at Geruth Chimham. The choice is theirs, as they stand outside Bethlehem. Desolate Bethlehem watches them, wonders what they'll do. Bethlehem asks them, “Do you not know that God is trustworthy? Do you not know that God keeps his promises? Have you not paid attention down through the years, when God brought redemption to the woman who finally came back home to me where he wanted her? Did you not see what God did with a simple boy when his Spirit rushed down? Did you not hear David's surrender of all his desires when he poured out my water as the living sacrifice of his mighty men? Have you not seen how things go when your people trust God, and how pitiful they've been when you've turned aside to broken things? Hear the call of Bethlehem: Choose his word!”

Geruth Chimham is the place where they must choose: The word of God, or their own fear. The word of God, or their own doubt. The word of God, or their own pride. The word of God, or their own resentment. The word of God, or the words they speak. Just ten days earlier, their own word had confessed God as a “true and faithful witness” (Jeremiah 42:5). But at Geruth Chimham, they must choose whether to accept even their own earlier testimony, their own earlier promise to trust the prophetic promise of God. What will govern them?

Sadly, these people choose fear. No sooner has Jeremiah delivered God's message than, as he suspected, they start coming up with excuses to reject his authority. He's “telling a lie,” they protest (Jeremiah 43:2). He's been biased against them by his own scribe Baruch, they fabricate (Jeremiah 43:3a). He wants them to suffer, he wants to work against them, he wants them to be exiled or killed, he's working for Babylon (Jeremiah 43:3b). No excuse is too feeble to invoke, as they try to rationalize their hard hearts, their preference to be governed by fear and resentment, doubt and pride, instead of the word of God. There at Geruth Chimham, there at the inn by Bethlehem, they cast their lot. All Johanan's earlier exploits in rescuing the hostages – they counted for nothing after he rejected the prophet's authority and disregarded the word of God, much as Judah's kings had.

And so the group leaves, traveling away from Bethlehem. Johanan and the captains take the entire group – even Jeremiah and Baruch – away from Judah into the desert roads; and after a long march, “they came to the land of Egypt, for they didn't obey the voice of Yahweh” (Jeremiah 43:7), effectively unwinding God's commitments to their ancestors – they turned aside from living as his covenant people, they traced their way back to before Sinai, back to the place of slavery from which they'd come. And in the end, they would face a great cost. They should have heeded God's word and not their fears. But in Jeremiah's final word, when they've at last exposed themselves as having been unbelievers and idolaters all along, God tells Jeremiah and the people once again the consequence of their flight from Bethlehem to Egypt (Jeremiah 44:11-12, 27-28):

Behold, I will set my face against you for harm, to cut off all Judah. I will take the remnant of Judah who have set their faces to come to the land of Egypt to live, and they shall all be consumed. … Behold, I am watching over them for disaster and not for good.... and all the remnant of Judah, who came to the land of Egypt to live, shall know whose word will stand: mine or theirs.

Make no mistake: In this Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, the remnant of Judah found a grim ending. Their story does not end well, and it is entirely because they chose to be governed by fear, doubt, pride, and resentment instead of being governed by the word of God. At Geruth Chimham, the inn by Bethlehem, a decision was laid before them, and they decided it poorly. But we don't have to make the same choice they did. For we ourselves come to Geruth Chimham now and again. We likewise pause at the inn by Bethlehem and have choices to make – a choice, a decision, not unlike theirs. Which will govern the course we follow?

When you and I come to Geruth Chimham, we might hear God's promise and see it as smaller than the fear. We might collapse under the weight of our doubt. We might let pride and resentment turn us away. Yes, at Geruth Chimham, it is a live option for us to run away – to go in the opposite direction of Bethlehem, to flee when the word of God would bid us patiently wait and submit and listen. That is one possibility. It is the path that the remnant of Judah took, and which God said would make them an oath, a horror, a curse, and a taunt.

But on the other hand, we might choose to do differently than they did. When the word of God meets us there at the inn by Bethlehem, we might wait and submit and listen. We might stay there near Bethlehem, because the word of God is trustworthy and true. We might hear the prophet God sent, and receive this word as God's word, and stay. For what the remnant of Judah could not abide was this: One day, not far from Geruth Chimham where they stood, the Word of God would come forth and stand in human flesh. And when the Word of God “above all earthly powers” would be made flesh as Jesus Christ, we would know for a certainty that the promise is bigger than every fear and every doubt – the promise is more beautiful than all our prides and resentments are ugly. So this Christmas season, let us decide for the word of God! Let us wait at Bethlehem and welcome the Promise in whom the hopes and fears of all the years may be met and answered in just one night. Amen.

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