Sermon on Jeremiah 7: 1-14
One event casts its shadow over the whole book of Jeremiah: the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587BC, the destruction of theTemple and the subsequent exile of many leading citizens. You could say that that makes three events but they merge into each other.
The burning question of the day was this: how could such a thing happen to the chosen people of God? Obviously, the fault cannot lie with God, therefore it must lie with the people. And that’s where Jeremiah categorically puts the blame. The people have behaved badly and they’re going to suffer for it.
This kind of thinking permeates the Old Testament. If you behave badly, your life will not be blessed. If the nation behaves badly, all manner of unfortunate things will happen to the nation.
By and large the writers of the Old Testament didn’t believe in any kind of meaningful life beyond the grave, so your bad behaviour had very tangible and negative results in this life.
I often ask myself whether this view about the consequences of our actions actually holds water. To put it crudely, do men behaving badly – and women – lead blighted lives?
It’s fairly plausible that a person who murders, steals, lies and is unfaithful to his or her spouse – to name but four of the Ten Commandments – is unlikely to lead a genuinely joyful and guilt-free existence.
So it’s not unreasonable to conclude that there is a connection between morally reprehensible behaviour and a state of being that does not lead to human flourishing.
Immoral behaviour does not beget genuine happiness.
And we can extend that principle to society as a whole. A selfish society gets into trouble. Perhaps that’s one lesson we can take from the economic crisis of the last few years.
Bankers have taken a lot of flak for being too greedy and no doubt many of them were and still are. They played their part in causing our current woes. But there’s equally no doubt in my mind that many of us have been greedy over the last few decades.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s ox. There’s a mountain of debt of Himalayan proportions in this country. One website I looked at stated that total personal debt at the end of January this year stood at £1,456 trillion. That’s 1,456 followed by twelve noughts. My mind boggles at all those noughts.
We have grown used to spending money that we don’t actually have. We have become an acquisitive society and I don’t see how you can become acquisitive without being covetous.
Not everyone, of course, and not all debt is down to covetousness. Many people have been sucked into debt by the system and by the pressures of the world around them but my guess would be that a awful lot of that 1,456 trillion pounds of debt has been incurred because people have been coveting the modern equivalent of their neighbour’s ox.
It’s not necessarily the debtor who is at fault or solely at fault. I used to get letters every other day – not now, for some reason – from banks wanting to lend me money that I neither wanted nor had given the slightest indication that I wanted.
I hear occasionally that this mountain of debt will cause economic mayhem in the long run. That doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. As Mr Micawber reminded us: when expenditure exceeds income the result is misery.
Any reprehensible action, individual or corporate, sends ripples throughout the whole of society – sometimes more than mere ripples. None of us are mere isolated individuals. One of the maxims I often repeat to myself is that the actions of everyone affect everyone – for good or for ill.
We are not just atomised, isolated individuals. What we do matters to everyone. What they do matters to us. We are responsible to and for each other.
But Jeremiah is not just talking about morality; he also says that the people will suffer because they have worshipped other gods.
And it’s impossible to doubt that in our day we have elevated any number of things onto that pedestal where idols stand – fame, status, money, sex. Anything can be elevated to the status of an idol, if we put our minds to it.
And again it’s not unreasonable to conclude that, if we worship that which is not worthy of worship, things are going to go awry in our personal lives and in our communal life. Because our priorities will be cock-eyed.
Idolatry and immorality are very closely connected.
Often in the Old Testament God refers to himself as a jealous God. That doesn’t mean that God literally gets jealous – that would be absurd. It’s meant more as a warning not to become obsessed by the apparent charms of deities that are not deities at all.
God isn’t made jealous. I’m wary of attributing any purely human emotion to God but it would be far truer to say that he is grieved when we are misled into pathways that do not lead to our ultimate well-being.
Something similar holds when the Bible talks about God punishing people. Some of the things we endure may feel like punishment but again it would be far truer to say that we are enduring the inevitable consequences of our own actions. Unwittingly, we punish ourselves.
What we should not doubt is that God has our ultimate well-being at heart. Jeremiah can sometimes seem like a bit of a misery, always moaning about this and that, always condemning, always chiding.
And he does condemn and he does chide but ultimately, despite all that, his message is one of hope. It was his misfortune that he was forced by the circumstances of his time to adopt a predominantly negative tone.
But he foresaw that God would not allow this negative state of affairs to continue for ever.
During the siege of Jerusalem that preceded its capture God tells Jeremiah to purchase a field – from his cousin, as it happens. This field is a symbol of confidence in the future.
And we read this: for thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land’.
It’s interesting how Jeremiah uses financial imagery to indicate confidence and hope. Money in itself isn’t the problem.
‘Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land’.
Destruction and exile and a general human making a mess of things were never going to be the end of the story for Jeremiah’s compatriots. Making a mess of things is never the end of the story.