"Hurting for the Plight of Others"
Oct.31, 2010 Jer.8:18-9:6
TSUNAMIS, VOLCANOES - AND COMPASSION FATIGUE
As Christ's followers we are called to a life of compassion. Our Master was compassionate. "Comforter" is the Holy Spirit's middle name. Matthew recalls (9:36), "When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." Then again a few chapters later, just before the feeding of the 4,000, after Jesus had been conducting a significant ministry time teaching and healing 'great crowds' on a mountainside - "Jesus called his disciples to him and said, "I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way."" (Mt 15:32) So, showing compassion was something Jesus demonstrated often.
There are still lots of occasions for needing compassion today. I've been listening to an audiobook Ministries of Mercy by Tim Keller in which he uses the parable of the Good Samaritan as a starting-point to discuss societal needs today. On the road to Jericho, thieves abounded, pouncing on unsuspecting pedestrians, robbing and beating them and leaving them half-dead like the victim in the parable. Keller's point is that, for many people in the world including North America, life's like that - like living in a train wreck. Families are disintegrating; the gap between rich and poor is growing, and there are getting to be more who live below the poverty line; relocation of manufacturing jobs offshore has left lower-skilled people unemployed, shut out of the 'new economy' that's high-tech / highly skilled. Meanwhile, governments find it harder and harder to supply all the social programs, education, and health care they once did, while our population is aging, people are living longer, and retiring boomers and the GI generation expect a smaller workforce to provide old-age benefits for more people. Compassion gets stretched even as tempers flare and we see riots and protests in such dignified developed countries as Greece and France.
On Relief and Development Sunday, though, we try to take our eyes off ourselves here in the 'North' and recall the needs in developing nations. Yet, there it's even harder to keep having compassion sometimes. For example, Indonesia suffered a double whammy this past week - a volcano erupted, affecting hundreds of villagers, and some distance away an earthquake caused a tsunami: 3-metre waves pounded some islands, flooding homes and sweeping away family members. The frustrating fact is that an early-warning system had been put in place a few years ago after a previous tsunami. But this time no alarm sounded. Why? One report said the equipment had been vandalized; another, that inexperienced operators had caused it to break down. Sheesh! That's maddening! A helpful tool that could have saved many lives was rendered useless.
'Welcome to the Third World.' There, even the best ideas and good solutions can be invalidated by infuriatingly base interference. It's things like that that prompt one to throw up your hands and exclaim, "What's the use? How can I know my donated dollar is actually going to benefit someone? What assurance is there the aid isn't going to be left sitting in some storehouse or sold on the black market?" So compassion gets undercut by human sinfulness.
As we visit again the southern kingdom of Judah in the time of Jeremiah, a few years before Jerusalem's destruction in 586 BC, we find the prophet wrestling with a similar conundrum - human sin has not only separated people from God, it's heading them quickly toward social catastrophe. Yet Jeremiah doesn't just wash his hands of it all and walk away: as God's representative he finds his heart overwhelmed with grief and sensitivity toward the people's plight.
DISOBEDIENCE TOWARD HEAVEN AND HUMAN
While our scripture reading is from the last half of chapter 8, I'm drawing from chapters 7-9 as they provide context to help us understand the big picture, how completely Judah had gotten off track from God's ways. They had social problems, yes, but just as often ours do today, their problems sprang from spiritual roots - primarily from a wrong attitude toward God.
7:6, they were following other gods to their own harm; v9, they were burning incense to Baal and following other gods. Baal you may recall was the local pagan 'lord' or 'boss' spirit worshipped by the Canaanites, former inhabitants of Palestine. Yet by Jeremiah's time we're seeing a fair amount of influence from foreign gods such as Ishtar, a Babylonian fertility goddess referred to as the "Queen of Heaven". Vv17-19, "Do you not see what they are doing in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, the fathers light the fire, and the women knead the dough and make cakes of bread for the Queen of Heaven. They pour out drink offerings to other gods to provoke me to anger." V13, God spoke to them repeatedly through prophets but they didn't listen or answer. Vv24&26, they didn't listen to God or pay attention; "instead, they followed the stubborn inclination of their evil hearts," they were stiff-necked in doing evil. 8:6, "...No one repents of his wickedness, saying, "What have I done?" Each pursues his own course like a horse charging into battle." (I just love Jeremiah's imagery, so many word-pictures: can't you just see it here, a war-horse ploughing ahead? Isn't that just like our stubbornest moments? "It doesn't matter what YOU think - I'm going to do what I'M gonna do!!!" Then we usually add, "And nobody's gonna stop me!" Hmph!)
There are other specifics about their apostasy. 7:30, they'd put detestable idols in the Temple, defiling it; 31, "They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire-- something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind." This sacrifice of infant children in the fire is so awful God implies it's hard to imagine even for Him! The first verses of chapter 8 state how all levels of society - kings, officials, priests, prophets, and the common people - had all participated in worshipping the sun moon and stars (astrology). Note the verbs in 8:2 - "which they have loved and served and which they have followed and consulted and worshiped." We're not talking about just a passing fancy; it's like the horoscope is the first part of the paper they read.
Even when Yahweh was given the time of day, His worship got twisted around; 8:8 reveals "the lying pen of the scribes has handled [the law of the Lord] falsely". Re-interpreting what ought to be the Bible's plain meaning to make it mean something different. A technical term is 'eisegesis' - reading YOUR meaning INTO the inspired text rather than letting it address you. Next verse, "Since they have rejected the word of the Lord, what kind of wisdom do they have?" Sorry, Oprah or the savviest late-night host just don't compare. And God wasn't just shrugging off all this idolatry; 8:19, "Why have they provoked Me to anger with their images, with their worthless foreign idols?"
This spiritual adultery, rebelling against God, taking Him off the throne of one's life, led to social crime and chaos. When we usurp the throne of our soul, we make pretty mean tyrants! 7:9 lists how they break half the Ten Commandments in one verse - they steal, murder, commit adultery and perjury, and worship other gods. V5 challenges them to deal with each other justly - not oppressing the alien / fatherless / widow, and not shedding innocent blood. 8:10b, "From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit." (And this was back before they even had commercials! Doesn't advertising feed your greed - prompting you to think you 'need' what they're showing you?)
8:12 repeats for emphasis a refrain heard a couple of chapters earlier, "Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush." What an indictment of our culture today that, in its rush to do away with shame and morality, no longer knows how to blush at the grosses indecencies, instead parading it down our streets, splashing it across our theatre marquees and pumping it like some electronic backwards sewer-feed into our living rooms! But be careful: in your rush to do away with morality and shame, so you can experience no-holds-barred guiltless pleasure, you are unwittingly setting yourself up for spiritual emptiness and existential meaninglessness. Life becomes banal; soon Abaddon comes whispering, "So why go on living?" What have you done but 'freed' yourself into the trap of suicidal despair.
Pop up the pages a bit to 5:7f and see how prosperity and swearing by 'gods that are not gods' are linked to sexual infidelity. "I supplied all their needs, yet they committed adultery and thronged to the houses of prostitutes.They are well-fed, lusty stallions, each neighing for another man's wife." Isn't that an example of imagery that grabs the imagination? Would that describe any of our daytime programming ('soaps') - "well-fed, lusty stallions, each neighing for another man's wife"? Highly entertaining - but not the sort of bloke you want your daughter to marry.
Chapter 9 reveals a thread of untruth woven all through Judean society. Nobody can trust anyone. 9:3, "They make ready their tongue like a bow, to shoot lies;" (can't you just see them being drawn out of the quiver, bing! Bing! Bing!)..."It is not by truth that they triumph in the land." 4-6, "Beware of your friends; do not trust your brothers.For every brother is a deceiver, and every friend a slanderer.Friend deceives friend, and no one speaks the truth.They have taught their tongues to lie; they weary themselves with sinning.You live in the midst of deception..." And v8, "Their tongue is a deadly arrow; it speaks with deceit.With his mouth each speaks cordially to his neighbour, [(nice enough!)] but in his heart he sets a trap for him." They need a spiritual dentist desparately - they suffer from TRUTH decay in the worst way. Relationships evaporate and paranoia takes over when you can't trust anyone.
All in all, it was a very sorry mess. Society was so corrupt Jeremiah was revulsed, he was tempted by the thought of just getting away from it all by fleeing to some remote wilderness cabin as a hermit. As far as holiness was concerned, they were a complete write-off. 9:2, "Oh, that I had in the desert a lodging place for travellers, so that I might leave my people and go away from them; for they are all adulterers, a crowd of unfaithful people." Maybe wistful for a ministry like Elijah - run away to some remote brook and let the ravens feed you (1Kings 17:3f). That'd be so much easier than having to deal with these - THESE - PEOPLE!!!
DOOMED TO DESTRUCTION
But times were about to change; the people's sinning wasn't lost on the Lord Almighty. Right after that 'lusty stallions neighing for another man's wife' verse, God asks rhetorically, "Should I not punish them for this?...Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this?" (Jer 5:9) Repeated right after that 'tongue a deadly arrow' verse - so both 5:9 (29) and 9:9. The expected answer - YES. Because they have forsaken God's law, not obeyed Him, following the stubbornness of their own hearts, God says in 9:16, "I will scatter them among nations...I will pursue them with the sword until I have destroyed them." Yikes.
7:20, God says His anger and wrath will be poured out on this place; 28f, because the nation has not obeyed and truth has perished, "the Lord has rejected and abandoned this generation that is under His wrath." 7:32, the valley where the child sacrifices took place will be called 'Slaughter Valley' because they will bury the dead there until there's no more room.Ugh! 8:13, the Lord will take away their harvest, bringing agricultural distress - whether by drought, disease, or raiders, we're not told. 8:16, "The snorting of the enemy's horses is heard from Dan; at the neighing of their stallions the whole land trembles.They have come to devour the land and everything in it..." As if the Babylonian's forces war-horses can be heard a hundred miles away. And why is all this happening? 8:14, "The Lord our God has doomed us to perish...because we have sinned against Him."
DISMAYED BY DURESS
Too late, the people realize the hole they've dug for themselves. Too late, they realize their sins have piled up to the point there's no way out but destruction and exile; they've sinned more than the pagan nations who inhabited the land before them. They are trapped. They may have hoped the Egyptians would deliver them but that's not going to happen. 8:20 is just a short verse but very potent prose, encapsulating the despair setting in as they realize they're doomed: "The harvest is past, the summer has ended, and we are not saved." We're done for; goners. Spring was the time when kings went out to war (2Sam 11:1) - when summer's over, forget any prospect of someone coming to save you. It's a haunting verse that, for Christians, impels us to share the Good News with those we know before it's too late and the 'winter' of life claims them.
What's Jeremiah's response to all this? He's known as 'the weeping prophet'. Why's that? HE's not doomed, he's one of the very few who've been faithful to Yahweh! He's been sounding the alarm! Wouldn't it have been easy for him to sit back with a smug self-righteous look and say, "There! You got what you deserved - you got what's coming to you"? And he would have been entirely justified. "See, I told you so! I tried to warn you, but - would anybody listen?!"
But that's not his attitude at all. He's the Weeping Prophet, not the Jeering Prophet. He's affected deeply, emotionally, but people's pain and hardship - regardless of whether they've 'deserved' it. 8:21, "Since my people are crushed, I am crushed; I mourn, and horror grips me." He identifies with his sinful countrymen. Two verses later, 9:1 - "Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! I would weep day and night for the slain of my people." Do you sense how much he mourns and weeps for the fate of the others? 9:10, "I will weep and wail for the mountains and take up a lament concerning the desert pastures." The desolation wrecks him, he misses even the sound of cattle lowing, the birds and animals that are gone. V12, "Why has the land been ruined and laid waste like a desert that no one can cross?" Everything so ruined, so WASTED. V22 NLT, "Bodies will be scattered across the fields like dung, or like bundles of grain after the harvest.No one will be left to bury them." What a mournful sight! And probably the prophet is seeing these things from a distance in time, long before they come about. So he weeps to think of the hardships, the duress and distress, coming upon his people. He is moved with compassion for the plight of others.
DELIGHT IN DOING RIGHT
It's right here, in the context of doom and dismay, that we surprisingly come upon a key verse in the Bible - a verse that summarizes so well what true religion and spirituality is all about. When so much frills and frivolity and party-life is stripped away, what's really important remains. Jeremiah 9:23-24, "This is what the LORD says: "Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches..." (So much of these were completely demolished by the invading destroyers, impressive though they might have been in cosmopolitan circles of society.) "...but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight," declares the LORD." Did you get that? It's not worldly-wisdom, or power, or money that anyone should take pride in and boast about; instead, boast that you know (and have a working relationship with) God through Jesus His Son. Then you'll start to understand what God delights in, what He loves to focus on and bring about: what 3 things? Exercising kindness, justice, and righteousness on earth. Those attributes bring Him great glory.
What does that look like in a world that's a train wreck - a world where we live, as Tim Keller puts it, on the road to Jericho? What's it mean (according to the New Living Translation) to "truly know Me and understand that am the Lord who is just and righteous, whose love is unfailing, and that I delight in these things"?
Such a contrast to the wicked people described back in 5:27f, "'Now they are great and rich.They are well fed and well groomed, and there is no limit to their wicked deeds.They refuse justice to orphans and deny the rights of the poor.Should I not punish them for this?' asks the Lord."
Which side are we on - delighting in kindness, justice, and righteousness; or rich and well groomed, refusing justice and denying poor people's rights? May the Lord help us choose to delight in what's good - what He delights in; and to weep with others who face hardship - as we consider this year's current Relief and Development opportunities.Amen! [6-minute R&D slideshow]