(Modified 2022-08-28: Added audio recording)
Sermon: August 28, 2022: Jeremiah 2:4-13. Rev. Nathaniel Athian Deng Mayen
What wrong (evil) did your fathers (ancestors) find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things (idols), and became worthless themselves? Jer. 2:5.
This important question comes directly from the Lord (Yahweh) to the hearers, the audience who listen to Jeremiah’s preaching of the living word of Yahweh. As a result, we who are here at St. Mary and everyone who believes in Yahweh must wrestle with this question. It is at the heart of the identity of Israel, as the covenant people with early devotion in Yahweh (Jer. 2:1-3), and the identity of the church, whose sole mission is God’s love and justice to the world.
In different English Bible translations, the Hebrew word, eh’vel, which is used in this opening question has been translated into different words, for example, evil, injustice, unrighteousness, unfairness, fault, iniquity, or wrong. It emphasizes the contrast in character between the loving and merciful Yahweh God of Israel and the worthless idols to whom all the families of the house of Israel follow because they have rejected Yahweh.
We learn right away Yahweh is never unjust, unfair, or corrupt in his relationship with Israel. This character of Yahweh proves the reason for believing in him alone as the only true God. Yahweh has always walked with the people of Israel during difficult moments in their life in Egypt, in the wilderness, and in the land to which Yahweh has brought them to inherit.
The designation “worthless idols” occur four times in this reading (2: 5, 8, 11, and 13) to emphasize the emptiness of the things that we turn to when we walk away from God. Walking away from Yahweh (Hebrew word, rachaq) is the heart of the problem in this passage. It implies Yahweh is no longer the centre of life for the people of Judah. There is a loss of direction because of rebellion from Yahweh. The people want to live their own life in the way they want it to be without regards to their covenant relationship with Yahweh.
Why should we replace God with worthless idols that do not profit us? What do we put in place of God when we are done away with God? We become dependent on worthless idols, such as, celebrity or personality cult, dictatorship, doctrine and system (communism, capitalism, etc.).
People end up like what they worship, leading to their destruction if they follow worthless idolsor their transformation through renewal and restoration in relationship with God. Devotion to worthlessness makes one worthless.
This human condition is captured properly by the Hebrew word hevel, meaning, vapour. Prophet Hosea warns that people become what they worship (Hosea 9:10). Jeremiah is also reminding the covenant people of Israel that their walking away from Yahweh is their downfall. As a result, they have become hevel (useless or worthless). They have not only lost their identity, but they also have no repentant hearts that ask the critical question, “Where is Yahweh”? (vs. 6, 8), and remember Yahweh’s gracious acts in Egypt and in the wilderness.
If the people become what they worship, love or even eat, then we should ask the most critical question, “Who are we?” This leads to the Christian understanding of the human condition, whereby as we read last Sunday God created us in his own image with the purpose to be free from pain and suffering because we are destined to be in union with God (Gen. 1:24-28; Lk 13).
God is the creator of human beings with a free will to relate with God and reciprocate God’s love to others. We are a reflection of God. We are “imaging beings”, who reflect God through our worship and living. We fail in this responsibility when we turn to the worthless idol that we invent to replace God. If we worship God and follow him, we become like God and make him the centre for our life. We reflect his image and character to live in justice, love, and peace.
If we reject God and follow the worthless idols, we will become like the idols (useless, worthless) and face the judgement from God, which will lead to our destruction because we no longer represent the good purpose of creation for the humanity as the “imaging beings”.
This Sunday, I am preaching on the Old Testament reading for three reasons. First, the Old Testament is the foundation of Christian canon that culminated into the New Testament.Secondly, the topic on dependence on Yahweh fits perfectly into our message last Sunday about the human condition and the freedom that Christ has brought to liberate us from different powers (of illness, the death, the poverty, and the sin) that cause us suffering and pain. Thirdly, duringthe summer, we have read Old Testament prophets, such as Amos, Joel and Jeremiah, but the preachers have focused on the Gospel readings. This may give the impression that the Old Testament is lesser than the Gospels. Quite the contrary!
We must understand the foundation of our Christian faith if we want to build the church and live through her mission. Jeremiah 2:4-13 traces Israel’s covenant life in the Promised Land. From the peoples’ entry to the Promised Land to their exile from the Promised Land during the time of Jeremiah, the land was the focal point of the faithful expressions and profound failures of covenant life in Israel. The characters and events provide an in-depth understanding of the outworking of God’s covenant promises, provide background and preparation for the culmination of that covenant in Jesus Christ, and pose the question of our Christian identity.
What then is our Christian identity? You may ask. In the Anglican community like St. Mary the Virgin, where we pray this morning, Christian identity is defined by the Comfortable Words that we recite every Sunday in the Book of Common Prayer (p. 77-78):
• “Come unto me all that labour and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you” (Matt. 11:28);
• “God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16);
• “This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15);
• “If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn. 2:1, 2).
When you look closely at the inclusive language used herein— all, you, eternal life, all men, sinners, any man, and, our sins — you will understand the theological and liturgical language where the gospel calls us sinners who have the same identity of the wretched humanity. As Timothy Keller observes, “Jesus is the only Lord who, if you receive him, will fulfill you completely, and, if you fail him, will forgive you eternally” (The Reason for God, 173).
Christian identity is the love and forgiveness of God for all persons. Any other identity we claim only takes attention away from the love of Christ who has redeemed the fallen humanity with his precious blood. It does matter whether a Christian is from African origin like myself, or with a German origin like Rev. Claude, or with an American origin like Rev. Paula. From our priests at St. Mary alone, you can tell St. Mary is a multicultural family that has one core identity in Christ.
It is only when we allow God into our life, when God gets into our personal space, that we receive the true healing – freedom from all the things we have made to take the place of God.
Israel started well with Yahweh only to end in apostasy. It is easy for the church to abandon its primary vision of love, justice, unity and progress, and walk away from Yahweh to worship the worthless idols, the worthless things that cannot help us.
Through Jeremiah, Yahweh warns his people to repent and return to him. If they do not heed to the warning, Yahweh will punish them through an enemy from the north (chapters 2-6). After the people have suffered for their disobedience Yahweh will remember and restore the people from the exile. The people will live righteously because they would have tasted the fruits of their disloyalty, and Yahweh has taught them a lesson they may not forget.
Thus, justice throughout the Old Testament is about either seeking justice and listening to the commandments of Yahweh and then live, or disobeying walking away from Yahweh and following the worthless idols and then receive God’s wrath and die (Amos 5:5, 6, 24).
The people do not get it—they do not repent even after their restoration is promised. They continue to sin, and then the cycle begins with the calling of a different prophet (Amos, Hosea, Joel, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, Daniel…) to announce judgement and hope.
To redeem ourselves from the worthlessness and death, we should seek Yahweh because Yahweh will liberate those who live according to his will. Yahweh has explained his character relative to the worthless idols we follow and then we become worthless ourselves.
I am optimistic that the love of God can always touch the hearts of other community members and bring them to his flock without the need to break into other worldly identities that we create to bring animosity that does not worth the efforts of the church.
While we should respect the freedom of anyone who identifies himself or herself with any form of social, cultural, ideological and political identity, we draw some limits to self-identification, or else the church could be on the path of self-destruction if it is getting deformed by strange ideologies rather than being transformed in the Comfortable Words that define our identity.
In sum, there is no injustice, evil and wrong in Yahweh. We are truly loved by God. We are not worthless like the idols. We matter to God. May the Almighty God guide our feet into the way of peace, love and justice of Christ, whose coming in the human flesh reconciles and sanctifies ourChristian identity, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.