September 23rd, 2012

What matters is not whether you boast, but what you boast about.

Jeremiah 9:23-24

September 23, 2012

An equal and opposite danger

It was the early 1980s.  Linda and I were living in Reidsville, NC, and working in our first church.  Our little 4-room house was about a mile from the church, and I would often go home to my bride for a homemade lunch.  To get there, I had to cross a double set of railroad tracks.  There was no crossing gate, just lights and bells.  I was running a bit late one day and sure enough, a train was coming from my left on the near track.  The bells clanged and the lights flashed.  I knew I could beat it, but our car was a used Pontiac Astre, a subcompact with not a lot of punch.  (Gas had skyrocketed to about 70 cents a gallon, so we had traded in our 8-cylinder Ford Gran Torino station wagon, which got about 8 miles to the gallon.)  I debated for a split second, and…waited.

Patience has never been one of my virtues, however, so as soon as the caboose (remember those?) passed I stepped on the accelerator and all four cylinders of that Astre fired up. Then I heard a very loud train whistle.  There was a second train coming from the opposite direction.  I had missed seeing and hearing it because I was only looking one way. I don’t know how close it came to impact, but it felt like about 3 feet.

I learned a valuable lesson that day.  Sometimes a focused awareness about one danger will make you more vulnerable to being blindsided from another direction.

The book of Jeremiah is about that problem.  The people of Judah believe their greatest spiritual danger is fear.  Yes, there is a mighty empire on their borders, but they believe Yahweh will take care of them.  They know who they are, the people of God, and they should not tremble before a secular enemy.  Their prophets are telling them everything will be fine.  They are also covering their bases by dabbling and sometimes openly embracing other religious ideas as well.  Maybe Yahweh is not the only God to be dealt with here.  They should have enough humility to admit other gods should be honored, especially those that demand the greatest sacrifice.  It seems very sincere to be willing even to give up your children to be burned to death in order to appease the gods.  Won’t such an act of supreme devotion impress any god, including Yahweh?  They remind themselves of the great leaders they have – they seem so wise, so battle-worthy, so financially stable.  The only thing to fear is fear itself.  They will conquer fear because fear is their only enemy.  Or so they believe.

They are wrong.  Fear is an enemy.  But while they are intently focused on the train coming from their left, the enemy of fear, they are oblivious to an equal and opposite danger.  The train hidden by their vigilance against fear will destroy them.

Turn with me to Jeremiah 9:23-24, and also keep your bulletin open.   Let’s speak Hebrew today.  There are about 8-10 very important Hebrew words in this passage.  I will teach you three.

הָלַל Halal = Shine

I don’t really expect you to learn Hebrew today, but let me give you an introductory lesson.  First, Hebrew reads right to left, so you can see that the two similar letters are on the left.  Second, most Hebrew words derive from three letter roots.  Hebrew adds prefixes and suffixes, but it is often helpful to know the three-letter root behind the meaning of a longer word.  Third, both modern and ancient Hebrew words can be written without vowels.  The word “Halal” in your bulletin shows the vowels underneath the consonants.  What looks like a small “T” is an “a,” pronounced like the “a” in “father.”  The other vowel is also an “a,” but it is pronounced like “cat.”

We find this root word when God says in Jeremiah 9:23-24, “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, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me” (emphasis added).

We think of boasting as primarily negative.  Synonyms included brag, show off, toot your horn.  In this passage it’s both negative and positive.  The Apostle Paul uses the Greek equivalent more than any other New Testament writer – again, sometimes positively.  He twice quotes Jeremiah 9:24, “Let him who boasts boasts in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31; 2 Corinthians 10:17). He also boasts about his friends, about his churches, and about his weakness.  What matters, apparently, is not whether you boast but what you boast about.  So what does it mean to “boast”?

Here is where knowing the Hebrew root helps.  Halal means to shine.  Its origin refers to the light radiating from the sun, the moon, and the stars.  In the age of electricity boasting is shining a spotlight.  When you try to talk yourself out of fear, what what do you shine your light on?  God tells us through Jeremiah don’t put the spotlight on wisdom, power, or wealth.

“Wisdom” is another Hebrew word we could spend some time on.  Walter Brueggemann says it “apparently means ‘technique,’ the means to control the outcome of life.”  If you think of yourself as a person who, when in a tight spot, will have the skill or talent to know exactly what to do, your spotlight is on wisdom.

“Strength” refers to the mighty man, the warrior, the hero, the hunter.  This is a person who thinks of himself as a winner, and for good reason.  His history is one of success, of exploit.  He comes out on top, so his spotlight is on strength.

“Riches” is probably the most obvious word.  The Hebrew word for wealth means “wealth.”  If you try to overcome your fear by saying, “Well, at least I’ll have enough money,” your spotlight is on the wrong thing.

Skill isn’t bad.  Experience isn’t immoral.  Money isn’t evil.  But don’t halal them.

By now you may have made another connection to this important Hebrew word.  Add two suffixes on to the root halal – “u” (the plural form of “you,” or “y’all”) and “yah” (the shortened form of Yahweh, God’s name), you get “Hallelujah” (praise ye the Lord).  To halal Yahweh is to shine the light on him in corporate worship.

Pastor Paul said to me the other day, “Hallelujah” is the opposite of Hallelu-me.  I must not shine my light on my talents, my exploits, my wealth.  Shine it on the Lord.

יָדַע Yada‘  = Know

The first letter in this word is the yod, the smallest consonant in the Hebrew alphabet, the “jot” of “jot and tittle.”  The middle letter is a “d,” but it’s made by placing your tongue against your front teeth.  The last letter is hard to pronounce.  My Hebrew grammar says it’s a “gulping sound.”  For our purposes, we’ll make it silent: yada‘. If you have heard Pastor Paul say we are to yadah the Lord – that’s a different Hebrew word with an “h” on the end.  It means to praise with uplifted hands.

Yada‘ means to know.  All spotlighting is not wrong.  God says, “Let him who halals halal about this: that he understands and yada‘s me.”

There are two verbs here, used in a poetic parallelism. The first verb, “understand” doesn’t imply that you “get” God in the sense that you always know what he’s up to.  It means that you pay attention to God.

But let’s focus on that second word: yada‘. This root word occurs almost 1000 times in the Old Testament.  It describes knowledge gained from all the senses.  We know by listening, smelling, watching, touching, and tasting.  The word is used of one person knowing another.  It’s used of sexual relations: “Adam knew his wife Eve, and she conceived” (Genesis 4:1).  It’s used of God’s knowledge of people.  “Lord, you have searched me and you know me” (Psalm 139:1).  When God called Jeremiah, he said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5).  That’s yada‘.

This same word, used of all kinds of human relationship, is also used of “knowing” God throughout the Bible.  God wanted the Israelites to observe a day of rest so they would “know that I am the Lord” (Exodus 31:13).  King David prays, “Continue your love to those who know you” (Psalm 36:10).  Hosea pleads with his countrymen, “Let us press on to know the Lord” ((Hosea 6:3).  Over in the New Testament, Jesus says, “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God” (John 17:3).  The Apostle Paul’s goal is “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection” (Philippians 3:10).  The knowledge of God is the goal of life on earth.

It comes as a surprise to many people that God can be known.  It is a word of intimacy, of relationship, of connection between two persons.  God is a personal being, and he created us in his image so that we could love and be loved, know, and be known, by him.  To yada‘ God is why he made us the way he made us.

So how do you get to know God?  Not by engaging in religious rituals – coming to church, getting baptized, taking communion, standing up at the right time to sing the songs, raising your hands, saying the Lord’s prayer, repeating the creed, dropping money into the offering plate, or reading Christian books.

You get to know God the way you get to know another human.  You invest time.  You listen.  You trust.  You watch.  You prioritize.  When the relationship gets hard, you don’t walk away.  That is the moment you hold on.  You give the benefit of the doubt.    The person I know best is my wife, Linda, because I have invested the most effort with her, through thick and thin.

Whatever you’re doing right now to come closer to God, shine a brighter spotlight on it this week – the time you spend in quiet, or in nature, or in praying, or in reading Scripture, or in community with other believers.  Above all, say to him, “God, I want to know you personally.  I want to know how you think, what matters to you, what you’re like.  I want to be on a first name basis with you.  I want to be aware of your presence.  I want to yada‘ you.”

חֶסֶד Chesed = Mercy

Jeremiah’s message from the Lord doesn’t leave us there.  If you are thinking, “Well, yes, I want to know the Lord, but what can I know of him?”  that’s verse 24.

“I am Yahweh,” God continues, “who exercises kindness, justice, and righteousness on the earth, for in these I delight” (24).

Each of these words can be a sermon.  We will focus mostly on the first one.  The word translated “kindness” in the NIV is a beautiful Hebrew word, chesed.  The “ch” is not like “chess.”  It’s more like the Scottish loch or German ich.

There has been a good bit of scholarly debate about this word.  Your bulletin says “mercy.”  That’s good, and is in some ways chesed is the Old Testament equivalent of grace.  When we realize our own sinfulness and waywardness, what we overwhelmingly experience is God’s kindness.

But there is more to this word.  The meaning is also connected to the covenant between God and his people.  It is how God acts because he made a deal with his people.  God  acts consistently with his character, and keeps his promises.  This means chesed is not only good news.  God’s promises also include discipline, punishment, and judgment.

Last week after church someone told me I sounded like a universalist.  I’m not a universalist.  God acts consistently with his promises, and his promises are not always good news.  The word chesed has this broader meaning.  It refers to the dependability of God to be God.  This is why justice and righteousness, two other important Hebrew words, are part of the picture as well.

When you halal the Lord so that you can yada‘ him, you find him to be a God of chesed.  His people may be unfaithful and erratic, but God can be depended on always to act with faithfulness, righteousness, and justice.

God says not only is this how I am, but this is what I delight in.  I want from you consistency in how you treat others with kindness, doing what is right and fair.  That matters to me.

Fearful security

Let me come back to that opening story about the trains.  I said that the people of Judah were so focused on the enemy of fear they missed an equal and opposite danger.  I agree fear is an enemy.  But like them, we too live in a culture that is almost obsessive in its fear of fear.  Like them, we will listen to anyone who says it’s going to be all right.  Like them, we trust in the wrong things.  Like them, we rely on false gods and false worship.  More on that to come in Jeremiah.

So what is the opposite danger they were missing, which we also are prone to miss?  I hope you non-sports fans will pardon a football analogy.

So far it has been a disappointing year for the Carolina Panthers.  Every NFL fan believes their team has great potential every year, or at least hopes so.  But this year even the experts said our defense and special teams should be greatly improved to complement our explosive offense.  When I had the chance to go to this past Thursday night’s game and watch the game live, I was excited because I figured this game would show we are going to be a playoff team.  Instead, our team was horribly inept and my friend Steve Tillery, a New York Giants fan, can gloat again.

I am probably way out of my league (no pun intended) in trying to figure out what’s going on, but here’s my theory.  In the two games the Panthers lost I think our team was overconfident.  In the first game they played a team that lost ten in a row to end last season.  In Thursday night’s game they were playing last year’s Super Bowl champion, but the Giants had some key injuries.  I think on some level they went into those games thinking, “We are talented.  We got this one.”  And they got crushed.

There’s a fine line in sports between confidence and overconfidence, and I don’t think this team has learned that lesson.  It’s the difference between using your assets and resting on your laurels.  Fear is a bad thing in sports.  Intimidation works against you.  But arrogance and a false sense of security – that you have nothing to fear at all – will also lead to a mighty defeat.  What a football team needs is a desperate confidence.

So it is with our spiritual lives.  What a believer needs is a fearful security.  Nobody wants to be afraid.  We are intently watching the “fear train” – and we should.  God doesn’t want us to live in fear.  We are his, and he is God.

But while we are staring down our fears, we are so prone to being blindsided by false security. In our attempt to displace fear, we put our confidence in the wrong things – wisdom, strength, and wealth, for example.  A false security is just as grave a spiritual danger as insecurity.

The two trains are really the same spiritual problem.  What we want is independence.  We want to be able to say, “I’m good.  I can relax.  I don’t need anything.  I’ve got it covered.”  We would never say it out loud, but we really want to say, “I don’t need God.”  We want to hallelu-me.  That is the ultimate idolatry, and it leads to hell.  Because if I don’t need God I don’t need forgiveness, I don’t need Jesus.

God give us enough fear to seek our salvation and our security in him.  Amen.

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