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September 9th, 2012

Demolition is never the end of the story.

Jeremiah 1:4-10

September 9, 2012

No teddy bear

One of my goals as a preacher is to share with you my love for the Bible.  I don’t worship this book or look to it for some kind of superstitious value.  I do believe it is God’s Word, and the Holy Spirit inspired all of it to reveal God to us through Jesus Christ.  I treasure this collection of stories, songs, poems, sermons, letters – even the parts that seem strange to our modern ears.  I want you to love it – all of it – as I do.

I might have a bit of a challenge on my hands for the next few weeks. We will be reading and studying a book of the Bible that is not exactly warm and fuzzy.  Jeremiah is no teddy bear.  If you like to be around positive people, Jeremiah’s not that.  The primary complaint of his contemporaries was that he was that his message was so consistently negative.  If you have little empathy for those down in the dumps, your instinct will be to move away from Jeremiah, often called “the weeping prophet.”  If you have a short attention span, ‘round about the end of October you’re going to write me a note and say, “Now…how many more weeks do we need to hear about Jeremiah?”  By word count, Jeremiah ties with Psalms for the longest book in the Bible.

So why study Jeremiah?  First, because it’s God’s Word.  The Holy Spirit saw to it that Jewish and Christian believers preserved and circulated Jeremiah’s prophecy because he speaks not only to their generation but to every generation.

Second, because Christmas is right around the corner.  Every year at this time, we try to spend some time in the Old Testament, usually the prophets.  We want to make you anxious, thirsty, longing for the coming of Jesus.  The rhythm of the church calendar is such that the four weeks of Advent create that sense of anticipation.  Jeremiah will make Advent so much sweeter.

Third, we study Jeremiah because we need to hear him.  Even if you prefer to be around only positive people, you don’t need to be around them.  Jeremiah won’t tell you what you want to hear, but he will tell you what you need to know.

And finally, we study Jeremiah because like every other prophet, like every other book of the Bible, he points us forward.  Jeremiah’s faith is in a sovereign God who is a reason to look forward if there is no other reason.  There will be a new and different covenant between God and his people, Jeremiah will tell us, much better and deeper than the old one.  But first the old one will have to be dismantled.  At the end of the day, Jeremiah’s message is hope, but it’s not “hope now.”  There will have to be some pain – a lot of pain – before the reason for hope is visible.

.  We are in such a hurry to turn things around, to feel good again, to move on, that we don’t learn the lessons God intended us to learn in the pain, through the waiting.  When we don’t learn those lessons, we risk exchanging old failures for new.

So be a grown up and realize the medicine Jeremiah is administering may taste like liver mush mixed with rotten egg jelly beans.  Open your mouth anyway, pinch your nose if you have to as you swallow, because you know this medicine is good for you.  Turn in your Bible to Jeremiah 1, p. 1169 in the pew Bible.

Before we get into today’s reading in Jeremiah, here’s a paragraph about Jeremiah’s historical setting.  He preached a couple of decades on either side of 600 years before Christ.  In the first three verses of his book he tells us his father was a priest.  Jeremiah began his ministry when Josiah was on the throne.  Josiah was the last of the kings in Judah who were loyal to God’s Word.  After him there was a rapid spiritual decline, and Jeremiah lists the sons of Josiah who ruled after him.  2 Chronicles 36 tells us they all “did evil in the eyes of the LORD” as the nation staggered towards its date with judgment in 586 B.C.  Most of Jeremiah’s sermons were preached during the reigns of these evil kings as he warned them and the people of what was to come.

Set apart and appointed (4-5)

Jeremiah begins by telling the story of God’s call on his life.  “The word of the LORD came to me,” he says in verse 4.  Verse 1 says this book records “the words of Jeremiah.”  This book is both – the word of God and the words of a man.

The Lord continues in verse 5 with a poetic call –

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,

Before you were born I set you apart;

I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.

Three verbs stand out in verse 5: knew, set apart, and appointed.  Even before Jeremiah was born, God knew him.  The NIV footnote says it could be translated, God chose him.  There’s a strong sense of divine destiny for his life, and I believe it applies to all of us.  Before you were born, God knew all about you and how he would use the course of your life.  I think about my own birth 56 years ago this month.  My mother was RH negative, and it was dangerous for her to carry this unplanned pregnancy, the fourth of her five children.  The doctor asked Mom, “Do you want to get rid of it?”  He was talking about me.  My mother would later say, “Your Dad and I planned the first three; the Lord planned you and David.”  I think the Lord planned the first three as well.  He knew me before I was born, and he knew you.

The verb “set apart” is from the same Hebrew root as “holy” – kadosh. Jeremiah was to have a special mission.  The New Testament uses this word of all of us – we are called to be kadosh, to be holy, sanctified, set apart.

The third verb, “appointed,” leads to God’s special mission for Jeremiah.  The name Jeremiah means “the one the Lord appoints,” so there may be a play on his name when God uses a synonym to say, “I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” This word literally means “to give.”  We speak of spiritual gifts, and we know God gives gifts to all of us to serve the church and the world.  Jeremiah’s gift is to be a prophet.

The call to be a prophet does not necessarily feel to Jeremiah like a gift.  He is the son of a priest, and not one of the priests who lives in Jerusalem.  He is born into a family with a rather predictable calling.  Being a priest carries honor and responsibility, but you know what life will be like.  It has to do with ritual, helping people connect to God, but mostly one on one.  When people sin, they find a priest, and he helps them do the right thing to atone for the sin and get back together with God.  Priests are likeable, because they’re there when you feel most vulnerable and need God.  Priests are supported by the tithes and offerings of the people.

This is a new twist, an unwanted change of calling.  He’s been groomed for the priesthood from his earliest memory.  But a prophet is public, a prophet is confrontational, a prophet’s life is unpredictable, a prophet has no guaranteed income.  Jeremiah knows it.  Furthermore, he is to be a “prophet to the nations.”  Think Jonah.

No fear (6-8)

Now you know why Jeremiah’s response in verse 6 is what it is.  “Ah, Sovereign LORD,” he says, “I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.”  “Child” is probably not the best translation.  The updated NIV says “I am only a youth.”  Jeremiah is about 20 years old, give or take a couple of years.  But remember, he has not prepared for a speaking vocation.   He wants to serve, wants to minister, wants to assure people their sins are forgiven.  He does not want to preach.

God responds:  “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth.’  You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you” (7).  When God calls, age is irrelevant.

Verse 8: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you.”  Uh-oh.  God was on a roll there for a moment.  The whole “no fear” thing was comforting, especially with the promise of God’s presence.  But when God adds, “I will rescue you,” if I am Jeremiah, I’m thinking, “From what?”

At the time of Jeremiah’s call there is a spiritual revival going on in Judah.    Nothing about his homeland feels spiritually threatening to someone speaking God’s word at the moment.  Maybe it’s all those other nations that will be the problem.  Little does he know that the rescue he will need the most will be from his own countrymen.

Demolition before construction (9-10)

In verses 9-10, God continues both encouraging Jeremiah and making him uneasy.  He touches his mouth, a symbolic and intimate act of assurance.  And he uses yet another synonym for “appointed.”  God has appointed him to address the nations  (remember, his ministry is not just in Judah) to…(notice the six verbs in three pairs)

·       …uproot and tear down

·       …destroy and overthrow

·       …build and plant

This is a mix of farming and building metaphors.  If we separate out the metaphors, you have to uproot and plow under a field before you can plant a new crop.  You must raze ruins before a new building can start.  On this anniversary week of 9-11, we remember how long it took to tear down the rubble of the Twin Towers before One World Trade Center could be built.

Jeremiah’s role was to announce that it was time to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow.  The end of an era had arrived, but it would not be the end of the story.  Babylon would overthrow Jerusalem, but after the captivity hope would be reborn.  There would be a gap that would seem as if all had been lost, but God would restore his people.

Jeremiah needed to know at the beginning of his ministry the same thing you and I need to know at every point in our lives. Demanding immediate and visible results from God is spiritually hazardous.  You only make yourself miserable when you insist that you cannot be happy unless God fixes things….now.  That’s not how God works.

I preached a funeral and a wedding yesterday afternoon.  In many ways the theme of both was this theme of demolition before construction.

Leo Collins lost his father at age 8, lost his family shortly thereafter when he was placed in an orphanage during the depression, lost his health in the Korean War, lost his first wife of a heart attack when their three children were under the age of 5, lost the support of his church when he remarried to a divorcee, lost his second wife to a long illness, lost three children by miscarriage, and lost three of his five grown children before he himself died.  Yet we knew him as a person of welcome and service.  Leo demonstrated that suffering produces character.

Greta Bolick and Bill Whetzel were married yesterday at Greta’s home, both of them battered by life through the decades wondering if anyone could truly love them.  They bore witness that God destroys before he builds.

God will tear down your financial security so he can build up your faith. God will uproot your pride so he can replant your trust. God will take away the one you think you love and depend on so he can replace them with intimacy only he can provide.  God will crush your dreams so he can grow your faith.  God will expose your sins so he can demonstrate grace.  Demolition before construction is how he works.

Jeremiah’s lesson that will be reinforced throughout his book is this: let the demolition begin.  Don’t fight it.  Demolition is never the end of the story.

Grand and greater things

This past week I heard a remarkable story about a more contemporary restoration after a period in history that seemed…well, like a period.  Like the end. Last Sunday I baptized Ava Matthews, the daughter of Nick and Alaura, who are in the Pastor’s Class.  Nick’s parents, Chris and Beth Matthews, were with us.  They are from Hickory and are currently serve as missionaries in Spain.  Chris and I went out to breakfast on Thursday to get better acquainted, and this is the story he told me.

Chris Matthews directs Al Andalus Theological Seminary in Seville, the fourth largest city in Spain.  In Seville is a monastery owned by the Spanish government, which is trying to sell some of its assets due to the current fiscal crisis.

The story Chris told me begins almost fifteen hundred years ago when a seminary was first established in Spain by a reform-minded Catholic bishop named Isidore who believed all bishops should receive training in the Bible and theology.  Centuries passed, including a period of time where the Muslims were in control of the region.  At the end of the 13th century when the Catholics regained control an illegitimate son of a Castilian nobleman named Guzman el Bueno, inspired by Isidore, built a monastery in Seville.  The Monastery of San Isidoro was run by several different orders of monks for two centuries, always, of course, in the tradition of the Medieval Catholic church, which even Catholics today agree went way off course from the Gospel.

By the sixteenth century, however, many of the monks and even the villagers around Seville had been influenced by the Protestant Reformation – thanks to smuggled books from the writings of Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin.  They had begun to trust Christ alone for their salvation instead of the church.  They had begun to translate and read the Bible in Spanish instead of Latin.  They had stopped praying to the saints.  Isidore’s original vision of a biblical faith was reborn in Seville.

The Spanish Reformation, however, was to be shortlived in contrast to the reform movements in Switzerland and Germany.  Previously, in 1478 Ferdinand and Isabella, the same monarchs who sent Columbus to America, had asked the pope for permission to begin the Spanish Inquisition, which lasted for three centuries.  Their purpose was to unite their people through religion, and the inquisition rounded up Jews, Protestants, and any other heretics for public trial and intimidation.  The only way a heretic would be spared would be by recanting and identifying other heretics.

In 1556 Phillip II of Spain turned his zeal for the Catholic church on the Protestant reformers, especially all who would dare to use any Bible but the Latin Vulgate.  3000 Protestants were taken to the Castle of St. George in Seville.  The Grand Inquisitor tortured some to death, and the rest were taken to the edge of the city and tied to stakes.  The Inquisitor told the people, “If anyone wishes to believe you might be saved by grace through faith alone, if anyone wishes to believe there is salvation outside of the holy Mother Roman Catholic church,  if anyone wishes to have a Bible in their own language, this is what will happen to you.”  They lit the fires and burned what was left of the 3000 believers alive while thousands more watched from bleachers built for the occasion.  The Spanish Reformation ended that day in 1560.

But some monks had escaped to Germany, Switzerland, or Britain to study, gather Spanish congregations, and translate the Bible.  One of them, Cipriano de Valero, studied at Cambridge in London and wrote these words in 1588:  “If one day God shows mercy to Sevilla, it will make sense that the monastery of San Isidoro become a university where theology is mainly professed … Such grand and greater things than these God has done in our time.”

Guess what?  The 700-year-old monastery of San Isidoro has become available after having been vacant for thirty years.  The seminary Chris Matthews directs, which teaches a new generation of Spanish pastors the Scripture and the Gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone, is negotiating to buy that seminary and fulfill the 424-year-old prophecy dream of Cipriano de Valero.  Those who love the Bible and believe its message may soon live out Isidore’s original mission 1500 years ago.

I needed that story.  Later in this sermon series on Jeremiah, I want to share with you more about the call that Linda and I have lived for more than three decades in the United Church of Christ.  People find it strange that we should hang in there with little evidence of change or hope.  It’s not about the evidence you can see.  It’s not about needing to see change in our lifetime.  God’s call on your life is not about visible results.  Sometimes generations will pass before new life emerges where devastation seemed to eradicate hope.  At any given moment in history, God is as much in the business of tearing down as he is in building up.

When we can release the need to be happy now, successful now, worry-free now, we find a deeper sense of contentment and a more profound peace.  God formed you.  God has set you apart. God has called you.  You are his in Christ.   Trust him even when he calls you to the difficult place or leads you through the demolition process.  Hope is on the other side.  Jeremiah teaches us that lesson, and it’s just one reason I love this book and want you to love it too. Amen.

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