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November 4th, 2012

Why should we care for the vulnerable?  Precisely because there is no return.

Jeremiah 49:7-11

November 4, 2012

Loose conversation

On Wednesday of this past week I received an e-mail from my brother Jim titled, “Unimportant email, bordering on junk: An important accomplishment of the (larger) Thompson clan.”  Jim had discovered the United States currently has 22 verified living supercentenarians – those who have attained the age of 110 or more.  Elsie Thompson (almost 114) lives in Florida, and Opal Thompson (almost 112) lives in California.  Jim approved the following statement for “loose conversation” by his siblings:  “About ten percent of the verified U.S. supercentenarians are Thompsons.”  My brother Doug wants this in my book.  My sister Elizabeth said Jim has too much time on his hands.

My brother specifically asked me to work this factoid into a sermon. As you can see, I have successfully done so.  Jim also suggested a sense of urgency for this sermonic material, as well as for any attempt to use his summary statement as grounds for swanker.  It would be embarrassing to boast about the 10% only to learn that either Elsie or Opal had gone to meet her maker and the ten percent had been halved.

It doesn’t count as working this information into a sermon unless it has a point related to today’s Scripture.  Some of you are wondering where I am going with this.  Then again, some of you are wondering where I am going with Jeremiah 49:7-11.  I left a couple of Bible study groups this week wondering what great spiritual point I might make about God’s judgment on the Edomites.  Steve Brackett wrote me an e-mail after Bible study and said, “We wondered why you selected these verses for a sermon.”

Message to the nations

The main reason I chose Jeremiah 49:7-11 for a sermon is because of its reference to orphans and widows, since today is Orphan Sunday.  But as I always do, I found there are so many layers to this text beyond what I expected to find.

We are nearing the end of our study on Jeremiah, a prophet who straddles the worst moment in the history of Israel’s 4000 years since the time of Abraham.  In 586 B.C., the Babylonians demolished Jerusalem with a cruel vengeance.  At that point, Jerusalem was all that was left of what had once been a strategic and strong united kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon four centuries earlier.  Now it was gone, and Jeremiah both predicted the destruction in advance and reflected on it afterward.

Chapters 46-51 of Jeremiah are unusual in that they are not written about Israel or Judah.  They address Egypt, Babylon, and the smaller nations bordering Israel.  So what is God’s message to the nations?  “You’re going down!”  It is the divine equivalent of trash talk, like the kind I delivered to Pastor Bill about my Panthers beating his Bears last Sunday.  (And for about 47 of 48 minutes of playing time, I thought I was right.)

This prophetic word of doom has two primary purposes.  First, it comforts Israel to know that those who oppose her will be judged.  Second, as Walter Brueggemann says, “It is an unmistakable witness to the relentless rule of Yahweh”[1] over all the Nations.  Jeremiah’s call in chapter 1 was as a prophet to “nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down.”  God had said, “You must go to everyone I send you and say whatever I command you.”  Don’t fear, just do it.

Why does Jeremiah spend so much time pronouncing doom on non-Israelites?  Because God knows them as well, cares about them as well, wants intimacy with them as well.  By the way, “them” (non-Jews) is “us.”  Let’s be careful applying God’s messages and promises to Jews to us.  We do not disregard it, because we have been “grafted in” to the family tree (Romans 11:17ff.).  All of God’s Word speaks to all of us as believers. For our nation, especially on this weekend before the election, we should pay attention and pray with a keen ear for Jeremiah’s message to the surrounding nations.  The USA is not Israel.  It is one of “the nations.”

The message to the nations in Jeremiah 46 is distinctively different from the message to God’s chosen people.  When God judges Israel, he judges them on two bases: loyalty and faithfulness to the terms of the covenant.  Negatively, idolatry and disobedience.  It turns out, they fail both tests, dramatically.  They whore after other gods than Yahweh.  This is their greatest sin.  And they flagrantly violate God’s laws, especially the Sabbath.  As we said a couple of weeks ago, this is why God changes course and writes a new covenant based on intimacy (even if it’s imperfect) rather than outward conformity.  We humans all fail miserably on outward conformity.

Three forms of pride

Let’s turn to Jeremiah 49:7-11.  I have read chapters 46-51 carefully over the past week or so, looking for the central theme or cohesive message.  Jeremiah finds an astounding variety of ways to say to the nations, “God will judge you.”  In our text we read about Edom phrases like this: “I will bring disaster” (8), “I will punish” (8), “I will strip Esau bare” (10), “I will uncover his hiding places” (10), “he will be no more” (10).

Have you heard of Edom?  No.  This prophecy was fulfilled.  The nation no longer exists.  They were the descendants of Esau, Jacob’s twin brother, and they had harassed Israel for 1500 years.  Jeremiah now said, “You will be no more,” and he was right.

What I was interested in as I read these chapters was not so much what would happen to the nations as why.  If God is not going to complain about idolatry or disobedience (and how can he, if these nations that do not know Yahweh or have his laws), what does he condemn them for?

Pride.  What God hates, what God judges in all the nations, is pride.  Even if you don’t have the knowledge of God or the law of God, what will be your downfall is arrogance.  Brueggemann calls it “self-aggrandizement.”  He writes, “Yahweh is the character in the drama of world history who overrides national pretensions and chastens every self-serving idolatry.”[2]

Pride takes three primary forms – self-sufficiency, self-righteousness, and self-obsession.  Let me illustrate all three from Jim’s e-mail and point them out in this text, then apply all three forms of pride to today’s emphasis on orphans and widows.

Keep in mind that as I point to my brother’s “junk mail” on supercentenarian Thompsons, I’m doing so in the same spirit in which he sent it – some light fun.  But the analogy works to make some very heavy points about our worst spiritual enemy as individuals and as a nation.

First, pride is self-sufficiency.  The verification of these 110+ seniors comes the Gerontology Research Group (GRG).  You think my brother doesn’t have enough to do?  These folks in the GRG actually spend their time verifying the supercentenarians – whether they are still living and whether they were born when they claim to have been born.  They update this list daily on their web site, sending congratulations to those who have been “verified” and mourning the passing of those who may not have made it to their 115th birthday.

Why do some people live longer than others?  Everybody has a theory, and I suppose everyone who makes it past 100 is asked for theirs.  At 110, I’m sure the question gets old.  (Pun intended.)  Dr. Stephen Coles, who maintains the list of supercentenarians, answers in two words:  “It’s inherited.”

So since 10% of the world’s supercentenarians are Thompsons, that means I’m good to go, right?  I’ve got a better shot than you, anyway.  See how easy it is for self-sufficiency to sneak in the human heart?  Like the nations, we turn our assets into pride.

Look at verse 7.  “Is there no longer wisdom in Teman?  Has counsel perished from the prudent?  Has their wisdom decayed?”  We are likely to pass over this verse until we know that among the nations of the Middle East in Jeremiah’s time, Edom was legendary for its wisdom literature.  Yahweh is mocking them for they consider their greatest strength.  He does this with other nations as well.  Moab was known for its military defense and offense.  God says to them in 48:14, “How can you say, ‘We are warriors, men valiant in battle’?”  And in 48:18, “Come down from your glory and sit on the parched ground…for he who destroys Moab will…ruin your fortified cities.”  48:29 is more direct:  “We have heard of Moab’s pride – her overweening pride and conceit, her pride and arrogance and the haughtiness of her heart.”  God hates pride – in a person and in a nation.  The well-known proverb, “Pride goes before a fall,” comes from the Bible (Proverbs 16:18).

God hates self-sufficiency and will turn a nation’s strength against it.  I recently read a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pastor-theologian who was martyred at the end of World War II for his participation in a conspiracy against Adolf Hitler.  Germany’s war machine was unmatched in its early success as it snowballed through Europe, adding nations and their military to its seeming invincible world domination.  We know the end of that story.  This is the kind of message Jeremiah gives to nations who put their confidence in their assets.  God will trip those who believe they can never fall.

Second, pride is self-righteousness.  When asked how she made it past 110, Elsie Thompson credits her love for Jesus.  Opal says it is because she loves people.  Since there are lots of people who love Jesus and who love people and still die young, I will have to say those are non-factors.  I’d like someone to hear them say, “It’s in the genes,” or, better yet, “I don’t know.  I’m no better than anyone else.  It’s God’s grace.”

As God judges Edom, he once again mocks their pride, this time in the form of self-righteousness.  “Turn and flee, hide in deep caves,” he says in verse 8.  Unlike Moab, Edom was not known for its military, but its geographical strength in a mountainous region was its caves that thwarted traditional military strategies, much like the Taliban in modern Afghanistan and Pakistan.

God says in verse 10, “I will strip Esau bare; I will uncover his hiding places, so that he cannot conceal himself.”  I hope I am not stretching the text too much, but I read here a metaphor for self-righteousness.  We all tend to hide from God and from others, believing what happens in Vegas or behind the walls of our home, or in front of the computer screen, or in the invisible corners of our hearts will never be exposed.  A teenager e-mailed me this week and said, “Pastor Bob, can we talk?  I’ve been hiding my sin for too long.”  I’m so proud of him.  What courage!  He had been terrified to tell anyone, and will be surprised at how much grace and strength comes in confession.

Even nations have dirty secrets. Again, I can’t help but relate this to Germany’s pogrom against the Jews, unknown to most of its own people who believed they were fighting for the honor of their country after the humiliation of World War I. Astoundingly, Adolf Hitler believed in his own righteousness.  The conspiracy Bonhoeffer participated in, years in the making, barely missed taking the dictator’s life on July 20, 1944.  A massive table leg spared fuehrer from the fury of the bomb planted with intent to kill him.  Hitler declared, “It was Providence that spared me.  This proves that I’m on the right track.  I feel that this is the confirmation of all my work.”[3]

Third, pride is self-obsession.  Let’s go back to those supercentenarian Thompsons.  Why is it of interest to me that Thompsons live longer?   Because, of course, I’m a Thompson!  Anything to brag on the family name.

How easily the pride of self-obsession is exposed as futile.  Some of you have already realized that we Thompsons can’t really boast in the longevity of Opal and Elsie?  Their genetic advantage has nothing to do with me. Why?  Sadly, I learned that these women only married into the Thompson name.  Their biological Thompson husbands died much younger than they.  Yet another boast deflated.

Self-obsession is a particularly deceptive form of pride, since there is sometimes a fine line between self-awareness and even self-care, versus self-obsession.  The Bible teaches from one end of the other, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” using self-love as a a motivation and a baseline.  Nations, too, should care for their own affairs, provide for their own needs, defend their own borders.  But when self-love becomes self-obsession – often gradually and imperceptibly over time – it is a self-destructive form of pride.

This is where God addresses Edom on the subject of orphans and widows.  Look at verse 11.  “Leave your orphans; I will protect their lives.  Your widows too can trust in me.”  Brueggemann notes that this verse is “an odd footnote.”  In a message on judgment, God turns soft-hearted.  War’s casualties are not only dead and wounded soldiers, they are women and children without protection and provision.

While great nations boast and fight, God never forgets those who are overlooked and abandoned.  They are particular objects of his care, and those who care for the most vulnerable in a society reflect the heart of God.  Tim Laniak, Dean of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in Charlotte, notes, “The divine preference for human agency is amazingly resilient.”[4] When God cares for widows and orphans, he does so through us.  This is a concern all through the Old Testament Law, but you can flip all the way to the end of the New Testament and find James saying, “Religion God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27).

Reading Bonhoeffer’s biography, I came across again this famous quote from his colleague Martin Niemoller, who advocated working with the Nazis early in the rise of the Third Reich.  He survived the death camp, but he also penned these words from prison –

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –

because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out –

because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –

because I was not a Jew.

And then they came for me –

and they was no one left to speak for me.”

Why should we visit widows?  Why should we care for the lonely and vulnerable?  Why should adopt orphans or sponsor children?  Precisely because we gain no direct benefit.  Over the next few weeks in particular, you will have many opportunities to show your care to those who will never give back and will probably never be able to say “thank you” – a blood drive, Christmas shoeboxes, Thanksgiving meals, blankets, Angel tree gifts.  When we fail to speak and act on behalf of orphans and widows – because “I am not an orphan or widow,” we not only ignore the heart of God, we create the risk that at our own most vulnerable moments, no one will care.

Self-examination

As you vote Tuesday, and as you watch the returns, pray for our country.  One of the reasons we want to end Tuesday with a simple service of communion here in the sanctuary is that it is an act of humility.  Honestly, I’m not expecting a large turnout.  But I hope those who do come will just gather quietly to remember again that our identity in Christ trumps our political loyalties.  And that we need to pray for our country.

I am not particularly optimistic that this election or any other will get at the root of our national problem, which is pride.  For some in our country, pride is self-sufficiency.  It’s boasting in our military or prosperity.  For others, it’s self-righteousness – feeling good about our advocacy and wanting to extend it.  For still others, it’s self-obsession with making our name great, taking care of us first.  Pride is a non-partisan, non-discriminatory destroyer of nations as well as individuals.

What I think we have to be careful of as believers, whatever our political persuasion, is seeing only the pride of others.  It’s easy to see in 1940 Germany.  Maybe it’s easy for you to see in Thompsons.  It’s easy for Democrats to see it in Republicans, and Republicans to see it in Democrats.

What I pray is for the greater ability to turn disgust at others’ pride into self-examination, and self-examination into action and advocacy, especially for “the least of these.”  Amen.



[1] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah, 424.

[2] Brueggemann, 420.

[3][3] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 481.

[4] Timothy S. Laniak, Shepherds after My own Heart (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 160.

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