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November 18th, 2012

Some secrets need to be told to keep others from feeling alone in their struggles.

Jeremiah 45:1-5

November 21, 2012

Jeremiah’s secretary

The man identified as “Baruch” in Jeremiah 45 is often called Jeremiah’s secretary.  I was wondering out loud in a Bible study group this week whether that’s an accurate description, since the book of Jeremiah never calls him Jeremiah’s secretary.  So I asked the group if they knew the meaning and origin of “secretary.”  After all, it’s used of office staff, of high level government officials (Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and so on), and of a piece of furniture.  What do these have in common?

Since none of us in the Thursday Bible study group knew the answer off the top of our heads, and since I had my laptop in front of me, I did a quick check on Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary.  Before I tell you, I’m going to give you 10 seconds to turn to your neighbor and tell what you think is the etymology of “secretary.”  Are you smarter than my Bible study group?

I can tell you that I felt really dumb for missing something so obvious.  “Secretary” comes from the Latin secretum, which means “secret.”  A secretary keeps secrets!  I was so excited I went over and commended Barbara, Jan Caldwell, and Jan Ketcham, all of whom perform secretarial functions in our office, for the great job they do in keeping confidences. Their number one job is to keep their lips closed about who comes to see a pastor and why (if they know), what people give to the church, what problems they hear about, and so on.  The President’s or Governor’s cabinet members are secretaries because they are his closest confidantes.  The piece of furniture called a secretary generally has a lock on it, because it was designed not only as a writing desk but as a place to store secrets.  Now you know.

We come across the name “Baruch” in four passages in Jeremiah’s prophecy. (By the way, today is our final sermon in this series, except that the anonymous book which follows Jeremiah, Lamentations, is also considered by many to have been written by Jeremiah.  Whether it was or not, it is a fitting appendix to Jeremiah.  So we will take a look at that book next week.) “Secretary” is an appropriate term for Baruch, each of the four passages where he is mentioned has something to do with secrets.

In chapter 32, we first meet Baruch as the trustee of a deed, a legal document verifying Jeremiah’s purchase of a piece of real estate.  Baruch places the deed in a clay jar, which everyone knows is the best place to preserve an important document.  It worked for the Qumran community with the Dead Sea Scrolls for about 2000 years.

In chapter 36, Baruch becomes more of a prototypical secretary as he takes dictation from Jeremiah.  God has told Jeremiah to put in writing all of the prophetic speeches he has been giving for more than two decades, and Jeremiah chooses Baruch to accomplish this task, which takes about a year if not longer.  The two of them for that length of time are keeping secret this process.  Put a mental book marker there, because we will come back to this point in the story.  Jeremiah then asks Baruch to read the scrolls publicly at the temple and then to the king’s cabinet (his “secretaries”).  They are sufficiently alarmed at the prophecies of judgment that they first tell Jeremiah and Baruch to hide (find a “secret” place) and then they read the scroll to the king, Jehoiakim.  The king not only shows no fear, he has the scroll cut up section by section and thrown into his fireplace.  Still in hiding, Jeremiah and Baruch repeat the painstaking process of dictating and recording all Jeremiah’s prophecies.

In chapter 43, we run into Baruch again, and we also run into what a professor in my Doctor of Ministry program called one of the “burdens of leadership.”  I don’t even think this one was on his list, but one of the burdens of leadership is the burden of secrets.  You can’t tell everything you know – no one can, but this is especially true of leaders.  The reason secrets are a burden is that they create suspicion among those who are not privy to the secrets.  Chapter 43 takes place after the fall of Jerusalem, 15 years or so after the scroll-writing and scroll-burning episode, and by this time Jeremiah and Baruch are so closely identified that people are suspicious of who’s the primary source of these alleged messages from God.  They now tell Jeremiah, “You are not channeling the voice of God – you are parroting what Baruch told you, aren’t you?”

Baruch is a secretary is a confidante.  What happens between Jeremiah and Baruch stays between Jeremiah and Baruch.  Baruch is a keeper of secrets. When I realized that, chapter 45, the fourth passage where Baruch appears in Jeremiah, took on new meaning.  I found three lessons in this passage about secrets.

Lesson 1: Some secrets need to be told.

Chapter 45 is an exception to what I said earlier, that what happens between Baruch and Jeremiah stays between them.  This is the only place we learn about a conversation between the two of them, except when Jeremiah back in chapter 32 to put his deed in a clay jar.  In chapter 45, the conversation is personal – the kind of conversation you wouldn’t necessarily want your best friend to proclaim to the world.  Only because Baruch is Jeremiah’s secretary, he apparently has given his approval.  Furthermore, this secret is one that exposes not only Baruch’s personal relationship with Jeremiah, but his personal relationship with Yahweh.  I can picture Jeremiah telling his secretary, “Hey, while you’re writing, let’s add in that story about your private complaint to God and how God rebuked you.”  Let’s put that in the scroll, and make your spiritual struggle permanently public, OK?

This passage is so different from the rest of Jeremiah some scholars have even wondered if it belongs.  When you are dealing with the catastrophic end of Jerusalem, the temple, and David’s dynasty, why does it even matter if Baruch is struggling with his faith?  Apparently the Holy Spirit believes it does, because what matters in the great turning points of history is how individual believers respond.

Remember that mental book marker in chapter 36?  It was right before Baruch was sent to the temple to read Jeremiah’s messages.  Insert chapter 45 back in that story, because Jeremiah is not in chronological order.  Although Jeremiah has already told us about the fall of Jerusalem, we go back to the time 15 years earlier when Jeremiah was dictating his prophecies in secret to Baruch.  As Jeremiah does so, Baruch apparently begins to complain to God.  Look at verses 3 and 5 of our text.  He says, “What’s going to happen to me?  This is SO hard?  I can’t take this!  I can’t sleep, I’m in pain, and I’m depressed.”  We never had a hint of those distraught feelings back in chapter 36.  All we saw then was the loyal confidante – the scribe who dutifully wrote out Jeremiah’s words of doom column after column.

Baruch has complained privately to God.  Surprisingly, God ratted on Baruch to Jeremiah!  “This is what God told me you said, Baruch,” Jeremiah says in verse 3.  “Woe to me!  The LORD has added sorrow to my pain; I am worn out with growing and find no rest.”  Baruch, Jeremiah says, let’s talk about that!  God has an answer for you.

Some secrets need to be kept.  We all need to be “secretaries” with some things we know.

But some secrets need to be told.  One reason to tell a secret is if keeping it is destroying people who know and protecting sin and evil.  General David Patraeus and Paula Broadwell had a secret that needed to be told.  It was destructive for them and for their families.  It was potentially destructive for the United States of America.  The secret needed to get out. It was good for Baruch that Jeremiah confronted him.

A second reason to tell a secret is if it will help others.  In writing my book, I decided it would be really helpful to other parents of young adults if I shared some private stories about our family, focusing on what I missed as a Dad.  My sister, who is reading my draft chapters, had not commented on any of my chapters until this one.  On reading chapter 9, she immediately picked up the phone and said, in so many words, “We don’t share this kind of personal information in our family!”   She said I am a mystery even to my siblings, and now I plan to put all this in print for the world.

Of course, I didn’t write that chapter without the permission of my wife and our children.  But some secrets need to be told to keep others from feeling along in their private worlds of pain, struggle, and failure.  When we share our stories, we encourage others.  Baruch was hardly the only person who has ever continued doing the right thing while inwardly calling out to God and saying, “I can’t take this any longer!”

Lesson 2: Sometimes things get worse before they get better

Just as I was getting ready to write this next part of my sermon, an e-mail popped up on my screen yesterday asking for prayer for one of our families whose home is at risk because of the current economy.  In any crisis, some individuals pay a greater price than others.  Sometimes that price is financial, sometimes it’s emotional, sometimes it’s spiritual.  Baruch knew about the personal price of a national crisis.

The entire book of Jeremiah is written about an all-encompassing catastrophe for his nation that was 100 times worse that the current economic situation in the U.S.  Here is Jeremiah dictating column after column about what he knew was coming.  Bad news, worse, then even worse for the nation.  God tells Jeremiah to remind Baruch what he had written on the scroll:  “This is what the LORD says: I will overthrow what I have built and uproot what I have planted, throughout the land” (v. 4).  This was not new news for Baruch.  He had undoubtedly recorded Jeremiah 1:10, “See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow….”  The message has not changed.  But in Jeremiah’s call from chapter 1, God continues, “…to build and to plant.”  The current crisis is not the end of the story.  Things will get better.  But they will first get worse.

In the “getting worse” situation, it’s only natural to ask, “What’s going to happen to me?”  Baruch thought he was talking only to God as he dutifully recorded Jeremiah’s words.  “I want to be great.  It’s in my blood.  It’s in my genes.”  God says to Baruch through Jeremiah, “Should you then seek great things for yourself?  Seek them not” (5).

Baruch’s brother Seraiah, you see, was a rising star.  Jeremiah was not.  Seraiah would become an important official in the cabinet of Judah’s final king (51:59).  This probably means that Baruch himself was of noble birth and a person of significant potential under normal circumstances.  He realized in the copying of Jeremiah’s scroll that both the short term and long term were bleak for him personally.  The “greatness” he had grown up thinking would be his was slipping past him.  What lay ahead was humiliation.  By being “chosen” as Jeremiah’s secretary, his potential for advancement was nil.

The message is a nutshell to Baruch is, “Don’t make this about you.”  That’s where the irony of the big picture is so encouraging.  In that moment all the somebodies with big incomes and well known names were in the palace.  Here was Baruch sharing secrets with an unpopular prophet.  But when the dust settled over the story, and the scroll itself got deposited in a clay jar, the job Baruch thought he wanted (officer in Judah) wouldn’t turn out to be much.  Those guys all got an axe in their back or a noose around their neck or a chain on their feet as they were led on a 500-mile journey to Babylon.  And we know almost nothing about most of them.

But we’re still talking about Baruch.  His heroism, his faithfulness, his loyalty, his work, his perseverance are a remarkable model for us.  Remember, these instructions from God came to him at a moment when he could have walked away and joined the masses loyal to the king and oblivious to the truth.  But after this word of rebuke and encouragement (still to come), Baruch stuck it out and did his most important work – speaking courageously for Jeremiah and offering the prophet his assistance and loyalty.  He didn’t disappear into the footnotes of history as a nobody.  The self-sufficient rich, powerful, and famous did.  It was his integrity and fidelity that made him memorable, even when he didn’t know what the outcome would be.

Baruch teaches us that sometimes things get worse before they get better.

Lesson 3: There’s always a reason to give thanks

Here’s a secret for you, Baruch.  “I will bring disaster on all people, declares the LORD, but wherever you go I will let you escape with your life” (5).

It may not sound like much of a blessing, but it’s huge.  Had you been there the day the Babylonians ransacked, raped, and razed Jerusalem, you would know that this little secret told by God to Baruch was big.  It doesn’t take away the pain of those who suffered so deeply – and we will get to them in Jeremiah’s “lamentations” next week.  God has a word for them as well.

But this word for Baruch is just this: you will be a survivor.  And when you are a survivor, from then on anything is possible.  If you make it through the crisis, you can start over.

Sometimes in the midst of the worst news, it helps to ask yourself, “What if the worst happens?”  It’s usually a very scary thought, but faith is not so much about holding on to the hope that the worst can’t happen, but that even if it does, God is there.  And hope is possible.

The history of the world is a history of disasters – from earthquakes to floods to wars and tyranny.  But we also know that all such disasters eventually end, and God brings a new day.  He does that for individuals as well.  The crises we fear the most sometimes do happen – but the message of Jesus Christ is that no end on this earth is the end.  Christ himself suffered the worst personal disaster in history as he died forsaken by not only man but God on a cross.  But he chose that in order that we might have hope that there is life on the other side.  As God told Baruch, “you will live through this,” Jesus said to Martha and Mary, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies” (John 11:25).

That’s the secret that according to the Apostle Paul is no longer a secret.  The New Testament word is “mystery,” and Paul says this mystery has been revealed in the gospel (Ephesians 3:2-6).  Ultimately for believers, that is the hope to which we cling.

Family Secrets

I told you when we began studying Jeremiah that the journey would seem long, but it would prepare us for Advent.  I myself have been surprised at how much good news there is in Jeremiah’s book.  I was expecting non-stop gloom and despair.  But the number of times we have come across words of encouragement and hope have been many.  Jeremiah’s book has long been for me a bit of a mystery.  It is one reason I wanted to preach on it.  Now the secret is out – there is so much blessing here, and we have Baruch to thank.

Speaking of someone to thank. I have to close by connecting this passage to the Thanksgiving week ahead.  Here’s a good discussion starter for your family table: “What are some of our ‘family secrets’?”  Just leave the question open-ended.  Maybe someone will talk about a family recipe.  Or a family memory.  Or maybe someone will bring up the person who didn’t join the family table.  Maybe even someone will say something out loud that everyone knows but nobody talks about.  It could lead to some good family conversation.

Here’s another angle.  Most of what we give thanks for at Thanksgiving is obvious and visible.  And we should – the food on the table, the faces of those who are there, a day or two extra off work, our homes, our freedoms as a nation and so on – these are all worthy of mention on a day of thanks.  But what about giving thanks for secrets – in the sense of those intangibles that are less visible?  Give thanks for God’s love and mercy.  Give thanks for truth and hope.  Give thanks for time and knowledge.  Give thanks for loving and being loved.  Give thanks for the gift of Christ, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and communion with the God of the universe.

There is a prayer at the back of our hymnal which elevates Thanksgiving to this different level.  It’s Prayer No. 3, “Thanksgiving,” on page 528.  I invite you to pray that prayer responsively with me.  If you would like to use this prayer again with your family on Thursday, I will add it to the end of my sermon which will, as always, be available on my blog or in print from the church office.  Let us pray.

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, from whom comes every good and perfect gift, we remember today your lovingkindness and your tender mercies which have been ever of old, and with grateful hearts we lift up to you our voice of thanksgiving.  For all the gifts you have bestowed on us, for the life you have given us, and the world in which we live,

WE PRAISE YOU, O GOD.

For the work we are enabled to do, and the truth we are permitted to learn; for whatever of good there has been in our past lives, and for all the hopes and aspirations that lead us on toward better things,

WE PRAISE YOU, O GOD.

For the order and constancy of nature, for the beauty and bounty of the world, for day and night, summer and winter, seed-time and harvest, and for the varied gifts of loveliness and use that every season brings,

WE PRAISE YOU, O GOD.

For all the comforts and gladness of life, for our homes and all our home-blessings, for our friends and all pure pleasure, for the love, sympathy, and good will others show to us,

WE PRAISE YOU, O GOD.

For all the blessings of civilization, wise government and legislation, for education, and all the privileges we enjoy through literature, science, and art, for the help and counsel of those who are wiser and better than ourselves,

WE PRAISE YOU, O GOD.

For all true knowledge of you and the world in which we live, and the life of truth and righteousness and divine communion to which you have called us, for prophets and apostles, and all earnest seekers of truth, for all who love and help humanity, and all godly and gifted men and women,

WE PRAISE YOU, O GOD.

For the gift of your Son Jesus Christ, and all the helps and hopes that are ours as his disciples, for the presence and inspiration of your Holy Spirit, for all the ministries of your truth and grace,

WE PRAISE YOU, O GOD.

For communion with you, the Father of our spirits, for the light and peace that are gained through trust and obedience, and the darkness and anxiety that affect us when we disobey your laws and follow our lower desires and passions,

WE PRAISE YOU, O GOD.

For the desire and power to help others, for every opportunity of serving our generation according to your will, and of displaying Christ to others,

WE PRAISE YOU, O GOD.

For all the discipline of life, for the tasks and trials by which we are trained to patience, self-knowledge and self-conquest, and brought into closer sympathy with those who suffer, for troubles that have lifted us nearer to you and drawn us into deeper fellowship with Jesus Christ,

WE PRAISE YOU, O GOD.

For the sacred and tender ties that bind us to the unseen world, for the faith that dispels the shadows of earth, and fills the saddest and last moments of life with the light of an immortal hope,

WE PRAISE YOU, O GOD.

God of all grace and love, we have praised you with our lips.  Grant that we may praise you also in consecrated and faithful lives.  And may the words of our mouth and the meditations of our heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength, and our Redeemer.

AMEN.

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