Thursday, July 27, 2006

Lies, All Lies!

a sermon for my "Final Assessment" with my Committee on Preparation for Ministry in Chicago Presbytery, adapted from my ordination exam exegesis paper.

Jeremiah 7:1-15 The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: Stand in the gate of the LORD's house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: "This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD."

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, "We are safe!"-- only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the LORD.

Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel. And now, because you have done all these things, says the LORD, and when I spoke to you persistently, you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer, therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your ancestors, just what I did to Shiloh. And I will cast you out of my sight, just as I cast out all your kinsfolk, all the offspring of Ephraim.

Imagine yourself in a crowded place—the state fair, the mall on the day after Thanksgiving, or the line to get a tour of the White House or the Washington Monument. Can you feel it? The bodies, the heat, the anticipation. Can you smell it? The air, the grass, the car exhaust, the food. Can you see it? The colors, the masses of people, the hairstyles, the clothes, the children. Can you hear it? The voices, the machines, the music. Listen harder…there’s one voice standing out, and there’s a crowd gathering over there to the left—who is it? What’s he saying? Ooh, he’s one of those people—he has shaggy hair and tattered clothes, and a voice that carries through town while he makes all those crazy pronouncements. You know the type—the sandwich-board wearing, cross-carrying park-preachers. They’re always talking about the end times, the last days, the judgment of the earth, and telling us to hurry up and repent. Well, they haven’t been right yet, have they?

This is what it must have felt like for Jeremiah’s crowd. They came to Jerusalem, maybe for a festival or maybe just to make a pilgrimage, or maybe to sacrifice on behalf of their family, their village, or a particularly heinous sin they’d committed. They came with their lambs and goats and turtledoves, they came with their money, their grain, and their oil. There were lots of people, lots of priests, lots of sacrifices, and a lot of blood. The air smelled of smoke and blood. The people smelled like they’d walked a long way. The crowds were excited, the voices were loud, and the people rejoiced that they’d completed requirements for forgiveness.

And then they heard the voice, the voice claiming to speak for the LORD. “Do not trust in these deceptive words, ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’”

Wait….I thought that was the whole point of the Temple? God lives here! God said he would live here, and we would be safe! God said she would live here forever with us, and that we would live forever here in the land with God. What is this crazy man going on about now?

“Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations?”

Well, I mean, that’s why we made the sacrifices, right? That’s why we brought the perfect lambs and the grain and oil, that’s why we walked all the way here…just because we sacrificed one of the lambs on the high place a few miles back doesn’t make this one any less worthy, right? I mean, we have to cover our bases. Just in case. I’ve never murdered anyone. And I don’t steal! And I certainly don’t lie, except about that missing bread. Besides, that’s why we have this Temple, isn’t it?

“You know, I too am watching, says the LORD.”


“Go to Shiloh and see.”


“Therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, in which you trust, just what I did to Shiloh.”

No—you can’t! You promised! This man is crazy—let’s stone him!

Jeremiah tells these words of the LORD—and they are not popular words. Words like “hypocrites” and “idolaters” and “liars.” The people of Judah are not doing a good job at keeping the covenant God made with them—did you notice the commandments mentioned here? The LORD, through Jeremiah, accuses the people of stealing, murder, adultery, swearing falsely, making offerings to Baal…these are serious offenses here at the center of this passage. Even worse, though, is what the people do in conjunction with these offenses—they come to the house of the LORD and say “We are safe!” and then leave the house and break the covenant again and again.

Why can’t they just do what’s asked of them—to act justly with one another, not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, not shed innocent blood, not go after other gods? Why can’t they just amend their ways?

Well, that always sounds easier than it really is. I’m sure we’ve all tried to change a habit—it takes time. To change from always being late to always being early, to change our eating habits, to stop smoking. And here Jeremiah is talking about much more serious change—he’s talking about a change from lies to truth. The people of Judah have been lying to themselves for years. These deceptive words—“but we have the Temple!”—have gotten them a long way. “We are safe!” they tell themselves as they sacrifice to Baal and to the LORD on the same day. “The LORD promised this land to us” they say over and over as they watch the northern kingdom fall. "We have no serious sin," they say, but the truth is not in us. These are lies, all lies, when not backed up with covenant action. But these lies—the lies they tell themselves, the lies they tell God, the lies they tell one another—they are all to no avail. “I, too, am watching, says the LORD.” There is no safety in lies. The temple rituals mean nothing when they are not accompanied by true repentance—a turning from the bad and to the good. It’s not just about not murdering and stealing, it’s also about acting justly and welcoming others. It’s not just about making the right moves in the Temple, it’s also about not going to the high places and making back-up offerings to another god. It’s not just about coming to church and saying the right words from memory, it’s also about acting like a follower of Jesus on Tuesday. What the people do in the Temple, or what we do in the church, doesn’t matter nearly as much as what they (and we) do outside those buildings.

But but but! I can practically hear the people of Judah exclaim. God did promise us this land, and God did promise to dwell here forever! Those aren’t lies—that’s the truth! Flip back a few pages and read it for yourself! Well, that’s true. But God didn’t say “here’s some land, have fun!” God made a covenant. And that covenant has rights and responsibilities, blessings and curses. You don’t get the land without the book. Jeremiah reminds the people of Judah what happened up north in Israel, with that whole Shiloh fiasco. God said God would dwell with them at Shiloh, and look what happened! The people didn’t keep their end of the bargain, and Shiloh was destroyed. The southerners thought that they were different than those northerners. To be compared to the north was an outrage—perhaps one reason Jeremiah was nearly murdered for this sermon. Walter Brueggemann says that “everyone listening knew of Shiloh—that it was a northern shrine and that long ago it had vanished from history, destroyed because of disobedience. It was also part of the self-understanding of the southern community that northern Shiloh and southern Jerusalem are precise opposites. Whereas Shiloh is rejected by God and therefore destroyed, Jerusalem is chosen and valued by God, and therefore safe.”

Jeremiah, however, is engaged in proclaiming exactly the opposite. He argues that Jerusalem is just like Shiloh. Jerusalem is the current dwelling place of God, the meeting place of the tribes, the place of worship. “It is just like Shiloh in that it must obey to survive. It is just like Shiloh in its profound disobedience. And therefore, it is just like Shiloh in that it must be destroyed.” Just as Israel was wicked and its temple was destroyed and the people carried off by the Assyrians, now Judah too is wicked and the temple can be destroyed and the people carried off to Babylon. Jeremiah seems to be saying, “remember last time? It could, and it will happen again!” But the people of Judah are too mired in their own lies to believe him. They have told themselves that they’re different, that those rules don’t apply, that everything is just fine—and they’ve made themselves believe it. They trust in deceptive words.

I’m sure we can all think of some deceptive words we have put our trust in, maybe even some that were painfully exposed as lies. “This is America—nothing can happen to us.” “We’re the richest people in the world—no one is hungry here.” “This will make our country safer.” There is no safety in lies. There is safety only in the Truth, in living within the covenant. The lies we tell ourselves, or that others tell us, will get us nowhere. We have to live like we believe what we say in church. We have to act outside the way we act inside these walls. Otherwise we are just lying to ourselves.

I saw some examples of this during my year in Egypt. I was astounded at the way people treated each other on the street. As I walked down the sidewalk, I noticed that people were completely indifferent to others on the sidewalk or road. People don’t move—they just run into each other or wait for the other person to yield. They don’t wait for people to cross the street, they just nearly hit them with their cars. They shout at each other. Men harass and abuse women right on the sidewalks. I was also appalled by the way they treated their environment—they just toss garbage on the road, the sidewalk, out the car window, even out the windows of the Metro trains. I’m surprised the subway tunnels haven’t filled up with trash.

I remember the first time I went into the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral complex—the walled-in city block where Christians gather for worship, fellowship, education, and all kinds of activities. It is one of the cleanest places in Cairo—no trash to be seen. Inside, everyone is friendly. Soon, I started to notice outside on the streets and sidewalks that I could tell who was a Christian—they put their trash in the trash cans posted along the sidewalk. They helped anyone they saw. They stepped aside when people walked toward them on the sidewalk. They picked up things others dropped, helped elderly women across the street, and were friendly if you made eye contact with them. If they were harassed (which women often were since they wore no headcovering), they simply greeted the person and moved on. In other words, they showed the love they have received, they tried their best to uphold the covenant.

I admit that I often admired this behavior from afar. I found myself often angry at the men on the streets, and there were times when I would run into people on the sidewalk because I was so annoyed that they didn’t even appear to notice that they were blocking the entire sidewalk. But gradually I found out what it means to be a Christian in a place where few others are, what it means to live out the things we say in church, to act the way Jeremiah says we must. To act like the words in this book make a difference to our lives and thoughts, to our interactions with people—both strangers and friends, to our treatment of the environment. To act ilke followers of the One who fulfilled the covenant. I found out what it means to turn not just my words but my life from falsehood to truth.

The people to whom Jeremiah was speaking found themselves trusting in falsehoods they had created for themselves. Each breach of covenant revealed a new lie the people were living. How often we stay in our comfortable lies….but the truth is that the LORD requires justice and faithfulness of people, and then God will dwell in the house called by God’s name. The truth is that God has come in person and lived this covenant with and for us, and made us into his body on earth. Remember that 1st Peter says we are the living stones that are being built into God's house? How lovely it will be in this dwelling place of God when we turn from the lies and place our trust not in deceptive words but in the Word made flesh.


(Walter Brueggemann quotes from A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, pub. 1998.)

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