The title of this sermon is Yelling at a Person Under a Bus, ‘Watch Out! You’re About to Get Hit By a Bus!’ It concerns the 14th chapter of the Book of Jeremiah which might very well be one of the most important books for our time. Despite its importance, I believe a great deal of confusion surrounds our reading of Jeremiah. The confusion grows out of resistance to its absolutely radical message: we, as human beings, can wound G-d, and there are consequences for causing divine damage. The theology of Jeremiah flies in the face of the predominating theology that turns G-d into Superman and Jesus into Clark Kent, G-d’s everyman alter ego. G-d’s superhero status originated with Israel’s false prophets and now emanates from pulpits everywhere whether it is Joel Osteen and the prosperity gospel or Richard Dawkins and his assault on theism. The long and the short of it is this, G-d When we read Jeremiah, we find a G-d who is entirely different. has faded away from being seen as the creator who is intimately tied to creation, and instead is seen as a hero out of old western films: killing the bad guys and rescuing the innocent.
If you do not already have it out, please open up Jeremiah 14 (or click here: http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=154975713). I want to work through it as quickly and as extensively as possible. What we have in these verses is a dialogue occurring between Yhwh, Jeremiah, and the people of Judah. The people feel abandoned as they struggle through a drought and war; Yhwh feels abandoned by the people who Yhwh established a covenant with so long ago; and Jeremiah feels alone as the only prophet proclaiming destruction instead of peace. This dialogue opens with an image of Judah in distress for the lack of water and food.
At the chapter’s outset, Judah is in dire straights. No one has water. The word commonly translated as “cisterns” or “wells” in v. 3 actually refers to the irrigation canals dug by farmers. The elite people of the cities are at their last resort. They have sent their servants to the last possible place to get water, and they are ashamed of stooping so low in order to get what they typically have an abundance of. That is why the farmers in v. 4, like the nobles, are dismayed, but unlike the nobles digging in the top soil for water for the first time, the farmers are not ashamed to be drinking from irrigation drains. Nevertheless, everyone covers their head in sadness as they go thirsty.
The poem moves from city to country and out into the wilderness. Take note here how observant ancient peoples were of their surroundings. Deer typically birthed fawns far from people in the heavily forested areas, but the doe has come to the fields without her young. Clearly, even the wild animals are starving. The donkeys are going blind. What we know now is that blindness occurs due to a lack of vitamin A. Grass contains “carotene” which is turned into vitamin A in a donkey’s internal organs. A complete lack of grass could spell blindness. The devastation is affecting everyone and everything.
Judah raises a stink with G-d in vv. 7-9 because of the drought. They put forth a formal lamentation. First, they confess their sins. They then frame their feeling of abandonment between two affirmations of G-d’s greatness. They call Yhwh the “hope of Israel” in v. 8. This word “hope” also, in Hebrew, means “pool of water”. Thus it gives a double meaning in the face of the drought. They wonder why G-d is not acting like Superman. They even refer to G-d as “a mighty warrior”. “Why is this mighty warrior not saving us,” they muse. Unable to answer the questions, they reassure themselves at the end of v. 9. The phrase, “Yet you, O Yhwh, are in the midst of us” most certainly refers to the temple where it was assumed G-d lived. This is quite important. If Yhwh left the temple, those who ruled the politico-religious realm would no longer be able to use G-d’s presence as a scheme of power. They finish off then with the cry for G-d not to leave them with words that are reminiscent of the doe leaving her fawn.
Typically, we would expect the response of G-d to the people’s confession and praise to be an extension of forgiveness. Judah is Yhwh’s people, and they are deeply sorry after all. We see no such thing. Instead, G-d completely rails on them in vv. 10-12. They are the ones who are strangers, who are confused. Yhwh proceeds to tell Jeremiah not to pray for them. The prophet’s role in the Ancient Near East was to intercede for the people in order to stem divine wrath. Yhwh tells Jeremiah not to try it. Judah’s other options, burnt and gift offerings, will be rejected by G-d, as well. Yhwh, in v. 12, graphically describes how Yhwh will consume the people as the offering.
Jeremiah responds in v. 13. His response serves two purposes. In historical context, he seems confused. Is this really the word of Yhwh? All the other prophets are claiming peace. Yhwh clears it up for Jeremiah in v. 14, reassuring him that he is in fact hearing the word of G-d. When we read v. 13 now with historical perspective as to what ultimately happened to Judah, we see Jeremiah defending the people. Jeremiah intercedes on their behalf pointing out that all the prophets lie in the name of Yhwh making the people confused. All the people believe peace will come because their prophets say it will. This leaves Judah without the sense of repentant urgency necessary to stem the forthcoming disaster. Jeremiah’s work is enough to get Yhwh to promise not to punish everyone, but rather, Yhwh will punish only the prophets and their followers.
Yhwh commands Jeremiah to tearfully connect the destruction with the leadership of the lying prophets in vv. 17-18. The poetry is beautiful even in English. We feel the wounded G-d’s tears overflowing out of the “Weeping Prophet’s” eyes begging the people to abandon the ignorant, wandering priest and prophets. The problems encountered in the field and the city describes a scene of war and siege, respectively. Apparently, Judah endured the fate of battle yet still trusted in the leaders who caused the death in the first place.
Judah’s response in the form of another lamentation rends my heart and seals their fate. They begin questioning G-d’s faithfulness. Rightfully, they believe Yhwh struck them down. The peace promised by prophets is nowhere to be seen. Peace has not happened; people are still dying. They admit their sins; they come so close to finally understanding when they make a demand. Act, Yhwh, for your name’s sake. They did the same thing 14 verses earlier, and we saw the result. They want G-d to act for G-d’s sake? No! They want G-d to act for their sake, and they use the covenant and G-d’s honor to try to get it. “We had a deal, Yhwh,” they say. “You cannot let this happen.” It is ironic. They confess their sins and proceed to commit them again. They want G-d’s help without G-d’s law, and they will blame G-d if they do not get it. “You cannot let this happen,” they say. And in G-d’s silence at the end of ch. 14, as Judah worships the rainmaker, the one they want to see end the drought, the death from war, and the hunger that has consumed them, as they wait for Superman, we find Yhwh, betrayed, abandoned, manipulated, and wounded, responding, “Yes, I can let this happen.”
The Text Today
Is the Church under the bus? This text shows us two images. First, it shows a person (Judah) standing in front of a moving bus asking G-d to be the hero for G-d’s own sake. Second, we see Jeremiah come onto the scene and tell the person to move after the bus wreaked its damage. Let me posit this hypothesis. The Church in the United States is, at the very least, standing in front of the bus. Our feet love to wander. We are incredibly fantastic at the parts of Judah’s lamentation involving confession of sins and praising of G-d as being powerful. We do it by the millions every Sunday in massive megaplexes and stadiums that serve as preemptive mausoleums where we wait to be massacred out of our comfortable middle-class lives and transported to some ethereal dimension where we will be blessed with wealth, perfection, gluttony, and eternal boredom. The priests and prophets who build these temples from Joel Osteen to Bill Hybels to Rick Warren to Mark Driscoll convince us that G-d’s covenant, no matter how badly you chase other gods, is something that can never be unbound. Well I am here to tell you that if we do not learn from Jeremiah, we will be living in exile before long. That bus is coming pretty fast.
Perhaps we already saw it in Europe. I think we all know of the loss of faith there. Yes, in that way, we see a sort of reversed situation. Instead of imperialist Babylon dragging off Judah, the colonized continents took the faith of empire-builders and proceeded to redeem it. We have seen the shift over the past century. 90% of the world’s Christians lived in the global North at the commencement of the 20th century; by the 21st, the vast majority shifted to the global South. It seems G-d moved after growing tired of our imperial impulses, making our country, our prosperity, and our way of life the highest gods of all. Our way forward can no longer be with the Jim Wallises and Pat Roberstons of the world who seek to form and shape public policy as the way to show G-d’s love and power. Our way forward is to realize the truth: we’re about to get hit by a bus. The only safe place is with G-d, who probably looks kind of like the crazy homeless guy on the corner. We get to G-d by joining in G-d’s woundedness, loving and healing each other in divine and human community.