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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 06/29/2014

The 4th of July comes up this week…parades, cookouts, fireworks and so forth as we remember and celebrate the American colonies declaring their independence from King George and the British Empire. I find that whole time period to be quite fascinating; over the years I’ve read quite a bit about the events and the characters involved and you don’t have to read much to realize that for a multitude of reasons, things could easily have turned out very differently. In particular, there wasn’t much reason to think the colonists would prevail against the most powerful army in the world; “Almost a miracle,” George Washington called it.

Another thing I think about, is whose side would I have been on if I’d been around at the time? Knowing how things turned out, I suppose we’d all like to think that we would have been right there with the colonists in opposition to the British, but I’m not so sure. There’s a part of me that thinks I would have found people like Sam Adams and some of the other rabble rousers a little crazy. At first anyway, I might have been inclined to want to work things out with the mother land rather than declare independence and get mixed up in a revolution that seemed most likely to end in defeat; and then what would happen? I might have been a Loyalist, one of those who left and went up to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. I might really be Canadian!!

Bear with me because this question of whose side you’re on actually does have something to do with today’s first lesson. It might be a stretch, but bear with me. If you were here last week you might remember that the prophet Jeremiah had a tough go of it. I told you that he was called to preach an unpopular message, one that made him very unpopular, but I didn’t tell you what his message was or what the back-story was. The text for today is another little piece of the Jeremiah story but by itself it doesn’t tell you much either.

So…around the year 600 BC Babylon had become the new power of the ancient Near East and they were on the march, headed for the kingdom of Judah and the capital city of Jerusalem. It wasn’t the first time this kind of thing had happened. About 100 years before that Assyria was the super power and they too had Judah in their sights along with the kingdom of Israel, Judah’s neighbor to the north (Israel and Judah had been united at one time, but that’s a longer story than I have time to tell). Anyway, 100 years earlier, in the face of that threat from Assyria, the prophet Isaiah had counseled the people of Judah to just have quiet faith and confidence in the Lord, to be obedient to the way of the Lord and everything would work out OK; just have faith. It seemed naïve perhaps, but lo and behold, while the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered and it’s leading citizens taken into exile, Judah and Jerusalem were spared!

Empires rise and fall though and next in line was Babylon and with this new threat there were three basic options for Judah. First of all there were always those who suggested alliance with Egypt, forming a coalition as it were, to fight back against Babylon but that option was never received very well. Second, there were those who remembered Isaiah’s “just have faith” option; in fact, in a lot of ways Hananiah, Jeremiah’s antagonist in today’s lesson, could be understood to be a proponent of Isaiah’s approach, an approach that had worked. He didn’t deny the threat of Babylon but saw it as little more than bump in the road. With faith in the Lord, he said, things would be back to normal within a couple of years; no need to panic.

Then there was Jeremiah; in essence Jeremiah said don’t resist Babylon, give in to them. He goes so far as to say that YHWH, the Lord, the God the people of Judah think is their God, wants Babylon to win; they, not you are the servants of the Lord, Jeremiah tells the people. You see why he had problems? Imagine if anyone in this country said that the United States shouldn’t resist al-qaeda because God is really on their side? How would that go over? In a different context, that’s pretty much what Jeremiah was saying.

Circling back then to the point I was trying to make, whose side would you be on, Jeremiah’s or Hananiah’s? Our first inclination would probably be that Jeremiah’s got a book of the Bible named after him and we’ve never heard of Hananiah so Jeremiah must be in the right here so we should side with him. But with a choice between Hananiah’s prophecy to be strong and have faith in the Lord and Jeremiah’s prophecy to give in to the enemy, I think I’d be joining those who decided to throw Jeremiah down a well to shut him up.

Jeremiah was right; he spoke the truth, but it was a hard truth and it still is because the gist of that truth is that the God that we worship, the God who we believe to be gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, the God we always want to think is on our side, this God sometimes acts in ways that don’t make sense to us. That’s hard to hear even if there’s a part of us that knows it’s true. We’d still like to think that God always acts in predictable ways. However, experience tells us that it doesn’t always work that way. We talk all the time as if our knowledge of God was absolute and certain, but there’s always an elusive quality to God that we can’t account for. That was the hard truth of Jeremiah.

There was another part to Jeremiah’s message from the Lord though. Babylon would prevail, but it wouldn’t be forever. In other words, Jeremiah’s prophecy didn’t represent an eternal truth. Instead, for the people of Judah, the victory of Babylon would represent the end of the world as they knew it, but ultimately it would be about the beginning of a new world. God would create something new out of what would seem to be a hopelessly broken situation. It would take awhile, 70 years, but God would do something new.

That makes Jeremiah’s prophecy less harsh, but still not as attractive as Hananiah’s promise of a quick turn around and on top of that, Hananiah promised a return to what was familiar, the way things were, where Jeremiah’s prophecy would lead from the familiar into the unknown, and in most cases we’d prefer the familiar to the unknown.

I’m pretty sure that at the time I would not have been on Jeremiah’s side in this. This wouldn’t have been my idea of how God should act. By now though, you might think that we would have learned that God has frequently acted in ways that don’t make sense to us; take the story of Jesus for example. Does it make sense that an ugly crucifixion that seemed to mark a definitive ending would represent the beginning of something new? It’s no wonder that the disciples didn’t want to hear it when Jesus hinted at what was going to happen. It’s another case of wanting to think we would have been smarter than the disciples, but would we? Now the story is familiar and we accept it, but it still doesn’t make sense but it doesn’t have to. What’s important is that on Easter Sunday a new reality did emerge, a new reality that is at the center of our faith. God acted out of brokenness; that’s the reality. It’s the same thing Jeremiah prophesied 2700 years ago. In the brokenness of our lives and our world, new life out of that brokenness is still what we trust that God will do.

A text like this one today reminds us that there are and always will be things we don’t understand about the ways of God. But…there are things we do understand about the ways of God, important things.

We understand, for example, what it means to give a cup of cold water to someone who is thirsty. You don’t really need a sermon and theological analysis on that because you already understand it and from that simple phrase you can extrapolate all kinds of other welcoming behaviors that are extensions of God’s love. You don’t have to understand all the mysterious ways of God in order to act in ways that you know will be pleasing to that mysterious God.

It is fun to wrestle with the mysteries but for most of us, most of the time, our faith is more about the little things, the cups of cold water that welcome and serve others. We understand that and it’s those things that give witness to whose side we’re on.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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