October 1, 2000
BEING GOD'S PERSON
Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor
The Grantham Church
When the environment you live in changes for the worse, what do you do? Do you move to the suburbs, move to a gated community in Costa Mesa, or stay right where you are? To make the question theological, if you want to live by faith, where do you live? When you get tired of living by faith, where do you live? When Israel got tired of living by faith, they went down to Egypt where there was security and culture, or so it seemed. Actually they went to a place that fit right into how they had already been living. Most of you know how hard it is to live with hope and with integrity when the external environment means you have to be on your guard all the time. The great irony of Jeremiah's life is that he ended up in Egypt, that 6th century BC version of Provo, Utah, or New York City, which represented everything he hated.
The events of the Bible apply to us, even though the setting may be different from our setting. 1. Let me describe to you the setting in the ancient world as we come to chapter 40.
In Jeremiah 39 there is an account of the Babylonians conquering Jerusalem and the beginning of what is called the Babylonian Captivity. Back at the inner city in Jerusalem, a remnant of people remain. They are disheartened people and they are discouraged. The Babylonians ruled conquered nations in a different way than the Assyrians did. The Assyrians populated conquered lands with foreign people, but the Babylonians, after deporting the old leaders, would appoint a leader from among those who remained. The man they appointed was Gedaliah (Jeremiah 40:5). We have met Gedaliah's ancestors, for his grandfather was Shapan, the royal scribe under King Josiah (in 2 Kings 22) who read the newly discovered book of the law to the king that resulted in Josiah's conversion. Gedaliah's father supported Jeremiah when King Jehoiakim wanted to put Jeremiah to death.
Just a short time into Gedaliah's governorship, he is assassinated by a man named Ishmael. Gedaliah seems naive, ignoring the warnings of more experienced men that Ishmael is plotting to kill him. From nearly the beginning there have been evil people in the world, people filled with hate, envy, lust, and searching for power or money or status. It's an old human story that is replayed in each generation. So let's ask the question, was Gedaliah wise or foolish in not agreeing to have Johanan kill Ishmael? That may seem an easy question, but the testimony of the Bible is that violence begets violence. In troubled times, it is hard to live peacefully, and yet that is what God calls his people to do. Jesus and the apostles are examples of what this means. That's the general situation.
2. What was Jeremiah's personal situation?
Jeremiah was a man sure of God, but that did not make the situation in Judah any more clear. The ancient middle east was a puzzle to him. Jeremiah is an example that a man of God will not always be protected from evil. As chapter 40 opens, Nebuzaradan, the commander of the Babylonian armies, at King Nebuchadnezzar's command, releases Jeremiah from prison where Judah's king had put him. He gives Jeremiah three options at 40:4: 1. He may go with Nebuzaradan to Babylon, and Nebuzaradan guarantees he will care for him. After all, Jeremiah might have thought, there are many Israelites there to whom I might prophesy and encourage in the midst of their captivity; 2. He might remain in Palestine, making his own way by staying away from the power centers where the tension and plots are; or 3. Jeremiah might go to live with Gedaliah, the leader appointed by the Babylonians. This man has enemies verse 5, but he's been a friend to Jeremiah. And Jeremiah chooses the hardest of the options. Jeremiah had been accused of being unpatriotic, since he had urged the people to submit to the Babylonians, as God had told him to (Jeremiah 27). In chapter 26 the people try to kill him. In chapter 32 he is under house arrest. In chapter 37 he is imprisoned. And now he does what might be seen as the patriotic thing, he opts to stay in Jerusalem, not that this affected people's opinion of Jeremiah. He remains in Judah with the Jewish people. He remains, but above all, he is God's man, and the people know it.
In Serbia, after the United Nations had driven Serbian troops from Kosovo, there were clubs filled with young men and women talking of suicide and practicing self-destructive behavior. In that sort of lawless time there are robberies, rape, killings. We see many examples in the world today. Jeremiah chooses to remain in the midst of his own unsettled and despairing country, rather than move to the structured security of Babylon. Why does Jeremiah do that?
After the assassination of Gedaliah by Ishmael, and after Johanan has killed some of Ishmael's followers and chased Ishmael from the country, the choice of security is posed to Jeremiah. Should the people go to Egypt or remain in Judah, they ask him? After all, the ruler appointed by the Babylonians has been assassinated. They could expect the Babylonians to respond, and how are they going to distinguish Johanan from Ishmael. So Johanan and his followers consult Jeremiah. Pray to your God, they ask in 42:2. Discern from him whether we ought go to Egypt or not and we will do what God says.
Now one of the principles of prayer is, there is no sense in praying if you are not willing to do what God says. He may say what we don't expect. He may say what we don't want. What He asks people to do may seem contrary to human reason, since God works in a realm where what is obvious to Him is not obvious to others. Jeremiah, knowing this principle, agrees to pray to God.
Everyone wants instant answers to prayer, since we want to get on with our lives. But 42:7 tells us that it is ten days later when God speaks to Jeremiah. Now imagine Johanan and the people restive about acting. God may not speak right away. Even great people of God don't always get immediate answers to prayer.
In many ways Charles Simeon was a man like Jeremiah. In 1782 he was appointed by the bishop of Ely to be the pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge, England. No one in the parish really wanted him. He was actually still an undergraduate at King's College when he was appointed to this parish church in the heart of Cambridge. In those days members rented pews and all those pew renters stayed away and locked their pews so that the entire front of the church was empty when Simeon first preached , but Cambridge University students and others crowded the aisles and the benches at the rear. Simeon stressed prayer, my father's house is a house of prayer, as Jesus had said; and, he was a great preacher. His sermons have been printed and still available today in some 25 volumes.
John Newton, his friend, encouraged the young pastor to stay, but many were against him, including his own assistant, but Simeon stayed. He stayed for 54 years and during those years, in spite of opposition, he sent hundreds of men into ministry, and supported some of them from his own wealth. He was a fellow of King's College and every day he would march about the parapeted roof of the college, praying for people in the University and in the town. When he died the entire university was closed down so students and faculty could attend his funeral - the only time that had ever been done. Well, this is Jeremiah's personal situation.
3. What was Jeremiah's choice, and what did he choose?
When God grips a person, he can stand against big odds because God's promises are trustworthy. That's Jeremiah's situation. Life in Babylon would have been a nice retirement. But Jeremiah was used to living by faith. He chose to stay in Jerusalem. But he stayed in a Jerusalem that had been judged by God. The city was in ruins. The Babylonians had destroyed Solomon's temple and carted its treasures off to Babylon. They had destroyed the walls of Jerusalem. They had taken all the top people of the nation and shipped them to Babylon.
What was left was like the inner city of any of a hundred places in America. Gedaliah was actually a pretty good choice by the Babylonians for a governor of Judah. And he wasn't an outsider. It was the patriotic people who didn't want anything having to do with Babylon who objected to him, and who assassinated him. Why was being in Egypt better than living in Palestine with a competent governor appointed by the Babylonians? Why do certain choices seem good to us when their long term effect is bad? And the answer is, we want to be in control. The only difference is, the Israelites themselves could make the choice to go to Egypt. The other choice, to be ruled by someone appointed by the Babylonians, even though he was an Israelite, had been made for them. The Israelite people had thought of God as someone who would be powerful if he were on your side. But God was not a Lord they wanted to obey; so they decide to go to Egypt after Jeremiah tells them what God says - don't go to Egypt. A lot of good it does them. What do you do when God answers a prayer of yours differently from what you wanted?
Flannery O'Connor in her book, Mystery and Manners, writes about an aunt of hers who thought nothing happened in a story unless somebody got married or shot at the end of it. These things bring closure to a story, according to her aunt, but there are a lot of things in life that are open-ended. Jeremiah never gets married or shot.
Jeremiah's life as we know it ends in chapter 44 with him telling the people who aren't listening what the answer to his prayer is. Was Jeremiah finally successful? If one obeys God and lives with courage, do you get what you long for? Not always. Jeremiah ends up in the place he doesn't want to be. To Jeremiah, if you leave the place God wants you to be, something is wrong. What is left for Jeremiah in Egypt? All he can do is to live faithfully among people who have ignored him and ignored his message. He was a great man - after all, he has two books in the Bible - but like Joseph, he dies in Egypt, and there is no one to carry his bones back to the promised land. None of those who settle in Egypt ever return to Palestine, so far as we know. It is the idolatry in Egypt that gets them, and their disobedience to God and God's laws. (44:8 and 10). It is the culture that gets them, for these are the things that people do in Egypt, worship idols and pay no attention to God's rules for living. The Israelites fit right in. Fleeing from God, they turn their backs on their own future.
Let me translate that into our world. Murray Sperber, a professor of English at Indiana University wrote a book titled: "Beer and Circus: How Big Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education." He names some of what he calls the big beer and circus schools: Indiana University, Florida State University, Arizona State University, George Mason University and so on. He has a quotation from a senior at Arizona State:
"I was amazed by how much sports
occupies my college life. When I add up the time spent watching
TV sports, going to games, working out, playing on my frat's teams,
and the partying in conjunction with sports, it is an unbelievable
34.5 hours per week. That's almost five hours a day! Imagine
what my GPA would be if I spent that time in the library studying."
That's the culture in many colleges. That's what a lot of people look for in going to college. How can God use people like that? He can't unless there is some massive change in their lives. They are totally self-centered and God can't use self-centered people. It's hard to be God's person in a self-centered environment. Jeremiah did it, but then no one listened to him. It must have been lonely. It was unpopular. We all know how hard it is to make unpopular choices, especially when you are young.
This is where we can learn from Jeremiah.
In chapter 44, Jeremiah challenges the people, "This is what the Lord God Almighty, the God of Israel, says...." And then Jeremiah relates what has just happened to Jerusalem, and they all knew it. But why had it happened? How easy it was to say, oh, Babylon was powerful, and they conquered other nations. Now they have conquered Judah. But Jeremiah says, don't you think God could have protected you? But you did three things God will not tolerate: 1. you worshiped idols; 2. you disobeyed God's laws; and 3. you provoked God to anger. And verse 9 contains the devastating words: "Have you forgotten what happened to your fathers?" It had just happened there in Jerusalem, but they didn't want to put two and two together. They blamed God when Babylon conquered Jerusalem. They say, Egypt's goddess, the queen of heaven she is called in 44:17, would have protected us.
We believe things like that don't we? We know how disobedience and worshiping something besides the true God led to destruction of others, but no one believes it will happen to him, or to her. Didn't Israel know their own history? Jeroboam looked to Egypt for military help. So did Hezekiah. So did Zedekiah. Did Egypt help any of them? No. But, to quote Ronald Regan, "there they go again!" When your Jerusalem is destroyed, is it your sin, or God's fault?
For Jeremiah's part, like Jesus,
he bowed to the judgment to which the people themselves would
not bow. When a man of God shares the sorrow of God he also shares
the sorrow of a people, like Jesus did. Surely he has borne our
griefs and carried our sorrows. He does not try to help Himself.
God lays the people and their sin upon Jesus. And Jeremiah,
like Jesus, accepts living among sinful people and he is faithful
unto death. He goes to Egypt with this remnant and he disappears
from the history of the Bible. He who is faithful unto death,
I will give a crown of life, John says in Revelation. Jeremiah
was faithful to death. Will you be?