Jeremiah 13:20-27; 31:31-34

December 23, 2001

Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor

I was rather rebellious in my earliest teenage years. I can remember one occasion, during my freshman year in high school, when I flunked German, intentionally, perhaps to make a point to my parents that I was not going to be like my “straight A, class president, Ivy League College” older brother. The fact that my parents knew German reasonably well and had at least introduced me to the language before I even took the class brought the point home with crystal clarity.

In my high school, teachers used to give out Progress Reports. Not the kind that informed parents of outstanding academic achievement, but the kind that said, “If you want your son or daughter to remain in school, you better get on their case!” I should know; I took enough of them home. I probably carried more of those silly forms home than my father brought home newspapers. I am also willing to venture that I had figured out every possible way to get my parents to sign them when I wasn’t there. I used to get up a few minutes earlier in the morning, climb up the steps to the kitchen (my bedroom was in the basement), place the form on the table, and then sneak back to my room unnoticed. Then, my mother or father would sign it, go to work, and hopefully either forget about it or cool down by supper time. It worked; for awhile. One morning, after everyone else had left the house, I made my way upstairs and found the report–unsigned. I knew that a long day awaited me.

One night, however, sticks out in my mind more clearly than any of the others. I was a sophomore, and I had stayed out rather late. When I finally came home–I can see it as though it happened yesterday–I walked into the living room, and there was my father, sitting in his chair in the far front corner. My dad’s a big man, and he always had what I referred to as the gift of stare. All he had to do was look at me in a certain way and I would raise my hands in surrender. He didn’t look at me that way on this occasion. He didn’t yell. He didn’t threaten to ground me or to punish me in anyway. He just wept. Here I was, his son, bursting with potential (or so he thought), confronted with opportunities, but a rebellious failure. He had cared for me and nurtured me. He had worked unbelievably long hours to provide for me, but I failed to produce. I had broken my father’s heart, and seeing him weep was almost more than I could bear. At that moment, I heard the gates of Eden slam shut behind me.

That story, my friends, is also descriptive of our spiritual ancestors whose stories spring to life on the pages of the Old Testament. God, the Father, had chosen Israel to be his own special possession. He hadn’t chosen them because they were a great and mighty nation. On the contrary, they were originally weak and inconsequential by human standards. God didn’t choose a great nation. He chose a weak nation so that he could make them great and so that through them all the other nations of the earth might eventually see the greatness of God himself. And he took this small band of people, and he cared for them and looked after them. He delivered them from slavery in Egypt, he provided for all of their physical needs while they were wandering in the wilderness, and he gave them a new homeland. Why, he even came to live with them. Oh, you can just sense God’s enthusiasm, his excitement–a father with a newborn child. And do you know what he wanted them to do in return? To trust him. To obey him. To love him. Then, they would fulfill all of the dreams that he had for them. His special people in the midst of the world, the channel through which his own glory could be spread throughout all of the nations.

But it didn’t turn out that way. Almost from the beginning, Israel demonstrated a persistent failure to live up to God’s expectations. Like me, they brought home “progress reports” which verified their poor achievement. Murmuring, bickering, fighting, hating; even worshiping other gods. It actually got so bad that, by the time of the wicked king Manasseh, this chosen group of people did more than flunk German intentionally. They did more evil than the heathen who had been in the land before them. Hosea likened them to a harlot–as a prostitute on 42nd Street in Manhattan makes love with any man on the street, so Israel goes after the gods of her neighbors. And to the great prophet Isaiah, Israel was like a well-cared for vineyard that was totally barren. As a gardener fertilizes the vine, yet still finds no fruit, so God has tended to every need his chosen people ever had, only to find nothing. And like my father in his chair on that night over thirty years ago, God’s heart was broken. “What more could I have done for my vineyard?,” he asks, “yet when I looked for good grapes, I only found bad.” A nation, God’s chosen people, bursting with possibilities, but those possibilities went largely unfulfilled.

Now Israel, to be sure, had attempted to reach her God-given potential in a variety of ways, ways that the Scriptures make abundantly clear. To begin with, the Israelites sought to make their mark on the world through power. This group of people, under the leadership of God himself, began to grow. Soon, they became dissatisfied with their condition and longed to be like the other nations round about them. Though called to be different, they insisted on being just like everyone else. Included within this desire was their demand for an earthly king, a demand which God reluctantly granted, even though it was never a part of his plan. Before long, as the mighty nations to the northeast and the south began to fall apart, Israel asserted herself and flexed her muscles, eventually becoming one of the foremost political powers of the day. Under David and a few of his successors, Israel gained an international reputation unheard of in her formative years. She was strong. She was powerful. She had as many chariots and horses as there were sands on the sea. Yet as Jeremiah weeps over the fiery ruins of Jerusalem, saying:
How deserted lies the city,
once so full of people!
How like a widow is she,
who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces
has now become a slave (Lam. 1:1),
one thing becomes unmistakably clear–political power was not what God was looking for.

In addition to power, Israel sought to reach her potential through prosperity. Though she began her pilgrimage without a home, it did not take too long before the Israelites had temples and palaces. Major trade routes running through the land brought merchants of all sorts within Israel’s borders. Sea routes were even established; ships sailing to and from the southern port of Ezion Geber, near modern day Elath, brought gold, linen, and other fine materials to the descendants of Abraham. Indeed, the biblical writer informs us that, by the time of Solomon, silver was as plentiful in Jerusalem as stones (1 Kings 10:27). Yet, as Jeremiah weeps:
The nobles send their servants for water;
they go to the cisterns
but find no water.
They returned with their jars unfilled;
dismayed and despairing,
they cover their heads (Jer. 14:3),
one thing simply cannot be mistaken–wealth and prosperity were not what God was looking for.

Finally, Israel sought to reach her potential through religious reform. It was, in fact, during Jeremiah’s earliest years as a prophet that perhaps Israel’s greatest attempt at reform took place. A king by the name of Josiah, pierced to the heart when the law of the Lord is brought to his attention, set out to totally clean-up Israel’s act. He burned down the pagan temples, got rid of all of the idols, fired the pagan priests, dismissed the cult prostitutes, and did away with child sacrifices (2 Kings 23:4-9). Just minor alterations! But even this failed to help in the long run, for upon Josiah’s death, the nation was quickly back at it again. The reform had been legislated by the leaders, but it apparently failed to change the hearts of the people at large. It was just a temporary face-lift; external, not internal. Its accomplishments were commendable, but thoroughly inadequate. You know, get rid of a bad habit here or there. Clean up the foul language. Do a cosmetic job so we don’t look as bad as we really are. But poor Jeremiah–he sees the nation crumbling all around him, with everything soon to be ashes. In reflecting on Israel’s condition, he concludes that this chosen people is now virtually beyond hope. “Can an Ethiopian change the color of his skin?,” he asks. “Can a leopard remove its spots?” “Neither can those who have for so long done evil decide to do good.” External reform, without question, was not what God was looking for.

Power. Prosperity. Reform. All of Israel’s noblest efforts went up in the smoke left by the Babylonian army. Those are not the channels through which God builds his kingdom. Is all hope gone as these rebellious and underachieving Israelites stumble into the livingroom late one night and find God crying in his chair? Is this great creative experiment of God’s finally at an end? No. No. Jeremiah must weep again, but this time, the tears are not of despair, but of joy. These tears do not express discouragement, but an escalating sense of expectancy:

The time is coming, declares the Lord,
when I will come and do for you what you are unable to do for yourselves.
I will make a new covenant with you,
and the law which you have failed to keep will be placed, not simply in your minds, but in your hearts.
I will be your God,
and finally, finally, you will be my people. (32:31-34)
Jeremiah here anticipates a visitation, and from no one less that God himself. Its not the visit of a spouse or parent to the young man on death row. Such a visit might be a comfort–they could keep him company–but they could not alter his situation. Rather, Jeremiah envisions a visit from the governor, who alone has the authority to set the prisoner free. What the prophet longs for is not a visit for the sake of acquaintance, but a visit for the sake of deliverance.

Just as my own father confronted me some thirty years ago and enabled me to see what I otherwise was unable to see, so Jeremiah expects God Almighty to get out of his chair and to enable his people to do what was previously only a prophetic dream. What was needed was not yet another human solution–there already were enough of those–but a divine visitation; not a gritting of one’s teeth, but a changing of one’s heart.

Looking ahead to a visitation. Longing, expectantly, for God to do something new and fresh, hoping that he would replace our own failures and disappointments with his presence and joy. Did it happen? Did God come? Indeed he did. As the mighty warrior that virtually everybody was looking for? Not by power. As a wealthy and influential aristocrat? Not by prosperity. As a religious leader seeking simply to overhaul the practices of the day. Not by external reform. No, God shocked the world! He came in the form of a little baby, and when the cries of that baby echoed outside of the cave in Bethlehem in which he was born, all those who longed for God to come could now shout with the aged Simeon: “Sovereign Lord, eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:30).

Do we here at the Grantham Church long for a visitation from God? Do we have this profound sense of expectancy that God is not only among us, but that he can come again and again in fresh and life-changing ways? Be careful and watchful. Don’t look for him today in administrative decrees or huge bank accounts or countless presents or casual behavioral face-lifts. God is too sneaky for that. Just as my life changed years ago when confronted by–of all things–the tears of my crying father, so our lives can be renewed and restored today if we pay attention to the presence of him who entered the world as–of all things–a crying baby.