This is the second of a series of sermons on the prophet Jeremiah. Two weeks ago Colin looked at the way Jeremiah was called by God, while still a young man, to pass on God’s messages to the people of Judah.
Today we shall be looking at a sermon he preached at the Temple in Jerusalem. But first, because I guess we don’t know much about Jeremiah, and because it will make today’s passage clearer, I think we need a bit of background.
After the reign of King Solomon the one kingdom made up of the 12 tribes who had escaped from Egypt with Moses and who eventually arrived in the Promised Land, was divided in two – the kingdom of Israel in the north with Samaria as its capital, and the kingdom of Judah in the south with Jerusalem as its capital.
In 722 BC Samaria was captured by the powerful Assyrians from the northeast. The northern kingdom of Israel disappeared, becoming a province of the Assyrian Empire, with its leaders and most of its population being deported. The prophet Hosea described all these events.
The southern kingdom of Judah continued, but times were troubled. Because the Assyrian border was now so close to Jerusalem, the king tried to curry favour with the Assyrians, paying them tribute and so becoming a vassal state. He even encouraged the worship of the Assyrian gods in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Isaiah and Micah spoke out against the political and religious rottenness of Judah at this time, but it made little difference – the gods of Assyria, the local gods of the Canaanites, as well as the sun, moon and stars were all worshipped, and people lived for themselves.
Things were grim; kings came and went, but then there was an unexpected change.
Two things happened – The Assyrian Empire began to falter. It was finally overcome by the Babylonians in 626 BC, but before that, in 640 BC, Josiah became king of Judah. One of the king’s contemporaries was a young man called Jeremiah, who of course, we shall come back to in a minute.
Josiah was able to take advantage of the turmoil between Assyria and Babylon not only to gain back some of the land of the northern kingdom, but also to begin the reform of religious practice.
Under the Assyrians religion and politics had gone hand in hand, so to acknowledge their subjection to the empire Assyrian gods began to be worshipped in Jerusalem, and the Jewish faith became neglected and corrupted.
Josiah was only a boy when he came to the throne, but as soon as he could he began to remove the symbols of the Assyrian gods. He travelled north as well as throughout Judah, and he destroyed the carved images of Ashera the fertility goddess wife of the chief Canaanite god Baal, tore down the shrines where sacred prostitution and child sacrifice took place, and the altars on hill tops where the stars were worshipped. He removed and killed the priests who had served in these pagan shrines.
In Jerusalem he did the same. Then he turned his attention to the Temple itself. 2 Kings 23: 11f. tells us for example that “He removed from the entrance to the Temple of the Lord the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun… Josiah then burned the chariots dedicated to the sun”. He removed the pagan priests and the shrine prostitutes, the altars on the Temple rooftop, the mediums and sorcerers, and all the other pagan symbols.
He ordered workmen to repair the Temple – and in the process of all this cleaning and refurbishment the high priest discovered a book, hidden away somewhere and forgotten. It turned out to be the Book of the Law of Moses, and it was taken to the king.
When he heard what was written in what was probably the book of Deuteronomy, Josiah “tore his robes” – a sign of the great emotion he felt, and the realisation of just how angry God must be at the way he, and his rules for living, had been ignored (2 Kings 22).
The king called together all the people, and had the book read aloud to them. Then, in a solemn ceremony reminiscent of the events at Sinai when the Law was first given, the people of Judah pledged their allegiance once again to the long-forgotten ideals of their ancient faith (2 Chronicles 34: 29-32).
Jeremiah was sent out to “Proclaim all these words (that is the terms and implications of the Covenant) in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem” (Jeremiah 11: 1-8). He was to bring home to the nation the challenge of what they had promised, the enormity of all that needed to be changed, and he was to lay on the line what would happen if they failed. This was to be God’s final warning.
Because Jeremiah’s words as we have them are not in chronological order, it is difficult to know how his sermon in chapter 7 fits in time-wise, but it seems possible that these verses could follow the renewal of the Covenant. In any case Jeremiah was to “stand at the gate of the Lord’s house” and to speak to all the people of Judah as they came in. “If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave to your forefathers for ever and ever” (Jeremiah7: 1-7)
This was an appeal to the consciences of those who heard Jeremiah speak. It’s as if he is saying, ‘You have just been reminded what God’s Law says, so which of these things have you failed in? Have you paid more attention to the stars than to the one who made them? Did you have anything to do with the death of a child because you thought it would please a god carved out of wood? How have you treated other people? Search your conscience and change your ways, or disaster will surely come.’
Jeremiah went on to appeal to their reason, warning that their faith had become superficial, and that they had come to think that the mere presence of the Temple in Jerusalem was their guarantee of security and continuity.
Not so, he told them. Do not imagine that God will never allow the destruction of Jerusalem just because his Temple stands here. No, God is much more interested in the moral integrity of his people than in the survival of a building which they happen to use. Do not allow yourselves to feel ‘safe’ (verse 10) from God’s justice in the Temple, while continuing to break all his rules.
Think about it – thieves hide in caves, imagining that they are safe there – but God has been watching and he knows what is going on (verse 11). Neither hiding in caves nor taking refuge in the Temple will prevent the disaster that is coming.
He goes on to cite two events of recent history to make his point even clearer.
Shiloh was the place where the tabernacle was set up when the people first came into the Promised Land (Joshua 18: 1), and, like the Temple, had been the symbolic location of God’s presence among his people. It was only a few miles north of Jerusalem, in what had been the northern kingdom of Israel. Now it lay in ruins, and Jeremiah says exactly the same fate could easily befall the Temple in Jerusalem. Neither place is ‘safe’, simply because it is known as God’s dwelling place.
And the second example from history Jeremiah points to is the destruction by the Assyrians of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which he sums up in the name ‘Ephraim’. Ephraim was one of the 12 sons of Jacob whose tribal lands actually included Shiloh. Its people have gone into exile – the same fate awaits Judah.
The response of the crowds to Jeremiah’s words is recorded in chapter 26. He only narrowly escaped with his life.
So what relevance does this all have for us?
Plenty of people still followed the formal religious practices, judging by the crowds that Jeremiah spoke to as they entered the Temple – but their belief was mixed up with pagan practices, and because of this their everyday morality, perhaps without them realising it, had moved away from the way God expected his people to live.
In our country many would say they are Christian, but their ignorance of what that should mean in practice is woefully lacking. Our society has also drifted, and even those who for instance bring their children for baptism possibly do not really know what they are undertaking. Do they, and maybe we too, feel there is some unspecified guarantee of ‘safety’ in being a part of the Church, without understanding the growth in relationship with himself that God really wants?
It is all too easy not to see or to ignore the gap between our own lives and the standards God asks for – we accept the standards of our society so easily and without realising we are doing so. But as Jeremiah pointed out in verse 11 God knows what is happening. Jesus also quoted from verse 11 when he went into the Temple and threw out the money changers and those selling birds for sacrifice, saying they had made God’s house into “a den of robbers” (Matthew 21: 13). Later Matthew records (23: 38) he calls the Temple “your house” rather than God’s house, and says it will be utterly destroyed (24:2). People felt ‘safe’ there but if it was ‘their’ house, that meant men had taken it over and God had moved out. I wonder whether our buildings are a bit the same – we do talk about ‘our’ church – what would happen if we no longer had it?
The lessons that Jeremiah tried to put across to his contemporaries were hard, and mostly went unheeded. Maybe, as we continue to look over the next few weeks, we shall find more things that Jeremiah said that we too should consider. We don’t often look at the Old Testament, but God does not change, he is still watching, and he knows whether we are blind, or being hypocritical and just plain stubborn. So let’s not just ignore Jeremiah’s words because they were spoken so long ago.