Sunday, September 18, 2022
WHAT’S WITH JEREMIAH
The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77450
September 18, 2022
So what is going on with the prophet Jeremiah. We have been reading from him from for several weeks and I remember the very first week the lector told me, I just don’t understand what his problem is. This week at the bible study we talked about some of the background that helps put this in perspective and reveals how this long ago voice speaks to us here in 2022.
Who was Jeremiah and when did he live? Jeremiah started his prophetic ministry around 626 BCE. We noted this calling as a prophet earlier this summer when he said, “I am only a child.” And God says I will put my words in your mouth.
He is considered one of the major prophets of Israel. In part this is because there were two major events during his time of ministry. These were the reforms of Josiah in 622 and the destruction of Jerusalem in 587. As he started his ministry the Assyrian empire is in decay and Babylon is on the rise.
The reforms of Josiah were a very important part of his work as a major prophet. King Josiah through Jeremiah and others called for the destruction of all the non-Yahwistic cults and temples especially in the northern kingdom. This represents a huge shift in theology for up until this time monotheism as we know it did not exist. Yahweh was the Lord God of Hosts, the God of the first commandment where we are told you shall have no other gods before me. Yahweh was the most powerful God but there were other gods and idols to be worshiped and there was much of this going on in the northern kingdom.
Most of what we know about is the worship of Baal of the Northern Kingdom and attacks on northern temples. It was not at all uncommon for people to have household gods, you hear of this in the story of Jacob when he leaves Laban and his wife takes and hides the household gods.
Baal was the god of rain and in a desert region this would have been an important deity. For without rain there would be no crops. So while the northern tribes worshipped Yahweh, many hedged their bets and also worshipped and offered sacrifice, sometimes human sacrifice to Baal and other gods. Josiah with the help of Jeremiah puts a stop to this and it was quite a battle.
Jeremiah is also called to prophesy Jerusalem’s destruction by invaders from the north in the form of the Babylonians. Now it is entirely likely that some of this prophesy is written down after the fall of the first temple and the start of the Babylonian captivity but again that is not an unusual literary technique in the bible. Remember as I told the adult Sunday school class this morning, the Bible is not a history book.
The point being is this is one of those major shifts in the history of the world and religion. Many of you have may have read Phyllis Tickle’s work or heard her speak. If not I’ll do a couple classes on her work. She tells of the cycle of religious shakeups that seem to happen every 500 years. She maintains that we are in just such a period right now 500 or so years after the Reformation. Well guess what another of those periods was? Yes it was the crisis to Judaism caused by the Babylonians conquering the Assyrians and then Jerusalem, which included the destruction of the temple and the Babylonia exile. This occurred about 500 years prior to Jesus which was another of those 500 year events and Jeremiah is in the middle of all of this as a prophet.
Jeremiah was calling the people of Israel to refocus, reorient their faith and worship to one God Yahweh and one God only. His was a call as part of the reforms of Josiah was the start of what would change the understanding of God for all Jews forever. This is no small detail and explains much of the passion in his writing. He also can see and God has warned him of the dangers of following other gods and idols.
So what does this have to do with us today? To answer that I want to toss in a bit of our gospel passage. Now we have two somewhat connected but separate parts. We have the perplexing parable of the dishonest steward, but then the second half that starts at verse 9 is a separate teaching in some respects. Jesus says that those who are faithful in small things can be trusted with big things. Then he adds the “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hat the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Now somebody on Tuesday morning joked, “Oh it must be stewardship season” and well yes it is getting close and it will be a very critical stewardship campaign this year. You will find the first of the reflections on stewardship in your service leaflet and I do want you to take a moment to read and reflect on it during the offertory.
Maybe the question is one of focus on what are the gods and idols that call out for our attention in our world today. What are the false gods and idols that we worship today that pose a threat to our society? What are the false gods and idols that demand we serve them. I believe there are many including the gods or extreme wealth and power that seems to dominate what is going on around the world. I am not saying money or possessions are bad, but what I question is when they become the object of adoration and worship such that morals, ethics and justice take a back seat in how people live and governments govern.
I believe false idols and gods are at the heart of our problems today. I firmly believe that one of the most dangerous idols in our country today is the idol of power. I learned a lot at seminary in Alexandria Virginia, but I also learned a lot living inside the beltway for 3 years. Where what is national news for us is the local news. I would see ads on TV from defense contractors and various other influence and lobbying groups that you do not see anywhere else. Why? Because of the power of the people who live there. I’ve been inside a political campaign and they are all about power and keeping power. And the person running for office eventually dropped out because of what he was going to have to do to win the office.
The spiritual director on my retreat gave me an essay by Ignatius on the dangers of the idols of power. money and privilege. That essay could be published today without any change. Jesus’ warnings of serving two masters is just as relevant today as it was in his time. The dangers of idols that Jeremiah writes are just as true today as they were in his day.
Paul Tillich wrote in the 1950s that the question we have to ask is what is our ultimate concern? What is important in our lives, where are we called to focus our attention upon?
So where are we as Christians called to put our focus. Who or what is it we are called to worship and more important follow? That question is very easy to answer. We worship God and follow Christ. For us that needs to be our ultimate concern. In a variation on a theme, Michael Curry says, “Love God, love your neighbor and follow Jesus.” Being a part of the Jesus movement should drive everything we do. There can be no other gods, no other idols.