By Pastor Sarah Stadler
God’s word today is a difficult word.
God’s word burns like fire and breaks a rock in pieces like a hammer.
God’s word came to the prophet Jeremiah who was called to prophesy right at the time of the Babylonian exile…
The prophets and the Israelites interpreted the exile as a consequence of their sin, basically two communal sins: the worship of other gods and injustice.
In the near-east culture of the 500s before the common era, the worship of more than one god was common. Monotheism, the worship of one god, was uncommon, unlike our culture today in the US…
Injustice, from the perspective of the Old Testament, was failing to care for widows and orphans, failing to pay workers a fair wage, trampling on the Sabbath—everyone, including slaves and cattle were to get one day of rest every 7 days—it was a justice issue as well as a spiritual one, anyone going hungry, anyone going without clothing, anyone not having a home. From the perspective of the Old Testament, this was injustice.
And at least in their understanding, the consequence of the Israelites worshiping other gods and allowing injustice was the Babylonian exile. But before the exile, the Israelites believed that, because they followed the letter of the law and because they did their sacrifices like they were supposed to and because they followed the purity laws, they were faithful to God. They were genuine followers of the God of Israel, Yahweh. But Jeremiah’s prophecy was a hard word from God, a word that burned like fire and broke rock like a hammer.
What does this have to do with us? Well, I think that we, like the Israelites, believe that having a relationship with God and following Jesus are things that we can easily accomplish. I’ll tell you a little bit about my journey.
In high school, I thought I was successful in following Jesus because I did two things. First, I followed certain rules of morality. I didn’t drink, smoke, use profanity, have sex with anyone—even though almost all my friends did all of those things. I followed the rules. I was a “perfect” child.
Second, I was nice to everyone. I’m from Minnesota where people are nice. I imagine you’ve heard of Minnesota nice. We’re nice, at least outwardly. But what’s going on inside my head? Judgment, for sure, and sometimes even gossiping about others even though my words to the person in question were always polite.
I believed that I was successful in following Jesus because I was nice and because I was pious and moral in very particular ways. My dear friends in Christ, this is not what it means to follow Jesus. Now, I am not encouraging you to be mean or to make unhealthy choices for your life. Of course not. But being nice—and what I mean by being nice is being polite but not necessarily kind because we can be nice outwardly but judgmental in our heads, being nice and being moral is not what it is to be Christian, is not what it means to follow Jesus. God’s word is hard. It burns like fire and breaks rock like a hammer. To be in right relationship with God, to follow Jesus is to worship and serve God alone—not money, not power, not violence, not prestige, not being right. To be in right relationship with God, to follow Jesus is to be in right relationship with every single person and God’s whole creation, to seek what is best for all instead of seeking what is best only for self.
Just as in the days of the prophet Jeremiah, there are many people who would like to boil down religion to something easy, to something pleasant. Jeremiah’s prophecy today tells us that there were people who lied in God’s name. And the Old Testament is very clear what the test of a true prophet is: the true prophet prophecies something that people don’t want to hear. A false prophet is one who tells people something easy, something that goes along with what they already think, something that encourages our already-conceived prejudices and habits and our already-embraced fearsand negativity.
We know that there are those in our world today who stand at podiums and tell us things we want to hear, things that are easy, things that confirm our own broken assumptions and prejudices. And those who tell us these things in God’s name, they are religious people, but God’s word is not easy. God’s word cannot be summed up in a bumper sticker or a Facebook post. God’s word invites us into thoughtful dialogue and deep searching. God’s word invites us, as it did the Israelites, to consider what or who we worship besides the one God. God’s word invites us, as it did the Israelites, to consider what sorts of injustice we allow in our world, what sorts of patterns and ways of relating we have established in our own lives that do not reflect the love of God and God’s care for the whole creation. Each person, each part of creation matter deeply to God. You may remember a biting quote I used to include in my email signature, a quote from one of my favorite people of faith, Dorothy Day. She said: I only love God as much as I love the person I love the least. That is hard, and that is true.
On Sunday mornings, I so often preach to myself. I know that I am getting it wrong when it is too easy to whip out a sermon. I know that I am getting it wrong when I can look at myself and say: Good job, self. You really nailed it. You have done well. Others will probably hear this gospel message and struggle, but you have already accomplished this message in your life. That’s when I know I need to start over because God’s word is difficult for everyone. God’s word burns like fire and breaks rock like a hammer. God’s word leads us to worship God alone and to do justice in all aspects of our lives. It is not easy to do this thing: to follow Jesus, to be in right relationship with God. We will ever be seekers.
But there’s good news too. Despite however much we fail and are flawed and make mistakes and intentionally do the very opposite of what God’s word calls us into, the good news is that God has decided to be in right relationship with us, a relationship of love. God does not turn away from us even when we turn away from God. That is the story of God’s relationship with the Israelites. Perhaps you are thinking about the rest of my sermon and thinking: it is easy to say God loves you. So, that statement of God loving us is not a true statement because this word does not burn like fire orbreak rock like a hammer. But in my experience, when I have sat in my office across from someone who is confessing something really difficult, something of which they feel ashamed, some word or action in their lives that they know was a mistake, it’s painful. In their pain, often the most painful thing, ironically, is to hear a word of grace, a word of love, and to believe it. At least I know that is true for me. I want to keep myself captive to my sin, to my shame, but God does not allow this because God’s love for us is so deep. And so, dear people of God, God’s word burns like fire and breaks rock like a hammer, a word of faithfulness, a word of justice, a word of love.