It Depends on How We Look at It (Jeremiah 20:7-13; Matthew 10:24-39)
In your bulletin today you have two pictures that are sometimes called “optical illusions.” When you look at the bigger picture on the back of the insert, do you see a face or do you see a landscape? Most people, it seems, see a face.
In the smaller one that is beneath the order of worship, do you see a goblet or vase, or do you see two profiles? There is a little sign on the communion table that sat for a long time on my father’s desk and for thirty has sat in my own study. Do you see blocks and lines or do you see a name? Now, there isn’t any right or wrong way to view these things, it’s a matter of how we look at it as to which one we see. Can you make yourself see the one you don’t see right off?
As we live in the world, it is also a matter of the way we look at life that shapes what we see. What takes the foreground, and what slips into the background Our stories from the Old and New Testaments this morning illustrate this matter of looking at things differently. As we read these stories, we may see more than one thing. I think we’re to believe it was also so for those who first told and read the stories and lived the lives they’re based on. Again, no right or wrong here, but a real difference.
The Prophecy of Jeremiah is a wonderfully complex product that, like so many Old Testament Books, is the result of many hands over a long period of time. I’ve participated in a group of scholars that has been reading Jeremiah and re-reading it for today for several years. As background, Jeremiah was a prophet who lived in the late 600’s and early 500’s BCE during the decay and death of the Kingdom of Judah leading up to its destruction by Babylon. Jeremiah was convinced that Babylon was the instrument of God and the best his country could do was give up as hopelessly in the wrong. Of course, that did not make him popular with the political leaders of Judah who made all the patriotic noise about standing up to Babylon, either alone or with the help of such other players as Egypt. The toughest thing that Jeremiah said was the part about Babylon being the instrument of God and that Babylon’s devastation of Judah was really the work of God. Even loosely defined this qualifies as both sedition and treason, and it’s no wonder Jeremiah spent a lot of time in jail, and it’s a marvel he wasn’t put to death. The clergy who confused God and the state condemned him roundly and thoroughly as irreligious and dangerous. At last, he had to be spirited off by friends to Egypt where he died without recanting one word publicly. That’s Jeremiah the man.
Now the Book of Jeremiah did not reach publication until long after the man Jeremiah’s death, when it became clear that, in fact, he was right. During the years of exile in Babylon and when Judah finally came back to a portion of its territory, there were those who kept and reflected on Jeremiah’s words. If Jeremiah was right (as he apparently was) that God could punish God’s people, what did that imply for life as God’s people after the death of exile? How were they still God’s people. And they read and re-read Jeremiah’s words and wrote words about how he was relevant to their time. As we read the Book of Jeremiah today, we must always keep the setting of Jeremiah himself and the setting of those who read and published Jeremiah in our minds. As I said a bit ago, I’ve been in a working group that reads the book with a view to today. Who’s Judah now (or thinks they are), who’s Babylon? Does Jeremiah say anything to our world? The more we read and talk the murkier it gets.
If we look at the context of the passage we read this morning, it is one of those passages in which Jeremiah seems absolutely sure that the end is coming upon his people. He has violently challenged the established religion of the country, which at that time was the same as challenging the government itself. It is important to note that, in public, Jeremiah’s confidence in a violent end of Judah as God’s will is absolute.
Now, as we enter our Old Testament Lesson for today, we find a sharply different tone in the private conversation between Jeremiah and God when no one’s looking or listening. Jeremiah is unsure of anything except that God’s power is absolute and will destroy Judah with a power that cannot be resisted. And, in his heart, he is devastated by that because, with all its problems, Judah is as much his home as his enemies.’ He’s also sure that God has left him no “out.” And he doesn’t like it. And says so.
He accuses God at the beginning of “enticing” him to speak violently. How colourless our English translations are! This is a word that has the colour of seduction, or even more, of assault. Jeremiah says to God: “You seduced me, and boy was I seduced!” “I had no chance, you overpowered me, assaulted me.” This word “overpowered” or “prevailed against,” basically means “to be able.” God is more able at seduction and assault than Jeremiah is. Because he has been forced to utter God’s words, everyone has mocked him, shunned him, reproached him, has started to whisper about the crazy old Jeremiah. They hate him, and it’s because he speaks a word he cannot resist. On the other hand, he knows if he doesn’t speak this overpowering word, he is burnt up inside with not speaking it. There are only two options, neither works. If he speaks, God doesn’t act to support him and he’s hated, threatened and punished. If he’s silent, God doesn’t comfort him by giving him solace and only drives him to speak more. Jeremiah could be excused for thinking he’s crazy, and so might we.
Most of us, probably, are mostly not between a rock and a hard place like Jeremiah, but, sometimes, in the dark night of the soul, does it not sometimes seem like God’s got the deck stacked against us? How did we get where we are? When we only see things from our own perspective, we cannot see that there’s more than one way to look at things: that there could be either a face or a landscape or an goblet or a profile, or a name of lines and blotches. Do you never struggle with God?
At verse 11 this text starts focusing on God. We still see the overwhelming power of God, but used for the vindication of those that speak and do what is right. And, like it or not, that is defined as following what God says is right. God is more able than all the adversaries. Jeremiah realizes that it’s never easy to speak and do what is right. There is always struggle. In actual fact Jeremiah talks about struggle and testing by God. Jeremiah gives God two titles here: “The one who tries or tests those who speak and do the right (the verb is used of testing precious metals by melting them). Nobody gets off just claiming to speak and do God’s will without cost. God is also the one who sees (sees through), literally, the kidneys and the heart, both are places unseen by human observers and are seats of the will, the motivation, and the integration of thought and deed in Hebrew psychology.
God says, “Jeremiah, do you not understand the immense cost of being a social critic on my behalf?” It is a tremendously costly thing to speak an authentic word from God. That is why our passage climaxes with a doxology: “Sing and praise to the LORD who has delivered the life of the needy from the hand of harmful people.” There’s much more to this text, but, this will do to show us that it makes a tremendous difference how we see things and what our perspective is. Do we simply take our own perspective in our lives and have this sense of entitlement to whine about the hardness of life, or do we understand that it is costly to do what is right? And there is no getting around it!
Matthew chapter 10 presents us with a wholly different kind of text with different emphases, but it still shows the importance of how we look at things. This chapter contains Jesus’ instructions to disciples he is about to scatter into a dangerous world. He sort of begins where Jeremiah ends. What disciples do will sometimes result in divisions within families. I think Jesus primarily referred to their own. They will be in danger from those who can kill the body (this shouldn’t be underestimated). But Jesus takes a different tack from Jeremiah. He doesn’t talk about God’s power (although he affirmed it). He says, “Don’t expect to be treated any better than I have been.” Remember, by Matthew’s day every Christian disciple knew what happened to Jesus. But, as different as Jesus is from Jeremiah, he does come out saying much the same thing: it’s costly to be a social critic on Jesus’ or God’s behalf. Just a note: perhaps, if disciples aren’t experiencing the danger today, it’s because they’ve decided to confine their activity to areas the culture is willing to concede is the business of God’s people: evangelism, being nice, giving the veneer of religion to civic gatherings, teas and sales, board meetings. But certainly not messing with peoples’ values. I remember when the warming centre was being planned being told by a City Council member that taking care of the poor and homeless was not the church’s business. All the prophets of Israel (including Jesus) beg to differ, of course.
In the midst of his preparation of disciples for the difficulties of their work (and we must translate that into meaningful terms in each generation), Jesus suddenly shifts the discussion to small, dull, little birds – sparrows. Even such as these do not escape God’s care and concern. The purchase price of a sparrow is almost nothing, and you can get two of them for that. And yet, nothing happens to them about which God does not care. Don’t be afraid, Jesus says, of the dangers of discipleship, you are worth more than many sparrows. In fact, the value of things is not set on them by how much they cost. All that is exploited, overlooked, abused, ignored, and sent off somewhere else, is valuable to God. It also has nothing to do with how much production can be gained from them. It does not matter what rules they’ve broken. They are important because they are creatures of God like sparrows. By the way, it’s also important to look at this another way; just because we are valuable does not mean that we are guaranteed a safe life or a lot of money if we’re just “faithful” (whatever that means).
If God cares for the sparrows, there is nothing in our lives that we say or do that escapes divine concern. Even if we say that God doesn’t care if we do this or that, it isn’t quite so. God cares about it all, not to judge it, but simply to care for it. How much more true must this be of those larger purposes that shape our lives and values? Such shaping almost always happens in our lives together as a community, especially a community of faith.
As a matter of fact, this passage is really about the value community has in God’s sight. This passage is not addressed to an individual, but to a community. All the “you’s” we find here are plurals. Jesus is speaking about how much value we have to God as a community, which means we cannot fathom our own worth without recognizing the worth of those next to us, those across the street, across the world: those who are like us, those who aren’t. God’s care isn’t just for me or you and me or just us, it’s for all the “us’s” in the world. The little song I learned in Sunday School said: “Red and yellow, black, brown, white, all are precious in God’s sight.”
Knowing this, we can look at this whole matter of difficult discipleship by seeing that, when we are secure in God’s own deepest care, then we are able to go out into danger without fear (Jesus says, “Stop being afraid” here. This is why). We can boldly proclaim in public what we learned in private. We are able to risk people turning against us, and can be faithful even at the risk of our lives.
Jeremiah was right, that sometimes it’s desperately hard and costly to be faithful to God when everybody is going another way. Jesus is also right, in that since we are overwhelmingly important to God, we can face the hardship and cost with the words of Jeremiah: “Sing to the LORD…who has delivered the life of the needy from those who would do it harm.”
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.