Jeremiah 7:1-15 - Exposition
A long time ago, I had my first long-distance relationship. I can talk about this now - it was a long time ago, and as Kit Marlowe put it, it was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.
It was a typical Christian holiday romance; we met at a Crusaders winter camp, exchanged letters for a few months and over time, various things happened. I lived in mid Wales, she lived in Shropshire, so I visited occasionally and I phoned her once a week and we wrote to each other two or three times a week; this should give you an idea of how long ago that was-not only was it before email but it was in the days when you could exchange three or four letters a week using the Royal Mail.
But obviously I couldn’t continue this frenetic level of communication, and I got busier and busier, until one day, I remember calling her on the phone. I said ‘Hi, Katie’, and she said ‘Ah, so you remember my name, then,’ and I realised right at that very instant that by the end of that phone conversation we would not be boyfriend and girlfriend any longer.
But being a bloke, it took me a while to work out why. Eventually I realised that I had been taking her for granted; not only that, but I only put enough in to keep the relationship ticking over, and that was more for my benefit than hers. I was more interested in the whole idea of having a girlfriend than I was in Katie.
And that exact attitude I had towards her is what we see in the people of Israel towards God here in Jeremiah. Not only are they taking God for granted, but they’re more interested in the fact that they have God on their side than they are in God himself. Well, as I found out, and as they found out, that’s not enough.
I suspect you’ve all heard the words from the prophet Joel that Paul quotes in Romans 10: ‘Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ This is pretty much the basis of our Protestant faith–anyone who is in need of salvation can call on God, and he will receive it. I have some bad news for you about this doctrine. God doesn’t want you to call upon His name. He wants you to love Him.
This passage from Jeremiah is about false religion; it’s a sermon addressed to people who are going into the temple in Jerusalem to worship God. This is not an evangelistic sermon to those people outside the church; sometimes you need to evangelise those inside the church. It’s possible to turn your back on God while you’re inside a religious setting, and that’s what the people of Judah had done here. They put their trust in the temple, in the repetition of the name of the temple, in the fact that God had saved the temple before, or in fact, in anything other than in God himself. The people were calling on God’s name, but they had nothing to do with God.
The Israelites at the time were politically oppressed, surrounded by world superpowers, and searching for something that would give them security from the threats around them. Surely, they thought, God would not let His temple, where He lives, be destroyed? Well, God never said that; in fact, He said that He’d already done it before–look at what happened when God abandoned the tent of meeting in Shiloh.
God is not ready but He is willing to leave His temple in order to refocus His people on Himself, on God alone, and not on the trappings of religion and the ‘things of God’; just as Jesus left His home in heaven to be amongst us and draw us into a right relationship with God. He does not want us to trust in our Church, our denomination or even in our ‘faith’–because ‘faith’ is worthless unless it is faith in God. Instead, He came down to say to us, “Trust in God; trust also in me.”
But even when we have got our trust in the right place, there’s some more work to be done.
If we have been talking about false religion, we should then contrast it with true religion. And what is true religion?
We know what true religion is. ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and fautless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world’. Or as Mother Maria Skobtsova of Paris put it,
At the Last Judgment I will not be asked whether I satisfactorily practiced asceticism, nor how many prostrations and bows I have made before the holy table. I will be asked whether I fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and the prisoner in jail. That is all I will be asked.
What is the overall message of Jeremiah’s sermon? It appears in verse 3, and in verse 5: repent. Amend your ways. Or else. What complaint does God bring against the Israelites? Yes, that they should be putting their trust in Him and not in lying words, but primarily, that they need to change the way they behave. God brings judgement because of their actions, not because of their beliefs.
And this is not merely an Old Testament theology and an Old Testament God. It is the constant cry of Scripture that man should not only believe in God, but turn towards Him, and that in turning towards Him, our actions will change. John came preaching a baptism of repentence; Jesus came calling men to repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand; Peter institutes the church with a call to repentence; even proto-Protestant Paul admits that ‘God now calls all men everywhere to repent’. In Revelation, the churches are reminded that their lampstands may be taken away if they do not turn from their sins–and this is addressed, like Jeremiah’s sermon, to those in the assembly, not outside!
It is clear from the first to the last page of the Bible that God is not merely interested in what we believe, something on which we evangelicals have traditionally been very strong–in fact, in the messages of John and Jesus and Peter and James and here in Jeremiah, God seems hardly interested at all in what we believe. Instead, He cares deeply about what we do, something we as evangelicals have had much less to say on.
But there is something that we have that the poor hearers of Jeremiah’s sermon did not have. We have Christ in us: ‘God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.’ And it is through Christ in us that we can repent and amend our ways. He himself said ‘I am the vine and you are the branches; whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear good fruit; for apart from me, you can do nothing.’ Does the branch achieve something? Yes, of course it does; it bears fruit. Does the branch need to do anything in particular to do this? No–it just needs to remain in the vine, and all its nourishment, all its life force and ‘growing power’ will come from the vine.
Like the Israelites, we cannot rely purely and wholly on the fact that we have been saved, lest we lose the living relationship with God. Instead, we have to rely purely and wholly on the living God, who by His Spirit dwelling within us, takes us from glory into glory for as long as we remain in Him, until that day when we shall be like Him, and live with Him, for ever and ever. Amen.