Faithfulness for the Long Haul (Fourth Sunday after Pentecost)

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Like many people, I’m tired of dealing with the Corona virus.  I’m tired of having to think about it and hear about it all the time.  I’m tired of the restrictions that have been placed on my life.  And most of all, I’m tired of the stress and anxiety that it’s caused over these past few months.

I want it to be over.  Probably you do, too!  In fact, it seems like a lot of Americans feel that way.  Even in places where there are still significant restrictions, many people are simply ignoring them and going about their lives as usual, often with serious consequences.  It just seems like people are tired of dealing with it. In fact, I was reading an article the other day where someone in Europe said that it seemed to them like Americans has given up and moved on.

I don’t think that’s the case.  At least, I hope not!  But I do understand how it feels to be tired of dealing with an unsavory aspect of my current life.  I want it to be over, and I want to move on to something else.  Sometimes, I think this attitude has been encouraged by years of living in a 24-hour news cycle, which quickly loses interest in even the most important topics, and allows us to move on to something more interesting or exciting.

But in fact, this has always been a challenge.  And today’s reading from Jeremiah is an example.  It’s hard to tell that from the few short verses that we just read, so I need to tell you some of the backstory.

Jeremiah was a prophet in Jerusalem during the time that the Babylonian Empire was consolidating its control over the entire middle east.  In fact, just a few years before, Babylon had successfully conquered Jerusalem, looted the king’s house and the Temple of all the best stuff, and taken the king and many of the nobles into exile in Babylon.

But the city and the Temple were still intact, and a new king had been set up who was supposed to make sure that the Babylonian rules were followed and tribute was paid annually to Babylon.  That was how things worked back then when you conquered a city.  And as long as you didn’t let the deal go down, things could more or less go on as usual…

But of course, things weren’t the way they used to be.  Jerusalem was subjugated to a foreign power.  The former king was in exile.  And many of the important vessels of the Lord, which were crucial to worship, had be carried off.

After a short time, the people left in Jerusalem were tired of this.  They wanted it to be over.  They wanted to be free again, to have their stuff back, and to not have to deal with Babylon anymore.  When would it all end?

So a few verses before today’s reading begins, the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah.  And God tells him that this is going to go on for a long time…

And to illustrate this, Jeremiah is instructed to do this wild thing – he’s to make a yoke, like an ox would wear, and wear it around as he walks about the city to let people know that in fact, God has told them that this yoke of Babylon will last for a long time, and they’re going to need to endure it for a while, until God decides Babylon’s time is up.

But Jeremiah isn’t the only prophet in Jerusalem.  There are many of them, including this other prophet we read about named Hananiah.  Hananiah tells Jeremiah that he’s got it all wrong.  This will all be over shortly (in less than two years he says), and then the exiles and all the Temple loot will be returned.  Everything can go back to normal.

And this is where Jeremiah answers him in today’s reading, and says, essentially, “Amen, that would be great!  But that’s not what God says.  It’s not what’s going to happen.”  Hananiah is not convinced by Jeremiah, and right after this reading, he takes the yoke off of Jeremiah’s neck and break the yoke to symbolize that the yoke of Babylon will soon be broken and they’ll soon be able to move on from this nightmare.

But within the year, Hananiah is dead (after being rebuked by Jeremiah).  And 9 years later, when they’re really fed up, the people of Jerusalem rebel against Babylon. The Babylonian army returns, burns Jerusalem to the ground and completely destroys the Temple.  They loot everything that’s left in the city and the Temple, and they take many more people into exile.  This is what becomes known as the “Babylonian Captivity” in which Jerusalem is laid waste for nearly 70 years, until, as Jeremiah said, the days are finally up, Babylon is defeated by the Persians, and the Jews are allowed to go home.

Now of course, all of this is written down because it turns out that Jeremiah was right.  He really did know what God was saying.  And although Hananiah comes off as the bad guy in this story, it’s not necessarily the case that Hananiah thought he was prophesying a lie.  He may have believed that God was speaking to him and that Jeremiah was wrong. In the heat of the moment, it can sometimes be hard to tell.

But these words, and this story, were recorded as a cautionary tale for God’s people.  It reminded the ancient people of Judah, and it should remind us, that even and especially when we’re tired of dealing with a difficult mess that doesn’t seem to want to go away, it’s often the case that God is calling us to:

  • Faithfulness in the long-run – while Jeremiah’s message might have sounded like “grin and bear it”, what he was really doing was calling people to live faithfully, even in the midst of times and situations that they didn’t like; that’s when living faithfully and doing what God asks you to do is most important… And that was also the message of Jesus to his disciples, then and now…(not unlike looking for new ways to worship and be God’s people in a time when we can’t be together in big groups…)
  • Be wary of “quick and easy” solutions – I confess that whenever I hear that a vaccine is just around the corner, or that there’s a relatively painless way to make significant progress on an important social issue, I love it!  But most serious problems don’t get solved quickly or easily.  And Jeremiah’s call was to seek God’s guidance in the midst of the mess, not to simply look for God to quickly get you out of the mess … (any while you can’t always make things better by yourself, you can often make things much, much worse for yourself and your community if you succumb to the temptation to take a short cut…)
  • Trust that God’s good and gracious will is going to win out, even if it seems like it’s never going to happen – Jeremiah DIDN’T say, “all hope is lost”; instead, he told people that God would deliver them in the end, and it happened!  And Jesus calls us to that kind of trust also – the trust that God will bring us through situations that we can’t solve quickly and easily, even when it seems like progress isn’t being made.  And far from making us lethargic, that kind of trust is supposed to give us real hope, and empower us to go on living faithfully now, witnessing to God’s goodness, and living into the new reality, even if that reality seems far off …

What Jeremiah was really doing was calling people not to give up on God, because he was certain that God wasn’t going to give up on them.  And so in Jeremiah’s day, and our own, God’s Word to us is often the same.

God is calling us to be faithful for the long haul, even when we’re living through situations we really wish were over.  God is calling us to do the things that will help us and others around us endure the difficulties, and to be wary of quick and easy solutions.  And most of all, God is calling us to trust that he will bring us through every bad situation we find ourselves in – even the situation of our own deaths – because in Jesus, God never gives up on us.