Sermon Lent 5
March 29, 2009
My wife, Rose, tells the story of how, in the summertime when she was a little girl, her parents used to send her to stay with Ma Bolden down the road. This was out East, in Maryland, out in the country where she lived in Prince George County. Ma Bolden had a little house with chickens and rabbits in the back yard; and in the summertime there would be days and days of stifling heat and humidity; 95 degrees with humidity so thick they used to say it was like living inside a dog’s mouth. And then, every once in a while, at night, when they were sitting out on the porch talking and watching the neighbors, Ma Bolden would get up and without a word go inside the house and turn off the radio and all the lights, and then take her seat, in the dark, in the corner of the house.
The first time this happened Rose was a just a little girl who loved to chatter away as little girls do; and when Ma Bolden turned off all the lights she said, “Whatcha doin’, Ma Bolden?” and Ma Bolden just said, “Shhh.”
“But watcha doin?”
And she said, “Shhh. God’s talkin’”
And as they sat there in the silence, she heard the thunder, way out in the distance: the thunderheads were coming, from miles and miles away, rolling over the graves of Gettysburg and the cities of Baltimore and Washington, DC until they were right on top of them and they were in the middle of the storm and the house was shaking with a fearsome sound.
Shh. God’s talkin.
We have seasons and moments in our lives when we are busy and we are stressed and our ears are full of the noise of everyday life, radios and tvs and people talking and children chattering and everyone having an opinion about this or that.
And then there are moments when we would do well to turn it all off, and sit still, and listen.
In the 9th Century BC, the prophet Elijah was on the run from Jezebel, the Phoenician princess and queen over Israel; she had purged the kingdom of all the prophets of YHWH who had spoken out against all her foreign gods and pagan practices; there had been a great slaughter on both sides; and now Elijah was running for his life. (1 Kings 19: 9-12) He ran for 40 days through the wilderness and came to a cave on Mt. Horeb, where he sat down and listened for the voice of God. There was a terrible wind, so powerful as to break mountains, but God was not in the wind; there was a terrible earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; a terrific fire, but Elijah heard nothing.
And then there was the sound of sheer silence.
Shh. God’s talking.
200 years later, the prophet Jeremiah was listening. His people had either been at war or been occupied by foreign armies for at least 150 years. Nearly all of those wars had been lost; generation after generation had endured terrible humiliations from the occupying armies, especially the Arameans, and for the past 100 years, the Assyrians. The Assyrian empire was one of the first great conquering world powers, and everybody hated them.
And during this entire terrible time of war and loss, the people of Israel had been asking God “Why?” Why are you punishing us? What have we done wrong? What do we have to do to get you on your good side again?
Well, the prophets had the answer: “Obey the covenant established by Moses. Follow the rules. Do what God has told you to do and God will protect you.” But that was not so easy; after all the people of Israel were under occupation by foreign armies who had imposed their foreign gods. And every time Israel and Judah stood up to them, they were crushed. So they couldn’t win for losing; and now the whole idea of a covenant with God was being questioned. Maybe we’re not so special, they began to think; maybe we’re not the chosen people after all; maybe it doesn’t matter if we worship Baal or YHWH.
And then something new happened. Nobody really thought this day would ever come but finally the Assyrian empire started to crumble. The Assyrians, finally, were learning the terrible lesson that so many other conquering empires over time would learn: that it was possible for an empire to be too big; that there was only so much territory an occupying army could control; there were only so many resources available to feed and equip an army that enormous; and now they were fighting rear guard actions in distant lands, and the occupying army that had controlled Israel and Judah had to retreat, and for the first time since the days of Solomon, the people of Israel and Judah were free.
And into this new moment of history stepped a young, talented, ambitious king named Josiah. Josiah consolidated his forces; he gathered his army, and riding his chariot in the name of YHWH, he took control, finally, of his land – all of it, the northern kingdom and the southern kingdom, reunited for the first time since Solomon; and finally, there was peace.
Josiah believed he had heard God’s answer to the great question his people had been asking; now, finally, they could purge their nation of foreign gods; and finally they could restore the Temple in Jerusalem to its pure and holy state. They even, in the course of their renovations of the Temple, found an ancient scroll from the time of Solomon, upon which was written the holiness codes of King David’s priests. This, Josiah believed, was the great answer to his people; finally, they had found the rule book written by God; all they had to do was follow these rules, now, they could restore the ancient covenant with God that was given to Moses; and God would protect the nation once again; finally, as long as they obeyed these rules, this peace would last.
And so a terrific and terrible zeal seized Josiah and all the people; they routed out all impurities from the land; which meant that anyone who was married to a foreigner was forced to chase their spouse away or be killed; anyone who was caught worshiping a foreign god was killed; all the priests of YHWH, spread out across the kingdom, were told they had to move to Jerusalem and become part of the centralized Temple priesthood, all the better to control them and keep them from foreign influences. All the local shrines – whether to YWHW or to foreign gods – were destroyed and everyone was told that from now on they would worship only in Jerusalem, where they do everything according to the book. This would become known in history as Josiah’s reforms.
For the most part, the people went along with all this – because this was the answer they had been waiting for: the great promise of a restored kingdom was finally coming to pass, because the covenant with God was re-established and God would protect them now. And among the most enthusiastic of the reformers was a young man named Jeremiah. He cheered on Josiah as the purity of God’s law was established. And then, for almost 30 years, he watched what happens when you try to force people to conform. He watched as the Temple priests competed for power and influence; he watched as the people resisted being told what to do; and he saw, with his own eyes, that even a country with the very best of intentions would fall very short of its dreams.
Back in Ann Arbor, a friend of mine, who was a very cynical and world-weary lawyer, made the decision to change his membership from one church to another. A little while later I asked him, how was it going at his new church; and he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, you know, the law of jerks.”
I said, “The law of jerks? What’s that? He said, “Oh, it’s simple - no matter where you go, the ratio of jerks to non-jerks remains constant.”
In a way, this was Jeremiah’s insight: no matter what you do to impose reforms in a community, there will always be people who will use those rules to gain advantage, exploit the weaknesses in the system, seize control of assets, and take power. And so, over time, Jeremiah became more and more critical of Josiah. Then he experienced the final disillusion: the armies of Babylon were now on the march, taking over the vacuum left be Assyria’s fall, and nothing would protect them. No amount of perfectly conducted sacrifices on the altar, no heights of ritual purity, would keep the armies of Babylon from crushing Israel.
So Jeremiah sat down and listened for the word of God; he turned off the lights, so to speak; he sat very still; and he heard the thunder, coming his way.
He was one of the first to see that what was needed was a new covenant; a different kind of covenant entirely; not something imposed from above but something established within our hearts:
The days are surely coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.... I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts...
Armies will come, and armies will go; empires will rise and fall; the covenant is not found there. The covenant is found here, inside us.
The thunder is not out there; the thunder is in here.
Shh. God’s talkin’.
600 years later, Jesus came along; of course he knew the story of Elijah and Jeremiah. He had taken a good long look at the Temple and the holiness codes and the jerk ratio was plain to see.
He saw that something new was needed.
So he marched into Jerusalem; he came to the Garden of Gethsemene; he stayed awake through the night; he listened; and he heard thunder in the distance.
Jesus had a sense about moments. “This is moment,” he said.