Monday, July 9, 2007

Our Need to Heed God's Word
(Jeremiah 36)

The sermon I preached yesterday at St. Andrews United Church in Peterborough, reformatted as an essay. (More or less.)


We are about to do something we should never take for granted:  read a text from God’s word. We read it reverently, believing God can speak to us through it. We read it expectantly, believing it is replete with wisdom. We may or may not "catch" its wisdom; but if we do not, it is our failure, not a failure of God's word.

The cover says this is the "Holy Bible" – a description that puzzled me when I was younger. How can a book be holy?, I wondered.

The root meaning of the word "holy" is "different". When we say that God is "holy", we mean that God is not like us. Theologians refer to the "otherness of God"; "otherness" = "holiness". The Bible is "holy" in the same way:  it is unlike any other book.

All Christians affirm that fact. Some churches teach that the Bible is inerrant. Other churches maintain that the Bible is a human word as well as a divine word. The human element leads to some internal contradictions and errors of fact. Nonetheless, God still speaks to us through the Bible. All Christians agree that this book is unlike any other.

The text:

The text we are about to read is not merely a text from the Bible, but a text about the Bible. At the beginning of Jeremiah 36, the Lord tells Jeremiah to take a scroll and write down the Lord's words. Jeremiah was evidently wealthy enough to employ a scribe, Baruch. So Jeremiah dictates the Lord's words to his scribe. It is the first edition of the book of Jeremiah; interestingly, it is written during the prophet's own lifetime.

Jeremiah sends Baruch to the temple to read the scroll. One official (Micaiah) recognizes the importance of his words and calls all the other officials together. The officials respond in three ways:
(1) They are filled with dread;
(2) "We must tell the king";
(3) "Baruch and Jeremiah – go hide".
The third point makes clear that the officials are supportive of Jeremiah's message. They anticipate trouble when the king learns of the scroll, and they seek to protect Jeremiah and Baruch.

Ultimately, the scroll is ushered into the presence of the king. Note the progression: first there is Jeremiah and the Lord; then Jeremiah, Baruch, and the scroll; then just Baruch and the scroll; and finally just the scroll. The prophet drops out of the picture altogether, and we are left with only the written text. Hence my comment, this is not merely a text from the Bible, but a text about the Bible.

Here is the key portion of the chapter (Jeremiah 36:21-26):
Jehudi [one of King Jehoiakim's officials] read the scroll to the king and all the officials who stood beside the king. It was the ninth month, and the king was sitting in the winter house, and there was a fire burning in the fire pot before him. As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a knife and throw them into the fire in the fire pot, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the fire pot. Yet neither the king nor any of his servants who heard all these words was afraid, nor did they tear their garments.

Even when Elnathan and Delaiah and Gemariah urged the king not to burn the scroll, he would not listen to them. And the king commanded Jerahmeel the king's son and Seraiah the son of Azriel and Shelemiah the son of Abdeel to seize Baruch the secretary and Jeremiah the prophet, but the Lord hid them.1
1. King Jehoiakim’s reaction:

(a) King Jehoiakim needs to heed God's word

King Jehoiakim needs to heed God's word. We, the readers of the book of Jeremiah, know how the story ends. In 587 BC, the Babylonians swept down from the north and conquered Jerusalem. The nobility was sent into exile in Babylon.

The reader is given this information at the very beginning of the book. Jeremiah 1:1-3 — "The words of Jeremiah" who ministered during the reign of this king and that king "until the captivity of Jerusalem". Those words hang over the whole book of Jeremiah as a harbinger of doom.

The reader understands that it didn't have to be that way. History could have been different, if only King Jehoiakim had heeded the Lord's message through Jeremiah!

(b) … But King Jehoiakim is unimpressed

But King Jehoiakim does not heed the warning:  he is unimpressed by Jeremiah's word. Vs. 24 – "They were not afraid, nor did they tear their clothes." There's a pun in the Hebrew text: it says that the king "tore" the scroll with his knife. Same Hebrew word:  he did not tear his clothes; he tore the scroll instead.

Here's what amazes me about this chapter:  the king lets Jehudi read the whole scroll. Why not stop him after the first two sentences? The king is already familiar with the sorts of things that Jeremiah says. Jeremiah and Jehoiakim have a prior history.

In fact, Jeremiah was under a kind of restraining order. Vs. 5, "I am banned from going to the house of the Lord." That's why Jeremiah disappears from the scene and Baruch reads the scroll in the Temple.

The king doesn't have to listen to every word of the scroll to learn Jeremiah's thoughts. But he acts out this elaborate ritual:  he allows Jehudi to read every word of the scroll (however long it is — we don't know its contents). He destroys the scroll one strip at a time. The ritual impresses upon all the king's officials that King Jehoiakim is completely contemptuous of Jeremiah's words.

(c) King Jeohoiakim's insurance policy

Why is King Jehoiakim so complacent? He thinks he has an insurance policy. Even better than an insurance policy:  you only collect insurance after disaster has struck. King Jehoiakim believed he had a source of security that guaranteed no disaster would ever befall Jeruslem.

Jeremiah 7:4 — The Lord says, "Do not trust in these deceptive words: 'This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord'." The king and the priests believed that nothing bad could ever happen to Jerusalem because the temple was located there. They knew from Israel's history that the Lord would fight to protect his temple. And so they believed (mistakenly, tragically) that they could ignore Jeremiah's warning with impunity.

(d) Even though King Jehoiakim is unimpressed, he destroys the scroll

King Jehoiakim is unimpressed by Jeremiah's warning; nonetheless he destroys the scroll. This is paradoxical:  if the scroll was so contemptible, why go to the trouble of destroying it? King Jehoiakim was undisturbed ("he did not tear his clothes") but he was afraid that the people might be disturbed by Jeremiah's message.

2. The secular West's reaction:

(a) The West is unimpressed with God’s word

The secular West has a parallel response to God's word. First, like King Jehoiakim, the secular West is unimpressed with it. The West doesn't regard it as the "holy" Bible. They believe the Bible is a book just like any other. In no sense is it God's word:  it's just a book written by men, full of opinions that are now outdated and which we know to be false. The West does not believe that the Bible is replete with wisdom — that they need to attend to its message and learn from it.

(b) The West has an insurance policy

Second, like King Jehoiakim, the West has an insurance policy — an alternate source of security. Reason, education, science, the scientific method, democracy, capitalism — these are the great institutions of the West, in which people place their trust.

I don't mean to speak ill of those institutions. I would rather live in a democracy than under any other kind of government. And I am grateful to receive the benefits of modern science:  e.g., when I'm sick. But ultimately these western institutions are a false source of security. In that respect, they are comparable to Jehoiakim's great institution, the Temple of the Lord.

I am amazed by the overinflated confidence secular people have in their institutions. E.g., potential environmental catastrophe. People maintain, Capitalism is the source of the problem; but it will also solve the problem! Likewise, science / technology – the source of the environmental problem, but also regarded as its solution! The assumption is, no environmental calamity will come upon us because our great institutions will keep us secure.

(c) Even though the West is unimpressed, some seek to destroy the Bible

Third, like King Jehoiakim, the West — at least, some people in the West — are determined to destroy the Bible. This has almost become a publishing industry unto itself. I know of five books released in the past 12 months devoted to this topic. It is King Jehoiakim all over again, tearing off strips of Jeremiah's scroll to burn them in the fire.

The God Delusion - Richard Dawkins
God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything - Christopher Hitchens
Letter To a Christian Nation - Sam Harris
You may recognize the names of the first two authors. The titles tell you everything you need to know about the first two books.

Harris, the third author, argues that moderate Christianity provides a cover for fundamentalism. The only solution is to rid society of religion altogether, without discriminating between moderate faith and fundamentalism.

It's the same paradox we saw with King Jehoiakim: these men are themselves unimpressed with the Bible, but they don't like the influence it has over ordinary people. And it isn't an insignificant movement:  Dawkins and Hitchens in particular have a considerable following.

(d) The West needs to heed God's word

Fourth, like King Jehoiakim, the West needs to heed God's word more than it knows. It is a mistake to suppose that no catastrophe could ever happen to us because our institutions will keep us secure.

Allow me to get political for a moment. Dawkins, Hitchens, et al are reacting, in part, to Islamic fundamentalism. But they are also reacting to the cozy relationship that the Bush Administration has with fundamentalist Christianity. They would tell me that my analysis is exactly backwards:  the US government is already paying entirely too much attention to God's word. The Bush Administration is doing exactly what I recommend, and that's the problem.

I take exactly the opposite position. I know that George Bush claims to trust in God as his security. But in fact I think he trusts in Western institutions. Consider his policy in Iraq: We'll depose Saddam, establish a democracy, write a constitution, and the Iraqis will love it! Democracy will spread to Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East!

In other words, George Bush trusts in the very same things as Dawkins and Hitchens:  e.g., democracy, capitalism, military technology (i.e., science). These great Western institutions will enable us to triumph over the enemy.

The Bush Administration isn't aligned with my side, but theirs. It is a mistake to place your security in any earthly institution. "The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord."

The West needs to heed this book. For example, the potential environmental catastrophe mentioned. The Old Testament directs people to let the land lie fallow every seventh year. The capitalist model, on the other hand, is one of constant productivity and constant (over)consumption.

What would the principle of a sabbath year mean if we applied it to capitalism? Perhaps it could help us to avert a looming crisis. It's an ancient book, but nonetheless it contains wisdom that is relevant today.


But I’m preaching to the choir here. I don’t need to tell you to heed God’s word, or to put your trust in God instead of some earthly institution. Instead, let me tell you, in the words of Jesus, "Well done thou good and faithful servant."

God has given you a commission, and you have faithfully discharged it:
Preserve the word;
Live in accordance with it in your own life;
Pass it on to the next generation.
Decade after decade, for over a century, the people of St. Andrews have been faithful to that commission.

This is the Holy Bible, a book unlike any other.

It is a book replete with wisdom. It is a book through which God speaks to us. We moderns have not outgrown it. We need to attend to it and learn from it.

The West needs to heed God's word.

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1Scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.