I find truth is often stranger than fiction. I enjoy reading real life stories about people. So when I began reading Jeremiah’s book I found myself overwhelmed with the tragedy of his life story. Jeremiah was called to be a prophet at an early age. He had been raised in a priestly family in the land of Benjamin. His life’s work was to lead people to the ancient pathways of listening and obeying God. When we read this story, we find nothing but heartache. In fact he is called the “weeping” prophet. And, just like modern-day autobiographies we have an ideal about how the story is going to end.
We know that archeology has discovered and affirmed all of Israel’s kings with historical accuracy. We don’t have to wonder if this writing is fictional, the evidence is clear that the writing of Jeremiah is the authentic life of a religious leader that lived during the reign of five different kings in the nation of Israel from 640-586 BC, a span of about 50 plus years. At the conclusion of Jeremiah’s life it is best understood that he was hauled off against his will to Egypt with the refugees that left Israel as Babylon invaded the land (John Bright).
Jeremiah’s life was filled with trials and tribulations. If you have ever needed someone to understand your personal predicaments, Jeremiah can certainly identify with just about any difficult from experiences of being in a war-torn country to teaching others not to enslave people to speaking for God to his people in exile to being unfairly imprisoned. God spoke to him through all of his trials with the same message of hope:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” – Jeremiah 29.11-14
Trials expose us. Tribulations reveal what’s truly in our hearts. Reaction under pressure can teach us a lot about our inward self. Trials and tests can become illustration points in our life story as to our maturity level. Difficult situations become the clearest point of clarity to a personal true maturity. The enemy wishes only destruction for our life but God intended trials to become the place of lasting maturity.
Tests that shake us up create a stronger foundation of trust, remove unhealthy behaviors, produce good fruit, awaken us to God’s presence, and brings God’s plan into focus. In the midst of the trouble our false self is revealed until it is washed away in the blood of Jesus for the sinful behavior it truly is. Disappointments may even leave us depressed and without hope because we become short-sided in our vision of the future.
Jeremiah listened to God from the very beginning, and God affirmed his hearing. There is not doubt that Jeremiah’s words were straight from Almighty God, yet, the leadership was not impacted by the implications of God’s requirements of them. In fact at one point the king cuts up a scroll with God’s word upon it, and burns it! Have you ever said, I don’t want to hear it! Or closed your ears from hearing the truth. We do that from time to time when we don’t want to hear what’s being said because it cuts us to the heart. That is exactly what the leadership did to Jeremiah.
John Wesley’s commentary on Jeremiah 18 defines the ancient paths by noting that Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and all the ancient patriarchs walked with God. Noah left the world behind in an ark as the flood destroyed the entire population of the earth. Abraham left his family to follow God’s call and promise. Isaac left the shadow of his older brother Ishmael to live for God (Gen. 26.23). Jacob left his brother Esau to find his faith in God (Gen. 28.10-22). Obedience to God has always required people to live into the extreme.
We are called into a covenant relationship with God, and that means we listen and obey his voice. We just need to let the Scriptures sink deep into our reality, “It is impossible that no offense should come.” – Luke 17.1 Our emotional and behavioral reaction to an offense (scandalon) determines our potential outcome. We must be watchful so that we are not deceived into thinking we are right when in fact we may be wrong in our understanding of the circumstances. It takes great humility to move us from being reactionary to being responsible.
John Bevere in his book The Bait of Satan: Living free from the Deadly Trap of Offense suggests that there are two camps of people who are offended: those who are truly unfairly treated and those who assume themselves to be unfairly treated because they have given themselves over to the pride of assumptions, gossip, and appearances. When we do not deal with offense – whether true or false, we become bitter, angry, and resentful. The most difficult spiritual discipline comes when we are willing to catch ourselves pointing the finger of blame on someone else, because there are three fingers pointing right back at us. Unconditional love looks like Jesus on the cross who willing suffered unfair treatment.
Offensive behavior is grounded in fear, not love. Jeremiah served in the Kingdom of Judah and guided five young kings: Josiah (640-609 BC) caught in battle with Assyria and Egypt, Jehoahaz (609 BC), Jehoiakim (609-598 BC), Jehoachin during the Babylonian captivity (597 BC), Zedekiah (597-586). Each leader chose for themselves their own legacy. Josiah began the reforms that restored Israel and Judah to righteousness before God. His sons and grandson failed to continue the reform.
Leadership failed listen to God’s direction and returned to their old ways. Zedekiah seems to have good intentions but is unable just stand up to leadership instead he bowed down to popular opinion. The Scriptures point out that Jeremiah constantly found himself between God and the bad to worse leadership. When we look across Israel’s history there is no black of bad leadership. What set a good administration apart from a bad administration is whether or not they called the people to righteousness. Often leadership disregarded God’s direction, even to the point of being offended at God himself.
Offense causes us to become defensive and begin to bring others into the situation: it’s called triangulation. If you have been hurt, your first response may be to confide in another person rather than going to the person who has injured you. You may seek out consolation from others in an inappropriate way. Our first response should be to seek consolation from God himself. Fear binds us in relationship to our injury and our sinful response. We become imprisoned by the mess we create trying to console ourselves. If we are thinking about the situation rather than God, then you are in an unhealthy triangle. Unconditional love leads to freedom in relationships.
Jesus never changed his behavior to make the truth easier to swallow. Jesus offended the religious leaders – Pharisees, Sadduces, and Scribes. Jesus offended the political authorities – Herod. Jesus offended is own family as well as his hometown. Jesus offended his disciples with sayings that were difficult and accepting extravagant giving. Jesus offended his close friends: Mary and Martha at Lazarus’ death. Jesus even offended John the Baptist, a fellow prophet, asking, Are you the One? (Luke 7.21-23).
Jeremiah learned a lot from being the prophet who spoke the truth to the people of God. He learned that he would be ridiculed and persecuted because the people did not want to live according to their covenant relationship with God. They preferred to live according to their own ways, by the works of their hands. They refused to travel down the ancient pathways of obedience to God’s Word.
True prophets of God are going to tell it like it is with the love of God binding their hearts to righteous living. We know that the Scripture teaches us that there are “wolves in sheep clothing” (Matthew 7.15). Wolves tell people what they want to hear, not what they need to hear. What sets apart true believers is the application of God’s word in their lives that bears good fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Sustainable fruit bearing is key to discerning whether or not you have a real and authentic believer.
We need to discern what bad fruit looks like and Paul’s letter to young Timothy teaches us straight up, “[We are to] understand that the last days will be dangerous times. People will be selfish and love money. They will be the kind of people who brag and who are proud. They will slander others, and they will be disobedient to their parents. They will be ungrateful, unholy, unloving, contrary, and critical. They will be without self-control and brutal, and they won’t love what is good. They will be people who are disloyal, reckless, and conceited. They will love pleasure instead of loving God. They will look like they are religious but deny God’s power. Avoid people like this.” – 2 Timothy 3.1-5 CEV
Jeremiah was called to lead in a climate of disobedience. Offense may lead to betrayal, instead of righteous behavior. God is in the business of offering a second chance. God intentionally sets the bar low enough that all we have to do is hop over. God is looking for one honest person. One decent person can change the outcome of an entire nation. We find Jeremiah weeping with despair because none could be found. God does not enjoy disciplining his beloved children. What seems harsh and unnecessary happens because God loves his children so much. If God does not discipline, then God falls short of his character and nature. The whole purpose of God’s discipline is to get someone’s attention.
God is always waiting desiring for people to return to a relationship with him. However, we ignore the warning signs and continue to choose our own way. God prophets often find themselves standing in the gap between rebellious people and righteousness. And that’s where we find Jeremiah betrayed and weeping in cistern prison because of the hard-heartedness of a nations leadership.
Jeremiah is offering a model for a fresh expression of church. Jeremiah helps us reexamine the trials in our life. Jeremiah teaches us to listen to God rather than the voices around us. The truth can be very difficult to discern in a culture that distorts God’s direction for his people. Jeremiah’s voice was drown out by the political climate and the laissez-faire spiritual (nonintervention) approach to leadership. Jeremiah teaches us to love God more than we love our selves or our neighbor. God must come first. Jeremiah teaches us to learn from our God-given mistakes. God sends calamity to bring us to repentance so we will turn toward a relationship with God. Jeremiah demonstrates faithfulness in leading for God.
This is the kind of community that Jeremiah calls his people to become: living life fully in the presence of God, listening to God intentionally, loving God whole-heartedly, learning from our trials, and leading reform for God in your community.