Jeremiah offers us insights in how to maintain holiness in an unholy culture: have a personal relationship with God, be infilled with the Holy Spirit, intentionally develop a prayer life, practice your spiritual gifts, grow in the fruit of the Spirit, and live into your calling. I can only imagine that Jeremiah’s cultural issues were similar to the culture we live in today! Hear these statistics from the Barna Research Group. Barna suggests that 73% of the nation self-identify as praying Christians, but only 31% attend church and read their bibles while less than 20% participate in additional church activities. About half of those who are churched (15%) hold an Orthodox Christian worldview and value making new disciples. The population boasts a whopping 57% who have lived together before marriage, and 65% of the population believe it is a good idea to cohabitate. And, 41% of practicing Christians believe cohabitation is a good idea.
Imagine with me that we are in Jerusalem, and the prophets are hosting a conference to invite a national awakening to God. We would expect to see some high profile people. First, you would find among the top speakers a woman named Huldah, the prophetess. You would also find on the list of guests Zephaniah and Obadiah, prophets of Judah, as well as Babylonian prophets, Daniel and Ezekiel. The prophets left a considerable faith-filled footprint on the history of Judah-Israel, a legacy well thought of 2500 years later.
On the other hand, I can only imagine what it would have been like if the prophets got together and reviewed their discernment of the national leadership problems in Judah-Israel. I can only imagine what their keynote addresses would have been like at this conference. Remember with me the political climate of 6th century bc. King Josiah came to the throne as a young child barely escaping death by his own mother’s handiwork. Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, and Zedekiah were all sons of the faithful leader, Josiah. However, they failed to follow in their father’s faithful footsteps. Even Jehoiachin, the grandson of Josiah, missed the mark of faithful leadership. All of Josiah’s successors failed to lead with holy integrity. The legacy of the Kings of Judah lead them into exile in the eastern Kingdom of Babylon and the southern Kingdom of Egypt. The Kings of Israel had already succumbed to an Assyrian invasion. The end had come to Judah-Israel, and the land was now occupied by foreigners.
At this conference I can only imagine a prophet like Jeremiah conference calling from a prison cell with this wild story about how God lead him to leave a legacy of hope for his people. When we dig into the story of Jeremiah, we discover that he has bought a field of his family inheritance. Then he buries a time capsule with the deeds, one sealed and one unsealed copy. With the purchase of land came a prophetic promise that the people of God would be brought back to the Promise Land, and we find out later that they returned 70 years later to the land.
To be sure the keynote address for the conference would read: Captivity is coming! God had a plan to discipline his children, and he had a plan to bring them back into his favor. God prepared a legacy for his people. The legacy hinged upon their obedience. The invitation from the collective prophetic voice would be repent, turn, and listen to God’s voice so he can relent and now send his punishment.
It’s hard to imagine why Jeremiah would in the midst of his incarceration find himself buying land from his family member, an uncle’s son. Nevertheless he was instructed by God to follow this procedure of purchasing land and preparing the heart of the people for the next generations return. God continues to give hope to his children who refuse to listen to his invitation through Jeremiah. God is never short on compassionate affection for his people. But on the other hand he is never a weak parent, dishing out punishment when it becomes absolutely necessary. He always holds out to the very last moment waiting with his arms inviting reconciliation.
I can just hear the prophet Ezekiel confirming Jeremiah’s discernment that God has left the Temple – the season of captivity has become finalized. Here in Jeremiah’s story is a recording of the final saga in Judah-Israel’s history as God becomes silent for 400 years awaiting her Messianic rescue. Ezekiel, Jeremiah’s contemporary, even documents God’s glory departing from the Temple during the final exile (Ez. 10.18). The inheritance of God’s people has always been God’s presence resting with them wherever they are. So now that the Spirit of God has moved, the people of God are moving too.
There are times when I read the Word of God that I can detach myself from the storyline, but the story of Jeremiah, the prophet, has fully captivated my heart and my emotions. We have been journeying through the story of the divide kingdoms of Judah South and Israel North. Assyria, Babylon and Egypt have invaded the land of promise, and guess what! God is removing his protective hand over their communities; they are going into exile one way or the other.
Jeremiah’s word we have been brought us face to face with overarching theological concepts of being shaped, pursued, loved, and rescued by God’s unfailing love. In Jeremiah 18 God became the potter who found his work to be marred and needing repair. In chapter 4 Jeremiah is in a spiritual quagmire as God relentless pursuing the people of God who repeatedly turn their back away from his counsel. Jeremiah finds himself heartbroken from being spurned by his deep love for his people in chapter 8. And, as our sermon series concludes Jeremiah is preparing for the final outcome of God’s discipline. God promises that one day the people will return to the land of promise. Jeremiah holds to the promise of a spiritual awakening that will happen as the people go into exile. His hope is that one-day they will awaken to the voice of God once more, become obedient to him!
A Personal Relationship with God Almighty in Prayer
The call of God came and Jeremiah was filled with the Spirit of God. The Spirit of God brought spiritual gifts, spiritual qualities we might call fruits of the Spirit, and a job description of the spiritual office known as the prophet (licensed pastor/preacher). A personal, dynamic relationship with God was always the planned outcome for God’s people. Jeremiah was a prototype, if you please. But most importantly Jeremiah was grounded in his relationship with God through his dynamic prayer life.
This week I attended a conference that called God’s people to repentance of being cultural Christians. The invitation came with a resounding affirmation from over 1000 Wesleyan church leaders to strengthen our Christian values. And, most significantly we were called into deep travailing prayer for our churches across the globe as we address the profoundly deep issues of cultural apathy (out of season) in the western church and cultural persecution (in season) in the eastern church. The conference highlighted that are culture is moving very rapidly from an apathetic cultural to a hostile culture toward Orthodox Christianity. Twenty years ago the role of a pastor was highly revered. Since then there has been a significant shift toward apathy toward Christianity, where the nation has stayed in limbo about the whether it has any cultural value, or not. The cultural values have now won out over Christian values. The polls show that Christianity is now looked down upon in our country as a problem.
This trending cultural Christianity is easily seen in Disney’s version of the Gospel. When we look at nominal Christians like Walt Disney who have an incredible following with dynamic fictional film works, we discover that our Judeo-Christian God has gone missing. The values are still there in the script, but God Himself is absent. Phil Vischer, founder of Veggie Tales, points out in The Disney Gospel,
“Disney’s target market – and it has proved to be a large one – is an audience of people who want to believe in something that doesn’t require anything of them. That’s the religion that we’ve all been dying for. So it’s a powerful thing. It engages kids very deeply and it offends no one, except the intellectual elite. Amazingly, Christians were some of Disney’s biggest fans because he held on to the values that were important to them. So they forgave the fact that God had gone missing somehow along the way, but that everything that God set up was still there” (Pinsky, 2004, 11).
God has gone missing in our culture. But I’m wondering if it has been so gradual that you maybe haven’t even noticed. Disney is only one example of misguided theology in our culture. Now I’m not disrespecting Disney, I enjoy animated movies especially the Pixar ones. But at the same time, I’m not fooling myself. Disney’s essential value system of good triumphing over evil is not the same as the Word of God. To be sure there are no invitations at the end of the stories to become a disciple of Jesus Christ.
With so much almost Christian beliefs in our culture we are surely at risk of having our values hi-jacked by the cultural norms rather than by biblical principles. The way forward is always a robust and growing personal relationship with Jesus Christ. He alone is the way to Eternal Life. In a world filled with cultural pluralism, and fears of offending those who do not adhere to orthodox Christian beliefs, apathy becomes an easy place to live. On the other side of the global, or across the pond as my English friends would say, in Jordon, Syria, Egypt, India, Africa, and China persecution has become the new normal. People still die for the sake of making new disciples.
A personal relationship with God Almighty will consist of a growing love for God’s Word and developing prayer life. To maintain a healthy response to God’s voice we must take time to nurture our fellowship with God – to sit in his company, if you will. You cannot begin to know God if you are unwilling to take the time, make effort, and invest in the friendship. It costs something. If your prayer life with God is not costing you time, effort, or investment, then you need to reassess. God needs each one of us to stand in the gap for both the western apathetic church and the eastern persecuted church.
Jeremiah was grounded in his relationship with God through his spiritual gifts. It seems evident to me that Jeremiah knew God better because he experienced spiritual gifts in his everyday walking around life. In many ways we are all called to be Old Testament prophets. When Jesus spoke the words, Go and make disciples, he meant just that! It never said become a preacher then make disciples. This command is for all who would be followers of Jesus Christ. We are all called to be radical disciple makers infiltrating our culture with the Spirit of God. We are God’s witnesses to the radical transformation of grace in our lives that softens our hearts and changes our minds.
Ben Sherwood, a producer of ABC’s Good Morning America and NBC Nightly News, wrote a book entitled The Survivor’s Club (Sherwood, 2009, 313-326). In the book he recounts survival stories that both frighten and amaze, adding his own twist to the story by defining characteristics of unlikely survivors without implying the reality of our Judeo-Christian God. In his book he claims that there are 12 psychological strengths to defying death which he names as adaptability, resilience, faith, hope, purpose, tenacity, love, empathy, intelligence, ingenuity, flow, and instinct. These 12 strengths are not far from what we understand as the fruits of the Holy Spirit which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Jeremiah maximizes each one of these strengths or fruits of the Spirit in his personal life! However, Sherwood leaves out one key ingredient that Jeremiah understood: a personal, dynamic relationship with our Judeo-Christian God.
Purpose, Calling, & Covenant. According to Jeremiah’s life story, listening to the Holy Spirit’s voice to discover how to live a holy life in an unholy culture was critical. To be sure Jeremiah’s story demonstrates that God intentionally provides for Jeremiah in defining his purpose, calling, and covenant relationship from an early age. Jeremiah writes of this fire inside of him that is unquenchable, and demands a response whether he is persecuted or not. He writes of this covenant relationship that will one day be engraved upon the heart of God’s people.
Adaptability, Resilience, & Tenacity. Jeremiah was adaptable and made adjustments to his worldview according to God’s Word, but the community he lived within was never able to make the adaptation that was required of them. The community was rigid and unbending. Jeremiah was resilient bending with the waves of change without throwing away his belief in God. He was accustomed to hardship, and continued to press into the future promises that God had a plan for his people. Jeremiah was tenacious with his persistence and determination. He endured beyond human limits of suffering, withstanding the worst of circumstances and never let go of his belief in his promises. Jeremiah always had immediate spiritual insight into his culture and remained God-aware all the days recorded in his writings.
Faith, Hope, & Love. Jeremiah grew in his faith, hope & love of God and neighbor with each passing scene in his memoirs. He tells his story of speaking and sending God’s Word to the leaders of his people, begging them to repentant and turn away from their sinful behaviors. In the middle of a Babylonian invasion Jeremiah even invests in buying a field then plants his hopes right in the land that will never be truly his by burying his deed and papers. Jeremiah understood that his faith in God as his personal companion was essential for him to travail through the trials he faced. Hope kept Jeremiah optimistic in spite of unanswered prayers. The bonds of love toward family, friends, and community sustained Jeremiah beyond reason. His love of God and neighbor enabled him to bend and not break in his consistent message of God’s plan for a bright future for the generations to come.
Empathy, Mindfulness, & Creativity. Jeremiah was always looking to the welfare of his people with heartfelt empathy. He willingly put his life on the line to ensure the Word of God reached the people no matter the painful outcomes – and there were painful outcomes of ridicule and imprisonment. Jeremiah unreservedly put his life on the line for the sake of his people. When his life was in danger, he was mindful, alert and quick-witted, hiding away in a cave to preserve his life. He did shrink back from the threat though. When he heard the king had cut up the scroll with God’s Word, he wrote another scroll! His life flowed creatively like jazz improvisation.
The Prophetic Job Description
Jeremiah was grounded in his relationship with God through his job description of being a prophet. When God calls us into a relationship, he gives us the deposit of the Holy Spirit just like Jeremiah. The Holy Spirit equips us with gifts, and we grow to bear fruit in our lived experiences. We are called to bear fruit in season (persecution) and out of season (apathy). In the New Testament we are all called to be a prophetic people. We all share the privilege and duty of preaching the gospel and witnessing to its power by the way we live. Christians share in Jesus’ prophetic ministry when we witness to one another, share in Bible study groups, or pray together.
What’s your legacy?
When Jeremiah instructed Baruch to bury his deeds into the land, Jeremiah was in spiritual way planting seeds for his people’s awakening. He held out hope beyond hope that his people would awaken and come to their senses to heed God’s voice. Obedience is a challenge to God’s people across the pages of history. I’m not clear on whether the unhealthy leadership produces unhealthy followers, or if unhealthy communities produce unhealthy leaders. Perhaps it is a combination, but nevertheless communities find themselves collective disobeying God’s voice across the pages of time.
If we were to take a moment to reflect on our own time capsule, what would our lives speak to the people around us? We are going to find ourselves at the end of our days, and what legacy will we have sown into the earth? Will we leave a legacy like Jeremiah where personal relationship with God was paramount, and prayer was his life’s sustenance, his nourishment. Will we find our selves living into the spiritual realities of gifts that call heaven to earth and transform the lives of our neighbors? Will we grow in our fruitfulness to embody the goodness of God’s Spirit in our everyday experiences? Will we be willing to step up into our spiritual callings to make a world of difference to the lost, lonely, and most vulnerable in our communities?
If you have not accepted Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, make the choice. If you have not heard the voice of God in your heart, pray for clarity in your spiritual journey. If you are not walking in the gifts and fruit of God’s Spirit, ask for the infilling of the Holy Spirit. If you are uncertain where to serve in the church, seek discernment from others who know you and can point out your strengths.
An opportunity to make a life changing impact
The International Conference on Shaken Baby Syndrome (also known as Abusive Head Trauma) will be held in Montreal, Quebec, beginning today September 25-27, 2016. Having served in a children’s hospital, child abuse was not an uncommon cause for hospitalization. Yesterday I heard the story of yet another child who was a victim of child abuse known as Shaken Baby Syndrome. Most of us do not need specialized training for this kind of problem, but what we do need is awareness that all young parents are vulnerable to this issue. If you know a young parent, offer to babysit for them. Mentor them by giving them the much needed support that can enable them to become better parents. When we distance ourselves from these situations, we invite the senseless death of a helpless baby at the hands of a apathetic, frustrated or sleep-deprived parent. You can make a difference in the life of a child! If you know a young parent, send them a note to encourage them on this journey toward mature parenting.