Bad news is a necessary part of the minister’s task. It is the focal point of the disapproving task to which God calls the prophet Jeremiah in our Old Testament’s lesson. Indeed, restoration was the ultimate goal, but the path towards it entailed the upsetting announcement that Israel’s world will be turned upside down.
Jeremiah’s first words of doom in this lesson immediately follow the description of his call and related visions in chapter one. He reminded Israel of God's care for His people by saying, “The LORD told me to proclaim this message to everyone in Jerusalem. ‘I remember how faithful you were when you were young, how you loved me when we were first married; you followed me through the desert, through a land that had not been planted. Israel, you belonged to me alone; you were my sacred possession. I sent suffering and disaster on everyone who hurt you. I, the LORD, have spoken”’ (Jeremiah 2:1-3 GNB).
Jeremiah’s call was for self-examination which is always very difficult. Most people avoid it. Like any mature individual who acknowledges personal responsibility before accusing someone else, God takes on this difficult task. In effect, God asks, “What did I do?” It is simply that God questioned Himself. This is an astonishing question on the lips of the sovereign LORD. It opens the door to the possibility of divine guilt.
There is now good news; God is issuing a call to repentance. He addressed justice issues when He announced hope and restoration. But first Jeremiah’s prophesy requires an answer to God’s question, “What went wrong?” God wonders how the loyalty of the early years lost their attractive qualities. It is as though God wondered, “How did the ‘honeymoon’ of yesterday turn into a time of ‘separation’ for today?”
God’s willingness to take this risk is due to God’s love for the beloved nation. Abraham J. Heschel explains the depth of that relationship in this manner, “Israel’s distress was more than a human tragedy. With Israel’s distress came the affliction of God, His displacement, His homelessness in the land, in the world.” Hence God’s self-examining question “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?” (Jeremiah 2:5).
Though the boundary between generations past, present, and future is leaky, God first inquired about Israel’s ancestors. The passage of time leaves God especially vulnerable to what might have gone wrong in the past. It is that God had failed during the time of the patriarchs, during the time of deliverance from Egypt or during Israel’s wilderness experience?
Could God have failed as the newly formed nation entered the land of promise or when leadership was turned over to a succession of judges, prophets, and kings? Even if the fault lies with the divine, God is willing to examine all of the possibilities. Once the question is broached, the answer seems unmistakably obvious. Terence E. Fretheim explains, “God’s question seems to be rhetorical, with the answer self-evident: God committed no wrong in the relationship.”
Writers Heschel and Fretheim have said that Israel stood accused and guilty before God. The answers could have come from the communities of Jacob and Israel, the priests, those who handle the law, the rulers or the prophets. No one had responded to God’s question. Neither priests nor community knew “Who is the LORD?” It signified then that, those who handled the law did not know God. These were sins of omission for “Wherever God is not known, justice is not embraced.”
There were other evils, the sin of commission, that is, Israel forsook God and turned to other gods. This was the basis for God’s accusations. These sins were so embedded in the ethos of the nation that “destruction of its temple, loss of its king, and exile of its people to another land” were an unfortunate, yet necessary and unavoidable part of the healing process. Israel’s infidelity was so deep-rooted that Divine judgmental response was set for generations after.
There is good news for all of God’s people, He did not want simply to terminate His relationship with us, so He sent His Son the Lord Jesus Christ to redeem us. Even now, despite multitude of sins of omission and commission, God will not give up on His Children. There is hope for us. This hope that is rooted and grounded in the nature of the Divine, will not fail. Jeremiah’s hope for Israel was sure. This hope is present and is encouraging mankind to be humble individually and collectively and embrace God’s Gift – Jesus Christ, no matter what.
Archdeacon The Venerable Dr. Alson Percival