The Old Testament kings and prophets, along with God’s perennially disobedient people, have been the main characters in our Scripture lessons for the past couple Sundays.
As the story of God and us continues to unfold, the long era of royal rule has begun for the Israelites, and their kings are mixed bags of good and evil – proving to be as sinful and broken as the people over whom they rule. Unholy living continues unchecked among the Israelites, and political bickering over the rightful heir to the throne splits Israel into separate monarchies aptly named the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom.
To push back on that dissention and wickedness, God sends a long line of prophets – holy messengers – to deliver what most often are dire warnings. Different prophets, different times, different sins, yet always the same basic theme: Your unfaithfulness to God and your disobedience of God’s commandments will result in punishment.
Last Sunday, we heard the prophet Amos deliver a stark vision that implies God’s people were built correctly but now are out of plumb – off base and off kilter, cracked and crooked, their integrity and righteousness so compromised as to be beyond repair.
Several centuries of ongoing, unrepentant sin have now passed, and into the ever-swirling chaos steps the prophet Jeremiah.
Known as the “weeping prophet,” Jeremiah mourns the ugly reality of God’s people: They and their nation have deviated so far from God and God’s laws that they essentially have broken their part of the covenant with God. Their disloyalty causes the Lord to withdraw his blessings, and as a result, God leads Jeremiah to proclaim that the Southern Kingdom – the nation of Judah – will suffer famine, foreign conquest, plunder, and captivity in a land of strangers. Similar fates await their neighbors to the north.
Do God’s people heed the warnings and change their ways? Noooo! Not until it’s too late!
God’s people just keep doing what they’ve done for generations: Thinking and believing that they can sidestep the consequences of our actions and behaviors.
It’s among the unsavory qualities of human nature that have, unfortunately, withstood the test of time. While many of us are quite good at denying responsibility and blaming others for our woes, prophets like Jeremiah are quick to point out that God’s people only have themselves to blame. Because of their faithlessness, the people bring trouble upon themselves in forever poking the bear of a God who is “slow to anger” but nonetheless willing and able to wield heaven’s wrath.
Yet, God also is a God abounding in steadfast love, and I’ll get to that Good News in a bit. But for now, please join me in a place of prayer –
God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, please sweep us off our feet with a great gust of wind. Startle us awake like a first love. Light a fire in us like tomorrow depends on today. Which it does! Do all of this to get our attention and then turn us back toward you. We are a scattered people, Lord. The world is moving faster than we can keep up. So, we pray — scoop us up. Catch our eye. Open our ears. Touch our hearts. Capture our attention. For we long to be closer to you, through Jesus, in whose name we pray with the help of the Hoily Spirit. Amen.
I’m reading to you from Jeremiah 2.
The word of the LORD came to me, saying:
Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the LORD: I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. Israel was holy to the LORD, the first fruits of his harvest. All who ate of it were held guilty; disaster came upon them, says the LORD.
Hear the word of the LORD, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the LORD: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? They did not say, “Where is the LORD who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?” I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination.
The priests did not say, “Where is the LORD?” Those who handle the law did not know me; the rulers transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit. Therefore once more I accuse you, says the LORD, and I accuse your children’s children. Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Kedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing.
Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:1-13)
I was 7-years-old when it showed up in the driveway of my home one early-summer day: A snazzy-new, Schwinn Stingray – a surprise gift from my parents.
The bicycle was the stuff of boyhood dreams: Metallic bronze, banana seat, dual handbrakes on high handle bars, big shifter knob on the frame to control its three speeds. The bicycle salesman must have seen my mom and dad coming, because this bike was tricked out: Speedometer and saddle baskets, a generator-powered headlight upfront, and a red taillight on the rear.
And so, I spent the summer of 1968 living large and in charge, riding my new bicycle up and down, back and forth, on the street in front of my house, tooling around on the smooth expanse of block-long concrete that had been laid a few seasons earlier – a vast improvement over the rough, gravelly asphalt that it replaced.
But then things took a turn for the worst, because, well, I didn’t make a turn for the best.
Not paying attention to where I was going, the front tire of my new ride smacked into the rear bumper of a brown Dodge sedan that our next-door neighbor, Harry Treptow, had parked along the curb in front of my house. The bike wasn’t damaged – it was a well-built, made-in-the-USA Schwinn, after all. But the impact knocked me off the banana seat and onto the pavement, scraping up my knee on the way down.
My injury spawned no tears – big boys don’t cry, after all. But, I did need some first aid,
so I headed into the house, where my mom applied a spray or two of Bactine and a Band-Aid. I expected a scolding for being so careless with my new bike, and I figured, after taking my just desserts laced with some maternal TLC, that I’d be back in the bike-riding business in short order.
But no, mom had other plans.
With cool, calm and collected voice, my mom gave me my marching orders: “You need to go over and apologize to Mr. Treptow for hitting his car,” and she wasted no time in grabbing me by the hand, and leading me out the door, and parading me over to Mr. Treptow’s house.
My walk of shame ended at Mr. Treptow’s front door. We rang the bell, and Mr. Treptow answered the door with his usual friendly greeting. My mom was in no mood for small talk and got right to the point of our awkward and uncomfortable visit: “Harry, Grant has something to tell you.”
And that’s when the tears started flowing and the chocking sobs began. “Mr. Trepow (sob), I’m sorry (sob) that I hit (sob) your car with my bike.”
And so, with my heart pounding and my throat lumping, out to street the three of us went – Mr. Treptow, my mom and I – to survey the damage I’d inflicted on the bumper of that innocently parked but ill-fated brown Dodge Dart. We got out there, and Mr. Treptow squinted his eyes as he scanned back and forth across the bumper to assess the damage.
“I don’t see a thing,” Mr. Treptow reported, even (sob) as (sob) I (sob) continued (sob) to (sob) sob. “No harm, no foul,” he declared with a toothy grin that absolved me of my bicycling sin.
“I’m glad you’re OK, and I hope you enjoy riding your new bike. It sure is a beauty!”
Truth be told, I did notice a slight blemish in the shiny chrome bumper of that brown Dodge Dart. And, I’m pretty sure I was to blame for that speck of imperfection, but either Mr. Treptow either didn’t spot it, or he just decided to let me off the hook. The whole embarrassing ordeal only lasted maybe 10 or 15 minutes, but at the time, it seemed like the sordid affair dragged on forever.
And, the resolution of my biking mishap that summer day back in 1968 still feels like a big mystery. Here’s why:
I’d confessed my sin and bore my soul to my mother and to Mr. Treptow, all the while anxiously and nervously waiting for the heavy hammer of juvenile punishment to fall hard and fast. But it never did. Mr. Treptow thanked me for coming clean, and my mom never said another word about it. No grounding, no lost TV privileges, no impounding of my metallic bronze, three-speed Schwinn Sting Ray.
I was astounded. My feelings of guilty shame – which hung as heavy on my soul as humidity hangs in the air on a hot summer day – apparently were very much unnecessary, because – unbeknownst to me – the sultry breezes of mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation were wafting through our neighborhood.
That’s quite a contrast from the gale-force, squall line of derecho-powered judgment that blows forth from Jeremiah’s lips in our Scripture lesson, surely filling our hearts and minds with guilty fears and fearful guilt.
Because, if we are honest with ourselves, you and I surely can check more than a few boxes on Jeremiah’s dirty-laundry list of infidelity to the Lord our God. Those feelings bait us into wearing “funeral faces,” as Pope Francis some time ago described the expressions of pessimism, negativity, and self-loathing that we often see when we look at ourselves in the mirror.
And our somber observance of Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season absolutely do not lighten the heavy loads on our hearts. Just a few Wednesdays ago, we were marked with ashes from the burning of the last year’s Palm Sunday palm fronds and told in no uncertain terms, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” That certainly sounds like a downer – in the same way that Jeremiah’s indictment of God’s people blankets our spirits in a thick layer of heavy, wet snow on the eve of spring’s arrival.
But most certainly there is an upside to our human dustiness and our Lenten ashiness,and you can find that upside by looking up.
Spring has sprung, and the weather is warming, so some evening when you’re outside, spend a few minutes gazing up at the vast expanse of the cosmos that fills the night sky above. There’s amazing truth – even something of God – twinkling light years above us in the starry heavens!
The people who study such things tell us that all life in the universe can trace its physical origins to supernovas, the scientific term for the death of stars. Billions of years ago, the intense heat of these star explosions allowed the hydrogen and helium at their core to generate heavier elements – like the oxygen and carbon needed to create life.
And more amazingly still, the atoms created by the “big bang” of God’s Creation are the same atoms that make up our bodies, the same atoms that form the tulips and daffodils soon to be poking up from the ground, the same atoms that give flight to Canada geese soon be heading north overhead, the same atoms already flowing freely in the waters of creeks and steams awakening from beneath their hard, thick layers of winter ice.
Astronomer Carl Sagan said it best: “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star stuff.”
To be made of star stuff is no small thing.
Just knowing that ought to reframe your understanding of our dusty, Lenten ashy-ness and cultivate some hope from Jeremiah’s dire assessment of sin-soaked human nature.
Remembering that you are dust and to dust you shall return is anything but dreary if you think of it this way:
YOU are an essential actor in God’s story of life, death, and rebirth.
YOU are created in the image and likeness of God.
YOU came from the dust and ash of miraculous stellar transformations far beyond your ability to comprehend.
And one day, YOU will return to this incredible process of divine unfolding.
Death isn’t the end but just part of the journey that leads to the fullness of life in the risen Christ.
So, rather than letting guilt overcome you, rather than beating yourself up over your weaknesses, rather than feeling ashamed for things done and left undone, things said or left unsaid, make time in these Lenten days to cherish and revel in God’s reality: You are an irreplaceable part of the unfolding miracle of life.
So, heed the prophet’s call to set aside those things – jealousy, resentment, self-promotion, score-keeping, stinginess, and whatever else that keeps you from inheriting the full value of your birthright in Christ Jesus.
Set aside your “funeral face” and make room for joy, for peace, and for resurrection.
As you remember your dusty ashiness, also remember that God put the wrong on Jesus –
the One who never did anything wrong, so that you and I could be put right with God.
Grace and mercy really do abound! Healing and reconciliation really are possible! The sweet smell of forgiveness really does fill the air – today in our here and now, as much as did that summer day some 50-plus years ago, when that 7-year-old boy and his metallic bronze Schwinn Stingray dinged the bumper of a brown Dodge Dart.
It’s no mystery!
It’s amazing grace!
It’s wondrous love!
Salvation patches the leak, and the “fountain of living water” rejuvenates our lives!
As you and I join Jesus on a Lenten journey to the Cross of Jerusalem, let us make every effort to show that we believe we are redeemed, that, in Christ, the Lord has forgiven us for everything, and that, if we veer of course – and we will, that, in Christ, the Lord has forgiven us for everything. God continues to lay forgiveness gently and lovingly upon penitent spirits and contrite hearts.
Because, at the end of the cosmic day, the God of “star stuff” will still remain the God of mercy and forgiveness, the God of grace and peace.
Ancient words, ever true, long preserved, for our walk in this world.
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, March 20, 2022, the third Sunday of Lent. It is the 11th sermon in his series “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God and Us.”