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Jeremiah 2:1-28

January 9, 2017

It is common for us to look back at an earlier time as a golden era. For some Americans, the Eisenhower years glow with optimism and wholesomeness; others want to go back to the youthful idealism and freedom of the ’60s; others prefer the Reagan revolution; still others long for the visions of world peace and spectacular prosperity in the ’90s. There is no real golden era, but each era has its virtues and vices.

Jeremiah also looks back to a golden era. For him it was Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness: the time of greatest purity and fidelity to God. Jeremiah seems to be ignoring the stories of the golden calf and frequent complains and rebellions in the wilderness! And yet, for all of its faults, many Jews looked back to the wildness time as the most sacred time. That was Israel’s origin and time of testing. Rather than a time of prosperity and security, it was a time of extreme poverty and getting by one day at a time. It would be like looking back to the Great Depression as our golden age–which, in some ways, it was. Adversity brings out our strengths and compassion and ability to work together.

But once Israel becomes a nation with its own land, it fails to be faithful to God. Jeremiah is not only condemning his own generation, but many preceding generations. How has Israel been unfaithful? It has gone after other gods. “The prophets prophesied by Baal.”

This brings up a crucial question. Does it matter what name the Israelite’s worship? Is there truly a difference between Yahweh and Baal? Don’t we live now in a religiously pluralistic age in which we respect each other’s gods and religions? Don’t we now see a common morality that brings all the world’s great religions together? Isn’t Jeremiah’s condemnation of Jews worshiping other gods now beside the point and even embarrassing? Aren’t prophets such as Jeremiah responsible for the religious intolerance that leads to religious violence today? Very good questions.

Are all gods the same? Jeremiah certainly doesn’t think so. In this passage I see perhaps three aspects of the other gods that Jeremiah is rejecting. In verse 20 is a suggestion that worshiping other gods involves sexual rituals. Canaanite fertility religion involved “sacred” prostitution. The OT writers roundly condemn this practice. Do they condemn it because it’s sexual abuse or infidelity to one’s spouse? Possibly, but the concern is probably deeper than that. It’s a rejection of who God is.

This brings us to verses 26-28. The OT prophetic tradition abhors idolatry–that is, worshiping objects. Why this abhorrence? I assume it is because an idol is something we fashion, we possess, we control. When we worship what we can see and manipulate, then our god becomes something we can manipulate; and then it is no longer the god that is god, but we that are god. Idolatry, at its best, is a kind of nature worship–which is inadequate because our grounding reality must go beyond nature. Idolatry at its worst, and in the long run, is self-worship.

The third problem with worshiping other gods is that it represents a reliance on military power as one’s ultimate security. We see this complaint in verse 18. Israel (or Judah), as a small nation, felt compelled to make military alliances with other, larger nations to secure itself. On the face of it, this makes perfect sense. But what this did was undermine Israel’s religion. Instead of worshiping a God who demands that we always do justice and that we trust and be still even under the most adverse circumstances, we instead worship the god of political expediency, doing what helps ourselves and relying on superior military might for our salvation.

It appears to me that the religion Jeremiah is opposing is the religion of fear and self-centeredness instead of the religion of a transcendent ethical ideal that goes beyond our self-interest. For Jeremiah there can be only one God. The gods of the other nations are not gods at all. Scratch the surface and what you find is simply human self-interest. They are not worthy of worship.

The situation today is both similar and different. It is different in that the great world religions of today generally have a much higher concept of God, and healthier religious practices, than the Canaanites did. Islam, Judaism and Christianity are united in having a very similar way of understanding God. The Eastern religions take a different approach, and yet we can find much common ground with them as well.

But our situation is similar in that self-interest easily infects every religion. The real religion of most Americans is not the worship of God; it is the worship of gods: the worship of expedience, the worship of pleasure, the worship of security, the worship of military power, the worship of one’s self. Will we actually do God’s will, and trust in God regardless of what may happen to us?

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From → Jeremiah

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