No Strings Attached
Text: Jeremiah 15:15-21
Proper 17, A
Picture a peaceful and prosperous city in the height of the new and modern age. A new leader has come to the throne and is bringing with him many religious reforms. There is a great feeling of optimism in the air. The church is popular again. People know God again. Somehow, even the air seems sweeter and the water tastes fresher. Everywhere you turn people are full of hope, joy, and dreams of a brighter future.
Now picture that same city, but this time it is torn by war. The peaceful and promising ruler has been followed by increasingly poor and unfaithful ones. Outside the walls of the city the surrounding country-side is teeming with the army of a powerful nation come to destroy the city. Inside the walls the people are plagued by disease and famine. They have been trapped within the city for so long that they can barely remember what open skies look like, or what it feels like to walk through pleasant fields. You can’t find a glimmer of hope in anyone’s eye. In truth, many of the people wish they were dead, rather than suffering like they are.
These were the two visions of Jerusalem that had come to Jeremiah the prophet during the reign of King Josiah, somewhere between 630 – 600 B.C. The first vision of the peaceful and prosperous Jerusalem was the city in which he was actually living. The second vision, the Jerusalem in its death-throws, this was a vision given to Jeremiah of what would happen in the future.
He had been given this second vision of the city with certain strings attached. He was go to the people and preach repentance, to avert this coming destruction. Yet in a city of political and religious fervor, how do you think such a doom-and-gloom message went over? They didn’t believe him! The people looked around themselves: there was a good king on the throne; the city was prosperous, everywhere you turned there were men of God telling them of all the good and wonderful things that God would do for them! But here is one lonely man going around, calling everyone to repent because God was going to destroy the city. “Not Likely” was the almost unanimous response.
But the resentment of the people went much deeper than mere disbelief. Jeremiah was harassed, abused and even threatened with his own life because of the unpopular message! Certain people have already told Jeremiah outright that if he continued to prophecy in the name of the Lord he would die by their very hands. That one little string attached to his vision was quickly becoming more like a rope around his neck.
Is it any wonder then, that Jeremiah brings his complaints before God! “15O LORD, you know; remember me and visit me, and take vengeance for me on my persecutors. In your forbearance take me not away; know that for your sake I bear reproach ... 18Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?” These are all good indications of just how the prophet is feeling. He has been treated as a social outcast because of God’s Word.
Thus it was that when God did not immediately bring about the destruction shown to Jeremiah in his vision, Jeremiah began to question God’s faithfulness. He felt like he had been set-up, like he was the victim of some kind of hoax. Tell a prosperous and happy people that they were going to be annihilated, and then nothing happens! Very funny God. Jeremiah put it this way “18Will you be to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail?” The prophet was asking God, “Have you set me upon this path, promising me strength only to give me none when I need it most?”
Can we sympathize with Jeremiah? Into this world of ours God has called us to preach repentance. That one little string! And so, like Jeremiah, we try our best to make sacrifices. We make a stand on keeping Sundays free for hearing and studying God's Word; “16Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts.” We seek to please God first in the way we worship, even if it doesn't please the world at large. Even when they look on us with fear and horror for daring to do so in a time of pandemic! We do our best to keep our social media clean and polite. We try to be kind and helpful to those around us. But share the call to faith and repentance and most of the time we are met with unpleasant outcomes. People stop talking to us, we are treated as nasty or naive, we are spurned or we are scorned. Often in this world it feels like the more we take a stand for the things of God the more people walk all over us.
And knowing that, how often do we become indignant like Jeremiah did? How often do we question if God is really present in the world or in our lives? We’ve served him faithfully, why hasn’t he acted on our behalf? We see the prosperity of the wicked and ungodly and the suffering of the just and our loved ones and we can't help but get a little indignant! Yet such indignation, whether on the part of Jeremiah or ourselves, reveals that those sacrifices were themselves made with certain strings attached. We want certain things in return for all those sacrifices we offer God! We want some sort of personal reward, or action on our behalf, we want some justice or vindication. And when God doesn't seem to acknowledge the strings we've attached to the deal we despair, grumble, and complain. “why is my pain unending? ... think of how I suffer reproach for your sake ... Will you be to me like a deceptive brook, a spring that fails?”
What is God’s response to this lack of faith? To all of our attached strings? God responds as he did to Jeremiah’s ... with the call to repentance. The very same message we are to proclaim to others, He proclaims to us. “19Therefore thus says the LORD: "If you return, I will restore you, and you shall stand before me. If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall be as my mouth. They shall turn to you, but you shall not turn to them.” There are no strings attached to this promise. He will restore us to himself. We don’t need to work harder or be better. We can’t work our way into a better standing with God. He restores us to that position himself. In the case of poor old Jeremiah He promised. “20And I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you, declares the LORD.” Restoration is given us through repentance and faith in Christ and these are both gifts of God and not our own work. Yet even though there are no strings attached to God's promises in Christ, those promises themselves act like a string in our lives, binding us to Him, securing us to His work, His life, His salvation.
Despite what we might sometimes feel, God is not a deceiver He does not play tricks on us. He faithfully keeps every promise He makes to us. “21I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.” This He has surely provided for us in Christ Jesus. Through His perfect and holy life through His willing death on the cross in our stead, and through His resurrection from the dead He has become for us a fortified wall against sin and the judgment it incurs. His self-sacrifice has built a protective wall around each and every one of us. God accepts Jesus’ sacrifice as the ransom that cuts the cords of sin that entangled us and restores us as righteous and holy in God’s sight. God no longer sees us but that brightly burnished and perfectly spotless wall that Christ put around us through his sacrifice.
Furthermore, God is not a deceptive brook or a failing spring, He is just the opposite! He has provided everyone here with an ever-flowing water of life in Baptism. This life is not like the waters of any earthly stream that comes and goes with the seasons. It never dries up. It never freezes over. It is never gone when we need it most. The water of our Baptisms fortifies us daily through the repentant drowning of the old man; that part of us that doubts, that part which attaches strings to our sacrifices, that part which sins. Through our Baptisms this old man this sinful nature is drowned not once but every single day of our lives. That Baptism is a lifeline firmly tied to each and every one of us – God's grace and forgiveness when life is at its most difficult. It is a gift that keeps on giving over and over and over. It provides us with renewed faith and zeal and encouragement each day of our lives no strings attached.
A final note. Jeremiah was not killed by those who had threatened him. Nor was he harmed later when he was put into prison, or thrown down an old cistern. He fine even while he was trapped in Jerusalem before the Babylonians destroyed it. He was not taken as a prisoner to Babylon. Nor did he come to harm during a later revolt or his eventual captivity in Egypt. God looked after Jeremiah through his whole life. It certainly wasn’t easy, but he was always in God’s hands. Our lives will not get any easier. As we heard in the Gradual: “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all.” We, like Jeremiah before us, will have to endure many more hardships. Yet in all of this we can rest secure in the knowledge that God knows us, he remembers us, he is faithful and keeps his promises to us. He will always be there for us as a protective wall and as renewing water through our baptisms, no matter what might face us. No strings attached.