We continue today to examine the prophetic words of Jeremiah and Jesus. Separated by 600 years and two very-different contexts – these two men were charged with being the spokespeople of God; the messengers that speak God’s words to God’s people.
Today, our two prophets seem to be talking about two very different subjects, which makes my job a bit more difficult. They were written for two different audiences, two different times, addressing two different crises in their own communities; but they do share one underlying theme. A question that is appropriate for us, in our time and place: What does it mean to be the people of God?
What does it mean to you, to be a disciple?
How can show the world we are following God?
Both Jeremiah and Jesus are calling their followers to repent and return to God. They point out that the people of God have NOT been fulfilling the covenant they made with God, and therefore God is angry and we need to get back to the basics of what it means to be a follower. Jeremiah points to the anger and despair and sadness of God in witnessing the actions of God’s people, and Jesus shows us HOW God wants us to return to Him, even when we fail so miserably.
We see in this passage from Jeremiah’s prophecy an example of the Old Testament way of looking at disaster and seeing judgment. In times of hurricanes, earthquakes, Volcanic eruptions, droughts, floods and fires, the Ancient way to explain these – what we understand now to be – “natural phenomena” is to attribute that action to God. God is angry with us and so the earth quakes, the rains come, the waters rise.
For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end. Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black; for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.
Because the people of God are bent of self-destruction, Jeremiah says, God has turned creation into chaos and the only way to save ourselves and save our earth is to return to God. We, as God’s people, have broken our covenant with God. We have forgotten how to treat God and how to treat our neighbors and so Jeremiah is sent to speak to God’s people. “Return to the Lord,” says the prophet. “Return to the promises you made. You and your ancestors made….”
Jesus is also sent to God’s people to explain the way in which God wants us to behave and while, Jeremiah is a prophet of direct speech, Jesus is a prophet of action. He not only speaks the words of instruction, he demonstrates the values God wants from us and then, when confronted by those who don’t agree, those who are offended by this new way of behaving, Jesus explains why he does what he does.
Why does he speak with women and foreigners? Why does he heal on the Sabbath? Why does he eat with sinners?
We encounter Jesus in Luke, chapter 14 in one of these situations: He is modeling the behavior God wants of us, the actions and activities of LOVE, and he is questioned by the religious leaders of the day, who say “We don’t do that here.”
1 Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ 3 So he told them this parable: 4‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
This parable is familiar to us and is usually used to explain the extreme love God has for each of us: that God cares enough about us as individuals that he would leave the 99 righteous and search for the one sinner. But when we look at the context of the parable we realize that Jesus is not only addressing the sinner saying, “Look how much God loves you.” But he is also addressing the Pharisees: “God loves this one sinner and THAT’S why I eat with them. Because they are valued members of God’s family – as you are – and furthermore, you should rejoice with me that they have joined our family!”
But we don’t rejoice. When we put ourselves in this story, we – like the Pharisees – often cast ourselves as one of the 99 who were doing everything right. We, the 99 sheep, stayed in our place. We followed the rules and were good sheep. Why should we care if this one foolish sheep wandered off?
Jesus calls to them and to us: “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” But we don’t rejoice. We are indifferent because it doesn’t concern us, or we are jealous that God is paying to much attention to others, or we are angry because God loves even the one that messed up and that’s just not right.
We often cast ourselves in this role – the ones who play by the rules. And this is a barrier to our discipleship. If we cannot honestly see the flaws in our own characters, if we cannot admit to the mistakes we’ve made, the small evils we’ve participated in, then how can we “return to the Lord”. How can we repent? How can be forgiven?
We need to see the harm we’ve caused in order to change it! So, Jesus gives us this parables about sheep…. the 99 playing by the rules and the one who didn’t. And asks us to rejoice when that one returns, to welcome them into the fold, to love them no matter their “sins” – recognizing our common humanity.
Jesus calls us, through his parables and through his action to welcome those despised by the world. To invite them into our community. To love them as God does. The sinner, the tax-collector, the immigrant, the sick, the poor, black, white, gay, straight, trans, disabled and able-bodied, all of us are welcomed into the family.
In his actions, Jesus demonstrates to his followers, “You have heard that it is said, do not eat with the unclean, but I say to you, “Just as the Good Shepherd loves each of his sheep, so God loves the sinner and the tax-collector and so should we.”
Why tax-collectors? What was so bad about them?
At the beginning of the Christian Era, the people of Israel were slaves, a kept people, oppressed by the Roman government. The Roman tax system was dependent on collecting tolls from all those who lived within the borders of the Roman Empire, and the work of toll collection was farmed out to locals in each region. People of their own communities were hired, therefore, to collect taxes from their fellows. But the sums were excessive, often used to pad the pockets of the Roman officers and those who “farmed” the taxes. (1)
The tax collectors at the time of Jesus not only participated in this system – gaining wealth for the foreign conquerors – but literally ROBBED the poor: Taking the hard-earned pennies from their community members and either keeping the pennies as their own or passing them along to the oppressors. Tax collectors were those who took advantage of the poor. Despicable people.
And “sinners” are those who actions defy our beliefs: those who do things we detest, who think and act differently, those who don’t value what we value, those who don’t look like us, think like us, speak like us, smell like us. And Jesus invited them to the table; honored guests at the table of the Lord.
Who are the tax-collectors (those who take advantage of the poor) and the sinners (those who don’t believe as we do) of our day? And why are they not at our table? Notice I included us in the 99 righteous, but really we – in our own ways – are the LOST, too. We’ve all sinned. We’ve all been the one who is outside the “norm.” And we ALL are welcomed into the family of God. Lost sheep, despicable tax-collector, sinners on the margins of society: Each of us has a place in the family of God.
Several centuries ago in a mountain village in Europe, a wealthy nobleman wondered what legacy he should leave to his townspeople. He decided to build a church, a beautiful extraordinary cathedral for the whole community to worship God. (Maybe with a speaker system in which you could hear the sermon wherever you were in the facility!) No one was permitted to see the plans or the inside of the church until it was finished. At its grand opening, the people gathered and marveled at the beauty of the new church. Everything had been thought of and included. It was a masterpiece.
But then someone said, “Wait a minute! Where are the lamps? It is really quite dark in here. How will the church be lighted?” The nobleman pointed to some brackets in the walls, and then he gave each family a lamp, which they were to bring with them each time they came to worship.
“Each time you are here'” the nobleman said, “The place where you are seated will be lighted. Each time you are not here, that place will be dark. This is to remind you that whenever you fail to come to church, some part of God’s house will be dark.”
Each one of us is a part of the family of God, and each of us has a light to shine within the walls of our church and outside in the world, and that light is the LOVE of our amazing God. LOVE is the message of Jesus. LOVE is the mission of God. LOVE is the binding element that links us together as brothers and sisters.
There are so many voices in our world convincing us to hate those who don’t look, or think, or act like us. So many voices shouting to hate the foreigner and the immigrant and the “other”, and so few voices reminding us that we are the other too. And God loves us all in a way that rejoices when we return to him! Each of us has a light to shine in this dark world and all of us have a place in the heart of God.
Let us, as we go into the world, bring the light of love to others in need, remembering the God who loves and values us all.
1. Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, R-Z, Nashville: Abingdon,1962, p. 522.