January 10, 2021 Faith and Trust
Jeremiah 17:1-13, Ephesians 2:1-10, Mark 2:1-12
The prophet Jeremiah describes the sin of Judah as being deeply ingrained. He compares it to an inscription carved with an iron pen, an engraver’s tool. With a diamond point it is engraved on the tablet of their hearts, and on the horns of their altars. Jeremiah’s words of judgment were accompanied with grief and tension, for he loved his people.
What were their sins and why did the old prophet judge them so harshly? Jeremiah saw in their offerings on the altar an affront to God. The people offered sacrifices to the God of the covenant but also to Canaanite deities that were represented by objects of wood or wooden poles. And now the prophet is clear: They were rejecting the sole sovereignty of God who made a covenant with them. God continued to be their God but they ceased to be entirely committed to God. So, their guilt is seen as deeply engraved in their hearts.
And because of this there would be consequences. Their enemies would rob them of their wealth and treasures. This is of course what happened when the Babylonians invaded their land in the 586BCE and they were taken into Exile.
So, the first theme of this morning’s sermon is sin. We know from the Bible that Sin destroys relationships: between God and people, between people, sin alienates us from ourselves, and from God’s creation. And when we are alienated from God, from others, and from ourselves and God’s creation, there is a void that we want to fill in other ways. We, instead of placing our trust in God, instead of finding fulfilment and purpose in our relationship with God, and harmonious relationships with others, we place our trust in things and people. And they will never be able to fill that void! Instead of placing our trust in the sovereign God, we place our trust in idols. And we know that modern day idols come in various shapes and forms.
Jeremiah mentions one of many idols in which Judah places her trust in: mankind! “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals, and make flesh their strength.” And then he continues what sounds like a paraphrase of the 1st Psalm: “They shall be like a shrub in the desert…; they shall live in parched places of the wilderness…”.
You see, it was a problem back then, still is now and will most likely always be.
People, and yes, also people of faith, are tempted to place their trust in mere mortals. This has happened for as long as people have been living as active citizens of the city (this is the literal meaning of the roots of the Greek word for politics). We place our trust in one person who we believe will fix everything. And, as is always the case, at the end we are disappointed, for they ultimately disappoint us.
This is also true when it comes to business leaders. I knew people who worked for a great multinational business. They idolized the CEO of the company back then. They almost worshiped the ground he walks on. A few decades later it was clear that his apparent success did not last. The company is a shadow of what it used to be.
This of course is true for many aspects of life: medical doctors, scientist, professors and on and on!
Now for the prophet Jeremiah, the problem of this goes deeper than simply the flaws or feet of clay of the one who is idolized. It goes deeper than having unrealistic expectations of the leader, or even the ability of a leader to present himself as the one who would solve all problems. The problem is that people who place their trust in mere mortals are like a shrub whose roots are shallow. When there is drought and heat, the shrub welts.
The image of the shrub can only be fully understood when compared with those who place their trust in the Lord. This is after all the main point Jeremiah is making. The ones who place their trust in the Lord are like a tree, planted by water “sending” its roots by the stream. The Hebrew word for sending indicates an active and dynamic action, even an intensive and vigorous action. A better translation perhaps is “thrusting out its roots”.
And here is an important point: Placing your trust in God takes time, commitment and effort. Thrusting out the roots is hard work! It does not come as easy as the shallow roots of a shrub. Placing your trust in God instead of idols requires hard work, it takes commitment, it calls for discernment and honesty, it asks for affirming priorities and it requires an open eye for the danger of being enticed to go after idols.
We put a lot of effort into preparing for our studies, deciding which college to attend, our careers, our professional developments, how to approach a business deal. We do research, we contemplate, weigh different options, discuss it with others to hear their opinion. But when it comes to our trust in God or our commitment to God’s Word, or decisions as people of faith, we do it on the fly. That unfortunately is why we so many times stumble when it comes to our faith and our trust in God. This incurious approach to faith in God, and what it means to trust God, makes it easy for some faith leaders to exploit their flock. They too present themselves as the answer to people’s faith related questions without being honest about the cost of discipleship. They are not always honest what the cost of placing your unconditional trust in God.
The image of a tree whose roots are thrust out is beautiful and clear: “It shall not fear when heat comes and its leaves will stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.” That big old tree with its strong roots is secure and healthy in spite of external struggles and challenges. Heat and drought do not affect it.
We live in times where our faith is tested, our trust in God is challenged. The temptation is great to accept the many offers to place our faith and trust in mere flesh. The temptations come in the form of people with quick and easy answers, easy solutions that are not thoroughly thought through. Some of these offers are simply expedient, others are tempting to embrace for on the surface they seem plausible; some may give simple explanations for the reason why we struggling. As people of faith we should ask a few questions before we make a decision where to place our trust: Do I place my trust in God, or in human beings? Have I really put in an effort to think this through? Is this an easy solution? What will happen in the long run when the metaphorical drought and heat come?
Why is Jeremiah so convinced that placing your trust in God is a lasting solution? What is it about God that Jeremiah so wholeheartedly calls for faith in God?
The answer, I believe is to be found in the nature of God and in the actions of God. In other words, in who God is and what God does.
First of all, we know from the very beginning that God is the sovereign Lord of all. God is the Creator of heaven and earth, the Holy One, the Lord of Lords. And yet as the sovereign God, God bends down, out of free will and choose to be the God of Israel. God is gracious, merciful and slow to anger. God is the fountain of living water. As the God of the Covenant with Israel, God commits to be with Israel through thick and thin. Jeremiah and the other OT prophets, were aware that God is not a human being. On the other hand he has a very realistic and honest assessment of human beings: we are fickle, sinful, unreliable, weak, easily distracted and sometimes mean and heartless. Human beings are also very vulnerable and weak. In spite of all our flaws, God stays true to God’s word and God’s commitment to human beings!
What does God do? God embraces human beings with God’s divine love. A love so deep, so high, so wide and so long that we can never really fully comprehend God’s love. A love that is reliable, dependable and lasting. A love that continues even as human beings constantly make wrong decisions and follow and worship idols.
The Apostle Paul writes eloquently about God’s love and mercy. Even as we were dead through our trespasses and sins, God does not abandon us or turn God’s back unto us.
The Gospel of Mark in essence says the same from a different perspective. A paralyzed man was brought to Jesus. Did you notice that some people carried him to Jesus, they could not get to him? So instead of taking an easy way out, they removed the roof above him and after they had dug through it, they lowered the man to Jesus. Instead of placing their trust in someone else, or taking an easy route, they took active and dynamic action, even an intensive and vigorous action. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic: “Your sins are forgiven.” And as the story unfolds, Jesus also heals him – for he has the authority for he is after all the Son of God. We affirm on this day that Christ is indeed the One who is able to forgive our sins and fills the voids in our hearts.
This is what God wants: People who place their trust and faith in God. People who put in an effort to reflect, to work, to think things through, who asks the right questions, who really consider their faith and trust as their priority. They avoid the easy and simplistic route of easy answers for complicated questions. They avoid placing their trust in mortals, for they know that God is the one who never disappoints. They know that God is the One who forgives our sins and restore our relationships: with God, with others, with ourselves and with God’s creation. And they have peace and joy know for God fills the void in their lives with God’s forgiving and merciful love and divine presence. Amen