Jeremiah 18:1-12; Psalm 139 "What Does it Take to Shape a Human?"
Jeremiah 8 "Is There a Balm in Gilead?"

Jeremiah 4:11-28, Psalm 51 "What is True Repentance?"

Updated Thursday, September 9, 2010 

At first read you might think Jeremiah must have missed the memo from his congregation that he should not preach about politics.  But Jeremiah would likely be the first to say that he didn’t want the job, God gave it to him. 

First, I want to say more about the context Jeremiah was preaching in before looking more at what I see as our nation’s crossroads.  Israel has always been a nation between a rock and a hard place.  It is the land bridge between Asia and Africa, and home to the mountain passes for trade between East and West.  In Jeremiah’s day, Egypt was the great power to the South and in the North, Babylon was in ascendency and had just defeated Assyria.  Geopolitics was always a difficult balancing act.  Between 605 BCE and 587 BCE, Judah went through a series of rebellions against Babylon by refusing to pay tribute and each time Babylon reacted with greater punitive measures until Jerusalem and the Temple were completely destroyed in 587 BCE, beginning nearly three centuries of long exile for the people of Israel.  Jeremiah tried to stave off this rebellion against a great power of Babylon and cautioned a more humble approach to international affairs.  From centuries of distance, we can look at a map and see why Jeremiah was deathly concerned the futility of what the kings of Judah were trying to do.  Why would a nation undertake such a foolish and impossible course?


According to Old Testament commentator R. E. Clements (1988, p. 42):

“Jeremiah appears to have addressed a people who were so self-assured in the rightness of their cause, and in the backing God must give to it, that they discounted the serious possibility of harsh Babylonian reprisals taken against them.” 

In Jeremiah’s day, the people of Israel had their own version of the American Dream and a sense of manifest destiny.  They believed two important things about their nation, that God dwelled in the Temple and that God made a covenant with King David and his line would never be broken.  It was this belief that God was on their side no matter what that lead to reckless and disastrous foreign policy.  The consistent message of Jeremiah and all the prophets is that national security and personal salvation is based on doing justice and living by God’s commands.  There message to a nation is this, “Don’t trust in the sword, in war horses or chariots; but do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” 


We have many prophets of doom in our own day, calling for the nation to return to various versions of justice and righteousness.  There is so much doom and gloom now, you almost have to be hopeful to be truly contrarian.  There is a great unease right now, from all quarters of the political, religious and economic spectrums, that we are not on track as a nation.  Which of the many voices might be our Jeremiah?  This morning I want to look two men at odds with each other, Glenn Beck and Jim Wallis.  I feel compelled to talk about Glenn Beck today, because at his big rally two weekends ago, he moved out of politics and into theology, which is my turf as a preacher.  He held his rally on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech, and talked about reclaiming the legacy. Glenn Beck moved into theology and used the language of a preacher, saying he wants a movement of faith, hope and charity


There is an element of Jeremiah that reminds me of Glenn Beck, weeping for the nation during his prophecies, as in verse 19,


 “My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent….For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.” 23I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. 


Jeremiah or Glenn Beck?  (I preach, you decide!)  In style they share a weepy, manic depressive warning of disaster if people do not repent and return to God.  In substance the similarities end.  Not all prophets of doom are created equal.  Jeremiah preached in a context where he saw immanent political and military disaster for his nation, and he eagerly hoped to turn back the tide. He desired honest soul-searching that would lead kings to be more humble on the world stage and the people to be more mindful of righteousness.  My view of Glenn Beck is he leading us towards less soul searching by covering up the real issues and instead finding other people to blame –immigrants, Muslims, socialists and most amazingly to me-social justice oriented Christians. 


I find it odd that one of his main targets on his blackboard, has been Jim Wallis, the founder of the Sojourners Community and magazine in Washington, DC.  I’ve read Sojourners for 25 years and know several people from his original community.  Now Beck is right that they are liberal and progressive.  In the 1980s they organized Witness for Peace, a peace group against our war support of the contras in Nicaragua, and they sent delegations of people to villages during the coffee picking season to protect the villages from attacks so poor people could actually make a living.  The contras wanted to intimidate people so they couldn’t pick the ripe coffee beans, but they couldn’t terrorize people with a group of American church leaders hanging around.  My deceased wife, Rosemary, went there twice and it was life changing for her.  Ok, so he is a liberal.


But for the last few years, Jim Wallis has dedicated his ministry to seeking dialogue between liberals and conservatives to find common spiritual ground, especially about how to do justice for the poor.  He wrote an open letter to Glenn Beck last week, invited dialog, and made several important points.  First, Glenn Beck is a Mormon, and therefore he should know about the dangers of religious persecution and the importance of religious freedom.  Wallis challenged Beck to offer the same hard-won religious freedom he enjoys to practice Mormonism to Muslims as well.  Second, Wallis praised Beck for amending his statement that President Obama is a racist.  However, an apology would have been more in order.  Wallis took Beck to task for continually mis-characterizing Obama’s faith.  Since I am ordained in the United Church of Christ, I know he is a Christian, not a closet-Muslim from a madrassa in Indonesia.  I attended our General Synod in 2008 when Obama eloquently shared his faith journey as a committed Christian.  Wallis noted that it is fine to disagree with our president’s policies, but to smear his faith should be beyond the pale. 


Finally, Wallis reminded Glenn Beck that Jesus put the poor and oppressed first in his ministry.  Beck has claimed that Wallis’ call for social justice is just a code word for socialism, communism and Nazism.  Wallis said it is about compassion and mercy and following the biblical mandate to deal with poverty, not blame the poor.  I hope Beck will agree to public dialogue with Wallis.  It could highlight a move that is already happening out of the spotlight in America today.  While many people like Beck and the Tea Party are tapping into legitimate public anger, they are looking for people to blame, when we need to be soul-searching and seeking a new way.  Running around looking for communists and socialists or having debates about where to build mosques and trying to pin blame on each other will not solve our national problems. 


There is another movement quietly happening out of the media spotlight.  Many Christians, liberal and evangelical, are starting to talk and discard the old debates in favor of finding common ground and common solutions.  David Brooks, the conservative commentator at the NY Times, wrote on Wednesday about David Platt, who is the youngest pastor of a mega church in the United States.  Young evangelical leaders are less interested in labeling and blaming people and instead looking at corrosive impact of materialism on American culture.  In his recent book “Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream,” Platt calls on readers to cap their lifestyle. Live as if you made $50,000 a year, he suggests, and give everything else away. Take a year to surrender yourself. Move to Africa or some poverty-stricken part of the world. Preach good news to the poor. 


Now we are getting closer to the real heart of Jeremiah’s message.  Its not a time to take back our nation, as if someone stole it from us.  It is a time for honest soul searching, to find what we have ourselves lost.  Like the shepherd who goes out to find the lost sheep, let us also be seekers and bring more into the fold.