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The Cross in the Old Testament: Jeremiah

February 14, 2010
Sermon:  The Cross in the Old Testament:  Jeremiah
Text:  Lamentations 3:1-40

 

Today is Valentine’s Day, a day of love.  God loves us.  Every page of the Bible tells us about His love.  The great hymns of the church, as well as contemporary Christian music, remind us over and over again of the love of God given to each one of us.  This love is very personal. 

Today as we conclude the series of sermons entitled The Cross in the Old Testament, we come to the prophet Jeremiah.  I must tell you that even if I had a sermon that was the usual length, I would not have enough time to cover everything about Jeremiah. 

 We know more about Jeremiah than we do about any of the other prophets in the Old Testament.  We have a considerable amount of information about him because surprisingly, he survived a very long tenure – more than fifty years – in this difficult business of prophecy.  Many prophets came to a quick end. 

Jeremiah’s ministry began during a time of great concern and difficulty.  Though the people of Israel had turned away from God and turned to idolatry, Jeremiah had great optimism.  The promise of reform under the reign of the boy-king Josiah gave the prophet hope for the future.  Following Josiah’s death, however, the many kings who followed were scandalous and ruthless.  Others were grand rascals.  Jeremiah’s fifty-year ministry ended with the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar and his army.  

During his time, Jeremiah’s prophecy is primarily one of doom and gloom.  He is very judgmental about the evil that has taken over the land and critical about the way people have turned away from the teachings of God and the love of God.  They have turned to their own ways.  Jeremiah is very concerned about the future.  In fact, he tells them that they will be destroyed, destroyed not just by the Babylonians but also destroyed by the hand of God.  God will allow the Babylonians to invade and conquer the land.

When I was at Furman University, my professor of religion gave long assignments of writing, some of them rather lengthy.  Even an exam with this professor involved writing page after page after page.  The rumor among students was that it was impossible for him to read all of the papers that we turned in to him. 

We thought he probably had a rather creative way of grading papers.  We said that maybe he stood at the top of a stairway and threw the papers down the stairs.  Those that landed near the top got an “A.”  Papers a little further down received a grade of “B.”  Those halfway down the stairs got a “C,” and those at the bottom got the lowest grades.

My roommate decided to test that theory.  He did not prepare for that teacher’s exam at all.  Instead, he went to the exam prepared to just write and write and write, basically having an exercise in free association.  When he received his exam, the professor had simply written at the top of the paper “Psalm 50:9 (RSV)” and wrote out to the side a very low grade.  My roommate was eager to look up that passage in the Revised Standard Version.  It read, “I will accept no bull from your house.”

Those teachers who want something religious to say to your students, there it is.  I am sure that is yours for the taking.

Scholars, for centuries, have tried to understand the complex book of Jeremiah.  Doing so is not an easy task.  In terms of the way the book is arranged, almost everyone agrees that it must have been like a person throwing pages down a stairway and then trying to re-gather them.  Remember that these ancient writings did not originally include chapter numbers, verse numbers, or page numbers.  These writings were just page after page of Hebrew.  Scholars agree that at some point, the book of Jeremiah became hopelessly scrambled.  The result has caused great difficulty in knowing what pages should come first and what should come last.  Some have just thrown up their hands and said, “We just have to acdept that the book of Jeremiah is pretty much a mess.”  The organization of the book of Jeremiah does not mean that it is not Scripture.  It is Holy Scripture. 

Perhaps the way to study Jeremiah is, first of all, to study his life.  We need to look at what God was doing through this man who lived at such a very difficult time.  We need to consider what he said on God’s behalf through the course of these fifty years. 

Chapters 7-9 contain one of Jeremiah’s stem-winding sermons he delivered in the temple courts.  After he preached that sermon, he was pretty much forbidden to go back into the temple and teach anything else.  He was, as Ahab said to the prophet Elijah, “a troubler of Israel” (I Kings 18:17). 

An interesting account in Chapter 36 tells us that God told Jeremiah to sit down with his friend Baruch and dictate the prophesies that God had given him.  Baruch laboriously wrote down everything the prophet had to say.  Then Jeremiah told Baruch, “Go to the temple and read this aloud.”  When men from the king’s court heard these readings, they said, “You must come and read this for the king.”  Baruch went to the king’s court, as suggested, and read all the prophesies of Jeremiah.  After hearing Jeremiah’s words, the king cut the scroll to shreds with his knife and burned every bit of it.

 If somebody did that to one of my manuscripts, I would be pretty upset.  Do you know that God told Jeremiah to write it all down again?  Baruch and Jeremiah went into hiding, possibly to a cave outside of Jerusalem.  There Jeremiah dictated the list of prophesies again.  Scripture says that the second time, he even included information he had left out in the first edition.  The book of Jeremiah is an amazing book if for no other reason than it was written twice. 

When news of this second copy spreads, Jeremiah got in real trouble and became an enemy of the king.  First, he was thrown into a dungeon and then taken to prison.  Later, some men lowered him into a cistern where he sank up to his armpits in mud.  Jeremiah would have died there if an Ethiopian eunuch, who was part of the king’s court, had not come with ropes and pulled him up out of the cistern.  No sooner did Jeremiah get out of the cistern than some unethical men decided to take him hostage and haul him away to the land of Egypt.  Even there, Jeremiah continued to prophesy. 

Jeremiah’s book is sorrow upon sorrow upon sorrow.  It is filled with all kinds of misery about what has happened to the people of Israel, what now they can expect from the hand of God and how they were going to be utterly defeated.  Rightly called the “weeping prophet,” Jeremiah wrote in Chapter 9:1-2a,

“Oh, that my head were a spring of water
     and my eyes a fountain of tears!
I would weep day and night
     for the slain of the daughters of my people. 
Oh, that I had in the wilderness
     a lodging place for wayfarers,
so that I might leave my people
     and go from them.” 

 

Perhaps the best depiction of Jeremiah, one done by Michelangelo, shows this prophet with his head in his hands, weeping over the city that he loved, the city of Jerusalem.  Jeremiah offered primarily a message of doom.  It is interesting though that an amazing word of hope appears right at the heart of his message.  In Chapter 29, Verses 11-14, Jeremiah made a remarkable statement to people who were already in exile, then spoke of prayer and the importance of seeking God with all your heart.  The choir will sing “If You Search with All Your Heart” at the serving of the bread during the Lord’s Supper.  Those words come from the prophesies of Jeremiah, Chapter 29, Verses 11-14:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to give you hope and a future.  Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.  You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.  I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and bring you back from captivity.  I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” 

 

This little section that is so hopeful in Jeremiah picks up again at Chapter 31.  I want you to turn there with me as I read a few verses.  

Verse 3:  “The Lord appeared to us in the past saying, ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love.  I have drawn you with loving kindness.’”

God, disappointed in His people, as He often was, told them that He was going to make a new covenant with them.  He then proceeded to tell them about this new covenant:

Verses 31-34: 

“The time is coming,” declares the Lord,
     “when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel
     and with the house of Judah. 
It will not be like the covenant
     I made their forefathers
when I took them by the hand
     to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
     though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. 
“This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel
     after that time,” declares the Lord. 
“I will put my law in their minds
     and write it on their hearts. 
I will be their God,
     and they will be my people. 
No longer with a man teach his neighbor,
     or a man his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord’
because they will all know me,
     from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. 
“For I will forgive their wickedness
     and will remember their sins no more.”
 

Jeremiah told us long ago about God’s plan to do something new, and that is exactly what God did.  We do not have very specific details about how God planned to accomplish that, but the book of Jeremiah does say that God is going to write His law in our minds and put His love in our hearts.  We celebrate that new covenant that God made in Jesus Christ today right here at this table.  I would submit to you that the love God is going to bestow on His people is a Valentine’s message.  When we come to this table today, that is exactly what we celebrate. 

Finding in Jeremiah a connection to the cross of the New Testament is not an easy task.  Perhaps the next book in the Bible, Lamentations, may offer another thread.  Lamentations was supposedly written by Jeremiah in that very same cave where he sought refuge with his friend Baruch.  He was certainly the “weeping prophet.”  The words of Lamentations fit Jeremiah’s particular time in history immediately after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. 

Jeremiah used a literary device, an acrostic, in this book.  You will notice that Chapters 1, 2, 4, and 5 all have twenty-two verses.  The Hebrew alphabet has twenty-two letters.  Each verse in those four chapters begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  It is a way of saying that the doom, the tragedy, goes from “A” to “Z.”  It goes from the beginning to the end.  Jeremiah’s prophesies warned that the destruction of Jerusalem was going to be complete. 

The middle chapter, Chapter 3, is arranged differently.  You will notice sixty-six verses there, written in three-verse components.  Every third verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Right at the heart of the misery found in the book of Jeremiah, we now see a message of hope in the book of Lamentations, a message we sang about this morning in the song “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” 

Look with me at Chapter 3, Verses 17-40: 

I have been deprived of peace;
     I have but forgotten what prosperity is.
So I say, “My splendor is gone
     and all that I had hoped from the Lord.”
 
I remember my affliction and my wandering,
     the bitterness and the gall. 
I well remember them,
     and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet, this I call to mind
     and therefore have hope:
 
Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed, 
     for his compassions never fail. 
They are new every morning; 
     great is your faithfulness. 
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion,
     therefore I will wait for him.” 
 
The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him
     to the one who seeks him:
it is good to wait quietly
     for the salvation of the Lord…
 
For men are not cast off
     by the Lord forever. 
Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
     so great is his unfailing love. 
For he does not willingly bring affliction
     or grief to the children of men…
 
Let us examine our ways and test them,
And let us return to the Lord.
 

Jeremiah, in the midst of all of the sadness, sorrow, and degradation, offered a word of hope, both in the books of Jeremiah and Lamentations.  That word of hope is based on one thing and one thing only:  God never gives up on His people.  God loves us with an unfailing love, with a steadfast love.  He loves us, and He draws us with cords of love.

When we come to this table, we are drawn by the love of God.  This is God’s gift to us.  God’s love is so complete that He gave His son, Jesus.  These elements – the bread and the cup – remind us of that great love.  The bread represents his body, the cup his blood.  When we take these elements, we remember, most of all, God’s unfailing love. 

Let me remind you that this is not Morningside’s table.  This is not a Baptist table.  This is the Lord’s Table.  Anybody who professes Jesus Christ as Lord is invited to participate as we take the Lord’s Supper together.

The Lord Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed, took bread.  He blessed it and broke it.  He said, “This is my body, which is broken for you.” 

Prayer of Blessing for the Bread:  Dear heavenly Father, as we humbly come to Your table, we take this bread that represents Your body hung on that cross for each and every one of us.  How we thank You, dear Father, for Your love, Your grace, and Your faithfulness.  We want You to know, dear heavenly Father, how much we love You.  Right here and now, we rededicate our lives to You.  Take us and use us, Lord, for Your will, not ours.  It is in the precious name of Jesus Christ, our risen Savior, that we pray.  Amen.

Listen to the words of a prayer from Charles Wesley:  “Love divine, all loves excelling, Joy of heav’n, to earth come down; Fix in us Thy humble dwelling; All Thy faithful mercies crown.  Jesus, Thou art all compassion, Pure, unbounded love Thou art; Visit us with Thy salvation; Enter ev’ry trembling heart.”

Jesus said, “This bread is my body, given for you.”  Eat this as often as you eat it in remembrance of him.  Eat ye all of it.

Prayer for the Cup:  Dear Lord, as we take this cup, remind us of Your blood that was spilled for our salvation, the greatest expression of love this world has ever known or ever will know.  We thank You for it.  We know it is through Your grace that we receive it, not through anything we do.  We ask You to bless this service to the remembrance of the gift You gave us and to bless us to Your service.  We ask these things in the name of Your Son.  Amen.

Charles Wesley’s prayer continues.  “Come, Almighty to deliver, Let us all Thy grace receive; Let us see Thy great salvation, Perfectly revealed in Thee:  Changed from glory into glory, Till in heav’n we take our place, Till we cast our crowns before Thee, Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

Jesus said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”  Drink it as often as you drink it in remembrance of him.  Drink ye all of it.

Sometimes we have the idea that Valentine’s Day is just for people who are married or for people who have a sweetheart.  We think that Valentine’s Day is about romantic love.  At the heart of Valentine’s Day, though, is the story of a priest named Valentine who gave his life, caring for Christians who were being persecuted.  That love is much deeper than hearts, chocolates, and flowers.  If you have a sweetheart, please give hearts, chocolates, and flowers; but know that this love that we celebrate is so much deeper than that.  It is the love that God has given to us.  It is our response to Him. 

Have you responded to this gift of love?  Have you given your heart to Christ Jesus? Have you received this gift of love?  If not, what better day than Valentine’s Day?  Some of you have other decisions to make.  Perhaps you have drifted away from the Lord.  We invite you to respond to these invitations from God.

Kirk H. Neely
© February 2010
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