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Sunday August 30, 1998 ~ Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost ~ Jeremiah 2:4-13

"On Asking The Right Questions!"

Focus Text: "They did not say, "Where is the Lord who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land where no one passes through,, where o one lives?" [2:6]

If you don't ask the right questions, you can't get the right answers. That's a basic principle of success in almost any endeavor. All of you who are gathered here today can more than likely think of times in your life when you had to ask the right questions. As a matter of fact, it can be devastating to not ask the right questions.

To the real estate agent, "Is this house on a flood plain?"

To the used car salesman, "Can I have the phone number of the little old lady who owned this car?

To the insurance agent, "Can you tell me what is not covered?"

Some years ago my father went through a long period of medical mystery trying to find out why his blood pressure consistently ran low. He was tested, poked, x-rayed, questioned and re-tested. Nothing. No one could say why his blood pressure was low. "Is it life threatening?" Dad asked. "We can't answer that until we know why it is low," was the reply. Finally it was a young resident from England who asked the right question, "Is your family from Southwest Ireland?" It turned out that this resident knew of a genetic irregularity that had surfaced among a small group of people from that area. He had likely inherited the gene from his mother who was from County Cork. It was not life threatening, but he would never have known had someone not come along asking the right question.


The bible's story of redemption is launched with a question; "Adam, where are you?" Jesus' question to Peter established the foundation of the Church, "Who do people say that I am?" The scripture lesson for today begins with a question. God asks all of Israel, "What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?"

Devastating! Israel traded God for "worthless things" (pagan gods) and became worthless. [see note on v.5] Listen carefully to the principle here. You've heard the saying, "You are what you eat." Jeremiah's twist on this is, "You become what you seek." Or we become like the thing(s) we worship. If what we worship -- that is to say seek with all our hearts -- is worthless, that is what we will become. [**see note below] The critical question Jeremiah commends to us is, "What do I really, truly worship?"

If the object of my worship is anything other than God, then I have allowed my spirit to "go after worthless things..." Then what happens? (This is really tough to say -- but I didn't say it!) What happens is... I become ____________ (worthless!) Do you see? If I worship anything other than God, I "trash" my spirit.


What would you think of someone who traded a brand new Cadillac for a used Yugo? Or how about someone who would swap a Cartier diamond for a K-Mart cubic zircon? "Not smart," you might say. Or perhaps you would twirl your index finger at your temple and mutter, "daft!"

Another example to get at the sense of our scripture today is one that will surely divide this congregation into distinct generations! How many of you remember when movie star Eddie Fisher traded his sweet, twenty five year old wife, Debbie Reynolds for that "worldly" Elizabeth Taylor? (If you remember that incident -- you are dated! If you don't remember it, you are probably a part of the generation that is not counting too heavily on Social Security!) In any case -- those who remember can recall the general reaction that echoed Jeremiah's words, "Be appalled, O heavens at this, be shocked..." How could Eddie Fisher give up that sweet young woman for her? (You may also remember that Eddie didn't last long!)

Jeremiah's words in our text paint a powerful word picture of people who traded in something of supreme value for something worthless. And they sound a clear warning to anyone who would even think about placing their hope and trust in anything less than God. "...They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water."

Why? Why would anyone in their right mind give up the clear spring waters of the oasis for a leaky canteen and head into the desert? Now, get hold of this... They did not ask the right question!

I. The People Did Not Ask The Right Question

The people forgot where they had come from and who had led them to safety. If Moses waned Israel once, he warned them a hundred times, "Do not forget the Lord! Remember the Lord!" [Deut. 8:8, 8:11, 8:19]

They did not say, "Where is the Lord...?" That's the critical question that keeps us in close relationship with God.

* "Where is God in my career?"
* "Where is God in my family?"
* "Where is God in my desires?"

A great way to ask the question is to ask, "Where is God as my day begins?" The Psalmist has great advice at the beginning of the day, or the onset of any difficulty, or even the experience of devastation, "Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits..." [Ps.103:2]

There's another important issue here. God holds the people accountable for their our own spiritual lives. It is not acceptable to "beg-off" saying, "The priests didn't teach us" or, "Nobody told us" or, "We had this awful pastor...." Passing on the faith is the responsibility of -- who? Moses had said in ancient days, "Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise." [Deut. 6:6-7] Religious institutions -- in Moses' day, in Jeremiah's day, or in our own day -- have some responsibility, but the primary responsibility for nourishing children in the faith lies with the family!

Have you ever seen the line that scrolls across the bottom of the television set in some communities? "Parents, it is 11 O'clock. Do you know where your children are?" Not, "Do the authorities know where your children are." or, "Have you children told you where they are." We might have a sign in our spiritual minds scrolling the message, "Parents, it is the 11th hour. Are your children asking, 'Where is the Lord in my life?'"

Tuck this question away in your spirit and it will serve you and your children well in all kinds of circumstances. "Where is the Lord?"

II. The Religious Leaders Did Not Ask The Right Question

It is true, however, that religious leaders are held accountable for their ministry. Jeremiah's indictment includes God saying, "The priests did not ask, 'Where is the Lord?'" The people who had responsibility for teaching the people about God had no personal relationship with God. They, "...did not know me..." Jeremiah reserves his most powerful indictments for the leaders who failed in their responsibility.

If the leadership is off base, the people don't have a chance. Biblical literature is filled with warnings to those who have the responsibility of teaching spiritual truth. It is a major theme in scripture and a major complaint Jesus had against the religious teachers of his own day. I tremble a bit when I read something like, " Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!" in Jeremiah 23:1 or James 3:1 "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness."

It has been a number of years since a representative of the deacons of our church came to me and expressed displeasure at a sermon I had preached on spiritual responsibility. "We want our pulpit to be more uplifting," was among the comments made. It brought to mind an old quip I heard from an older pastor when I was a student. "When one deacon comes to see me, he is usually in trouble. When two or more deacons come calling, I am usually in trouble!"

Strangely, that evening, while dong my personal bible reading, I came to Ezekiel 34:10. "Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I am against the shepherds; and I will require my flock at their hand..." [KJV] It got my attention. I made a decision that I would much rather have the deacons upset with me for talking about spiritual responsibility than to have the Lord God upset with me for not talking about spiritual responsibility!

We who bear the message to you week by week need to ask the very same question I have commended to you. "Where is the Lord in this message today?"

III. The Consequences of Not Asking the Right Question

The consequences of not asking the right question are horrendous! [*** See note] Yet, before we conclude this message, there is another question to ask: "What does all this distress from over two millennia have to do with us today?" Good question. (And we are encouraging the right questions today.)

Let's dial ahead about 640 years to a time when St. Paul was answering a similar question for the Christians in Rome, "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction..." (Rom.15:4) That is to say, Jeremiah's words are to us today. Jeremiah's hearers did not learn and they did not listen. The consequences fell. It behooves us to listen and to learn. Here's the question: "What are the consequences of not asking the question, 'Where is the Lord?'"

Here is how Jeremiah's words might come to us today -- in our language: "God says... the whole universe is astonished, appalled and devastated at what God's own people have done! They have turned their hearts away from the Lord and instead have totally given themselves to things that do not matter. They have become totally, absolutely bankrupt in their souls!"

Please! Ask some questions. In your own life. In your home.

"Where is the Lord?"

I close with a story.

During a wonderful trip to the Holy Land, our bus stopped at Bethany. We all got off to follow our guide to the site of what was purported to be tomb of Lazarus. Chances of this actually being the tomb of Lazarus were slim to none, but there was a certain mystique about stopping at this neighborhood in the ancient home town of Lazarus. The site had likely been someone's tomb.

As we stepped off the bus, we were (as usual) surrounded by a small mob of Arab children selling their wares. One young lad was offering small clay containers of "Genuine Jordan River" water, but alas sold his last little jar for $1.00 to one of the women on our tour. He looked to a man standing a ways off behind the crowd. (An Arab male always stood at a distance watching their children.) The man motioned with his head and the little boy ran up a small, winding side street. I had a hunch and followed. Two or three houses around the corner, he ran to the tiny side yard where a water pipe came up from the ground. A woman quickly handed him the jars as he filled them with "Genuine Jordan River" and ran back to the tourists! The boy looked at me with his deep, dark eyes and I couldn't resist handing over my dollar for a jar of "Genuine Jordan River."

When we got to Jerusalem, I reached in my camera bag where I had stashed my bit of the Jordan and took out a wet, but empty jar. My film was sitting in a small pool. The jar had a tiny crack I had not seen.

I thought of Jeremiah's words, "... cracked cisterns that can hold no water." And then I had the strangest sensation as I remembered what happened to the people who refused to hear Jeremiah's words. I imagined that instead of a little jar of fake Jordan River, I had a vial in which I hoped and trusted would be the meaning of my life.

And it leaked out.

And it was gone.

[Apply It]

I would like for you to think about something. When is the last time you asked the question, "Where is God in my life?" Would it make a difference if you were to list the priorities of your life right now and then apply this question to each of those priorities?

I promise you that you will notice a difference in even a week if you will begin each day with the question,"Where will I see God in this day?" In fact, make yourself a tiny sign and put it on your bathroom mirror or on the dashboard of your car. "Where is the Lord?"

Notes on The Text

v.4 The issue of what needs to be heard is especially critical in the prophets. The construction "Hear the word of the Lord" is used 34 times in the bible (NRSV) 33 of those occurrences are in the Old Testament... 29 are in the prophets. This begs the question... "What is it that God's people need to hear?" In light of the indictment of the teaching ministry of Jeremiah's time, the question deserves consideration in our homiletical task.

v.5 The words for "worthless things" -- "hebel" and the word "became worthless" -- "habal" are a play on words. This phrase is variously translated:

* King James: "They... have walked after vanity, and are become vain?"
* New King James: "They...followed idols, And have become idolaters?"
NIV as; "They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves."
* NASB as; "They... walked after emptiness and became empty?"
* NRSV as; "They went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?".

** Re: What we worship: As in 'And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart." [Jer. 29:13])

v.6 The key to verse 6 is that thanklessness leads to forgetfulness. (Ps.103:1-2: "Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits--") Forgetfulness leads to spiritual disaster. Remembrance and thankfulness leads to life. The key to life is an attitude of gratitude!

v.8 Four groups of leadership are indicted. There are the priests, the lawyers, the civil authorities and the prophets.

vv.9-12 The apostasy of Judah is unparalleled. Even the pagan nations do not forsake their gods. And those gods are nothing! Thus the "be appalled, shocked and devastated". The heartbreak of God is worsened by the fact that the One who is True is rejected by Israel while the Ones who are False are not forsaken.

v. 13 *** Note: Re: Consequences... the language here is so strong... you would not be out of line (theologically) to suggest that when the right question is ignored by both the people and the leaders of the people, there is "hell to pay!" Whether you use this language or not... the point of v. 13 can hardly be over-stated. The point? Dead gods can not impart life.

The two evils: The first is a sin against God - namely, idolatry. The second is a sin against God and against themselves -- they become "vain" or "worthless" -- like that which they worship.

"They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters..." Compare Jesus' statement in John 4:10, 4:11 and especially 7:38. "As the scripture has said, 'Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.'" In Christ there is restoration of what was lost.

Alternate Sermon Ideas

The Way Up With God Is Down - Luke 14:1 & 7-14

The text from Luke spells out clearly that Jesus was absolutely, totally counter-cultural. How does one get ahead in our society. The name of the game is "Looking out for #1." Could anyone ever sell a management book with a title like, "Aim Low and You'll Get Ahead." Or how about, "Servanthood is the Way to Advancement."

There are two qualities Jesus commends in this scripture selection.

1. The Quality of Humility. (vv.8-11) If you lift yourself up, God will set you down. If you humble yourself, God will lift you up. Jesus tells in this parable what Paul spells out in Philippians 2:5-11.

2. The Quality of Graciousness (vv.12-14) To reach out to those who can not repay mirrors the grace has toward us in extending forgiveness or "grace - unmerited favor". We are called to reach out to those who can not return the favor. They can not add to us as we can not add to God.

Prayers and Readings

Responsive Call To Worship

L: Listen, O People of God! Do you hear it?
P: There is so much noise. It is hard to hear!
L: Listen, O Body of Christ! Can you hear his voice?
P: There is so little time. It is difficult to listen!
L: Listen for word of the Lord, O People of God. In this word there is life.
P: Open our ears and our hearts, O Lord. Give us the life that comes from your word! Amen!

A Prayer of Dedication

Receive these gifts we bring, O Lord. We wrap them in our praise to you. Enlarge our hearts to reach out with love and hope to the broken world that surrounds us. May we give ourselves to you in a way, that your Holy Spirit can make of us, an outpost of your kingdom's love. Amen.

A Prayer of Confession

O Lord God of grace and mercy, we flee to your redeeming love today. We acknowledge that we imitate the world too much, and the Lord Jesus too little. We confess that we are too often "case hardened" when we see the suffering of others. There is so much to do, we get overwhelmed. We are tempted to do little or nothing. Yet, you have decided to need us for your work. Let us hear your voice today. Grant that our hearts may be filled with your love. And at the last, give us the joy of reaching out with your strength to bring healing to a shattered world. Amen.