6th Sunday after the Epiphany
February 17, 2019
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you all in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. The text that we will consider for the sermon is the First Lesson from Jeremiah 17.
My dear friends in Christ Jesus,
Wait a second. You will have to bear with me for one minute. You see, I’ve been losing weight and not eating much and I am REALLY hungry. I kind of thought this might happen, so I brought a fortune cookie from home to keep my strength up so hang on. Oh look, here’s my fortune for today – “Success and wealth are in your future.” Boy, is that a great fortune or what! Man, am I ever lucky! Not everyone has success coming their way in the future, but I do. The cookie says so; the cookie has spoken!
What does that mean…to be successful? And just how does one get successful anyway? There’s lots of stuff on-line that’s available. You can order the “innertalk” CDs ($150) and they will subliminally create success messages in your head to alter body image, relationships, parenting skills as you walk the fine line between love and fear as a parent, improve your finances, and so on. Or one can log-on for “paid online training to re-program your subconscious to help you reach the highest levels of your creative potential and tap into the deepest wisdom within you.” You can dress for success, take classes for success, download apps designed for success, or hire motivational speakers who would be happy to come and speak about unleashing unlimited but untapped internal power to be successful. I think I’ll stick with the cookie.
We live in a country where self-help towards success isn’t just a multi-billion dollar industry, but it is a “creed;” an underlying driving motivation for American existence. Being successful is American, and if you cannot do it, find someone who can help you be successful. Don’t kid yourself; ALL self-help gurus would have us all believe that we have unlimited abilities and capabilities to be more successful than we ever dreamed and they can help you achieve that…for a nominal fee, of course. However, in today’s Old Testament lesson, the prophet Jeremiah blasts a gapping hole in the self-help industry.
Jeremiah was a prophet of God who was active from 628-580 BC. This was a time of deep, emotional crisis for Israel. Isaiah, who we heard from last week, served as a prophet during a time of great prosperity, but Jeremiah was sent during great turmoil. The Assyrians were smashing and destroying the Northern Kingdom and not too far behind them would come the Babylonians. In chapter 17, Jeremiah, in the face of certain doom, told the people that when it came to success, they only had two options: they were either shrubs or trees. They were either cursed or blessed. They either trusted in themselves, or they trusted in God.
Jeremiah pointed out that the people wrongly put their trust in their own flesh. They trusted in their own abilities, their own capabilities, their own might. Their hope and trust was in their fortresses, their political alliances, their city walls. They trusted in human things; they trusted in things created by the weak arm of human flesh. They had turned their backs on Yahweh, the God of Israel, and instead sought to protect themselves through their own means, which wasn’t working too good. Jeremiah compared these people to being like a shrubs out in the desert. A desert existence is never a good thing for long periods of time. There’s no water. It’s hot. There’s no protection from the elements…sounds like a typical south Florida summer day.
What about today’s world? We don’t have the Assyrian or Babylonian armies breathing down our necks, but the dryness is still severe and just as difficult. Today the droughts of unsure politics, fragile social peace, immigration issues, an addiction and substance abuse epidemic, and sin in general turns our American lives into barren deserts. When tough times come, the “shrubs” of this world also dry up and blow away for they are “cursed” based on what God’s Word has to say. Oh, but they will try and help themselves through these times! Self-preservation mode kicks in and grasping for success becomes critical. If they just use their own unlimited potential they can be truly happy…just ask the cookie!
The problem is that the cursed shrubs of this world have no real strength. They have no direction to turn towards – nothing to cling to – when the hot, dry desert winds blow. They are hopeless and helpless in an empty sinful life in which they are always seeking further success or anything that relieves the spiritual thirst that they feel apart from a relationship with Christ.
But there is another side. There are also the trees of this world, the trees being planted by life-giving water, just like it says in Psalm 1. The people of Jeremiah’s day who trusted not in themselves even as they saw their everyday lives falling apart around them but trusted in God held to a promise of something better…far better…which was yet to come.
Jeremiah said, “Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord.” Blessed is the one who is not self-reliant, but who relies on the true God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Additionally, in our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus provides even greater insight into the one who is truly blessed, and it’s radically counter-cultural…almost un-American! It is not the one who is rich or well fed or the most popular. Instead, Jesus turns the tables and tells us it is the poor, the hungry, those who mourn, those who are hated, those who suffer, those who are rejected. They are the ones who are blessed maybe not in the eyes of the world, but blessed in the eyes of God.
And how are we blessed? We are blessed not because of our positions, power, property, prosperity, or politics. We are blessed by virtue of our faith in Christ Jesus. We are blessed by his fulfilling of God’s lawful demands on our behalf. By our faith in Christ, not by the works of our hands, we are blessed. In fact, it was his hands that blessed us: hands that blessed bread and wine and gave it to the disciples as Body and Blood, hands that healed the sick and the lame and forgave the sinner, hands that prayed earnestly for us, hands that were nailed to a cross for us. Those are truly acts of real help; NO self-help guru is willing to die for you…but Jesus was.
Don’t be a shrub; be a tree. The difference? The difference is its proximity to life-giving water. The cursed shrub relies on its own strength and capabilities to survive, but eventually it withers and dies. The blessed tree seeks life outside of itself and finds life in Christ. Blessed is the one who clings to the arm of faith, the strong arm of Jesus Christ who will never let you go no matter how strong the wind blows or the seas rage in this life. His arms were strong enough to carry the sins of the whole world. He is our strength and our support…no matter what any fortune cookie might proclaim otherwise.
Speaking of cookies, I’m still hungry; anyone got another fortune cookie on them? No? Okay. Then, I guess…