by David Baer, November 23, 2014
Text: Jeremiah 1:4-10,7:1-11
Rest is a precious commodity for me right now. With a two-month-old baby at home, I don’t generally get to sleep through the whole night. Our son is usually pretty good about going back to sleep after a feeding, but last Tuesday he decided to try out the rock star lifestyle with some late night partying, so I was up from 12:30 to 2:30 in the morning with a baby who did not want to sleep nearly as much as I did. And so when 7 AM came along and it was time for our daughter to get breakfast and get ready for school and my wife offered to do all the morning prep I usually do so I could sleep in another hour, I was deliriously happy. It felt like winning the lottery, honestly. When you’re tired and desperate for rest, you’ll jump at the chance for just a little bit of relief.
Rest is a precious commodity for most of us, isn’t it? Whether you’re ferrying your busy kids from school to soccer to dance to karate, or you’re picking up the slack for work colleagues who have left and haven’t been replaced, or you’re trying to keep track of a calendar full of appointments, you probably jump at the chance for a little bit of rest, a little bit of relief wherever you can find it. And it doesn’t help that hovering in the background is a hostile political climate that seems to be creeping more and more into everyday life, or that other stressed and anxious people around us are less inclined to patience and generosity of spirit than we might hope or expect. Where do tired and harried and hassled people like us go to find rest?
When you’re feeling burdened and exhausted, you tend to think of rest in negative terms. Rest means not feeling tired. Rest means being able to put down the burdens I carry for a few moments. It means I am so, so grateful for an hour to sleep in, before I jump into my responsibilities as a father and a pastor. Rest means not doing the things that tire me out. It means shutting them out for a while so that I can recover. Sometimes it means a temporary escape, an hour or two of television after the kids are asleep. And maybe that’s part of what brings us to church, too. We come to hear stories about ancient promises and future hopes to carry us out of our exhausting present. We come out of a wearying life of horizontal relationships with work and kids and activity, and into an hour of vertically oriented time, where we can be in touch with God. We set all that other stuff aside so that we can come here to rest.
But can that kind of rest transform us? Is the best we can hope for the rest of a boxer in his corner, a temporary respite before we throw ourselves back into the ring to be battered and bruised some more? Or is there a deeper, more lasting rest to be found in our relationship with God?
If you think your days are stressful, the people of ancient Jerusalem, the people who heard Jeremiah’s words, had it far worse. Their kingdom and their city were under threat, this time from the Babylonian Empire, which was busy gobbling up the remains of the Assyrian Empire we heard about last week, the last great power to threaten God’s people. They came to the Temple looking for a word of assurance, a word of comfort, a word of rest. What they got was the word of the Lord, spoken by the prophet Jeremiah.
Jeremiah stands in the courtyard of the Temple. He’s not authorized to preach there by any religious officials. He’s an interloper, an unwelcome intruder into the place of worship. And he addresses the worshipers: “Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, all you that enter these gates to worship the Lord! Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel—Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place.” You can predict the reaction he’s going to get, can’t you? You can guess what those tired, weary worshipers are going to say. “Jeremiah, honestly, can’t you find anything uplifting to say? This is the Temple of the Lord! This is church! We’re not supposed to feel bad or uncomfortable here. This is the Temple of the Lord! It’s where we come to feel close to God, to remember God’s promise to be with us always. This is the Temple of the Lord, for crying out loud! As long as we’re here, we’re safe, we’re secure, and we ought to be at peace.” But Jeremiah anticipates this criticism: “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’” God’s promise to be with the people, to live among them and to protect them from their enemies, is not a promise made without expectation. God gave them a way of life that would let them flourish. God marked out a pathway for them to follow, and now that they’re lost, now that they’re stumbling off the trail into crevices and getting hurt, God calls them back to the path. Amend your words and your deeds, God says. Do justice. Don’t oppress the vulnerable people in your midst—the foreigner and the orphan and the widow. Don’t shed innocent blood. But here’s what I see you doing: you commit theft, murder, adultery, give false witness, worship other gods, and then you come to this Temple and say, “We’re safe here.” And then you go right back out there, nothing changes, and you keep on doing the same harmful things over and over. What do you think this is, some kind of robbers’ hideout, like Ali Baba’s cave? Do you treat the Temple like a lair you can retreat to after you commit your crimes? Know this, God says: you’re not hiding anything from me. I can see what you’re doing.
These are some harsh words. So it’s no surprise that the Temple priests, together with the official prophets, hauled Jeremiah to court and demanded his execution. The same thing happened to Jesus when he quoted Jeremiah’s “den of robbers” speech in the Temple. (Jesus was crucified, but as it happens, Jeremiah lived.) No one likes having their sanctuary disrupted.
But if you listen carefully, there’s not only judgment, but a promise from God in Jeremiah’s words. God says, “Shape up, and let me dwell with you in this place.” God wants to be at home among the people! God wants to live with us. But it’s not enough just to have a building or a room where we pray to God, where we seek God’s presence. If worship is going to be a place where God is welcomed, where God feels at home, then every last corner of our life has to honor God as well. The reason God is so passionate, so forceful in delivering this warning is because God is so passionate for us, because God so wants to be near us and among us. Because God wants something more for us than just a temporary respite from the stresses and strains of daily life. God wants to give us more than just rest. God wants to awaken a new kind of life in us. What God wants for us is not rest but resurrection.
What does that look like? This past week I was with some colleagues as we participated remotely in a Christian leadership conference held in Washington, DC. One of the speakers was a woman named Jo Saxton, who talked about something she did with some of the members of her church in Minnesota. They went out into the Mall of America, which is a massive shopping mall with an amusement park inside of it. And they went around looking for anyone who might give them eye contact, and they told these folks, “We’re Christians, and we don’t want anything from you except to ask whether there’s anything we can pray about for you.” And people really did open up to them. They heard stories of people struggling with their relationships, scared and anxious about facing cancer, all kinds of hurts and fears. The take-away message for me was that everywhere we go, there are folks who are struggling under the weight of heavy burdens that we can’t see, and that you can do them a tremendous service just by reaching out with kindness, by listening, by offering them a space to connect with another person and with God.
I’m not suggesting you go and try this at Garden State Plaza. If your life is tiring enough to leave you wanting something more, then there are plenty of people who come your way already, without you having to go seek them out. Try this… when your life for whatever reason keeps you away from this sanctuary on Sunday morning, ask yourself, “How can I worship, how can I honor God… on the soccer sidelines… at a family gathering… from a hospital bed?” And when you are here on a Sunday, try this: ask yourself, “How does what I’m doing and hearing here change the way I move through the other 167 hours of the week?”
What we do here—praising God, telling and retelling the stories, asking for and receiving forgiveness, offering our gifts and ourselves, having God’s promises sealed in our bodies through water, bread, and wine—this isn’t meant to be an escape, a respite, a time-out from the rest of life. It’s meant to be a time of renewal, sure, but also preparation, training, transformation for living all of our life in a different way, a way that carries the desire to worship God, to be connected with God, to be about God’s business into daily living. “Let me dwell with you,” says God. “Offer me your Sunday and your weekdays; look for me in worship and the workplace; honor me in the sanctuary and at the soccer field. Let me dwell with you, not in a distant heaven, not somewhere that exists apart from life, but let me dwell with you in this place. Let me dwell with you.” Amen.