Would the real God please stand up?
Sounds like a line from an old TV quiz show, doesn’t it? But it’s a good question because the Bible can be quite confusing as to what kind of God we have.
In the Gospel reading today we saw Jesus being accused by the Pharisees and scribes of welcoming sinners and eating with them (guilty as charged!), he tells them that God is like a shepherd who tends a flock of a hundred sheep. One is lost. Leaving the other ninety-nine (in the wilderness, no less), the shepherd goes off after the one. When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. He returns home, calls in all his friends and neighbours, and has a party. “Rejoice with me,” he says, “for I have found my sheep that was lost.”
Then Jesus says that God is like a woman who has ten silver coins. When she loses one of them, she turns over heaven and earth to locate it. Well, she turns over the furniture anyway. Looks high and low. And when she finds it, she reacts as did the shepherd. She calls in the neighbours and has a party.
A sheep and a coin. How about a person? Though we didn’t read it, the famous parable of the prodigal son follows. A sheep, a coin, a man. All lost, then found. Parties and rejoicing take place because the kingdom of heaven is deliriously joyful when a sinner comes to repentance. What a wonderful place it must be. What a wonderful God to take such interest in just one sinner who is lost and then found.
What a wonderful picture it is of God indeed, a loving God who welcomes his children back into the heavenly fold… a God who does not hold the sins of his human creation against them.
But that’s hardly the picture we get of God in the fourth chapter of Jeremiah. This time, God is portrayed not as a dutiful shepherd or persistent housewife or loving father. God is revealed as a hot and horrible wind. It will come sweeping down from the bare heights, which means it will have nothing to impede it or slow it down. It will hit with its full force and leave nothing but destruction in its path.
Have you noticed that a good thunderstorm will clear out the sky and bring in cooler, drier air? The morning sky is particularly blue after a storm has come through the evening before. Sometimes a storm is cleansing.
The storm Jeremiah describes is neither a thunderstorm nor a pleasant breeze. That part of the world is subject to what are called the sirocco winds that sweep down from the Sahara Desert. The meteorologists would tell you they are caused by surface and upper-level depressions moving eastward across the southern Mediterranean Sea or northern Africa, producing hot, dry, and dusty conditions.
But that’s not what Jeremiah would say. The prophet would tell you it is a hot and devastating cyclone that takes no prisoners. Jeremiah would tell you it is the vengeance of God. The purpose of this storm is “…not to winnow or cleanse,” says the prophet. This is wind “too strong for that.” This wind is designed for one thing and one thing only… to destroy.
This is how bad it will get… The earth will look as it did before the creation. It will be waste and void. There will be no stars in the sky. The mountains will shake at the knees like a frightened child. And no birds will fly in the air.
During the 1970’s I lived in north Germany near Hannover. It was a short drive to the Celle and Fallingbostel area where I and some colleagues visited the place where there had been a concentration camp – Bergen-Belsen. It was a very sober and moving experience. The camp no longer exists, having been raised to the ground by the British and Canadian troops who had liberated it. There are however several memorials and an exhibition. The countryside is of rolling green grass fields without a single tree. The atmosphere is very still and quiet as it was following the raising of the camp when soldiers commented on the lack of bird song, indeed the complete absence of birds. And, it is said that to this very day no bird flies in the skies over Belsen.
Such is the land of Judah. “All the birds of the air had fled.” “I looked,” says the prophet, “and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.”
So let me ask you: which God would you opt for? Jesus’ God or Jeremiah’s? The God who goes searching after one lost sinner, or the God who lays waste to the land and all living things?
Will the real God please stand up?
Before you jump to the quick and obvious answer, however, consider another thing. Try to put yourselves in the place of the scribes and Pharisees to whom Jesus is telling these stories. Though it had been some 600 years since the days of the prophet Jeremiah, his message is still as real to them as our evening news is to us. They are as aware as anyone of what their ancestors had gone through to bring them to this place. They had endured the enslavement at the hands of the Egyptians, the wilderness wanderings, the exiles (not just once but twice). They knew that for a while those who had come before them had done what was right and good in the eyes of God, but they were very much aware of the other side of the story as well… how their fathers and mothers had done what was evil in the sight of the Lord.
“For my people are foolish,” God said to Jeremiah. “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.”
The scribes and Pharisees know this passage from Jeremiah. They remember all that happened in the days of Jeremiah and are doing everything possible to see that it doesn’t occur again. Even in a place and time in which they are occupied by the hated Romans, they will keep their religion alive. They will not go after false gods. In fact, they will mark time until the day comes that God will redeem his people from the hands of those who would lord it over them. “The day of the Lord,” they call it. But until that day, they will be faithful to their God and will not walk in evil as did those who came before them. They’ve been down that road before and they’ll never go there again.
And then this Jesus comes along and keeps company with those who laugh at their way of life. He throws forgiveness around like sweeties, and tells stories like these that draw the picture of a God who seems to forgive sinners at a whim. He welcomes sinners and eats with them. He spends time with those who, in their way of looking at it, oppose the will of God. If Jesus were to have his way, their way of life would soon be destroyed and the hot wind of God would blow down from the bare heights once again.
The scribes and Pharisees are essentially good people. They just don’t want Jesus, or anybody else, telling them to get lost, to go back to the way their ancestors had behaved. Their main goal in opposing Jesus, in addition to a desire to maintain the status quo, is to ensure that God’s hot and destructive wind doesn’t come sweeping down from the bare heights again. They’ve had enough of that kind of judgment. If judgment is to come, they want it to come to others, specifically to the Romans. The occupiers deserve the vengeance of God for what they’ve done to the people of God.
And now, Jesus has come along, and with his stories of the kingdom, and has essentially told them to get lost. According to him, it is the only way to redemption.
But they’ll have nothing to do with him or his message. They have too much to lose. They’ve been down that road before, and the last thing they want to do is risk the judgment of God. All they have to do is invoke the image of Jeremiah to know just how terrible the judgment of God can be.
The message – the awful message – from Jeremiah is that redemption is not ours in the first place. And it’s the same message from Jesus, except it is delivered in seemingly more caring terms. Judgment and redemption are the sole possession of God. God will choose how and where and when redemption takes place.
So, which God do you prefer? Jeremiah’s God or Jesus’ God?
Well, God has not changed his nature between the Old Testament and the New. It’s just that the message has changed. Or rather, the Messenger has changed. And the message is that there is no situation – despite how bleak it may appear to be – that God does not stand ready to redeem it.
And that is why, as long as there is God, there is hope. Even when the earth looks as if creation never occurred… even when the stars cannot be seen in the heavens… even when the mountains shake so hard they are about to fall down… even when the birds refuse to fly in the sky. How can there be hope in times like that? Because our God is a seeking God who will not let us go.
There is one phrase in Jeremiah’s terrible vision which holds out the tiniest flicker of hope. “Thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.” Like Isaiah’s tiny sprig growing out of the side of the tree stump, even in the worst of times God comes to us with hope.
Just ask Cleopas and his companion. Remember them? They live in Emmaus. It’s a Sunday afternoon and they are walking slowly from Jerusalem to their home about seven miles away. Their heads hang low because of what has just occurred in the Holy City. Their friend, their Lord, their Saviour and Master has been crucified.
They talk quietly with one another as they walk. A mighty wind has come down from the bare heights, and because of it their world has become waste and void, the stars cannot be seen in the heavens, the mountains are shaking at the knees, and there’s not a bird in the sky. Their world has become as desolate as Jeremiah’s.
A stranger comes up and joins them. When he asks about the nature of their conversation, they are astounded that he has not heard about “Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.” These events are so huge to them, they don’t think there’s a person in the world who has not heard of what has happened.
And then, using the past tense, Cleopas says, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel…” “We had hoped…” For Cleopas, hope is gone, a thing of the past, never to be seen again. Do you suppose Jeremiah felt the same way?
In Jesus Christ there is always hope. And this is why…
The One who comes searching for us in the midst of the rubble is known to us, not by his power and might and strength, but by his scars. And when he says that God will come looking for us, we can count on it.
When we need a God to stand up for us, that’s the One we have. And this God will do more than just stand up. This God will come looking for us to bring us home.
Let us pray.
Lord, come looking for us, even and especially in our despair. Help us to know that judgment is not the final word, but that in hope we will find redemption. For us, may hope be another name for Jesus, for it is in his name we pray,