This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/1/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Jeremiah 2:4-13; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; and Luke 14:1, 7-14. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)
I’m an ambitious person. I love the feeling of accomplishing big tasks. I like my work to be impressive. And I like getting things done fast.
I want to feel strong. Self-sufficient. I want to feel like I control my own life. I want to make my own choices, and not have anyone telling me what to do.
So our scripture readings this morning speak to me. They speak to my condition. They challenge me, in my ambition, my independence, my pride.
In all of these passages – The words of God through Jeremiah. The instructions from the last chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews. The words of Jesus passed along to us from the apostle Luke – In all of these passages, I hear God saying to us, his people: Stop trying so hard. Stop trying to get ahead. Don’t depend on your own efforts. Surrender, and acknowledge that I am God. I am in control.
It turns out that the good news of Jesus – the good news of the God of the Old Testament and the New – is not that we are going to be successful. It’s that God’s power is unlimited.
It’s not that we’re going to do great things for God, it’s that God can do great things in us.
The gospel of the kingdom is not that we ourselves will be strong, but that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. In the quotidian. The daily. The unnoticed. In the patient endurance of ordinary men and women, who make the daily decision to walk in the way of God’s love and justice.
This is the message that God is trying to get across to his people through the prophet Jeremiah, who spoke God’s words to Israel in the years leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity. God’s message through Jeremiah is, “Why have you abandoned me and gone off to chase after your own way? How can you imagine that all these false gods – all your projects, all your designs, all the things you worship instead of me – what made you think that they would fulfill you?”
By abandoning God, by rejecting his leadership, by going their own way and seeking to be independent, the people of Israel were destroying the good things that God had done for them. God says,
I brought you into a plentiful land
to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land,
and made my heritage an abomination.
The people of Israel have abandoned the kingdom of God. They’ve chosen injustice and empire. They’ve chosen to worship false gods and exploit the poor and vulnerable. And on top of all this, they’re discovering that they’re more desperate and out-of-control than ever. They never seem to stop eating, but they’re always hungry.
All the ways that Israel has sought to impose its own system of control. The foreign alliances and trade deals. The concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. The exaltation of the king in Jerusalem. The running after foreign gods who seemed more exotic and powerful than the God of Exodus – none of these things have satisfied. The people of Israel are thirstier than ever before.
But my people have changed their glory
for something that does not profit.
Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
be shocked, be utterly desolate,
says the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
that can hold no water.
The people of Israel thought they were trading up. Getting more power, more wealth, more control. They thought they would do better for themselves than God ever could. They would guarantee their own prosperity.
But that’s not how it turned out. The wages of self-will are ruin. Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. The people of Israel got ambitious. They got independent-minded. They got arrogant. And all it got them was Jerusalem laid waste, the temple destroyed, and seventy years in captivity far from home.
Fast forward six hundred years to the ministry of Jesus. Luke tells us about a time that Jesus was eating in the home of a leader of the Pharisees on the sabbath. And after breaking the rules by healing a man on the day of rest, Jesus tells a parable about a dinner party.
If you’re invited to a wedding, and it comes time to eat dinner, Jesus advises against rushing to sit down at the head table. Because it might happen that the bride and groom have a close friend who they want to be seated in the place of honor. How embarrassing would it be to have your hosts ask – in front of everybody – you to move to another table, so that someone more important can take your place!
Instead, Jesus says, you’ll do better to sit way in the back, far from the action. Take the least important seat. Because if you do that, maybe you’ll have to squint to see the bride and groom. But if you’re really someone so important, your hosts will come and find you. They’ll invite you to move to a place of greater prominence. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
But what if you’re the one throwing the party? What if you’re the bride or the groom? Jesus has some words about that, too. Again, don’t be so full of yourselves!
The normal thing to do when you’re throwing a party is to invite all your friends. If you’re feeling really ambitious, you can invite people who you don’t know super well, but who are important in one way or another. They’re well-connected, or rich, or charming, or have some other outstanding trait that makes them worth inviting. These are people who can pay you back in the future.
Jesus’ advice for throwing a party is the total opposite. He says:
When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
I don’t know about you, but I want to do big things and go places. I want to run in important circles and be recognized. But Jesus says, spend your time with those who can’t do anything for you, and you will be blessed. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
Recognize that God is in control. Drop your attempts to control other people. Stop trying to provide your own status and security. In the kingdom of God, real security comes through total dependence on God.
I love the Letter to the Hebrews. I love how ferverous the preacher is. He gets so into it. I mean, just listen to these lines from chapter 12, the part of the letter that comes right before the section we read aloud this morning:
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!
Does that get to you? Can you hear the preacher getting so intense, speaking to us about the ineffable glory of God – his power, his majesty, his righteousness? The author of Hebrews invites us to imagine ourselves as we truly are when we assemble in the name of Jesus – we are come to Mount Zion… to innumerable angels in festal gathering. Wow!
The author of Hebrews is all about the big picture. He’s all about the glory and power that has been unleashed in the heavenly realms thanks to the ministry, sacrifice, and resurrection of Jesus. There are parts of Hebrews that are riotous in their exuberance and passion. The preacher invites us to ascend into the heavenlies and walk into the holy-of-holies with Jesus.
So I think it’s so important that before the letter ends, Hebrews brings us back to earth and calls us to practical application. We have seen the majesty and the glory. We’ve seen the innumerable angels in festal gathering – so what does that mean for us, mere mortals that we are?
Here’s some of the advice we get:
Keep loving one another.
- Show hospitality to strangers.
- Visit those in prison, and those who are being tortured. (And we know lots of people are in prison and being tortured right now.)
- Honor marriage and practice your sexuality in ways that glorify God and bring honor to Jesus.
- Keep your lives free of the love of money. Be content with what you have, because God will always care for you.
- Respect and imitate your leaders, those who have taught you in the way of Jesus.
- Praise God. Honor him with your words and your actions.
- Share with others. This is the sacrifice that most pleases God.
This is challenging advice. These aren’t easy things to do, especially not consistently, as a community. But these aren’t wild instructions, either. The author of Hebrews doesn’t tell us to solve climate change – though undoubtedly we need to be part of that struggle. He doesn’t tell us to restore good governance to our nation – though that’s so important. The letter to the Hebrews doesn’t conclude by giving us any grand mission.
Instead, it sounds like Jesus, doesn’t it? Love one another. Help those who are in trouble and need a place to stay. Don’t be ruled by money or sex or jealousy, but honor God with your lives.
These aren’t instructions that ambitious, independent people like me want to hear. It’s not about instant gratification or quick success. It’s not about victory at all – not in the way the world understands it. It’s about what the apostle John calls “the patient endurance of the saints.”
It’s a faith like that crabgrass you can’t get rid of, even with roundup. The grass that keeps coming back until the concrete of the sidewalk breaks down. It’s that daily faithfulness that often goes unnoticed. Not flashy, but over the course of years, and decades, and centuries, it has the power to break down empires.
“Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus.”
Not big things. Nothing spectacular. But faithfulness. Little by little. Every day. Becoming channels of God’s love for those around us. “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”
Let go of those broken cisterns that you’ve built for yourselves. All the ways that you seek to be in control, independent of God and other people. Surrender. Acknowledge your own need of God, your daily dependence on his life, power, and spirit. Come to the fountain of living water.