When Salvation Does Not Come

Rev. Sarah Buteux
September 22, 2013
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Luke 16:1-13

You can watch & listen to the sermon here or on Youtube here.

 

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

If you own a television than you know there are few things the 24 hour news cycle loves as much as a big storm. Given all the hours those folks have to fill, a good old-fashioned hurricane or blizzard must seem like a godsend.

They have the build up to the event to cover: weather reports, interviews with the locals as they buy up extra batteries and canned goods, as well as all the warnings issued by local government.

There is the event itself, with the inevitable shot of some poor weatherman standing hip deep in snow or cowering beneath a useless umbrella as he comes to you live from the storm.

And then there’s the aftermath, where countless reporters – folks who have mysteriously managed to secure a shower, hair gel, and enough power to plug in their cameras– scour the devastation for shocking footage and interviews with survivors. 

If you are lucky enough to still have a working television, you get to gawk at what Mother Nature in all her fury can do to a car, a house, a life.

You get to hear from people without power and folks who lost everything. And inevitably you hear from someone whose house, or trailer, or family was spared, “thanks be to God.”

I have to admit that I’m never comfortable with those kinds of interviews and I don’t imagine that God is either. 

At least if I were God I’d feel pretty sheepish about taking credit for saving one house in the midst of a neighborhood that just got flattened or one family in the midst of a community wracked by loss.

After all, if God has the power to turn the storms of life left or right, why does God allow the storms to come at all?

I’m not saying I’m not happy for the people who made it through; I am. Nor am I saying they are wrong to be grateful.

But the idea that it was God who spared them is problematic to say the least. There’s a dark side to that innocent and heartfelt gratitude, a shadow theology with which we all wrestle.

I mean it’s wonderful when God comes through and all. But what about when God doesn’t? What do you say when it’s your house that has come down, your job that has been lost, your cancer that has spread? Where is God then?  Where is God when:

 

“the harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved?”

Those words from Jeremiah grabbed hold of me this week, perhaps because it has been such a tough one, not just for many of you, but for the people of Washington D.C., Colorado, Syria, Kenya (if you tuned into the news last night), and for countless others the world over.

The harvest is past, the summer is ended and there are a whole lot of people out there for whom salvation is not coming, at least not in time, at least not in the form they were hoping for; and that is a hard reality with which to wrestle.

We’d like to think that with enough prayer, with enough faith, with enough good behavior and the right juju that we can get God to make it all better. But the plain truth is that God doesn’t; at least not always.

For every person with a miracle there are countless more left wanting. And I guess what I appreciate most about Jeremiah is the fact that our prophet doesn’t shy away from this reality. If I admire Jeremiah for anything, it’s his honesty.

Jeremiah, for those of you who don’t know, lived through one of the most devastating periods in Jewish history.  This book was written roughly 600 years before the birth of Christ, which, if you know your history, means that the people of Israel are about to be conquered by the Babylonians.

That is, they are about to lose everything: their temple, their culture, their country, their freedom, and far, far too many of their lives.  It is a time of tremendous suffering and desolation.

Although in this case, I think it is important to acknowledge that this suffering and desolation has not come upon them completely out of the blue.  Jeremiah has been preaching to the people for years now, warning them that something like this would happen if they didn’t repent.

For you see, the people of Israel had broken their covenant with God, and there were bound to be consequences.

You’ll remember that back in the days of Moses, God had pledged to be their God if they would be God’s people.  God had heard their cries when they were slaves in Egypt because God always hears the cries of the poor and the oppressed, and God had rescued them from bondage.

He had redeemed them from slavery and set them apart to be his people, a different kind of people: a nation that would attend to the cries of those who suffer, a nation that would protect the orphan, the widow and the foreigner in her midst, a nation that would use her power to protect the weak and the vulnerable.

But somewhere along the way something went wrong. So wrong that by the time of Jeremiah, not only were God’s people worshipping other gods besides YHWH, not only were they failing to care for the weak and the vulnerable in their own midst, they were actually sacrificing the weakest and most vulnerable among them to those other gods.

They had become so desperate for hope, prosperity, security…I don’t even know what - that they had begun to practice the cult of child sacrifice. They were burning their own children on the altars of Baal; and Jeremiah lets the people know that God is furious, God is devastated, God is utterly appalled by their behavior.[1]

They have broken their end of the covenant in the worst possible way. They are going to get what’s coming to them, says the prophet.

And then the Babylonians show up.

Now, I have to wonder: did God send the Babylonians to punish his people for their sins or were the Babylonians bound to come anyway? Would God have saved his people from their enemy if they had upheld their end of the covenant? Could God have saved his people if he had really wanted to?

I say, “I have to wonder,” because the truth is, I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. I think it’s pretty clear that Jeremiah thinks this is a big cosmic quid pro quo, but I’m not sure.

I’m not sure how God’s power works in the world or why God works in the world the way God does.

I don’t see God intervening in big, spectacular, miraculous ways all that often, and I definitely don’t see him circumventing the laws of nature to even the scales of justice and ensure that all the bad people in the world get what’s coming to them.

But that’s not the same thing as saying that I don’t see God at work; that I don’t see and feel God’s presence all around me.  The truth is that I see God everywhere, and what’s so amazing about this passage from Jeremiah is that he does too.

God might not have stepped in to save his people, but that doesn’t mean that God abandoned them.

God did not protect Israel. It is true. God did not appear at the 11th hour to save the day. God did not even preserve the temple. God went ahead and allowed his people to reap the suffering they had sown.

And yet….and yet….here is the strange thing about God, this God, our God.

God stayed.

God let the whole nation go to hell… and God went with them. By all rights, God should have turned his back, walked away, found a new people.

But God doesn’t leave.

Instead, God hovers over his “poor people.” God weeps over those who have been lost. God stays, amidst the sorrow, the betrayal, and the pain, in the hopes that Israel might yet turn back and someday be gathered into a new covenant.[2]

God might have given them over, but God never gives up - not completely, not entirely.  The Lord might not always protect us from the consequences of our bad behavior, but God does not wholly abandon us to those consequences either. God stays.

And so here is my thought for today about evil and suffering. Here is my thought for today about where God is to be found when “the harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”

I’m thinking that if God stayed with Israel after all she had done wrong, then God stays with us too, no mater what.

I’m thinking that if God hunkers down with those of us who deserve the worst even and in the midst of our suffering, then how much more so is God with those of us who are suffering whether we deserve it or not?

I don’t know why God does not protect us from pain. Maybe he can’t. All I know is that God is not afraid to enter into it with us. God stayed with his people. He stayed with them through the exile, through their return, and all through the rebuilding of the temple.

God remained in solidarity with his people regardless of what they deserved. God upheld his end of the covenant even when they broke it, so much so that God eventually took on flesh and blood the better to be close to them.

God entered into our living and our dying our joy and our suffering as fully and completely as God could in the form of Jesus. In fact, I think it’s in Jesus that we finally see, once and for all, how God’s power really works in the world.

It is not a power over. It is not a power that demands its own way. It is not a power that punishes those who do wrong while defending those who are right.

Some would say it is not really power at all, and maybe that’s ok.

Maybe in the end that is actually better.

We might want a God who can come down and make everything all right.

Instead we have a God who came down and lived what is right.  We might want a God who will take away all our suffering. Instead, we have a God who lived in solidarity with the suffering.[3]

We might want an almighty, all powerful deity with a backpack full of thunderbolts, but what we have instead is a God who came among us poor and powerless, a God who loved us enough to die for us in the hopes that we might finally see that power is not the answer;

love is

and always will be.

And so that is what God holds out to us, and showers over us, and never withholds from us: no matter what the season, no matter what the hurt, no matter what we have done or failed to do… no matter what.

God stays.

God remains.

And God is love.

Amen.

 


[1] my people have “filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places to Baal to burn their children in the fire as …offerings…which I did not command or decree,” says the Lord, “nor did it (ever even) enter my mind” (19:4-5).

[2] Jeremiah 31:31-34

[3] “a man of sorrows acquainted with grief” Isaiah 53:3