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Beatitudes of Jeremiah

This is the sermon I preached last Sunday, Feb. 17 at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The scripture text was Jeremiah 17:5-10


Life is full of good and trouble, blessings and woes. It’s just the way things are. We rejoice in the bouquet of beautiful flowers sent to make us feel better when we’re sick but oh when that doctor’s bill comes. We enjoy a delicious hamburger cooked to perfection but then it comes with stale French fries. And there are many other, more serious dichotomies that we face daily. 

Today’s reading from Jeremiah compares two ways of living life: the way that is cursed (vv. 5-6) and the way that is blessed (vv. 7-8) and then Jeremiah wraps it all up with a reflection on the human heart (vv. 9-10). The main theme throughout is trust—what do you trust in, how do you know what to trust in and what in the end proves to be reliable? The curses and the blessings set up contrasts to develop the theme of trust, each section beginning with a direct statement about trust. 

In the way that is cursed, Jeremiah compares a shrub in the desert to a tree by the water. In the desert, shrubs grow low to the ground, struggling to survive. Their roots are close to the surface, grasping at any moisture that comes close. The shrub is so withered it cannot see the good. Those whose hearts are turned away from God are like those shrubs. Those who experience the curses have lives that resemble the shrub—no way to grow or thrive, alone in a parched wilderness. They are hopeless, barren and lonely. Trusting in the flesh is fruitless. This does not mean that those receiving God’s curses necessarily look like it. They may seem like good people and may seem very prosperous and blessed, but their trust is in others, not in God. 

Once while visiting a distant, rural village in the West Bank, one of our Palestinian friends showed us what he and his family considered to be the rich and fertile earth on their land. He took a handful of the dirt to proudly show us. However, to us, it seemed most unimpressive. It was hard to understand how anything could grow there. But as we discovered, there was a spring in the village.

Now we come to the way that is blessed. Blessings are for those whose hearts are turned toward God. These people are compared to luxuriant, lush, healthy trees, growing close to the river. They are green and perpetually bearing fruit because their roots run deep and find water no matter how dry it is. Such trees are so strong that they don’t fear the heat. Trees reach down and up—sending roots through the ground and trunks and branches up to the sky. They are simultaneously grounded and growing, stationary and on the move. They stretch, reach and seek what gives them life—water, soil and sun (Lauren Dow Wegner). Trusting in the Lord gives us life. 

So, when all is said and done, if it is such a blessing to trust in God, we may wonder why more people depend so much on others? And why aren’t the blessed more numerous than the cursed? The answer is the condition of the human heart. 

Jeremiah’s reflection on the human heart begins with a rhetorical question which is answered by God in the final verse. “Heart” is the catchword that links the two poems in today’s Old Testament reading. It occurs in the opening line of the reading and then in the final section. Heart signifies the total inner being, including reason. From it comes action and will. The heart represents all efforts by individuals to place themselves at the center of things, even as we camouflage our selfishness with false words and deceptive deeds intended to convey our selflessness. No wonder Jeremiah began this part of the reading with “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse” (v. 9).

Jeremiah raises the question of personal motivation when it comes to receiving God’s blessing. This motivation can be attributed to the state of the heart. The heart turned away from God is incapable of such motivation, no matter how good we may look. God and only God reads the heart, understanding who we are. Thankfully, God does not turn away from us, no matter how much we mess up. The change in the state of our hearts can only come from God’s grace. In baptism, our hearts are washed clean and we are made new. We receive a spiritual heart transplant.

Today’s texts invite us to examine ourselves and to coordinate our trust in God with our daily lives. They portray human well-being as a result of trust in God and human misery as a result of misplaced allegiances. But what about the times when our trust in God doesn’t feel fruitful but rather leaves us feeling empty, like the desert shrub? Aren’t we trusting in God enough?

Even in our gospel reading, there is no sign that the present painful reality disappears like magic, even for those in Jesus’ presence hearing his words. The gifts of life and joy will come, but maybe not today. 

We may be seeking to strengthen our relationship with God. We may be doing the right things. Our heart may be turned toward God and yet…our world falls apart. The single hardest time I have ever gone through was when my first marriage was falling apart. I couldn’t make sense of it. I was a Christian and he was a Christian and I thought I knew God’s feelings about divorce. So…my then-husband didn’t want to be married anymore, but certainly, if I prayed according to God’s will, then God would hear and answer my prayers and would change my husband. After all, God brought us together so it must be God’s will to keep us together…right? I did so much crying during that time that  I’m surprised I didn’t become dehydrated. 

God knew better—isn’t that a shocker? Had I still been in that marriage, I would not have finished college, gone to seminary and I certainly wouldn’t be here with you. I’m glad I’m here. Even in the midst of the most painful horror of our lives, God is there and God will work things together for good, even if we cannot see it at the time.

The green, fruit-bearing tree represents our hope and future—the tree that does not fear when heat comes and has leaves that stay green. Even in the dark and dry times, the tree of our lives will grow. Even when everything around it tries to steal its life, the tree won’t die. In God’s care, it will live and so will we. 

When our present reality is hard and dry and dark, it’s difficult to trust in the future, that our situation will ever be different. This is where we must deliberately turn our hearts to God. It is not in the future itself that we trust, but it is in the God of that future that we trust. 

God knows we can’t trust in ourselves. We trust in the God who blesses us and accompanies us through our troubled present and leads us to a future of hope. In our despair, we hope in the phrase shall be that is promised by the God who holds the past, present and future—who knows intimately the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated, the excluded, the outsider. This God is reliable; a God who keeps promises and who has so much more in store for us. As Paul wrote in Ephesians, “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20) and quoting the Old Testament Paul also wrote, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). God has good and wonderful things in store for us. 

There are some questions I’d like you to think about this week:

Do I trust in God or do I strive to do it all myself?
Does my daily life show hope in an all-powerful God or do I trust God when it is convenient and when I know what the outcome will be?
And the last one: Does God require me to change my life to follow God more closely, to more clearly show the world that my trust is in God and not the people of this world?

Let me know what you discover. I’ll ask you next week. I have printed them out for you and they’re in the narthex. 

As in Jesus’ beatitudes, Jeremiah lets us in on how the world is really wired and how to experience true joy by aligning our lives with what is really real and lasting. We are presented with the choice of living wisely and joyfully or living a lifestyle destined for frustration and isolation from the sources of true joy in life, eventually causing us to become like a “barren bush in the desert.”

God has washed us with the water of new life in baptism and today our risen Lord stands among us in the mystery of the holy supper—feeding us and giving us drink—inviting us to live in him and his power to heal us all. 

As God’s beloved people, be like that mighty tree, with its roots going deep into the earth, never having anything to fear. God sees our heart, holds us close and never lets us go.

Now to him who is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.

Amen.

Resources
Stephen L. Cook, biblische.blogspot.com
Charles E. Feinberg, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Volume 6
John D. Newsome, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year C
Lauren Dow Wegner, christiancentury.org
Linda Whitmer, asmweb.org

































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