Tearing Down, Building Up 11th Pentecost
Jeremiah 1:4-10 Psalm 71:1-6 Luke 13:10-17
I once read a story about a father who had given his little daughter a necklace full of fake pearls—just play jewelry. She LOVED that necklace, and wore it very frequently. When she got just a little older, he bought a REAL pearl necklace for her—but he didn’t give it to her right away. He wanted to try something unusual. When he was tucking her into bed, he asked her if she would be willing to give back to him the costume necklace. (In his pocket, he had the pearl necklace ready to give to her.) Night after night, he asked her for the fake one, ready to give her the REAL one—and she just couldn’t part with it. But there came a night when the girl realized that her father loved her and always cared about what was BEST for her—and she said “Yes” when he asked if she would give back the old necklace. When she released it into his hand, he pulled out the necklace made of real pearls—shining and glowing in the dim light of her room. And, of course, she was absolutely delighted with it!
The father, meanwhile, was also delighted to see that his daughter was able to trust him with something so precious as her necklace…willing to trust his love and goodness enough to release her hold on something she loved.
This story reminds me of what God is always doing with his children:
- Encouraging us to let go of our grubby little “treasures” so that our hands are empty enough to receive the real treasures God has for us;
- Tearing down stuff that stands in the way of what God wants to build for us;
- Clearing out weeds & planting good seeds in the soil of our lives.
Our Scripture readings for today are about this very endeavor.
- Jeremiah is given words from God to share with God’s people—words that tell us about what God intends for us;
- Then Jesus shows us the very HEART of God in his healing of a woman who is bent over—healing her on the Sabbath Day, which violated the system of religion that was so entrenched that it valued Sabbath laws more than the needs of people!
So, what is God saying to us today? About the little things we as individuals need to let go of in order to receive something better?? About the systems that we have valued more than God’s precious children? We won’t get at all the answers, but we’ll get into the questions! Let’s go.
The Prophet Jeremiah lived 600+ years before Jesus. While he was quite young, he got a message from the Lord; he had an encounter with God. God said, “I knew you before you were born” and “I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Of course, we understand a young man’s hesitation, and Jeremiah said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But God overruled his objection! “You shall go to all to whom I send you, and speak whatever I command you.”
We see the same hesitation in Moses who made excuses when God spoke to him from the burning bush, telling him to go speak to Pharaoh and bring God’s people out of Egypt. And God overruled him, saying, “You shall speak all that I command you.” His excuses evaporated.
Just a little side-note here. What excuses do YOU use when you sense that God is calling you to do something a little scary? And do your excuses hold water? Now, of course, as a preacher, I am supposed to have some trepidation when it comes to speaking in God’s name—and I do! But I am encouraged by God’s promise, “I will speak through you.” This is exactly what God promised to Moses, and to all the prophets, and to the young man, Jeremiah. “I am with you; I will speak through you.”
Then God tells Jeremiah of future intentions: to tear down, and to build up. “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.
In Jeremiah’s day, the “Nations and the Kingdoms” referred to great international intrigue, to political gamesmanship going on with the Assyrians and the Egyptians and the Babylonians. And we know from history the accuracy of God’s words regarding plucking up, pulling down, destroying, overthrowing, as well as building and planting.
Jesus and Change
Now, zoom ahead 600 years to the time of Jesus. In Jesus, we see God in the flesh, a man who spoke God’s words. And as I have said before, when we see what Jesus did, and hear what he said—we get a glimpse into the very heart of God! We can observe God’s love for ALL God’s children. In today’s Gospel reading, we see a crippled woman who defied her infirmity and came to worship at the synagogue. She did not ask for healing, but she was called over by Jesus. And, after 18 years of living doubled over, she was HEALED! She stood up straight and began praising God! Anyone could see that God was actively present in that place.
Well, almost anyone. The leader of the synagogue apparently loved the system of religion that gave him his power, his position. Instead of seeing God’s loving power on display, he complained to those in attendance: “There are six days in which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” (He was judging Jesus for breaking the Sabbath law.)
[Doesn’t it make you wonder: WHO was it that decided that healing was work (and therefore NOT to be done on the Sabbath)?! If it’s GOD who does the healing, who are we to argue?! We certainly cannot say that God violates the Third Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.”]
Jesus responded to this man’s heartless judgment with a logical argument. (Keep in mind: untying a knot was not allowed on the Sabbath.) IF we untie an animal on the Sabbath day (which is allowed), and lead it out to water, HOW MUCH MORE SHOULD THIS DAUGHTER OF ABRAHAM BE UNTIED ON THE SABBATH DAY?! This put his critics to shame, and the common people were rejoicing at what God was doing in their very midst! They, at least, had the capacity to see God’s love in action.
Jesus was trying to demonstrate that people are more important than systems. Some systems need to be torn down (in part or in whole) to be replaced by God’s best. That’s why the Presbyterian motto is “Reformed and always reforming.” The church must scrutinize itself in order to be certain that we are not impeding God’s workings! William Barclay observed (back in the 50’s): “Strangely enough, this ‘worship of systems’ commonly invades the church.
We see that, in both the passage from Jeremiah and the one from Luke, the theme is CHANGE IS COMING. Change is coming.
Life in the Age of Change
Many years ago, I flew to New Mexico in order to drive my dad to Elko for a visit. (He was on oxygen, and wouldn’t be allowed on a plane with an oxygen tank.) We drove through southeast Utah where he had been born. He kept commenting on how much had changed in the 80 years he had been gone. Our return trip yielded the same response, and we decided that the theme of our journey was “Change is only constant.”
God’s declaration to Jeremiah is that God is going to uproot—to tear down—to destroy—to overthrow. And then God is going to build and to plant.
This may be a comfort to those of you who feel personally uprooted, torn down, overthrown. If God is doing it, there’s a good purpose at work! The Psalmist has a graphic image in Psalm 29: “The plowmen plowed on my back; they made their furrows long.” In this image, there is the pain of being plowed, but there’s also the hope in what might be planted by the sower!
What about our awesome little church here? Are we facing change? You bet! And do we like it? Well, much of it is difficult for some, while other changes are more difficult for others. But the world we live in is different from the old days, and you and I are called to keep finding new ways to discover Christ’s mission for Christ’s church! (This is not OUR church, after all.) It’s distressing to see old, familiar things being uprooted, torn down, overthrown. But God promises to build and to plant.
I’ll finish today with a story that Jim Singleton tells. He was visiting the church in East Africa when he was taken to see a large warehouse. It was filled with pump organs, stacked three high, covered with tarps! His host explained that the Church of Scotland missionaries brought Christianity to the area, along with music (hymns) from their homeland. Missionary Aid Societies all over Scotland raised money to buy pump organs and to ship them to Africa so the missionaries could accompany worship! (The Africans had historically used drums and movement in their pagan worship—so these things were strictly forbidden!) But still, the church grew and the Gospel was received and eventually local, indigenous people began to assume leadership. In recent years, the African church had moved away from hymns and pump organs (the European style of worship) and into a more AFRICAN style—with drums and movement! So, the pump organs were no longer relevant. (But, out of respect for all those Scots who had given sacrificially to provide them, the pump organs were saved—and stacked up in the big warehouse!) Change may happen slowly, but it is inexorable!
Now, in two weeks, we are going to hear God send Jeremiah down to the potter’s house where he will see a vessel of clay being re-shaped for the maker’s purpose. And the church sings “Have thine own way, Lord, have thine own way. Thou art the potter, I am the clay.” Because it’s our job to look for God’s activity in the upsetting things going on around us—and to trust God with that change!