Lent 2 · Jeremiah 26:8-15 · February 28, 2010
By Jeffrey A. Oschwald
The Lectionary for Year C provides little help for preacher or hearer in terms of placing this reading from Jeremiah 26 in a historical or narrative context. Three of the Sundays in the Epiphany season offer readings from Jeremiah, but they are neither consecutive nor sequential—and the “early” beginning of the Lenten season eliminates two of the three. It seems very unlikely that, by this Sunday, people will feel that we are in a “Jeremiah season.” A brief historical review will probably benefit both the preacher in his preparation and the hearer in his appropriation. Horace Hummel’s section on Jeremiah in his The Word Becoming Flesh will be useful in providing some of the main historical anchors for this episode from the life of “the prophet of the decline and fall of the Hebrew monarchy.”¹ Jeremiah may come “right after” Isaiah in the Bible, but roughly a century has passed since the fall of the Northern Kingdom when Jeremiah begins his ministry. Hummel summarizes the connection: “Suffice it to say here that Jeremiah lived out his entire life in that chaotic and fateful period a century after the fall of Samaria (and the activities of the great eighth-century prophets) where we have almost a rerun of the earlier history, only this time with Judah as the victim.”² Assyria has fallen, King Josiah has died (and his reform movement with him), and Babylon has risen to power. Jerusalem wonders, as Samaria had, whether salvation will or will not come from Egypt. And so the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah.
Two other quick reminders on OT context and connections are necessary for those of us who may simply flip open to Jeremiah 26 for this Sunday. First of all, the connection or, at least, similarity between Jeremiah 26 and Jeremiah 7 should be recalled. Some commentaries suggest that chapter 7 actually supplies the fuller text of the message referenced in chapter 26. As likely, and certainly less jarring to the narrative progression of the book, is the view that chapter 7 provides a message on a very similar theme. Jeremiah 26:5 seems to be more in keeping with the latter view; the “though you have not listened” of that verse at least indicates that this is not the first time the Lord has used such language to call his people back to faithfulness. Secondly, note the quotation from Micah in 26:18. Hummel notes that this is “the only time a prophetic book mentions another ‘writing prophet’ by name!”
The Gospel for this Sunday, Luke 13:31-35, shows that this historical patterning or repetition is not limited to reaching backwards from Jeremiah’s time, it extends forward as well. The prophet had to preach what he was commanded to preach, with little thought for his own personal safety; the prophet must go on his way, knowing that his way leads to Jerusalem, where death awaits. The parallels are so striking that the challenge here is to really preach on the Jeremiah text and not simply read it and preach Luke. But how?
The parallels between Jeremiah and Jesus are not the only parallels here with homiletical force. This is only the second Sunday in our Lenten pilgrimage; we have only recently heard again the Lenten call to “return to the Lord” (Joel 2; Ash Wednesday). The purpose of Jeremiah’s words, as well, is to bring about a repentance, a return; and the situation from which Judah needs to “turn back” sounds neither foreign nor ancient. Where do we turn for salvation and security when national stability is threatened or when the challenges to our church seem overwhelming? What do we do when a prophetic word “touches” and even “challenges” established ways of thinking? Walter Brueggemann suggests that Jeremiah’s opponents “do not seem to care if it is a word from God, for the defense of their way of life overrides any such theological question.”³ How often and in what ways do we respond to the call to return to the Lord, to listen and turn from our evil ways, to walk according to his will, with our own “the church, the church, the church” (cf. Jeremiah 7:4)? That is to say, how often don’t we console one another with the downward spiraling logic that, since we are the church, we must be right? There are strong words for the preacher here, too. Look carefully (preferably with a brother or two) at the words from the Lord in Jeremiah 7:8ff. Will our Lenten services and preaching encourage just such an attitude? Do we give our people the impression that “it’s all good” as long as they come every Sunday for absolution? Remember that the offense of Jeremiah’s message was that he compared Jerusalem to Shiloh, a former sanctuary of the Lord now desolate. If the Lord should withdraw his presence from Shiloh and later Jerusalem as well, on what is our confidence based?
Jeremiah’s sermon is greeted with violent anger; and yet, the passage does not end in a passion narrative. Jeremiah continues his prophetic ministry as the people are reminded of times in the past when God sent his prophets with words that wounded in order to make whole. This God continues to do through the prophetic word made surer in the life and death of his own Son and in the apostolic and sacramental proclamation of Christ. The days of the new covenant have already come, and still the word, now in our hearts, is at work to transform us into a people that “know the Lord” (cf. Jeremiah 31:31ff).
¹ Horace D. Hummel, The Word Becoming Flesh: An Introduction to the Origin, Purpose, and Meaning of the Old Testament (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1979), 230. The section on Jeremiah begins on page 228.
² Hummel, 229.
³ Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile & Homecoming (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 235.