Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sermon: Leaky Cisterns and God's Love

Jeremiah 2:4-10
Leaky Cisterns and God’s Love
James Sledge                                                                                       August 28, 2016

Back when I was twenty-something, the mother of a good friend suffered a heart attack. She had many risk factors including smoking, not exercising, and being overweight. But the damage was minimal, and she was back home and feeling well soon after.
I dropped by to visit after she’d been home for a few weeks. She demonstrated her new exercise bike for me, telling me how many minutes a day she was up to. She sounded upbeat as she told me about throwing out her cigarettes and the new, healthy diet she’d begun. She was actually enjoying the healthy food, in part because not smoking had improved her sense of taste.
Everything seemed to be going incredibly well. Her husband and children were very supportive and encouraging. They did everything they could to help her maintain this new, healthy lifestyle. But…
Some of you may have lived stories like this one. She began to ride the bike less and less. The diet got less healthy, and the lure of cigarettes was too much. Her family was terrified. They encouraged her more. They pleaded, cajoled, threatened, bargained, cried, and got angry. But nothing worked, and in the end, she died of another heart attack.
Imagine how you would have felt and reacted if you’d been her family member. Perhaps you don’t need to imagine. Someone you know and love has engaged in self-destructive behavior and gotten stuck in a downward spiral. Perhaps you’ve even been in a downward spiral yourself and somehow pulled out of it.
Trying to help someone in such a place can be incredibly frustrating . People caught in self-destructive, downward spirals can be impervious to the attempts of loved ones to help. Attempts to intervene are often are met with angry outbursts, and at times they seem blind to the pain they are causing to those around them. It sometimes gets so bad that relationship fail.
Israel’s relationship with God seems to be experiencing something of this sort in the time of Jeremiah. Their relationship has a long history, going back to God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, liberation for slavery in Egypt, the Mosaic covenant given at Mt. Sinai, the growth of the nation under David and Solomon. But the relationship is in crisis. Israel is trapped in self-destructive behaviors and unwilling to listen to reason.
The prophet Jeremiah, through his close relationship with God, feels the anguish in God’s heart. Speaking for God, Jeremiah tries to get through to Israel, using a standard, prophetic tactic, a lawsuit. God brings charges against Israel in a heavenly courtroom scene, but behind the tactic is a broken-hearted parent’s inability to understand. How can Israel have forgotten all God had done for them. How can they have turned away? How can they repeatedly act in ways that are so self-destructive, so displeasing and hurtful to God?
They act as though there is no relationship. Even when things have go horribly awry with threats from Assyria and t hen Babylon, they do not cry out to God. They do not plead, “Where are you, God?” Israel seems to have amnesia, acting as though God was not there at all. In their downward spiral, the relationship has disappeared, and there is no getting through to them.

I’ve said this many times before, but it bears repeating. Modern people often badly misunderstand the nature of biblical, prophetic speech. Rarely is it about predicting the future. Rather it is an attempt to change behavior, like loved ones saying, “If you don’t stop smoking and starting exercising, you’re going to die!”
And as the prophet pleads with Israel, trying to rouse them from their amnesia and out of their downward spiral, he seizes on what he hopes will be a compelling image. “My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”
Water was a really big deal in ancient Israel, an extremely precious commodity in a mostly arid land. Sources of fresh water were crucial. The best sources were rivers, but Jerusalem had no river near it. Its primary water source was a natural spring, although the amount of water it produced could drop in periods of extended drought.
Because water was so precious, people would carve out large cisterns in the stone to catch rainwater, sort of like overgrown rain barrels. The water in them was less desirable than water from a river or spring. It was stagnant, sitting there for weeks and months. I imagine it was pretty nasty, but I guess if it was all you had…
But if you had running water, who wouldn’t prefer that? This is the picture Jeremiah paints, though we may miss it because “living water” is mostly a religious term for us. In Hebrew, “living water” is an idiomatic expression for flowing water. Perhaps it seems a strange way to describe such a thing, but think how odd “running water” must sound to someone new to English who encounters that term and takes it literally.
At the center of the prophet’s contrast between the fountain of living waters and cisterns, cracked cisterns that can’t hold water, is this phrase: dug out for themselves. The word order gets lost in most English translations, but in Hebrew it is clear. They have forsaken the fountain of living water, and dug out for themselves, cisterns, cracked cisterns.
Dug out for themselves. It is an age old story. It is there in the Garden of Eden story, and it pops up regularly in most of our lives. We prefer those things we make for ourselves, the ways we devise and figure out for ourselves, over the gifts of God, over the ways of God. Even when the ways we dig out for ourselves leave our children over scheduled and stressed out, even when they leave us anxious and burnt out, even when we’re in debt because we think we need more and more, even when our public discourse is falling apart because everything has become us versus them, even when we’re caught up in a hyper-competitive rat race that is killing us, we prefer our own way. “We’re good, God. We got this, Jesus. Don’t need any help.”
It reminds me just a bit of my friend’s Mom yelling at her family, “Stop telling me what to do! I know what’s best for me!” as she killed herself.
But surely God could get through our self-destructive behaviors and downward spirals. Surely God could straighten us out even if we don’t want to be straightened out. But God does not seem to work that way. God goes to incredible lengths to woo us, to draw us into the divine embrace, even enduring death on a cross. But God seems disinclined to force us.  
That makes this whole relationship with God thing messy, and it makes it costly for God. You can hear the pain it causes in the voice of Jesus when he says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing?”
I don’t fully understand why God doesn’t just make the children come running. I don’t understand why God doesn’t smack me upside the head and make do what I know I should. I’ve never fully figured out the ways of God. And anyone who tells you they have, anyone who gives you a neat formula that fully explains how God operates, is lying to you.
But one thing I am certain of; God never stops loving us, never stops longing for us. God never stops working to turn us back from those self-destructive ways we dig out for ourselves, and toward the ways Jesus shows us. And in the end, God’s love will somehow  triumph. After all, if God can bring life and newness and hope and salvation out of the evil of the cross, then in the end, there is no stopping God’s love.

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