Preachers are always looking for an image that succeeds in conveying in a tangible, accessible way the message they are trying to convey. I’ve heard more than one minister say late in the week before a Sunday sermon, “All I need is that one illustration that will tie it all together.” What’s more common in my experience is having the “perfect” illustration but the wrong gospel lesson. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot I can do about that other than preach a poorly crafted sermon that only sort of engages the biblical text. Perhaps it’s fair to say that good sermons live and die by the right illustrations.
In this morning’s lesson from Jeremiah (13:1-11), God himself provides the image for the prophet’s message: “Thus said the Lord to me, ‘Go and buy a linen waistcloth, and put it on your loins, and do not dip it in water.’” As the passage continues, we learn that God wants Jeremiah to bury that garment in the cleft of a rock by the Euphrates river and then, after a time, dig it up to discover that “the waistcloth was spoiled; it was good for nothing.” When God interprets the sign, he declares, “Even so will I spoil the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem.” I don’t know enough about ancient waistcloths to properly interpret the prophetic gesture, but, like you, I can get a general sense of what’s being said from the surrounding context.
Sometimes in the bible prophets do strange and unusual things to get the attention of their audience. Discerning that it is God’s will for them to parade around naked or give up food for a long stretch of time, the prophets use their visible actions as a reminder of God’s instruction for his people. This time, though, the illustration seems so odd—a waistcloth buried in a cleft by the Euphrates until it spoils—that it might be an image that even surprised the prophet himself.
A linen waistcloth, a garment perhaps for serving, remains unused, is hidden in a dark rocky place for a long time before being found as a completely unusable item. The river Euphrates was far away from Israel and was in the land of Babylon—a growing military power that would one day capture Judah and Jerusalem, carting off her inhabitants in exile. Perhaps the pride of God’s people—represented by the unused serving cloth—leads to their destruction and humiliation in Babylon. Usually the prophets of Jeremiah’s day wanted God’s people to remember that they were unable to withstand the assaults of their enemies if only relying on their own prideful strength—only God could save them. So maybe that’s the image…
I like to imagine that in order for a prophetic metaphor to have survived long enough to be recorded in the pages of scripture it got the point across. The people of Jeremiah’s day heard his words about the obscure linen waistcloth and got it. They knew with humbling immediacy what he was trying to say.
Whether given expressly by God or whether discerned by God’s people, instances in our lives convey God’s word to us in lively ways. Sometimes those images are obvious, but other times their perfect clarity is expressed in their obscurity. The job of discerning a metaphor for God’s word isn’t just that of the preacher. All of us are called to figure out what God is trying to tell us through countless images and instances. Only if we’re looking can we see how something as odd as a buried waistcloth reminds us of God’s will.