Apparently, in the mind of at least one person on earth, there’s a difference between “Do Not Push Except in Case of Emergency” and “Push Only in Case of Emergency.” I remember standing in the basement of our college library and hearing a friend say, “It’s a good thing that fire door says what it does.” After asking him why, he explained to me that a warning that tells him not to do something inevitably makes him want to do it so badly that he can’t resist. Perhaps he was exaggerating slightly, but the point was clear—for some of us (perhaps many of us) being warned not to do something is an invitation to do it.
I think it’s hard to know whether the ancient warning that is rearticulated in today’s Old Testament lesson (Jeremiah 11:1-8, 14-20) was originally composed after-the-fact or as a genuine prophetic explanation of how God would punish Israel if they didn’t keep their side of the covenant. Either way, it’s still a warning that invites God’s people to push the boundaries a little too far. Quoting God, Jeremiah writes, “For I solemnly warned your ancestors when I brought them up out of the land of Egypt, warning them persistently, even to this day, saying, ‘Obey my voice.’” The combination of persistent warning and human condition made for an explosive relationship.
I can imagine telling my child over and over not to do something—like play in the street or get in a car with strangers. But in those cases, I think the concept of potential danger is real enough to keep that child from transgressing my parentally set boundaries. But if I were to tell her over and over not to do something like chat online with people you don’t know or venture into an old abandoned house in our neighborhood I’m afraid the realization of danger may not fully click. “What do you mean, ‘It’s dangerous?’” she might say to herself. “It can’t be that bad. I can take care of myself.”
That’s where sin starts—when we as humans fail to trust that a higher power knows better than we do what’s in our best interests. Often, I can hold onto that principle—no murder, no adultery, no stealing. But sometimes it’s more difficult. God’s people were asked to remain true to him. To avoid intermarriage with foreigners. Not to follow the gods of the neighboring nations. But those are the sorts of things that have long-term nation-corroding consequences that aren’t easy to anticipate in a case-by-case basis. But that’s why God gave us the warnings in the first place, right?
We are called to follow God. We are called to color within the lines and sometimes to do things or not do things that don’t always make sense to us. And the warnings God gives us are sometimes too tempting to pass up. They are the fire escape we’re told not to use unless the building is on fire. Maybe God gives us the warnings so that, once we’ve transgressed them, we can be reminded again that he is God and that he knows best. For me, anyway, I usually learn my lesson after pulling the fire alarm and getting caught…at least for a few days.