September 4, 2019 - Proper 17C
How often have you made a bad decision that compounds itself by leading to more trouble? You're running late, so you take a shortcut that isn't really a shortcut, and you end up even later than you were to start. You forget to buy your spouse a birthday present, so, at the last minute, you spent way too much money on a gift, and your spouse, seeing through your carelessness, is upset because you spent too much money. Your not happy with the fountain of living water that God has given you, so you dig and install your own cisterns, but yours are cracked and they won't hold any water.
Well, that last image may not literally apply to your life, but it's the image Jeremiah uses to describe his people's faithlessness. They've gotten themselves into double trouble. They've abandoned the faith of their ancestors, giving up on God, and the gods they've turned to for help in a time of crisis aren't any use at all. They weren't happy with the fresh spring of salvation God was steadily providing them, so they decided to rely on their own supply, but their own supply failed.
Prophets are often confused with fortune-tellers--people who predict the future. Prophets, as my colleague Fr. Chuck has reminded us repeatedly, don't tell the future. In fact, they're more likely to be historians that future-predictors. They interpret the present situation in light of God's ongoing relationship with God's people. Jeremiah spends much of this passage recalling how Israel got itself into this mess: "What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me?" He notes that the leaders of the people, including their priests, seem to have forgotten how to say, "Where is the Lord?" Despite bringing them into the land of Canaan, despite carrying them through the deadly wilderness, despite rescuing them from bondage in Egypt, the people have forgotten who God is and what it means to belong to God and depend on God.
What have they done instead? In Jeremiah's day, the people of Israel were in trouble. They had been repeatedly attacked by rival nations like the Assyrians. Raiders from places like Nineveh terrorized the villages in the north of Israel. Territory was disappearing into enemy control. So Israel did what any declining nation-state would do: they made alliances with other nations, who were also threatened by the Assyrians and who promised to help Israel for a price. Before long, the people started to wonder whether their salvation would come from some other god, whether their God had forgotten them or, perhaps, wasn't as strong as the other gods. So they paid their tribute and said their prayers and sold their faith in Israel's God. For a while, it worked. Extra troops and military hardware kept the Assyrians away, but, when they decided to press hard on the attack and besiege Samaria, the capital city, did Baal and Baal's people come to help? No, it was like storing water a cracked cistern that leaked and ran dry.
Cross the sea to Cyprus and send messengers to Kedar and ask whether it has ever happened in all of human history that a people decided to change their gods (not that there are such things). Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous as a people whose lives, whose nation, whose history has centered on the Almighty One giving up on the source of their salvation--their fountain of living water--in exchange for a cheap knock-off you can buy on the street?
We would do well to remember our own salvation history. We're even further removed from the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We're a long way from the Red Sea and Mt. Sinai and the Jordan River. The exile to Babylon and the return are of ancient memory. Victory over the Selucids and, later, the preservation of the faith under threat of Roman rule are a long time ago. The Empire and all of Europe became Christian, but it's hard to remember how that happened. People seeking freedom and prosperity came to this land, bringing the faith with them, but, looking back at the genocide of native peoples that resulted, it's hard to know what part of that success was God and what part was tyranny. We survived world wars and terrorist attacks. We've made it through depressions and recessions and plenty of personal downturn and hardship that doesn't get a label. We're here. We've come a long way. Does anyone remember how we got here? Or have we forgotten how to say, "Where is the Lord?"
Times aren't always easy. Just as in ancient Israel, we encounter periods of drought, economic downturn, political strife, and military threat. Who will see us through? Who will watch over us? In whom or what will we put our confidence? Sometimes the spring of water that has been provided for us slows down to a trickle. Sometimes we wonder whether the fountain will dry up completely. Will we dig cisterns for ourselves--not a measure of precaution but a gesture of self-reliance--or will we remember where our help comes from in every generation?