God is ready to repent. Are you?
When writing my sermon for Jeremiah 2 last week, I left my office, my home, and my small town in west central Michigan to go to the beach/river town of Saugatuck, MI. In this small tourist town, away from the everyday distractions of my office, I sat in the back garden of a coffee shop writing. As I intended to be gone all day writing my sermon then paddleboarding on the river, I brought my little black dog, Aldo, with me.
He does as well surfing on the paddleboard as he does sitting on my lap as I write. He is no burden for me when I take days out to write.
But as I was sitting for dinner on a patio facing the sunset and the river, Aldo was sitting beside me with studying the many pedestrians. Before I had the chance to grab his leash he had sprinted off the patio and was making his way onto the main thoroughfare. Instinctively I hollered at this excited dog hoping to make a new friend. Upon hearing my holler, Aldo dropped his tail, tucked his head, and repented. On the side of the road, this little black dog turned back to his owner. He didn’t know he was being saved from impending disaster but the severity of the consequences of his actions warranted an immediate, and even harsh, word from me. As silly as this might sound, my concern was less of him being hurt by my tone than it was trying to prevent him from getting run over.
Were I a parent I might have used a different story than one about my dog. Surely you parents have stories of warning your children.
Like many judgment passages, the 21st century preacher might be inclined to avoid or dismiss this passage. Don’t dismiss this pericope because it is too challenging. The theology here is too important, and too good, to ignore. This passage challenged many popular notions about God’s nature that may need to be addressed. There are many ways to preach this passage, but below are three, non-mutually-exclusive, directions to preach this passage.
First, perhaps this Sunday can be used as an opportunity to teach on the telos of judgment. As much as preachers of the 21st century avoid judgment passages because of the mid-20th century “hellfire and brimstone” peaching, judgment is a part of the Christian message. Craig Koester points out that in the same Gospels where Christ says “judge not, lest ye be judged” he also talks of the wheat being separated from the tares, the sheep from the goats. (Koester, “Revelation and the End of All Things)
YHWH speaks these words of judgment not because YHWH is vindictive, but because judgment serves as a warning. As prophets served to call covenant people back to singular faithfulness, YHWH is using Jeremiah to tell Judah what will happen if they forsake their covenant. Should they not turn back to YHWH, should they not cease their evil ways, they will be torn down. This is what happens when covenant people forsake their covenant.
Like a parent raising her voice at her child in the face of impending disaster or a dog owner hollering at his little black dog running towards a busy street, the judgment of God serves as a warning because of the severity of the consequences of unfaithfulness. The reality of breaking the covenant is not something to be dismissed.
God is ready and waiting to receive Judah. It is out of YHWH’s love for Judah that he wants something more for them than the destruction that comes from idolatry and collateral faithfulness. As we read in last week’s first reading, it can never be “God and…” It’s always, only, God. But God is also ready to build a new container out of the ruin that Judah may bring upon itself.
Let it also be noted that judgment from YHWH is never a foregone conclusion. There is always a way to avoid the judgment. YHWH is ready and waiting to receive covenant people back to their covenant despite their transgressions. But as verse 12 indicates, the covenant people are not willing to turn back towards the Lord.
As might be expected from a Wesleyan commentary, another thing to note is that just because YHWH uses the metaphor of a potter and clay does not mean that God preordains all things. Some are drawn to the conclusion that God manipulates creation and history. It is this author’s opinion that that is stretching the metaphor too far and draws conclusions not intended. As with all analogies and metaphors, they must be understood as they’re intended otherwise unnecessary and extraneous conclusions come up.
In this pericope, YHWH tells Jeremiah why the metaphor of a potter and clay are used. It’s not to say that YHWH has intended or desired that Judah be unfaithful; they have done this of their own accord. (The logical conclusion to stretching this metaphor would be to say that YHWH “messed up” and needs to start over.) The purpose of this metaphor is recognize YHWH’s re-creating capabilities. Even if Judah falls in on itself like a wobbly wet sculpture, YHWH can and will bring about a new thing. Like Jesus’ parable of the seeds scattered on various soils, where the hearer can choose to be a different type of soil, so should we read that we can be clay that follows the potters hands rather than fighting against them.
Finally, this pericope tells us something about God that we don’t associate with God. God repents. Twice we’re told of YHWH changing his mind. In verses 8 and 11 we read that YHWH is willing to “change.” In Hebrew this is nāham, to repent, to relent, or to change one’s mind. In the LXX this word is recorded as “metanoia,” a word in the New Testament used very often as repentance, turning towards God in faithfulness.
In Jeremiah YHWH is ready to repent; either from judgment or from mercy. The repentance of YHWH is contingent, though, on the faithfulness of Judah. This matters because it means that YHWH, despite frustration, is not dead set on tearing down the unfaithful. YHWH is ready to receive the transgressing covenant people back. YHWH is not stuck on destruction. But YHWH will not impose faithfulness on those covenant people.
When was the last time you preached a sermon on God’s willingness to repent? It seems that www often hear of God’s unhanging nature. This notion permeates modern worship music, but when did you sing of God changing God’s mind? When was the last time you told your people that God is ready and waiting to show mercy to them because god is a God who changes. Because God is a God who lives in relationship with God’s covenant people and desires to bring them back into right relationship with himself and with one another.
This is good news. Preach well this Sunday the faithfulness of our God.