Reading this passage, one wouldn’t think the precious sentiments of Jeremiah 1 had just been uttered a chapter earlier. There is no trace of the tender “before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” to be found here. Instead, Jehovah (the form of God’s name used here, meaning the one true God) calls Israel’s unfaithfulness to account. God uses a bit of sarcasm: What have I done wrong that you ran away?
The answer to the rhetorical question is both obvious and ironic. Obviously, God did nothing wrong. God has been faithful and righteous. And ironically, while they had all they needed in God, Israel decided they needed other things. This is where the central issue of the passage comes to light. The marriage metaphor used in 2:2 opens the chapter with Israel’s marital unfaithfulness, but soon the issue takes on other implications. Israel “went after worthless things” (v.5), “defiled” God’s land (v.7), and traded “their glory for something that does not profit” (v.11). The word “idol” isn’t anywhere in this passage, and yet it is central. This is challenging because preaching on idolatry is tricky. We’ll address this more shortly.
What’s helpful to note first is that Israel’s sin isn’t just actively seeking after things that are not God. Israel’s sin is also passive. They neglected God. They neglected to remember the ways God had saved them in the past (v.6). The priests neglected to seek God (v.8). But they weren’t doing nothing in their passivity. Indeed, people were handling the law (v.8). Rulers were ruling. Prophets were prophesying. They were doing things, filling the roles they were supposed to fill. But it seems that in their “doings,” they had begun to lose sight of the substance of what those roles were supposed to be about.
John Wesley had something to say about this. As an Anglican priest, he was well-versed in what he and other Christians were supposed to be doing. Yet he realized that what we do as outward behavior is not as important as our inner posture. In describing true Christianity, he stated,
“orthodoxy, or right opinions, is, at best, but a very slender part of religion, if it can be allowed to be any part of it at all; … neither does religion consist in negatives, in bare harmlessness of any kind; nor merely in externals, in doing good, or using the means of grace, in works of piety (so called) or of charity; … it is nothing short of, or different from, ‘the mind that was in Christ;’ the image of God stamped upon the heart; inward righteousness, attended with the peace of God; and ‘joy in the Holy Ghost.’”
According to Wesley, true Christianity is not mainly about believing the right things. It isn’t even primarily about doing all the right things. It is first about our inward being. This was the crux for Israel, and it is for us as well.
This is where it becomes tricky for the preacher. We are entering space only the Holy Spirit can know. What is our inner posture? In what ways are we tempted to make our spiritual life about the things we do or believe?
When Jeremiah says the prophets prophesied by Baal (v.8), there are material gods/idols involved. So, when a preacher talks about the idolatry of Israel and tries to connect that to our lives today, people tend to dismiss this sin as being irrelevant. Most congregants in western and post-Christian cultures are unlikely to have literal wooden and stone idols at home. If the preacher is successful in helping people make the connection of idolatry in their lives, it is probably through something like material possessions or status. These are still things we can see as external from ourselves, like idols. But what if the idols are inside of us?
It's possible even with this caveat that we could catch a little of the conviction but miss the bulk. Are we greedy? Envious? Prideful? Such questions come closer to the truth of our idolatry, but are still easy to evade with self-assurances that we haven’t actually stolen anything or gone so far as to hurt someone.
The tricky thing about idolatry is that it usually occurs around things we believe to be intrinsically good. How could something that is good be an idol? Love of money and fancy cars is easy to call out. But what about our firm belief in something to which we hold tightly? Our holy living, our adherence to doctrine? Our clinging to sacraments or work toward social justice? All of those things are good. But when we allow them to become so important that our inner posture no longer reflects the self-emptying mind of Christ, we have succumbed to idolatry. In the imagery of v.13: we find those things we think are good, and we try to fill them with water, only to find those good things are still cracked cisterns. All along, the source of living water waits to be sought. Here, the preacher might offer a call to prayer.
It's not only tricky to preach about these things; it’s risky. There is always the risk of offending people. But the discreet risk is to preach to others about idolatry when the preacher is unwittingly engaging in idolatrous behavior. Therefore, we must be intentional in relationships of accountability. If we are to call others to account, we must have places in which we are held accountable as well. We must let our spirit be questioned by people who love us and are not afraid to hold up a mirror to our sin. Otherwise, we will become the priests who neglected to look for Jehovah (v.8). We will have become so preoccupied with our own darlings (idols), that we have taken our eyes off of he who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross. Lord Jesus, have mercy on us. Help us to see our idols for the cracked containers they are.
Let us preach this passage to call ourselves to repentance. And then let us find comfort and grace in the self-giving love of Christ.
 John Wesley, “A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists,” in The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed., vol 8 (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 1986), 249.
 Philippians 2:7
 For a bit of information on cisterns, as well as good commentary, one might visit Dr. Dennis Bratcher’s webpage addressing this passage: http://www.crivoice.org/lectionary/YearC/Cproper17ot.html
 A metaphor used in writing critique for phrases on which a writer become fixated, and which need to be let go.
 Hebrews 12:2