The sins of the ones before us
Jeremiah 31:27-34 CEB
I love those old sayings. You know, the ones used at a drop of a hat to make a complex point in just a sentence:
One man's junk is another man's treasure.
A friend in need is a friend indeed.
A penny saved is a penny earned.
Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he'll eat forever.
We have something in common with the israelites, they had their own sayings too! Most of them were collected and put into a book we know today as the book of Proverbs. Yet even with this book some of those saying didn't make the final cut, even though they still found a way to make it into the bible . One of those cutting room floor quotes can be found in verse 29 of our text today. The parents have eaten sour grapes and their children's teeth have been set on edge. It makes my mouth uncomfortable every time I read it. It makes me think of when you get a baked potato wrapped in aluminium foil but you fail to remove all the foil before taking a bite... it's that terrible feeling of the metal touching fillings. I digress.
Just like our sayings today the Israelite Proverb says something complex in an easier way. Let’s backtrack, a lot! The Israelites have been freed from Egyptian bondage. They have recently arrived to their new home, the wilderness, when Moses makes a trip up to the mountain to work with God on a few rules or commandments. For those of you who remember the story, before Moses even returns with the new commands the people had already broken one of them, specifically:
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them and worship them.
Because Moses had spent so much time on that darn mountain, they people began to feel God was no longer with them so they crafted a calf from their gold and began to worship it.
Not a good start especially with that particular commandment. See, it continues:
For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me.
Ouch. It is a strong claim and one that is mirrored in the book of Numbers:
The Lord, is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and fourth generation.’
So the Israelite phrase: The parents have eaten sour grapes means the people have sinned/transgressed/whatever foul phrase you would like to add here. The children’s teeth are set on edge means the future generations are being punished for the sins of their ancestors.
A nice way to say everything that has already been said: be wary what you do today or it might play negatively on your family’s future.
So now that we have backtracked, let’s go forward to today’s scripture. The Israelites in Jeremiah are not the Israelites who first received the commandments. These are the fourth and fifth and so on generation of those Israelites. The proverb, which was written as a warning, was not directly meant for this group of people. It was written as a reminder of God’s commandment and to keep focus for the sake of the children and the children’s children. For the Israelites of Jeremiah they were not even concerned about the first part of the proverb. They were the children to the third and fourth generation. One of the reasons they did not want to listen to Jeremiah was this proverb. In their minds there was nothing they could do to stop God’s “wrath” for they were suffering from their parent’s indiscretions.
You know, the story of the God and the people is a beautiful tale even if the Israelites didn't see it that way. Here are a people who were almost hopeless. They were going to lose everything. Time and time again God gave them chances but they kept fouling up. But that is just the surface.
The Israelites cast a graven image and worship it- God has Moses recast the commandments and start over.
The people act out in the wilderness- God moves from the mountain to reside with the people in a tent.
Once in the promised land the people start worship false gods again. God sends prophet after prophet to the people.
Yes, by chapter 31 in Jeremiah the last nail has already been nailed in the coffin, the Babylonians are going to conquer Israel and exile her people. However, in my opinion, this is the most beautiful section of Jeremiah.
The Israelites thought Jeremiah had been yelling out judgment when really he was singing salvation. No, they could not stop what was coming but God could recast it. A new covenant was written- not in stone in some building in the middle of Jerusalem but on each individual heart. This chapter in Jeremiah marks the time when God not only resided with the people but in the people. God was no longer just a God for a group but also for the person. Before, God would only reside in the temple to be visited by the priests who would act on behalf of all of Israel. In this one chapter, God tears down the walls and we become the temple. We can know God because God is within us.
Jeremiah was a glorious bitter-sweet mess with more bitter than sweet. Here is your sweet. Perhaps the book of Jeremiah is not a particularly redemptive story for the people of Israel but it is for God. This chapter marks a turning point. God lives within us, each of us. When we cannot live in the house of God the house of God lives in us.
This message kinda hits me in a bittersweet way. I love the church. I live for the rites and rituals that happen every Sunday morning. Back before I moved to Georgia the first time I asked the minister if I could spend an hour alone in the church praying. When I moved back to Georgia the second time I was most distraught I didn't have the church to go to. This was amplified when I returned to Georgia and found myself saying goodbye to the particular church I attended in school. I felt so disconnected. The people need a place to connect. The people need a way to communicate and know there are others they can talk to. It is also nice to know in exile God is still there. Our heart becomes God's temple, and the actions that affect that temple the most are my own. I pray that I keep my temple as clean and as pure as possible so it can be a proper place for the divine to live. If not, I pray God can help me tidy it up a bit. Either way, I am grateful God is there with me.
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