The way of faith. 17:5-11
Our passage for study comes from a group of miscellaneous mini-sermons and linked sayings found in the book of Jeremiah, 15:10-20:18. They tend to be personal in nature and composed in poetic style. The first mini sermon, 17:5-8, affirms the worth of faith. The second, 17:9-11, reminds us of the corruption of human reasoning.
v5-6. After an editorial note (which is not found in the LXX) we are introduced to a person who is a member of God's covenant community, an Israelite, but who trusts human resourcefulness rather than the Lord. Literally, he puts his faith in the human arm rather than the Lord's arm; he does not trust the Lord's intent or capacity to maintain his covenantal promises. Such a person is "cursed" - strong words! This person is described as a desert plant that rarely sees the rain and inevitably shrivels and dies. "Good" just passes him by. Such a person does not see the blessings of the Lord.
v7-8. The contrasting person is "blessed" because he "trusts" in the Lord, is confident in the Lord, rests on the Lord's covenantal promises. This person is not like a desert salt-bush, but is like a tree thrusting out its roots to permanent water and surviving the drought. As its leaves are green and its fruit full, so is such a person blessed. There is personal identification in Jeremiah's words, for he was once the salt-bush, bitter and in despair, 15:18-19, but he repented (turned toward) and rested on the Lord, and like a luxurious tree, is now blessed.
v9-10. Jeremiah now speaks of human corruption. From a personal angle, he ponders his own desert experience of despair. How could he play the salt-bush? The Hebrews understood the heart as the center of thinking, so we could therefore translate v9 as "The mind is totally deceptive and quite incurable, who understands it?" There is of course one who does understand it, namely the Lord. He also knows about our stomach, or literally our "kidneys". These "hidden depths" (better than "mind" -NIV) are the center of our emotions, our feelings. These too are corrupt and on the basis of their fruit the Lord will judge us. Only those who trust in the Lord will escape his condemnation, cf. v7.
v11. This saying illustrates the fruit of human corruption. It's like the bird that sits on another's eggs. The young soon recognize they are not hers and fly away. So also the fruit of human corruption, eg. wealth amassed dishonestly soon fritters away and shows the person up as a fool. Such prosperity is a delusion.
Building the City of God
Admiral Halsey once said "there are no great men, just great challenges that ordinary men are forced by circumstance to meet."
A change in ministry is always a very difficult time for a congregation. Concerns range from the fear of change to the fear of survival itself. Increasingly, small congregations find themselves pressed to fund a full-time ministry and that pressure is increased by the constant politicking of head office to centralize. Today denominational funding of "mission churches" is frowned on. Better to centralize, all on the basis of the theory that numbers attract numbers.
So, ordinary believers must face great challenges, particularly when they are few in number and approach the daunting thought of calling and funding a new ministry.
Jeremiah reminds us of two ways we can approach the great challenges of life. We can rely on the arm of human ingenuity, or we can rely on the arm of the Lord. We can be a salt-bush, or a mighty tree.
Jeremiah can think back on his own bitterness apart from the Lord and rightly identifies the deceptive power of the mind, v9, and its fruitless consequences, v11. By resting on the arm of human ingenuity, v5, we become like a desert salt-bush, v6. It is very easy to employ marketing techniques, group dynamics, people management skills.... to build a numerically strong congregation. Yet, in the process we create weeds at the expense of wheat. We may justify our actions on the grounds that we are accessing unbelievers into the church so that they may come under the sound of the gospel. Yet in the end, we are like the bird that sits on an others eggs. The children will inevitably recognize they are not ours and just drift away. In the end we are proved to be fools, v11.
Jeremiah goes on to identify the only way to approach the great challenges of life. The way forward is to rest in faith upon the arm of the Lord, v7. Our life then is like a great tree constantly drawing on a permanent source of water, alive and fruitful, v8. Jesus promises that he is with us to the end of the age. Nothing can take us from him; nothing can overcome his church. Even when there is only two meeting in his name, he is present to teach and edify and thus prepare us for eternity. The present reality of the kingdom, imaged in the gathering of the two or three, and its ultimate realization in power at the return of Christ, is guaranteed by the mighty arm of the Lord. So, what if we are but a handful and our minister is part-time, or even if we have no minister, does that change anything?
As Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, watched the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410AD and the destruction of Christian civilization, he was able to see past the deception of his own imagining, past the glory of a secular religious city, to an eternal city. What we see and touch is but a shadow from the light of eternity. Our City is in God's care and he builds it with the strength of his arm. Our task is to rely in faith on that reality alone.
What practical consequences for a struggling congregation can flow from a reliance on the Lord's promise to build an eternal city?
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