Harrowing Of Hell
March 18, 2018

Jeremiah was a…Prophet

Preacher:  The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

Jeremiah was a…Prophet

So, I have a question for you what is the first thing that comes into your mind when I say the name “Jeremiah?” …. Yep, Jeremiah was a bullfrog…And we are not the only ones. In fact, on one webpage dealing with Jeremiah the prophet, they started this way, “Jeremiah was a bullfrog… or, uh, we mean a prophet.” Let’s be honest, this silly song Joy to the World by Three Dog Night has become a part of our collective memory. If you are doing karaoke, chances are you will hear it. If you follow the Denver Broncos and they’ve won you’ll both hear it and feel the joy of it… which suits me just fine because in my family home, Three Dog Night was a favorite. And there is a story in that.

You see while my mother usually preferred classical music, Broadway musicals and Elvis, she purchased Three Dog Night’s Greatest Hits Album; Joy to the World. And it became part of musical soundtrack of our little house on Water Street. The reason my mom bought it, though, had less to do with the music itself than the role one of its songs The Show Must Go On had played in the life of my Uncle Walt and Aunt Cindy.

You see Uncle Walt and Aunt Cindy as a newly married couple had moved into a trailer court. All was well in their newlywed life until a couple of new and youthful neighbors moved into the empty trailer nearest them and proceeded, so the story goes, to have very loud and raucous parties each and every night of the week. Uncle Walt was an engineer at Caterpillar and Aunt Cindy was a nurse and so, even though they too were young, they had to get up VERY early each and every morning. So, their honeymoon period in the trailer court came to an abrupt end and they suffered A LOT. Yet their pleas to these new neighbors and subsequent calls to the police went unheeded. It was the seventies, after all, and their neighbors were doing what some might expect of youthful folks. Heck, their neighbors wondered, “Why was everyone being so ‘uptight?’”

And so, after a month of sleepless nights and growing aggravation, Uncle Walt and Aunt Cindy decided to take action. They, and all their sleep-deprived neighbors decided to go away en masse on the same weekend. And before leaving, Uncle Walt and Aunt Cindy left on their stereo turntable the forty-five (how many here remember 45s?) of The Show Must Go On playing with a collection of all the neighbors’ speakers on full blast. And the song played again and again and again ALL WEEKEND LONG. As all the neighbors were gone and because they had refused to turn down their loud music and alienated all the local police, there was no one except the hipsters to hear it and, sadly, there wasn’t anything they could do. Apparently, they heard the message loud and clear. They moved out the next month. And my Mom, curious about what song could drive out such noisy and disruptive neighbors, bought the album and we listened to it a lot. And sang it too.

One of my best memories growing up is how much music was a part of our little house. And we were all in it together. Because our house was small, what one listened to, we all listened to…and so the songs became part of our life. That Joy to the World album was played rather a lot and so I know the songs by heart. We sang bits of it on family road trips, we sang as we did all the things you do in a house. And in a trio with my sisters, we even sang Joy to the World for various and sundry little audiences in our hometown. “Jeremiah was a bullfrog…was a good friend of mine…. never understood a single word he said, but I helped him drink his wine.”

And thus, a silly segue way into our reading for today… because believe it or not this song, in its first version, originally featured a reference to the great prophet Jeremiah. So, the song as originally written was, “Jeremiah was a prophet…was a good friend of mine…” I know… but these are the little bits of trivia that populate my mind where big thoughts should be…

Anyway, as is probably not surprising, I couldn’t get the song out of my mind this week as I was reading about the prophet Jeremiah. And even though the connection between the song and the scripture seems as unlikely as being besties with a bullfrog, especially since Jeremiah is often referred to as the weeping prophet, the two disparate stories are in fact linked in one way. In today’s reading from the prophet–in three out of the fifty-one chapters of the longest book of any prophet, Jeremiah is foretelling the coming of a great joy to the world—the joyful return of the exiles… In Jeremiah 31 we read: “For thus says the Lord: ‘Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel.’ See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth…a great company, they shall return here.”

In a time of great suffering, warfare, and destruction, Jeremiah’s Book of Consolation, of which our reading is a part, promises a new beginning for Israel even as he foretells the final destruction of Jerusalem. Jeremiah prophesies:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people….

For Christians, Jeremiah’s New Covenant has come to signify the new relationship and promise freely given to us and the whole world through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The prophet Jeremiah prophesies that this new covenant will be different than previous covenants BECAUSE it will be written in our hearts. But what does that really mean? How is the new covenant that Jeremiah is referring to different from the old covenant that God had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?

Well, first of all it might be helpful to talk a little bit about what we mean when we talk about God’s covenants with us. The word covenant is of Latin origin (con venire) and means the coming together of two persons or entities. But while covenants in legal and social realms are bilateral and both parties of the promise are equally bound by their oath and given the same privileges and responsibilities, this is not the case with God’s covenants. God initiated, set the terms of, and confirmed his covenant with humanity. It is God’s unilateral gift to us. We are recipients of this gift, not contributors, and we are not expected to offer elements to uphold the promise. We are merely called to respond, to accept and receive it. God, by oath, assures by God’s promise that it will not be withheld.

The formula, if you will, of the New Covenant that Jeremiah promises to his people is actually the same covenant God has made before: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” What changes for Israel is spelled out in Jeremiah 24:6-7; we are told God will build and plant them and “give them a heart to know that I am the Lord,” replacing the “evil will/heart” that had become characteristic of Israel’s life before exile. So, while the old covenant formula of relationship still applies, Israel will now be constituted as the people of God in a new way. God will give them a new heart so that they will know the Lord, indeed all the people will know the Lord. But the promise of this new covenant comes to an Israel that looks very different.

For the Israelites at the time of Jeremiah, this promise came to a people who lived a hundred years after the conquering and subjugation of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Many of these same people whose families had been forced into exile or moved south to Judah would now see the Babylonians destroy the great temple of Solomon in 586. So, Jeremiah’s words come to a people who are forced to face total loss of the political independence of not only the Northern Kingdom but the final fall and destruction of Jerusalem and the southern Kingdom of Judah as well. Meaning of course, that the land that God had promised to Abraham and Israel seemed lost, the great Temple has been razed and with these, a major part of their identity as the people of God was gone. With the loss of their land and Temple, the conceptions that they held about their religion and God’s covenant with them, too, seemed null and void.

But the covenant was not gone. God never forgot God’s covenant with the Israelites. They remain God’s people and God remains their God. What Jeremiah is telling them is that the heart of the covenant is NOT centered in the LAND, and it is not centered in the TEMPLE. The heart of the covenant is that God has chosen them, and they have chosen God. And God promises that when they truly choose God, the exiles will return home and their good fortune, God’s promise to them, will be restored. The covenant will be written on their hearts.

In these last days of Lent, let’s get to the heart of it–let us take a look at our lives and leave behind whatever might be preventing us from truly choosing to receive God’s love and promise. Let us pray that we may AGAIN, and AGAIN and AGAIN choose God’s promise remembering that the only thing that can drive out the noisy and disruptive forces of the world is the love of God—and that love of God is freely given to those who will receive it—that is the Good News we are trying to live into – it is the Joy given to the world through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Let’s go forward in faith – the show must go on! When God offers us the promised land, why settle for the trailer court?

Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, joy to you and me!