Saturday, September 25, 2010

Keeping Up Appearances

Jer. 8:18-9:1; Lk. 16:1-13[1]

I find it interesting that, when our life in these United States fails to live up to our expectations, we inevitably ask, “Where is God?” It seems to me that question makes some pretty grand assumptions—that somehow this country is different from all the other nations and states and kingdoms that have come and gone in the history of the world. And it assumes that somehow God has a stake in whether or not this nation thrives. It seems to me that one of the biggest pitfalls in this way of thinking is that because we make a show of piety with our god-talk we expect God to look after us and protect us and pour out blessings on us.

This assumption is nothing new. The people of Jeremiah’s day made the same mistake long ago. They believed that God would protect them from any invading army because “the Lord is in Zion” (Jer. 8:19). They may have to endure the humiliation of invasion, but God would ultimately defeat any would-be invader, and Jerusalem would be preserved, because it is the place where God dwells.[2] But all the while, according to the prophet, they were pursuing their own course, one that ran contrary to God’s purposes. Hear the words of the prophet:

“Why, then, have the people of Jerusalem gone the wrong way and not turned back? They believe their own lies and refuse to turn around and come back. I have listened to them very carefully, but they do not say what is right. They do not feel sorry about their wicked ways, saying, ‘What have I done?’ Each person goes his own way, like a horse charging into a battle. Even the birds in the sky know the right times to do things. The storks, doves, swifts, and thrushes know when it is time to migrate. But my people don’t know what the Lord wants them to do.”[3] (Jer 8:5-7, NCV)

Jeremiah proclaimed in the name of the LORD that this smug, self-righteous attitude would be their undoing. The problem was not that they fell short, or stumbled, or made a mistake, but that they intentionally pursued a course of evil “without a tinge of regret.”[4] Time and again, in response to dire warnings of impending doom, the people of Jerusalem tended to ask not, “What have I done?” but, “Where is God?”[5] But that’s way too easy an out! It is too easy for us to blame God when something goes wrong in our world.[6] If there is no ‘balm in Gilead,” no restoration of peace and justice in our world, no healing from the wounds of violence and greed and selfishness and dishonesty, it is not for lack of compassion in God![7]

I think part of the problem is that the preoccupation with keeping up the appearance of holiness blinds us to our shortcomings. The people of Jerusalem were so blinded to their own wrongdoing that they would have had no problem joining the Psalmist in begging for God’s compassion to heal them while praying for God to destroy the heathen in anger (Ps. 79:5-9)! We can see the folly in their mistake, but Jesus gives us one that is much harder to see. I think part of the point of the parable of the dishonest steward is that our difficulty in sorting out the parable makes painfully obvious how accustomed we are to deceit, falsehood, and fraud as a way of life. The reality is that we, like the people of Jeremiah’s day, and Jesus’ day, do not know the justice of the Lord (Jer. 8:7)![8] We, like those who have claimed to be God’s people throughout the ages, are blinded to our own shortcomings by our efforts at keeping up appearances.[9]

It is difficult for most of us to see our own flaws. Sometimes we all need to be pulled up short by someone else and made to see our obvious failings. I had an experience with this when I lived in Europe. The church I attended in Stuttgart carried out a mission to take food to churches in Romania. On the way we spent the night in Budapest with the family of one of our members. Like many people in Europe, the father of the family wanted to talk about the United States. He was particularly concerned with the movies that came from our country. Now, this fellow wasn’t na├»ve enough to think that our movies accurately depict our society. But the question he asked was, “What kind of people go to see these movies?”

I must say I was taken up short by that question. Things that I as a Christian minister took for granted, he saw in a much different light. Here was a Hungarian Christian who saw movies coming out of our country that glorify violence, that plaster sex without boundaries all over the screen, that make heroes out of villains and buffoons out of traditional role models. And he couldn’t understand how such movies were so popular in a culture that claimed to be Christian. I think his simply straightforward question helped me to see how we engage in the folly of keeping up appearances.

The painful truth is that we are not the people we envision ourselves to be—not always. We do not live up to the convictions we profess to be the basis for our lives—not always. We may be in tune to the “justice of the Lord” in some areas of our lives, but I guarantee that there are others where we are not, and we are clueless about that fact. Jeremiah calls us to ask not “Where is God?” but “What have I done?”—to pull back the veil of our appearance of godliness so that we can find the way to real healing.



[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/19/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Miller, “The Book of Jeremiah,” New Interpreter’s Bible VI:646, 648; cf. also Ronald Clements, Jeremiah, 60.

[3] Literally, “the justice of the Lord.”

[4] Clements, Jeremiah, 55.

[5] Cf. Miller, “Book of Jeremiah,” NIB VI:649.

[6] Clements, Jeremiah, 58.

[7] Cf. Miller, “Book of Jeremiah,” NIB VI:648: though it is Jeremiah who is putting pen to ink in this lament (so to speak), it is incredibly difficult to sort out Jeremiah’s anguish on behalf of his beloved people from God’s!

[8] Cf. Miller, “Book of Jeremiah,” NIB VI:646: “They do not know the order (mishpat) of the Lord for their lives, an order that is centered in justice (mishpat)” therefore “they also do not know the judgment (mishpat) that is to come into their lives” to restore that order.

[9] Miller, “Book of Jeremiah,” NIB VI:650.

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