A message on Jeremiah 7 by Richard Keith on Sunday 23 July 2023
Everybody needs a place where they feel safe. Maybe it’s a little place they call home. Or a corner of the garden that’s cool in summer and warm in winter. Maybe it isn’t the place but the people they’re with. Some people only feel safe surrounded by family and friends, while others don’t feel safe unless they’re on their own.
Everyone needs a place where they feel safe. A sailor needs a harbour. A soldier needs a barracks to come back to after a night on patrol.
Even a rat needs a nest. And even robbers and thieves need a place of safety. It’s dangerous out there picking locks, cracking safes, stealing wallets, and robbing banks. And a criminal needs a lair, a den, a place where he is safe with his ill-gotten gains. A cave, maybe. Or an abandoned warehouse by the docks. Or just a house in an ordinary street, hidden in plain view.
Where are sinners safe to sin? Where can they find a den, a lair where they we do as they please without any fear of the consequences? Can we hide in the dark, telling ourselves that the Lord cannot see? Or can we hide in plain view, among God’s people in God’s church?
This was Jeremiah’s message from the Lord to the people of Jerusalem in Jeremiah chapter 7:
Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”- safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you?
You see, the people of Jerusalem in Jeremiah’s day believed they were safe in the temple. Safe to do whatever they liked. They had turned God’s house into a den of robbers, a safe place for sinners without fear of consequences.
But this was not meant to be.
Over the last few weeks we’ve been looking at the covenants in the Bible. The special agreements that God made with human beings. In particular we’ve been looking at the old covenant. How six hundred years before Jeremiah, Moses had come down from Mt Sinai with a strict moral code for the Israelites that God had rescued from their slavery in Egypt. It commanded obedience to God and honesty and justice towards our neighbour. You shall not murder. You shall not steal.
To seal the deal of this arrangement with the Israelites, God said,
Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all the nations you will be my treasured possession.
And the Israelites had replied,
We will do everything the Lord has said.
These promises created a relationship of belonging between them in which the Lord was their God and they were his people, set apart from all nations with a special mission for the world.
Of course, no one’s perfect, and so along with the strict moral code, God had also given laws through Moses so that the sinner could find atonement, redemption, forgiveness, through the sacrifices of the temple. The covenant God made with the Israelites wasn’t meant to just be one strike and you’re out, one mistake, one slip up, one failure to keep the strict moral code and a person would be excluded forever. If it had been, after 600 years there would have been no one left.
So the covenant also provided the temple worship and its sacrifices as a way for the sinner to be restored to fellowship with God and to the community of believers. A way back when they had wandered too far away.
After all, isn’t that what we find in the good news of Jesus? The way of Jesus’ cross isn’t just a stern call to obedience, to take up our cross to follow Jesus’ way of love and trust and goodness and faithfulness and holiness. But it is also the path of our salvation, offering forgiveness and redemption and restoration.
The problem back in Jeremiah’s day was that his contemporaries were focusing on the second bit, the forgiveness bit, and forgetting the first bit, the strict moral code. They thought that the sacrifices of the temple in Jerusalem meant that they could get their hands dirty in any kind of corrupt and filthy living and then wash themselves clean in the blood of bulls and goats, like they’d never been dirty at all.
In fact, they had corrupted the system so much that the temple had become a place where the rich and powerful could exploit the poor and weak and still feel safe. Where they could bow the knee to any god and pay lip service to the Lord, their God, and everything would be fine. After all, hadn’t God promised king David,
Your house and you kingdom will endure forever before me, your throne will be established forever.
God had promised on oath to protect the king, his capital Jerusalem and the temple inside it. And so they believed they were safe. Safe to live as they pleased. They really, truly believed that the presence of God’s temple among them gave them a license to sins. As Jeremiah said, they had made God’s house a den of robbers.
So the Lord told Jeremiah to stand at the gate of the temple in Jerusalem and to proclaim this message to the people walking in,
This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place.
It was a call to repentance, a summons to God’s people to change their attitudes and their behaviour. With no please or thank you, but just the abrupt command to reform. It was a call to justice, to personal righteousness from the Holy God who expects his people to be holy. And not just in a pious and sanctimonious way, saying the right words, going through the motions. Because the Lord demands more than just the appearance of religion.
The Queen Mary was an ocean liner that sailed between England and the United States from 1936 to 1967, carrying 2000 passengers and 1000 crew. In fact, during World War II the Queen Mary was converted into a troop carrier, and shipped soldiers from Australia and New Zealand to the United Kingdom. After the ship was retired in 1967 it sailed to California where it was permanently moored as a floating restaurant and hotel.
Prominent above the ship’s deck were its three funnels painted orange and black, angling back towards the stern. They were twenty-five metres high and originally made of steel 20 cm thick. However, during her refit in California in 1968 the funnels were removed and replaced with replicas. Because engineers found that most of that 20 cm of steel had rusted away during its thirty plus years of service, that there was, in fact, very little metal in them at all, and that the only thing holding the funnels together were layers and layers of orange and black paint.
This is the kind of religion that the Lord hates. He hates hollow religion that gives the appearance of faith, but has none of its substance. That says the right words. That goes through the motions. That can recite the Lord’s Prayer. That wears a suit and tie to hide the ugliness of its true nature. This is a faith that is put on for show that is all just smoke and mirrors, distracting attention from its moral bankruptcy. This is the show that many people try to put on every Sunday. But the Lord expects more than religion that has rusted away until there is nothing left. And he made that very clear through his prophet Jeremiah.
As he said in verses 4 to 7,
Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever.
What the Lord expects is justice. What the Lord commands is that his people look after the strangers, and orphans and widows. These were the people with no one to support them, no husband, no father, no family or friends. They need more than sympathy and good intentions, but practical help and support in their time of need. These were the conditions God’s people had to meet to live in God’s promised land. The Lord is holy and his people have to show that they are different. To disobey him, to fall short of his standards, is to call on his curse and to face his judgment. To forsake the Lord is to abandon the mission for which he chose the people of Israel. The mission for which he gave them their own land to live in.
However, instead of being ashamed of these things, instead of feeling under the judgment of God, instead of fearing the coming of his wrath against them, the people of Jerusalem believed that they were fine. That they were safe from such dangers. That they had nothing to worry about. Like contestants on a reality TV show they believed they’d won immunity that protected them from elimination, from being voted off God’s promised land. And their immunity pin was the presence of the Lord’s temple among them.
Jeremiah called out to them
Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!”
The threefold repetition shows that the people had a superstitious trust in the temple. Like a person living in denial, rocking back and forth muttering the same words over and over. The temple which had been designed and built as the earthly palace of the heavenly king, the place where God and human beings would meet, the place where men and women could come and make their peace with the Lord and resolve to live a better life, had instead become their lucky charm. Like a careless driver trusting in their St Christopher statue hanging from their rear view mirror instead of paying attention to the road.
“We have the temple,” they would say. “God would never let his temple be destroyed. God would never let his holy city be invaded. We are the chosen ones. We are the true believers. We are safe. Because he promised. The temple was their lucky charm. “Too bad I cheated my neighbour out of his house and home. Oh well, it’s off to the markets to buy a bull to sacrifice at the Lord’s temple and everything will be all right.” And so for that brief moment they believed that their souls were pure again. Like a celebrity taking a fortnight off the drugs to detox, but without any real commitment to lasting change. Isn’t that what the Lord wanted when he had the temple built in the first place?
Not at all.
This is when religion becomes toxic, poisonous. When grace becomes cheap. When the word of life kills. When the comfort of the gospel to sinners, the news that the Lord is merciful and forgiving, becomes just another excuse for the sinner not to change his life.
Preaching the gospel is a delicate balance. Because the preacher must tell the people that we are not saved by good works. But he must also remind them that we are saved for good works. On the one side the gospel forbids us from trusting in our own self-righteousness. But it also summons us to real and lasting change. For the holy God requires his people to be holy. He does not save them so they don’t need to change. But he saves them so they can.
The gospel summons us to the cross of Jesus. Not only to the instrument of our salvation, but to the pattern of trust and obedience that Jesus showed on the way to the cross. The gospel summons us to the cross and to a life shaped by the cross. Because God’s grace may be free. It is not earned by our own merit or by going through the motions of hollow religion. God’s favour is given to us generously purchased for us by the merits of Christ. But it isn’t cheap. And it calls us to show the same generosity to the strangers, to the orphans, to the widows, to the powerless among us.
There is no safe place to sin. And the church is not a den of robbers. It is instead the place where we learn to love the Lord above all things and to love others in his name.