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A choice to be just
Sunday school lesson for the week of August 9, 2015
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson scripture: Jeremiah 7:1-15
The key verse and heart of our scripture lesson today is Jeremiah 7:3, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place.” Through Ezra and Jeremiah, God sent messages of hope to those who will amend their ways and messages of destruction to those who will not. The people have a choice to make. Will they chose to live justly or not?
The delicate question of our background scripture lessons (Ezra 7:1, 6, 21-28; Jeremiah 7:1-15) has to do with the significance of the Temple and its worship for the people of God to experience the presence of God. As scholars point out, on the one hand, the Temple building itself is quite important. It was ordained by God as a place God would appear and speak to the people in a fashion that was perhaps not possible anywhere else. The place was sacred.
But on the other hand, we are told that the Temple was not a source of security in and of itself. God did not guarantee that the Temple would newer be destroyed just because God chose to “reside” there. As far as God was concerned, the most important thing was that the worship of the Temple enable the people to do justice and to show compassion.
And this emphasis on right living dominates 7:1-15. In his well-known temple sermon, Jeremiah gives a sermon about the temple. He speaks against the illusion that the Temple building is naturally secure.
Ezra is dealing with the same idea but in a more indirect way. Ezra 6 tells us that the Temple had been rebuilt and was dedicated to the worship of God. However, the restored community was not complete until Ezra brought the law of Moses to Jerusalem. That law was to be the standard by which the people would live.
The story of Ezra
The return of Israel from exile in Babylon began in 539 B.C. This was when King Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonians and sponsored the return of the various peoples that the Babylonians had displaced. Some of the exiles returned and with the support of the Persians rebuilt the Temple, which was finally completed in 515 B.C.
The story of Ezra bringing the Law to Jerusalem is set at least a generation after exiles began to return to Jerusalem in 458 B.C. It was in the seventh year of the King Artaxerxes (pronounced akr tuh zuhrk’ seez). Scholars explain that the content of the document Ezra brought to Jerusalem is not totally understood. It is simply called “the law of Moses that the Lord the God of Israel had given” (Ezra 7:6) or “the law of God of heaven” (Ezra 7:21). Most likely, however, Ezra’s scroll was a form of the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. And, as you know, this section of the Old Testament came to be called “The Law” and was the first major division of the Jewish Bible, to be followed by “the Prophets” and “the writings” (Luke 24:44).
Artaxerxes’ letter gives Ezra, and any other priest, permission to return to Jerusalem. It also gives Ezra the authority to request funds from officials in Jerusalem to establish the law of Moses as the law that organizes these returned exiles.
Ezra was appointed head of the province’s government. The law of God would stand alongside the law of the Persian King as the law of the land. The Persians allowed local people to use their religious laws to govern them, along with certain regulation from the Persian King. And, of course, this created goodwill between the local people and the Persians. For the Israelites, it allowed the law of Moses to be recognized as the primary authority in the lives of the people.
In Ezra 7:27, 28, Ezra speaks! Initially, Ezra praises God for guiding the Persian King to favor Jerusalem and its Temple. He then acknowledges that his role as scribe is a result of God’s steadfast love (hesed) or faithfulness to the covenant with Israel. Finally, Ezra speaks like a prophet by declaring that “the hand of the Lord my God was upon me” (Ezra 7:28).
The Temple sermon
The heart of this lesson and the main scripture reading is Jeremiah 7:1-15. This first public appearance of the young prophet Jeremiah was to deliver his well-known temple “sermon.” Jeremiah went to the gate of the Jerusalem Temple at a time when great crowds were flocking there (perhaps at the celebration of the crowning of King Jehoiakim in 609 B.C.). Standing before the crowds, he addressed them in words that must have certainly gained their attention. He accused the people of placing false confidence in the temple for their salvation. In addition, he called these same people to find true salvation by practicing justice and righteousness in the sight of God.
Jeremiah’s message that day was simple, “Amend your ways and your doings” (7:3). The things that needed to be amended are found in verse 5, 6, and 8, though those lists do not go far enough. As I suggested previously, the real issue is that the people of Judah act contrary to God’s intentions and still believe that God is with them. Actually and factually, God wants to dwell with them (7:3), but this is only possible if the people live in obedience. Big mistake coming up! However, there people of Judah falsely believe that the Temple will retain the presence of God simply because it is the Temple.
Jeremiah then states the requirements for God to “dwell” with the people of Judah. In verse 6, he mentions various acts of compassion and justice that are to be extended to the most vulnerable members of society. He also mentions the necessity of faithfulness to God in worship. Fulfilling these requirements will ensure God’s enduring presence and protection.
To drive home his point, Jeremiah offers a lesson from Israel’s history. He says that if the people of Judah do not change their evil ways and experience a moral reformation, God will do to this temple as he has done centuries before to the temple of Shiloh.
For a moment, let’s review what happened at Shiloh. During the time of Samuel, the sanctuary at Shiloh was the place God chose to make the divine name dwell. Scholars tell us that Jeremiah refers to God’s name as a way of speaking about God’s presence. However, the sons of Eli, the priest at Shiloh, were not faithful (1 Samuel 4). Therefore, God rejected Shiloh and chose a new place. The point is that God could depart from Jerusalem just as God departed from Shiloh.
As we are reminded, there is nothing sacred about the stones of the Temple or the hilltop on which the Temple was built. The place was holy only because God chose to be there. However, God’s presence demands faithful living characterized by justice and mercy. Otherwise, God would depart and leave the place in utter ruins.
Jeremiah makes it clear in our scripture lesson that the dividing line between those whom God makes secure and those whom God gives over to judgment is a line drawn by confession of sin. And this confession of sin is not simply that we make a verbal confession of our sinfulness. No! The point is that those who confess their sins live in ways that are different from those who do not. The reason for the difference is that those who truly confess their sins base their relationship on trust in God. His mercy and grace – and gratitude for their experience of God’s goodness. These folks, as we have been reminded, take nothing for granted.
Now, Jeremiah directed this message to people who saw themselves as privileged and automatically protected. He called them both to be aware of their sins and of God’s grace.
Another significant lesson Jeremiah pointed out was that those who are fully aware of their faults tend to be more attentive to the needs of others than those who deny their faith. For Jeremiah’s audience, the denial of their sinfulness had much to do with their oppression of the poor. Since they took their relationship with God for granted, they also took for granted their responsibility to other human beings. A proper love for others always grows out of a profound sense that we are loved by God, unconditionally.
Does God dwell in a place on earth?
Jeremiah makes two points here in his temple sermon. First, along with other Old Testament texts, Jeremiah shares the ideas that God’s dwelling on earth is a place that gives access to God’s actual dwelling place in heaven. However, it was not a place where God was thought to dwell exclusively.
Scholars suggest that perhaps the best illustration of the connection between the temple on earth and the heavenly throne of God is the story of Isaiah’s call in Isaiah 6 (see, Isaiah 6:1). In other words, while he was standing in the Temple in Jerusalem, Isaiah saw a vision of God sitting on the throne in heaven. While the Temple was not the place God dwelled in fullness, it was an entrance into the actual presence of God.
Second, scholars inform us that as a link between heaven and earth, a portal to the divine realm, the Jerusalem Temple was necessarily secondary to the real temple in heaven. Therefore, this earthly house could be replaced if God chose to replace it. And it was at this point that Jeremiah said the people were confused about the importance of the Temple. They thought that it was “the” house of God and that it provided security for them simply by its presence. But Jeremiah reminded them that this Temple in Jerusalem was holy only because God chose it to be holy. It was not inherently holy and could be replaced. The key reality to God continuing to “dwell” in the Temple was for the people to walk humbly with God and to live justly with one another.
The nature of morality
The question of how Christians should live and treat one another is of paramount importance to the church’s confession of faith. And this applies especially to how Christians treat each other in moral issues that tend to divide the body of Christ.
It is helpful to note the particular issues Jeremiah identified as central to Judah’s relationship with God and how these matters affected that relationship. Jeremiah points out two lists of moral concerns. Verse 6 speaks against oppressing the most vulnerable people in Jewish society. Jeremiah’s second list in verse 9 sounds like a brief version of the Ten Commandments. These commandments give rise to commands on how to treat others.
According to scholars, these two lists both focus on right treatment of one’s neighbor with an emphasis on not taking advantage of that neighbor. Note also that both lists speak of not going after other gods.
Keep in mind that our love which results from God’s grace is the heart of our faith. But that love only becomes visible to the world when we treat other people as people that God loves and calls us to serve.