Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Turning Back"

Message preached September 1, 2002
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  Jeremiah 15:15-21

Order of Worship

            School began again this past week in the Haynes household, like it did for many families in this church. I was pleasantly surprised how well my thirdborn, incoming middle-school student awakened two hours earlier than he did last year. Of course, as the week progressed, he looked a little less "bright eyed and bushy tailed" at 6 a.m. Turning back-to-school can be exciting. It can also get old pretty quick, once the routine of it all settles in.

            With our worship celebration this morning, we are marking the beginning of a new year of Sunday School. Most of us have taken the summer off, adults and young people alike. Now is the time to get back into the groove. Hopefully, we havenít ceased growing in "Jesusí school of learning" over the past three months. Still, are you ready to turn back-to-Sunday-school? Those of you who donít connect up with this disciple-making activity of the church, please know that there is always a place for you around the table of any of our classes.

            Turning back can be exciting, even for adults. Of course, I know that few - if any - of us went out shopping for our own personal Sunday School supplies. I donít see any backpacks filled with 3-ring binders, notepaper, pens and pencils, highliters - you name it - especially for this day. Iím not even sure I see all that many "textbooks." ...And what is our "Jeremiah" by Marc Chagall, 1956"textbook?" The Bible, duh! Iím getting a bit silly, I know, but the question is: Are we ready to grow as disciples of Jesus?

            Jeremiah had been a prophet, called by God to speak the truth, for about five years, when an amazing discovery was made. In this present day and age, when Bibles seem to be everywhere - with a different translation available for practically every day of the month, itís hard to imagine not having Godís Word accessible to us. But that was the case when Jeremiah grew up.

            Please understand, this Old Testament character grew up in a very devout family. His parents even gave him a very religious name. "Jeremiah" means "the Lord exalts." Of course, it also means "the Lord throws down." Both of those definitions for his name pretty much describe the push and pull in the life of this man of God (see Jeremiah 1:10). Jeremiah was raised by his family and his community to be righteous in the sight of the Lord. However, this was done without the benefit of Godís written Word. Can you imagine Sunday School without a Bible?

            Well, it wasnít until Jeremiah was well on his way as a prophet of God that a discovery was made "in the house of the Lord." They found the "book of the law," the Torah, hidden away in some nook or cranny in the Temple. That was their Bible back then. When they blew away the dust from these scrolls, the Word of God nearly blew them away (for more, see 2 Kings 22:3-13, 2 Chronicles 34:8-21). The spark of reform already happening in Jerusalem at that time ignited into a flame. And Jeremiah was one of those set on fire for the Lord.

            In this morningís scripture reading, we find a flashback to that time in his life. Verse 16 of the 15th chapter of Jeremiah is printed at the top of your bulletin, something from our "text"-book which I quoted earlier with the children. Why donít we read it out loud, together - "Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts."

            That almost sounds like a theme song for what Sunday School should be, doesnít it? Would that every time we approach the Bible together, it would be like the discovery of the Torah scrolls in the Temple long ago. We blow away the dust, and God blows us away. Is it possible to approach the Word of God, when we are gathered to learn or when we open this "text"-book on our own, as if it were a tasty meal? It was so for Jeremiah.

            We donít usually think of approaching scripture with our mouths open, as if eating. What an interesting image, though. When God called Jeremiah, "the LORD put out his hand and touched (this prophetís) mouth; and the LORD said, ĎNow I "Jeremiah" by Michelangelo - Sistine Chapelhave put my words in your mouth.í" (Jeremiah 1:9) Yes, Jeremiah became a "mouth"-piece for the Lord, but there is a sense in which this prophet feasted upon what had been rediscovered in the Temple. It wasnít just a mind-trip, from eye to brain. It didnít just go in one ear and out the other. It descended to the belly.

            I wish I could say that this growing bubble in my mid-section was an indication of my feasting upon Godís Word. Unfortunately you and I know the truth. Still, can we make it our goal that after we have gathered (whenever we gather) in "Jesusí school of learning," what Jeremiah said long ago might be our own prayer. "Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts."

            Of course, if we are to be true to this Word that has just touched our own lips, if we want it to truly be food for the depths of our being, we need to back up and feast upon this verse in the context of the words around it. If you havenít already, open your Bible to Jeremiah chapter 15, verse 15-21. Thatís found in on page 664 in the pew Bibles. Whatís the first thing you notice when your eyes feast upon the page? Those verses stick out, donít they. They arenít in paragraph form, looking like bricks in a wall. No, this is poetry, if you will. Itís different.

            More precisely, itís a prayer, and as we eat the words we find it to be a very intimate prayer which reveals a bit of the heart of this prophet. Please, donít take your fork and pull it apart to see what all is in it before you take a taste. When it comes to scripture, too many folks are like my youngest child at the supper table. She is very picky about what will go into her mouth. If she doesnít like it, she wonít eat it. Many of us are that way with Godís Word. We only eat what we want to eat. If we donít understand it right away, or if we donít like the words, we say it doesnít apply to us, or that itís too dusty (t"Jeremiah" by Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-11oo "long ago") to eat. Tastes change, you know.

            Maybe itís more a matter that weíre afraid to taste. Now, I admit that there is almost something embarrassing about this prayer of Jeremiah. I mean, this prophet is supposed to be someone with a very deep faith. This prayer almost sounds petty. In it, he complains to God that nobody listens to him. He complains that heís afraid. He complains that heís a lonely guy. He complains that he is in a great deal of pain. Believe it or not, that verse we read earlier came from the middle of a complaint, Jeremiah whining to the Lord. Kind of changes things, doesnít it?

            Prophets arenít supposed to be whiners, are they? They arenít supposed to be filled with questions and doubts, right? Guess again. That should come as good news to those of us called to in some small way be about some of the same kind of work as Jeremiah. Sunday School teachers, for instance, arenít necessarily called to be prophets, but they help Godís people, young or old, to turn back to what God has to say. If Jeremiah struggled, donít you think you are allowed to struggle also?

            Oh, that we would struggle more, especially in prayer, as we prepare. I know I fall short when it comes to struggling with God in prayer. Jeremiah is a hard act to follow. These words of prayer from the prophet are not just for preachers and teachers, though. I think of those of you who have recently had a mountaintop experience, where you tasted something so very good from the Lord. Perhaps you made some life-changing decisions in the process, turning toward where God wants you to be, answering the call of the Lord. And then you came home to "life as usual," facing some of the same problems that were there before, sometimes more.

            Jeremiah was doing what God had called him to do, but it wasnít a smooth operation. He faced opposition left and right. All of this he brought into his prayer. He didnít leave it outside the door. I got to tell you, this talk with God was more Mount Cook reflected in the still waters of Lake Matheson, New Zealandlike an argument. If you think thatís bad, to argue with God, then youíve got a mistaken notion of what prayer is all about. Many of us think that our "spiritual times" with the Lord should be like a still mountain lake - peaceful, serene, uplifting. There are times when prayer is like that. No doubt Jeremiah, whose name meant "The Lord lifts up," experienced such moments. However, that isnít the whole show folks.

            His name also meant, "the Lord throws down," and his prayer life reflected that, as it should with us. Sometimes prayer is a raging river. That was the case in this prayer. Jeremiah let God have it. This prophet was angry at God for allowing those who opposed him to succeed. He complained about being lonely, living among people who had values and beliefs 180 degrees from his own, who wouldnít listen, who could care less. Yes, he recalled the delightful taste of Godís Word from his past, but now was now. Through Jeremiah, God had once spoken to this people of "the fountain of living water," that they were ignoring (2:13). Now, in prayer, Jeremiah complained, "God, to me you are like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail" (15:18). Doesnít that sound like an argument to you? "Believers argue with God," one person wrote about this very prayer; "skeptics argue with each other" (E. Peterson, Run with the Horses, p. 103).

            Of course, to every conversation there is more than one participant. It takes at least two to argue. Prayer, my friends, is a running dialog. In this prayer of Jeremiah, God responds. The Lord understands Jeremiahís fear, loneliness, hurt, and anger, but will not allow him to wallow in it. Instead, God calls him to turn from it. "If you turn back, I will take you back, and you shall stand before me" (15:19a). And then the Lord said something that should be close to the heart of every teacher, especially - though the words apply to us all and not just to them or to Jeremiah. "If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth" (15:19b).

            My challenge to our teachers this year is that you resolve to "utter what is precious, and not what is worthless" in your classrooms. Actually, thatís something towards which we all need to strive, in the classrooms of our daily life. However, itís not just a matter of our own ability, our own power of resolution. If it were, weíd be lost. The other side of prayer - and there is always two sides to prayer - is a God who responds with what we need. Jeremiah was strengthened for his own particular task to which God had called him. God will do the same for all who turn back to him. "I am with you to save you and deliver you, says the Lord" (15:20c)

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Jeremiah.

©2002 Peter L. Haynes

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