03 August 2016

den of robbers

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: "Stand at the gate of the LORD's house and there proclaim this message:

"Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah who come through these gates and worship the LORD. 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. 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 foreigner, 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 ancestors for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.

"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? But I have been watching! declares the LORD."

(Jeremiah 7:1–11)

Though written centuries ago to a specific people, these words are strikingly applicable to our modern society. In the face of a political and military threat that loomed on the horizon, the message of Jeremiah is incredibly inward-focused. Instead of trying to deal with the foreign problem, the word of God instead examines the actions and attitudes of his own people. The nation that was selected out of all of the other nations to carry the covenant is now at risk of losing the privilege of the presence of God in their midst. All is not lost – not yet. There remains the hope that this people will return to Yhwh, though it will require a radical change of behavior to break the status quo.

Those who who are self-serving and deceptive will not facilitate the divine presence. Even when they rush into the house of the Lord their worship will not be acceptable. There is no place for those who give lip-service to the presence of God without enacting his justice and righteousness to those who are poor and oppressed. Those who oppress others cannot be the people of God, no matter how great their acts of liturgy. Those who work to embody the kingdom of God – who hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness – are those who will remain in God's presence.

What had become of the people of God in Judah is that they accepted the belief that they were safe under divine protection, even when they did not live according to the covenant. They shrouded their immoral behavior with the words of faithfulness – hollow words that might have been powerful statements of faith, if they were recited with meaning. Whatever one needed to do in order to make it through this life was increasingly accepted, so long as you could 'tip your cap' to values that sounded good and a worship that gave the outward impression of fidelity.

Instead of the temple facilitating the presence of God, affecting a broken world with righteousness, it had itself become defiled by the pagan practices that had infected the nation. When Isaiah stood in the temple as unclean, it was the divine presence that transformed him, touching his lips with fire from the altar to make him clean. The work of holiness in the temple was to make a holy people who could carry that holiness to the world. Isaiah's vision has broken apart in Jeremiah's reality, and the temple was no longer a place of holiness, because the covenant had been disregarded by God's own people.

When Jesus cleared the temple he enacted a warning of judgment upon a people who refused to follow God's way. They too had become ensnared with self-serving political games that led to physical, economic, and spiritual oppression. The people of God were trying to live by the sword of that day's power, shrouding their behavior with the traditions of the covenant. A faithless rendering of a religion that had become a way for the powerful to enact their influence. Jesus declared that this temple which was to be a house of prayer had become instead a den of robbers (Matthew 21:13). With this declaration he points to the reality that Isaiah's vision had become Jeremiah's reality yet again among the people of God.

As history examines our own nation and our current battles, one cannot help but fear that the same ruin might be at the end of our current road. The focus for such a theological critique must be the church, which is currently struggling on its own identity within our culture. The present political cycle has shown that there are many who are willing to play the political games that promote the powerful and leave many trampled as a result, and yet still give lip-service to the gospel. Instead of going around proclaiming, "This is the temple of the LORD!," we are told to rest assured in that this is "A Christian nation! A Christian nation! A Christian nation!"

But without the presence of God's justice and righteousness there is no gospel. Without the care for the poor and the oppressed, without the bolstering of peace over the shedding of innocent blood for the sake of achievement and prosperity, there is no gospel. And a political process that is so corrupted by hatred, lies, threats, anger, militarism, and self-salvation leaves no room for the gospel.

So, why would a people who claim to be disciples of Jesus so willingly support and moralize such a corruption of morality and righteousness? In some cases this may simply be a misunderstanding of the gospel, or a different understanding of how to live as the kingdom of God in the world. But, by and large, when so many who claim to be the church embody such worldly means of winning power and securing influence, even at the expense of leaving so many in physical, economic, and spiritual oppression, something is seriously wrong. And the greatest threats to who we are do not lie outside of ourselves, but in who we have become – hiding our godless behavior behind hallow words of worship.

Do we have any reason to think that the words of Jesus' judgment on the temple are so far removed from who we have become?

Will we listen and renew our hearts?

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