March 29, 2011
But this command I gave them, ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.’ Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but, in the stubbornness of their evil will, they walked in their own counsels, and looked backwards rather than forwards… So you shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you. You shall call to them, but they will not answer you. You shall say to them: This is the nation that did not obey the voice of the Lord their God, and did not accept discipline; truth has perished; it is cut off from their lips. - Jeremiah 7:23-28
When I received this assigned text, I read the passage with a sinking heart. Oh mercy, I thought, it’s a ‘judgment’ text—full of a stubborn, idolatrous people and an angry, punishing God. With little interest, I stumbled through the references to burnt offerings, child sacrifice, and valleys with unfamiliar names. What could I possibly write about this?
For the next weeks, I procrastinated. Occasionally I’d read over the passage, hoping for a spark of inspiration. But the words seemed obscure and harsh each time, so I’d close the Bible with a shrug and go back to my daily busyness.
After a while, despite my scant attention, the words of this prophecy began to penetrate. Then I sheepishly realized I had been acting out the very fault the passage condemns.
At its heart, this text is about listening and not listening. God’s word delivered to the ancient Israelite refugees from Egypt (v 23) can equally be translated “Obey my voice” or “Hear my voice.” This is the sin of the people: they do not “incline their ear” (v 24) or “listen to [God], or pay attention” (v 26). Even as Jeremiah is called to speak to the people, he’s warned, “but they will not listen to you” (v 27). And such refusal to listen is the seed of the people’s fall into idolatry and destruction.
Amidst the strange and grating details, the passage offers us a straightforward call: Listen to God’s voice. But ah, that can be hard to do! Whether we are distracted or puzzled, overfull with our daily schedules or turned off by a tone that disturbs, listening for God’s voice challenges us to move beyond the easy, the familiar and the comfortable.
Today and this Lenten season, how can we tune our ears to that call?
Persistent God, help us listen to you, even and especially when you speak to us in the words and voices of those least easy for us to hear. Lead us to walk more fully in your way of justice and truth.
Sarah MacDonald, a member of First Mennonite Church of Iowa City, serves on Christian Peacemaking Teams in Latin America, and in the West Bank of Palestine.