It's very easy to take only the comfortable bits of God's word, but I'm convinced God speaks through all of it, which is just as well given today's readings. We're in Jeremiah this morning, and it's profoundly uncomfortable.
Having said that, I love this passage – it's one of those glorious passages of scripture which at first sight seems completely irrelevant, but which has so much to teach us.
It's be far more interesting as well if the TNIV hadn't bowdlerised it so badly. Here's the KJV for verse 1:
“Go and get thee a linen girdle, and put it upon thy loins, and put it not in water.”
In other words, get some priestly underpants, wear them and don't wash them. Then go to a place a few miles away, and hide the used, unwashed pair of pants in a crack in the rocks, where all the water is going to run down over them when it rains. Then “many days later”, go back and get them. If I'd been astonishingly organised, this is where I'd say “here's one I prepared earlier”, but I think we can imagine what a pair of dirty linen pants are going to be like after a few months with rain water and mud running through them. Surprise, surprise, when Jeremiah goes to get them, they're completely useless.
It's a great visual image, isn't it? Verse 9 – God says that he will ruin the pride of the people just like those worn, soiled linen underpants were ruined. Even the people themselves are going to end up like a ruined, soiled, unusable loincloth. In context, God's going to do it by sending Babylon down on them (the place where Jeremiah had to leave the pants - “Perath” - has a name which is pretty much the same as the Euphrates, which is used as a symbol of Babylonian power).
So what on earth has this got to do with us? What I want us to notice is why God did it to them. Why would God ruin his people like that? Verse 11
“For as a belt is bound around the waist, so I bound the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah to me” declares the LORD, to be my people for my renown and praise and honour. But they have not listened.”
God bound Israel and Judah to him to be his single people for his renown and praise and honour. But they didn't listen. They followed their own heart and ran after other gods.
You know what? The best part of 3000 years later, and I think that all too often God's people still aren't listening much.
God has bound us to himself, to be his people, for his renown and praise and honour.
God has bound us to himself. He has taken us, stupid, sinful, pitiful, lost, dead people who deserve his wrath, who aren't any better than that ruined soiled loincloth, and he has bound us intimately to himself, to the perfectly wise and living God who does whatever he wants to do.
And yet we forget that. We start going off and thinking that we're worth something independently of God or that we can somehow get to God by what we do or we look at other people who seem so sorted and we think that we're somehow worthless. But God has taken us and God has attached us to him. It's not to do with our effort. It's not to do with how good we are or aren't.
And you know what? God didn't do it so that we could be our own, empowered people. He did it so that we would be his people. Not our own. His.
He didn't do it for our renown or so that we could boast about what excellent churches we've come from or are going to. He didn't do it so that more people could hear about Alpha or Christianity Explored or Reform or New Wine or Pusey House or Wycliffe Hall. He did it for his renown, so people would hear about him.
He didn't do it for people to praise us, or say how clever we are, how pastorally sensitive, how wise, how passionate, how good looking, how cool, what good preachers we are, how well we lead worship. He didn't do it so that if we have a reunion in 20 years time we could all show off about how much God has done in our churches, what organisations we're leading or what silly title the church has given us. He did it for his praise, not for ours.
He didn't do so that people could talk about us, or about our churches. He didn't do it so that we would think we were any sounder than other people, or that we better enabled encounters with God than other people, or that were more reverent than other people. Those are all judgementalism. He did it for his honour, not for ours.
Our attitude shouldn't be like Herod's, who cared more about what his dinner guests thought of him than about the truth. It shouldn't be like Herodias's, who was so proud that she hated John because he rebuked her. Our attitude should be like the disciples who are sent out into a world where people hate and try to kill those who stand up for Jesus, and who act not for their own glory, but only so that Jesus becomes better known. Our attitude should be like John the Baptist's. Jesus must become greater, we must become less.
And one day, when Jesus is everything and we are nothing except what we are in him, when we see that all things are for his praise and renown and honour, then we will praise him forever.
But at the moment, I know that so often I'm not doing that. Too often I'm trying to hold onto myself and some shred of ownership of my life or of my renown or my praise or my honour. And I know I'm not the only one. If we're honest, so often not we're not living as God's people, for his renown and praise and honour. So often we're not listening. And God says that when his people are like that, he will ruin us and our pride. God will do what it takes to humble us. If that means ruining us so that we end up like that soiled ruined loincloth, then that's what he'll do. When we try to be proud or independent, God humbles us. God disciplines his children, even if that means breaking us and ruining us.
I guess I've felt that a bit over the last week or so. As some of you know, I haven't exactly had a great time of it, and I know I'm not the only one here. And yes, on one level I can try blaming people and whatever, but on another level God has been humbling me and showing me more and more that I can't rely on myself to keep going. Yet again, God has been breaking my pride.
And, if I'm honest, a lot of the time I hate it. I really don't like the idea that God cares far more about my attitude to him than about my service for him. But that's my pride speaking. I want to see God using me more than I want to see myself humbled before him. That's because there's still pride in here – in glorifying God with my gifts, I hope a little bit will rub off on me.
But that's not what God wants. God says in Jeremiah 13 that he will ruin his people – he will make us completely useless, if that's what it takes to get us humble before him. God would far rather that we are humble than that we are useful. I'll say that again. God would far rather that we are humble than that we are useful.
And if necessary, he will make us useless if that's what it takes to make us humble. God would rather we are useless than that we are proud before him. God would rather we are useless than that we are proud.
A word then to those of us who are suffering at the moment. May this suffering draw you closer to God in reliance on him. Be encouraged - God is treating you as his children and working for your good, even when we can't see it and even when it doesn't feel like it. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
So keep on going and keep turning to God, he has bound us to himself to be his people for his renown and praise and honour.
A word to those who aren't suffering at the moment. Are you proud? Are you even proud of not being proud? Then if you are really God's child, he will humble you because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as a child.
God made us for himself, he bound us to himself for to be his people for his renown and praise and honour. Will we listen?