Two Rivers Pastoral Charge (Westfield United Church)
Sunday February 17, 2019
Scripture: Jeremiah 17:5-10
As we were talking about in our Story for All Ages, plants need water to live. Houseplants, shrubs, trees, they all need water. Even cacti, that seem to live in the desert with no water, even they need a bit of water once in a while in order to live. And we can expand this beyond plants to all living creatures need water in order to live.
Our reading from Jeremiah uses a very striking image of a plant in the desert compared with a plant by the river. Now here in New Brunswick, where we don’t have any deserts and too much water is often a bigger problem than not enough, this imagery might not be as relevant, but I pulled this picture up to demonstrate the importance of water for life.
Nile River Delta
© NASA – Public Domain
This is a satellite picture of the Nile River running through the Sahara desert. Wherever the river runs, plants and trees are able to grow; and wherever the river isn’t is seemingly lifeless desert. Water is life. Even if no rain falls, the trees growing by the river will still have access to water and will still be able to live. The river sustains life.
This would be the sort of image that Jeremiah had in mind as he was prophesying. “Anyone who turns away from God, who puts their full trust in other humans, they will be like a shrub planted in the desert. But anyone who puts their trust in God will be like a tree planted by a river; you don’t need to be afraid or anxious because even when the times of drought come, the river will sustain your life.”
I think that it’s important to note what Jeremiah isn’t saying. He isn’t saying that if you trust in God, the drought isn’t going to come, that bad things aren’t going to happen. No – he’s saying that if you trust in God, when the bad things happen, God will be there, sustaining you through those tough times.
And the people that Jeremiah was talking to, they knew what that was all about. They were a people living in a small country surrounded by large empires. The Assyrian army had already invaded and destroyed the northern part of their land, and now the Babylonians were pressing in. Jeremiah was speaking to people who were on the very verge of being overcome and taken into exile.
And Jeremiah doesn’t come and give them nice, comforting words. Jeremiah doesn’t tell them that the Babylonian army was going to disappear and everything would be OK. Jeremiah doesn’t tell them that God is going to zap the Babylonians with a lightning bolt. Jeremiah doesn’t give the people this kind of false comfort. In fact, if you were to read through all of Jeremiah, you would find false prophets who did say this sort of thing – that since God was with them, nothing bad could happen to them – but these false prophets generally met a bad ending.
Instead, Jeremiah speaks the truth. Bad things are going to happen in your life, even when you trust in God. The Babylonians are going to invade. People are going to die. Others are going to be exiled. The temple is going to be destroyed.
But into all of this truth-speaking, Jeremiah offers a word of hope. Jeremiah tells the people that if they trust in God, God will sustain them, even when these bad things happen. God will be with them, even when they are in exile from their country. God will be with them, even when the city and temple are destroyed. God will be with them, and they will flourish, even when the situation seems hopeless.
And I think that this message can still resonate with us today, even if the Babylonian army isn’t breathing down our necks. But we still face the same questions and concerns as Jeremiah’s audience does. Why do bad things happen? If we are good people, if we go to church and believe in God, shouldn’t life become all rainbows and unicorns and sunshine?
I will be honest and say that I don’t have a good answer as to why bad things happen. But I can affirm what Jeremiah says, that if we trust in God, then God will sustain us through these difficult times when they inevitably come.
Speaking from my own personal experience, I don’t know how I would have been able to get through those awful weeks and months after my mother died without God; without being able to dump all of my grief and anger on God.
Droughts will come, but if you are planted by the river, you will be able to get through the droughts.
We don’t need to be afraid; we don’t need to be anxious, because we know that God is always with us. Sometimes it seems as if our world is designed to inspire fear. How many commercials on television or radio use fear as their motivator? And then how many politicians of all parties have a 2-step campaign strategy: step 1 is to make us afraid of something; and step 2 is to then promise that only they can protect us from that thing.
But Jeremiah reminds us that if we are rooted in God; if we put our trust in God rather than in other humans and other institutions, then we are freed from fear and anxiety.
“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is in the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear with heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to fruit.”
So how can we ground ourselves in God, like a tree that is planted by a river? How can we grow our roots into God, so that we can draw on that life when things are tough?
I think that it is through our regular spiritual practices that these roots grow. By gathering together to worship, by sharing in the sacraments, the bread and the wine, by reading scripture, by prayer, by meditation, by connecting regularly with God in whatever way works for you – these are the practices that strengthen our relationship with God, that grow our roots into the river of life that is God.
And then, even when the world around us seems to be falling to pieces, we will still have our roots firmly grounded in the ever-loving life-giving waters of God.
For God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God!