Alistair Begg – Jeremiah 9 – Westmont College, Oct. 20, 2014

Alistair Begg at Westmont Chapel, preaching on the Three Things You Dare Not Trust: Wisdom, Strength, and Money.

TEXT – Jeremiah 8:18  –  9:1-5; 23-24

18 My joy is gone; grief is upon me;
    my heart is sick within me.
19 Behold, the cry of the daughter of my people
    from the length and breadth of the land:
“Is the Lord not in Zion?
    Is her King not in her?”
“Why have they provoked me to anger with their carved images
    and with their foreign idols?”
20 “The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
    and we are not saved.”
21 For the wound of the daughter of my people is my heart wounded;
    I mourn, and dismay has taken hold on me.

22 Is there no balm in Gilead?
    Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of the daughter of my people
    not been restored?

Chapter 9 – Oh that my head were waters,
    and my eyes a fountain of tears,
that I might weep day and night
    for the slain of the daughter of my people!
 Oh that I had in the desert
    a travelers’ lodging place,
that I might leave my people
    and go away from them!
For they are all adulterers,
    a company of treacherous men.
They bend their tongue like a bow;
    falsehood and not truth has grown strong in the land;
for they proceed from evil to evil,
    and they do not know me, declares the Lord.

Let everyone beware of his neighbor,
    and put no trust in any brother,
for every brother is a deceiver,
    and every neighbor goes about as a slanderer.
Everyone deceives his neighbor,
    and no one speaks the truth;
they have taught their tongue to speak lies;

When you read these words form Jeremiah, it’s no surprise that he’s referred to as the wailing prophet. It’s almost as if he has been reading our contemporary newspapers. It’s one of the striking things about the Bible. that here we are, some 600 years before the incarnation, before the appearing of Jesus and the circumstances that are being confronted by the prophet of God are not dissimilar to the environment in which we find ourselves. And that’s why he is saying, „I wish I could get out of here. I wish I had a place in the desert.” It’s not an unusual notion, except when you’re living in a beautiful place like this, why would you ever want to go into the desert? But, anyway, the whole idea was isolation- „if I could get away from these people”. He says we live in an adulterous world, we live in a world full of lies, we live in a world of serial sins. They precede from evil to evil. We live in an environment where there is a loss of mutual trust. And he says that God is actually saying through the prophet, „You live in the middle of deception.” You find it so bad that you will discover that God says we actually need more mourners in this environment: ‘Death has climbed into our windows, corpses are lying in the open field.’And in the extremity of those circumstances, the response of humanity, in its proud affirmations, then, and I would suggest to you[also] now, is essentially „Leave it to us, we can fix it. We know how to get out of this predicament. We are only in need of a little more health, a little more money, a little more education.” And confronted by the great questions of life, they are prepared then to trust in themselves and in their own judgment. Humanity is proud by nature and we’re tempted to believe these things.

And so, God in His kindness, sends to His people a prophet. A prophet who will speak to them, sympathizing with their suffering, and yet at the same time providing for them a solution for their sins.  And because he’s alert to the circumstances of their environment, He addresses their three foundational notions. He puts His finger on the pulse of the society. The great questions of life being addressed:

  1. How do I live with the uncertainties of my life?
  2. How am I going to face my death?

and men and women prepared to gut it out on their own. And so, He says, „Let me tell you three area that you dare not trust:

  1. Wisdom – Now, you say: you don’t wanna come to a wonderful college like this and devalue wisdom. Well, Jeremiah is not devaluing wisdom. He is simply pointing out that wisdom or intellectualism, or our capacity to think cannot be an end in itself. It cannot take the place of God, Himself. And if you think about it, when you consider the place of intelligence, which is valued at an institution like this, and when you move around this campus, you would have to be honest enough, I think, to say that it is not necessarily even on its best day marked by tranquility and by peculiar sense of peace, shalom, but an actual fight. When you lie on your bed in your room, you’re faced by your own anxietyYou are faced with a fight that it is easy to become a slanderer. That it is easy to tell a lie, often to cover our butts, than it is to tell the truth and face the consequences. And so, it goes on.. And if it was simply the fact that depending on your grade point average or your SAT scores, the higher up on the grading curve you would find yourself, then the more beautiful and wonderful it would appear to be. And yet, it was Einstein who said, „I’ve discovered that the people who know the most, are themselves the most gloomy.” I’ve always congratulated myself for the fact that I’m not smart enough  to really deal with many of these problems. I feel sorry for clever people, because then  you can think thoughts that I have never ever considered. And they trouble you and they keep you awake. And some of the worst graffiti you can ever find is found in the best echelons of american society, whether it’s at the Naval Academy or at West Point or in the Ivy League Colleges, because the graffiti artists are really smart as well. So they don’t just write dumb stuff on the lavatory walls, they write really clever stuff, expressing their angst, perhaps in one way or another wisdom holds the key. Jeremiah  says, God says, „You better not try and do it on the basis of wisdom.”
  2. Strength – Nor should you try and do it on the basis of strength. The mighty man, or the mighty woman for that matter, because ladies play rugby now. We are all tempted to rely on our might, whatever it might be. So the strength that is found, essentially, in not only our brains, but also in our bodies. Our bodies, which testify to us every morning that the further you go down the road, they testify to you that you are fading away.
  3. Riches – Don’t boast in your brains, don’t boast in your bodies, and don’t boast in your riches either. There’s two problems with wealth. Riches may actually desert us while we’re living, and we will desert our riches when we die. There is no doubt about this. Money is regarded as the universal passport to everywhere, except to happiness. And the prophet speaks about this and he challenges the people of his day. He says, „Don’t try and make sense of your life. Don’t try and secure significance ultimately by means of these things. Because neither an agile mind or a healthy body or a significant portfolio  can answer your deepest questions.

Here is this prophetic word from 600 years before Christ speaks to the issues of our day, because it addresses the deepest longings of our hearts. I was born in the ’50’s, I grew up in the ’60’s. If you’ve read the history of the ’60’s, you will know that we were told in the ’60’s that we were about to outgrow God completely. Like, God was pretty well finished and He would not be around much longer, so we could all relax. There were various things we were going to take over, and so we grew in the ’60’s, whole jumbo dreams and hopes and aspirations and contradictions. We found ourselves failing and resolving again, being disappointed with ourselves and ashamed of ourselves and resolving that we would be different people tomorrow. But nevertheless, we kept repeating the pattern. And Jeremiah says, „I can tell you why that is: Because you are worshipping at the wrong shrine.”

Just this past weekend, somebody introduced me, not to David Foster Wallace, but to the commencement speech that David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005. It gave rise to his book ‘What is water‘. In that commencement speech, at the beginning of it, he testifies  and he says,

everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.”

Now, he’s not about to give moralistic platitudes, he’s not about to give a theological analysis. He’s just being gut wrenching honest, the same kind of brilliant gut wrenching honesty  which tragically led to his own demise at the age of 46, when as you know, he hanged himself. Tragically, because he was clever enough to cut through the garbage of contemporary 20th century fascination  with ourselves, with our ability to amass money, with our ability to look great, with our ability to triumph over the minds of others by our fascination with ourselves. And it was his very honesty in that speech that gave rise to all that flow from it.

Now, says the prophet, „This is what you need to be thinking about. If you want something or someone to boast about, then boast in this, that you understand and that you know Me.” You wanna go out and talk to somebody about something that is mind blowing, tell them that you know the Creator God. Tell them that you have encountered him in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Tell them that He has invaded your life and that He’s turned you inside out and has made you a new person. You want something to boast about? He says, „Boast about this.” And that when you speak of this God, you can tell people that Yahweh is the one who practices steadfast love-hesed,  the covenant love of God, a pursuing love of God, a wooing love of God, a transforming love. And this God is committed to that love, and to justice, and to righteousness.

Because this God is just, He didn’t overlook sin. Because He is love, He provides a substitute to die in our place.

I was fascinated by the end of David Foster Wallace’s speech- He’s moving towards a close now, and he says,

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious.

Well, that’s where, of course, a Christian view would have to differ from him. He says, „I’m gonna be honest enough to let you know they’re hardwired into my psyche and that I’m at the center of the universe. That’s what Luther said. Luther said that we’re curved in upon ourselves, that we are by nature stuck on ourselves. And our humanity at this point , we could ask people if they had a major problem. If they were willing to admit to a major problem, we would ask what is the source of their problem. Almost without exception, they would have reasoned  to externalize the source of their problem: because of this or because of that, or because of that. When we would then ask them: well, how are you planning to solve the problem? Then, they would say that the problem that was outside of them would be answered by their ability to look inside of them and they were fairly convinced that they could find the God within themselves, if they only searched hard. And what would we say? We would say, ‘Have you ever considered  that it might be the very antithesis of that? That the problem is on the inside of ourselves and that the answer is outside of ourselves. Outside the walls of Jerusalem, where a Galilean died bearing our sins  of all my selfish preoccupation with my mind and my body, and my resources. He granted to me a forgiveness that I don’t deserve, because He bears the punishment that I so clearly do deserve.

VIDEO by WestmontTV

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