Jer. 38:4-6, 8-10; Ps. 40; Heb. 12:1-4; Lk. 12:49-53
(Audio recorded live, 13 August 2022)
Last week I spoke of the importance of the virtue of perseverance, especially with respect to Faith and Hope. We hear a similar message today. First, the prophet Jeremiah is thrown into a cistern, but is saved before starving to death. Next, the author to the Letter to the Hebrews encourages us to persevere in running the race that lies before us. That race is one of perseverance in Faith. And Jesus says, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” He wishes that all people be on fire for the Faith. So, let us unpack what the Word of God is saying to us today.
First, a little context regarding the prophet Jeremiah: He was called by God at a young age to prophesy to the people of Jerusalem before the Babylonian Captivity. Jeremiah prophesied about the current conditions that would lead to Jerusalem’s destruction. This included offenses such as worshiping false idols, the neglect of widows and orphans, universal corruption, infidelity, stubbornness of heart. In a word, the people had broken the covenant with God. So, God sent Jeremiah, who was one of the only true prophets in his day. Jeremiah preached for 40 years, but was rejected by the people. We heard how the princes also rejected Jeremiah by having him thrown into a cistern and basically left for dead. It is worth mentioning that the king allowed this to happen based on the statements from the princes, that Jeremiah was demoralizing their army through his preaching. How often throughout history do those who speak the truth, no matter how difficult it is to hear, get silenced for doing so? And was this not the same for Jesus, who criticized the leadership of his day and warned against their wickedness. As one of my seminary professors once said, if you speak the truth, be prepared to be crucified for it. Or in the case of Jeremiah, thrown down a well.
Sometimes it is difficult to hear hard truths. The truth makes us think and thinking forces us to evaluate our life. God sent his prophets for precisely this reason. A thinking man has the freedom to change his mind, to turn away from evil, to make a conscious return to God. And while Jeremiah preached mostly doom and gloom, it was always with the promise of restoration to come. There were false prophets saying that Jerusalem would not fall to Babylon, but Jeremiah knew that the time had come. Too much wickedness had entered the hearts of the people and they perverted justice in the land and ignored God’s laws. It is the old story, you make your bed, you lie in it. This is the responsibility of freedom, namely, that my actions have consequences. And insofar as I am free to keep the commandments and live for God, I am just as free to reject God and live for myself.
Moses once said, “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the LORD, your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him” (Dt. 30:19-20). The people of Israel failed to heed this warning of Moses as they did the warning of Jeremiah. But, what we see in Jeremiah’s imprisonment and rescue is a prefigurement of the restoration to come. Just as Jeremiah was down the well, and Jonah was in the belly of the whale, and Jesus was in the tomb, restoration was always set to follow. That is why the psalmist says, “The LORD heard my cry. He drew me out of the pit of destruction, out of the mud of the swamp….” It is always God who saves. It is of the essence of God to save, to preserve, to lift up, to increase. How might God be saving us today? Preserving us today? Lifting us up today?
Perhaps it is through our own perseverance that God is saving us today. Why else would we be here when so many choose to be elsewhere? How many have turned their backs on God? Yet, here we are. We will not turn away, because we recognize that Jesus’ own perseverance enabled him to endure the cross and take his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. In today’s gospel he says, “There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!” This anguish goes beyond physical suffering. It is the anguish of rejection, of ridicule, of humiliation, of contempt. It is the anguish of speaking the truth and having it fall on deaf ears.
The truth has a way of causing division. Not everyone will accept it, whether that be for lack of comprehension or because they are too set in their ways. As people of faith, however, we know that there is only one truth, one way, one life that is Jesus Christ. And the division we experience in our lives is part of a purification, a baptism, that Jesus himself longs for. He wants us to let go of the things of this world, its ideologies, its agendas, its wokeness, and embrace him. If these things are causing division, perhaps it is because Christ is dwelling in us. If it does not lead us closer to him, then we ought to evaluate whether it is something to leave behind.
And so, as we turn to the celebration of the Eucharist, let us ask God to help us persevere in faith, to restore the Church, and to set us on fire for Jesus, who has delivered us from sin and death and sustains us for eternal life.