• The BaptistWay lesson for March 9 focuses on Jeremiah 7:1-16.
A story is circulating on Facebook about a man named Jeremiah Steepek who posed as homeless at the 10,000-member church where he had just been called as pastor.
According to the story, he arrived at the church 30 minutes prior to the start of the service on his first Sunday, and only three people said hello to him. He received no change from anyone when he asked for money to buy food, and after sitting down at the front of the church, he was asked by the one of the ushers to move to the back.
When the time came to introduce the pastor, the church clapped with joy when the same usher who asked him to move to the back introduced him to the church. When the pastor got up and began walking to the front of the church, the clapping slowly stopped as all eyes fell on him. Upon reaching the front of the church, he took the microphone from the elder and chastised the congregation, quoting Scripture and denouncing their treatment of him.
Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but this particular story is an urban legend. For more information, check out its reference on this popular website: http://www.snopes.com/glurge/homelesspastor.asp
Experience tells us if a pastor were to do this, there might be many congregations that would receive him the way the one in the story did. This case study speaks to the hypocritical nature we sometimes observe within ourselves and our churches, and an early example of it can be seen in Jeremiah 7:1-16.
At the gate
Perhaps the only thing more offensive than exposing a congregation’s hypocrisy within its own service would be to stand at the entrance of the church with a huge sign telling every person who entered about the moral deficiency of the members. In our day, such an act could garner unwanted media attention and perhaps even require police involvement. It not only would be a huge embarrassment for the church, but also would be a daunting risk for the lone picketer.
Jeremiah takes this risk because he is told by God to “stand at the gate of the Lord’s house” (v. 2) and proclaim a piercing message calling for a reformation of action and integrity. The faults mentioned are numerous. They are accused of oppressing the weakest of their population, shedding innocent blood and following other gods (v. 6).
However, all these actions are symptoms of a larger issue—their deceptive trust in a building God commanded them to build (v. 4). They missed the point of God’s promise to dwell among them in the temple. The power was not in the building or any custom he gave them, but in his decision to live among them in this way. If they correct this misunderstanding, God promises to let them continue to live in his presence (v. 7).
In the house
Unfortunately, this trust in what God had set up for them in the temple ran so thick it marred the way people operated inside of it as well as outside. As a pastor, my exposure to other churches’ worship services is limited. However, I’ve talked with mentors who spend large amounts of time in numerous churches as guest speakers, interim pastors and church consultants.
Nearly all have told me the first 30 minutes in worship often tell them more about the health of a church than any staff interview, statistical analysis of attendance or evaluation of financial contributions. Noticing the way people interact with each other and visitors, the overall spirit of the gathering, and the sense of excitement and joy inherent in the group’s verbal and nonverbal language goes a long way in communicating what is going on inside the walls of the fellowship.
Jeremiah is instructed to tell the people they cannot live their lives like they want and conduct business as usual inside the temple. They aren’t fooling anyone, especially God. They seemed to believe as long as they were going through the motions of worshipping in the temple they were safe to do as they pleased (v. 10). “‘But I have been watching!’ declares the Lord” (v. 11).
As a reminder that God cannot be put into a box, Jeremiah is told to remind the people of what happened at Shiloh (v. 12). Many years before, the Israelites made their tri-annual pilgrimage to Shiloh, just as they did in Jeremiah’s day to Jerusalem. At the time of this prophecy, Shiloh had lain in ruins for centuries. The same could happen to Jerusalem. Actually, as our passage progresses, we get the impression the same will happen to Jerusalem. The certainty of this is reflected in God’s command in verse 16 that Jeremiah not bother praying for the people to avoid God’s judgment.
I would be extremely sure and cautious before giving up on praying for anything. Most of us are not in Jeremiah’s shoes, charged with delivering a divinely ordained prophecy. What we can do is learn from what God has done in the way Jeremiah is instructed to tell the people to do. God’s message hasn’t changed. He demands his people love him and love others.
When we fail to do that outside of church, it ultimately affects the way things function inside it, and most of us probably could point to examples of this truth. Let’s learn from them now, so our future with God will be blessed later.