What Binds Us Together – 02.07.2021

[Jeremiah 13:1-11 and John 13:12-17, 34-35]

I once read, “God wisely designed the human body so that we can neither pat our own backs, nor kick ourselves too easily.” Neither self congratulation nor self attacking should come easy for us. There’s an old story about Ronald Reagan. Back when he was governor of California, he made a speech in Mexico City. After he finished speaking, there was a smattering of unenthusiastic applause. Reagan was a little embarrassed. The speaker who followed him spoke Spanish – which Reagan didn’t understand – and HE was getting applauded at just about every paragraph. So Reagon, to hide his embarrassment, began clapping along with everyone else. And he didn’t want to seem a poor sport, so he clapped louder and longer than many others. Until finally the ambassador leaned over and said, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you. That man is an interpreter, he’s interpreting YOUR speech.”[1]
Today is the start of a brand new sermon series called The Meta-Fors, and for the next month we are going to be diving into the Old Testament book Jeremiah. Now one thing we need to know right off the bat is that Jeremiah was a big fan of symbolism. He always had visual imagery to drive home his point, and what I want you to watch for is parallel imagery in the life and story of Jesus. The stuff we will find in the Old Testament will be the same or very similar to what we will find in the life of Jesus – and looking at them next to one another will teach us a lot. The prophet Jeremiah was a fan of symbols, of metaphors – and so we are going to ask the question: what are the Metaphors… for?
Now, before we get into the text we need to take a quick peak at the type of book we are reading. Jeremiah is an Old Testament prophet, and to be honest, to us in the modern world, prophets weird us out. But actually, they’re not that weird. Prophets are sort of like that one weird kid in homeroom, right? The one nobody talks to and so you just assume – he’s a weirdo. But if you actually get up and go over and talk to him – most of the time you find out he’s just an awesome, normal kid. Same thing with the prophetic books in the bible. People avoid them, because we don’t know how to use them. But there is so much amazing, valuable stuff in the prophets – so we’re going to take a look.

Now, there’s three things you need to know before we get into the prophetic literature. First, the job description of a prophet is a mouthpiece of God, NOT a predictor of the future. When God gave Israel a king, he also gave them a prophet. The king was to rule, and the prophet was to keep the king in line with what God wants. In movies and stuff, prophecies are like these weird mystical words that were carved in stone thousands of years ago. And you know you’re getting to the end of the movie if the random rhyme starts to make sense. But that’s not what it really looked like. Prophets were just men or women who went around telling people what God wanted them to say. And most of the time, prophets would warn people. Prophets would go around telling people, “what you’re doing is wrong, repent and change or punishment is coming” So even though most people view prophets as these magic crystal ball gazers who could predict the future, the reality is a lot more like a mom warning her kids, “keep it up, and somebody is going to get hurt.” That’s what prophets were like. Prophets are the mouthpiece of God.

Second, if a prophet gets it wrong, they were a false prophet. Real prophets, who were actually receiving their words from God never got it wrong about what was going to happen. In the Old Testament, false prophets were put to death. It was a great crime to pretend like you could hear from God. But the ancient world was full of false prophets. Remember, prophets got to scold the king – so it was a powerful position that lots of people wanted. But history erases the false prophets. If they ever got it wrong, we didn’t keep their books. The ones in the bible are the guys who got it right. And this is still the standard. If someone in the modern world claims to be a prophet, but they EVER get it wrong – they are a false prophet, a liar and most like a con artist. I know that sounds harsh, but it should be harsh. You can’t lie to people and claim you hear words from God. I’m not saying there are no modern prophets – maybe there are, but they have a very high standard and most don’t measure up.

Third and finally, prophets LOVE imagery and symbols. They would do dramatic things to get people’s attention. And those symbols make us uncomfortable, and a lot of times we are not sure how to interpret it, so we just avoid it. One time, this guy Isaiah walked around naked for three years just to make a point. Seriously, it’s in Isaiah 20, the message from God was that Assyria was going to invade Egypt and make the people slaves who have to walk around naked. It was a warning, and the truth is – it’s really hard to ignore the naked guy. The symbolism is very strange, but it’s also really helpful. So that’s my little prep for prophets – they are the mouth piece of God, spend most of their time warning people, they cannot get it wrong or they are not a real prophet, and they LOVE using imagery and metaphors to get people’s attention. So let’s dive in.

[read v.1-5]. So hopefully you’re catching the rhythm of a prophet’s life. God says do this, and then they do it. Takes a lot of trust in God to be a prophet. Now the word loincloth can be interpreted a couple different ways. In some translations it can mean belt, and in others loincloth, which makes me think it’s underwear. So he buys some underwear and does not wash it. Then he takes his dirty underwear and hides it in the rocks, like a weirdo. [read v.6-7] Long time goes by, and he goes to get it – it’s gone moldy. Rotting and falling apart. So the metaphor for today is moldy, rotting underwear (or a belt). You’ll notice for the sermon picture we went with a frayed rope instead because it is surprisingly hard to find a decent picture of moldly underwear. Please don’t ever google that phrase.

Then God explains [read v.8-11]. The loincloth, or the belt is designed to support, to bind together, to help hold the outfit together. BUT pride rots that unity. If you look after our scripture lesson, the next section of the chapter is a warning against pride. The moldy underwear is a warning from God against pride. Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d say as a pastor. The bible is so awesome. So it’s a warning against pride, but look at how pride gets into their life. [read v.10]. They refuse to listen to God. They stubbornly follow their own desires, and worship other gods. These same pit-falls apply to our modern lives. We are given the word of God to listen to, but a lot of times we want to go our own way. We stubbornly follow our own desires, rather than listen to what God has been teaching us. And we worship other gods. Now, I don’t think a lot of us are out there worshipping like in a different religion or anything – but other gods can basically be anything we put in the place of the true God in our lives. Sometimes we worship ourselves, our desires, sometimes we worship money, or reputation or fame, politicians, famous people. Anytime we worship anything that is not THE God, we are worshipping “other gods.” For a lot of us, the simplest way to look at it is that pride is that moment when we look at God and say, “I want to be in charge, not you God.” Pride causes us to fall away from God. Pride rots unity, it cannot hold us together. And that makes us as useful as moldy underwear.

Then we move over to our second scripture, which is a story from Jesus. Now this is a pretty familiar story, but if you’ve never heard it let me give you the highlights. On the last night before Jesus was killed, there was this festival called Passover, they ate this fancy meal as a celebration of their freedom from slavery in Egypt. But before the meal you need to wash up, and usually that was a servants job. If there was a servant or a slave they would come around and wash everybody’s feet. But on this night, Jesus Christ the son of God humbled himself and washed his disciples feet. It was a humiliating thing for him to do. But he did it because he loved his disciples. It says, [read v.12-15]. Jesus humbled himself and served his disciples. He washed their feet, and then he takes off the servant outfit and put on his regular clothes, sits down and explains it to them. And it’s the easiest message ever. You see what I did, go do that for other people. He says, “I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you.” And I do want to clarify that this is not about washing feet. This is about serving other people. We don’t need people roaming the streets of Flushing in February, trying to take other people’s shoes off. We DO need people who are willing to serve others, even if it’s humiliating.

A little bit later in the chapter, down in verse 34 it says, [read v.34-35]. Do you see how he equates serving people with loving them? One of the best ways we can love someone is to serve them. Husbands, one of the best ways you can love your wife is to serve her. Children, one of the best ways you can love your parents is to serve them. Wives, one of the best ways you can love your husband is to serve him. Parents one of the best ways you can love your children is to serve them. And it goes in every direction, I want to be careful to say that. Serving one another goes in every direction. If you ever think, “no, no – they are supposed to serve me” – remember that Jesus Christ, the son of God, got down on his knees and scrubbed dirt of his disciple’s feet. One of the best ways you can love someone is to serve them. Hear verse 35 again, [read it]. Jeremiah shows us that pride rots unity, makes us useless. We can’t hold together, and so we will fall apart. But Jesus shows us that love is what binds us together. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.

The good news this morning is that God binds us together with love. Love is literally the chief identifying feature of Christians. How do you know if someone is a Christian? By their love. Not by their bumper stickers, not by how they vote, not by their WWJD bracelet or where they sit on a Sunday morning. Not even for their list of rules or their morals. No. You will prove to the world you are a follower of Jesus by your love. And here’s the struggle – that’s not what Christians are known for in our culture, is it? We are not known for our love. We are known for our rules. We are known for our judgment. We are known for our histories or traditions or buildings. But we are not known for our love. And when I say love, I don’t mean “being nice to one another.” Because everybody does that. Non-Christians can be nice to each other. Atheists, Muslims, Jewish folks – everybody can love by being nice. But the love we are known by is a serving love. Jesus taught us, by his example, that we are to serve one another in love. We should be known as someone who serves other people. 

And it’s not just an identifier, it’s a unifier. God binds us together with love. Do you know what the nicest compliment I heard all of last year was? I was talking to some folks who were new to our church, and they needed some help and so we helped them. We served them. And they said to me, “Wow, this church treats us better and we’re just visitors, you treat us better than our old church did while we were members.” When the church is actually being the church – the love of God is what we are known for, and it’s what draws us together. And so our response to that beautiful teaching from the word this morning is to throw away our pride, and let love be what binds you.

So what do we do with this? What is the metaphor for, today? Two applications for us. First, throw away your moldy underwear. Which of course, is pride. Throw away your pride. Throw away your idols. The best way to throw away your pride, is to spend time serving. If you think pride has got a grip on your heart, carve out some time and start serving other people. It could even be the people in your house. Find a way to serve people, put others first – it will throw away your pride. One of the easiest ways to do this, when I’m feeling prideful – I just immediately take some time to pray for other people. I just stop what I’m doing, and start praying for all the people on my prayer list. It keeps me humble by taking the focus off of me. Throw away your moldy underwear. When we throw away our pride, we also throw away our idols. If you remember what Jeremiah teaches us, idols pop up when we don’t listen to God. So ask yourself, what are ways we refuse to listen to God? What is God trying to tell you right now and you’re plugging your ears? James Packer writes, “What other gods could we have besides the Lord? Plenty… For us there are still the great gods Sex, Shekels, and Stomach (an unholy trinity constituting one god: self), and the other enslaving trio, Pleasure, possessions, and position” He also lists for some folks their idols are “football, the firm, and the family. He says, “in the matter of life’s basic loyalty, temptation is a many-headed monster.” So what is your temptation? What is your identifier, your unifier if it is not love? Throw away moldy underwear, throw away your pride and all your idols. That’s the first challenge.

The second and final piece for us today is to listen to God, by following the example of Jesus. If pride rots our life because we’re not listening to God, then the best way to combat that is to listen to God. Jesus teaches us by his example. He does it first, and then says “do as I do.” Jesus says “serve other people” and then in verse 17 he says [read it]. Listen to God, by following the example of Jesus. Ask yourself – how can you be KNOWN by your love? How can you change your life so that the thing you are known for is the way you love other people? Pride rots unity, but love binds us together gives us a common identity, gives us a reputation to uphold. In what way can you follow the example of Jesus? Show that you are listening to God, by doing for others what Jesus did for you.

I think this is going to be a fun sermon series. The prophets are super weird, Jeremiah especially, but there’s a rich depth of meaning if we care enough to listen. And so I’ll leave you with this. May you throw away your moldy underwear. Throw away your pride and your idols, so that you can listen to God. May you listen to God, by following the example of Jesus. And may you be known by your love and service to other people. Amen.

[1] Quoted by Gerald Gardner in All the Presidents’ Wits (Morrow), in Reader’s Digest.

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