SCRIPTURE: Jeremiah 13
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: May 4th, 2013
"Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil." (Jer 13:23)
The question today is this. Can someone accustomed to all the wrong things be able to do all the right things? This week, I will be reflecting on the challenges of change, especially when one is bounded to the wrong things.
Let us turn to the book of Jeremiah. Compared to the New Testament, the prophetical books of the Old Testament are not preached as often. Some may wonder why. Perhaps, it is because the texts are way too ancient for modern understanding. Maybe, our modern fast-paced world and technological society cannot appreciate the contexts and cultures of the the old. For the two reasons above, we can easily respond that there are lots of Bible resources, trained scholars and professors, and theological astute people in our midst who can bridge the gap. There are also pastors and gifted teachers who bring about powerful expositions of the ancient prophecy, to bring about change in contemporary times.
The passage today points to this truth: When change is no longer possible, there remains one thing: Destruction. Where change is possible, it is less about change on the outside and more about change from the inside.
A) Unbounded People
How on earth can a great nation of Israel end up in embarrassing defeat?
No one envies Jeremiah. Speaking out against a people wayward in their ways, perverted in their thoughts, idolatrous in the soul. It is a undesirable job, worse than debt collectors. Like a helpless non-swimmer looking at someone drowning in the waters, Jeremiah can only warn Israel about the impending judgment of God if they continue their wayward days. Instead of Israel turning toward God in repentance, they are continue to walk in their sins in delight. Change is necessary, but the sinful Israel cannot change their sinful spots. A spiritual turnaround is possible, but they refuse the possible and choosing instead to reveal in incredulous things.
Chapter 13 of the book of Jeremiah shows us some horrible things which make us think about how God is loving in the first place. At the onset, readers are told about the arrogance of Israel (Jer 13:9). God uses a "girdle" or a "linen belt" to describe inner condition of Israel. The linen belt is symbolically about servanthood. It is meant to be bound around the waist, meaning that the purpose and meaning of a servant is bounded up in the relationship with God. God owns his people. His people are servants. The linen belt is like the covenant that represents God saving his people, and the people serving God.
Unfortunately, instead of serving God, the people loose their girdles and serve other gods. Instead of being bounded to God, they leave themselves to the crevices of sin (Jer 13:10). In doing so, they become "ruined and completely useless" (Jer 13:7). They fail to listen to God. They commit horrible sins against themselves. One of the most horrible things that humans can do are the things they inflict upon themselves.
When I read about the part in Jer 13:14, where the LORD "smash them against the other, parents and children alike," it does make us wonder why God is so harsh and cruel. How does that jive with our understanding of a loving God? Is that not a horrible thing to "smash" families, even children?
In Scripture, the ultimate punishment is not what others do to us, but what we do to ourselves. Israel has been doing all the smashing in the first place. The judgment of Jeremiah 13:14 is exactly what Israel has been doing to each other in the first place. Like a fence that separates two rival predators, the ferocious predators on both sides of the fence continue to gnaw at the fence, curse at the other, ready to attack at the first opportunity. God has been stopping that from happening all along. It has then come to the point where the LORD deems enough is enough. The most merciful thing to do is to let them destroy themselves, as they no longer desire to be saved from themselves. Such a pattern is also familiar in the New Testament. In his letter to the Romans, Paul pronounces the Lord's judgment on the sinful race.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. (Romans 1:24)This is not exactly a prooftext against sexual perversions. It is less about attacking homosexual behaviour and more about attacking sin. The worst thing people can do to one another is to sin and continue to sin against one another.
B) Bounded to the Wrong Things
Just like a leopard cannot change its spots, the sinful man cannot change the colour of his skin. Even with the most advanced plastic surgery, we know that the skin being the biggest organ of the human body, is impossible to completely changed, humanly speaking. It can be grafted in but with high risk of infection. It can undergo plastic surgery but at a great cost. The point is this. External changes are one thing, but inner changes is totally a different challenge altogether.
For Israel has bounded herself to the wrong thing. They have strapped themselves to the gods of the land. In the process fails to live out as servants of God, as according to the covenant. God has been keeping his promises all along. Israel has not. God has been sending leaders, judges, prophets, kings, and priests, to warn Israel. The people ignore God. Instead of being bounded to God, they are bounded to the wrong things. Worse, they have chosen to bind themselves to the sinful and shameful acts. The LORD has not planned in the first place to destroy Israel. In fact, the LORD constantly tries to rescue his people.
Our stubbornness can do us more harm than good. I remember the story where a man was left stranded on the rooftop after a major flood. He is a pious man who believes earnestly that God will appear from the sky in person and rescue him to the clouds. A rescue boat came by to offer assistance. He refused the offer, saying: "My God is coming to rescue me." A few hours later, another rescue boat arrived, only to be refused with the same reason. Finally, as the waters continued to rise, a helicopter came, with very much the same response by this man. He drowned.
When we are bounded to the wrong things, we do silly things. Conviction is a good thing, but when it is bounded to the wrong idea or purpose, it is bad. The trouble with Israel is that they have chosen to bind themselves to idolatry so much, that they have become accustomed to worshiping and following the idols of their lives. When that happened, they no longer are able to do good.
Positive change is not possible when we are bounded to the wrong things.
C) Bounded to Our Modern Idols
This is a universal desire. Like Martin Luther King Junior's great dream, it is a dream that the day will come where all people will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character. It is a human right to be treated justly and humanely. It is a plain and simple desire to want a better life for all. Equality is one thing. Talking about it is another.
As I talk with loved ones, votes will probably be in favour of the "lesser evil." Will one vote for the ruling party to continue four more years of the same old thing, fearing change to our 'normal' lifestyle and continuity in existing states of unhappiness? Will positive change happen if the ruling party returns to power? The people hope, but there is no guarantee.
Or will one vote for change, by making sure the opposition wins? That way, there will be new opportunities and hopes, even though it comes at a greater risk of uncertainty, disruptions, and of course, possible chaos. This too, the people hope, but again, there is also no guarantee.
Whichever party wins, there is no guarantee of positive change. Elections themselves are risks. Check out Indonesia during the handover of power from Suharto. Or look at the Arab Spring countries where governments have been overturned.
I think the issue is much bigger than a mere political vote. As long as the human condition is unchanged, any external change will only be temporal.
D) Change is Possible But
This is because the common foe is not the opposition vs the ruling government. Neither is it about the rich vs the poor, or one race over the other. The common foe is idolatry eating ourselves to death. Kyle Idleman brings up three "temples of idolatry" which remind us how bounded we are to them.
Firstly, the temple of pleasure. Have we become accustomed to doing anything or everything so that we can attain more pleasure through junk food, perverted sex, and entertainment that spins us into greater bondage to pleasure? Secondly, there is the temple of power. Have we become accustomed to constant desire for achievement at the expense of principles, success instead of significance, money instead of meaning? Tony Campolo sums up pretty much our modern predicament. In an interview with 50 people over the age of 95, he asked them the question: "What will you do differently if you can live life all over again?" The answers are revealing of the idols they have gotten trapped in.
- If I had life to live all over again, I would reflect more.
- If I had life to live all over again, I would risk more.
- If I had life to live all over again, I would do more things that would live on after I am dead.
I pray that the answers to all the above, will not only be yes, but a great desire to do something about it. One more thing. We cannot change the colour of our skin. Neither can leopards change their spots. What is be done is to have a new body. It is possible to be transformed in the heart and to be renewed in the mind. That is the work of God. May we all respond positively to the work of God in us, lest we are left to our own devices. Positive change is possible, but we need God first to change us.
"What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give." (Tim Keller, Counterfeit Gods)
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