Turn or Burn
by Jack Wald | November 18th, 2001

Jeremiah 36

There was a Christian businesswoman who had to fly quite a bit for her work. But flying made her nervous so she always took her Bible along with her to read and it helped relax her. She was sitting next to a man on one flight who saw her pull out her Bible. He gave a little chuckle and went back to what he was doing.

After awhile he turned to her and asked “You don’t really believe all that stuff in there do you?”

The lady replied “Of course I do. It is the Bible.”

He said “Well what about that guy that was swallowed by that fish?”

She replied “Oh, Jonah. Yes I believe that, it is in the Bible.”

He asked “Well, how do you suppose he survived all that time inside the fish?”

The lady said “Well I don’t really know. I guess when I get to heaven I will ask him.”

“What if he isn’t in heaven?” the man asked sarcastically.

“Then you can ask him,” replied the lady.

That’s a polite way of telling someone where to go, don’t you think?

The title for today’s sermon is Turn or Burn. If you are expecting a hellfire and brimstone sermon, this joke is as close as you will get. Stay with me and you will see how the sermon title applies.

This is the next to last sermon in this series of sermons on Jeremiah. Next week we will look at Jeremiah 32 with a wonderful message of living with hope for the future. Today we are looking at Jeremiah 36. As I have said before, Jeremiah has no chronological order and in fact, not much of any order to the prophecies and stories in it. Each section needs to be examined separately to see where it fits in to the rest of the book. So we will begin again this morning with a look at the context for the events in this chapter.

King Josiah, one of Judah’s and Israel’s great kings, died on the battlefield in a battle against the Egyptians in 609 BC. The people of Judah picked Josiah’s son Jehoahaz as their new king, but the Pharaoh of Egypt, Neco, did not like this choice and replaced him with his brother, Jehoiakim. It would appear that the lack of a strong character was one of the qualities that made Jehoiakim a good choice for Pharaoh Neco to be ruler over this land he had subdued.

Jehoiakim lacked the pietistic qualities of his father, Josiah, and Judah began to revert to pagan worship. This, of course, encouraged Jeremiah to renew his efforts to preach the message God had given him.

The events of chapter 36 take place in 605 BC, four years after Jehoiakim had been placed on the throne. Just the year before, in a battle with the Babylonians, Pharaoh Neco had been forced to pull back to the borders of Egypt and now Jehoiakim had to begin to worry about the Babylonians. For the next seven years there were to be a number of conflicts between the Egyptians and Babylonians in which Judah was constantly threatened. Within the previous few months, the Babylonians had taken Ashkelon in the plains of Phillistia. (Ashkelon was located just south of Jerusalem on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.) This was Judah’s backyard so this event created great anxiety. It is in this climate of fear and uncertainty that the events of this chapter take place.

Jeremiah is under orders not to go to the temple. He is not under house arrest but he is prohibited from going to the temple. So he receives a word from the Lord to write down the message he is given and Baruch, his scribe, does so and then takes the message to read at the temple.

Baruch is one of those men and women in the Bible about whom we know very little, but who are intriguing. I look forward to meeting Baruch one day to find out more about him. He was born into a noble family and was a man of great talent who repressed his personal ambition and political potential to be an assistant to Jeremiah. That makes him a rare and worthy man. He stayed with Jeremiah to the end when he and Jeremiah were taken to Egypt by people of Judah fleeing the Babylonians. There, according to tradition, both Baruch and Jeremiah were put to death by the people of Judah who had dragged them there.

The document Baruch copied down contained the prophecies of Jeremiah given between 626 and 605 BC. It was not a short document but not so long it could not be read three times in one day.

Baruch courageously took this document to the temple and read it. The timing of this reading was tactical. A fast had been declared in response to the conquest of Ashkelon by the Babylonians and Judah’s attention was directed towards its security. It was a good time to present God’s word since the people were already concerned for their future.

In the temple the day Baruch read this document was Michaih who was the son of a cabinet minister. Michaih ran to tell his father about what he had heard and Baruch was summoned to read it again to a group of four cabinet ministers.

They were impressed with what they heard.
When they heard all these words, they looked at each other in fear and said to Baruch, “We must report all these words to the king.”

Because King Jehoiakim had recently killed a prophet by the name of Uriah, for preaching the same message as Jeremiah, they warned Baruch that he and Jeremiah should go into hiding.

Then it was time for this document to be read a third time that day. The king and his cronies were in the winter rooms with a burning fire-pot providing some heat on this winter day. His servant Jehudi was summoned to read the scroll and as it was read, after every few columns, Jehoiakim took his penknife and cut off section after section and burned it in the fire-pot.

You can picture him sitting there with his friends, living in comfort and decadence and laughing at the words that were read. The king and his friends treated this word from God with disdain, joking and mockery and ordered the arrest of Baruch and Jeremiah, who were well hidden and not found.

The chapter ends with a bit of revenge. The document that had been burned was rewritten with additional material added.
32 So Jeremiah took another scroll and gave it to the scribe Baruch son of Neriah, and as Jeremiah dictated, Baruch wrote on it all the words of the scroll that Jehoiakim king of Judah had burned in the fire. And many similar words were added to them.

That is a summary of what happens in this chapter of Jeremiah. For this morning, I want us to focus on five words used in the message given to Jeremiah at the beginning of the chapter. In his instructions to record his message God uses five verbs that speak of the process by which we and the world are renewed and drawn into a relationship with God.

In the fourth year of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the LORD:  2 “Take a scroll and write on it all the words I have spoken to you concerning Israel, Judah and all the other nations from the time I began speaking to you in the reign of Josiah till now.  3 Perhaps when the people of Judah hear about every disaster I plan to inflict on them, each of them will turn from his wicked way; then I will forgive their wickedness and their sin.”

Take, Write, Hear, Turn and Forgive

These verbs describe the circle of faith in which we live. The first two describe how the word of God becomes audible and visible and then the last three describe how we are drawn into responsiveness.

We begin with the material world, what we have around us. The flowers and trees. Birds, fish and land animals. Rocks and minerals. Spices, fruits and vegetables. Men and women, boys and girls. These are the material things around us, made more than they appear to be because of who created them. Each of these created things, upon examination, reveal something of the one who created them – just as reading a novel or examining a painting or listening to a piece of music reveals something about the person who created that art.

The material world is more than it appears to be because of who made it but when God invades this material world as he does from time to time, it becomes even more sacred. This was the case at Mt. Sinai where Moses was given the law from God. This was the case when prophets received a word from God that they were to speak. God has chosen to speak to us through his material creation. We take the material things around us and they become vehicles for God to communicate with us.

Take and Write
God told Jeremiah to take a scroll and write. This is one of the most amazing and mystifying actions in the history of the world. People stumble over events like the Virgin Birth and Resurrection and say they cannot believe such things to be true. But the truly most mystifying and amazing actions in history are when God chooses to reveal himself to his creation. Every time God chooses to communicate with us, he must limit himself. His presence in the burning bush was limited to that one small spot in the desert. God who is omnipresent, all-present, had to limit himself to one  spot in time. God has to limit himself to our vocabulary and use material descriptions of himself to communicate with us. God has to limit himself to our ability to experience with our five senses. God has to limit himself and even after all his effort, when we ignore him, reject him, misunderstand him, he continues to limit himself so we might know him.

Be baffled by this. Muslims have it absolutely correct when the are repulsed by the thought that God could have a son who entered history as a man. For God to become part of his creation, subject to the perils of his creation is absolutely mind boggling. The only reason we accept it so easily is that we have become used to the idea, perhaps having been brought up to believe that was the case.

This is the miracle and wonder of our faith, that God who created from nothing, the material world we see around ourselves, does not stop there but goes on to seek out communication with his creation. He visited with Abraham at the great trees of Mamre. He met with Jacob at Peniel.  He met with Moses and led Israel out of Egypt to the Promised Land of Canaan. He gave his law to Moses on Mt. Sinai and gave his words to the prophets through the ages. He inspired men and women who wrote the sixty-six books that compose our Bible.

The climax of his revelation of himself was when he was made flesh in the person of Jesus. “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,” said Jesus. (John 14:9)

And he has continued to reveal himself to the world through his children of faith. We, Paul explains to us, are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Our lives are a written testimony to the world of who God is. We are God’s book given to the world so that the world might come to know him.

Jeremiah prophesied about this time when God would reveal himself to the world by writing his law on the hearts of those who followed him.
31 “The time is coming,” declares the LORD,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah.
32 It will not be like the covenant
I made with their forefathers
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,”
declares the LORD.
33 “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel
after that time,” declares the LORD.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
34 No longer will a man teach his neighbor,
or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the LORD.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”  (Jeremiah 31)

Paul in defending his ministry points to the lives of people who have been transformed by the Gospel of Christ
2 You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody.  3 You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (II Corinthians 3)

We take the material world around us and see it transformed as God writes his word on it, on us and then the cycle continues as the world then has the opportunity to respond to God’s revelation.

Take, Write and then Hear
In the busyness of this world with all its hustle and bustle, with all its demands, we who are Christians at some point took time to shut out the noise of the world and hear what God has written in his creation, our material world.

Someone who had taken this material world and allowed God to write his message into it spoke this word, through word or actions, and we heard. Just as Baruch spoke the word God wrote through Jeremiah, so did someone do that for us. This is our responsibility. When we have received God’s word in our hearts, we need to speak that word out so others can hear. So there is an emphasis in Scripture on speaking out and living out our faith so the world can hear.
Jesus in the sermon on the mount:
13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.  15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5)

And Paul in Romans:
14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?  15 And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10)

Take, Write, Hear and Turn
And when we allow the world to hear what God has written into our lives, then people are offered the opportunity to turn. Not all who hear will turn. We are created with free choice. Josiah, father of Jehoiakim, as a young man, discovered the book of Deuteronomy and turned.
11 When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes.  12 He gave these orders to Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Acbor son of Michaih, Shaphan the secretary and Asaiah the king’s attendant:  13 “Go and inquire of the LORD for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the LORD’s anger that burns against us because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us.”
Josiah turned.

What happened when Josiah’s son, Jehoiakim, had the same opportunity?
23 Whenever Jehudi had read three or four columns of the scroll, the king cut them off with a scribe’s knife and threw them into the firepot, until the entire scroll was burned in the fire.  24 The king and all his attendants who heard all these words showed no fear, nor did they tear their clothes.

Jehoiakim heard but did not turn. He had his choice, turn or burn and he chose to burn. Here, if I chose to, we could go off on a hellfire and brimstone sermon fitting the title of today’s sermon, Turn or Burn. But we will not do that.

Let me simply say again that God has given us free choice and that is very important to him. God limits himself and restrains himself so we can have free choice. Even though he knows what is best for each one of us and has the power to make us choose him, he resists and allows us to have free choice.

You have that free choice this morning. You can respond to what God has written into the material world, his creation, the Scriptures, the transformed lives of his followers by turning to also be one of his followers. Or you can choose to ignore what God has written into his material world. But do be aware that there are consequences for the choice you make. Jehoiakim choose to treat God’s writing with mockery and disdain and he paid the price for his choice.

I stood by the bed of  a woman and watched her die, spitting in the face of God, going defiantly to Hell. She made her choice all her life and refused to reconsider at the end of her long life that she had perhaps made a mistake. Don’t make her mistake. Hear and then turn.

Take, Write, Hear, Turn and Forgive
There is one more step in the process. The process is not complete until this next step is taken. We hear and if we are graced by God, we turn. But then we need to take this turning and live it out in our life and forgive. We who have been forgiven by God need now to be people who forgive those around us.

We need to take this turning in our lives and make it a deep, sustaining turn. It is possible to turn and then get distracted by the superficial and not have a life that is fully transformed. The turning needs to become a deep hunger that craves to know God more completely, to experience more fully his love, to learn the joy that comes from walking the path of obedience.

When we learn to persevere in our relationship with God and choose to take up our cross daily and follow him, seeking his will, not ours – then the turning can lead to a life that is transformed and can even forgive those who have hurt us, irritated us, betrayed us, abused us.

When we do that, God has taken his creation, our material bodies and written on our lives so someone else can have the opportunity to respond, to hear, turn and forgive.

How can this message this morning be applied to your life? As I already said, perhaps the most pressing decision you can make is to turn, if you have never before done so. It is my heart’s desire that you do so and this morning pray to God asking him to be Lord of your life and telling him you want to live your live in submission to him.

If you have already done that, but you are struggling to forgive someone who has hurt you, then pray this morning that God will give you the strength to forgive that person.

Let me urge you to begin viewing yourself, your life, as God’s book given to the world to read so they might hear, turn and forgive.

One way this immediately applies to me is to consider how I drive in Morocco. Do I react to rude and inconsiderate behavior by yelling, raising my hands and gesturing to other drivers, slamming on my horn? Is that the book I want people to read? Do I follow the behavior of other drivers who ignore traffic signals and signs or do I obey the law of the land? I need to choose to be God’s book to this land.

In the course of my daily living, do I pay attention to those around me who need a bit of kindness? Do I take time to consider the needs of others and not just my own?

This could go on and on – but I trust you get the idea. You are God’s book on which he is writing. Let that book be what enables people to hear, turn and forgive so the cycle of faith can continue.

Andy Prins will come up to lead us in prayer and a hymn, Make me a blessing, make me a blessing. Out of my life may Jesus shine. Make me a blessing, O Savior I pray, make me a blessing to someone today.

That is my prayer and I trust it is your prayer as well.