The original grumpy old man

Photo by Artem Podrez on

Jeremiah 31.31-34

Life is never boring for research scientists – at least, given some of the things they research:

Things like

  • Do woodpeckers get headaches? Apparently not.
  • Which jump higher? Cat fleas or dog fleas? It’s dog fleas!
  • Do cows with names produce more milk? Yes! Give your cow a name and its milk production goes up by about 3.5%!

One unusual piece of research carried out about twenty years ago in Edinburgh looked for the answer to the question: Are grumpy old men a real thing?

And – amazingly – it seems they are. There is a genuine medical reason why some men are grumpy – around 30% of all men, the majority aged between 35 and 54. And the researchers have called the phenomenon Irritable Male Syndrome! Grumpy old men, it seems, are a reality.

Which brings me to the prophet Jeremiah. Because someone particularly noted for being a grumpy old man was Jeremiah – though to be fair he was a grumpy young man too in his earlier years. Being grumpy wasn’t something that came to him with age – he was always grumpy. Jeremiah was not noted for being a jolly prophet. 

We’ve been reading through the book of Jeremiah – and it’s a big book – at morning prayer throughout Lent. And yes, he’s very grumpy! I recall that one of the Old Testament essay titles from my college days was “Jeremiah is a prophet of unremitting gloom. Discuss.” 

Jeremiah was just one of the many prophets in the history of Israel who sought to bring God’s message to the people. 

They spoke God’s word to the Hebrew people. They challenged kings and officials; they called the people of God to return to following God’s law. They told them when they were going wrong and they called them back to the path that God had laid out before them.

And one of the most well-known – and most miserable – was Jeremiah. Consider Isaiah for a moment, someone from whom we hear a lot in our Old Testament readings. From the moment Isaiah was called by God to be a prophet he embraced his calling with enthusiasm. Not so Jeremiah – the minute he received God’s call when he was around 30 years old he started moaning, initially at God for calling him – for he was, he essentially told God, completely useless – that’s Jeremiah, not God.

At the the time Jeremiah began his work as a prophet, around 625 BC, the kingdom of Judah where he carried out his ministry was in a bit of a pickle. 

It was a country in turmoil. As a country it was caught between two powerful and hostile nations. Conflict between Egypt in the south-west and Babylon to the East seemed to be forcing a choice upon the nation. Submit to the Babylonians or become the first line of attack for the Egyptians. Jeremiah’s message to Judah was that the Babylonians were far stronger than Judah and that they should not be resisted. They were inevitably going to be conquered by the Babylonians because the people had rejected God and turn to idolatry. Not a message the people wanted to hear.

Basically, Jeremiah said, it’s bad news or worse news. You’ve turned away from God, and God is giving you a choice. Either the Babylonians are going to walk all over you, or, if you resist, the Babylonians are going to walk all over you and they’ll be cross that you resisted so it will be even worse. 

Well, you can imagine what the response to that message was! You’re all a load of sinners, you’ve been worshipping false gods, and you’re going to be invaded and conquered, and there’s nothing you can do about it! Small wonder that Jeremiah was considered a traitor for saying that, and small wonder that he has come to be seen as the ultimate prophet of doom! And for proclaiming that Jerusalem would, in the end, be taken by the Babylonians, Jeremiah was lowered down into a pit and left to sink in the mire at the bottom – fortunately he was rescued.

Of course, being a prophet called by God, his predictions were right. In 598 BC King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon conquered Judah and sent many of its leading citizens into exile. By 587 BC the fall of Judah was complete – Jerusalem was destroyed and its leaders and key citizens were taken to exile in Babylon.

But, as you may have guessed, Jeremiah, in fact, is not all doom and gloom – he wasn’t all grumpy! At the heart of his message of disaster is a message of hope and renewal. The answer to that college essay question of mine, “Jeremiah is a prophet of unremitting gloom. Discuss.” Is “No he isn’t”. Though I had to make the answer stretch to another couple of thousand words!

In the midst of national disaster, Jeremiah prophesies that God will make a new covenant with his people. The word covenant is an important word in the Bible – it’s essentially a legal term – and here it means an agreement made by God with his people. And a covenant is a two-way agreement. God had made them before – with Abraham, with the people who left Egypt in the Exodus. 

And these two-way agreements God has made were basically this: if you worship me and follow my laws, I will look after you and protect you. So – God says to his people, if you fulfil your part of the bargain, then you won’t need to worry because I’ll fulfil my part of the bargain by looking out for you.

But this new covenant of which Jeremiah speaks will, Jeremiah says, be different. 

But what is surprising about this two-way covenant, this agreement, is that, as Jeremiah tells us, God will fulfil not only God’s part of the agreement but ours as well. This is not a covenant where God lays down rules and people have to work hard to keep them all so that God will then look after them. God makes it easy for us. He says that he will put his law within his people, write it upon their hearts. He will be their God and they will be his people and they shall all know him. No more messages from grumpy prophets like Jeremiah saying, “You’re all a load of sinners so God’s going to punish you!”

Because God is saying, “I’m not choosy!”

God is saying, “I want everyone!”

So God says that he will write his law on everyone’s hearts, and he will be our God, and we shall be his people. And we shall all know him.

This is something that we should treasure. That God in his love has written his law upon our hearts so that we instinctively know it. Jeremiah’s message is that, essentially, it’s harder to turn away from God and be disobedient than it is to follow God – for God has made it a part of our nature to know, deep within ourselves, how to live and how to love. 

God is not choosy. He loves us all. He wants us all. So he writes his law of love upon our hearts. And if we reject that law that’s our choice, not God’s.

And Jesus, in our gospel reading, reinforces that message – that God is not choosy but wants us all. Jesus says: When I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to myself.

Not just some, not just those who have chosen to follow me, not just those who are good, not just those who are nice – I will draw all people to myself.

God is not choosy. Isn’t that amazing! He knows what we are all like, yet he wants us all. Even you. And even me.

Today Jesus draws all people to himself. He draws us to himself, to see him lifted up on a cross for us. And the words of God through Jeremiah are fulfilled – he is our God and we are his people. And we can all know God through Jesus, from the least to the greatest. And knowing God, we also know God’s law within us, written on our hearts as he promised.

Let us pray

Lord, on the cross you draw the eyes of all the world to you.
We want to see you with our whole hearts.
You draw us to yourself, into the embrace of your loving and merciful promise,
and teach us to live in your ways.
Make us bold to reach out
and draw others into the joy of living in communion with you.