Jeremiah 17:5-8 (Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany—Series C)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT
February 17, 2019
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is the Old Testament lesson recorded in Jeremiah 17:
5Thus says Yahweh, “Cursed is the man who trusts in people and makes flesh his strength, and from Yahweh his heart turns away. 6He is like a shrub in the desert and will not see any good. He will dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in a salt land not inhabited. 7Blessed is the man who trusts in Yahweh and Yahweh is his trust. 8He is like a tree planted by water, and by a stream it sends out its roots. It does not fear when the heat comes; its leaves remain green. It is not anxious in the year of drought; it does not cease to bear fruit.
We can all agree that a time of drought is bad. Here in New England we experienced moderate to severe drought conditions within the last few years. Thankfully we are not in a drought now. But when it’s so very dry, we begin to worry. Water in the reservoirs drops extremely low. Crops can’t produce in the dry soil. Well-water levels plummet. We’re forced to use less water for bathing, doing laundry, cooking, and outdoor watering of lawns and gardens. When droughts are extreme, the land dries up. Wells go dry. Crops and animals die. People also suffer and perish.
The same is true of what we might call “spiritual drought.” God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah in our text today about these very “dry times” experienced by two very different people. One person is a person of faith and trust in the Lord. He trusts in Yahweh and acknowledges Him as the God of the covenant promises. The other, to put it simply, does not. His heart is turned away from the Lord. This individual trusts in people. He puts his faith in the strength of himself and of those who are like him. God describes both individuals using the image of plants. One is like a shrub in the desert. The other is like a tree planted by water. They both face the dry summer heat. But the end results are quite different for both.
Now, all people are very prone to spiritual drought and the scorching heat of life lived in a fallen creation. That’s because sin is tricky. It can numb us and put us to sleep, spiritually speaking. Trust in the God who made His promises of life and salvation to us can be directed toward other people or even ourselves. We are tempted to ignore God’s Word. After all, aren’t there more important things in life than going to church to hear the Word of the Lord or reading the Scriptures during the week? It’s been proven in the court of experience that intentionally missing the Divine Service is the beginning of a downward spiral. I’m not talking about situations where one is sick or is unable to attend for various reasons. It’s this scenario: “I’ll just sleep in this once. I can miss one week at church.” Next week comes: “You know, it was nice just to stay home and take a slow morning last week. I think I’ll do it again this week.” In the following weeks, the story doesn’t change. Other so-called priorities have won the day. Spiritual drought has begun.
Consider yourself like a plant, like the one in my office. It gets watered every so often, usually when I see more and more brown leaves on it. Brown leaves are a sign that the plant is already in trouble! It is withering and dying. Similarly, when we ignore the Word of God, we are essentially saying, “I am putting my trust in myself or in other people and things. Those are more important in my life and I can do just fine with them.” But do you notice any “brown leaves” in your life? Do you notice a thirst for things that you once had—the water of life in God’s Word—which is now lacking? Sometimes we notice, and that is a wake-up call. Other times, the devil, the world, and our own flesh are so subtle in drying us out spiritually that we are like the proverbial frog put in a pot of water. You know the one, where the heat is ever so slowly increased, and the frog doesn’t even realize that he’s being boiled.
Spiritual drought is often like that. People get so wrapped up in their thinking and doing, trusting in their own strength and ability, that they fail to trust in God. They put their trust in other people who often face the same spiritual drought which leads them further away from the God of the Promises of life and salvation. The result is a person who is like a desert shrub planted in the thirsty-dry earth, in a salt-land, facing the heat of summer, which shrivels and dies all alone. This person doesn’t see any good while dying from spiritual drought. Their heart is turned away from the Lord and fails to trust in Him so that there’s nothing to quench their spiritual thirst. There’s nothing but dry, hard, dusty earth. “Cursed,” then, is a really good word to describe such a person. May the Lord so protect us from spiritual drought and death!
But there is another plant experiencing the scorching heat of summer in a fallen creation. It’s a tree, but this tree has been planted by water. This tree is like a person who, despite temptation, suffering, and struggle in this life, remains steadfast in faith. This person, by the power and grace of God, trusts in the Lord despite the searing heat placed on him by the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh. This tree, this person, is thriving and bearing fruit in a desert oasis. How can that be?
It can be because spiritual drought is averted. The tree is soaking up the waters of the stream through its roots. This person is watered by the Word and Promises of God through the hearing of the Scriptures during the “dry seasons” of this life which come upon us all, those moments of temptation, trial, and pain. During these sweltering times, there is an “irrigation system,” if you will, between the person and the Lord Himself. That irrigation system is the ministry of God the Holy Spirit who delivers through the Gospel Word and Sacraments the faith which trusts in God above all things. Stepping away from that faith and trust in the Lord, one enters the dangers of spiritual drought. But sustained in that faith by the Word and Spirit, one faces the temptations of the devil, the world, and the flesh, as well as the troubles of this life, without fear and continues to bear the fruits of faith in Christian living.
There’s a marked difference between the person who lives by faith and trust in the Promises of God and the person who has left behind those Promises and choses to place their trust in people and the world. As this person is termed in Jeremiah, “cursed,” so the one who is empowered by the Word and Spirit to remain steadfast in faith and trust is called “blessed.” We see this also in the Gospel this morning. Jesus condemns, “Woe to you,” those who live for today, neglecting the ways of God and the care of His people. Likewise, Jesus blesses the crowds and describes their places in this life and the life to come according to God’s grace and the gift of faith. Even amid sorrows, God’s blessings do prevail because it is Jesus who won these blessings and who distributes them through the Means of the Spirit: the Word and the Sacraments.
It was Jesus, the Son of God, who came among us in human flesh. He came to sinners like you and me who should have shriveled and dried up in the drought of sin and death. But Jesus came with living water to grant us the blessings of the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. He came to suffer and die on a cross as the punishment for our failure to always fear, love, and trust in God above all things. On that cross, Jesus became like the desert shrub for all people. He thirsted and was parched for us so that He might water us with His life-giving Spirit whom He has now poured out to us through the Gospel in Baptism, Word, and Supper.
Today, Jesus continues to come to us in the power and grace of the Holy Spirit with His Word of forgiveness and life when we read and hear the Scriptures. He came to us when our Savior first made us His own in Holy Baptism. And Jesus comes to us with His very own Body and Blood, in, with, and under the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper. The “roots” of our God-given faith and trust in Him as Lord soak up the blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation from sin, death, and the power of the devil that He gifts to us in Word and Sacrament. It is the Means of Grace, then, that sustain us through the times of the sweltering heat of temptation, through the spiritual doubts and struggles of our lives, so that we continue to trust in the Lord in the surety of saving faith.
Jesus promised in John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” Connected to Jesus by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit, you, then, are all like trees planted by the living waters of God’s Word. With saving trust in Jesus, through hearing the Word, soak up the spiritual hydration of forgiveness, eternal life, and a strengthened faith that can make it through even the toughest scorching heat and spiritual droughts of life. Be confident that the Lord is with you always, in every circumstance and situation, with the refreshing water and hydration of His very Word of forgiveness and life in Jesus to comfort and to strengthen you. Amen.