Jeremiah 16:10-21 portrays in stark terms the results of abandoning God as center for our lives and instead putting up the false gods our world presents to us. These false gods of our day differ from Israel’s tempting gods. Instead of being clearly religious symbols, they instead are false values of success at all costs, pleasure without responsibility or care for its impact on others, greed, judgment of the other, and so on. These promise success in this world, but God warns that their empty values will lead to exile from what matters most in this world. The prophet words God’s warning as if God is personally ushering us out of the promised land we seek into exile; but to me this sounds poetic. It makes more sense to me to think of this exile living by false values brings as more the natural result of holding fast to that choice. A life hollow at the center cannot hold. It will collapse in on itself like a roof held up by rotted out wooden beams. If I live for what will not last, ultimately the emptiness at the center of my life will swallow up the benefits such a life has produced.
While warning that, God also gives a veiled promise. God says that if Israel goes down that way, no longer will people speak of God as the One who delivered them out of Egypt but the One who went down to the land of their exile to draw them out. This is a veiled promise because its focus is not on the promise of deliverance but on the fact exile lies ahead for all who choose to center their life on empty life-destroying patterns of living. Yet even in the midst of it, though God cannot rescue us from the consequences of those choices without enabling us to further wander away from life’s true meaning – which would do us even greater harm — God does not give up on us. Rather God journeys with us into the exiles our false values produce. As the apostle’s creed says, God descends with us into hell, into the very hells that our decision to live a life centered on shallow pursuits and focus produces. God chooses to enter into the exiles that we build for ourselves so that, when we hit rock bottom and see the outcome of our choices we can look up and see God standing ready, willing, able to take us by the hand. God is waiting to lead us out of exile back home again.
What love! What hope!
May we learn to hear the voice of truth whispering deep within, so we can live now for the values that bring life, lest we fall into an exile of the soul. Yet let us also trust in the promise that when we find ourselves in a hell of our own making, we are not alone. God sits with us upon the ash-heap ready to bring comfort, forgiveness, and the new start with which we can rebuild whatever has become broken in our lives.