WHEN LIFE STOPS BEING NORMAL, WHAT THEN?

Illness, accidents, marriage breakups, war, and disease to name a few tragedies can totally alter the direction of life. It can change how you live and where you live. Life then stops being normal or what it was. How can we move forward in a time where life now is different, and we must adapt to this new reality? We are living in a day of amazing grace. God continually reaches out to us as people willing that we would embrace all that He has provided for us. He desires to be in relationship with us. It is incredible to think how awesome our God is. When we consider the great sacrifice He made for us, how can we remain impassive, negligent, and indifferent to Him? Yet, we see the outcome of the autonomous life; the self-directed life, being played out each and every day. The result of the self-directed life is confusion, anxiety, and anger as we find that we cannot control events, people, and circumstances to our advantage. It does not take long to discover that life is often messy, confusing, and at times tragic. Sometimes the mess we are in is a result of our own self-directed life. The wisdom literature would sum it up in a proverb. “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death (Proverbs 16:25).”          So how do we know the right way? What should we do? Again we turn to the wisdom literature and find counsel. Here we see the need to seek God for direction.

To humans belong the plans of the heart, but from the LORD comes the proper answer of the tongue.           

All a person’s ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the LORD.

Commit to the LORD whatever you do, and he will establish your plans.

The LORD works out everything to its proper ends-even the wicked for a day of disaster.

The LORD detests all the proud of heart. Be sure of this: They will not go unpunished.[i]

We have been journeying through the book of Jeremiah. What we see are God’s people going their own way. Over time they have been seduced by the values of the people’s living within their land and as well as the surrounding people groups. Wickedness had become so entrenched in their culture that people lacked the ability to discern right from wrong. Their knowledge of God was distorted. They really did not know God. Even though, God had continued to speak words of direction, instruction, and warning over the centuries, they repeatedly ignored His words through his prophets. Why the confusion? Because there were false prophets giving reassurances that was causing them to have a false sense of security. However, the reality was that they were practicing idolatry. In their minds they felt they were serving the Lord, but they had adopted a syncretistic (a blending) of other religious worship and thereby distorting God’s commandments. They were putting idols ahead of God. They were in violation of the greatest commandment, which was to have no other god before the Lord. Now the day of the Lord was at hand. God was about to judge the nation, and yet they were mystified by Jeremiah’s warnings, why God would do such a thing?

Idolatry is not always blatant or obvious. While working on a new course for the fall and winter on the book of 1 Corinthians, I was challenged by Paul’s words in which Jews demanded a sign and Greeks look for wisdom, but Paul stated that he preach Christ crucified. What was Paul conveying to the Corinthians? 

For both Jews and Gentiles, the ultimate idolatry is that of insisting that God conform to our own prior views as to how ‘the God who makes sense’ ought to do things.[ii]

We then judge God’s actions through our limited human wisdom. We become idolaters when what we determine become the authority of what is best for our lives rather than submit ourselves to Him and walk in His ways. In other words, we serve God on our terms, and not His. Are we really serving God, or are we trying to manipulate God to serve us? Here in Jeremiah 16 we find two critical aspects to the message that Jeremiah is delivering on God’s behalf when life stops being normal, what then?

THE FIRST CRITICAL ASPECT IS GOD DECREES OF JUDGMENT UPON HIS PEOPLE FOR IDOLATRY.

God begins by speaking to his servant, Jeremiah a word, that would demonstrate how serious the hour had become. Jeremiah’s was to illustrate through his behavior what was about to occur. God was calling Jeremiah to abstain from certain social customs as prophetic signs so that people would question his behavior and then would give opportunity for him to convey God’s message. “Jeremiah was forbidden to marry, mourn or mingle.”[iii]

 A. The first prophetic sign was that Jeremiah was to abstain from marriage.

This was a radical departure from normal life. His singleness was to demonstrate the current distress that was coming upon the nation.

Then the word of the LORD came to me:

You must not marry and have sons or daughters in this place.[iv]

Why was God forbidding what was considered healthy and valuable? We read in the book of Genesis, that it was not good for man to be alone (cf. Genesis 2:18), and so God gave Adam a suitable helper. God explains why in Jeremiah’s ministry that he was to remain single as a sign that this hour was not a normal time, but a season of distress.

For this is what the LORD says about the sons and daughters born in this land and about the women who are their mothers and the men who are their fathers:

‘They will die of deadly diseases. They will not be mourned or buried but will be like dung lying on the ground. They will perish by sword and famine, and their dead bodies will become food for the birds and the wild animals.[v]

Jeremiah is being told of the upcoming judgment that would be so devastating that it would bring disaster upon the land, and for those having families, it would be especially difficult as they would suffer the loss of their loved ones.

The apostle Paul when asked about whether people should remain single or get married made an interesting comment that reflects on what Jeremiah is being told here by God. Paul also talked about a season of distress and how it should impact our view on marriage and the single life. Paul wrote that whatever state people found themselves in, whether they were married or single that they ought to remain in their current situation because of a ‘present crisis.’

Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is.

Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife.

But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life and I want to spare you this.[vi]

Paul is stating that in times of crisis, the concern of a family creates even deeper challenges. Here in Jeremiah this is a prophetic picture of what was about to happen. They were about to experience Divine judgment through the Babylonian captivity.

Marriage in normal circumstances was not optional. It was a family matter, and usually arranged at a fairly young age. Only through marriage was there the hope of the family name living on across the years. Celibacy was not an ideal, it was an abnormality. Jeremiah’s celibacy, therefore, marked him off from other people. …It was a dramatic way of saying to the people that normal life was coming to an end; there was no future for the community.[vii]

God was in essence saying that life was about to stop being normal. This can occur in an individual’s life through accidents, illnesses, or losses of any kind. God was telling the people that things were about to drastically change. What was considered normal life was to become very distressful and difficult. In light of what we have walked through in the past few years we can appreciate how quickly life can change for all of us. In this day, the people in the Ukraine can say, that this is so true. 

B. The second, prophetic sign that Jeremiah was to demonstrate was that mourning was forbidden for him.

For this is what the LORD says: ‘Do not enter a house where there is a funeral meal; do not go to mourning or show sympathy, because I have withdrawn my blessing, my love and my pity from this people,’ declares the LORD.

Both high and low will die in this land. They will not be buried or mourned, and no one will cut themselves or shave their head for the dead.

No one will offer food to comfort those who mourn for the dead-not even for father or a mother-nor will anyone give them a drink to console them.[viii]

So why was Jeremiah forbidden to attend funerals? Once again it was a prophetic sign that in the near future, no one would be able to attend funerals because there would be no one to bury and mourn the dead that would fill the land because of the impending military conflict, famine and disease.

There are a number of ideas that are being expressed here. The first is the practice of self-mutilation that often was practiced by pagan cultures in times of grief, which was forbidden by the Law, but evidently was very popular in the Judean culture at this time. The idea of bringing food to the bereaved was also a custom, but both of these things would not occur because of the scope of the national tragedy that was about to occur. Robert Davidson summarizes this so powerfully.

Disaster was coming, disaster so shattering that the normal conventions of society no longer applied, not even the customary burial rites (verse 4). …When a society dies, it is implied, the conventions through which it organizes its life, die with it.[ix]

C. Thirdly, we see that celebrating festivities were forbidden to Jeremiah again as a prophetic sign.

And do not enter a house where there is feasting and sit down to eat and drink.

For this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Before your eyes and in your days I will bring an end to the sounds of joy and gladness and to the voices of bride and bridegroom in this place.[x]

How difficult was it for Jeremiah to be living a life testifying of the terrible consequences to sin. He was now as an outcast, no wife, children, no family engagement at funerals and weddings. Life was now no longer normal for him. Why? It was a dramatic and powerful means to communicate a time that was soon to come upon them. It would mean that life would no longer be normal.

Jeremiah the celibate, consciously absent from family funerals and weddings alike-what a powerful, costly witness he made to the coming breakdown of all normal life in a God-forsaken community![xi]

D. The Messenger bears the message by action and words.

Jeremiah’s actions would lead to questions. Why are you doing what you are doing Jeremiah? Jeremiah’s answer is to explain to them that they are about to be judged for their sin. It is a message calling for repentance, but one that was falling on deaf ears.

When you tell these people all this and they ask you, ‘Why has the LORD decreed such a great disaster against us? What wrong have we done? What sin have we committed against the LORD our God?’

Then say to them, ‘it is because your ancestors forsook me,’ declares the LORD, ‘and followed other gods and served and worshiped them. They forsook me and did not keep my law.

But you have behaved more wickedly than your ancestors. See how all of you are following the stubbornness of your evil hearts instead of obeying me.

So I will throw you out of this land into a land neither you nor your ancestors have known, and there will serve other gods day and night, for I will show you no favor.’[xii]

Jeremiah points out that not only had their ancestors turned their backs on Yahweh, but that the current generation was even more wicked and followed their ‘stubborn evil heart instead of obeying the Lord.’  The results are inescapable.

But now I will send for many fisherman,’ declares the LORD, ‘and they will catch them. After that I will send for many hunters, and they will hunt them down on every mountain and hill and from the crevices of the rocks.[xiii]

Here we have this portrait of fishermen, catching men and hunters, hunting them down. There is no escape from God’s judgment. Jeremiah again explains why such a thorough judgment.

My eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from me, nor is their sin concealed from my eyes.

I will repay them double for their wickedness and their sin, because they have defiled my land with the lifeless forms of their vile images and have filled my inheritance with their detestable idols.[xiv]

They were told that they would repay double for all their sins. The meaning is not that they were to pay twice what they owe, which we would question the justice of such a verdict, rather it meant that they would fully repay for the terrible sin of not putting God first in their lives. Idolatry is the greatest sin because we are violating the first and greatest command, that God is the Only God, and is our redeemer who has delivered us from bondage, even as He delivered the Israelites from their slavery in both Egypt and Babylon.

What do we learn from Jeremiah’s life and message? His life was to be the message. Isn’t that true of us as believers. Are not our lives to testify of what God wants to communicate to those around us through both word and deed? Think of Peter’s words to God’s persecuted people scattered over many places in Asia Minor, which is modern day Turkey. Listen to the instructions on how to live in such a manner that we are asked why we are behaving as we do we can point them to Christ.

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people.

Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves.

Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.[xv]

Peter then goes on to explain that we may experience injustice, but we are not to response with evil, rather to do good.

But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,

Keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander,

For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.[xvi]

THE SECOND CRITICAL ASPECT IS GOD DECREE OF RESTORATION UPON HIS PEOPLE AFTER THEIR HUMILIATION.

One of the most important things after discipline is to reassure the person that love is the underlying motive. It was God’s love that addressed the sin of the nation. God’s intent was not annihilation, but redemptive in nature. God promised restoration after discipline.

A. God had every intention of restoring the nation.

However, the days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when it will not longer be said, ‘As surely as the LORD lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt, but it will be said, ‘As surely as the LORD lives, who brought the Israelites up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.’ For I will restore them to the land I gave to their ancestors.[xvii]

            Andrew Dearborn explains the significance of this by providing hope in times when life is no longer normal.

For generations of God’s people after the Babylonians exile, the ‘second exodus’ of the people from Babylonian captivity was testimony to the faithfulness and forgiveness of God. It would indeed become ‘proverbial’…”[xviii]

Think about how significant this promise was. The greatest act in their past history would be overshadowed by this deliverance from Babylon. No wonder Isaiah told his generation that after judgment, salvation would come, and they were to

‘Forget the former things, and not to dwell on the past (Isaiah 43:18).’ How much greater is our own exodus and deliverance from slavery to sin and exile and restoration into God’s presence. Has not God delivered us from an even greater enemy than Babylon? Yes, a thousand times yes. God has delivered us from sin, shame, the devil, and death. We need to move on from our past. One of the great mistakes of the church, is the overemphasis on focusing on the past. We cannot camp there. Yes, we should learn from our past, but we need to understand the power of the cross to negate the past. Listen, forget the past; forgive the past, those who hurt you, those you have hurt, receive Christ forgiveness and live in that wonder of His grace. Listen to Paul’s words: If anyone is in Christ the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17). The cross is a demarcation line. We now need to learn to live in the Spirit, to obey the Spirit as revealed in the Scriptures. Stop dwelling on the past, and embrace Paul’s challenge to the Philippians.

But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind,

I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.[xix]

Another way to translates this Greek word, is to ‘pursue’ and it speaks of going after. Are we running the race? Is our eyes on the goal, the finish line?  Where are we looking? Are we looking to our future with Christ? Or are we looking at our past failures or the past failures of others? The blaming game may make us feel good for the moment, but it never changes what really matters, our future. 

B. God’s judgment on idolatry is an example for others.

If God is prepared to judge His own people, then this is a warning that God will not spare others, but it is even more than that, it is designed to reveal Himself to the nations.

LORD, my strength and my fortress, my refuge in time of distress, to you the nations will come? From the ends of the earth and say, ‘our ancestors possessed nothing but false gods, worthless idols that did them no good.[xx]

God is revealing His power and majesty so that all people’s might come to an understanding of the folly of idolatry. “Do people make their own gods? Yes, but they are not gods!’ (Jeremiah 16:20).” We can look at other ages and criticize them for their folly in looking to idols for their help. But we need to realize that we are still idolaters. Whatever we are looking for our salvation, be it in economics or technology, or the sciences, are we not making them that which we place our faith and trust in? Are we not making these things idols? If we are not primarily looking to God and see human agencies as only tools in God’s hands, rather than trusting them, this is the nature of idolatry. If we are looking to ourselves, or any other person, group apart from God, we have made them idols.

Therefore I will teach them-this time I will teach them my power and might. Then they will know that my name is the LORD.[xxi]

God reveals Himself by the way He addressed the nation of Israel. God’s purposes in what is happening in our lives extends beyond us. God is interested in teaching both us and others through our experiences.

When life stops being normal, what then? We need to take inventory. How are we living our lives? Am we living a self-directed life, or a life surrendered to God in order to reveal God’s character through us? We may recognize the need to change our ways, that is what repentance is: a change of mind that leads to a change of direction. We may need to surrender to God afresh. However, if what is happening to us comes through accident or other tragic situation, how should we respond? We need to look to God to sustain us. God ultimately is in control and works even these things for good to those who love Him (cf. Romans 8:28). As we can see through this chapter, one of God’s purposes was to reveal His power and might after disciplining His people and restoring them. Not only was this for their sakes but also for those who would one day understand. God is using the nation of Judah for people to come to know Him. On a personal level, God is not only working on us, but also working so that we become a message so others can come to know Him.

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[i] Proverbs 16:1-5, The New International Version of the Bible, 2011.

[ii] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle To The Corinthians, Revised Edition, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 77.

[iii] John Guest, Jeremiah, Lamentations, The Communicator’s Commentary, Vol. 17 (Waco, TX: Word, 1988), 131.

[iv] Jeremiah 16:1-2.

[v] Jeremiah 16:3-4.

[vi] 1 Corinthians 7:26-28.

[vii] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 1, The Daily Study Bible Series, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1983), 132.

[viii] Jeremiah 16:5-7.

[ix] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 1, 132-133.

[x] Jeremiah 16:8-9.

[xi] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 1, 133.

[xii] Jeremiah 16:10-13.

[xiii] Jeremiah 16:16.

[xiv] Jeremiah 16:17-18.

[xv] 1 Peter 2:11-12, 15-17.

[xvi] 1 Peter 3:14-17.

[xvii] Jeremiah 16:14-15.

[xviii] Andrew Dearborn, Jeremiah, Lamentations, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 169.

[xix] Philippians 3:13b.

[xx] Jeremiah 16:19.

[xxi] Jeremiah 16:21.

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