Wednesday, March 16, 2016

we don't need no stinkin' mantras

(by Pastor Joe)
The Word for today: Jeremiah 7:1- 8:3
The dictionary defines the word mantra as "a mystical formula of invocation or incantation." It's more than a catch phrase, more than a slogan, and more than a motto. It comes to our language from eastern religions (think Hinduism or Buddhism) from the idea that certain sounds or words are able, in themselves, to benefit the person who utters or chants them. (Perhaps the most famous and most caricatured is the word "ohm"). I don't want to get lost in eastern mysticism, but the point is that most cultures tend to have mantras that they return to regularly; mantras that define their position or beliefs or values; mantras that are spoken far more than they are explained or understood.
Think of some that have come and gone:
- "Better dead than Red"
- "Make love not war"
- "Remember the Alamo"
Think of some of the ones we still have around:
- "My body, my choice!"
- "We are who we've been waiting for." (Still trying to figure out what the heck that is supposed to mean)
- "My country, right or wrong" (GK Chesterton once likened this one to: My mother, drunk or sober!)
The problem with mantras are twofold:
1. Mantras are far too simplistic. You cannot ever reduce life or truth or God to a catchphrase. Even if they are partially true, they never tell the whole story. Mantras seem to be used the most to avoid that bothersome activity know as thinking. It does all the work for you--you just have to state it again and again and again.
2. Mantras blind us to the bigger picture. When you are committed to a particular mantra, your mind is already made up and all the evidence in the world would not convince you otherwise. That is never a healthy place to be--(see more about Pharaoh or the Pharisees for further proof).
In today's reading, the prophet Jeremiah was called to go to the gate of the Temple and proclaim God's message. When he got there, it seems that he's in the midst of a political rally. I imagine that there are crowds of people there, some with placards, some chanting phrases. What is their unifying cry? Two simple words: Hekal YHWH הֵיכַל יְהוָה "the Temple of the Lord!"
The popular idea at the time, re-enforced by false prophets, was that the Temple made them immune from God's judgement. Outside Jerusalem, the Babylonian armies were conquering kingdom after kingdom, city after city. God had sent multiple prophets to warn the people of Jerusalem of their sin and the consequences of their rebellion. Their exile had been foretold by the prophets, including Isaiah, Ezekiel, Amos and Jeremiah himself (see 7:25). The people themselves, for the most part, had no loyalty or love for God. Just read chapter 7 for a laundry list of their offences. Yet somehow they think that God will protect them, all because they happen to be standing in the Temple proper.
What they are saying was correct--the Temple in Jerusalem was the Temple of the Lord.
But what they were implying from that mantra was incorrect. God's Temple did not give the people of Jerusalem a "get out of captivity for free" card. It did not give them freedom to ignore the Law and live completely opposite of the Lord's covenant. It only gave them a false sense of hope and security as they ignorantly marched towards slaughter.
To correct these misconceptions, God reminds them of Israel's not too distant past and its former capital, Shiloh (7:12). From the time of Joshua through the time of Eli (400 years), Shiloh was the central city for the Israelites. It was where the Tabernacle was, and therefore the place where the High Priest and Ark of the Covenant were located (1 Samuel 1:3). It was at Shiloh where God revealed Himself to Samuel (1 Sa. 3:21).
Yet when the Israelites tried to use God's Ark of the Covenant as a good-luck charm, as a sort of a tangible mantra, to win their battle for them, God allowed them to lose the battle. He allowed the Ark to be captured by unclean Philistines, and He allowed Shiloh to forever lose its prominence for Israel. (See 1 Samuel 3 &4).
Psalm 78:60-61 goes even further, stating:
He abandoned the tabernacle of Shiloh,
the tent he had set up among men.
He sent the ark of his might into captivity,
his splendor into the hands of the enemy.
God was certainly jealous of His Ark and His Temple, but even more so, He was Jealous of His Name (Ez. 20:9). Therefore, even the most sacred of objects and places are not spared or immune to consequences.
That's why mantras don't work, because a relationship with God is never about a certain holy place or object; it's never about a slogan or catchphrase--even if that mantra is a Bible verse.
The scary news for us today is that we are just as prone as the people of Jeremiah's time to substitute a clever mantra for a real commitment to God's truth. We all have our favorite Bible verses; the temptation is to twist them or misuse them so we have things our way. God is constantly, through His word and through His Holy Spirit, leading us into truth. The temptation comes when we might not like what is being communicated and so we ignore the whole truth and cling to a mantra. "God is love" (1 John 4:16) is a true statement, but without the rest of the Bible we don't even know what love means.
So our challenge for today is to move beyond using the Bible and its sublime verses as proof texts for our own sin or selfishness. Ditch the spiritual crutches and placards that we so often depend upon. We have Jesus Christ; we don't need no stinkin' mantras!

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