On what or whom do you rely?
How would you complete this sentence: I’ll be ok because _______.
I’ll be ok because I’ve got –money in the bank, my cell phone, my house, my friends, my spouse, my parents, my health, my mind…
The traveling salesman said, “I rely on hotels so much I’ve actually become quite …Inn-dependent.”
There were no hotels when, as we read in Mark today, Jesus sent the disciples out with almost nothing – no food, no money, no change of clothes. They were to be, like Blanche Dubois in the play A Streetcar Named Desire, “dependent on the kindness of strangers.” They were to be fully relying on God to provide for them as they went out to do God’s work. Like so much about being disciples of Jesus, it’s easier to say than it is to do. But it is what God says in Jeremiah that we were made to do. God says, “I created Judah and Israel to cling to me.” (Jer. 13:11) When I read that verse, I immediately thought of the acronymn: F.R.O.G. Fully Rely on God.
I started collecting frogs when I was in middle school back in the 70’s when I went on a trip with a group of friends. They had each chosen an animal to be like their personal mascot, so I wanted one, too. Green is my favorite color, and so when I saw some little magnetic frogs in a gift shop, I decided the frog would be my mascot.
I first saw the acronym F.R.O.G. on a bulletin board at our church in California back in the 90’s. It made frogs have purpose and meaning for me, a tangible reminder of an intangible reality: God is dependable and faithful, and worthy of our trust.
It’s one thing to know this and another to truly believe it, and even bigger to live this out in our daily lives. The people of Israel struggled to trust God, just like we do. The prophets were continually calling the people to turn back to God. Jeremiah 13:11 says, “As a loincloth clings to a man’s waist, so I created Judah and Israel to cling to me, says the Lord. They were to be my people, my pride, my glory—an honor to my name. But they would not listen to me.”
To illustrate this, God told Jeremiah to buy a linen belt or loincloth. Jeremiah was to wear it for a bit, and then to hide it in the rocks along the bank of the river. So Jeremiah did. And when he went back after many days to retrieve it, the linen was rotted and dirty and useless. God said, “Instead of listening to me, this wicked people follow their own willful hearts and pursue other gods, worshipping and serving them. They will become like this linen garment – good for nothing” (Jeremiah 13:10 CEB).
When we don’t listen to God, when we follow and worship other gods, we are not accomplishing the purposes for which God made us. When we let our own foolish pride guide us more than we let God guide us, we are not able to serve and worship God, and not able to enjoy the blessings that come from loving God. And Jeremiah weeps about this. He says in verse 17: And if you still refuse to listen, I will weep alone because of your pride. My eyes will overflow with tears, because the Lord’s flock will be led away into exile.”
The people refused to listen to Jeremiah’s warnings. They preferred the prophets who told them that everything was going to be ok. They didn’t want to change their ways. They were self-righteous.
In chapter 2, Jeremiah lays out God’s case against Israel. They had:
- Ignored God and not asked God for help
- Worshipped idols
- Made alliances with Egypt and Assyria
- Claimed to have no sin
God kept sending messages through the prophets, but the people wouldn’t listen. In the verses we read today, Jeremiah says, “Listen and pay attention! Do not be arrogant, for the Lord has spoken…and if you still refuse to listen, I will weep alone because of your pride. My eyes will overflow with tears…” (Jer. 13:15,17)
Verses like these earned Jeremiah the nickname “The Weeping Prophet,” but his tears are an expression of God’s sorrow. The prophet Ezekiel says, “As surely as I live, says the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of wicked people. I only want them to turn from their wicked ways so they can live.” (Ez. 33:11).
Sometimes we don’t turn to God because we think we know better. I have this problem with Google maps. I don’t want to go the way the map says to go. I want to go the way that I think looks better. One time, in Houston, where I didn’t know my way around very well, I decided to ignore the map and go the way I thought I should go. Why I thought that was a good idea, I don’t know. It definitely wasn’t. I ended up lost. I had to use the map to get unlost, and I was 30 minutes late to my appointment.
In the OT book of 1 Samuel, the people were having trouble being satisfied with trusting God to lead them, so they asked for a human king. In 1 Samuel 8, the prophet Samuel warns them. He says:
“This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses . . . Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.”
Samuel lists many other ways in which a king would exploit the people, and then says, “When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.” (1 Sam. 8:11-18)
So began a long history of kings who led the people away from God, and of putting our trust in leaders to save us. Psalm 146 warns us about this. “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing.” Psalm 146:3-4
Human leaders cannot save us. But sometimes we don’t realize how much we’re relying on someone or something until that person or thing goes away. It’s one of the ways our spiritual lives go through a process of renovation.
One of the first times I realized I had put my faith in something other than God was when I saw the movie The Siege (1998). In this movie, Annette Benning plays a CIA agent who is working with an FBI anti-terrorist agent played by Denzel Washington. The city of New York is in terror after bombs blow up a bus full of people, a Broadway theater in the middle of a performance, and a busy FBI office. The suddenness of the end of life for these people, and their helplessness in preventing this, made me see how much I had been telling myself, “I’m going to be ok because the hospital is nearby, ambulances come quickly, we have good medical care and good police, my parents are nearby, my husband is strong and smart, I am strong and smart, things like this don’t happen in real life.” But things like this do happen. The tornadoes in Kentucky Friday night caused similarly catastrophic destruction. And sometimes there’s nothing the police or EMTs can do, my family would not be able to keep me from being blown up by terrorists. Things like this may not be as likely in American suburbia, but they do happen, and in some parts of the world they are happening all the time.
Realizing I was putting my trust in the wrong things was a pretty unsettling and eye-opening understanding for me, and I must say that I didn’t sleep well that night. Being shaken like that helped me see that I needed to work on trusting God more than I was trusting other things and people.
Jeremiah says, “As a loincloth clings to a man’s waist, so I created Judah and Israel to cling to me, says the Lord. They were to be my people, my pride, my glory—an honor to my name. But they would not listen to me.” (Jeremiah 13:11)
What do we need to do? Listen. The Hebrew word here for “listen” is shema. Shema is also the first word of the daily Hebrew prayer from Deuteronomy 6 that says to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Jesus told us that this is the greatest commandment, and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself.
We know how to do this, don’t we? I used to think that if I prayed enough and read the Bible enough and was good enough, that everything would work out ok, but I have since come to realize that sometimes it’s not that simple. There are questions that aren’t always so easy to answer. Understanding the Bible is not always so easy. Scholars with much greater understanding than mine continue to argue over biblical interpretation. So I have learned that I cannot assume that my understanding is the only way. I think that’s why Proverbs 3:5 says, “Lean not on your own understanding.”
It’s one of the reasons that we need to have opportunities for discussion, like our Sunday school group and our Zoom group that meets this afternoon, and why we read commentaries by more than one scholar, and keep inquiring of God to guide us in our searching and asking, and realize that knowledge is not our salvation. It is helpful, but not to take the place of trusting God.
“Because you are my helper, I sing for joy in the shadow of your wings. I cling to you; your strong right hand holds me securely.” -Psalm 63:7-8
A pastor posted on Facebook this week about how things are going at his church now after having weathered the uncertainties of the pandemic over the past 18 months. Now more of their congregation worships online than in person, and so they are shifting their focus to other kinds of community building. They will continue to offer weekly worship, of course, but they will engage with one another more through small group studies, fellowship gatherings, and opportunities for service.
What if our main focus needs to be having opportunities for conversation, asking questions, and finding God’s answers together? Helping each other to love God and love one another.
The Franciscan priest Father Richard Rohr says that in “…the first 1,300 years of Christianity … faith [was] defined as a combination of knowing and not knowing. Of a willingness and readiness by the grace of God to live with a certain degree of unknowing…”
It can be scary to let go of what seemed like solid ground and walk forward into a certain degree of unknowing, but often the reality is that we only thought we knew some things for certain. It’s also why Micah 6:8 says, “Walk humbly with God,” What we can be sure of is that God is faithful and loves us very much, so much that he sent us Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us.
“Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.” -Isaiah 12:2
Listening to God and being humble is hard, but it’s what we are called to do. Jeremiah tells us to cling to God like the belt clings to our waist. What are we clinging to? Or, more importantly, what are we clinging to that’s keeping us from fully relying on God? Sometimes we’re clinging to a way of understanding that needs to change. Or to a shallow understanding that needs to go deeper. Or to things instead of God.
When Jesus sent the disciples out without anything but a staff and sandals and the clothes they were wearing, he was ensuring that they walked humbly with God. He may also have been conveying the urgency of the task by not allowing them to take time to pack and prepare. He gave them what they needed for the task at hand – the authority to cast out demons and heal the sick and preach the good news of God’s grace and peace. They went out looking like prophets, for that is what they were.
Who are the prophets calling out to us today? Many of them may not be in pulpits or even in churches. Some of them are futurists or scientists. Some of them are activists. Some of them are poets or songwriters or painters. Some of them are saying things we may not want to hear.
Former PCUSA moderator Cindy Bolbach said, “At the heart of the Gospel, at the heart of each community of faith that seeks to proclaim the Gospel, is not structure or organization or, dare I say it, even a Form of Government. At the heart of a community of faith are disciples like these in the Gospel story — disciples who are willing to take risks, to do whatever it takes, to help others see Jesus – not just those who they know and like, but those who they don’t know, maybe even those they don’t like.”
We Presbyterians say that we are reformed and always reforming. As we go through that process, again and again, we must, remember that Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit are at the center. We cling to them, and to the love that is the core of our faith. God is love. For this love we give thanks, and we rebuild from there letting go of certainty and trusting Jesus to walk with us through the tension between what we know and don’t know.
That’s why our Advent joy is in the beautiful gift of Emmanuel, God with us. Let us cling to Jesus as we walk forward into the future, humbly trusting God to carry us, and the Holy Spirit to strengthen and guide us.
 David Garland, NIV Application Commentary: Mark, Zondervan. Pgs 240-241.
 As quoted by Roy Howard in the Facebook group PCUSA Leaders in a post on December 12, 2021.