Cracked Cisterns That Can Hold No Water
… for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.
“Work hard, play hard.” It’s an often repeated motto with todays’ youth (and even among the not-so-young denying the advances of age). According to some new research from Queen’s University in Kingston (Ontario), the saying is not just aspirational. Undergraduate students were surveyed about their “legacy drive”, or their attraction to accomplishment and fame, and “leisure drive,” or activities that want to pursue in their free time for fun. It also asked them about their feelings towards parenthood, religion, mortality and self-esteem.
The study found that participants fell into three distinct clusters. The group with the strongest inclination towards word and leisure—the “secular go-getter type”—were also attracted to parenthood but not religion. The study’s main author, Lonnie Aarssen said that “the desire to “work hard, play hard,” may serve an evolutionary purpose to distract from the anxiety surrounding our own mortality, especially when religious beliefs are absent. We, unlike any other animal, are aware and concerned about our own self-impermanence.”
It is worth noting that the word God spoke through Jeremiah twenty-six centuries ago still speaks with penetrating accuracy today; “they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” An apt description of all our idolatries, “cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” Abandoning the fountain of living water, we have with great energy dug cisterns for ourselves. Believing that the individual is the final arbiter for all things regarding themselves, our modern cistern is the cistern of self-determining choice. A cracked cistern that holds no water.
1. Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry began during the days of Judah’s King Josiah. Josiah’s grandfather Manasseh established the worship of Baal in Judah even erecting altars for Baal in the precincts of the temple. Josiah’s father Amon continued the practise and so you could imagine as temple worship of God was neglected the temple fell into disrepair. Josiah became King at a very early age because his father was murdered. He decided that the temple needed to be repaired and during that repair work a book of the law was found (think Bible). The reading and hearing of the Bible had obviously been neglected.
The book was brought to Josiah and read and upon hearing it, likely for the first time in his life, he was convicted with regard to the idolatry in which he had been raised. He then led a campaign to rid Judah of its idolatry, ending Baal worship, dismantling its altars and deposing its priests and reinstituted the keeping of the Passover. It was in this period of reform that Jeremiah begins his preaching and this sermon with it image of idolatry as cracked cisterns which hold no water is first preached.
Baalism had several aspects to it. It was nature-worship, and nature worship (both ancient and modern) conveniently lacks any grasp of evil or sin. Nature-worship will always attract those who want religious sentimentality without ethics. Not surprisingly Baalism tolerated, even encouraged, lasciviousness of all sorts. Keep in mind that whenever nature was regarded as divine in cultures before ours human sacrifice was demanded. In biblical times the worshippers of Baal sacrificed human beings; so did the Aztecs in Mexico centuries later; so did the Nazis in Europe only recently. A book on ecology published in 1984 (published by Random House, a very reputable American publisher) insisted that culling human beings is a moral obligation given our commitment to the earth. Another book published in 1989 (State University of New York Press) insisted that culling human beings is “not only morally permissible, but, from the point of the view of the land ethic, morally required.” David Suzuki in his book The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature” identifies the problem as “unprecedented and unsustainable change in human population.”
Jeremiah’s preaching makes clear that what we worship has real life consequences and Baal worship lead to things that do not profit. By the way, the poetic nature of Jeremiah’s preaching reveals a person of great ability. He knew how the turn of a phrase would stick in people’s mind. The Hebrew word that we translate as “no profit” rhymes (has a similar sound) with word Baal. In that same way the image of “cracked cisterns that can hold no water” stays with you and depicts with clarity the experience of discovering the emptiness of many ideologies and mottos.
2. Assumed in the backdrop of Jeremiah’s sermon is the covenant God has with his people Israel. The questions God asks Israel are akin to God asking—is there some aspect of the covenant that I did not fulfil? “What wrong did your ancestors find in me.?” Did I do something that caused you to look elsewhere?
The covenant in question was enacted between God and the Israelites at Sinai, which resulted in Israel becoming the chosen people and heirs of the promised land. The terms of the agreement stipulated that God would provide for the total needs of his people if they in turn would be obedient to commands and worship no other deity. (Exodus 20:3) The effect was to establish Israel as a vehicle of divine revelation and constitute her as a witness in the contemporary pagan society to the nature and purposes of the one true and living God.
Now this sounds as though God is partial picking favourites. While God is active in the history of Israel this is never to say that God is active only in Israel’s history. In fact Jeremiah has much to say about how God is active in other nations. In the same way, when the Apostle John declares that Jesus is the living word of God he is saying that God is to be found definitively in the person of an ordinary Jew who is also “numbered among the transgressors.” It is not said that God has neglected or forsaken people who are non-Christians. Nevertheless it is in Jesus Christ that we learn that God neither neglects nor forsakes anyone.
Jeremiah prophesies through a transition time in the covenant relationship. He prepares the people for living as covenant people even in exile. Jeremiah’s preaching always included that promise of future restoration of God’s people that included that promise of a new covenant. The new covenant will have some differences; “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” … “for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more,” says the Lord. (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
Remember what our Lord said at that last supper with his disciples. “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” Jesus Christ is the perfect covenant partner God was looking for; he fulfills all things for us to set us right with God.
When God says “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” this isn’t God simply looking the other way or putting it out if his mind. This needs to be understood according to the Hebrew concept of “remember.” Remembrance, in biblical terms, is the action of God. When, in prayer, God is asked to “remember” someone, the plea is that God will take action on behalf of that person—not simply to think about them.
Reading Jeremiah through the prism of the cross of Jesus Christ means that God will take action to rectify his people’s wholesale violation of his commandments by breaking the bonds of sin, and to obliterate not only the consequences of sin but also the memory of it, and so consign the evil Powers permanently to it proper status of nonexistence. This action, promised in the word through Jeremiah, God took in the Son at the cross and we look in hope to its final consummation.
“This is rectification: God in his righteousness will make right all that has been wrong. This is the very promise of God that the “former things” will be obliterated and no memory of them will remain. And here is the staggering irony: all this is accomplished in the death of Jesus Christ by crucifixion, the method [of execution] that was especially designed to erase the memory of its victims as though they had never existed. Such is the power of God who raises the dead.” (Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion, Eerdmans, 2015, p. 603.)
3. Come with me now in your imaginations to that point in Jesus’ ministry when he had taken his disciples on a retreat away from the press of the crowds and the busyness of ministry. They have come to Caesarea Philippi at the foot of Mt. Hermon; a beautiful place that was one of the sources of water for the Jordon river. It was there that Jesus asked them that pivotal question—“who do you say that I am?”
As part of that conversation Jesus had asked them what people were saying about Jesus’ identity? According to Matthew gospel they answer, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Of all the older testament prophets named I wonder why Jeremiah was mentioned. As the disciples hear what people are saying in the courses of ministry connecting Jesus with the prophet Jeremiah seems to stand out—perhaps gets proportionately more mentions that other prophets. What is it about our Lord’s ministry that people are identifying with Jeremiah?
Jeremiah is known for his lamentation over the destruction of people and their lives, of Jerusalem and of the Temple that stood for the worship he was trained to serve and loved. The tone of his preaching is the tone of the broken heart. His pronouncements of God’s judgement was never said as if it were a happy thing—as if some sort of joy that a wayward people were going to get their comeuppance for idolatry. Recall Jesus lament over Jerusalem. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34) So the tone of Jesus message was the call of a broken heart for his people. We know this in that sinners always found a ready welcome in him.
Think about that day Jesus met with a woman at the well and what he said there. “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:14) And then at the Temple during the Festival of Booths Jesus cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” (John 7:37-38) People hearing Jesus preach would hear echoes of Jeremiah’s pronouncement of how their ancestors turned away from God, “they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water.”
4. I note that in spite of Israel’s forsaking God, God still calls them “my people.” “My people have committed two evils,” said God. My people. God has not abandoned them. I note the two evils. Forsaking God and making their own gods. Forsaking God is bad enough, in doing so we always fill that void with something. God speaks this word to “my people.”
I wonder about my own vacillating. I’d like to think that I am loyal to my Saviour Jesus Christ and that only he has this place of absolute trust in my heart. But I can see that I am at times torn. Do I trust God or wealth—and at times I know that is sure looks like I am leaning to wealth. I take heart that my Saviour is the perfect covenant partner and he is so for my sake; he has included me in his keeping of that covenant for me. I take great comfort that God does not stop calling us “my people.”
5. “Cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” Believers can never say this with an air of superiority. It was God would found us out and made us his own. It was our Saviour Jesus who makes the way for us. Further, given our propensity to idolatry—putting anything in the place God should have in our lives—we speak this word as a corrective for us, remembering who truly is the source of living water. It is also a word of hope for people who find these self-dug cisterns are in fact cracked. A word of hope because the living water is free for any to come and drink.
The publicist for the late author and debater Christopher Hitchens asked Christian author Larry Taunton to arrange a series of debates between Hitchens, an outspoken atheist, and Christian thinkers. Over the ensuing years, Hitchens and Taunton developed an unlikely friendship. Hitchens stayed in Taunton's home, and prior to Hitchens' death from cancer, the two friends took two long road trips across America. Here's how Taunton describes what happened on one of those trips:
My mind goes back to the Shenandoah. The skies are clear, the autumn leaves are translucent in the early afternoon sun, and the road ahead of us is open … In a strong, clear voice, Christopher is reading from the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of John. (story of Jesus coming to funeral for Lazarus and his conversation with Martha) Reaching the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth verses, his face lights up with recognition. He stops. "I know this one too," he says. "I did not recall its connection with the resurrection of Lazarus."
"It's a great verse," I add, sensing we have reached a defining moment. "Yes, Dickens thought so," Christopher says, and then, taking his reading glasses off, he turns to me and asks: "Do you believest thou this, Larry Taunton?" His sarcasm is evident, but it lacks its customary force.
"I do. But you already knew that I did. The question is, do you believest thou this, Christopher Hitchens?" As if searching for a clever riposte, he hesitates and speaks with unexpected transparency: "I'll admit that it is not without appeal to a dying man."