At first the small, empty old house fell into disrepair, and then the fire left it a pile of rubble. The determined cause was cited as a spark from a train. Trains carrying trash and strange toxic waste from industries passed by the house a few times a week. The railroad tracks were close to the house, only about two hundred yards away, and the fields were dry from a long, hot summer. So the conclusion was that sparks from the train caused the blaze. Some said it was arson. But no one, it appeared, wanted to make an issue of it, and so the case was closed.
I knew the old lady who once lived there. My first visit came when I saw her out in the yard. I stopped and chatted a while. She seemed pleased that I had stopped. She was, I think, relieved that I had identified myself as a pastor, which probably waylaid any fear she might have possessed about entertaining a stranger.
Over the next year or so, I stopped and visited her a few times. I learned she was headstrong and determined to live there alone in spite of the family’s insistence that she should accept some arrangement of assisted living. Her life, as she described to me, was typical of simple country living. She and her deceased husband were small-time farmers and held other jobs at times to supplement their meager farming income. She was a church-going lady. She had very strong opinions, especially about folks leaving her alone, but was nevertheless sweet about everything.
Then one day when I stopped to see her, she was not there. The doors were locked, and through the windows you could see there were just a few things left inside. The old shed had been emptied. But the old lady was gone. A neighbor down the road told me the kids had finally gotten her into a nursing home and she died there soon after. I’m sure they did the right thing, but I couldn’t help remembering the conversation we had when she told me without hesitation that she wanted to die in her own house. She was serious about it.
I never forgot her. I always felt she had so much more to say about her life than I could get her to disclose during our short visits. Her belongings were interesting, artful, classy, always dusted, and well displayed. They revealed her intellect and depth. I remember thinking how vulnerable she was to theft.
Time passed. The house burned. Weeds grew. Storms uprooted several old trees. Farmers plowed ever closer to where the old house had stood. Today passersby would never know there had ever been a house there at all. But, if one knew where to look, he could see the remains of a small flower garden, where ancient flowers still battle for the sun’s rays, pushing through the dark shadows of bull thistle and dandelion. But the old lady…
she is no longer there.
I don’t have the courage to share the whole poem I wrote about my “new” old friend. However, my poetic lament included this line, “Where once stood an old house, where once lived an old lady.” To me, this lament expresses the panged realization of how fully she is gone – unremembered, mostly unknown.
Dear reader, forgive me this rambling to make what I fear is an obvious point. In a moment, history and its heroes are forgotten, the sacrifices of past generations are dismissed; and worse, they are judged as passé or insignificant. How shocking and disconcerting it is when foundations are undefended or torn down, removed with malice and little forethought. How quickly weeds grow. How quickly fires burn. How quickly it all fades away.
Much is revealed about our own moment in history, if we dare ponder the deep significant meaning of an ancient, dramatic, historical, political and spiritual shift recounted to us in Jeremiah. This shift is similar to what we are facing in our world today. Jeremiah was the prophet, a chosen voice, an advocate for moral consciousness and spiritual truth in a corrupt culture called Babylon. His assignment was to awaken the convictions and passions of God’s people. To do this, he needed to reverse negative trends and godless intentions so that the righteous would once again “ask the way to Zion” (Jeremiah 50:5).
Like today, it was a time of political and spiritual revolution. The Babylonian world and its power structures were being challenged. Invasion loomed. There was no compromise for God’s people. Judah and Israel needed to come together and escape. They needed to identify and reject all allegiances with the enemy. Jeremiah was commanded to stand against Babylon, to declare, to publish “among the nations” that Babylon is taken, confounded, the idols are broken in pieces. It was demanded that Jeremiah speak! Publish it! Tell it! Any allegiance with Babylon was worthless. Jeremiah’s sermon was clear. Israel and Judah must come together, weeping, “Come, and let us join ourselves to the Lord in a perpetual covenant that shall not be forgotten” (50:5).
After Jeremiah exposed the destruction of Babylon, he was commanded further to deliver the shocking clarification to the people of where the failures had originated. The poignant message he spoke is a warning to every generation. The sheep were lost, not of their own folly, but because they lacked shepherding. “My people hath been lost sheep: their shepherds have caused them to go astray, they have turned them away on the mountains: they have gone from mountain to hill, they have forgotten their resting place” (50:6).
False teachers had turned them from right paths, allowed them to drift from mountains to hills in acts of idolatry and sin. Their spiritual condition and their doctrinal interpretations of justice and hope were so skewed that their enemies no longer saw them as a threat. Even the enemy knew they had sinned against God, and spoke as if by “devouring them” they had done God some sort of favor. A people, once great, once mighty, were now outside the habitation of God, and therefore defenseless. (50:7)
The only solution to avoid destruction was God alone. The people must remember that the price of sin would ultimately be demanded of them. Only God would be their pardon and escape (50:20). Jeremiah’s great task was to alert the people until they were fully aware that only through repentance and obedience would they be saved. They could not compromise with Babylon and still expect God to keep them from destruction.
Forgetting God, forgetting the “resting place,” forgetting the foundational truths, allowing false pastors to lead us away from the old paths so that we wander from the mountain to this or that hill is what makes the church in any generation vulnerable. We must not forget that God’s own desired victory for His Church is the key. It is not we, by our might, influence, or talents who will bring deliverance. It is our Redeemer, mighty and strong, who will provide the righteous pardon. He will confound the enemy of our souls.
“And it shall be, if thou do at all forget the LORD thy God, and walk after other gods, and serve them, and worship them, I testify against you this day that ye shall surely perish” (Deuteronomy 8:19).
Sweet, anointed people, and glorious Holy Ghost filled churches can be led astray. They can be turned from the mountain to the hill. They can be taken from victory to failure. They can be led from righteousness to sin. Good shepherds are the key to avoiding such a fate: shepherds willing to hear the voice of God, shepherds willing to take a stand for holiness and the right paths. Alliances with worldliness and false teaching are alluring, but let us not be deceived. Let it never be said of us:
“Ahhh…Here is the mountain — Where once stood a great church, where once worshiped a great people.”