“This is what the Lord says: Stand by the roadways and look. Ask about the ancient paths, ‘Which is the way to what is good?’ Then take it and find rest for yourselves. But they protested, ‘We won’t!'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
What are the major sources of counsel in your life? Most people rely on something from the internet as one of their top ten at least; maybe top five. If not that, we’ll turn to one self-help book or another, all of which have been written in the last thirty years. Generally speaking, what this means is that most of our counsel comes from sources that aren’t very old. Now, on the one hand, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are folks in the last thirty years who have been really wise and can point us in some good directions if we’ll pay attention. But if all our counsel comes from recent sources, we’re missing out on something important. Let’s talk this morning about what and why that is.
Our culture is obsessed with the latest and the greatest. We worship youth. This isn’t all that new of a phenomenon either. I recently got the chance to stay home with a sick kid for a couple of days. One of his homework assignments was a reading worksheet all about Samantha Smith, “America’s Youngest Ambassador.” She was a ten-year-old who wrote a letter to Soviet President Yuri Andropov in 1982 asking what he was doing to help prevent a nuclear war between Russia and the United States. Her letter wound up being published in a Soviet newspaper, she received a letter back from Andropov, and spent two weeks that summer touring the Soviet Union as Andropov’s personal guest. She was heralded and celebrated around the world as brilliant peace activist at the height of the Cold War. While her smiling earnestness was no doubt genuine, she was almost certainly being used as a prop by the Soviet government to score a public relations victory against the United States.
More recently, consider all the attention given to Greta Thunberg, the young climate change activist from Sweden. She is still held up as an expert on the matter when in reality she has almost no scientific training on the subject and doesn’t do much more than repeat progressive climate change slogans with all of the youthful passion of a teenager.
This trend goes beyond merely young people, though. Just look at the way our culture gets all caught up in one fad after another. Whether a diet trend or an exercise craze or an inane internet video, we rush to the latest thing that seems to be getting the attention of the masses. Eventually that attention becomes a self-replicating force. A few flock to it out of genuine interest, and then more flock to it because they see the others going. It’s like waiting in a line. If people see a line forming, sometimes they’ll wait in it just because they think they are supposed to, or else they don’t want to possibly miss out on whatever is at the end of the line.
But again, while there is certainly wisdom to be found in the modern world, there is something modern counsel lacks versus wisdom from ages past: time. A good friend of mine will occasionally get together with friends to make a big pot of Brunswick stew (a red broth stew with chicken and vegetables). The pot he uses is enormous. I could climb inside it and the lid would still close all the way. You could probably fit all three of my boys in it. Furthermore, it’s old and has been used for years and years and years to make Brunswick stew. I am completely confident that if Bryan used all the same ingredients and the same process with a new pot, the stew wouldn’t taste the same. Not even close. The old one has been seasoned and proved itself tried and true over the course of many years.
New ideas are not a bad thing. But they haven’t been tested. They haven’t really been tried. And how could they have been. They are new. Because of that, while, again, they may be good, we don’t know that for sure. Their weaknesses haven’t been tested or even revealed. The implications of their being unleashed on the world aren’t yet known. Throwing all of our weight behind them is a bet that is risky at best.
Now, of course it’s possible to hold too tightly to old ways and ideas and not be willing to move forward when we need to. That is a different and sometimes equally severe problem. But there is something about old ways and ideas that makes them not worth ignoring.
This was an idea God wanted the people of Israel to embrace during Jeremiah’s tenure as a prophet. They were living in a world where everything was changing. Their sister nation to the north had been conquered and destroyed by the Assyrians a generation or two before. Now the Babylonians were moving into the neighborhood and bringing with them all kinds of new ideas and ways of interacting with the world. They were starting to get a sense of just how big the world really was (although they couldn’t have even imagined its real size and scope).
In all of this, they were looking at the old ways of their past with increasing scorn. Sure, those ideas were tried and true, but look at this new stuff. It sure seemed fun and exciting. It was new and different. It felt good to try and embrace. Sure, there seemed to be some parts of it that might not be all they were cracked up to be, but those were surely going to be worked out along the way.
The trouble was that they weren’t. These new ways were not rooted in righteousness or justice. They were rooted in pride and selfishness. They were about having what you wanted now and worry about the consequences later. Besides, if your embrace of these new ideas made you powerful enough, you didn’t have to worry about the consequences. You could always push the payment off on someone else and keep right on rolling. Sound familiar at all?
Into this swirling storm of change, Jeremiah spoke with the clarity only a prophet could bring. He said that if they wanted to know the right way to go forward, they needed to look back first. Look and see which path has been blazed and proven safe and secure. Then, take that path. It is going to keep leading you forward to a good place. It has been pointed in the right direction and it isn’t going to lead you astray now. In a response filled with portents of doom, the people responded with a strong and firm, “No.”
Throughout human history, people have generally been searching for the same thing in a million different forms. We want freedom from the brokenness that rips apart our nations, our cultures, our families. We want to be released from the selfishness that keeps us in a cycle of self-destructively blowing up every good thing we manage to create for ourselves. In short, we want salvation. And we’ve searched for it in so many different ways. Out of the jungle of our efforts in this direction, though, there is one path that has proven itself true over and over again. This path is the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the lifestyle emanating from it. No other path has gotten us to where we want to go like that one has. The world around us may offer up an ever-increasing number of alternative paths – just like the people of Israel were experiencing during Jeremiah’s tenure – but they will all pan out about as successfully as the rest of the jungle has, which is to say, not at all.
In a world where newness is celebrated as its own virtue, let us heed the counsel of this ancient prophet to ask about the ancient paths to find which is the way to what is good. The path of Christ is the way. Let us take it and find rest for ourselves. Let us learn our lessons from Israel and not merely with them. Let us be always open to learning from what is new, but let us evaluate what is new through the lens of what is old and proven. Let us make sure our engagement with what is new is always done through the lens of the path that is ancient and true. Then we will never find ourselves lost in the storm of chaos swirling around us. We will be able to cling to the rock of truth and keep moving forward toward the rest that will one day be glorious and eternal.