Preaching in strange places
Katmandu’s streets are regularly lined with garbage as the people pile the trash from their homes there to be shoveled into trucks and hauled away. Those pickups are irregular and often infrequent, so that the piles of refuse appear constant. They impede traffic and pedestrians since there are limited sidewalks and little room in the streets.
The sights and smells produced by this system are offensive to those unaccustomed to such.
Landfills, garbage dumps, and other means of disposal are matters of distaste, but also of great importance. Doing something with our abundant waste is a practical necessity, but no one enjoys dealing with it, or seeing and smelling it in close proximity.
Get rid of it – move it out of sight and consciousness – that is our desire.
The prophets of Israel and Judah were often given odd and difficult assignments. Hosea was commanded to marry an adulterous woman (Hosea 1:2). Ezekiel had to lay on his left side on the ground without rising for 390 days, then on his right side for another 40 days (Ezekiel 4:4, 6).
God once gave a command to Jeremiah that does not at first appear unusual or particularly demanding (Jeremiah 19:1-2). He was simply told to go to a certain part of Jerusalem and preach. However, when one examines the geography of ancient Jerusalem, the instructions take on a different light.
The Potsherd Gate in the southern wall of the city was also known as the “Refuse Gate” (see Nehemiah 12:31). Gates were often named for their geographical location, or for their primary function.
The name “Refuse Gate” suggests that it was the route used by the inhabitants of Jerusalem to dump their garbage outside the city. Its location on the south side fits the tradition that the valley of Hinnom served as the garbage dump for Jerusalem.
Jeremiah was assigned to preach at the town dump. That doesn’t sound particularly enjoyable, nor does it seem likely to be very productive. How often do we reason that the Church needs a nice, impressive building so that worshippers will be comfortable and visitors will enjoy their experience?
When we plan evangelistic activity we spruce things up, put on a good front, and make things as attractive as possible. After all, “God wants our best,” and “first impressions are all important.”
Jeremiah reminds us that there is a grim and unpleasant side of our mission. Sin is ugly. Sinners have declared themselves to be God’s enemies (Romans 8:7). There is garbage in our lives that must be eradicated.
Years ago there was a cartoon strip which featured a character whose stated mission was to “minister to the rich and famous.” There is great appeal in going to the pretty, comfortable places of the world to preach the gospel. Yet it is often in the garbage heaps that our witness is most needed, and it is there that our work may be most productive.
The fact is that the stinking streets of Katmandu are probably a much more fertile field for evangelism than the beautiful beaches of Hawaii. The ghettos and slums of our cities produce more sincere listeners (most of the time at least) than the country club neighborhoods.
Jeremiah’s chosen location probably had more to do with the symbolism which gave weight to his message than to the willingness of his audience, but the application is still valid.
We must not shy away from the garbage heaps when we go out to do the work of God. Sin is not pretty. Sinners live in filth, metaphorically, but often literally as well. We must go where they are if we hope to reach them with the saving Gospel.