God sees

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Jeremiah 23:23-32

23Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off?

It is a question that will have great power in the years that follow Jeremiah’s preaching, when Jerusalem has been destroyed and its citizens carried off in chains to exile in Babylon.

Is God with them in this far off land? Or do they now inhabit another’s realm? Can we end up so far from home that God is not with us? When we are broken, is God present? Or is God a god who prefers greatness, who stands with those on the victory platform?

It seems that way, sometimes. The stories of some Christian communities are so filled with success and answered prayers that those who walk through the valley imagine God walks only with others.

But the Biblical story is that God is god even in exile, even in Egypt, even in the wilderness. The shining light at the heart of Christianity is a cross: Christ among the degraded, Christ among the broken. God among the exiles.

Yes, God is present.

But Jeremiah’s challenge is spoken to a nation and a leadership enamored with the voices of prophets who speak their own thoughts and passions and dreams: “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name,” says the LORD.

Yes, God is present in the valley. But God is also present on the stage where the name of Jesus is whipped around in support of ideologies and bigotries and zealous agendas. God is present where nations are led to the adoration of might and away from the adoration of the true. God is present where peoples are led to the worship of success and not to the honoring of mercy, where people are enamored with promises of glory and not justice. God is present – to judge, as the divine representatives of the nations gathered before God in the psalm will hear.

23 “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off? 24Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” says the Lord.

God sees.

The word is comfort to the fallen, great comfort. But the word is danger to our idolatries.

God sees.


Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJakarta_slumhome_2.jpg By Jonathan McIntosh (Own work) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“I have come to bring fire”

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Watching for the Morning of August 14, 2016

Year C

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 15 / Lectionary 20

It hardly seems like the world needs more fire as cities like Aleppo crumble and drought stricken regions in the west are ablaze. Fiery rhetoric incites political violence. Weapons fire echoes through our cities and nations.   We need Jesus to say he is bringing peace, not more conflict. But here are the words: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

There is challenge in the texts for this Sunday: Jeremiah cries out against false prophets. In the psalm, God sits in judgment of the nations for their failure to do justice. Hebrews bears witness to those faithful who “suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment,” calling us to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” And Jesus declares “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”  The most important social bonds of the ancient world will be torn asunder because of Jesus.

But we need peace and reconciliation. We need an end to war and division. We need words that heal and bind up not rend and tear. So what can you possibly mean, Jesus?

File:Diwali Festival.jpgJesus is talking about discipleship, about living the kingdom in a world that is not yet redeemed, about being agents of peace in a decidedly unpeaceful world. Those who take up the cause of peace will be cannon fodder. Those who work mercy may well inherit cruelty. In a world scrambling for the seats of honor, those who invite the lame and the poor to their banquets are betrayers of their social class, breaking barriers the elite do not want to see broken.

The world will divide over this Jesus. But the hate of the world will not last. Read the signs. The empty tomb is on the horizon. The one who “endured the cross, disregarding its shame…has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

The Prayer for August 14, 2016

You call us to faithfulness, O God,
in times of trial and in times of peace.
Grant us courage to speak your word boldly
and to live with daring your teaching,
until that day when all the earth is ablaze
with the fire of your Holy Spirit.

The Texts for August 14, 2016

First Reading: Jeremiah 23:23-32
“Am I a God near by, says the LORD, and not a God far off?” – God challenges the false prophets who claim to speak for God but speak only their own hopes and dreams.

Psalmody: Psalm 82
“God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” – God gathers the ‘gods’ of the nations and speaks judgment for they have failed to protect the weak and the needy.

Second Reading: Hebrews 11:29-12:2
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”
– The conclusion of the great recital of those who put their trust in the promise of God and the call to model their faithfulness

Gospel: Luke 12:49-56
“”I came to bring fire to the earth.” – The message of Jesus will provoke division, even within families.


Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADeerfire_high_res_edit.jpg By John McColgan – Edited by Fir0002 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Image 2: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADiwali_Festival.jpg By Khokarahman (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“I am only a boy!”

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Malachi, Jonah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah. Christ the King Church, Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico


Jeremiah 1:4-10

6Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”

We have history with certain texts. When an angel greets Gideon with the familiar words “The LORD is with you,” Gideon responds, “Pray, sir, if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us?” I remember that text from when I was eighteen and the pastor read it at my brother’s funeral. The text never quite escapes that moment in time. And the promise lingers: though we do not see it, God is with us.

There is a text from the Gospel of Mark that my high school youth group advisors wrote in a small Bible they gave me as I went off to college. It had a profound, almost haunting, influence on my life. There is a text in Psalm 11 that prompted me to risk accepting a call to inner city ministry in Detroit. There is a text in Romans 8 with which I struggled mightily for a paper for my Romans class in Seminary. In that struggle the secret of understanding the scriptures was revealed to me. And then there is this text in Sunday’s reading that was given to me as I headed off to a summer mission in Taiwan after my senior year in High School.

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.

All through the scriptures people try to avoid the task God lays before them. Moses claims he cannot speak. Isaiah is “a man of unclean lips.” Saul demurs that he is from the least clan of the smallest tribe. Gideon is the youngest in his family. Jonah simply refuses and flees. Jeremiah claims no one will listen to a mere youth.

But it is the message that matters, not the messenger. It is about the word God speaks, not the vessel God chooses. God’s words can irritate us like a shutter banging in the wind, or haunt us like the wind through a poorly sealed window. They can sustain us like foundation stones or connect us like a bridge over troubled water. They can be a polished mirror of self-discovery or a whispered shame. They can raise up and cast down nations. And they will do these things no matter who speaks the words. It was a sermon from the most inept preacher I have ever heard that had the greatest impact on my life. It is the message that matters, not the messenger.

The word that Jeremiah speaks is not his own. It lives in him and through him but it is not his own. These are not the words of his passion or rage at corruption of his time. These are not the hopes and desires of his own spirit – there are others who are skilled in speaking in God’s name exactly what their audience wants to hear. The word Jeremiah is commissioned to speak is from beyond him. It is rooted in the tradition and springs forth from the Spirit. His task is to hear and to speak what he hears.

Such words are routinely dismissed – sometimes for some defect we find in the messenger – or simply because we don’t like what we hear. King Jehoiakim takes a knife, calmly slices every few columns from the scroll of God’s words through Jeremiah that is being read to him, and tosses it into the fire. But there is power in those words. They will do their work. They judge and condemn. They will also heal and forgive.

Jeremiah’s age matters not. What matters is hearing truly and speaking faithfully. For the power is not in the speaker; it is in the Word God sends us to speak.


Image: By Enrique López-Tamayo Biosca (www.flickr.com/photos/eltb/6221310983) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.  Page: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChrist_the_King_Church%2C_Monterrey%2C_Nuevo_Leon%2C_Mexico00.jpg

Child sacrifice, divination, and the God who speaks


Deuteronomy 18:9-20

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Child in a rebel camp in the north-eastern Central African Republic

15The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.

I decided to add the preceding verses, 9 -14, to the reading from Deuteronomy this coming Sunday. Moses is speaking to the people at the end of their long journey through the wilderness, as they are about to enter the land of the Canaanites. He warns them:

9When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. 10No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, 11or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. 12For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord; it is because of such abhorrent practices that the Lord your God is driving them out before you. 13You must remain completely loyal to the Lord your God. 14Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the Lord your God does not permit you to do so.

It’s not the kind of thing we normally read in worship. A little too dark. A little too judgmental. It reminds us a little too much that these readings come from far away in time and culture.

But it’s important to be reminded.

Scholars debate whether the Canaanites actually practiced child sacrifice or whether this reference to passing through the fire refers to some ritual that does only that: a wave offering rather than an actual holocaust. My hunch is that these were real sacrifices – perhaps not routinely, but real nonetheless. Otherwise, why is Abraham on the mountain with his son and a knife? And why does Hiel of Bethel found the gates of Jericho on the sacrificed bodies of his sons Abiram and Segub?

Such a sacrifice is unthinkable to us – though we can cognitively understand the strange logic of giving to the gods your most precious possession to show them the depth of your devotion in hopes of gaining their favor.

But lest we think we are morally superior, we should consider how easily we also sacrifice our children. There are bodies of our young men being flown home from wars. There are children sacrificed to the sexual desires of their parents. There are children laying dead at the hands of a murder-suicide, children who crack under the pressure of success, children who wither while parents pursue wealth and power. We sacrifice our children on the altar of our parental happiness (You’ve heard it said about divorce: “the children will be happy if the parents are happy”. Really? We say that without blushing? Have you ever heard a child say that? We are not talking about violence in a home, mind you, or abuse, or such for which children would readily vote. And we’re not even talking about the painful, wrenching decision to divorce – just the way we rationalize it as a culture, as if happiness were the god we served.)

So we survey the bombed out villages, the refugee camps, the abused and abandoned children, and we have no claim to moral indignation at the ancient practice.

But God who revealed his name as LORD does. It was Pharaoh’s murderous plot against the infant sons of Israel that started the crisis in Egypt that led ultimately to the death of Pharaoh’s own child – a child sacrificed on the altar of the right to keep slaves.

Our country paid dearly on that altar, too.

This matter of child sacrifice is in a passage about divination, about the ways in which we try to gain secret knowledge and power from the gods. It is leading to this promise that God will not leave Israel without a prophetic voice.

Moses’ attacks the myriad ways in which we want to read the tea leaves, to access hidden and divine information to know what the future will bring, to know what we can do to guarantee success or to ensure a bountiful harvest. The Farmer’s Almanac does the same thing reading the coats of wooly caterpillars – and we have that wonderful little ritual every February to see whether the sun is shining on a rodent in Punxsutawney. We joke about these ‘divinations’, but we know the drill. If I could know which lottery numbers to pick – as vainly promised by my fortune cookies – if I could know what tomorrow brings, then I would be king.

But God is king.

It is our desire to be king, our desire to control, to conquer, to rule, to grasp the fruit from the tree, to be as gods, that leads to the death of children.

God is king.

And God does not deal with us by omens and tea leaves. He speaks. He reveals. And we are meant to hear, to receive, to trust.

This is the sweetness in this promise of a prophet: God will not stop speaking to us. God will not leave us without knowledge of him or his will. He will continue, day after day, Sunday after Sunday, to reveal himself, to encounter us, to proclaim his grace and love, to call us to fidelity to God and neighbor, to summon us to lives that mirror his faithfulness and compassion.

God will speak. And in case we have trouble hearing, he makes his word visible in water and in bread and wine. For you. For the world. For the lifting away of every debt of shame and sin. For the granting of grace and life. For the birth from above, the breath of his Spirit. Moses may be gone, and Isaiah, Jeremiah and David – but their words remain and God still speaks to us through them. God will not leave us desolate. He will speak.

As Jesus kept saying, “Let the one who has ears to hear, listen.”


Photo: By Credits: Pierre Holtz / UNICEF CAR / hdptcar.net at hdptcar [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The safer option, the wiser course


Jeremiah 28


Jeremiah weeping over Jerusalem, Rembrandt

9As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”

It’s easy to preach peace, easy to tell people what they want to hear, easy to tell kings and princes and peoples that God is on their side, that God will bless whatever they have chosen to do.

God gave Jeremiah eyes to see all that was wrong in the nation, how far they had departed from God’s purpose of justice and mercy, and that a nation so founded would not stand. God had summoned the mighty power of Babylon to reduce the city to servitude. Jeremiah sees that if they submit to Babylon, though the city will be humbled and the monarchy shamed, the nation will survive. So Jeremiah comes into the temple precinct and royal court wearing an ox yoke, announcing the nation must submit to the king of Babylon.

Of course, it is not received well by the king and his sycophants. Such words are treason: aid and comfort to the enemy.

It is four years after 597 BC. That’s when Babylon first arrived on the scene, deposed the king, carting him and his entourage – the leading citizens – off to Babylon where they would be his “guests” (hostages, in case the newly appointed puppet king installed by Babylon should entertain notions of rebellion or withhold the required tribute). Ezekiel, by the way, was in that first deportation; Jeremiah remained in Jerusalem. God had a voice in both places.

But now the king is entertaining thoughts of rebellion, and Hananiah shows up and breaks the wooden yoke from Jeremiah’s neck. “Two years,” he says, “Within two years God will bring the hostages and all the temple treasures back from Babylon.” God is on our side. God will bless us. God will protect us. We don’t have to change.

There is no call for repentance in Hananiah’s message. No need to change. No need to right the wrongs that have been inflicted upon the poor. No need to halt the corruption of power. No need to set slaves free or care for the needy or honor the Sabbath. God is on our side. God loves us just the way we are. We are the greatest nation on earth, God’s chosen people.

“I wish,” says Jeremiah. “May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles.” But this is not the message the prophets of God have been preaching. They have been calling for repentance. For humility. For a change in the direction of the nation. A turn away from their idolatries and faithlessness.

Deuteronomy says a prophet can be judged by whether or not his message comes true. But here’s the challenge: if a prophet gives a warning, we can change the outcome by changing our behavior now. If we wait to see whether the warning is true, we cannot avert the danger; it has already come. On the other hand, we can wait to see if a message of “peace” is true.

If we trust a prophet like Hananiah announcing prosperity and success, if we listen to the voices that say God is on our side and we need not change – and God isn’t on our side – then nothing but disaster awaits. At the very least, repentance is the safer option. Nothing bad follows from trying to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God. But if God is asking for repentance and we do nothing….

So let’s consider a contemporary example: In the Showtime series “Years of Living Dangerously” Washington State Governor, Jay Inslee, said, “We’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.” If the scientists are all wrong and climate change has nothing to do with human activity, nothing bad comes from taking better care of the earth; but if they are right, ignoring the message brings many bad things.

Repentance, changing direction, caring for our neighbor, doing justice, tending God’s garden, defending the weak, providing opportunity for the poor, a little humility before the cosmos – these are now, as always, the wiser course.

Like fire and a hammer


Jeremiah 23

The Knesset Menorah, Jerusalem (detail - The p...

The Knesset Menorah, Jerusalem (detail – The prophet Jeremiah) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

23Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off?

We have been raised in a culture that thinks of God as omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent – all knowing, all powerful and everywhere present.  So the question God asks through Jeremiah doesn’t stun us.  But in a world of petty kingdoms and tribal leaders, in a world where most people lived their whole lives within a few miles of the place they were born, in a world where the fate of other people was unknown to you and you cared only for the bounty of this field and the surety of that well, gods were local, too.  When neighboring tribes or cities went to war against one another, they each called on their gods for victory, and the battle was a battle of spirits as well as bodies.  As kingships claimed larger territories, their gods might be adopted by conquered peoples (they were more powerful, after all) or given a public place as a sign of submission to the new ruler while local deities continued to provide for local needs.  That there were lots of gods was obvious since their were many primal forces in the world and many peoples.  Gods, like kings, were limited in their knowledge, scope and power.  So when Jeremiah stands up and declares “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off?” it is a word that provokes.

Is the God of Israel limited?  Are there things he cannot see?  Is he a God of Israel only?  Is he bound to this land?  Can he be fooled?  Does he not know what is being said and done in his name?  Does he not know the evils that are perpetuated on earth?  Is he unaware of human bigotry and fear?  Does he not see what is done in secret in Washington and Wall Street – or what is done in plain view on some of our city streets?  Is he unaware of those who make bombs in the Middle East and strap them to women and children?  Is he unaware of the working conditions of the poor in sweatshops?  Does he not see the poisons added to infant formula or lead added to children’s toys?  What is hidden from us is not hidden from God.

  “‘Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?’ says the Lord. ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ says the Lord.” 

Of course, it also means he sees every cup of cold water given to a stranger, every simple kindness, every marriage living in tender fidelity, but that is not what prompts God’s message through Jeremiah.  What has God incensed are those who use his name for their own dreams and agendas.  God rises in judgment against those who claim a prophetic office but whose message leads the people away from God not closer.

27They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal.

The elite members of small societies tend to copy the elites of wealthier and more powerful ones. When Solomon built the temple he hired the craftsmen and designers from the wealthy cities of Tyre and Sidon.  The treaties with foreign rulers that brought Solomon’s many wives to Jerusalem also brought their gods.  When Assyria rose to power and Judah became a client state, King Ahaz of Judah built an altar copied from the one he saw when he went to kneel before Tiglath-pileser in Damascus.  Progressive religion always wants to move beyond the cultural backwater of tradition into the bright shiny world of the modern.  So the prophets spoke their dreams; Jeremiah spoke of the God of Exodus and Sinai whose old fashioned commands protected the poor and captive rather than the worldly elite.

Do you imagine, the prophet cries, that God is some backwater God, some local deity bound by the past?  Do you think God does not see you are speaking the imagination of your own hearts not the Word which divided the Red Sea and claimed a people?  Do you think God does not see you enamored with your own cleverness rather than the Voice that spoke on the mountain?

The voice of the LORD is not archaic religion; it is the hammer and fire that carves the massive building stones upon which the city rests.  It speaks God’s justice and mercy without which the city will surely fall.

And fall it did.

28Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.  What has straw in common with wheat? says the Lord.  29Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?