The season of hope

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Watching for the Morning of December 2, 2018

Year C

The First Sunday of Advent

Jeremiah survived the Babylonian attack on the city of Jerusalem. He watched as the defenders tore down the houses of its wealthy inhabitant to buttress the walls against the Babylonian siege works. He watch starvation take the city. He saw young and old perish in the streets. He saw the plundering, raping soldiers and the burning fires. He saw the holy treasures of the temple carried off to the royal treasury of Babylon. He saw it all.

And he saw it coming. But his cries for the nation to change its course went unheeded. His prophetic words dismissed as treason. He was arrested and thrown into a cistern.

Jeremiah saw it all. But he also saw into the heart of God. He heard God’s rage at the corruption and injustice, idolatry and faithlessness of his time. But he also heard God’s determination. God would not forsake this people. God would not forsake this world. God would redeem it. God would fulfill God’s promises. And so Jeremiah stood in the rubble of the abandoned city and saw happy brides and feasting families. He surveyed the desolation and heard the song of temple singers rising in praise. He heard laughter and joy. He saw abundance. He saw flocks adorning the hillsides. He saw a just king and faithful priests and a faithful people. Where others saw only destruction and despair, Jeremiah saw the creative and redeeming hand of God bring the broken city to new life.

It doesn’t take great prophetic insight to see a nation careening towards catastrophe. But it takes great sight to see beyond the sorrow. And it takes great courage to speak it. Who should believe such words amidst the rubble? They sound like fantasy. Vain imagination. Denial.

Who could foresee resurrection? In the broken body of Jesus, stripped and shamed, beaten and bloody, who could foresee the creative act of God to make all things new?

It is God’s work to redeem the world, to bring it to new birth. So evn as we read the texts of the apocalyptic woes – the death throes of a fallen world – Jesus summons us to raise our heads. To look, for “your redemption is drawing near.” He urges us to remain faithful. To continue to gather the outcast and forgive the sinner and welcome the stranger. To continue to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. To continue to love God and neighbor as ourselves. To continue to sing God’s praise and gather at God’s table. For the day we await is an empty tomb, a world made new, a creation resurrected.

Sunday’s texts are from Jeremiah promising “a righteous Branch to spring up” from the fallen line of David and from Isaiah 51 promising justice to the nations. Paul will speak of his confidence “that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” And Jesus will tell us to raise our heads, “because your redemption is drawing near.” It is Advent. The season of hope.

The Prayer for December 2, 2018

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Make us ever mindful that our lives move towards your Grace,
that we might be faithful children of hope;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for December 2, 2015

First Reading: Jeremiah 33:14-16
“In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
– In the aftermath of the national catastrophe, when Babylon’s armies came and crushed the nation, destroying Jerusalem and the temple of its God, the prophet rises, daring to declare that the LORD’s promise to Israel is not voided. That God will yet fulfill his promise under the banner of a true and faithful king.

Psalmody: Isaiah 51:4-11 (appointed: Psalm 25:1-10)
“The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads, sorrow and sighing will flee away.” – In place of the appointed psalm, our parish sings the song of salvation from Isaiah 51 where the prophet declares that the faithfulness of God is more enduring than earth and sea and heralds the return from exile in “everlasting joy.”

Second Reading: Philippians 1:3-11 (appointed: 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13)
“This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more… so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless.” – Though Paul writes from prison, his eyes are on the fulfillment of God’s promise to establish his reign of grace and life and writes his beloved congregation, rejoicing in their faith and urging them to faithfulness.

Gospel: Luke 21:25-36
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” – Reading now in Luke at the beginning of a new church year, we start with eyes turned toward the horizon of human history and the promise of the ultimate dawning of God’s reign over all creation.

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Devotional verses and reflections for the Advent season can be found at Holy Seasons

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LA2_juleljus.jpg LA2 [CC SA 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/sa/1.0/)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

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Of cisterns and crosses and imperishable life

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Watching for the Morning of September 3, 2017

Year A

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 17 / Lectionary 22

Faithfulness, suffering, deliverance – troubling truths rattle through the texts for this Sunday. Jeremiah, who experienced great opposition, shame and humiliation for his message, cries out against God at what feels like God’s betrayal or abandonment. The poet of our psalm declares his innocence in his call for God’s deliverance. And Jesus lays out the path before him through torture and crucifixion, asserting that all who would be his followers must also take up the cross.

What does it say about us as human beings that we should be so resistant to the voice of the eternal? Why does a simple call to love God and neighbor evoke such passionate hostility from a nation’s leaders? Why do we so clutch at privilege, power or position that we would throw a prophet into the mud at the bottom of a dry cistern? Why does Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call to nonviolence end with a bullet? How is it possible to wish to purge Europe of its Jewish citizens and enlist nations in the enterprise, driving the trains, guarding the gates, issuing the orders, carrying them out?

Why does the call to feed the hungry and clothe the naked evoke scorn and derision? I remember my stepfather exploding in derision and anger after I related a high school church retreat that involved a trust walk. Would I let a black panther lead me? He would lead me out into the street before a speeding car. I was a fool for imaging there was goodness in others, that they wouldn’t harm the vulnerable. Maybe I was. It’s quite clear that we as human beings have the capacity to plunder the weak. It might be hard to do face to face; but not so hard from a distance. Yet even still, consider how many men, women and children are bruised and battered by their most intimate companions.

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So there is a cross to carry for those who would live compassion and faithfulness to neighbor. There is a scorn to endure. There are cisterns waiting. There are Golgothas. It is sweet to hear Paul say: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good,” but he doesn’t stop there.

14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

It is a noble life. But it is not simply a noble ideal; it is our true humanity. It is the life for which we were created and the life of the age to come. It is what Jesus means about being born from above. But there are hammers and nails waiting for those who dare to be so “weak.”

Only this is not weakness. It is courageous and difficult work to live such a life. We do so – or try to do so – because of the promise that “those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” We do so because this life is eternal. We do so because we have felt the breath of the Spirit. We do so because, on the third day, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and found it empty.

The Prayer for September 3, 2017

Gracious God,
the mystery of your redemption is revealed
in the life, death and resurrection of your Son.
Grant us the will and desire to follow where you lead
and to give our lives in the service of your perfect love;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 3, 2017

First Reading: Jeremiah 15:15-21
“Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.”
– Faced with persecution and imprisonment for his prophetic word, Jeremiah cries out against God, and God answers with a promise: “If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth…I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you.”

Psalmody: Psalm 26:1-8
“Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity.” – The poet prays for deliverance and declares his innocence.

Second Reading: Romans 12:9-21
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” – Paul continues his exhortation to the community in Rome, urging them to faithfulness in their life together.

Gospel: Matthew 16:21-28
“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” – Following Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed of God, Jesus begins to teach them of the destiny that awaits him in Jerusalem. His followers, too, must be prepared to take up the cross, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AIran%2C_d%C3%A9sert_-_Yakhchal_inside_-_int%C3%A9rieur_d’une_glaci%C3%A8re_-_persian_cooler_(9246947525).jpg By Jeanne Menj [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AColina_de_las_Cruces%2C_Lituania%2C_2012-08-09%2C_DD_12.JPG Diego Delso [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Honoring the prophets

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Friday

Isaiah 58:1-12

1 Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.

I pity the prophets. Who really wants this assignment? It’s a lot more rewarding to be able to speak a word of grace to those who are broken than to be assigned the task of pointing out sins no one wants to acknowledge.

Of course there are always those who seem to delight in pointing out sins…and mistakes and imperfections…and pretty much anything with which they disagree or disapprove. There is a heady intoxication in moral outrage. Our public airwaves are filled with it at the moment. But it’s one thing to rant at the powers that are far away. A very different thing to be assigned the task of pointing out sins close at hand. It got Jeremiah thrown in jail. Elijah had to hide out for safety. And we don’t know what happened to Isaiah, but those later chapters have enough potent poetry about God’s suffering servant that I suspect its author knew something about suffering first hand.

So I pity the prophets. But I honor them deeply. What they did was a great sacrifice, paid with tears and despair at the hardness of heart of the people and their leaders.

The way to honor the prophets, of course, is to not let their words fall to the ground. The way to respect their courage and sacrifice is to let these words find root in our hearts and lives, to take seriously the command to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. The way to honor the prophets – and the God who sent them – is to live the way of justice and mercy:

6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? …
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday…
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AProphets_from_Ferapontov02_(Kirillo-Belozersk).jpg By Anonymous (own photo by shakko) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

God sees

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Thursday

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 am only a boy!”

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

Saturday

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

The mustard seed and vulture kings

Wednesday

Mark 4:26-34

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Cedar trees in the Cedars of God nature preserve on Mount Lebanon, Lebanon.

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

At least Mark properly calls the fruit of the mustard seed a ‘bush’. Matthew records Jesus saying: it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, and Luke also records that it grew and became a tree.” Why would they make such a mistake? Because this isn’t about taxonomy, it is about the promise in Ezekiel 17 of a righteous king.

Judah’s involvement in imperial politics went poorly for the nation. When Babylon rose to power and marched on the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, Pharaoh Neco came to Assyria’s aid to prevent Babylon’s domination of the region. Josiah, the righteous king in whom the author of Samuel & Kings puts his hope, marched out to prevent the Egyptian advance and was killed in the valley of Megiddo. Jehoahaz, the royal son, aged 23 and now become king, goes to submit to Pharaoh, but is seized and taken to Egypt as a hostage. Pharaoh installs his brother, Jehoiakim, on the throne. Jehoiakim wisely switches side when Neco falls to Nebuchadnezzar, but when the Babylonian invasion of Egypt fails – and Nebuchadnezzar must withdraw to quell a rebellion at home – Jehoiakim betrays his new master.

Nebuchadnezzar, however, deals quickly with the insurrection at home and marches back to Jerusalem and besieges the city. The help Jehoiakim expects from Egypt never materializes and the rebel king dies during the siege (a curiously timed and unexplained death). On taking the throne, his son, the 18-year-old Jehoiachin, surrenders. He is taken in chains to Babylon with a host of other captives from the elite families of the city, and Nebuchadnezzar installs his uncle, Zedekiah, as king. Ezekiel is among these first captives carried into exile in 597/6 BCE.

Jeremiah and Ezekiel, speaking on God’s behalf, are the lone voices of sanity, urging the king to submit to Babylonian rule. The royal prophets – the talking heads and tea leaf readers who dine at the king’s table – urge him to action, promising success, telling the king what he wants to hear. Zedekiah reaches out to Egypt for support and breaks his covenant/treaty with Babylon. But, again, Egyptian help does not materialize and Jerusalem, the monarchy, the temple and priesthood are all brutally and thoroughly destroyed. A second deportation begins Judah’s long exile.

Ezekiel embodies these troubling events in his parable of the great eagle/vulture* (Babylon/Nebuchadnezzar) who plucks a sprig from the Forest of Lebanon (the royal hall in Jerusalem) and carries it off to “a city of merchants” (Babylon). Then he takes “a seed from the land” (Zedekiah) and plants it in fertile soil where it grows into a vine – a vine, not a great tree; low, not exalted. But the vine does not send its roots towards the first eagle; instead it looks for strength and help from “a second eagle” (Egypt). And then, the prophet asks, what that first eagle will do? Will he not come and tear up the vine, rip up its roots, and leave it to wither beneath the hot desert winds?

The prophet’s fears are realized. But this word of doom is not all that the prophet has to say to us. God himself – not an eagle/vulture – will take a tender sprig and plant it on Mt. Zion where it will become a great tree in which “every kind of bird will live”. God promises a true king – not these rapacious vulture kings, nor the lowly vine, but a great cedar that shelters all.

This is why the insignificant mustard seed becomes a shelter for the birds. It is why Matthew and Luke call it a tree, lest we miss the allusion. This Jesus is the lowly twig become a great cedar. This Jesus is the shelter for all peoples. This Jesus is the promised ruler who will free God’s world from the vultures and provide a safe home for all.

*Note: the word translated ‘eagle’ also means vulture as can be seen in the allusion to shaved heads in Micah 1:16. (This Hebrew word is used also for a scavenging bird in Proverbs 30:17 and Hosea 8:1). The eagle is a noble national symbol to the United States, but an unclean bird to Israel.
Photo: By Jerzy Strzelecki (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Rachel weeping for her children

 

Friday

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The Massacre of the Innocents, marble mosaic floor of the Duomo di Siena, by Matteo di Giovanni

Matthew 2

17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel `weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Rachel. She is the beloved of Jacob – Jacob whose name God changes to ‘Israel’; Jacob whose twelve sons are the foundation of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Rachel, the beloved of Jacob, for whom he worked seven years only to find her sister, Leah, in his bed the morning after the wedding, and for whom he worked another seven years.

Rachel, the beloved of Jacob, so God gave to Leah, the unloved sister, the gift of children.

Rachel, the beloved of Jacob, upon whom God had mercy and granted her a son, Joseph, who will be hated by his brothers for his dreams, and be sold into Egypt, where he will rise to power for interpreting the pharaoh’s dreams, and before whom his brothers will eventually come to bow down as his dreams foretold.

Rachel, the beloved of Jacob, who dies in childbirth and names the child Ben-oni, “Son of my suffering”, though his father changes his name to Benjamin, “Son of (my) right hand”.

Rachel weeping.

Ramah. Ramah where Rachel was buried. Ramah where the Babylonians gathered their captives to take them in chains to Babylon, when they had broken through the walls of the starving, besieged city, raped and pillaged and destroyed the temple and palace and city walls.

Rachel weeping at Ramah, for the children of Israel, the descendants of Jacob, whose suffering is beyond imagining, who have embraced the world of human empires and been crushed by it, who sought to be a kingdom of wealth and power and were destroyed by greater wealth and power.

Rachel weeping. A prophetic word that reaches its ultimate meaning in the innocents of Bethlehem, for God’s kingdom has come into the world, and the world has answered with armies sent to slaughter children, armies sent to hold back the dawning reign of God.

But they cannot.

The child is safe in Egypt. The child will come to Nazareth. The child will be anointed with the Spirit at the Jordan. The child will not fall before temptation. The child will declare the reign of God begun. The child will embody that reign of God. The child will heal, and forgive, and restore. The child will not strike with the sword, but take it upon himself. Perfect faithfulness to God and to others. The true Son. The risen Son. The commissioning Son. The spirit-giving Son.

Rachel weeping, weeping for a world in bondage, a world in exile, far from its true home.

But the grave is empty. The reign of God is begun and cannot be stopped.

The safer option, the wiser course

Wednesday

Jeremiah 28

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/23/Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_-_Jeremia_treurend_over_de_verwoesting_van_Jeruzalem_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg/640px-Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_-_Jeremia_treurend_over_de_verwoesting_van_Jeruzalem_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

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.

Dust covered pilgrims

Friday

Jeremiah 20

File:SPRY(1895) p098 OUR COMPANIONS EN ROUTE TO MECCA.jpg7O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.

I love this prayer of Jeremiah. I love the outrage, the sense of betrayal, the anger at God. God has summoned him to be a prophet. What greater privilege can there be than to deliver God’s message to God’s people. What greater honor? What a treasure to be on such intimate terms with God that he should become a vessel of God’s choosing? But the message is dark. It is warning and judgment. God is ready to destroy the city and his holy temple. Armies draw near; death and hunger and disease – the horsemen of the apocalypse. Yet even these bitter words are sweet, for they are God’s words. But the people want none of it. The believers are few. The priestly officials and royal house conspire against him. The king tosses the scroll of prophetic words into the warming fire. And there is no relief; when Jeremiah would walk away, God’s message burns within him. So Jeremiah does what we all do; he cries out against God. “You cheated me.”

We call it ‘burnout’.

There was a moment when even Moses lost it.

It doesn’t only afflict prophets and leaders. It afflicts all of us in those times when frail, ordinary Christian sinners show themselves to be less than we hoped. Churches must take the charge seriously when non-Christians see them acting in not very Christian ways. But the more troubling reality happens inside congregations. We so often come hoping for the shining city and find instead dust covered pilgrims. The taste of that dust can be bitter in our mouths and we lose hope and walk away.

But we are pilgrims; we are not yet what we should be, we are on the road. We are not yet as compassionate as we should be, but we are on the road. We are not yet as generous as we should be, but we are on the road. We are not yet as welcoming as we should be, but we are on the road. We are not yet as bold and courageous and daring and encouraging as we should be, but we are on the road. We are not as kind as we should be, but we are on the road.

At least we should be on the road. Sometimes believers settle down comfortably at some watering hole and forget they are pilgrims. Sometimes they even arm themselves to defend their settlement. Then God has to go searching for an army to make them break camp and resume their journey.

Jeremiah had the misfortune of bringing such a word to his people. The Lord found an army in Babylon. And Jeremiah is weary of bearing this message. He is in anguish for the sorrow coming on his community. Like Jacob, he wrestles with God and goes away limping – but he remembers: “the Lord is with me like a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail.” It is not a promise of personal success or vindication; it is a reminder of the message God spoke to him in the beginning:I am watching over my word to perform it.And Jeremiah’s lament ends in praise – “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers” – because, in his struggle, he is reminded that the purpose of the Lord is to bring his pilgrims to the land of promise.

“The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: See, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too hard for me?” (32:26-27)

Like fire and a hammer

Friday

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?