Tag: Jeremiah

A Prophet of Doom? A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 14C (Jeremiah 4)

 

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
11 At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse— 12 a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.
22 “For my people are foolish,
    they do not know me;
they are stupid children,
    they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil,
    but do not know how to do good.”
23 I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
    and to the heavens, and they had no light.
24 I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
    and all the hills moved to and fro.
25 I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,
    and all the birds of the air had fled.
26 I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
    and all its cities were laid in ruins
    before the Lord, before his fierce anger.
27 For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.
28 Because of this the earth shall mourn,
    and the heavens above grow black;
for I have spoken, I have purposed;
    I have not relented nor will I turn back.
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                Chicken Little was known for going around proclaiming that “the sky is falling.” He was proven wrong in his prognostication. The sky didn’t fall. Though plenty of so-called prophets of doom have arisen over time, no one really wants to be thought of as a version of Chicken Little. Nevertheless, messages of doom continue to be broadcast (now by way of social media). Sometimes these messages need to be ignored, but at other times they should be heeded. When the Weather Service forecasts a hurricane, you ought to take it seriously. Get out of the way, if you can.

The prophet Jeremiah, as we’ve seen in recent posts, had a penchant for his messages of impending doom. From the very beginning of the book, messages of judgment and impending destruction were revealed. If the people persist in their wickedness, they will perish (at least the nation as a nation will perish. That message proved correct. The Babylonians swept in, destroying the city of Jerusalem together with the Temple, after which they carted off into exile the king and leading members of society (along with, we’re assuming, lots of loot, especially gold from the Temple). These readings from Jeremiah are being heard, if chosen, as churches begin their fall seasons. So, are you ready to hear the word of the Lord as delivered by Jeremiah?

                A week past, the lectionary invited us to consider a reading from Jeremiah 18. Now, we find ourselves in chapter 4. It appears that we’re going backward. Why? I’m not sure, but such is the course set before us. As before, Jeremiah has a word of judgment to share with us. We’re not reading from verses 5 and 6 of Jeremiah 4, but it does set up what we’re about to consider. Jeremiah hears the word of the Lord: “Proclaim in Judah, announce in Jerusalem, and say: ‘Blow the horn in the land!’ Shout aloud and say: ‘Assemble, and let us go into the fortified cities!’ Set up a signpost: To Zion. Take refuge, do not delay! For I bring evil from the north, and great disaster” (Jer. 4:5-6 Tanakh). Yes, take cover, right now. Don’t wait any longer, for disaster is at hand.

When we come to the reading for the day from Jeremiah 4, we hear a word of judgment. The prophet, speaking for God, promises that a hot wind will come off the desert not to cleanse, but as a sign of judgment. What will that wind look like? Could it be the Babylonians? Having spent time in Jeremiah, we know that he promises judgment on the people if the nation doesn’t turn from evil. Though not part of the assigned reading, in verse 14, the word of the Lord declares: “Wash your heart clean of wickedness, O Jerusalem, that you may be rescued” (Jer. 4:14 Tanakh). Of course, we know the rest of the story. If there was repentance, it didn’t forestall the judgment that was visited upon Jerusalem and the nation.

                The core of our reading begins with the declaration “For my people are foolish,” therefore they don’t know God. In a parallel statement, Jeremiah declares on behalf of God “they are stupid children.” Yes, they are foolish and stupid, and thus don’t know or understand God. What they do seem skilled at, however, is doing evil. In other words, when God looks at the people, what he sees is a total mess. Foolish and stupid people who know not God but do know evil.

                Here the text takes a cosmic turn. Before this, the prophet is giving attention to Jerusalem, but now it’s creation. God has looked upon the earth and what God sees is something that is “waste and void.” The Hebrew is tohu wa bohu. These words are found at the beginning of Genesis 1, when the earth was “formless and void” (Gen. 1:2). The earth, it seems, has reverted to its original state. It is formless and void. The light has disappeared from the skies. The mountains are quaking. Not only that but humanity is gone, and the birds have fled. Farmland has turned to desert, while towns lay in ruin.  All of this is due to God’s “blazing anger.” Creation has reverted to its original state.  

                So, what word do we hear in this passage? Is there a call for repentance? When we read words of judgment, we often think of God acting unilaterally sending destruction down upon us. But might judgment come in the form of consequences? The judgment that came upon Jerusalem and Judah didn’t come in the form of lightning bolts. It came in the form of a conquering army. So, might the judgment coming upon us in our day be the consequences of our own actions?

                The word we hear in Jeremiah 4 is directed at foolish and stupid people who give no heed to God. Allie Utley responds that with regard to this word, “The reader must wrestle with the idea that when the people of God do not know God, all of creation will suffer.” Might we understand this word in light of the current climate crisis? Allie Utley invites us to use this passage as a “lens to think about ecojustice.” She writes that “our human actions have a direct impact on the earthly, both in our local communities and on a grand scale” [Connections, p. 306]. Hurricanes, floods, fires, drought. They are becoming more common. Island nations face the prospect that their islands could disappear in rising seas. Glaciers that feed river systems are shrinking. Unfortunately, there are those who wish to deny the message of the vast majority of scientists (this includes the current American administration and that of the president of Brazil, where fires are raging destroying the Amazon rainforests, which provide so much of the earth’s oxygen). They deny that the climate is changing, and seem hell-bent on rolling back every rule and regulation designed to protect the environment, and thus our future as a species. If we embrace these policies and the politicians who promise us good tidings if we ignore the warnings, should we not be counted among those whom Jeremiah calls stupid and foolish?

                There is no word of grace or hope in this passage as it lies before us, or so it seems. But then, isn’t that the point of a prophetic word like this?  If you don’t get your act together bad things will happen. The choice is yours. In this there is hope. If we heed the warnings of our contemporary prophets, perhaps we can avoid disaster.  

Picture attribution: Gogh, Vincent van, 1853-1890. Starry Night, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55682 [retrieved September 7, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vincent_van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.

 

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Clay in the Potter’s Hand — A lectionary reflection for Pentecost 13C (Jeremiah 18)

Potter by Else Berg
Jeremiah 18:1-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

18 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. 11 Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

 

 
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                Most of us, at one point or another, have worked with clay. Perhaps when we were children we experienced playdough. It gave us an opportunity to express our creativity without making too much of a mess. When we were done, we could fold it all up and put it back in the can and try some different the next day. Later on, we might have worked with clay for a school art project. I have on my bookshelf a rather interesting-looking fish that my son created at some point. I can’t find a date so I’m not sure what he age he was, but I like it. Otherwise, I might not display it quite so prominently in my home study. Maybe, if we’re crafty enough, we might sit down at a potter’s wheel and create something beautiful and useful. As long as the clay is wet and malleable, we can do whatever we wish with it. If it doesn’t appear to be what we want, then we can throw it down and start over and create something else. The goal is to form something we find to be to our liking. We are the potter, and the clay is the material we use to create that item of delight.  According to Jeremiah, God is the potter and Judah is clay.

                Jeremiah doesn’t beat around the bush. He has a message for Judah. It’s a rather harsh word, but the times seemed to warrant it. When he delivered this word, it would do no good to suggest that all is well, when disaster is on the near horizon. It’s sort of like a hurricane warning. When you hear word that a hurricane is coming, you better figure out what you’re going to do quickly. Such is the case for Judah as the age of the Davidic monarchy is nearing its end.

Yes, God is the potter and Judah is the clay. God is attempting to form Judah into something that might lead to God’s delight. Unfortunately, this batch of clay resists God’s handiwork. It doesn’t want to be formed into something of beauty and value. If things don’t change soon, God may choose to throw it down and start over. Now, if Judah obliges God and lets God form it into something God desires, then all will be well. However, if Judah persists in doing evil, then God will throw it down and make something new. What do you think of that?

This is not the kind of message most preachers would want to take up (if it was me, I might choose a different lectionary passage).  Yet, it is a word to be considered. We can agree or disagree with the prophet. We might even decide to ignore the message. But, if we take it seriously, then what is the message God would have us hear?

We might want to start with Jeremiah’s context. He’s speaking to a community that is experiencing a traumatic moment. The nation of Judah is facing annihilation. Jeremiah was active in the closing years of Judah’s existence as a relatively independent nation. Before long everything will come crashing down as Jerusalem and its Temple are destroyed by the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar, while the leading members of society will be carted off into exile in Babylon. That things still hang in the balance suggests that Jeremiah and Judah are still experiencing that pre-fall position, but Jeremiah could see the writing on the wall. He sees what is coming, as do the people. They want to know why it’s about to happen.

The reading from Jeremiah is accompanied by a reading from Deuteronomy 30. Deuteronomy provides a context for understanding Jeremiah’s message to Judah. Consider this word from Deuteronomy:   

 

16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.  [Deut.30:16-18 NRSV]

If you obey the covenant stipulations, then things will work out for you. If not, if you choose to do evil, then you will be cursed. Bad things will befall you. Now, we moderns tend to read this individualistically, but Jeremiah is speaking to the community as a whole. This is a corporate message. Depending on whether the community obeys or disobeys, it will either prosper or be cursed. It’s pretty straightforward, at least in theory. Of course, life rarely works this way. The rain falls on both the good and the bad, and so does famine. This Deuteronomic vision is comforting but it doesn’t always work. Fortunately, the makers of the biblical canon may have understood this, because they provided us a Bible with the Book of Job to offer us an alternate view of things.

                In this word from Jeremiah, it appears at one level that there are choices to be made. Do what is right, and you will prosper. If you do evil, you will be cursed. The problem is that Jeremiah uses the image of clay, and clay is a passive object. It can be molded by another, but it has no ability to define itself.  So, could this suggest that maybe God has some responsibility here? Joseph Clifford, notes that “it was God who brought Israel into being in the first place. Can the potter blame the clay for its shape?” [Connections, p. 287]. What is at this point is the clay remains malleable. It can be formed and reformed. Once it hardens, it will simply break, and all is lost. So maybe what is clay is not Judah, but God’s plans for Judah.

                Like I said before, Jeremiah was not one to pull punches. His words were often harsh. But, he had good intentions. His job was to warn Judah of their impending doom if they didn’t change their ways. This was a moment of crisis. The hurricane (a major hurricane is afoot as I write this reflection) is heading your way. Evacuate now. Don’t wait until the water is at your door. The word is strong and pointed because the Potter wants to shape Judah into a faithful and just people. As Barbara Lundblad suggests: “Like the potter, God’s intent is not to destroy the people but to reshape them in faithfulness and justice. The final words of this text can be heard as an invitation: ‘Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.’” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 377].

                It is worth noting that the Psalm for today is Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18. It offers the word of comfort that’s not as apparent in Jeremiah. Reading from the Tanakh (Jewish Publication Society), verses 13-14 declare:

                It was You who created my conscience,
                                You fashioned me in my mother’s womb.
                I praise You,
                                For I am awesomely, wondrously made;
                                Your Work is wonderful;
                                I know it very well.
 

The Potter knows us well, and wants what is best for us, because as the Psalmist declares: “For I am awesomely, wondrously made.” The key is to do what is right before the Lord, to walk with God faithfully and with justice always abiding.

This is a word for us at this moment in time when the church is being tested. The world is watching to see what we will do in the face of the challenges of the moment. How will we deal with issues like racism, sexism, homophobia, immigration, health care? Yes, these are political issues, but they are also faith issues. As Jeremiah declares: “Turn back, each of you, from your wicked ways, and mend your ways and your actions!” [Jer. 18:11 Tanakh]. This is a word that is worth hearing. It is a reminder that God desires justice and mercy on our part. Besides, if we are created in the image of God, then we too are potters and there is clay set before us ready to be molded. What will we do with that clay?

                 
Picture Attribution: Berg, Else, 1877-1942. Potter, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55636 [retrieved September 2, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Else_Berg_A_potter.jpg.

 

Going Astray — A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 12C (Jeremiah 2)

Jeremiah2:4-13 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the Lord:
What wrong did your ancestors find in me
    that they went far from me,
and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?
They did not say, “Where is the Lord
    who brought us up from the land of Egypt,
who led us in the wilderness,
    in a land of deserts and pits,
in a land of drought and deep darkness,
    in a land that no one passes through,
    where no one lives?”
I brought you into a plentiful land
    to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land
    and made my heritage an abomination.
The priests did not say, “Where is the Lord?”
    Those who handle the law did not know me;
the rulers transgressed against me;
    the prophets prophesied by Baal
    and went after things that do not profit.
Therefore once more I accuse you,
says the Lord,
    and I accuse your children’s children.
10 Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
    send to Kedar and examine with care;
    see if there has ever been such a thing.
11 Has a nation changed its gods,
    even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
    for something that does not profit.
12 Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
    be shocked, be utterly desolate,
says the Lord,
13 for my people have committed two evils:
    they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
    and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns
    that can hold no water.
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If we define sin in terms of straying from the ways of God, then the prophetic literature in the Hebrew Bible is concerned with sin. Of course, in this case, sin is defined corporately and not individually. If you spend any time with prophets such as Jeremiah, you will hear a great deal about Israel’s (here I am thinking of both the northern and southern kingdoms though by Jeremiah’s time the northern kingdom is long gone) tendency to abandon the covenant relationship God had established with these people when God redeemed the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt and led them into the Promised Land. While God is faithful to the covenant relationship, Israel seems unable to fulfill its side of the covenant. So, why is it that Israel continually fails to meet its responsibilities to the covenant? Did God set the bar too high, or do they seem unwilling to even try? Could it be that the offers made by other deities are just too good to pass up? It might seem like that is the answer, but according to Jeremiah, the promises made by these other gods fall far short of expectations.

 

In Jeremiah 2, the word of the Lord comes to the people. This word from God asks a pertinent question: “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?” This question is posed in a way that suggests that God has been wounded by Israel’s tendency to wander away from the relationship. God asks plaintively: What did I do wrong that your ancestors chose not to be faithful? Why did they pursue worthless things? Why seek baubles when you can have the real thing? That question continues to speak to us. Why do we choose lesser things?  

 

There is a second related question that gets asked twice in this passage. God asks why no one bothers to ask, “Where is the Lord?” The people don’t ask, but neither do the priests. It’s not that God was absent, but the people led by the priests simply ignored the God of Israel as they pursued other gods, including Baal. Do they think they’ll get a better deal from these other deities? After all, who brought the people out of Egypt? Who led the people through the wilderness? Who brought the people to a place with good farmland so they could “enjoy its fruit and its bounty”? Why did they not ask where is the Lord? Why weren’t they looking? Indeed, the Lord asks why the “guardians of the Teaching ignored me” (Tanakh). Why do we so often fail to heed the words of God?

 

The Word we hear in Jeremiah 2 comes in the form of an indictment. God is taking Israel to court. The prophet asks, on behalf of God, why do the people exchange their God—Yahweh—for what are in essence no gods? Indeed, Jeremiah shares the word of God: “But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.” Why would you do this? Why would you exchange God’s glory for the dross of false religion? Yet, how often do we choose that which is contrary to the essence of faith?

 

As I pondered Jeremiah’s words about Israel’s tendency to ignore the ways of God—their failure to ask: “where is God?” —I thought of the American tendency to embrace forms of civil religion that contradict our faith. I think of the defenses made of slavery in the antebellum American south. The Bible was quoted, but in a way that contradicted the ways of God. I think of the current situation in my country, where a portion of the Christian community has linked itself to a political figure who has demonstrated no understanding of the teachings of Jesus, whose morals are far from that of the faith, and seems to believe that he is chosen of God because he promises to protect them from their perceived enemies. They seem intent on pursuing political power at all costs. Of course, this is a tendency that many fall victim to. As it is often said: politics makes for strange bedfellows. In other words, they have given themselves over to foreign gods, rather than giving themselves over to the God who brought them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.

 

What causes confusion here, at least as Jeremiah presents the indictment, is why the people of God are doing what no other people would do. That is exchanging their God for other gods. Why do they abandon God who has demonstrated faithfulness? In doing this, they have forsaken the “fount of living waters.” Remember that in ancient Israel, water was scarce so you wanted to make sure you had plenty of water. The also dug out cisterns for themselves, but these cisterns were cracked and couldn’t hold any water. Why do this?  Why won’t they give their allegiance to the one who has proven to be faithful?  There is something of a parallel here to the question of Joshua to the people of Israel. The question posed by Joshua to the people concerned who they would serve. The answer that God desired to here was simply this “I and my household will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:14-15 Tanakh).  Will that be our answer?

 

Picture Attribution: Duccio, di Buoninsegna, d. 1319. Prophet Jeremiah, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46451 [retrieved August 25, 2019]. Original source: http://www.yorckproject.de.

 

 

 

 

 

The Prophetic Call — A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 11C (Jeremiah 1)

God Touches Jeremiah’s Mouth – Winchester Bible (12th century)
 
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me,
“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.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.”
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”
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                I was ordained some thirty-four years ago, the day after I received my M.Div. degree. Even though hands were laid on me that day in June and I received the marks of the profession, I never expected to serve as a full-time pastor. I thought my call to ministry would lead elsewhere. I might not have envisioned the way things turned out, but you never know for sure where a calling will take you. Even if we sense a call to ministry, how do we know if it’s the correct course?  Should we expect to hear God speak to us verbally? Will there be other signs that will confirm the call? I wrote a book on spiritual gifts because I believe we are all gifted by God for service in God’s realm. Such service might entail ordained ministry, but more likely than not, it won’t. While these gifts might be rooted in our very being, I’m convinced that they can be used in a variety of ways both inside and outside the church. So how do you know where, when, and how gifts might be used in service to God’s realm?
                There are examples of rather dramatic calls to ministry to be found in Scripture. Moses sees a burning bush and Paul is knocked off a horse. Sometimes prophetic calls come in the midst of dreams and visions. Some, like Isaiah’s, are rather vivid. Others, like Jeremiah’s, are equally powerful, but may not be as visually dramatic. In most prophetic calls, the one called will resist. Moses did and so did Isaiah. The same is true of Jeremiah, as we see here in Jeremiah 1. In the verses preceding our text (Jeremiah 1:1-3), the narrator tells us something about the one whose call we read about in this passage. We learn that Jeremiah is a PK (a priest’s kid) who first heard the word of the Lord during the reign of King Josiah, Judah’s last great king. The Word of the Lord would continue to speak through him during the reigns of Jehoiakim and Zedekiah (both sons of Josiah) and continue on until Judah and Jerusalem went into exile. Jeremiah ministered to the people as they fell from glory into despair.  This is the context in which Jeremiah heard the call to prophetic ministry. While he resisted, he would, in the end, embrace it.  
 
                The Word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah in the days of Josiah revealed to the young son of the priest Hilkiah, serving at Anathoth in Benjamin, begins with the declaration that Jeremiah was born—while he was still in the womb—God selected him for this job. The word that came to Jeremiah declared: “Before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet concerning the nations.” A passage like this is powerful. How can you say no if God intended that you follow this path even before birth? At the same time, it can lead to problematic conclusions. If we take this too far, we will have to understand the trajectories of our lives to be predetermined. If God intended for Jeremiah to follow this path, could he have done something else with his life? That leads to the question of whether I could have taken a different path in life. Do I have a choice in the direction my life takes? Because I have embraced an open and relational understanding of God, I do believe we have choices. While God issues calls, we can choose how to answer that call. In Protestant circles, the idea of cooperation with God often has been deemed heretical. I’ve come to see things in a different light, so how might we read this passage in a non-deterministic fashion?  
 
                I think we can start with Jeremiah’s word of resistance. Jeremiah wanted to make sure he was hearing God correctly. Besides, like Moses before him, he complains he’s not much of a speaker. He’s not been to seminary or taken homiletics. He doesn’t know if he’s a deductive or an inductive preacher. He’s not read Tom Long or Fred Craddock. He’s just a boy. While there have been lots of boy preachers down through the ages, who take homiletics before they took up their calling, I’m not sure that’s the point. Jeremiah wasn’t sure what to make of this calling. He wanted to make sure this fit with who he was.  
 
                Jeremiah might not have unclean lips (that was Isaiah’s defense), but he was young. Nevertheless, God was undeterred. He had chosen Jeremiah for this work, and God wouldn’t take no for an answer. God said to Jeremiah, don’t say to me “I’m just a boy.” I’ve got work for you to do. You’re the one I want to do this, so go and do it. Don’t be afraid of your audience, for I am with you. There is a passage in the New Testament that seems to echo this word. In the first letter to Timothy we hear this word of advice given by an older mentor to a protégé:

 12 Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 13 Until I arrive, give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching. 14 Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders.  [1 Timothy 4:12-14].

It is a common complaint by young pastors that their abilities are discounted due to their “youth.” Timothy is told to ignore the complaints and instead tend to the work set before him. Jeremiah is given the same word of advice, though here it’s God and not a mentor.
                Having issued the call and answered Jeremiah’s questions, God provides the message. In Jeremiah 1:9, we watch as God puts a hand on Jeremiah’s mouth and says to Jeremiah: “Now I have put my words in your mouth.” Don’t worry about what you’re going to say, for the words will be provided. Once again, we need to be careful about how we read this. If you’re a preacher, does this mean that you can simply stand in the pulpit and without any preparation start talking? Does this mean that three years of seminary training are not needed or are irrelevant?  I hope that’s not the case! At the same time, the word here is simply a reminder that Jeremiah won’t be going out on his own. God will be with him by the Spirit.
                As Jeremiah goes out into the world, with the Spirit guiding and encouraging him, he has a job to do. God appoints him over nations and kingdoms. Jeremiah will pluck up and pull down. He will destroy and overthrow. He will also build and plant. There is both deconstruction and reconstruction. As a prophet he’s not only called to denounce or condemn the ruling authorities, he’s also called to provide an alternative.
                So, how should we hear this passage?
                Going back to the beginning, where we read of the call that occurs in the womb, might we see this as an affirmation of our own uniqueness as individuals? Might we not see this as a reminder that we are all unique, that is, we’ve been formed by God with a sense of purpose? It’s not that there is some kind of “purpose-driven life” that we must discern lest we take the wrong road in life. Instead, I would like to read this as a reminder that we are all gifted and called to be witnesses to God’s grace in the world. We’re gifted and called to speak of justice in the world. That may involve speaking truth to power. The other word we hear is that God provides the message. We might find it present in scripture or maybe somewhere else. What hear in this passage is that Spirit will lead us in bearing witness to God’s realm. As for those of us who are called to preach, it is wise not to hear this as permission to avoid doing your homework before you preach. It’s good to do your biblical and theological study before you preach. You might take a look at what’s happening in the world around you. What word might God have us hear as we traverse a world torn apart by violent acts and rhetoric? The way we respond to the call may depend on our place in life, but the responsibility remains the same.
                When the call comes, will we respond by singing the following?

 “Here I am Lord. Is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.” [“Here I Am, Lord,” by Daniel Schutte]. 

Picture Attribution: God Touches Jeremiah’s Mouth, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55596 [retrieved August 17, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:WinchesterBibleJeremiah(cover).GIF.

 

Trust in the Lord and Live Abundantly – A Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 6C (Jeremiah 17)

Jeremiah 17:5-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
Thus says the Lord:
Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength,
whose hearts turn away from the Lord.
They shall be like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see when relief comes.
They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.
Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit.
The heart is devious above all else;
it is perverse—
who can understand it?
10 I the Lord test the mind
and search the heart,
to give to all according to their ways,
according to the fruit of their doings.
**************
 
                Having encountered the calls of first Jeremiah and then Isaiah to their respective prophetic ministries, we now turn to the word of the Lord, given to us through the prophet Jeremiah. He calls on us to our trust in God and not in our own strength. Trust is the key word. In whom or in what do you put your trust? Is it God? Or is it someone or something else? By trust we do not mean belief but commitment. To whom will you commit yourself? There are consequences attached to our choices.
Jeremiah’s message was one the kings of Judah found difficult to hear and abide. The same was true of the general populace. As for the kings, perhaps it takes a bit of hubris to be a leader, especially a national leader. As such, there is a human tendency to trust in one’s own strength. However, this can prove disastrous, as the kings of Judah discovered. The invitation is to put our trust in God, but you don’t have to be a king to find this to be difficult. It can be difficult even for devout people of faith. I will admit this being true for me, as a pastor of a church. Don’t worry, I’ve got this!  But remember, choices have consequences.
Putting your trust in God sounds good, but is it practical?  In answer to that question, we raise armies and build walls. We do this, hoping to protect ourselves, because how can really trust a God whom you cannot see? As it turned out, when it came to Judah, Jeremiah was correct. Disaster would come Judah’s way. Jerusalem would be destroyed and with it the Temple. The leading citizens would be carted off to Babylon, where they would live in exile for a couple of generations. Yes, the heart is devious, but what takes place in the mind and the heart can’t be hidden from the Lord. Maybe we know this (I think we do), but we ignore the fact!
 So, “cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.” Their fate will be difficult. They will be like a shrub in the desert. I’ve watched enough nature programs to know that there is life in the desert, but it is not an easy life. You have to be hardy to survive. This past summer, my son and I drove across a couple of deserts in our trek west. This wasn’t my first desert crossing, but it’s the most recent. The vision of small shrubs and scrub brush covering the desert floor is fresh in my mind. These bushes hug the ground hoping to find sufficient moisture in the ground to survive. In Jeremiah’s vision those who trust in human strength are like that desert shrub, which holds for dear life.  
 
Jeremiah offers a contrasting vision to the desert shrub. This second simile speaks of a tree planted by the waters. The tree has a steady source of nourishment, so it doesn’t fear the possibility of drought. When a drought comes, it has the ability to draw moisture through its deep root structure. The result isn’t just survival, but the ability to continue producing fruit. Again, I’ve watched plenty of nature programs, so I know that when trees have access to water they flourish. Water is the essence of life. It is the key to abundant life.
Such is the case for us when we put our trust in God.  That is, when we put our roots down into soil that is able to draw from the waters. When I hear these words of Jeremiah concerning to tree planted by the water, I think of Jesus offering living water to the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn. 4:10-16). If we draw upon this water, we will never thirst again. Now, we needn’t wait for Jesus to offer us living water. Jeremiah also speaks of living water. All we need to do is move down a few verses in chapter 17. Then we will hear Jeremiah declare on behalf of God: “O hope of Israel! O Lord! All who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be recorded in the underworld, for they have forsaken the fountain of living water, the Lord” (Jer. 17:13). With that declaration concerning the fountain of living water, Jeremiah prays: Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved; for you are my praise” (Jer. 17:14).
This is the good news. Put your trust in God. Put down roots so you can tap into the living water. Then, as Jesus reminds the woman at the well, you will never thirst again. It is the reason why, people came to Jesus seeking healing (Luke 6:17-19). 
 
Unfortunately, the heart is devious, or as James Howell translates it, the heart is “fickle” [Feasting on the Word, p. 341]. Yes, we are a fickle lot, and so we find it difficult to stay true to the path set before us. We think we know the way to the water, and yet we find ourselves wandering in the desert, with no water in sight. If only we would put our trust in the Lord and sink our roots down by the riverside, so that we might find nourishment, then we will thrive. That is, we will bear fruit, even when drought comes our way. But we have to let go, and that’s not easy.  
 
The passage seems to hold out a vision of divine retribution – curses are pronounced – but perhaps it would better to understand this as a recognition that choices have consequences. When we put our trust in ourselves, we find ourselves in the desert, with no nourishment available to us. One of the consequences that emerges with this choice is fear. Yes, is given a chance to take hold of our lives. We see this in this time of our lives. As a result, we find ourselves putting up walls—some of which are literal in nature, but many more are metaphorical. It’s the latter that we need to recognize, and tear down, because there is no safety to be found in these walls. So, allow yourself to be planted by the waters, so you can flourish and bear fruit.
The question then is: in whom will we put our trust? Living as we do in an increasingly secular age, where traditional understandings of reality are set aside, this is not an easy question to answer. Yet, it is the one that Jeremiah poses to us. With the question posed, may we put our trust in the Lord, so that we might drink of the living water, and thus live abundantly and bear much fruit.

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

Prophetic Callings — Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 4C (Jeremiah 1)

Jeremiah (South Portal, Moiaasic Abbey, France)
Jeremiah 1:4-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
 
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
 
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me,
 
“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.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.”
 
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
 
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.
 
********************
                The prophet Jeremiah was born into the priestly caste. That he would a priest was a given. On the other hand, nothing about his birth suggested God would call him to be a prophet. Yet, that would be his calling. When the moment came for him to receive his prophetic calling, like other prophets, Jeremiah asks of God “Who? Me? Are you sure you got the right person?” That’s a bit of a paraphrase, but I think it captures Jeremiah’s initial response. He had no problem with the priestly calling, he was born to it. But the prophetic one was very different. It wasn’t something he expected, and if we read this literally, he was rather young when the call came. I’m not given to theologies that assume God predestines our lives in unchangeable ways, though I do believe the Spirit gifts us for ministry, perhaps from the womb. I do believe that even prophets, like Jeremiah, have the freedom to say no to God. On the other hand, it’s not easy saying no to God, especially when God says to you, this is what I created you for.  In the end, Jeremiah says yes to the call, though as is revealed in the book of Jeremiah his message didn’t make him popular with the governing authorities or the people. His counsel challenged the arrogance of the leadership. Indeed, just a few verses following this statement of call, the word of the Lord came to him, and he declared that “out of the north disaster shall break out on all the inhabitants of the land.”  God tells Jeremiah that the people will fight against him, but they will not prevail (Jeremiah 1:14-19).
                As we continue the journey through Epiphany, reflecting on the ways in which God is made manifest in the world, shedding light into darkness, it is appropriate to take notice of a prophetic call. According to what we read here Jeremiah the call came to Jeremiah when he was only a child. He would be called upon to speak words of judgment on his own people, though he would also offer them words of hope. While called to speak to own nation, his ministry would have a wider berth. He would speak to the nations as well as Judah. His calling comes at a time when reform was underway in the land of Judah. This was the time of Josiah’s reign. Josiah was one of the righteous kings of Judah. They were few in number, but they arose from time to time. Things were looking up, at least for a while (2 Kings 23:1-27). Unfortunately for Judah, Josiah died in battle, fighting against Pharaoh Neco of Egypt (2 Kings 23:28-30). Things went from bad to worse after Josiah died. His son, Jehoahaz succeeded him, and as is often declared in these books of the Kings, the new king “did evil in the sight of the Lord, just as his ancestors had done” (2 Kings 23:32). From there one son of Josiah took the throne until Nebuchadnezzar stepped in, leading to captivity.
The time frame for Jeremiah’s ministry is noted in the opening frame (verses 1-3), which tells us the Word of the Lord came to the prophet in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah (627 BCE) and would continue until the time of the exile that took place when Zedekiah was king (587 BCE). Jeremiah didn’t accompany the exiles to Babylon. Instead he was taken to Egypt, where we assume he died.  
 
                Taking just the text before us, what we have is a word concerning prophetic (and perhaps ministerial) callings. In light of the season of Epiphany, this calling would be a manifestation of God’s presence. Jeremiah is called and consecrated to this ministry from his conception—when God formed him in the womb. We often take note of the word concerning God forming Jeremiah and knowing him before birth, while neglecting the reference to his consecration. Prophets generally were not consecrated. They were called and empowered, but consecration was something that applied to priests (and kings). It has to do with anointing, and in Israel’s case heredity. Jeremiah didn’t choose to be a priest, he was born a priest. Apparently, he descended from the line that goes back to Abiathar, David’s priest, and from Abiathar back to Eli, mentor to Samuel who consecrated David as king. That Jeremiah comes from the town of Anathoth is important for understanding his prophetic ministry, which takes a rather anti-monarchical position. This is perhaps due in part to the fact that his priestly line was itself in exile. Abiathar, who had been priest during David’s reign was sent away by Solomon, who backed Zadok (who unlike Abiathar had backed Solomon’s claim over that of Adonijah – see 1 Kings 2:26).
                Even if Jeremiah’s family didn’t serve in the Temple, we can expect that he understood what it meant to be a priest. He was born to that. His father would have informed him early on. He might have heard stories of Samuel, who as a boy apprenticed in the Temple during the priesthood of their ancestor Eli. He would have also been taught the story of his people, going back to the Exodus. He understood the covenant God made with Israel. That background would have informed his ability to speak for God in times of crisis. Having that background informed his prophetic calling, but the prophetic call is different than the priestly one. You’re not generally born to it. It requires a separate, unique call. A priest can be a prophet, but you needn’t be a priest to be a prophet. I wonder how that reality might be understood today. What might it mean to be prophetic in our context? Nevertheless, as we move forward, it would seem that Jeremiah operates not as a priest, but as a prophet.
                God has a specific word for him to share with the world: 
 
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”
(Jer. 1:9-10).
Jeremiah was appointed by God with authority over the nations. He will pluck up and pull down. He will destroy and overthrow. That is, he will pronounce God’s judgement on the nations. However, he will also build and plant. This is Jeremiah’s message, throughout the book, which is often universal in scope. Yes, he will speak to Judah—rather strongly—but the message is much broader than simply the fate of Judah. This gives us a reminder that the God who speaks to and through Jeremiah is not a parochial god. This God is not limited by borders. After all, Jeremiah will end up in Egypt, while much of Israel’s elite will find themselves living in Babylon. In a letter to the exiles in Babylon, probably written from Egypt, he encourages them to settle down and make a life there, praying for the communities in which they find themselves. After all, they’re going to be there for a while (Jeremiah 29:1ff).
God may care a great deal about the covenant people, but God is also the God of the nations. God will deal with both as is appropriate. Jeremiah brings words of judgment, but also words of hope. After all there will be a new covenant, one written on the heart rather than stone (Jeremiah 31:31-34). It is this promise of a new covenant that Jesus takes up in his ministry. While Jeremiah likely has the aftermath of the exile in mind here, it found echoes in the ministry of Jesus, whose own calling is celebrated during this season of Epiphany. We see this calling of Jesus, one that spoke not only to Israel, but to the nations, in the visit of the Magi (Matt. 2:1-11) and in his baptism (Lk. 3:21-22). In the reading from the Gospel of Luke designated for this, the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Jesus speaks of his own calling in terms of an anointing of the Spirit. While Jesus draws from Isaiah rather than Jeremiah, there is a similarity in their visions.
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
(Lk 4:18-19).
And the Word of the Lord goes forth!
                As we hear this word, we who live millennia later might ask the question: to what is God calling us? What message do we have to share? The reading from 1Corinthians 13 invites us to inhabit the love God. Is this not our calling, at this moment in time?  Jeremiah doesn’t mention the love of God often, but this word is worth hearing as we consider Jeremiah’s calling and that of our own:

23 Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; 24 but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord. (Jer. 9:23-24).

Picture attribution: Jeremiah, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55363 [retrieved January 28, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Moissac,_Jeremiah.JPG.

God’s Righteousness Revealed – Lectionary Reflection for Advent 1C – Jeremiah 33

Jeremiah 33:14-16 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

14 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15 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. 16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

 
*********************
                It is the First Sunday of Advent and a new liturgical year begins. This first Sunday in the Christian year is designated “Hope Sunday,” which is a good place to begin a journey. Advent has an eschatological dimension to it, in that it invites us to look forward to God acting on our behalf not only in the present but in the future. It invites us to put our trust in the God who makes and fulfills covenant promises. Many congregations, including my own, begin the journey singing the medieval hymn “O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” While the hymn references the exile of Israel, it also invites us to look longingly toward the coming of the Christ child.  But it doesn’t end with the coming of the Christ child. That is a past event, and Advent continues to point us forward into the future. So, with this first Sunday we begin a journey that will takes us from anticipation to fulfillment in the coming of the Christ child, and then from there through the ministry of Jesus, his death, resurrection, on to the planting of a church that will bear the message of Jesus until that time when Christ reigns all in all.
                The word of the Lord as recorded in the first testament comes to us from the prophet Jeremiah. We can assume that this word is addressed to exiles living in Babylon. Although this word is addressed to both the people of Israel and Judah, Israel had long since disappeared from history, having been rooted out by the Assyrians in the eighth century. Jeremiah offers words of encouragement, reminding the people that God fulfills God’s promises, and the promise that is put before us concerns the time when “a righteous Branch” will “spring up for David.” As one might expect among a community of exiles who have watched as their nation has lost everything, including its leadership, there is the hope that life will return to normal. That things will go back to the way things were when the nation was at least theoretically independent. The only way for that to occur would be to see a member of the royal family restored to the throne of Judah. That is, there is an expectation that a member of the Davidic line will emerge, take the throne, and in that role will “execute justice and righteousness in the land.” This would be good news!
                The Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent in Year C is taken from Luke 21. In this reading we hear Jesus speaking in apocalyptic terms of the day God’s reign will be fully revealed. In this reading Jesus calls on the hearer to “be on guard so that your hearts are not weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap” (Lk. 21:34-35). The message of Advent is always one of being prepared and being alert for the day of the Lord is ever at hand. That was Jesus’ message, and it was Jeremiah’s. Neither Jesus nor Jeremiah offer a timetable, only a promise that the realm will come, and with it will come justice.  
 
                As we read Jeremiah today, in what some call a post-Christian age, when the church’s cultural dominance is diminished, what word do we hear? There are some who seek to “make the church great again,” by reclaiming cultural dominance. We see this in practice during this Advent/Christmas season by the demand made that retailers great customers with “Merry Christmas,” as well as demands that city halls place creche scenes on their front lawns. During other months of the year, we hear calls for restoring prayer and bible reading in schools. Some even want to make the McGuffey Reader of the 19th century the standard educational curriculum. Is this what Jeremiah has in mind for us? Is this the day when the Lord will be our righteousness? While, it’s true that the exiles desired to return to life as it was before exile, is this God’s vision? When we read books like Ezra and Nehemiah, we see attempts made in the post-exilic period to return to normal, by rebuilding Temple and city walls, while attempts are made to keep the community pure (Ezra’s call to put aside foreign wives—Ezra 9). While Zerubbabel was a Davidic descendant and the center of hopes of David restoration, he served only as a governor appointed by a Persian king (Haggai1). I’m not sure that either Zerubbabel or any other governor fulfilled the promise, but the promise remained.
The Christian community has taken it up, affirming that Jesus is the true son of David, and thus the righteous branch, who will bring justice and righteousness to the land. This is the vision that drives the Christian message. Jeremiah likely had a return to the land of the ancestors in mind, when he spoke these words. Jesus, on the other hand, at least in Christian theology, has a larger frame of reference that a return to the land of the ancestors. For Jesus the vision of the future involves the revelation and inauguration of the realm of God. This eschatological realm is marked by God’s justice and righteousness. As we gather for worship in Advent, we are confronted by this larger vision of God’s realm. Out of that vision comes the question of how we, the people of God, called together in the name of Jesus, can embody the justice and righteousness of God. This embodiment can take a variety of forms, but all reflect God’s love for all creation. This might involve both those first responses, taking care of immediate needs, like providing food and shelter, but ultimately it involves pursuing systemic change, so that the vision might be fulfilled.
With this invitation in mind, we begin the journey of Advent, moving toward the celebration of the birth of a child who was, at least temporarily, a homeless refugee.    

Picture attribution: Tree of Jesse, a Bavarian ivory panel., from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=27238 [retrieved November 26, 2018]. Original source: Wikimedia.

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.