Old Testament Lectionary

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 12 – Jeremiah 15:15-21

Now firmly into retirement, I have of course been reflecting on the ministry which has just come to an end, helped this last week by a stay with good friends who laboured with me in my first incumbency. You can’t help but ask questions about what it has all been about, what were the ups and downs, the triumphs and the disasters, and in particular who have I been as a leader?

I have always thought of myself as a teacher, and my dear readers will be able to assess the accuracy or not of this estimate. But my spiritual director used to say that my main gifting was a prophetic one. I could see what had to be done, I could see where a course of action might lead, I was deeply uncomfortable with compromise of any kind, and I was not afraid to tell inconvenient truths. Well, if that is me, I certainly know how Jeremiah felt.

Today’s passage is one of several Laments which occur in this book. We all know what it means to lament, but we may not know that lament is a liturgical form widely recognised in the Bible. It isn’t just a random few verses of moaning: it’s a journey with different phases.  There is usually a cry to God, a description of the particular suffering which the writer is going through, questions to God about why this is happening, condemnation of his enemies, fervent prayer for deliverance, a confession of trust, and sometimes some kind of a response from God. Of course not all elements are there in every single passage, and not necessarily in the same order, but this is the general pattern. Psalm 13 is one good example.

So what does this particular lament teach us, apart, of course from the fact that lament is a good, right and healthy response to suffering. Three things hit me about Jeremiah, and three about God.

Jeremiah’s honesty. It takes either a very brave constitution or a tremendous amount of suffering to enable one to accuse God of being a disappointment. That’s just what Jeremiah does in v.18, and elsewhere in the book, notably 20:7: ‘You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed.’ You’re not playing fair, O Lord – you’re a cheat and a bully! This might come as a shock to people who have been brought up always to speak nicely to God, but the real rawness of Jeremiah’s pain screams through his words, and we cannot but admire his honesty. We feel it, after all, so it won’t be any surprise to God if we pray it. And note too that Jeremiah is also honest about the other side of the situation: he knows that God is merciful (v.15). But that is exactly the problem – where is your mercy now?

Jeremiah’s passion. What exactly has got him into this mess? His passion for God, for justice, and for the people to whom he has been sent. V.16 explains that Jeremiah has been marked out as God’s, and his delight has been to serve him and to proclaim his words (v.16). Because of his prophetic calling he has made some choices, some sacrifices, and while he doesn’t begrudge them, he feels it grossly unfair that making those sacrifices has ended up in his being so depressed.

Jeremiah’s isolation. What is more, his calling from God has led to him being a lone voice, crying as it were in the wilderness where no-one appears to be able to hear him. His grasp of the seriousness of the situation leading up to the exile meant that he wasn’t a lot of fun to be around, and that laughter and levity were highly inappropriate (v.17).

So no wonder he screams out at the God who has put such a costly calling on his life. His honesty is a good example to any of God’s people who feel keenly the weight of their calling, especially when it leads to rejection and suffering, as Jesus in today’s Gospel knew it would. But while it can be a very healthy thing to rant at God, the downside is that he can be as honest back to you as you have been to him.

God’s rebuke. So God begins by calling Jeremiah to repent. Not, I don’t think, of his honesty, but of his doubts; the ‘Why do I bother when no-body takes a blind bit of notice?’ line of thinking he has got himself into. If you really want to be my prophet, as you claim, then speak words which are ‘worthy’ – the Hebrew yaqar means ‘weighty, influential, important’. In other words – man up! You’re not getting anything which does not go with the job, so stop whingeing about it and get on with being a prophet. This is exactly the sort of thing a prophet might say to others, so God is simply giving him a taste of his own medicine.

God’s protection. However, the God who called him into this prophetic ministry is on his side, and promises his protection (v.20-21). I’ll leave it to you to judge, as you read the rest of Jeremiah’s career, just what the cash value of that protection is, as those threatened by his words go to extraordinary lengths to try to shut him up. But as one Christian leader once said, ‘Christian ministry won’t harm you. It might kill you, but it won’t harm you!’ Like Jesus, we have to grasp the eternal dimension and have a firm faith in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting if we are to get through the suffering of this life.

God’s warning. I think the most important little phrase in this passage comes in v.19: ‘Let this people turn to you, but you must not turn to them.’ The ultimate failure for prophets is to lose their cutting edge, to get sucked in to the very actions they are denouncing and to go soft on the sin they are calling people to reject. That is why we need prophets, as well as pastors and teachers, to lead the body of Christ. It isn’t the most comfortable calling, but God help us if that kind of voice is silenced.

Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 3 – Jeremiah 28:5-9 (Related)

I know I sound like a stuck record but once again the lectionary has filleted this passage out of its context so as to make it almost incomprehensible. We really can’t make sense of v.5-9 without knowing what is going on in 1-4, and what is going to go on in 10-17. So let’s look instead at the chapter as a whole.

Just in the very early stages of the exile, when most of Israel was living as a vassal state under Babylonian rule, the prophet Hananiah, who is helpfully described by the heading in my Bible as a ‘false prophet’, goes public in the Temple with his prediction that this will all be over within two years, because God is going to break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar King of Babylon (a phrase which he repeats twice for emphasis). It is interesting to note what this will look like in detail: the Temple will be undesecrated again, the sacred articles nicked by Nebuchadnezzar will be returned, the king will be back on his throne, and those who have been deported will come back. In other words, everything will be back to normal. The brief period of oppression will have been a tiny blip in the fortunes of Israel, but life will soon carry on as before.

I’m writing this in the week when lockdown in the UK is being dramatically eased, and on the morning of a day when new charts demonstrate that the global pandemic of coronavirus is still peaking, even if here in England things are calming down a bit. We all want to get back to normal, even though some of us are wondering what the ‘new normal’ will look like. There is a natural human tendency to avoid pain and discomfort, and so it should be – we have names for people who deliberately go out to seek or inflict pain. So Hananiah represents the voice of this human tendency – don’t worry, normal service will be resumed as soon as possible, and like Boris after Cumminsgate, we can all just ‘move on’.

But into this understandable human inclination to avoid hardship comes the voice of God, through the genuine prophet Jeremiah. Again, look closely at what he says. First of all he really wants Hananiah’s words to be true. He’d love it if this was going to pan out like that. Jeremiah has a reputation for being a bit of a misery, but he is no more keen on exile and slavery than the next man. However, he senses that God’s purposes are different – the rest of the chapter spells out his view on things. But he also notes something important. Many prophets in the past spoke the unpopular message of war, disaster and plague, and current events seem to be validating their message. Perhaps that is the job of prophets; that’s why we find them so difficult to cope with, and why so often we silence their voices. But what about those who speak peace instead? Jeremiah’s point is that like their more negative brothers and sisters their message needs to be validated by actual events. It isn’t the case that prophets never say good things or bring comfort: just look at Isaiah 40 – 55. But the test is what actually happens. And most of the time it is the prophets of doom who actually turn out to have been speaking from God.

This chapter, then, gives us a meditation on the nature of the prophetic, but also reminds us of an important biblical principle: suffering, unpleasant though it is, can do us good. It can be used by God to shape our characters, to correct our weaknesses, to reorientate our direction and realign our priorities. Everything within us as humans wants to avoid it, but the Bible constantly tells us of its value, and how we should seek the hand of God through it to draw us closer to him.

How have you been praying for our nation and our world during the pandemic? Like all of us I have, of course, been praying for it to go away and leave us alone, but more often I have found myself praying that we would learn the lessons God wants to teach us through it. To return to normal without that happening would be an even greater disaster, I believe.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Jeremiah

This far through our odyssey we’re beginning to get a broad overview of OT history. We’ve seen the judges and the monarchy, the decline and fall of Israel and the exile in Babylon, and then Ezra and Nehemiah’s return and rebuilding in Jerusalem. This big picture will be helpful to keep in mind as we explore the remaining prophetic books, each of which will be positioned somewhere in this story.

Jeremiah has the reputation of being the most miserable of the prophets, and it is easy to see why. His ministry crossed the time before and into the exile, and his words fall pretty much into two halves, firstly warning the unrepentant Israelites that it has become too late for repentance: they simply have to accept their punishment at the hands of Babylon and suck it up. Then, as Jerusalem falls and the people are carried off, he turns to speaking to the ruling classes in exile, telling them that God was still in control and would fulfil his purposes through them if they just kept the faith. Meanwhile the peasants who remained in the now devastated Judah were encouraged simply to accept their lot and wait patiently for God’s salvation.

This is familiar stuff – Jeremiah was roughly contemporary with Isaiah of Jerusalem, and had a similar if much harder message. Isaiah believed that repentance and salvation were still possible, while Jeremiah’s message was that the nation’s apostasy had gone beyond the point of no return. But there are two things which make this book stand out from the crowd. The first is the high proportion of biographical material. Most of the prophetic books give at least some detail about the prophet himself, but Jeremiah has given us not just many narrative details of his career, but also some very poignant outpourings of his own emotions as he is ignored, rejected and persecuted. We also feel something of his pain as the city he loves is razed to the ground by foreign invaders, although nowhere near as much as we are going to feel next week. We are reminded that we are reading about a real person, whose calling from God meant that his life was one of almost complete rejection. The promise from God in 29:11 that he had plans to prosper the people, and that he would not harm them, a purple passage owned by Christians down the years, certainly didn’t seem to be fulfilled in Jeremiah’s own life. We are reminded of the cost of Christian ministry, and the fact that in his love for us God is not committed to giving us an easy life if we obey him.

Rembrandt. The Prophet Jeremiah Mourning  over the Destruction of Jerusalem.

The other significance of Jeremiah’s prophecy is its strong relevance to today’s culture. He ministered at a time when society was literally crumbling and giving way to a new order. Culture-watchers have defined the late 20th century, with the death of enlightenment modernism and the tectonic shift to postmodernity and beyond as a time which parallels the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the settled lifestyle which had been Israel’s since the days of the judges. We watch with Jeremiah at the end of an era; we feel his pain, confusion and uncertainty, and we hear his reassurances that the unchanging God is still somehow in charge, even if, like his original hearers, we find it all a bit hard to believe. Jeremiah makes good reading for Christians who feel that the world is going to hell in a handcart. He validates our grief but yet holds out to us the offer of hope.

Old Testament Lectionary Jan 25th Conversion of St Paul Jeremiah 1:4-10

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

One of my quibbles with small-c catholic spirituality, with its emphasis on the ‘Saints’, is that for ordinary Christians like you and me it can seem very de-skilling. Often based on a mediaeval and unbiblical distinction between ‘saints’ and ‘souls’, the language is usually that of emulating and being inspired by the great heroes of faith. But the reality is that actually I have never had a baby through virgin birth, I’ve not done much at all in terms of miracles, and I hope to goodness that I never get martyred. So I’m just an ordinary Christian, as opposed to the saintly super-heroes of the faith. I know my place.

However other bits of the church can be just as guilty, even when their heroes and heroines are found within the pages of Scripture. The calls of both Jeremiah and Paul are often preached as ‘types’ of calling for all Christians. Fortunately we have moved away from believing that if you couldn’t time and date your conversion experience you probably haven’t had a genuine one (although some people still can, and they need to be recognised as valid too). Jeremiah’s call is often held up as a good paradigm for present-day Christians, although the experience of most of us is a lot less dramatic. Nevertheless, there are some elements of this call to which we maybe do need to listen carefully.

 File:The Conversion of St. Paul by Benjamin West.jpg

First of all we note that looking at these two stories together, conversion equals call. In both cases the call of God is a call to action. Jeremiah’s is specific, Paul is merely told to go to Damascus where he will receive further instructions, but both incidents imply a call to ministry. Too often today we concentrate on conversion as encountering Christ, and surrendering to him for the first time, as stage one, and we may or may not get round to stage two, our call to serve Christ, at some later point. Leave it too long, and we have actually allowed new converts to relax into ‘passenger’ rather than ‘crew’ mode, and it will be all the more difficult to recruit them into action.

Secondly, we see in many biblical call narratives (although not, interestingly, in Paul’s story) the motif of reluctance. This lack in Acts 9 may be the result of God having had, as it were, to hit Paul so hard that he was too stunned to object. But when we sense some kind of a call from God, there are two things to learn: a) if we feel nervous we are in good company, and b) our reluctance cuts no ice at all with God, so get over it!

Thirdly, I am interested, because of my particular personality type, in the negativity of Jeremiah’s calling. There are four negative tasks for him (uproot, tear down, destroy, overthrow) and only half as many positive ones (build, plant). Again, in Acts we do not get details of Paul’s specific calling, other than to stop destroying and overthrowing, but as we see his career panning out there is a certain amount of confrontation and resistance to the old ways of Judaism in which he was schooled and zealous. But I wonder how much of the uprooting and tearing down had to happen within himself, as the encounter with the living Christ turned his life, and his beliefs upside down.

Calling people to turn to Christ, which is surely the most important ministry the Church has, must, I believe, involve a good, clear account of just what it is we are calling them from, and what we are calling them to.

Old Testament Lectionary 4th January Christmas 2 Jeremiah 31:7-14

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

On one level this is a very tricky passage indeed for us to cope with. It is essentially a failed prophecy. Spoken to the people of the Northern Kingdom, who were overrun and scattered by Assyria, these words promise restoration at many levels. The scattered will be gathered, the sick and pregnant will be healed and restored, privation will give way to plenty and weeping will become singing and dancing. The hard fact is that this simply did not happen. So what do you do with unfulfilled prophecy?

Christians have answered that question in several different ways. First, you can recycle it. The Northern Kingdom never did see restoration, but it has been suggested that Deutero-Isaiah, who announced restoration to the Southern Kingdom, based his work on these chapters of Jeremiah, known as Jeremiah’s ‘Book of Consolation’ . Our passage ends with ‘comfort’ (v 13) which is where Isaiah 40 begins. God’s purposes may not have worked out perfectly this time, but they remain his purposes, and if the fulfilment delays, wait for it, because it will surely happen. In fact we constantly read prophecy this way, and we understand that a ‘word’ might not just have a single fulfilment. Witness the claiming of Joel 2 in the late 1960s as the charismatic movement burst into life, even though the Bible sees the passage as having been fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost AD33.

Secondly, we can discount it and become cynical about it. Jeremiah was just indulging in a bit of wishful thinking, that’s all. It was, frankly, a bit rash of him to utter as a prophetic world something he would have loved to have seen but clearly had no mandate from God for. Again, don’t those charismatics do that all the time? Or maybe it was a good word, but its time just hadn’t yet come. the blind and the lame people might have heard it as a promise of immediate restoration to their homeland, but that was never what God intended: in fact, as we now know, it was actually all about Jesus.

Or thirdly we might take a more radical approach, and suggest that the ‘word’ really did represent the heart’s wish of God, but the fact is that God doesn’t always get his way, or he doesn’t get it as soon as he and we would like. Pete Grieg’s masterful study of unanswered prayer, God on Mute, suggests, convincingly to my mind, that if God always got his way Jesus wouldn’t have taught us to pray that his will would be done here on earth, just like it is being done in heaven. God looks at our world, and although he longs for justice, peace and restoration, he clearly isn’t getting it just yet. It is the great mystery of all all-powerful and all-loving God who chooses for a while to let things take their course.

So what do we do with prophecies like this? Might it be that they keep us in tune not with what is going to happen in a week or two, but rather with the heart and will of God for his world. Might it be that words like these are there in the middle of the mess and evil of real life (as indeed they are in context here – we looked last week at the passage which follows from this one, about the inconsolable grief for Rachel’s lost children) to remind us that through it all we have a God who weeps with us, and who eventually will have his will done perfectly. What is going on is not God having lost the plot, punishing us, or all the other explanations which Deutero-Isaiah is subverting. It is a temporary, if protracted, state of affairs until God’s kingdom comes in all is fullness.

You’ll have to ask someone a lot wiser than I about why God chooses to delay so long, but in the meantime Jeremiah and many others keep us in touch with what his actually will really is, and that ought to give us some strength towards enduring and steadfastness.