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.