Sunday, 4 December 2011

In the face of despair ... hope - Jeremiah's Story

Some time over the last weekend in October Felicity and I drove along Shady Lane on the outskirts of Leicester.  It looked very different from the Shady Lane we remember of our youth.   I well remember learning with excitement when I was still at school that they were going to plant an Arboretum along the side of the already tree-lined Shady Lane.  I firmly expected to see something like the kind of Arboretums I would later love to visit – Westonbirt, Batsford, and best of all Walsall with its illuminations.  I can remember the disappointment I felt when all I could see was a couple of fields planted sparsely with feeble saplings.  Forty years on the Arboretum is more like the Arboretum of my original imagining, though it has some way to go yet.

To plant out an arboretum is to make a statement about a future you will not live to see.

Hold on to that picture for a while as we turn to the book of Jeremiah.  Not an inappropriate Prophet to turn to at the end of a week when we have learned of the extent of the economic collapse that is happening the world over and at the start of a week that could see seismic changes in the structures and future of Europe.  Not only is Jeremiah the Prophet of Gloom and Doom but he is more than any other the one to carry out what seemed like outrageous symbolic, prophetic actions – the kind of person to be initiating an encampment outside St Paul’s.

Jeremiah is an outsider, not part of the Jerusalem establishment.  Son of Hilkiah, he is ‘of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin.  That’s a reference back to 2 Kings 2:26-27: Anathoth was the place Solomon banished Abiathar the priest to right at the outset of his reign, as he severed links with Eli’s family.  Jeremiah the outsider speaks truth to power in one of the most dreadful periods of the history of Jerusalem and Judah – from the thirteenth year of the reign of King Josiah through all his successors, until the captivity of Jerusalem.  (Jeremiah 1:1-3)

The account of Jeremiah’s call and commission in chapter 1 is a wonderful account of call and vocation.  Called of God to be a prophetic voice Jeremiah is all too aware of his own inadequacy.

‘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.
8 Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.’
These are words to take to hear whenever it is that we feel impelled to speak out about our faith – when we are called to declare God’s word, we can sense here the promise of God – do not be afraid – I am with you.  Those are the words Jesus echoed to his disciples when he warned them they would be up against the powers that be – do not be afraid, I am with you.  This is the promise Jesus leaves his followers as he commands them to go into all the world with the message of Good News to share.  I am with you always to the end of the age.

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.
That’s a very significant quotation – it is what is said of Moses, and it is what is said in Numbers 22:38 of the prophet who would come.  Jeremiah stands in that line of Moses.

Then comes a commission which is the commission that comes straight from the pages of Deuteronomy, we have seen it time and again through the pages of the former prophets, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, we have seen it in the 8th century prophets Isaiah, with his threesome Amos, Micah and Hosea, we have seen it with Huldah, we have seen it with the threesome associated with Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Nahum and Zephaniah.

The pattern that emerges in these prophetic books is of judgement as the consequences of the Kings’ and the people’s abandonment of God is worked out, and of hope as the promise of renewal and restoration comes.

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.’ 1:10

There are all sorts of different strands running through the Book of Jeremia, and you glimpse them all in chapter 1.    Jeremiah gives an analysis of all that is wrong in the way the Kings and the people have disobeyed God and broken with God’s way for the world.  It is a devastating critique – an indictment of all that is wrong. 

Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem,
   look around and take note!
Search its squares and see
   if you can find one person
who acts justly
   and seeks truth—
so that I may pardon Jerusalem.* (5:1)

And Jeremiah is in no doubt – the Kings and the People will have to face the consequences as the world as they know it falls apart.  Jeremiah can read the signs of the times and knows that the devastation will come from the north

Thus says the Lord:
See, a people is coming from the land of the north,
   a great nation is stirring from the farthest parts of the earth.
23 They grasp the bow and the javelin,
   they are cruel and have no mercy,
   their sound is like the roaring sea;
they ride on horses,
   equipped like a warrior for battle,
   against you, O daughter Zion!  (6:22-23)

It is the Babylonian power that will be instrumental bringing to pass the devastation that is the consequence of all that has gone wrong for the people and particularly in the decisions their rulers have made.  The heading in the NRSV at chapter 6 says it all – Jeremiah is full of the imminence and horror of the invasion.

How do you cope in such a time of uncertainty?  How does Jeremiah cope?

You need to go beyond the gloom and doom of Jeremiah to the person of Jeremiah.   In a lot of the poetry he plumbs the depths of his own anxiety and his own feelings of helplessness.  Those feelings he articulates at the very outset are feeling that return to haunt him.  There are moments of hope when he goes down to the potters house and speaks of God as the potter who can re-mould the clay that has been initially spoiled. (18) There are moments of utter hopelessness as he takes a clay pot that has been fired and smashes it irretrievably. (19)

And it takes its toll on Jeremiah – that reaches its peak in disturbing, harrowing words in chapter 20 14 ff

Cursed be the day
   on which I was born!
The day when my mother bore me,
   let it not be blessed!
15 Cursed be the man
   who brought the news to my father, saying,
‘A child is born to you, a son’,
   making him very glad.
16 Let that man be like the cities
   that the Lord overthrew without pity;
let him hear a cry in the morning
   and an alarm at noon,
17 because he did not kill me in the womb;
   so my mother would have been my grave,
   and her womb for ever great.
18 Why did I come forth from the womb
   to see toil and sorrow,
   and spend my days in shame?

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus is seen as another Jeremiah.  We sometimes miss the negative side of his preaching – he too gives an analysis of all that is wrong.  The poor, the hungry, those who weep, those who are hated because they follow Jesus may be blessed, but woe to those who are rich, those who are full now, those who are laughing now, those everyone speaks well of.  He takes his stand against the powers that be.  And it too takes his toll as in the Garden of Gethsemane he prays that the cup be taken from him, and on the cross cries out as if forsaken by God.

And yet Jeremiah holds on to that promise – do not be afraid.  I am with you.

And so through all the catastrophe there are grounds for hope – for something will be restored, re-constructed out of the ruins.

I want to home in on four strands that are to do with planting and re-building – with the hope beyond restoration …

Initially he lays down the challenge to rulers and people alike – change your ways and there’s still time to put things together again.  He shares the word of God that there is still hope … if only the people could come to their senses, if only the rulers could repent, he then speaks of a time when restoration will come – and he speaks of the rulers as shepherds – Jeremiah declares the word of God …

I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding. 16. 17At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the Lord, and all nations shall gather to it, to the presence of the Lord in Jerusalem, and they shall no longer stubbornly follow their own evil will. (3:15ff)18

What it takes are ‘shepherds after my own heart’ and then ‘all nations shall gather to Jerusalem’ which will  become a blessing to the nations.

It’s telling that in the nativity stories it is shepherds who hear the angels sing, and magi from the east who come.  Even more telling is the way Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God coming and of himself as ‘the Good Shepherd’.  In the Kingdom of god as it should be it takes ‘good shepherds’ – that’s hinted at in Isaiah of Babylon, it is here in Jeremiah, and we shall find ourselves coming back to it even more when we come to the Book of Ezekiel as the New Year dawns.

There’s a second, fascinating strand.  Just like the Book of Isaiah, so too the Book of Jeremiah seems to be made up of different strands.  Towads the end – chapters 37 to 44 are a harrowing narrative of the fall of Jerusalem.  Chapters 46 – 51 are an indictment of the surrounding nations which are shifted to the middle of chapter 25 in the Greek translation of Jeremiah.  In and around those chapters you get a glimpse of how the Prophet Jeremiah’s words were recorded.

In chapter 36 Jeremiah is commanded to write his prophecy in a scroll – so in 36:4 he dictates the scroll to Baruch.  Then the king burns the scroll – and so Jeremiah in defiance dictates another.  AS the book draws towards a close in the wake of the devastation of Jerusalem and exile the writing of the scroll and the reading of the scroll becomes all important.  When the return from exile comes it is Ezra, the Scribe and the reading of the scroll that becomes all important.

The part ‘the scribes’ play in the Gospel story is fascinating – by then they have become guardians of something almost set in stone and very much part of the powers that be – and Jesus stands over against the scribes.  But he is seen as ‘the Word of God’ incarnate – and the writing of the Gospels becomes important so that the words of Jesus are passed on.  In the face of the difficulties of our time we are to treasure the Gospels as we treasure our Scriptures.

In a moment or two we will use the words of Jesus that more than any other echo the hope or restoration and renewal  that is Jeremiah’s hope.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,* says the Lord. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

The cup that we shall share is the new covenant in Christ’s blood – and this new covenant is deep within our hearts – Jesus is the fulfilment of all the law and the prophets – not replacing the covenants of old, but ushering in that new covenant – that brings us into the closest relationship possible with God – the relationship that is deep within our hearts.

The chapters around chapter 31 are sometimes known as the book of comfort.  Early on in chapter 31 is the desolation of the wailing at Ramah that is taken up by Matthew in chapter 2 almost as if he is saying the world Jesus is born into is just the same cruel world that Jeremiah experienced.  But immediately after that cry of despair comes a word of hope and renewal that is taken up in that talk of a new covenant written on the heart.

There was one more thing that Jeremiah did as a remarkable statement of hope.  And it comes in chapter 32.  By now the world he has known really is falling apart about his ears as the Babylonian power are erecting their siege engines and preparing to lay siege to Jerusalem itself.  Jeremiah in a remarkable act of defiance bought a field in his home town of Anathoth.  As Jerusalem was collapsing all around him, he bought a field.  He would never see the benefit of it – but he did it as a statement that the renewal, the restoration would come.

Which brings me back to planting trees.  Just when we were driving along Shady Lane past Leicester’s Arboretum Joan Scott’s family were celebrating what would have been Joan Scott’s 100th birthday.  On Tuesday afternoon I sat with them in Room 1 having a tea party recalling those 100 years as we had just planted a tree in the torrential rain in her memory.  None of us there will see that tree in its maturity – but maybe there’s a statement of hope in the future from someone whose story has spanned the last hundred years – and maybe that’s a statement of hope very much in the spirit of Jeremiah.

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