Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Prayer of the Day: Almighty and ever-living God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and love; and that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
In our first lesson God sends a reluctant young Jeremiah to “pluck up and to break down” great nations and to “build and to plant” the seeds of a new covenant. For accomplishing this daunting assignment, he will have nothing more than the words God is giving him to speak. That should not strike us as remarkable. Words are powerful weapons. They incite revolutions, foment rebellion and inspire societal transformation that topples kingdoms and dissolves empires. The words of Dr. Martin Luther King ignited a movement that brought institutional segregation to an end. It was largely the influence of new ideas expressed in the words of dissent that moved the peoples of eastern Europe to end the regimes that held them captive for half a century. But words are also instrumental in holding together the status quo, giving ideological justification to oppression and sanctifying violence. Sinister racist sentiments, once expressed in ugly epitaphs we no longer tolerate, still wrap themselves around seemingly benign slogans such as “state’s rights,” “America first,” “make America great again” and the relentless rant against “political correctness.” Words can ruin friendships, destroy reputations and undermine a community’s confidence in its leaders. Words can be either allies or enemies of the truth. In times of violence and injustice, the prophet’s task is to marshal words in defense of truthful speech.
Jeremiah lived through the destruction of his nation. He witnessed the violence, cruelty and oppression that preceded Jerusalem’s destruction and that followed in its wake. There was no shortage of prophets in Jeremiah’s time. Most of them were prophesying victory, peace and safety for the people of Judah as the storm clouds of war with Babylon gathered on the horizon. Hananiah, Jeremiah’s prophetic nemesis, assured the people that they had nothing to fear from Babylon, that God would break that oppressive empire’s yolk and restore the kingdom of Judah to its glory days. Hananiah’s promises were spoken in the covenant language of scripture. More than a century before the prophet Isaiah had foretold an age of peace and prosperity brought about by the glory of the Lord. In Isaiah’s age, God had in fact broken the Assyrian army at the gates of Jerusalem sparing the city, the temple and the line of David. Why should the people doubt that God would do the same for Israel once again? Why continue to endure Babylonian domination? Why not stand up defiantly against the tyrant and trust in God’s promises to deliver Zion holy city and defend the temple?
Jeremiah understood that Hananiah was employing the language of scriptural truth to prophesy lies. He knew that Babylon was not the greatest threat to Israel’s existence and that victory on the battle field would not amount to salvation. Israel’s fixation on preserving the temple, the institution of the Davidic monarchy and her territorial sovereignty prevented her from recognizing her deepest need. Israel’s problem was that, as currently constituted, she had ceased altogether to be the faithful covenant partner God desired. Faith in God’s goodness had gradually degenerated into a sense of entitlement, a deluded belief that God was somehow obliged to save Israel’s beloved institutions no matter how unjust, oppressive and idolatrous she had become. What Israel was so desperately trying to save were the very things destroying her soul. The nation of Israel had to die so that the people of Israel could be reborn. God was taking away the hallmarks of Israel’s identity because that identity had become so monstrously distorted. Moreover, God had something far more precious to give Israel than what she was about to lose. That is why Jeremiah insisted that there would be no miraculous rescue this time. There was no getting around God’s judgment, but there would be a way through it to the dawn of a new day. But this good news had to be heard as bad news before it could be received as good.
In this war of words between the two prophets, Hananiah was the winner-at least in the short term. The king and the religious establishment put their trust in an ill-fated insurrection against Babylon inspired by Hananiah’s promise of divine assistance. Jeremiah suffered mob violence, religious persecution and imprisonment for the word he was compelled to speak. Yet the Bible contains not the book of Hananiah, but the oracles of Jeremiah. It was finally the words of the true and faithful prophet that enabled the exiled Jews to make sense of the terrible judgment that had befallen them and to recognize in that judgment the compassion of a God who loved them too much to allow them to continue in their faithless and self-destructive ways. Both Hananiah and Jeremiah spoke the words of scripture. But only Jeremiah spoke the Word of God.
Words, metaphors, similes, and figures of speech in the hands of false prophets, demagogues and hate groups are lethal weapons of destruction. This is particularly true where the words in question are taken from the Bible. But in the mouth of a prophet, words pluck up and tear down evil principalities and powers while planting and building up the gentle reign of God. Ours is the God who is not merely as good as his word. John’s gospel tells us that God is God’s Word. Our God is the God who speaks the universe into existence. Our God meets us in the medium of human speech. For that reason, language is holy. Every prophet knows (as does every poet) that words must be handled with discernment, reverence, wonder and awe.
Here are the words of poet Eavan Boland who, like Jeremiah, prophesied in a time of violence.
Writing in a Time of Violence
In my last year in College
I set out
to write an essay on
the Art o Rhetoric. I had yet to find
the country already lost to me
in song and figure as I scribbled down
names for sweet euphony
and safe digression.
And when I came to the word insinuate
I saw that language could writhe and creep
and the lore of snakes
which I had learned as a child not to fear-
because the Saint had sent them out of Ireland-
Chiasmus, Litols, Periphrasis Old
indices and agents of persuasion. How
I remember them in that room where
a girl is writing at a desk with
dusk already in
the streets outside. I can see her. I could say to her-
we will live, we have lived
where language is concealed. It is perilous.
We will be—we have been—citizens
of its hiding place. But it is too late
to shut the book of satin phrases,
to refuse to enter
an evening bitter with peat smoke,
where newspaper sellers shout headlines
and friends call out their farewells in
a city of whispers
and interiors where
the dear vowels
Irish Ireland ours are
absorbed into Autumn air,
are out of earshot in the distances
we are stepping into where we never
imagine words such as hate
and territory and the like—unbanished still
as they always would be—wait
and are waiting under
beautiful speech. To strike.
By Eavan Boland. Source: Poems in a Time of Violence, (c. 1994 by Eavan Boland, pub. by W.W. Norton Company, Inc.). Eavan Boland was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1944. She spent her girlhood in London and New York, returning to Ireland to attend secondary school in Killiney and college at Trinity College in Dublin. Boland’s poetry explores the complex experience of women in Irish history and culture, challenging traditional conceptions of womanhood and offering fresh perspectives on their roles. You can learn more about Eavan Boland and read more of her poetry on the Poetry Foundation website.
For an excellent overview of the Book of Jeremiah, see the article by Professor Terrence Fretheim of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN at enterthebible.org. In this Sunday’s lesson, the prophet Jeremiah receives his call from the Lord. It is hard to pinpoint the precise timing of Jeremiah’s call. The opening lines of the book state that Jeremiah’s prophetic career began in the thirteenth year of the reign of King Josiah of Judah. Yet there is no reference in Jeremiah’s preaching to the extensive campaign against idolatry undertaken by this king that would surely have been favored by Jeremiah or to the king’s untimely death. This has led scholars to suspect that Jeremiah’s call may actually have taken place during the reign of Josiah’s successors. Some scholars have suggested that Jeremiah perceived his first basic encounter and call from God to have occurred before he was “formed in the womb.” Thus, the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign may have been the prophet’s birthday where God “consecrated” him. His call might therefore have taken place after Josiah’s death. See Holladay, William M., “The Years of Jeremiah’s Preaching,” Interpretation, Vol. 37, No. 2 (April 1983) pp. 146-159.
More important than the precise date of Jeremiah’s call is the general historical context. It was the beginning of the age of empires. Assyria had dominated the middle east for nearly a century. When its power began to wane, young Josiah stepped into the power vacuum expanding the borders of his country further than at any time since the days of David and Solomon. He also launched a campaign to purge Israel of all pagan influences and restore the proper worship of Israel’s God. The king’s political success and his religious reforms proved short lived. Josiah lost his life opposing Egypt’s failed attempt to prop up what was left of Assyria now under siege from the rising Babylonian empire. Judah once again became a mere vassal of an imperial power, this time Egypt. In less than a year, she would be under the king of Babylon. Thus, Jeremiah was born into a turbulent era of transition. The age of city states and petty regional kingdoms was coming to an end. The age of empires had begun.
Prophets are often characterized as idealistic dreamers out of touch with geopolitical realities. Reliance upon the Lord is a pious, but unhelpful piece of advice to the king of a tiny nation caught between multiple superpowers. But Jeremiah was no novice when it came to analysis of political realities. Better than any of the kings to whom he prophesied, Jeremiah could see clearly that the world was changing. He understood the difficult truth that Israel’s rulers could not comprehend: that there was no future for Judah as an independent kingdom under the line of David. Trying to restore the glories of that kingdom in the present age was a sure recipe for disaster. If you have read the entire book of Jeremiah, then you know that his message was rejected by the Judean leadership which was hell bent on winning independence for Judah from Babylon. Jeremiah saw this stubborn determination to pursue a hopelessly impossible dream as a rejection of Israel’s God and a lack of trust in God’s ability to deliver to Judah a new and better day.
“Before you were in the womb I knew you.” Vs. 5. We should not get too caught up in speculation about God’s foreknowledge and how much of Jeremiah’s life was “predestined.” The emphasis should be placed on the words, “I knew you.” The Hebrew word for “know” used here denotes a particularly intimate sort of knowledge. The indication here is that Jeremiah is to be more than a message boy. His career will be one of intimacy with the God who called him from the womb. This relationship between the Lord and his messenger is in some respects analogous to a marriage. If you read on in this marvelous book you will discover that this “marriage” was frequently rocky. Jeremiah sometimes complained bitterly that God had let him down, deceived him and left him to the mercy of his enemies. Jeremiah 20:7-12. God was often less than gentle in responding to Jeremiah. Jeremiah 15:15-21. But that only underscores the freedom Jeremiah felt to express his deepest sentiments to the God whose word consumed his entire being.
“Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” Vs. 6. One thing most prophets seem to have in common is low self-esteem. Jeremiah thinks he is too young and inexperienced. Moses felt he was not sufficiently articulate. Isaiah thought he was too sinful. Amos would not even accept the title of prophet. These are not the kind of extraverted, can do, positive thinking types that denominational leadership seeks for “mission developers.” It seems that genuine prophets come by their calling only reluctantly.
This psalm is remarkably similar to Psalm 31. It also contains phrases and expressions that are nearly identical to other psalms. Consequently, some scholars have speculated that Psalm 71 is of more recent composition, having borrowed from these older psalms. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 106. That reasoning is not entirely convincing to me, however. There is no reference to any historical event that would allow us to date this psalm. Therefore, it seems just as likely to me that Psalm 31 and the other psalms borrowed from Psalm 71 which could as easily be the more ancient. I know. Who cares?
The personal details in this psalm are remarkable. If you read the psalm in its entirety, you will discover that the psalmist is an old man or woman. His or her “strength is spent.” Vs. 9. Yet the psalmist is beset by enemies who see his or her weakness as evidence that “God has forsaken him” and that it is therefore safe to “size him” for “there is none to deliver him.” vs. 11. (I should explain here that the use of gender in the Hebrew language is not heavily tied to the male/female dichotomy. Consequently, we cannot draw any conclusions about the psalmist’s sex from the fact that the English translators have consistently rendered the pronouns in this psalm masculine.) Though understandably concerned, the psalmist does not come to this crisis with a blank slate. The psalmist has experienced God’s salvation throughout his or her life. Because God has a track record of faithfulness, the psalmist is confident that, “Thou who hast made me see many sore troubles wilt revive me again; from the depths of the earth thou wilt bring me up again.” Vs. 20.
Once again, this prayer illustrates the breadth of human experience found in the psalms running the gambit from youthful insecurity in the face of life’s complexities to the struggles of aging and confronting death. I cannot emphasize how important it is to make these psalms your friends. The earlier in life you do that, the greater the source of comfort, strength and wisdom they will become.
This is one of those texts known even to people who have never picked up a Bible. Just as the Twenty Third Psalm is a staple at every funeral, the Thirteenth Chapter of Corinthians is nearly universal at every Christian wedding. Though much of what Paul has to say in this chapter is applicable to marriage, that is not what was on Paul’s mind as he wrote these words. Recall that Paul is in the midst of a letter addressed to a divided and fractious church. In last Sunday’s lesson, Paul pointed out that the Church, even the sorely divided Corinthian church, is the Body of Christ. That means that we are all individually members of that church. We do not think or conduct ourselves as autonomous individuals. We harmonize our lives to the needs of the Body of which we are part.
Clearly, the congregation in Corinth was a long way from that kind of harmonious living-as is every church to which I have ever belonged. But Paul insists that his view of the church is not just an impossible utopian ideal. Nor is it merely an aspiration. The flesh and blood church of today with all its warts, short comings and sins is the Body of Christ. I repeat: this is not just a metaphor. Paul really means to say that the church is Christ’s resurrected Body. It is a broken and wounded Body, to be sure, but it is nevertheless a Body animated by God’s Holy Spirit. Though ever dying, it is always being called back to life again. It is always in the process of healing. How, then, do sinful and self-centered men and woman live together as one Body? That is “the more excellent way” to which Paul referred at the end of Chapter 12 last week and discusses in Chapter 13 this week.
Though written in highly polished prose bordering on poetry, this chapter speaks of a love that is anything but gushy and sentimental. “Love is patient.” Vs. 4. That means accepting the fact that the church is made up of people that are broken and, more importantly, that I cannot fix them. Still, I have to love them anyway even though they probably will never change to my liking. “Love is not jealous or boastful.” Vs. 4. That is to say, it often goes unrequited and that has to be OK. I may never be properly thanked for what I do to build up the Body or appreciated for all the sacrifices I make. But if that’s a problem for me, then my love is not the sort that Paul is talking about. “Love does not insist on its own way.” Vs. 5. Not even when I happen to be right; not even when it is a matter of principle; not even when every thinking person would have to agree that my way is really the only way forward. That is sometimes a bitter pill to swallow. When you have a vision for mission or a dream for your church’s future that seems heaven sent, it is hard to hear the rest of the Body tell you that they cannot see it or do not share it. It is at just such times that I am most strongly tempted to abandon the way of love and resort to more coercive political tactics.
“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Vs. 7. There was once a young pastor fresh out of seminary assigned to a difficult congregation. No matter what the young pastor did, someone in the congregation found fault with him. After one particularly discouraging day, Jesus came by to visit him. The pastor was overjoyed to see Jesus and began immediately to pour out his troubles to the Lord. Jesus listened patiently, nodding his head and giving the young pastor a knowing smile. “Yes,” said Jesus. “A pastor’s first parish can be a difficult challenge. I remember my first church. There were only twelve members. Not one of them ever understood a single sermon I ever preached. All they could ever talk about was who should be in charge and who was the greatest. The treasurer was constantly pilfering church funds for his own use and then he had the nerve to turn me into the authorities for just thirty pieces of silver. My congregational president, who promised to stand by me to the end, told everyone after I was arrested that he didn’t even know me. The rest of my congregation deserted me and left me hanging on a cross. But enough about me. You were telling me about the problems in your congregation.”
Though this story involves a pastor, it applies as well to anyone who takes discipleship and service in the church seriously. The church is not the place to come for coddling. It is where you go to be transformed into the image of Christ. It is the place you go to be built up into the Body of Christ. Love is the cement that holds a church together. Forgiveness is the tar that patches up the breaches in its walls. The church is not a gathering of people who are a moral cut above the rest. We are flawed and broken people who cannot heal ourselves, but who believe that the Holy Spirit working in our midst can bind us together and make of us more than we could ever have been on our own. Rev. Lester Peter, the pastor who ordained me, said in his sermon on that occasion: “Peter, you will meet in your ministry the kindest, most selfless and generous people the world has ever known. You will also meet the orneriest, most stubborn and unforgiving people the world has ever known. And here is the hardest part-they will be the same people.” That has proven true. I have my share of scars from living in the church. But I have far more memories of witnessing acts of extraordinary generosity, hospitality, forgiveness, extraordinary courage and faithfulness in the many churches it has been my privilege to serve. There is no question that churches fall short of their calling. They can be selfish, petty and narrow minded. Even so, the Spirit of God is at work in their midst pushing them beyond themselves, working miracles within them and accomplishing great things through them.
Most of what I have to say about this passage I said in last week’s post. I do not believe it is possible to understand fully Jesus’ proclamation from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue of Nazareth without reading what follows in this week’s lesson. I would only add that Jesus employs scripture here in precisely the way I believe preachers should. Recall that last week Jesus boldly proclaimed how Isaiah’s declaration of salvation for the poor, oppressed and blind was being fulfilled through his mission. In this week’s lesson, he appeals to two very well known stories in the Hebrew Scriptures to shed light upon Nazareth’s rejection of his mission. This is not the first time Israel has rejected a prophet sent to her. Elijah and Elisha both were persecuted by Israel’s royal establishment and lived part of their lives as fugitives. But their rejection, so far from thwarting their ministry, resulted in expanding the scope of their work beyond Israel’s borders. The widow who showed mercy on Elijah during his exile and Naaman the Syrian general who came to Elisha for healing experienced the salvation of Israel’s God. Consequently, God’s name was praised among the gentiles. So too, Nazareth’s rejection of Jesus will only further his mission and propel his saving acts further into the heart of Israel. In the same way, the persecution of the church in Jerusalem will spread the preaching of the gospel by the church into new territories. Acts 8:1-4.