Bruce Prewer

time to grow up?

“Into my heart, into my heart, / Come into my heart, Lord Jesus; / Come in today, come in to stay, / Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.”  This chorus is popular with the young ones.  (Or so I’ve been told!)  It expresses the fond and dear desire for Jesus to take up residence within us.

The gospel of John and the book of Revelation each call Jesus the Word (Jn 1:14, Rv 19:13).  Jesus is the Word of God.  Not pushing the metaphor too far, but we can see Jesus as the word who enters into us and dwells in our heart, as the request in the chorus goes.

0 jr

[photo by Daan Stevens on Unsplash]

Someone who knows about the word being consumed is the prophet Jeremiah.  I’ll get back to that in a moment.  First, I have a story to tell.

Jeremiah was born and received his call to be a prophet during the time that Josiah was king.  Josiah was a good king; it was important for him to be faithful to Yahweh, the Lord.

It just so happens that some of his officials were doing spring cleaning in the temple.  They were digging through some knick-knacks and thingamajigs.  We’ve all done that.  One of them stumbled upon a scroll that caught his eye.  Upon examining it, he announced, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord” (2 Kg 22:8).  They brought it to Josiah, and it was read to him.  (On a side note, it’s believed that the book made up much of what we call Deuteronomy, but that’s a story for another time!)

The king was alarmed, because they hadn’t been doing what was written in it.  So they sought the counsel of Huldah the prophetess.  She said, “You’re right, boys, we’ve really screwed up.  We’ve got to our act together, or we’re in for some bad times.”  After hearing that, Josiah instituted a program of ridding the land of all the pagan altars and pagan priests.  That was the world Jeremiah grew up in.  Now back to eating the word.

When he was called as a young man, Jeremiah reports, “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.  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’” (1:9-10).  We’ll hear more about that later.

1 jr

Jeremiah’s life was ery hard—in fact, it was horrible.  We see in the book several times when he bitterly complained to the Lord about his fate.  One time he even accused the Lord of tricking him, of deceiving him, and he said, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart” (15:16).  The word of the Lord entered his heart, only to prove to be the source of great misfortune.

Jeremiah had such a crummy life because he was the bearer of bad news.  The Babylonians are on the way, and there’s nothing we can do about it.  We might as well get used to it.  What we can do is to return to the Lord.  (King Josiah’s efforts proved to be unsuccessful.)

Long story short, the prophet was considered an enemy of the state, and he was treated accordingly.  He was ruining the morale of the troops.  He was ridiculed, beaten, tortured, imprisoned.

But finally, Jeremiah has some good news.  After all the mayhem, the land will be restored.  It will be livable for both humans and animals.  And in a fulfillment of Jeremiah’s call, the Lord “will watch over them to build and to plant” (v. 28).  Nonetheless, in the process of rebuilding and replanting, there are some things that have to go.

This is going back a few years, back to the 1970s.  There was a TV show my parents liked to watch, The Flip Wilson Show.  He portrayed a character that turned out to be the one most people liked, Geraldine.  Probably her best-known line was, “The devil made me do it!”

2 jrWhat a great line.  You can absolve yourself—you can forgive yourself—of any deed if you can pin the blame on anything or anyone else, including the devil!

In Jeremiah’s time, there’s a saying the people use that falls into the category of “things that have to go.”  “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (v. 29).  I can’t say I’ve ever eaten sour grapes, but I have bitten into lemons on many occasions.  (When I was a kid and we were at a restaurant, I liked to take the lemon slice in a glass of water and eat it.)

What kind of face do you make when you eat something sour?  One way of describing it is having your teeth set on edge.

The point of the saying is, “We aren’t to blame for our actions.  We had no choice; we’re paying for the sins of our parents and those who came before them.”  If they can’t say, “The devil made me do it,” they still have a good excuse.  They can still shift the blame from themselves.

However, in some sense, they are not altogether wrong.  If we think of a family system, there are things we inherit—certain behaviors, ways of looking at the world.  That can be for better or worse.  Maybe we come from a background in which we were encouraged, we were nurtured, we were allowed to dream.  Problems were dealt with in more or less constructive ways.  It doesn’t mean everything was perfect by any measure.  We are imperfect, incomplete humans, but on the whole, there were primarily positive things to pass on.

Sometimes things don’t go so well.  If our background is one in which violence, abuse (of whatever kind), and pessimism pervaded, we can learn that’s just how life goes.  Though, the negative stuff doesn’t have to be that severe.  There can be unresolved grief, ways in which reality isn’t dealt with, harmful secrets.  So in that sense, our background really can affect our behavior.

But the prophet says, “That’s not good enough!”  “But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge” (v. 30).  You can’t use that excuse forever.  You are responsible for your own actions.  You have to pay the piper!  That can sound pretty harsh, but the good news is they aren’t left to work it out for themselves.  The good news begins in verse 31.

A whole new world opens up.  A grace not yet known is promised.  “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.”  “The days are surely coming.”  There is wide disagreement as to what that precisely means.  One thing seems clear, though: a new covenant will emerge from destruction and exile.  By the way, this is the only place in the entire Old Testament where the term “new covenant” appears.

As Christians, we obviously see Jesus as the fulfillment, the embodiment, of the new covenant, the new testament.  Still, we shouldn’t jump ahead.  We need to see what that meant to Jeremiah and the people of his time.  The message continues, “It 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” (v. 32).

Something we often do is to regard the Ten Commandments, for example, as a list of rules to obey.  There’s much more going on.  It’s not simply a bunch of “dos” and “don’ts.”  It is a vision of the blessed life, a life lived in the harmony of shalom.  Faithfulness to the Lord looks like this.  That’s the message of the prophets.  It comes from the heart.  But we need help in that!  We need help in persevering.

3 jrSo here we go: “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” (v. 33).

I will write it on their hearts.  The late Bruce Prewer referred to that as “divine graffiti.”[1]  What will this divine graffiti accomplish?  “No 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” (v. 34).  With God’s word written on their hearts, they will not need to teach other to know the Lord.

It will be from the least to the greatest.  Everyone’s invited!  Here’s how Eugene Peterson put it in his paraphrase, The Message: “They will no longer go around setting up schools to teach each other about God.  They’ll know me firsthand, the dull and the bright, the smart and the slow.”

This is the heart of Jeremiah’s vision.  When God’s word is written on the heart, everyone will understand.

Now, depending on their disposition, there’s a class of people who might not welcome such an arrangement.  They might think it’s a raw deal.  David Rhymer calls this a “dangerous exercise of prophetic imagination.”[2]  Why should it be called dangerous?

Have you ever had a teacher who did not want their position questioned or presented with another viewpoint?  Maybe it was someone whose ego was too bound up in his or her work?  Maybe we could say they were too big for their britches!

4 jrI once had a history professor who invited students to ask him about the subject matter, claiming, “I know all.”  Admittedly, he was saying it with a bit of humor, but it was clear he felt he would not have any trouble answering any question.  One student was wondering about something, and it was obvious our teacher didn’t know the answer.  He fumbled a bit and responded, “Well, it would have been such-and-such.”  He was basically guessing.  (Having said all that, I really came to like the guy!)

Getting back to the text, the religious leaders might simply reject out of hand Jeremiah’s word, his assertion of what one day shall be.  It’s their job to read and interpret God’s word, and it’s the people’s job to “simply listen and do as they were told without question.”[3]

Their job is to sit down and shut up.

When God’s word is written on our hearts, everyone is treated with care and respect.  Everyone is treated as the sisters and brothers we truly are.  Everyone is valued.  As the prophet Joel reports of the Lord, “Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit” (2:28-29).

When the Spirit fills our hearts, our petty divisions are erased.  No longer will be build walls.  Going along with verses 35 to 37, with all of those cosmic promises, it will last until the end of time!

So, to recap: following the disaster, the people are promised a new day, but they can’t blame their forebears for their hard times.  It’s true; those who’ve gone before might have set the stage in ways that are difficult, even catastrophic.  Still, it has to be said, there comes a point when it’s time to grow up.  When that happens, the promise is there will be the grace to see it through.  Actually, there is the grace like never before, as said earlier, one not yet known.

5 jr
When the Lord writes on our hearts, we are forgiven, now and forever.

“Into my heart, into my heart, / Come into my heart, Lord Jesus; / Come in today, come in to stay, / Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.”  It might sound trite and cute, but there is immense depth.  The next step is ours.

 

[1] www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C58sun29.htm

[2] David Rhymer, “Jeremiah 31:31-34,” Interpretation 59:3 (July 2005), 295.

[3] Rhymer, 295.


who do you think you are?

I want to begin with a question.  How many of you can think of someone from your past, maybe even early childhood, who for you is summed up by a certain image or incident?

1 mk{Is this fellow summed up by a single image?}

Let me give an example.  When I was in second grade, there was a kid in my class named Jon.  For some strange reason, he would turn his eyelids inside out.  The first time he did it, it scared me, and I started crying.  That was a mistake!  Once he saw that, he made a point of turning his eyelids inside out and then trying to get my attention.  I don’t recall crying anymore, but it still freaked me out.

And to this day, that’s the image I have of Jon.  He was the creepy kid who would turn his eyelids inside out.  Forever and ever, that is who he is!

It’s a common thing, really, to go from our memory and decide that we have them figured out.

In the gospel reading from Mark 6, Jesus goes back to his hometown and encounters something like this.  We’re told, “On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded.  They said, ‘Where did this man get all this?  What is this wisdom that has been given to him?  What deeds of power are being done by his hands!  Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’  And they took offense at him” (vv. 2-3).

Brian Stoffregen has said, “It is essentially their knowledge of Jesus that keeps them from really knowing and benefiting from [him].  Could this be a warning to all people who think that they know Jesus, but, in fact, may misunderstand and reject the real Jesus?”[1]

I think there’s more truth in this than we would like to admit.  We can possess plenty of Jesus “trinkets.”  We can be acquainted with Jesus.  In fact, we can know quite a bit about Jesus…without knowing Jesus.

2 mkThe people in Jesus’ hometown thought they knew him.  They remember when he was “knee high to a grasshopper”!  And this recent behavior has them confused.  Isn’t he the carpenter?  What’s he doing acting like a rabbi?  Who does he think he is?

The Greek word translated as “carpenter” is τεκτων (tektōn), but it has more than one meaning.  It can refer to any “artisan” or “craftsman.”  It can even mean “artist,” like a sculptor.  So we’re not entirely sure that Jesus was a carpenter, but it’s a pretty safe bet.

The point is, in the eyes of the local folks, he wasn’t staying in his place.  Jesus wasn’t sticking to what they always thought he would—or should—be!  “And they took offense at him.”  The word is σκανδαλιζω (skandalizō), which means they were scandalized by him.  But that’s putting it mildly.

In chapter 4 of his gospel, Luke does better than Mark in capturing anger at Jesus: “When they heard [him], all in the synagogue were filled with rage” (v. 28).  They go ballistic.  They’re so mad that they want to throw Jesus off a cliff, but he slips away before they can execute their plan (and him)!

Something else to notice is that Jesus is called “the son of Mary.”  In their culture, men carry the names of their fathers, such as “James son of Zebedee.”  Referring to Jesus as “the son of Mary” is a not-so-veiled way of saying that he is illegitimate.  We see a suggestion of it again in John 8:41.

It’s been noted that “the refusal—or inability—of Jesus’ neighbors to accept his status confirms what [we’ve seen so] far: the world’s standards of judgment appear to run headlong into God’s ways.  Jesus does not measure up.”[2]

3 mk

It’s not like Jesus is deliberately being stubborn.  He’s not doing things simply for shock value.  But he recognizes the unjust nature of so many of his culture’s traditions.  And that often includes the role of the family.  Jesus sees that “there is a higher priority than family power and obligation.”  William Loader has suggested, “Family power, meant to empower one to independent adulthood, frequently aborts the process, and becomes a source of oppression.”[3]

This surely is no surprise to any of you.  We all know people, and families, who have squashed the dreams and gifts of one of their own.  This can be done actively:  through ridicule or even abuse.  Or it can be done passively: through neglect or lack of encouragement.  Some of you might have firsthand experience with this.

Jesus has a very different take on family values.  In Mark 3, he asks, “‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’  And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’” (vv. 33-35).

Our Lord models for us a new way of being a family.  (And I would say, a better way of being a family.)  It’s been said, “That may well mean leaving the natural family behind, a revolutionary thought—and a healthy one.”[4]  That’s what the church should be: a family at a deeper and more profound level than those tied to us by blood.  (But then, perhaps it’s the blood of Christ which ties us together!)

Verses 4 to 6 tell us that “Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’  And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.  And he was amazed at their unbelief.”  He was amazed, astonished, dumbfounded.

Their minds are already made up about him.  They prefer the picture they have in their heads, as opposed to the living Jesus.  That’s what they’re comfortable with.  They think they have him all figured out.  One of my favorite bands, King’s X, sang, “There is no room inside a box!”  That’s no place for Jesus—or for those who, in second grade, turned their eyelids inside out!

The late Bruce Prewer commented, “The low expectations from within one’s locality, not only underrate the gifts and possibilities of a ‘local,’ but can also actively inhibit the development of such gifts. Numerous people have been grossly restricted by the low expectations of those around them. Many have to go elsewhere to be truly be themselves.

4 mk

“As I see it, fostering low expectations is one of the devil’s most canny stratagems.”  Who do you think you are?

People with “low expectations can inhibit or constrict your enlarging identity in Christ.  They rarely notice your developing gifts, or give you gracious affirmation in your accomplishments.”[5]  They’re the ones who are sure to pour cold water on the things that make for life—the things that foster joy and hope.  Although, I suppose we all do that, at least on occasion.  But there are people who seem to be expert at it.

Sometimes, low expectations appear as wolves in sheep’s clothing.  They come to us cloaked as otherwise good and even noble considerations.  How many genuine promptings from God (not personal agendas) get buried amid concerns that we’ve never done it that way before…or we can’t afford it…or we should assign that to a committee and let them study it for the next few months?

“Be lofty in your expectations for yourselves and for other Christians, and be generous with yourself and with them when you stumble.  A stumble does not characterize your true future, but Jesus Christ does.”[6]

If it feels like I’m saying, “do more,” that’s not it.  It’s not enough to simply be busy.  Instead, what does God ask?  Mark tells us about the instructions Jesus gives to his disciples.  I like how Eugene Peterson paraphrased verse 12: “They preached with joyful urgency that life can be radically different.”  That’s his take on the message of repentance.

As I move towards my conclusion, I want to share with you something attributed to Nelson Mandela.  It actually appears in a work by Marianne Williamson.  Still, it sounds like something Mandela would have quoted!

5 mk

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,” she writes.  “Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?  Actually, who are you not to be?  You are a child of God.  Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.  There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you.  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.  It is not in just some of us; it is in everyone.  And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give people permission to do the same.  As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”[7]

So… who are you to tell someone that Jesus loves them?  Who are you to feed the hungry?  Who are you to speak against torture?  Who are you to visit the sick and those in jail?  Who are you to bring hope to the hopeless?  Who are you to tell people that their sin has been forgiven?  Who do you think you are?

You are a child of God, and so am I.

 

[1] www.crossmarks.com/brian/mark6x1.htm

[2] www.crossmarks.com/brian/mark6x1.htm

[3] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MkPentecost7Ord14.html

[4] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MkPentecost7Ord14.html

[5] www.bruceprewer.com/DocB/BSUNDAY14.htm

[6] www.bruceprewer.com/DocB/BSUNDAY14.htm

[7] marianne.com/a-return-to-love


the fox and the hen

When I was in seminary, one of my professors was talking about sermons.  (I confess, I don’t remember who it was!)  He was commenting on how the usual approach many people have is to make three points.  (There’s a saying some people quote on occasion: “three points and a poem.”)  He said he doesn’t bother with three points; he has enough to do with one point!  He figured if he could deliver a sermon with at least one thing to take away from it, then he did his job.

Our gospel reading in Luke has neither one nor three points; it has two points!  They involve a fox and a hen.  There’s another saying along the lines of a fox guarding the hen house.  (My inspiration for the sermon title.)  That would be an unfortunate scenario for those living in the house!

1 lk 13

{Foxy, our dog from long ago--not the "fox"}

As we begin with verse 31, we hear, “At that very hour some Pharisees” show up and give Jesus a warning.  What’s going on right before this?  According to Luke, Jesus is going “through one town and village after another, teaching as he [makes] his way to Jerusalem” (v. 22).  His theme is, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able” (v. 24).

The stage is set.  The Pharisees accost him after he enters the city.  They tell him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

Herod has been hearing things about him.  We’re told “he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the ancient prophets had arisen.  Herod said, ‘John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?’  And he tried to see him” (9:7-9).  I’m sure he has nothing but good intentions!

This Herod, Herod Antipas, is the son of Herod the Great.  This is the Herod who ordered the massacre of the Holy Innocents, the slain little boys of Bethlehem, in his mad attempt to stamp out the young Jesus.

Herod Antipas first had John the Baptist arrested because he denounced his marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias (3:19-20).  That was a big no-no.  Later at his birthday party, when the daughter of Herodias was dancing, he drunkenly asked what she wanted.  After consulting with her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter” (Mt 14:6-8).

It appears that bloodlust runs in the family!

2 lk 13

We don’t know if the Pharisees are giving Jesus a good faith warning.  Are they sincerely concerned about his safety?  Or do they want him to get the heck out of Dodge because, to put it lightly, they just don’t like him?  Herod having put Jesus on his hit list would be a convenient excuse.  Either way, that should be enough for Jesus to heed their warning, “Hit the road, Jack.”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work.  Jesus is undaunted.  He wants the Pharisees to give “that fox” a message.  Herod is a fox.  He is cunning and sly.  He’s one slippery devil.  He’s a sneaky one.  But calling someone a fox can also mean that they’re unimportant, not worth getting all hot and bothered.  It is not a compliment!

Jesus wants them to tell him he’s going to be “casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work” (v. 32).  I’m going to keep doing what I do.  Jesus refuses to be diverted, even though he probably knows this won’t end well.

The late Bruce Prewer said, “This is no pretty-boy Jesus, no sentimental dreamer.  Jesus knew the score.  He mourned the bloody death of cousin John.  But he was not going to be intimidated.  He was a man in charge of his own destiny.  A tough Jesus.  ‘Go tell that fox I will move on when I am ready.  Not before.’”[1]

I’m reminded of the apostle Paul in Philippi when he was unjustly arrested, beaten, and thrown in jail (Ac 16:35-40).  When the officials found out he was a Roman citizen, they were scared because they didn’t give him his due process.  As a citizen, he had rights they violated.  They sent word to have him released, but Paul demanded they come and tell him to his face.

3 lk 13

Maybe that’s enough about the fox.  Let’s move on to the hen!

In this section, Jesus begins by lamenting the history of Jerusalem—how it has seen the murder of so many prophets.  Here’s a little sample: Uriah (Jr 26:23), Zechariah (2 Ch 24:20-22), those killed by King Manasseh (2 Kg 21:16), and we could go on.  As Eugene Peterson puts it, “it’s not proper for a prophet to come to a bad end outside Jerusalem” (v. 33).

The heart of Jesus is broken.  He pours out his soul in sorrow.  He has longed to gather the people of Jerusalem; he has ached.  He has wanted to protect them under his wing.  Applying feminine imagery to himself, Jesus has wanted to be their mother hen.  To continue the metaphor, the people have been wayward chicks, refusing the care of mother.  This is a true picture of anguish.

A moment ago, I mentioned how I was reminded of the apostle Paul.  Now the prophet Jeremiah comes to mind.  He has been called “the weeping prophet.”

He cries out, “Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there?  Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?  O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (8:22-9:1).

Jesus finishes by telling the disobedient people “your house is left to you” (v. 35).  There’s the suggestion that it’s been left desolate, in a state of disorder.  Some say he’s referring to the Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans.

It’s a picture of abandonment.  That’s what happens to us when we choose, so to speak, to reject the protection of the mother hen.  We are left at the mercy of the fox.

4 lk 13

{"Jeremiah" by Michelangelo}

I don’t know about you, but to me this scripture passage sounds rather grim.  We have threats, a city with a dark side, warnings of destruction, and oh yes, murder.  It might not be the best bedtime reading!

Luke has one more nugget of misfortune.  He ends the chapter with a dire prediction by Jesus.  He says they won’t see him “until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”  This is the line from Psalm 118 which the crowds cry out as Jesus makes his entry into Jerusalem.  That verse chanted on the first Palm Sunday is part of our liturgy.  Luke is giving us a little preview of things to come.

Palm Sunday is a strange holiday.  It has so much praising, and if you didn’t know what would unfold in the coming days, it would be a time of genuine celebration.

Still, Jesus’ pronouncement is about more than Palm Sunday.  It’s about a more fundamental reality.  It goes back to the rejection of the Lord in general.  I trust I’m not overstating this, but there is a very real sense of not being able to see the Lord until and unless our lives say, “Blessed is the one.”

Regarding this scripture reading, as you see, this is one that is used during Lent.  I described it as grim.  Many folks think of Lent as grim.

Benedictine sister Joan Chittister has a different take on it.  “Lent is the time for trimming the soul,” she says, “and scraping the sludge off a life turned slipshod…  Lent is about exercising the control that enables us to say no to ourselves so that when life turns hard of its own accord, we have the spiritual stamina to say yes to its twists and turns with faith and with hope…  Lent is the time to make new efforts to be what we say we want to be.”[2]

More than any one single theme, the Lenten journey is about repentance.  We all need to repent.  The need for repentance doesn’t mean we’re bad.  The word “repentance” in Greek (μετανοια, metanoia) means “a change of mind” or “a turning around.”  It’s a turning from death to life.

5 lk 13How does the image of the fox and the hen figure into that?  Earlier I said a fox guarding the hen house would be unfortunate—at least for the chickens!

Between the fox and the hen, the fox is clearly the strong one.  The hen is the weak one.  The hen is no match for the fox.  And yet, despite the determination (and the hunger) of the fox, the mother hen still defends her young as best she can.  The odds are seriously stacked against her.

The mother hen is the picture of weakness and sorrow.  It’s kind of like Jesus surveying Jerusalem.  He is helpless in the face of intransigence.

If he wanted to, Jesus could have chosen a different image to represent himself.  Instead of a mother hen, he could have been a dread warrior, wielding a battle axe—I dare you to defy me!  But that isn’t the way of Jesus.  Like Jesus, Lent calls us to lay down our arms, to be unguarded, vulnerable, to indeed, repent.  I’m not saying to forswear certain physical things during these forty days, but allowing ourselves to be unguarded, to be vulnerable, to lower our defenses—that really is a challenge.

Still, remember who our Lord is.  He reigns in weakness.  He is the lamb upon the throne.  (Sure, that’s the image we all have of a king: a helpless lamb on a throne!)  He upends our usual expectations.  He is the very picture of vulnerability.  He ignores the fox, be it Herod or anyone else.  He is the mother hen, willing to sacrifice himself (or herself?) to protect the baby chicks.

That is the challenge of Lent.  That is the reward of Lent.  If you haven’t already fully entered into the Lenten season, it isn’t too late.  Remember, it “is the time to make new efforts to be what we say we want to be.”

 

[1] www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C21lent2.htm

[2] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 136.


have I got an investment for you!

I’m sure we’ve all had someone come to us and say (or maybe we’ve said to someone else), “I’ve got good news and bad news.  Which do you want to hear first?”  Is it the good news or the bad news?

Here’s my guess.  Those who want the good news first might want to soften the blow for the bad news.  The idea is that the good news will put them in a good enough mood to deal with the bad news.

On the other hand, those who want the bad news first might see the value of delayed gratification.  Getting the bad news out of the way, steeling oneself to weather the storm, seems to be a good way of getting ready for relief.

Cat

Of course, it also depends on what the other person considers to be good news and bad news!

And then there can be the situation of deciding between the lesser of two evils, or the good problem of deciding between two happy alternatives.

Today’s Old Testament reading comes from the book of Jeremiah.  For those of you unfamiliar with it, that book has very few happy alternatives.  It has a lot of bad news!  The life of the prophet Jeremiah is filled with bad news.  Today’s passage has plenty of bad news.  But don’t worry, good news is on the way.  We’ll look at that in a few moments.

Here’s a quick look at Jeremiah and his world.

He lives in the late 7th century and early 6th century B.C.  (That’s the 600s to the 500s.)  The Babylonians are replacing the Assyrians as the superpower in the Middle East.  The northern kingdom of Israel has already been conquered by Assyria, but the southern kingdom of Judah, where Jeremiah lives, is still ripe for the picking.

Thanks to the call of God, which he tries to refuse, Jeremiah sees the writing on the wall.  The Babylonians are on the way.  So there’s some bad news.  He speaks against the corruption that has infected religious and political leadership alike. He does the prophetic job of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

And boy, does he pay for that.  He is mocked, made a laughing stock, physically abused, and even tossed in jail.  On more than one occasion, Jeremiah blames God for tricking him and betraying him.  It’s not for nothing that he’s been called “the weeping prophet.”

Jeremiah’s relationship with King Zedekiah can best be described as “complicated.”  (That sounds like a lot of romantic relationships!)  Unlike a previous king, Jehoiakim, who clearly hated the ground Jeremiah walked on, Zedekiah is torn.  He wants to listen to him, but he’s too afraid of what his enemies might do.  So he keeps going to Jeremiah, hoping he’ll change his tune.  “Come on, throw me a bone!  Tell me everything’s going to be fine!”  And Jeremiah would love to do that, but he can’t resist the call of God.

As a result, the prophet keeps on with the bad news: arming against the Babylonians is a no-win scenario.

I don’t know if she mentioned this to you, but Banu and I love vampires.  We love those bloodsuckers!  In fact, it was a TV show about vampires that helped bring us together in the first place.  It was the show Forever Knight, which was about a vampire police officer in Toronto.  We even like the Twilight movies, but my big complaint is that sunlight is supposed to burn vampires, not cause them to sparkle dreamily and take your breath away!

There’s a current TV show called The Strain, which is about people in New York City fighting an army of vampire-like creatures.  (It is not at all romantic!)  In the last episode, there was a quote that I think could easily be directed at Jeremiah.  The quote comes from a member of the city council to a reporter who is questioning police tactics.  People in jails are being gathered up and conscripted.  They’re being sent into the tunnels under the city to fight the vampires—and without a great deal of success, I might add.

Here’s what the council member says to the reporter: “Faith in the war effort is paramount.  And what you’re doing here undercuts all that.  Your work does nothing but serve your ego and cause me and my people more harm.”  After that, all of the equipment gets confiscated.

Obviously, the enemies Jeremiah warns about are not a horde of vampires!  But he is considered a traitor, and he is arrested for treason.  He’s said to be damaging the morale of the nation.  There seems to be a silent minority who agree with Jeremiah, but they’re too intimidated to speak out.  We’re only told about one person who publicly stands with Jeremiah, his secretary and friend, Baruch.  Zedekiah the king would like to release the prophet, but as I said earlier, he’s too scared.

In today’s scripture reading, he’s puzzled and terrified when he says to Jeremiah, “Why do you prophesy and say: Thus says the Lord: I am going to give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall take it; King Zedekiah of Judah shall not escape out of the hands of the Chaldeans, but shall surely be given into the hands of the king of Babylon?” (vv. 3-4).

It’s while he’s in prison that God makes him a sales pitch.  “Have I got an investment for you!”

Glengarry glen ross

I’m sure those of you who’ve been involved in real estate have always conducted yourselves above board.  You wouldn’t stoop to shady practices that some realtors use as their business model.  There’s none of the conveniently forgetting some repairs that need to be made.

Jeremiah is told that his cousin, Hanamel, is on his way to visit him in jail, and he has a proposition.  “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours” (v. 7).  That “right of redemption” refers to Leviticus 25.  It’s a way to keep ownership of property within the family.

Put yourself in Jeremiah’s place.  He’s in jail for pronouncing national destruction, and then he gets this message.  Binyamin Lau says it must seem like “a surreal hallucination.”[1]  Am I hearing voices, and what are those voices telling me to do?

When your country is being invaded, when it’s a time of war, when people are being sent into exile, real estate prices tend to take a nosedive.  God had already warned him that his cousin was going to offer him land—land that Jeremiah had to know would be insanely overpriced.  Hanamel was about to make a killing off this sale!  And yet, he was compelled to make the purchase.

(By the way, Hanamel will have quite a story to tell at the next family reunion.)

God isn’t bound by what we consider to be immutable laws of economics.  Laws of supply and demand aren’t a high priority for God.

So while he’s going through the business of payment and signing deeds, Jeremiah must feel like he’s being a fool.  So there’s some more bad news.  But in verse 15, we get some good news.  “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”  There will be people who return from exile.

Even so, that’s not good enough for Jeremiah.  “Lord, I know you can do anything, but how in the world is this going to happen?”  The rest of chapter 32 is taken up with explanations.

Have we ever been in that situation?  Have we ever been given what feels like an albatross around the neck, and thought, what the heck am I going to do with this?  Why did I volunteer for this?  Or why did I let myself get drafted into this?  In life, so many decisions are beyond our control.  I think all of us understand that.  Jeremiah certainly does.

As congregations, we understand that.  You folks understand that.  You have some real estate questions of your own.  Some of you might feel like you have an albatross around your neck!

But like I just said, whatever “piece of land,” whatever call from God we’ve had to answer, can give us that feeling of the bottom dropping out.  We can feel like we’re left out on a limb.  There’s something in the pit of our stomach that’s doing somersaults.  And friends, that is bad news!

In case you haven’t guessed by now, I’m one of those people who wants the bad news first.  Just hit me with it!  I want the bad news first, because then I know the good news is right around the corner!

You might not realize it, but you’re sitting on a gold mine.  And I’m not just talking about bricks and mortar.  I’m not just talking about a piece of land.  That’s a discovery Jeremiah made.  When he bought that field from his cousin, it came with a promise from his God.  Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.  There are many layers of truth in that promise.  Still, unless Jeremiah takes that step of faith, he won’t be part of that good news.

On another occasion, when Jeremiah writes a letter to the exiles in Babylon, he reminds them of God’s word, in that “surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (29:11).  That’s a pledge we also can, and should, claim.

Australian pastor Bruce Prewer puts a question to us.  “Isn’t this a very good time to buy a block of Jeremiah’s land?”[2]

Jeremiah icon

From the darkness of prison, God shows Jeremiah the light of the good news.  It’s right around the corner.  Prewer adds, “Jeremiah would not live to see the new day, but it was promised by a God whose word was never broken.”  Some people say that Jeremiah is the most Christ-like of the prophets.  Like Jesus, he doesn’t welcome all the suffering that’s dished out to him, but he holds true.

Friends, Jeremiah might not have seen that new day, but it is dawning upon us.  The field of the prophet is again up for sale.  God is again making the promise to us.  “Have I got an investment for you!”

Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

 

[1] Binyamin Lau, Jeremiah: The Fate of a Prophet, trans. Sara Daniel (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2013), Kindle edition, Part 3, section 3, sub-section 11, paragraph 5.

[2] www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C55sun26.htm


imagination and love

I want to begin with some quick stories about my own calling, about vocation.

image from 4.bp.blogspot.com
Two of them go back to when I was in the Assemblies of God.  The first one involves my pastor.  He told me one time that if I could possibly avoid becoming a pastor, then I shouldn’t do it.  I thought to myself that’s some easy advice to take!  I had absolutely no intention of doing his job.  The idea of pastoral ministry was not at all appealing to me.

I still felt the same way when I went to the Assemblies of God Bible college.  I just wanted to study the Bible and learn some theology.  My second story comes from a conversation I had at that school.

One of my professors had an autistic son.  (By the way, it was his class on Jeremiah that helped sparked my love of the prophet!)  He contacted the denominational headquarters to see if they had something along the lines of Sunday school lessons or any material he could use with his son.  When they responded “no” to him, he took it pretty hard.

Now, he had graduated from the Presbyterian seminary near Atlanta.  His advice to me was that, if I ever sought ordination, I should do so with the Presbyterian Church.  Again, that was easy advice to take and reject, because I still didn’t give a fig about being a pastor.

The third story comes from when I was at seminary in Philadelphia.  Again, I still was not interested in being a pastor!  I was in a two-year program, the Master of Arts with an emphasis on Faith and Public Policy.  I liked the idea of a combination of spirituality and politics.  As the time for graduation approached, no doors for opportunity were open.  I was feeling a bit depressed.

One night, Banu and I were going to have dinner with some friends of hers.  On the way, I was telling her my sob story.  She suggested that I go into the Master of Divinity program, which is the one for pastors.  Suddenly, everything made sense.  Of course I had always wanted to be a pastor; I just didn’t want to admit it!

For someone who claimed that he was not at all interested in pastoral ministry, I was certainly taking deliberate steps in that direction.  God has a wonderful sense of humor.

If it seems that I resisted my calling, it’s nothing compared to what we see with Jeremiah.  He has been appointed a prophet, not only to his own people, but also “to the nations.”  The Lord tells him that this has been the plan since before he was even born (v. 5).

How does Jeremiah react?  Is he jumping for joy?  Does he say, “Sign me up!”?  Not exactly.  “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”  We’re reminded of Moses at the burning bush.  Moses tries to explain to God that he isn’t the right guy for the job, and he even provides a laundry list of excuses to make his case! (Ex 3-4).  Surprisingly, God isn’t convinced.

Still, the sense of inability—the feeling that we’ll just screw it up—when asked to do something for God can actually be a good thing.  Bruce Epperly says that, in the Bible, “one mark of an authentic prophet is a protest of inadequacy when she or he is called to speak [on] behalf of God.  People don’t run for prophetic leadership as they do for public office; they are called, often against their will, to speak on God’s behalf in challenging situations.”[1]

That sense of inability, of failure, might be a pretty good sign of “faithfulness and spiritual well-being.”  Author Madeleine L’Engle when asked, “‘Do you believe in God without any doubts?’ [is quoted as replying], ‘I believe in God with all of my doubts.’”[2]

Jeremiah lives at a time when the Babylonian hammer is about to fall on Judah.  People are nervous.  And at the same time, corruption and idolatry are everywhere.  As the prophet of the Lord, Jeremiah is given the task of opposing injustice—speaking truth to power.  As true prophets do, his job is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.

One of the things I really love about this book is Jeremiah’s brutal honesty about his calling and ministry.  In verse 8, we get a little taste of things to come when the Lord says to him, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.”  I like the way Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “I’ll tell you where to go and you’ll go there.  I’ll tell you what to say and you’ll say it.  Don’t be afraid of a soul.  I’ll be right there, looking after you” (vv. 7b-8).  I’ll be your teleprompter; stick to the script.

Jeremiah knows that trouble is in store for him.  It’s not for nothing that he has been called “the weeping prophet.”

image from mshowalter.files.wordpress.com

I think that hearing about Jeremiah and his struggles opens the door to questions we don’t often entertain.  What have been our own conflicts, our own struggles, in God’s call on our lives?  Have we been able to put it into words?  Do we understand what it means to be called?

Going back to what I said earlier about calling: at the most basic level, we are called to hear the word of God, however it comes to us, and to respond.  That response must be in love and clothed in prayer.  Jeremiah loves his people.  That’s one reason why it is so agonizing for him to say what he does.

Think of how different it is among us today.  Binyamin Lau speaks of this when he says that true prophets must indeed “love [their] people.  Even when the harshest reproach is called for, [prophets] must consider [themselves divine emissaries] whose role is to help redeem the people, not to stand aloof and condemn.”[3]  (Not to stay at a safe distance and lob hand grenades!)

He goes on with something I think we all see.  “Indeed, journalists today take on the role of moral and social critics, though more often than not their criticism is laced with the venom of loathing.  Criticism based on love, of the kind that distinguished Jeremiah, is not often found.”  I fear that I find myself too often playing that role.

Too often, I find myself lacking in imagination and love.  And what a good segue to my title!

In our Presbyterian Book of Order, there are questions posed to those being ordained and installed (W-4.4003).  This goes for ruling elders, deacons, or teaching elders (also known as ministers of the Word and Sacrament).  Among the questions are trusting in Jesus Christ as Savior, receiving the essential tenets of the Reformed faith, and promising to abide by our church’s polity.  My title points to the final one: “Will you pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?”

Will we pray for and seek to serve the people with energy—with desire and passion, and not in a lackluster way?

…with intelligence—with our best thinking, and not just going with the flow?  And then those last two:

…with imagination—with our creativity, and not being afraid to dream?

…with love—which sums everything up, everything that is good and faithful and, indeed, holy?

Will we serve lovingly as a privilege, and not grudgingly as a burden?  (Although to be honest, at times “lovingly” might not be foremost in our minds!)

As I suggested earlier, all of us are called, whether or not we’ve been ordained to a position within the church.  In the life of faith, each one of us is called by God.

Again, there’s some good stuff in our Book of Order on this.  “[We] respond to God’s call to honor and serve God in every aspect of human life…  God hallows daily life, and daily life provides opportunity for holy living.  As Christians honor and serve God in daily life, they worship God.  For Christians, work and worship cannot be separated.” (W-5.6002-3)

As Christians honor and serve God in daily life, they worship God.

Bruce Prewer tells the story of a woman who cleaned city offices in downtown Melbourne.[4]  She worked long nights, with her shift ending at 7am.  She would be bone tired, exhausted, as she headed down the busy street to catch her train home.

“Although weary, she walked with a perky step, for she was one of those special people who believed she was called to [be] Christ’s cleaner in those offices where she spent the long hours of night.

“She knew herself as called by Jesus and she hoped she had done him proud.  As she encountered hordes of people [pouring out] from the station to start work, many of them impatient, sour and grumbling, she held her head high with a dignity only the God of Jesus Christ could bestow.  She cherished her vocation.”

This is a woman who knew she was called, and she answered her call with imagination and love.

We here in this congregation are called by God, and we have the opportunity and privilege to respond with imagination and love.  Especially in this interim time, there is the chance to dream of untapped potential.  We can ask, “Why do we do this?  Do we still need to do this?  Is there another way to do this?  Is there a better way to serve that holy spirit of imagination and love?” image from thecostaricanews.com

Sometimes we might get impatient.  We get impatient with this business of proceeding with a deliberate and intentional process.  We might not see the wisdom in it.  We might think it’s useless.  “What are we waiting for?  Let’s get on with finding our new pastor!”

Would it surprise you to realize we’re more like Jeremiah than we think?  We can chafe and grumble about our call.  Of course, the comparison with Jeremiah might be overstated a bit.  God probably doesn’t need to say, “I am with you to deliver you.  Don’t be afraid of a soul.  I’ll be right there, looking after you.”

Having said that, whether it’s impatience with the interim process as a congregation or our own individual calls, God is there.  Whether it’s our call as a community to move ahead in faith—or our very real concerns about reaching out to that certain person, about gut-wrenching decisions on health or employment, about knowing that there’s something we really don’t want to do—God is still there, looking after us.

As with the prophet, all of us are called, in the power of God in Christ, to destroy and to overthrow whatever hold those dark forces have on our faith.  As with the prophet, all of us are called, in the power of God in Christ, to build and to plant whatever makes for imagination and love.

 

[1] Bruce Epperly, “Living the Word,” Christian Century 127:2 (26 January 2010):  20.

[2] Epperly, 20.

[3] Binyamin Lau, Jeremiah: The Fate of a Prophet, trans. Sara Daniel (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2013), Kindle edition, Introduction, section 2, paragraph 6.

[4] www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C50sun21.htm