Archive for October, 2016

Judah’s sin was political and religious violence wielded against the most vulnerable in society.  The economy was organized so that the rich grew richer and the poor were buried in credit card debt.  Families’ homes were foreclosed when they couldn’t pay off the loans.  Political leaders conscripted boys and men for war and women and girls for servile labor, paying them a mere pittance.  The religious leaders proclaimed a health-and-wealth gospel that blessed the nation’s “progress” and supported the king’s agenda to “make Israel great again.”  But, in the end, Judah’s religious and political life is deemed to be idolatrous.  Judah imagined itself to be immutable, invincible, and perpetually chosen by God.  They couldn’t imagine God had a different agenda – not to make Israel “great again,” but to be humble in its walk before God.  As such, God sends Judah, like Israel before it, into Exile, into captivity, into Babylon.

The year 587 for the Jewish people was a living “hell on earth.”  Babylon swept out of the North like boiling water surging in tidal waves over Judah.  Jerusalem was ransacked, its people all but annihilated, the Temple toppled.  You can imagine the acrid smell of burned crops and land, tiny tendrils of smoke rising from the charred grass.  The ground was barren.  The people were destitute and broken.  Those left in the land were generally the weak or the sick or the very poor who couldn’t travel.  The very best and brightest, the rulers and leaders were marched off to Babylon in shackles.

In the scriptures, Babylon takes on a life of its own.  It represents the way of Empires, particularly when they begin to be machines of war and social and economic injustice.  Their way of life results in death.  Babylon embodies, like Pharaoh’s Egypt, an alternative life and narrative to God’s life-giving, life-blessing, life-sustaining way in the world.  Babylon is more than a geographical place.  It is an all-consuming way of life that seeks to shape everyone’s identity to be good Babylonian citizens, to give allegiance to Babylon alone.  Although Jeremiah sees Babylon as an instrument of discipline in God’s hand, nobody ever imagines that Babylon’s way of life is God’s ideal.  Babylon disorients and destroys Judah’s entire way of life and desires to mold the captives into Babylon’s own image.  Babylon wants everyone to look like them, either by choice or under threat of violence: dress like they do, eat like they do, worship the same gods of commerce and power and pleasure, take on Babylonian names, serve the Empire, and revere the King.  The imminent danger for Judah in Babylon is further forgetting their peculiar identity as God’s people in the world and enrolling as full-fledged citizens tutored in the ways of Babylon.

The event of Exile puts into question everything about Judah’s life as God’s covenant partner.  Everything has been uprooted and torn down.  They are thrust into a world that is unfamiliar and threatening.  Their Temple is gone.  Does this mean God has abandoned them?  They are now servants to foreign powers.  Does this mean they are forever cursed?  Their king and kingdom has been destroyed.  What does this mean for their future?  Has God trashed the covenant and all of its promises to make them a great nation?  The Exile is a time of crisis and a questioning of identity.  The future is in jeopardy, if there is a future.  Hope seemed just as shackled as they were in Babylon.

The world I grew up in has seemingly fallen apart.  Society around us is undergoing immense upheaval and lives in deep anxiety about the future.  So much has changed that I no longer recognize the landscape.  The world has shifted and morphed.  I no longer feel at home.  I feel dislocated and out of place, even though I’ve lived here all of my life.  I’m hardly marginalized or oppressed, but I feel like I’m being pushed further to the edge because I can no longer identify with American nationalism, which is so deeply grounded in violence and greedy consumerism.  The pursuit of the American Dream has been more like a nightmare for so many – and the anger, disappointment, and angst are boiling over in society.  For many, Babylon is not a past historical reality, but a living, breathing monster that continues to grab, hoard, oppress, silence, violate, and destroy lives.  So many times I must recognize I not only live in Babylon, but I have been seduced by her ways.

I also serve the Church as a pastor, but sometimes I have trouble feeling at home there as well because everything has become so politicized that it is exceedingly difficult to have charitable conversation with each other.  I feel like a “resident alien” living in this place as someone who just doesn’t quite belong.  Babylon has marked the Church, we have drunk the wine, and found ourselves intoxicated with her promise of power.  It has often left me wondering where God is present in our world and in the Church.  Has God abandoned the Church?  It has created an identity crisis among us, including myself.  What does it mean to be God’s people in places where the culture is trying to shape us in its image?  Where is there any hope?  We have often tried to find our hope in American political systems, politicians, and policies – to no avail.  The more we have pursued these avenues of maintaining power, the more we have become exiled from our Source – Jesus.  When the Church is exiled from Jesus, our identity is easily manipulated and molded to reflect the gods of this age – or, what Jeremiah calls “idolatry.”

The Exile as the further fracturing of identity in God’s people is Jeremiah’s context of mission and ministry.  He has watched his people travelling down a destructive road until it finally implodes in on itself.  What can you do in those moment?  Where can you find hope when it seems like God has abandoned you?  Where is there any solace when the ground is torched, the trees broken down, and the air smells like acidic charcoal and there is no hope for life?  In the midst of this barrenness comes the slightest sliver of hope.  The slightest bit of sunshine in the darkest night.  Exile has happened; the world has changed and cannot be reversed.  Judah has been torn down and overthrown and plucked up.  God has watched over that project the whole time.  But, that is not the final word God offers to Jeremiah or the people.  There is life beyond destruction.

God intervenes in a surprising way.  Where we thought God was gone, God shows up again to our amazement.  God does not finally abandon us in the midst of that dark, dark night.  Instead, God says, “In those days…”  A future promise.  It can’t be seen quite yet, but the seeds have already been planted.  “In those days, they shall no longer say, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth have been set on edge.’”  In other words, we no longer have to be captive to the past.  We no longer have to be captive to our present.  There is coming a time when the past no longer determines the future for everyone.  God is unfolding this new future, this new opportunity, this new life – even in the midst of death.  The slightest sliver of hope – but it could be just enough.  Hope has been unchained and unleashed in God’s coming future.

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I am going to make a new covenant with Israel…” And, remember, Israel is gone and destroyed about 200 years before Judah.  This promise encapsulates them, too.  It goes to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  But, it’s not going to be like the covenant made in Egypt.  Do you remember that covenant?  God’s people had been delivered out of Egypt, given this new freedom, this new promise of life outside the bondage of Egypt.  God gives them the Law, the Ten Commandments, this Teaching, this Way of life that they are to embody together as God’s people living in the world.

But, we find out very quickly they are incapable of keeping the covenant.  Moses comes down from the mountains and sees them worshiping the golden calf, an idol.  As soon as the covenant has been made, the covenant has been broken.  That is the cycle of Israel’s life together with God.  God calls them into a new way of life in this covenant.  Yet, Israel finds itself time and time and time again falling into sin, falling into faithlessness.  It doesn’t seem to get any better.  The Book of Judges shows that it gets worse and worse and worse.  It’s the same song but a different verse.  That is the story of Israel’s life.

This new covenant is not going to be like that.  It’s not going to be this external thing that Israel has to accomplish under its own power and piety.  Instead, God is going to do this new thing to the heart.  God is going to “tattoo” it on our hearts.  God is going to engrave it on our character.  The covenant is not going to be an external set of rules but will deeply shape out character so that we can’t help but live out of the very depths of our lives as faithful reflections of the God who has delivered us from death.

It’s a new covenant, a new way of being, a new way of life that God is going to accomplish.  No longer is this covenant going to be so dependent on God’s people to fulfill.  Instead, God is going to be the One that accomplishes it.  The death of Judah and Israel is not the end of the relationship.  Instead, God is doing something far greater than anything Judah or Israel can imagine.  New life is made possible through the way of death.  They actually have to go through death in order to get to life.  That was God’s plan all along.  God put the old Israel and the old Judah to death, in order that they might be opened up, humble enough to receive God’s new promise of the covenant – this new way of life that isn’t simply a list of rules.  Instead, it will grip our very hearts, shape our very character, and change our very nature.

God’s going to put God’s Law within them and write it on their hearts so that God will be their God and they will be God’s people.  No longer are they going to have to teach each other, “Know God!”  Each one of them, from the weakest to the most powerful, the richest and the poorest – all the community will know God.  There will no longer be an imbalance of power in terms of knowing God.  God will reveal God’s Self to all, equally.  This intimacy with God will be embodied in communities that seek everyone’s well-being.  It will be marked by justice and mercy.  It will be unveiled in worship of the true God which then marks us with God’s character lived out together for the sake of the world.  What a gift!  What a gift!  This is a new, living way for God’s people.

Not only that; but God will no longer remember their inequity.  It’s not that God doesn’t cognitively know, but to “remember” it as in God will not hold it against them.  God’s not going to continue to drudge up the past and hold it over our heads.  God’s not going to continue to look back and say, “Look what you did here!  You should be ashamed now!”  Instead, God is going to put the past in the past so that a decisively new future will emerge in which we have been given freedom from the past.  That doesn’t mean we forget the past, but it means that there is a new way forward where the past no longer has to be our future.

But, this future was not easy to see in the streets of Babylon.  Israel couldn’t deliver itself out of Exile.  Judah couldn’t deliver itself out of Exile.  They could not open up a new way of life.  God had to do it for them!  In the midst of Judah’s societal upheaval, the prophet Jeremiah begins to spout poetry about Creation.

Thus says the Lord,
who gives the sun for light by day
and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
the Lord of hosts is his name:
If this fixed order were ever to cease
from my presence, says the Lord,
then also the offspring of Israel would cease
to be a nation before me forever.[1]

The promise of the covenant is rooted in God’s creative power and love manifested in the Beginning.  This is the God who has created the sun, moon, and stars and put them in a fixed order, the One that rules over all Creation and ordered toward that which is Good.  God is in control of life when it is in order.  But, even as the seas are stirred up and the waves roar and the breakers threaten to crush us, God is even in the midst of the chaos.  God even rules over the chaos.  God rules over both the order and the chaos in our lives.

Therefore, regardless of what life looks like around us, whether it seems to be going well and orderly and right or whether it seems to be going in a disorderly, chaotic fashion; God can use any of those circumstances in order to make us into a new community.  You may not have noticed this, but Israel and Judah were named at the very first of this passage and then suddenly it’s just talking about Israel.  I wonder if that’s because that which had been broken apart, the relationship between Israel and Judah which had been broken apart because of its own sinful ways, has now been brought together.  In other words, God is re-forming that which is broken so that a new people, the covenant people, will be able to live out God’s covenant purposes together.  And God is inviting God’s people to remember their story, remember their identity, and to begin to live in the world on God’s terms.

I think it would be wonderful, in the midst of the chaotic upheaval around us, to recall our story and our identity as the Church.  We need to again hear our poetry about God’s work in Creation by which we know God’s promises and future to be true, even if we cannot see it in the moment.  Let us sing together the hope of our faith, to unleash our imaginations toward the possibilities of God’s redemptive work in our lives and in our world.  May we raise our voices to proclaim again that we are God’s people, marked by God’s covenant being inscribed on our hearts and lives.  Let us be reminded of God’s creative power that will ultimately fulfill God’s covenantal promises.  Let us proclaim our faith, hope, and identity together as we sing “How Great Thou Art!”

 

O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder

Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made.

I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder

Thy power throughout the universe displayed

 

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee

How great Thou art, how great Thou art

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee

How great Thou art, how great Thou art!

 

When through the woods, and forest glades I wander,

And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.

When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur

And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,

How great Thou art, How great Thou art.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,

How great Thou art, How great Thou art!
And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing;

Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;

That on a Cross, my burdens gladly bearing,

He bled and died to take away my sin.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,

How great Thou art, How great Thou art.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,

How great Thou art, How great Thou art![2]

 

 

Bibliography

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.

Sing to the Lord: Church of the Nazarene Hymnal. Kansas City, MO: Lillenas Publishing, 1993.

 

[1] Jeremiah 31:35-36, NRSV.

[2] Stuart K. Hine, “How Great Thou Art,” Sing to the Lord: Church of the Nazarene Hymnal (Kansas City: Lillenas Publishing Company, 1993), #33.

Rev Levi Jones wanted to present a fifth post in order to discuss preaching practice in the proposed theological framework of the first four posts. You won’t find here a one-size-fits-all method for every sermon. Instead, Levi offers some suggestive insights into the proper posture of the preacher in preparing for the task, as well […]

via “Preaching in Practice: Moving Beyond the Violence of Our Words:” Preaching — V Practice — Explorations in Theology