Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 (Luke 17:11-19)
Our readings are taken from the lectionary which as I’m sure you know is the church of England’s daily readings for the liturgical church year. We have a choice, normally of 5 or 6 different books and passages that we can preach on. Supposedly there are common themes between the Old Testament, Psalms, New Testament and the Epistles – sometimes these are easier to uncover than others!
However, I have chosen todays readings not for the corresponding meanings but because I am drawn to Jeremiah. For this I blame David Grundy.
We meet up every month and choose a book to read then discuss and last time it was his turn. He chose this one – The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann. If you have been through any sort of theological training, you will have heard of this heavy weight theologian – he is mighty in intellect, profound in thought and consequently, not an easy read. It’s one of those books that you have to keep going back to re-read certain pages and paragraphs to understand – well, at least I do! And in this book he uses Jeremiah as an example of a prophet who exercises his Prophetic Imagination.
A prophet, common to popular misconception, is a person who does not so much predict the future but paints a picture of what could happen if the people don’t change their ways. Prophets are metaphorical warning lights. Hazzard lights if you will – flashing at us, trying to wake us up to our current state of affairs, trying to shake us from our perceived reality and open our eyes to where our current trajectory is taking us. And so it is with Jeremiah.
Jeremiah is a complex book and much is disputed and debated in terms of who, when, and how it was written and put together, but what is agreed upon is that God used Jeremiah and his scribe, Baruch, as his instruments on earth to voice his anguish over his people.
A little bit of context will help bring us into the story.
Jeremiah was born in the ‘Golden age’ of the Judean king Josiah and the subsequent fall and destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar 11 of Babylon and the deportation of the Judean population into captivity. This happened twice. First in 579 BCE when all the really important people were taken – priests, elders and other prophets and then again when Jeremiah himself was taken in 586 BCE when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed.
The letter in our passage today was written, as we heard, by Jeremiah after the first invasion when he was left behind. The majority of passages from Jeremiah are normally full of despair, grief, and doom as he tries, without much success to rouse the people from the apathy of their situation.
As Brueggemann says. ‘Jeremiah is frequently misunderstood as a doomsday spokesman or a pitiful man who had a grudge and sat around crying; but his public and personal grief was for another reason and served another purpose’.
What I think Walter is trying to get at here is that in order for the status quo to change, the dominating culture of the day has to realise that it is not immortal and is not ultimately in charge. That the ruling authorities do not have the monopoly on control and do not have all the answers on how we can thrive and flourish.
In Jeremiah’s day he was speaking to the kings of the time. The kings who kept the rich rich, the poor poor, and who feasted in their palaces without care for others. Kings who had successfully paralysed the masses into submission. Jeremiah was speaking to the marginalized who had become numb and blind, who lived without hope of change and had resigned to the status quo. He was speaking to the rulers of the time who had turned away from their responsibilities to the people and ignored God’s commandments.
Jeremiah knew that that the end was coming and that God had had enough of indifference affluence, cynical oppression, and presumptive religion. He knew the freedom of God had been grossly violated, that death was at the door and would not pass over. The prophets do not ask much or expect much. In his grieving, Jeremiah asked only that the royal community face up to it’s real experience. That it was all coming to an end.
Endings are always hard to face up to. We deny, resist, and ignore them. New is scary. Old is safe even if it is not working as well as it once did.
And change takes time and it takes courage. In Jeremiah’s letter he acknowledges that all is in God’s time, not ours. He encourages the exiles to make Babylon their home, to settle, to build homes and families.
To wait on the Lord.
There is much to learn here for our own context. Are we awake to our own cultural context? Personally, and in our place in society? Are we numb to the world or are we engaged in a meaningful way? Is there something in our lives that is coming to an end, if so, are we seeking God’s guidance, help, comfort, and direction?
To end, we turn to Walter Brueggemann again, ‘I used to think it curious that, when having to quote scripture on demand, someone would inevitably say, “Jesus wept”. It is usually done as a gimmick to avoid having to quote a longer passage. But now I understand the depth of the that verse. Jesus knew what we numb ones must always learn again: a) that weeping must be real because endings are real; and b) that weeping permits newness. His weeping permits the kingdom to come. Such weeping is radical criticism, a fearful dismantling because it means the end of all machismo; weeping is somethings kings rarely do without losing their thrones. Yet the loss of thrones is precisely what is called for in Prophetic Imagination.’
Father, the prophets of old challenge us now as much as when they were first heard. Give us courage to open our eyes and our hearts to your calling, your way of life and to your radical love. Challenge us to live differently so that we can make a difference in our world for your glory. Amen.