About Me

Arborg, Manitoba, Canada
Married to the love of my life with whom I (and God - all three of us) have co-created three incredible sons. Interested in philosophy, theology, and how to live Truth. Love music but couldn't carry a tune to save my life.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Promises for those in Exile -from Jeremiah 31

I can never just take a text and do an expository sermon, because texts don’t exist in isolation. All of the texts of scripture are part of a fabric, woven and interwoven as a story within the book, and linked to other books and eras, and the fabric of these stories expands and extends, and reaches through time and space to intersect with our stories. We don’t understand the texts of scripture best when we understand them on their own, but when we understand how they link into our stories, how they challenge us, how they call us, how they call us to repentance, because they call us to God and, though we are always looking for God, we so often look in the wrong places. It’s as though we are in a strange land, looking for who knows what, and we need something to show us the way home. Jeremiah was speaking to exiles, many of whom were still lost at home, but they would soon find themselves in exile, and in exile they would find themselves.
Michael Frost in Exiles reminds us that the church is God’s community in exile, we are not at home, so how shall we then live)? What do promises that are unrealized mean for those in exile? What kind of hope is hope deferred?
These are questions we ask from time to time; when we need to find meaning for our existence. These are questions soldiers ask on the trenches when bullets fly overhead and they don’t know if they will ever see home again.
These are questions we ask when we lose loved ones and yet we must journey on.
These are questions we ask when work is boring, when relationships are more taxing than rewarding, when we are hungry and dinner is too long to wait.
Perhaps some of Jeremiah’s most famous words, and also his most misappropriated words, are spoken to precisely this situation, but we need to backtrack a little further to get the context for these promises for those in exile.
Jeremiah began warning his people of the folly of their ways long after the northern tribes of Israel were taken into exile (722BC), but just before, and during the time, when Judah followed her northern sister to similar fate. Things come to head when Jeremiah tells the Jews remaining in the Promised Land that unless they make a dramatic turn in their way of life, they too will be removed from their comfortable enjoyment of the promises of land and rest and prosperity. “For twenty three years I have warned you again and again, but you have not listened” 25.3 It is about this time that the first captives are taken from Jerusalem and Judea and taken into exile in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar whom, adding insult to injury, Yahweh calls “my servant” 25.9 Jeremiah is threatened with death for his audacity 26.8 How dare he?!?! This is the place that Yahweh had made his home, and their God ruled, so how dare Jeremiah proclaim the destruction of this place, this city, and the exile of God’s people into oppression under the ruleless rule of heathen infidels? This was blasphemy and Jeremiah must die! Fortunately there was enough dissent among those in authority that he escaped the death penalty for his proclamations.
In fairness to the people who seem needlessly confused with the benefit of our hindsight we must remember that Jeremiah was not the only prophet who claimed to speak God’s words to the people. Throughout Israel’s history as recorded in the OT there are conflicting voices about what Yahweh’s word to his people actually was. Moses had warned the people about false prophets, but the criteria was not only about predictions that came true Dt 13. Even false prophets can get the future right sometimes, so the distinction between false prophets and true is more complicated. If the predictions of a prophet came true, but his message was one that turned the people from the ways of Yahweh, tht prophet was a false prophet and should die for his transgression. There is no easy way to tell true prophets from false, and the only way to discern required careful listening, and comparing the words of prophets to the word of Yahweh known from Israel’s past.
Hananiah is one such false prophet who claimed to speak Yahweh’s word as a direct challenge to the word of Jeremiah. He took the yoke that Yahweh told Jeremiah to wear as a symbol of the bondage that Nebuchadnezzar would foist on Israel (27.2ff), and Hananiah broke that same yoke as a symbol of how he said Yahweh would break that bondage within two years (28.11). Jeremiah’s prophecy, on the other hand, was that things would get worse before they got better. The first captives from Jerusalem had been taken captive some 10 years earlier, and more would follow in another 10 years and, far from captivity being over in two years, it would be 70 years before later generations would return to Jerusalem.
So how then should the children of Israel live while in exile? Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiles 29:4-14
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” 8 Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.
10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
And there you have what are likely Jeremiah’s most famous, and yet most misunderstood words 29.11. God’s plans are indeed to prosper his loved ones, to give them hope and a future, but first their deeds will cost them 70 years of exile. While they were in exile they were to build their lives as they would if they were at home, though they could not be expected to, nor should they ever, forget that they were not at home. There is a curious parallel between the 70 years Israel was to spend in exile, and the 70 years that David noted was the allotted time of human lifespan. Is this reminiscent of our lifespan on this terrestrial sphere as an existence in exile? In some ways it is true that we are not at home here, and yet we make it our home, and we believe we do so in some way in obedience to the Creator’s will. We build houses and till the soil, we marry and raise families, all to the glory of God, making homes, yet often feeling not at home. We yearn for God’s blessing, and we experience God’s blessing in spades, yet almost always long for more. We hope, and often realize the fruition of our hopes, and often not, but is that hope deferred? Or is that just the reality of mundane existence here? What does God mean when he says “You are going to Babylon for 70 years. Make homes there for yourselves, make houses, and gardens, and families, and seek the prosperity of the cities in which you settle. But I will bring you back.” Bring us back?? In 70 years?? Get real, Yahweh! I can almost hear the exiles complain “Our bones will be staying in Babylon!” But God says 29.11-14
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity.[b] I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
What follows in Jeremiah is repeated encouragement to make homes in Babylon, to walk in the ways of God, and to keep the faith in spite of exile, in spite of friends and neighbours, in spite of even family who choose the ways of evil. Keep the faith for it is Yahweh`s will; it is Yahweh`s plan to restore Israel. God will restore his people, not because of their faithfulness, but because of his own faithfulness. In fact, the old covenant was always lopsided in favour of God`s responsibility to uphold the covenant (remember the ratification ceremony in Genesis 15, where Abraham sleeps while Gods indicates his commitment to the covenant), but the new covenant would be even more so 31.31-40.
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
32 It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to[d] them,[e]”
declares the Lord.
33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
34 No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”
35 This is what the Lord says,
he who appoints the sun
to shine by day,
who decrees the moon and stars
to shine by night,
who stirs up the sea
so that its waves roar—
the Lord Almighty is his name:
36 “Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,”
declares the Lord,
“will Israel ever cease
being a nation before me.”
37 This is what the Lord says:
“Only if the heavens above can be measured
and the foundations of the earth below be searched out
will I reject all the descendants of Israel
because of all they have done,”
declares the Lord.
38 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when this city will be rebuilt for me from the Tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. 39 The measuring line will stretch from there straight to the hill of Gareb and then turn to Goah. 40 The whole valley where dead bodies and ashes are thrown, and all the terraces out to the Kidron Valley on the east as far as the corner of the Horse Gate, will be holy to the Lord. The city will never again be uprooted or demolished.”
Yahweh had always lived up to his commitments under the old covenant, even when Israel did not. That was the problem with the old covenant- it allowed Israel to wander. It left room for Israel to break the covenant, to break the relationship with her God - her lover, even when her lover was faithful (hear echoes of Hosea here). So Yahweh planned a new covenant, one that would predispose his children to know Yahweh, because to know Yahweh is to love Yahweh. He would put his law (and this should not be understood simply as rules to be obeyed. Think of this more as the law of the universe, the code by which the world works, the law by which the righteous live; the law which alone is the way of life) He would put his law into their minds, and write it (not ‘laws’ or ‘them’ - plural, but ‘law’ and ‘it’ - singular) on their hearts, and they would all know him, from the least to the greatest. God would never, no, NEVER reject his children for their actions. What they deserved was not the criteria. Henceforth what God desired would be the standard.
But Jeremiah`s words take a very fascinating turn - 31.38-40
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when this city will be rebuilt for me from the Tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. 39 The measuring line will stretch from there straight to the hill of Gareb and then turn to Goah. 40 The whole valley where dead bodies and ashes are thrown, and all the terraces out to the Kidron Valley on the east as far as the corner of the Horse Gate, will be holy to the Lord. The city will never again be uprooted or demolished.”
This city (Jerusalem) would be rebuilt as Yahweh`s city. All of it from the Tower of Hananel, to the Corner Gate, to the hill of Gareb and then toward Goah. The whole valley where the dead are buried and where ashes are discarded, all the terraces of the Kidron Valley as far as the Horse gate, will be - holy to the LORD! Some of these geographical terms are obscure and the precise boundaries of the territory are unknown, but the geographical terms are not the most significant descriptors of this new Jerusalem, because what is clear is that some of the very spaces that are foundational images and metaphors of hell will be - holy to the LORD. Does this mean that hell doesn`t have a future? The place of the dead? The place where ashes are scattered, the place where all that is left when the fire that consumes finally goes out, is discarded? Even this place will be holy to Yahweh?
Maybe even now not everything is clear, but everything is hopeful. No, not everything is hopeful, but in everything, there is hope. Not because of circumstances, or because of a better tomorrow for us, but because Yahweh has plans. What kind of hope is that? What kind of hope is that?

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Easter Sunday 2014 Living the Resurrection

He is Risen!

This morning we will read the story in John 20 of Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb and the ensuing events. Then we will use this story as the context for a reflection on what it means for us to live after the resurrection.

John 20:1-18
20:1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb

Now I need you to try for a moment to suspend what we already all know about this story, and put yourselves into the sandals and the robe, into the mind and spirit of Mary Magdalene, early in the morning, while it is still dark, going to the tomb of the person who has, in every way, turned your life around, and because of whom your life is now turned upside down.
Mary Magdalene is the one from whom it is said that Jesus had cast out seven demons. We can only imagine, but not likely even approach an understanding of the change in her life that was effected by reason of her relationship with Jesus. For three years, perhaps more and maybe less, Mary, along with friends and companions, has had her life turned around, has felt divine healing poured into her soul, scouring the sins, and bringing new hope - new life - and her existence had gone from a dismal trauma from which death may have seemed at times a sweet reprieve, to a renewed hope that life could be good, that life would be good, because of the love, the truth, the life that was gently bringing hope and awakening a renewed sense and appreciation for the gift that life is.
But now it seems that hope has been sparked only to be cruelly dashed before it had a chance to flower. The Master is dead. Killed by the hated Romans at the request, nay, at the stubborn insistence of her religious leaders, the same leaders who would keep her kind at the fringes of their precious sanctimonious society. Killed under false pretenses on the strength of spurious charges about his teaching instigated by those who had never been able to properly understand their own law, much less Jesus’ exposition of that law which was given for life. The leaders had never been able to counter the convincing authority and quiet integrity of his interpretations of their beloved law, but they had found a way to silence him for good.
Her hope for life is dead, cruelly snuffed out, and she is on her way to do the only thing she still can do for the one whom she called her beloved Lord. We don’t know how she has chaffed at the religious sensitivities that kept her from her friend’s side during the long Sabbath between the time of Jesus’ death on Friday afternoon, and this early morning journey on the first day of the week to perform the last loving service to his body. We do know that she wasted no time after the Sabbath, rising while it is still dark and making her way in the dark to the tomb where she had seen his body laid on Friday. And so Mary Magdalene came to the tomb...

and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.
20:2 So she ran -she ran!- and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him."

As if losing his living presence was not enough, now she has also lost his body. Even the last few moments with his body, doing what little she could in respect for Jesus, even that has been taken from her.

20:3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.
20:4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.
20:5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.
20:6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there,
20:7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.
20:8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed;
20:9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.

So what did the disciples believe? They saw the linens that had wrapped his body, and the cloth that had wrapped his head, rolled up and lying by itself separate from the linens, and they believed, but they did not yet understand that Jesus must rise from the dead. What did they believe? If they had believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead, would they have returned to their homes? Would they have returned to their homes and left Mary crying by the tomb? Would they have later locked themselves in a room in fear of the Jews? When Peter and John saw the empty tomb they believed that his body was gone. They did not believe that he had risen from the dead. That was preposterous. Dead bodies don’t came back to life. And so

20:10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.
20:11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb;
20:12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.
20:13 They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him."

No inkling of a resurrection here. Her best hope is still to locate the lost body of her Master. Somebody has taken his body for unknown reasons, and she does not know where his body has now been laid, but she wants to know. She wants to find his body.

20:14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.
20:15 Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away."

Jesus’ first words to her do not break through the fog of her grief. Again she hopes only that this stranger will be able to help her find Jesus’ body so she can take him away. She still desires only to ensure that his body is properly respected and cared for.

20:16 Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher).

Everything changes when Mary hears Jesus speak her name.

Notice that things didn’t change when Jesus rose, or when Mary saw Jesus, or when Jesus first spoke to Mary. Mary heard Jesus speak to her, and responded in conversation, but she did not recognize her conversation partner. Everything changed for Mary when she recognized Jesus’ voice addressing her.
This is what I want to explore for a little bit this morning. We live after the fact of the resurrection, and I believe we live in a daily experience of resurrection life, but it’s impact in our lives is stunted and muted as long as we don’t recognize the risen Jesus addressing us in a resurrection conversation in the mundane experiences of life. So how is this done? How do we learn to recognize the voice of Jesus engaging us in a resurrection conversation?
I believe this happens in a two-step dance that includes retreat from, as well as engagement in, mundane life. We need to stop the hustle every now and again and take a moment to reflect; to smell the roses, or the coffee, along the way. This retreat from should not be seen as the only times of refreshment or the only times of this resurrection conversation. If all of life is part of the fruit of the resurrection life that we are given through Jesus, then these retreats should be moments of re-orientation in which we remind ourselves of the fact of the resurrection, and we learn again what it looks like, so that as we re-engage mundane life, we do so with a renewed perspective, and a reinvigorated purpose to recognize and live the resurrection every day, in every way.
Jesus says:
John 10:2-5, 14-16 “the one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep recognize his voice and come to him. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 After he has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice. 5 They won’t follow a stranger; they will run from him because they don’t know his voice. I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father.”
In this word picture, the result of the recognition of the shepherd’s voice is finding pasture and daily sustenance for living. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, but it is finding life in the most ordinary of life events. It’s eating and drinking, and recognizing in the food we eat, and the water we drink (and maybe in some other beverages), that our shepherd cares for us, and is giving us life - resurrection life. We retreat to remind ourselves of this, so that as we re-engage we learn to eat and drink mindfully of the resurrection life that is being given to us daily.

One of the way in which God speaks life to us is in creation. Psalm 19 tells us that
1 The heavens proclaim the glory of God.
The skies display his craftsmanship.
2 Day after day they continue to speak;
night after night they make him known.

All of creation is God’s speech act to us, making known his glory, and making God known to us. There is no act of worship more authentic than wonder at his words in the creation we see around us and particularly, as Trudy reminds us, in people who are the acts of creation that carry the divine image.

3 They (that is, God’s speech acts in creation) speak without a sound or word;
their voice is never heard.
4 Yet their message has gone throughout the earth,
and their words to all the world.

God has made a home in the heavens for the sun.
5 It bursts forth like a radiant bridegroom after his wedding.
It rejoices like a great athlete eager to run the race.
6 The sun rises at one end of the heavens
and follows its course to the other end.
Nothing can hide from its heat.

The sun itself is God’s love story to his creation, to you and to me. It is small wonder that cultures that we call pagan often engage in some form of sun worship. It is perhaps more of a wonder that we call them pagan cultures. Every sunrise is God saying “Good morning! My love!” Every sunset is God saying “Good night, my precious one.” We could reflect on how sunrise and sunset intimate birth and death, and we could consider implications of the cycle of days and nights for notions of eternal life and the immortality that we often link to resurrection life, but I will leave that for another time.
What I want to highlight now is that sunrise and sunset happen every day, with or without our awareness. We would certainly notice if the sun ever failed to rise, and it would doubtless cause no end of trouble and consternation, but as long as it goes on as it always has, we pay little heed to many of the most important processes without which we could not live. If we do not stop and reflect, we do not notice. Our life is sustained by these processes whether or not we are aware of them, but our experience of these things is accentuated, and the tenor of our life is enhanced when we remind ourselves to recognize - to notice and appreciate - the mundane events without which we could not live. Even though we live in the midst of resurrection, we need to stop and remind ourselves to see resurrection life in bloom all around us, we need to remind ourselves to recognize God’s voice shouting out to us in a deafening roar that we find so astonishingly easy to ignore.

The surest way to cultivate this awareness of resurrection life is, I believe, to practice thankfulness. The way to the experience of resurrection life is the way of discipline, a way of discipleship, of falling at the feet of Jesus to say thank you. When Jesus was hailed by ten lepers, and they asked to be made whole, he sent them to show themselves to the priest to be declared healthy. Luke 17:14 “And as they went, they were cleansed.” Of the ten lepers who had their skin cleansed, one came back, threw himself at Jesus’ feet, and thanked him, “praising God in a loud voice.” Jesus notes that ten lepers were cleansed, but he says to the one who came back to give thanks “Your faith has made you well.” All ten were cleansed, but only one was made well. Ten lepers had their bodies cleansed, but only one had his life healed, and the text makes note that he was a Samaritan. You can be bouyed along by resurrection life, but without recognizing the resurrection - without thankfulness - you may be just living, instead of living the resurrection!

So how does living after the resurrection look? What does one do when one has recognized the voice of the Master? When one realizes that one is living in the midst of resurrection? Jesus and Mary visit, we don’t know for how long, but Jesus soon has instructions for Mary that quite specifically grow out of her new recognition of resurrection life:

20:17 Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'"
20:18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

“I have seen the Lord!” When you have seen the resurrected Jesus; when you realize that you live by the bounteous grace of resurrection life, you want to tell others; you need to tell others. When you find yourself healed, you love to tell people. When you have great news, you want to share it, and the gospel is good news; gospel means good news. What better news could there be than that the Creator cares for you and wants you to experience abundant life; resurrection life?

So let us go, looking and listening for God’s voice calling our name, in the reading of scripture in quiet places, in the speech acts of God’s creation among which we live and move and have our being, and as we learn to read hints of resurrection in our world, let us learn to live resurrection with thankfulness, in our daily mundane existence. Let us learn to celebrate life, to let God’s resurrection power flow through us, resurrecting our lives and our world by God’s generous grace.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Parable of the Sower

Mark 4
1 He began to teach again by the sea. And such a very large crowd gathered to Him that He got into a boat in the sea and sat down; and the whole crowd was by the sea on the land. 2 And He was teaching them many things in parables, and was saying to them in His teaching, 3 “Listen to this!

Listen! Hear this! Allusion to the Shema, the most well known passage of the Hebrew scriptures Dt 6.4-9
“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
“These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart.
“You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.
“You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead.
“You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

The importance of listening and hearing in the Jewish tradition cannot be over-emphasized. The Jewish tradition was an oral tradition. The stories were told and repeated and passed on for countless generations before they were ever written, and even when the stories were written, to this day the telling and hearing, the listening continue to play a prominent role in Jewish tradition. These laws which were the heart and soul of the Jewish faith tradition were passed on by telling and listening. Their Bible, basically, was transmitted by oral telling and listening. Listening without really paying attention was unthinkable. To frivolously listen without hearing was sacrilegious.
“Listen!” Jesus says. “This is important. Listen and hear what I am telling you. You need to get this so you can pass this on to others who need to know about this!”
And then Jesus tells them a story:

Behold, the sower went out to sow; 4 as he was sowing, some seed fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Other seed fell on the rocky ground where it did not have much soil; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of soil. 6 And after the sun had risen, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. 8 Other seeds fell into the good soil, and as they grew up and increased, they yielded a crop and produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.” 9 And He was saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Did you catch that? “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Listen!

10 As soon as He was alone, His followers, along with the twelve, began asking Him about the parables. 11 And He was saying to them, “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables,
You have already been given the mysteries of the kingdom, but those who have not been given the mysteries get the mystery in parables


That sounds harsh. Outsiders are given the mystery in parables so they won’t hear? Won’t see? And won’t turn and be forgiven? Then why not just say nothing at all? Especially when listening very carefully to understand is so critical in the Jewish tradition?
Now it must be recognized that, while listening carefully to understand is indispensable in the Jewish tradition, it did not always happen that way. In fact, the story of Israel is a long and convoluted story of listening to hear and understand, interspersed with listening to subvert and sabotage God’s message; with false prophets who cried “Peace, peace! When there was no peace” (Jeremiah 6.14; 8.11)
This particular quote Jesus pulls from the well-known call of Isaiah in Isaiah 6. In the context of a rebellious phase in Israel’s history God is calling Isaiah and sending him out to call his children to repentance when they have shown themselves stubbornly uninterested in listening to understand and obey. Though they have ears they will not listen. Though they have eyes they will not hear. Because his children are not willing to repent, so they cannot allow themselves to listen; they cannot allow themselves to see, because to listen and to see would mean to repent.
The same dynamic is at work now. The parables are told so that everyone can hear and see, but those who are not willing to repent cannot afford to listen and see, because to hear and see life, and yet choose death, is an unthinkable and excruciating agony that ultimately betrays the very self one wishes to preserve at all costs.
That the intent of the parables is to disclose truth, and not to disguise truth is made clear later in the chapter:
21 And He was saying to them, “A lamp is not brought to be put under a basket, is it, or under a bed? Is it not brought to be put on the lampstand? 22 For nothing is hidden, except to be revealed; nor has anything been secret, but that it would come to light. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” 24 And He was saying to them, “Take care what you listen to. By your standard of measure it will be measured to you; and more will be given you besides. 25 For whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.”

If you listen to understand, your understanding will grow, if you repent when truth is revealed. If you refuse to repent when truth is revealed, then you refuse to understand, and your hearing will become dull, and your vision will grow dim. Listen! So that you do not have ears, but can’t hear! Look! So that you do not have eyes, but can’t see! Repent, for the kingdom of God is near!
The kingdom of God. That is what this parable was about. The mystery of the kingdom of God, and Jesus explains the parable to his disciples:

13 And He *said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How will you understand all the parables? 14 The sower sows the word.

The sower who sows the word is Jesus, telling the stories of the kingdom, spreading the good news of the kingdom, inviting everyone who hears to repent and enter God’s kingdom.

15 These are the ones who are beside the road where the word is sown; and when they hear, immediately Satan comes and takes away the word which has been sown in them. 16 In a similar way these are the ones on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; 17 and they have no firm root in themselves, but are only temporary; then, when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they fall away. 18 And others are the ones on whom seed was sown among the thorns; these are the ones who have heard the word, 19 but the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. 20 And those are the ones on whom seed was sown on the good soil; and they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.”

The seed sown by the sower has astonishing power. With modern intensive methods and technology a farmer who plants two bushels of wheat per acre is delighted to harvest sixty bushels per acre - a thirty fold crop. A sixty fold crop would be legendary, and a hundred fold would be winning the lottery.
However, the point is not precisely what multiplication factor is operative or possible. The point is that the harvest will be huge! Even with all of the seeds that do not realize maximum potential, the impact of the seed is phenomenal, and it changes everything. The sower knows that not all of the seed will sprout, but he sows anyway. He sows prodigally, anticipating a bounteous harvest.
He heals, knowing most will be distracted by the immediate fruits that are far more alluring than really listening, seeing, and repenting, but he heals in hope that a few - maybe one in ten - will hear and see and understand, and will turn around (repent) and give thanks.
He tells parables, knowing many will only hear stories and be entertained, but he tells stories in hopes that some will see and hear and understand, turn from death, and follow him to life.
The story that follows this parable reinforces the notion that the mechanics and dynamics of the growth of planted seed is a mystery, but the harvest is tangible. The farmer sows, then sleeps while the crop grows without his participation or machination. Then when, after his neglect the harvest is ready, he reaps the benefits of what he had no hand in bringing about. Likewise, the kingdom of God is fecund; it produces fruit and a bountiful harvest far beyond the paltry influence we fancy that we could bring to bear on it. We do not begin to understand how it grows, but we can be sure that it grows.
So how then shall we live? How do we live in the mystery of a kingdom that we do not always see, but a kingdom that we are assured, by the King himself, is growing all around us, a kingdom that is bursting into bloom while we sleep? How do we live in faith when storms rage around us and God sleeps? How does God sleeping in the storm become for us a sign that engenders faith rather than a disconcerting absence?
We live by sowing prodigally. We do good when we have opportunity without worrying too much about how it will be understood, how effectively it will bear fruit, or whether people will see our generosity and try to take advantage of us. We scatter as much seed as we can, knowing that, while much may seem to go to waste, the harvest is the King’s business and it will be plenteous.
We treasure God’s words in our hearts, and we meditate on them day and night, speaking of them to our sons and daughters and neighbours when we sit in the house, and when we walk by the way, and when we lie down, and when we rise up.
We have ears, and we listen.
We have eyes, and we look.
We turn our face toward Jesus, and look to him for the healing we need for our every day life.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Faithless Israel, Faithful God

Jeremiah 2-8

This morning we look at Jeremiah 2-8. This is a lengthy text, and we will be reading quite a bit of the text because we need to follow Jeremiah as he speaks to Judah. We will read sections of the text, and from time to time I will interrupt the reading to reflect on the history that Jeremiah’s words call to mind, or otherwise establish (suggest) a context for Jeremiah’s message.
In this text Yahweh is agonizing about the judgement that is about to fall on Judah. When we read these texts in isolation it can seem to us that God is pretty quick to judge. In this case I want to get a sense of the agonizing that Yahweh experiences, and the delays he engages, to give his children chance after chance to turn from idolatry, so that judgement need not fall. In the end, we know, judgement will come, but it is not for a lack of calling, cajoling, pleading, waiting, and warning. In the end Israel and Judah were judged because they chose their ways rather than Yahweh’s ways.

Jeremiah begins by recounting Israel’s early history.

2:2“‘I remember the devotion of your youth,
how as a bride you loved me
and followed me through the wilderness,
through a land not sown.

These were the good ol’ days, the days when Israel was, if not passionately, at least somewhat eagerly, for a day or three, following Yahweh out of Egypt, and back to the Promised Land. Even then, Israel seldom managed more than a few days without grumbling and pining for the good ol’ days of captivity in Egypt, but at least Israel was following, albeit often reluctantly, following Yahweh to the Promised Land.
Even then, however, the good times did not last:

2:5“What fault did your ancestors find in me,
that they strayed so far from me?
They followed worthless idols
and became worthless themselves.
6 They did not ask, ‘Where is the Lord,
who brought us up out of Egypt
and led us through the barren wilderness,
through a land of deserts and ravines,
a land of drought and utter darkness,
a land where no one travels and no one lives?’

Even before they cleared the borders of Egypt the fathers were whining about perishing at Pharoah’s hand, when they were caught between his armies and the Red Sea. Then Yahweh saved them, brought them safely through the Red Sea while Pharoah and his armies perished, and on the other side the Israelites sang the song of Moses:

Ex 15:1“I will sing to the Lord,
for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.
2“The Lord is my strength and my defense[a];
he has become my salvation.
He is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.

Three days later, at Marah, they were again complaining bitterly “What shall we drink?” Three days after enough water to drown Pharoah’s armies they were worried about what to drink, because the water was bitter. Then Moses threw a piece of wood into the water, and the water became fit to drink.
Yahweh kept on leading his people, grateful or otherwise, to the Promised Land. Then, on the threshold of the Land flowing with milk and honey, they decided it wasn’t worth it, the inhabitants of the land were too big for them, and so they spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness, and it was their children who entered the Promised Land.

7 I brought you into a fertile land
to eat its fruit and rich produce.
But you came and defiled my land
and made my inheritance detestable.
8 The priests did not ask,
‘Where is the Lord?’
Those who deal with the law did not know me;
the leaders rebelled against me.
The prophets prophesied by Baal,
following worthless idols.

Unfortunately even in the Land their faithfulness did not last. They erected altars to Baal and followed other gods. It was all but unheard of for nations to change allegiance to other gods, but Israel did it time and again.

2:11Has a nation ever changed its gods?
(Yet they are not gods at all.)
But my people have exchanged their glorious God
for worthless idols.
12 Be appalled at this, you heavens,
and shudder with great horror,”
declares the Lord.
13 “My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

Israel had privileged access to the spring of living water, but she chose to dig her own cisterns, cisterns that proved to be broken, prone to profuse leakage, and unable to hold water. There was -and is- no God but Yahweh, and yet Israel turned away from the Living God to follow after idols.

Jeremiah’s job was to remind Judah of her history, and their future, and above all, remind them of their God, who had been spurned so many times, but who was still calling for them, waiting for them, yearning for them to return to him. In spite of all the cycles of betrayal and return that Israel had already foisted on Yahweh, still he waited, still he called, still he stood, with arms wide open, ready at a moment’s notice, to welcome his children back to his bosom, if only they would, but rather than pursuing Yahweh, Israel (and now Judah) pursued betrayal, unfaithfulness, and other gods, who were no gods.

2:20“Long ago you broke off your yoke
and tore off your bonds;
you said, ‘I will not serve you!’
Indeed, on every high hill
and under every spreading tree
you lay down as a prostitute.
21 I had planted you like a choice vine
of sound and reliable stock.
How then did you turn against me
into a corrupt, wild vine?
22 Although you wash yourself with soap
and use an abundance of cleansing powder,
the stain of your guilt is still before me,”
declares the Sovereign Lord.
23 “How can you say, ‘I am not defiled;
I have not run after the Baals’?
See how you behaved in the valley;
consider what you have done.
You are a swift she-camel
running here and there,
24 a wild donkey accustomed to the desert,
sniffing the wind in her craving—
in her heat who can restrain her?
Any males that pursue her need not tire themselves;
at mating time they will find her.
25 Do not run until your feet are bare
and your throat is dry.
But you said, ‘It’s no use!
I love foreign gods,
and I must go after them.’

The passion Israel lacked for Yahweh she did not lack for gods who were no gods, but these gods never came through for Israel. Then, when Israel was in real trouble, then she came running back to Yahweh for help, but as soon as the trouble was over, she went back to chasing after idols.

2:27 They say to wood, ‘You are my father,’
and to stone, ‘You gave me birth.’
They have turned their backs to me
and not their faces;
yet when they are in trouble, they say,
‘Come and save us!’
28 Where then are the gods you made for yourselves?
Let them come if they can save you
when you are in trouble!
For you, Judah, have as many gods
as you have towns.

These charades had been going on now for about 800 years (exodus to Jeremiah), and Yahweh wanted a change. He had patiently waited for many lifetimes, always welcomed his children when they returned, always watched with a pained heart when they wandered, but never repulsed them when they came back, no matter how many other gods they had given their best between times of bedraggled return. What to do? Yahweh wanted lasting reconciliation. He so powerfully desired to redeem his people for himself, he was willing to do whatever it took to welcome them back one last time for good, but what would it take? What would it take? How much more could he take?

3:1 “If a man divorces his wife
and she leaves him and marries another man,
should he return to her again?
Would not the land be completely defiled?
But you have lived as a prostitute with many lovers—
would you now return to me?”
declares the Lord.

Could Yahweh take Israel back after all the betrayal and unfaithfulness and adultery? Should Yahweh take back such an unfaithful people? Was it not high time for them to learn their lesson of the consequences of rebellion? Did not Yahweh owe them a dose of reality after all the generations of chasing other gods? Should he be gracious again? Could he? Could he not?

3:12“‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the Lord,
‘I will frown on you no longer,
for I am faithful,’ declares the Lord,
‘I will not be angry forever.
13 Only acknowledge your guilt—
you have rebelled against the Lord your God,
you have scattered your favors to foreign gods
under every spreading tree,
and have not obeyed me,’”
declares the Lord.
14 “Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband.”

19 “I myself said,
“‘How gladly would I treat you like my children
and give you a pleasant land,
the most beautiful inheritance of any nation.’
I thought you would call me ‘Father’
and not turn away from following me.
20 But like a woman unfaithful to her husband,
so you, Israel, have been unfaithful to me,”
declares the Lord.
21 A cry is heard on the barren heights,
the weeping and pleading of the people of Israel,
because they have perverted their ways
and have forgotten the Lord their God.
22 “Return, faithless people;
I will cure you of backsliding.”

Right and fair and just don’t matter. All that matters is God’s desire for his people. Let me rephrase that: Right and fair and just matter, but not as much as God’s desire matters. Right and fair and just must all bow to God’s sovereign mercy. God had said to Moses many generations earlier (Exodus 33:19; Romans 9:15):

“I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”

Did Israel deserve another chance? Hardly. Would God be justified in giving up with them and starting over as he had already proposed to do once, when Moses talked him out of it? Most assuredly so, but now, with no Moses to stand in his way, Yahweh still prefers to call again, because God’s justice is not tempered with mercy. Rather, mercy is an integral component in God’s justice. It is not as though God is torn and bifurcated by conflicting desires that drag him in opposite directions. God is love, and God is just, and God is merciful, and so God does as God is, because he answers to no one and no thing. And so if judgement is what it takes to bring his children back, then judge he will, because God’s mercy includes judgment if that is what it takes to call his children back to him, and warnings of judgement are all but ubiquitous in the prophet’s message.

4:12 “Now I pronounce my judgments against them.”
16 “Tell this to the nations,
proclaim concerning Jerusalem:
‘A besieging army is coming from a distant land,
raising a war cry against the cities of Judah.
17 They surround her like men guarding a field,
because she has rebelled against me,’”
declares the Lord.
18 “Your own conduct and actions
have brought this on you.
This is your punishment.
How bitter it is!
How it pierces to the heart!”

22 “My people are fools;
they do not know me.
They are senseless children;
they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil;
they know not how to do good.”
23 I looked at the earth,
and it was formless and empty;
and at the heavens,
and their light was gone.
24 I looked at the mountains,
and they were quaking;
all the hills were swaying.
25 I looked, and there were no people;
every bird in the sky had flown away.
26 I looked, and the fruitful land was a desert;
all its towns lay in ruins
before the Lord, before his fierce anger.

And so judgement must come, and it will come. It will come suddenly and harshly, and terribly, but not without mercy. Even when it seems that nothing will turn Israel from her idolatry, still God will not utterly destroy that sinful nation. Even when judgement falls as it must, it will fall with mercy, and with hope for redemption.

27 This is what the Lord says:

“The whole land will be ruined,
though I will not destroy it completely.
28 Therefore the earth will mourn
and the heavens above grow dark,
because I have spoken and will not relent,
I have decided and will not turn back.”
29 At the sound of horsemen and archers
every town takes to flight.
Some go into the thickets;
some climb up among the rocks.
All the towns are deserted;
no one lives in them.

Even as judgement falls, Yahweh is pleading with Israel to take some thought for what she is doing, for the harm she is bringing to herself, for the vanity of her ways that may seem expedient for the moment, but ways that can only exacerbate her already dire situation.

30 What are you doing, you devastated one?
Why dress yourself in scarlet
and put on jewels of gold?
Why highlight your eyes with makeup?
You adorn yourself in vain.
Your lovers despise you;
they want to kill you.
31 I hear a cry as of a woman in labor,
a groan as of one bearing her first child—
the cry of Daughter Zion gasping for breath,
stretching out her hands and saying,
“Alas! I am fainting;
my life is given over to murderers.”

Back in Abraham’s time Sodom and Gomorrah could have been saved for just 10 righteous people. Now God is even more eager to save.

5:1“Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem,
look around and consider,
search through her squares.
If you can find but one person
who deals honestly and seeks the truth,
I will forgive this city.

Even when judgement falls, it will not be utter destruction.

10 “Go through her vineyards and ravage them,
but do not destroy them completely.

18 “Yet even in those days,” declares the Lord, “I will not destroy you completely.”

And again, the warning of judgement to come is interrupted by a reminder that Yahweh had showed them which way to take, but they refused.

6: 16 This is what the Lord says:
“Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
and you will find rest for your souls.
But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’
17 I appointed watchmen over you and said,
‘Listen to the sound of the trumpet!’
But you said, ‘We will not listen.’
18 Therefore hear, you nations;
you who are witnesses,
observe what will happen to them.

And so judgement comes as the fruit of their choices.

19 “Hear, you earth:
I am bringing disaster on this people,
the fruit of their schemes,
because they have not listened to my words
and have rejected my law.”

And the judgement comes as obstacles to make their way hard, because the way they choose is a way that leads to destruction, and a good loving God cannot endlessly enable that trajectory. Not even a good and loving God, but especially good and loving God, must eventually step aside and allow the consequences of sin to bear the fruit of judgement.

21 Therefore this is what the Lord says:
“I will put obstacles before this people.
Parents and children alike will stumble over them;
neighbors and friends will perish.”

But the purpose of judgement is always correction and refinement and restoration.

27 “I have made you a tester of metals
and my people the ore,
that you may observe
and test their ways.
28 They are all hardened rebels,
going about to slander.
They are bronze and iron;
they all act corruptly.
29 The bellows blow fiercely
to burn away the lead with fire,
but the refining goes on in vain;
the wicked are not purged out.
30 They are called rejected silver,
because the Lord has rejected them.”

Again and again, interspersed with the warnings of judgement, are interludes of pleading again for Judah to return to her God.

7:2 Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. 4 Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” 5 If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6 if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. 8 But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.

Yahweh reminds Israel that he has given them instructions, he showed them the paths of life, and instructed them in how they should walk, and he has sent judges, and prophets to remind them of the right ways, and they had already experienced interludes of judgement and correction, and yet they kept turning away. Time and again they refused to listen and live.

21 “‘This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves! 22 For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, 23 but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you. 24 But they did not listen or pay attention; instead, they followed the stubborn inclinations of their evil hearts. They went backward and not forward. 25 From the time your ancestors left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets. 26 But they did not listen to me or pay attention. They were stiff-necked and did more evil than their ancestors.’

This particular section of Jeremiah does not end on a hopeful tone:

8: 3 Wherever I banish them, all the survivors of this evil nation will prefer death to life, declares the Lord Almighty.’

Judgement will lay heavy on the people, but judgement is not inevitable. The passages that speak in those tones come across as Yahweh urging himself to hold the course, to allow his children to bear the consequences of their choices, and not to relent too easily and again allow them the terrible delusion that bad choices do not carry commensurate consequences. Yahweh has been patient with his children for 1600 years (Abraham to Jeremiah), but the time for judgement has come. Nevertheless, even now it is clear that judgement comes not as vindictive retribution, but as redemptive action that hopes for restoration. As we read further Jeremiah contains incredible passages of hope for a future bright with promise.
For now, however, it is time for judgement and as history unfolds, Yahweh’s pleadings for Israel to turn are again unheeded and terrible judgement falls, clearly against Yahweh’s fondest hopes and deepest desires. However, it is a measure of Yahweh’s mercy that restorative judgement comes and Israel does finally learn the folly of her idolatry. This is not to say that all is well after this lesson is learned, because then there are more lessons to be learned. Though Israel never again fell into the same kind of idolatry of worshipping the gods of the nations around her, she still did not recognize her God when he took on flesh.
But who would? Who could??? Yahweh becomes flesh to bear in his own body the judgement of his childrens’ sins? Our sins? That is preposterous! It is unbelievable!! And yet... And yet… this is the preposterous story that is told by Christian theology – that God himself suffers the worst of our judgement with us and for us, so that even while we suffer, we never suffer alone, and in our suffering we reap the benefits of God suffering for us, and we suffer in hope. But Yahweh, who judges, does not simply pass judgement as one would expect a sovereign deity to do. When Yahweh finally allows judgement to come, he lays aside his royalty, he takes on flesh, and serves not only as the Judge, but also as the judged, and he himself participates in the judgement for sin. And so, always we have hope, along with Israel, because of Christ.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Hobby Farmer

I visited this hobby farmer yesterday. He had these piglets. They are not very big now, but cute, and they came when he called. Crazy farmer, he is. It was a blast to see his place.

He gets on the fence and calls his pigs, and I’m thinking to myself (didn’t say anything, of course) “The bloke’s a wee bit daft!! Pigs don’t come when you call ‘em. Dogs maybe, and horses, maybe, but pigs? Nah.” Then wouldn’t you know it, before long there is this black shape on the ground some distance away, undulating in our direction. And then there is this monster big thing that is unmistakably a pig, running across the horizon, obviously not coming our way. Turns out the black shape is a horde of piglets coming from the barn, running all hell bent for leather in a mad dash to be the first to get to the farmer. And the big sow that was obviously not coming our way? Just running alongside a fence to find its way around it, and it's heading this way too! Well I never! And in no time he is surrounded by piglets and the monster, all scrabbling madly to be closest to him. And all the while, he is feeding them carrots and talking coolly about how they are all destined for the slaughter. Except the mother. She needs to make more bacon yet.

Then later, when he went to call his chickens, my incredulity was a little more tempered, but I was still thinking “No chicken ever has had sufficient brain power to respond to a farmer calling them”, but I was wrong. Again. They all came, clucking and chortling, to see what the farmer had for them, and just a touch was fine. No food required, they just liked the man. I figured (but didn’t say nuthin’ again) somebody ought to explain to these poor biddies that the farmer just wants their unborn babies. That appreciation may be mutual, but the affection ain’t.

Then he had Dexter cows, and miniature horses, including one itty bitty miniature horse born just last Saturday. He had no idea the mare was even pregnant. Just got lucky. And a dog, and cats. Apparently one of the cats they affectionately called their teenage cat – all respectful and cooperative, I assumed.

Quite the experience, it was.