Knowing the Word of God
One of the pictures of the Old Testament I received from the lectures when I was in Israel was to see the history of the Old Testament as the story of cats and mice – big empires and little tribes. The big players throughout history were the Egyptians, Assyrians, Hittites, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and the Romans. The tribes were the Amelekites, Edomites, Moabites, Philistines, Ammonites, Arameans, Semites, and of particular interest for us, the Israelites. When the cats were around, the mice kept out the way as best they could. But when the cats were away, the mice came out to play – at trying to be ‘the new cat on the block’.
This was the situation at the time of Jeremiah for the Assyrian Empire was starting to crumble and Egypt and Babylon were working together against Assyria. Assyria had wiped away the Northern Kingdom of Israel and inflicted taxes on the Kingdom of Judah where Jerusalem was the capital. This mouse, Jerusalem, was playing politics as best it could between Assyria and Egypt and it was Jeremiah’s prophetic role for decades to tell Jerusalem – kings, priests, other prophets, the military, the economy – that God’s judgement was coming and the best outcome – the one where people at least lived – ok, in exile but living another day is better than the alternative of death – was to surrender to Babylon. Imagine how that message goes down among the religious who believe God will not desert his temple and among the king and military who want to maintain a fighting force with which to play politics when there’s a sole prophet saying that judgement is coming – surrender to Babylon before too late? Yes, it was a tough call for Jeremiah – known as the ‘weeping prophet’ who spoke constantly of judgement – people reaping the whirlwind of their sin and rejection of God; who thought themselves elite and modern incorporating all the latest religious views and who had in effect forgotten their history of God’s rescue from Egypt – after all, that was hundreds of years ago.
Most of the chapters of Jeremiah are about God’s judgement and the sufferings including complaints and laments of Jeremiah. But it is not without hope or promises from God that abandonment and death were not going to be the last word – salvation was also coming. So today we heard as our first reading …
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
(Jeremiah 33:14-16 ESV)
With the Babylonian captivity in front of them, God tells his people that he will not abandon them for he will keep his promises to them and in doing so they will remember the truth that their righteousness is always the Lord’s first and he gives it, bestows it, declares it onto his people. Earlier, in chapter 23, the king is given the name ‘the Lord is our righteousness’ and now in another promise that David’s line would not be obliterated by history or their own forgetfulness or even Babylon, God will raise a righteous branch from David’s line and he will bring about justice and righteousness and there will be security for the land and for the city, Jerusalem, which itself will be called ‘the Lord is our righteousness’.
It is easy to see why people – Jewish and even some Christians – hold significance for the land of Israel and for Jerusalem – even though the Davidic line of kings is no more. We all want to hold onto something. We want tangible things – provable – not that words are unimportant but we can forget them and they can be manipulated and twisted – and deep down we all subscribe, in some way, to actions speak louder than words. So after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the exile there was about 70 years of being away before the then new cats – the Persians – allowed Jerusalem to be rebuilt and the land to have some autonomy but it was always to be an area under someone else’s control. By the time of Jesus it was the Romans in control who franchised out the local arrangements for civil, judicial, economic, and religious matters to whichever local had control – could help keep the Roman Peace so to speak – and give allegiance and funds to Rome.
Jeremiah was right about the Babylonians but he faced much opposition throughout his ministry. We don’t know the details of his death but we assume it was in Egypt where he was taken against his will just before or just after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Scholars believe he saw his prophecies – the judgements of God – happen – though not all of them and not the promises of God. Later generations would understand Jeremiah to be a true prophet of the Lord because what he said happened. Finally that is the only test of a prophet. The people returned and Jerusalem was rebuilt and the temple was rebuilt – the mice were back.
We remember Jeremiah and the history of Jerusalem – indeed we read the Old Testament each Sunday in worship and we don’t excise it from our bibles – because we find his message fulfilled – not 70 years later but almost 600 years later. For Christians, Jeremiah’s prophecy has become personal. It is no longer about a country or a city, about a temple or religious activities. Jeremiah’s prophecy doesn’t lead us to Jerusalem – we don’t have to go there to be Christians – or insist that scholars research and research until we find someone who is a descendant of King David. No, we hear Jeremiah today – on this first Sunday of Advent when the church year begins anew – a type of January 1st for us – because his words lead us to the man, Jesus. Christians hear Jeremiah’s words conveying Jesus. In fact if the Bible – Old and New Testaments – doesn’t convey Jesus then we’re reading it wrong!
It is now just over 2,000 years since Jesus first appeared on this planet. He is remembered – it won’t be long and his birthday is commemorated almost globally – by his followers as someone who did live a long time ago – and he is known by his followers as ‘the Lord is our righteousness’. Did you notice the two actions we can give to Jesus? We can remember him and not be affected by him – he’s a piece of knowledge from history and people can take it or leave it and usually they leave it. And he is also known – present tense – as we know the people around us today – because he is the fulfilment of God’s action of being close to his people. And like any relationship that we have, this relationship – albeit with someone we don’t see – can grow or diminish – in the same way as our other relationships grow and diminish by our attention to them. We spend time with those people who are important to us. We work together – try and not annoy them and be gracious when they annoy us. That’s some of how we behave with the people around us – the people we see and with whom we interact.
It is the same with Christianity which is not about mind games and conjuring up emotions or experiences or learning esoteric teachings but is essentially personally meeting Jesus. If he is still dead, then Christians are to be the most pitied. But if he is alive then this new year beckons another year in our homes, work, retirement, marriages, singleness, families, health, joys, and troubles – in other words our lives continue – but also with Jesus not as someone we conjure up by thinking about him but someone who uses words to come to us bidden – sometimes we listen – and unbidden – sometimes the words of the Bible, hymn, song, prayer, liturgy come to us and give us something to ponder and respond to. Jesus uses water to give us life with him – to take our sin and give us his righteousness. And he uses bread and wine to personally assure us that he is for us and not against us as he forgives us, heals us, and blesses us.
It is this relationship for the disciple of Jesus that shapes us – for God has declared us righteous because of Jesus – and we take this relationship into all our other relationships seeking to follow Jesus by serving those around us. All we have are words. That’s all people ever have really. And it can be tough to only have words – we’d like success, money, miracles to back them up. We can imagine the people of Jerusalem struggling whom to believe – lonely Jeremiah or the many religious leaders who spoke against him. Both spoke in the name of the Lord! Why listen to me and not to the Dalai Lama or the local imam? Where will you put your trust? That is the conundrum the world has with the supermarket of religions. And what about us?
I hear many people today talking about faith. You’ve got to have faith. Our faith will get us through. Faith is a comfort. And when I say it like that I hope you can see how empty such words are. Faith in what? In whom? One can be sincerely right as sincerely wrong.
It is not faith as such that comforts a Christian but Jesus. Faith doesn’t get us through but Jesus can and does. Having faith is as ubiquitous as having food to eat – sure we need both – but what we really need is not just bread but the Bread of Life – Jesus. Why? Consider the cross. Think of the empty tomb. Because of Jesus our sins are now forgiven and Christians are called righteous – not in themselves – but because Jesus is righteous for us and he gives us his righteousness because he says so – with words, water, bread and wine. There’s no better way to face a new year – or another day of living – than with such words ringing in our ears. Let’s not concentrate so much on the how of our relationship – the faith bit – but on the person with whom we have a relationship – Jesus, who is close to us and says, ‘Remember, I love you’.
- Jeremiah 33:14 - 16