I do not imagine that you have spent much time thinking about the prophet Jeremiah lately. He doesn’t usually make it into People Magazine. I had a professor of New Testament in seminary who claimed that Jeremiah was Jesus’ favorite prophet on account of that verse: “I will put my law upon them, and I will write it in their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
Sometimes when I am reading the Bible, especially the Old Testament, I think about how these words must have sounded to Jesus. How he took the wisdom and truth in scripture and opened it up to all of us in a new way. Neither Jesus nor Jeremiah were very popular on their views of scripture.
This morning we have a very difficult reading from Luke that no one likes very much because it is so true. Jesus claims that he comes to bring division among us and among families. We do not like to think about Jesus this way, though we know the truth of what is written here, for nothing has divided people on this earth so much as their interpretation of faith in God. How are we to interpret readings like this for our lives? Notice Jesus asks us that question himself, “…why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” It is still a good question.
Jerusalem was under siege. The Babylonian army, led by King Nebuchadnezzar had surrounded the city. It was an fearsome army with a reputation for devastation that made nations quake in their sandals. This was the time of the prophet Jeremiah. He went about the city proclaiming that it was futile to resist the Babylonians. Yahweh had raised up this very Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar, to judge Judah. Jerusalem, Jeremiah warned, should surrender.
As you can imagine, Jeremiah was extremely unpopular in Jerusalem. No one wanted to hear this kind of subversive activity. The Hebrew officials defending Jerusalem went to King Zedekiah and demanded that Jeremiah be put to death, “for he disheartens the soldiers, and all the people who are left in the city, by speaking such things to them. That man is not seeking the welfare of the people, but their harm!”
King Zedekiah agreed and said: “He is in your hands; the king cannot oppose you in anything…. So they took Jeremiah and put him down in the pit, which was in the prison compound; they let Jeremiah down by ropes. There was no water in the pit, only mud, and Jeremiah sunk into the mud.”
The King’s men left Jeremiah to die in the pit. The entire nation had rejected him and saw him as a traitor. No one interceded for him. Jeremiah is an anti-hero as were most prophets. They didn’t interpret their faith to support the assumptions of the culture. Mostly, they afflicted the comfort- able. Usually we just get snippets of their writings on Sunday and we do not catch the spirit of the times. But this story, if we read it in its entirety, can bring back unpleasant memories for us. For me, who was right smack in the middle of the Viet Nam days, it makes me recall my own inner turmoil which struggled with wanting to love my country and be loyal to it in my heart, and knowing in my head that we were committing grievous crimes in a charade of protecting freedom. And I knew people like Jeremiah, who I made fun of and wanted to throw into pits.
The story doesn’t stop here. Jeremiah doesn’t die. An obscure black foreigner named Ebedmelech, the Cushite, intervenes. Ebedmelech, whose name means “servant of the King,” goes to Zedekiah on Jeremiah’s behalf. He says, “O, Lord King, these men have acted wickedly in all they did to the prophet Jeremiah; they have put him down in the pit to die there of hunger.” The King relented and told Ebedmelech to take thirty men and get Jeremiah out of the pit.
Ebedmelech is a bit player in the Bible story. He is an official from the Land of Cush or Ethiopia. We know that the Cushites were known as warriors and served as mercenaries in the armies of the Middle East. David had Cushites in his army. The Biblical text stresses Ebedmelech nationality as a non-Hebrew. He is called a Cushite four times. To the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the term Cushite would have elicited images of black Africans. Certainly his bold confrontation with the King tells us Ebedmelech had serious political clout.
What is significant is, that it is a foreigner who acts to save the prophet of God. While the whole nation would not listen, it was a black Cushite who confronts the King. And later, Yahweh speaks to Jeremiah, promising him that Ebedmelech will live even though Jerusalem will fall, and so he does.
What I take away from this scriptural story is the reminder that often I am closed to the way of God if it does not fit the way I think God ought to be. It forces me to open my eyes to consider that God is interested in the whole human race, not just Americans, or Christians. Moreover, in this story, it is a foreigner who actually sees where God is. And I have learned that when I listen with openness to people who speak of God from other cultures and other beliefs, that instead of corrupting my faith, they open my heart to see God in a new way.
Let’s go back to Jesus and his tough words. When I read the Bible, I make a very important assumption. That is, that the Bible is one place that I can be sure to find the Word of God. Now I hasten to add that I do not mean that everything in the Bible is literally true, and that we must read the Bible literally. In fact, it is the literal interpretation of scripture that in my experience, most destroys the vision of God and in a very narcissistic manner, makes the Bible a graven image in place of the living God. Some people won’t like hearing that, but its true.
When I say that the Bible is the Word of God, for me, I mean that when I read the Bible openly and curiously, I can be sure that it is one place where God will speak to my heart. And God will do this time and time again even from the same passage. When I study the Bible with others and learn what God is saying to them, even if I do not hear the same thing, my perspective on God gets bigger and bigger and bigger. That’s a good thing.
Jesus was not a literalist. You remember, he was always getting himself in trouble with the Scribes and Pharisees, for doing things they considered to be irreverent, blasphemous, and totally opposite of the will of God. For instance, he allows his disciples to shuck corn on the Sabbath, or he heals on the Sabbath, or he associates with prostitutes and sinners rendering himself impure.
To me, the last thing Jesus expects of us is to make the New Testament into a legal code for life. Time and time again, Jesus offers his Jeremiahic interpretation of faith, that faith is in the heart, the soul, and not demonstrated by strict belief or a legal code, but by love.
Now love does not mean not knowing what you believe, but using what you believe to love others. I was talking with a lady the other day who found two women, Jehovah Witnesses, at her door. She invited them in and before they could get started on their “Watchtower” appeal, she asked, “Since Jehovah Witnesses are such a big organization, what are you doing to help the Christians in Jerusalem who were being persecuted? How do Jehovah Witnesses love them?” They were a bit taken aback clearly never having thought about Christians who were not Jehovah Witnesses. One said, “Well, we are being persecuted too, the French government is holding some of our land for tax purposes.” To which this lady replied, “No ladies, persecution is when your life is at risk and your homes are taken away. Tax laws are an inconvenience.”
The two Jehovah witnesses then asked her what sort of Christian she was. She told that she was an Episcopalian. They admitted that they didn’t know much about Episcopalians, and asked her what she believed. She said, “We believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and that you should try as hard as you can to love others and not condemn then. I am sure that Jehovah Witnesses are not one of those groups who condemn others for not seeing it the way they do. You are not like that, are you? You don’t tell people that they are going to hell because they don’t believe the way you do, are you?”
The conversation continued for a little bit longer. Our two friendly Jehovah Witnesses left feeling challenged I am sure, but loved at the same time because our Episcopal lady cared enough to share herself with them in a truthful way.
It seems to me that Jesus is always trying to get us to focus on the present time. When the Babylonians came to Jerusalem, there were maybe 40,000 people in the city. There are a lot more than that in our city. The world has grown complex and bigger. It is harder to reach people the way the prophets used too. But that hasn’t changed us much. It is clear that we are to care about things where we are and let God’s future take care of itself.
Our task is to act daily in our homes and families, at work, or at play with love and justice, being kind and tenderhearted, while at the same time being strong and fairminded.
When I was little, say 8 or 9, I would get a mite box during Lent and was supposed to fill it up with coins from my allowance or any other way I could. Every once in awhile, I would find myself in acute financial need and I would pry some coins out of the box. My conscience gnawed at me a bit, and I would promise to figure how to put them back before Easter. This one year, Lent had been especially expensive. The fatal Easter morning came. My sister, who was older and wiser, always had her box filled and clean as a whistle. Mine, on the other hand, was dirty, dog eared, with smudges, and evidence of illicit openings. Hers was full, mine was more than half empty.
My mother gave me the Easter morning lecture. Why was I so selfish? Why couldn’t I think of others who had less? She was intent in making me feel guilty. My Grandpa was living with us then. He went into his room and came with two fistfuls of change from a jar he always kept on his bureau that was full of change. He opened my mite box and filled it.
“Not fair,” said my sister, “That little twerp has spent all his allowance on himself.” My mother said, “This isn’t right. You’re rewarding the boy for his poor performance.”
My grandfather said, “You are both right. Its not fair, but don’t worry about it. God will remember how faithful both of you are. You don’t need any help. Now Bobby’s a different matter. Besides, I helped him spend some of that money, I figured I ought to put some back. ( For, you see, one day I had two cokes and gave my grandpa one.)
To my mother, he said, “haven’t I ever given you a gift you didn’t deserve? I’m not much on religion, but isn’t that what Easter is all about?” Then she looked at me with loving eyes and said, “Bobby, God loves you no matter what you do. And we are both lucky grandpa was here, aren’t we?
I said, ” I sure was sorry about using all that change.” She said, “I am sure God will forgive. But don’t push God too far. Next year, do it right.”
I am not sure how next year turned out. But I am sure that when we act out the Good News of Jesus Christ in the present, we bring the Lord nearer and nearer, nearer to everyone who comes our way. So when you read your Bible listen hard to what God is saying to your heart. And go out and relish it for that is what life is all about.