Sunday, September 26, 2010

Planning Ahead (Jeremiah 32:1-3; 6-15)

It's not until we take a close look at Jeremiah's situation and the situation of the city he lived in that we see just how wild an act God calls him to do here.

On the face of it, we have Jeremiah being told to buy a piece of property, record the deed and make sure it's filed correctly. Just imagine someone who's always said Christianity was just boring would think when he read this passage. "I'm supposed to get excited and connect with the divine because of real estate?"

But there are a couple of little caveats about this piece of land, which Jeremiah buys because he is the closest surviving kinsman to the original owner. He has the right of first refusal on it by law. The first caveat is that this land is very likely occupied by a whole lot of Babylonian soldiers and has been for some time. They will have trampled it, pitched tents on it and otherwise treated it like an army treats the land on which it sits. The second is that the soldiers are on the land because Jerusalem is under siege, and when the city falls there is a good chance that an old man like Jeremiah won't survive it, nor will the halls where records like property deeds are kept. If he does, he's one of the religious leaders of the city and Babylonians tended to cart people like that off so they didn't help organize a resistance when the soldiers finally left.

Now, if he survives and if he stays, he's still left with a beat-up piece of property that he may not be able to work, given his age, and that he may not even be able to prove he owns if all the records are destroyed. But Jeremiah goes through all the formalities and proper procedures for transferring the title of the land as though things were as they'd always been. To borrow a cliché, this seems like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

But God directs him to do it, so we need to puzzle out what's going on if we can. One possibility is that God wants Jeremiah to offer a message of hope to a discouraged people, so they don't totally collapse. Jeremiah has been a prophet of disaster for many years now -- we even call a long speech that harps on everything that's wrong a jeremiad. If people see him acting like things are not completely hopeless, considering all of the doom he's talked about. then they may take heart in the face of their impending defeat. Winston Churchill's speeches often had this kind of effect on the people of England during the darkest days of World War II.

That could very well be part of the reason God calls Jeremiah to this act, but I think there's more to it. Judah, the last remnant of the nation of Israel that had been ruled by David and Solomon, has been attacked by the Babylonians for several reasons. One of the major ones is that Babylon is tired of this tiny country using its position in between Egypt, Babylon and Assyria to keep playing one off the other and have their own way. The Assyrians already knocked off the northern kingdom of Israel a couple of hundred years earlier, and the Egyptians plundered Jerusalem not too many years before this. Now Babylon has decided to put an end to the foolishness and just take the place over.

The rulers of Judah played these empires against each other because they thought it was the only way their nation could survive. And they believed they'd get away with it because they were God's chosen people who had God's promise that they would always endure. Never mind that, according to Jeremiah and nearly every other prophet who we can read they hadn't acted like God's people for the past couple of centuries. Never mind that God's promise was to a people, not a nation-state, and that they were clearly not depending on God when they tried playing the political game even though they were not in the same class as the heavyweights like Assyria and Babylon. The prophets said, "Doing this bring us disaster," and they were right.

Well, now that disaster was sitting in the living room with its feet on the table, God wanted to remind the people that he had indeed promised they would always be his people, even if they didn't understand what he meant by that. So Jeremiah gets his call to buy the property. That's crazy, people might say. You're acting like someone's going to be around to make good on this deed and all of these transactions, like Abraham's descendants will be around here to observe this law and follow it.

That's exactly how I'm acting, Jeremiah might say. Because that's what God has promised, and I can either believe it or not. I choose to believe it, and if I'm going to believe it with my words, I'm going to believe it with my acts as well. I may not see how it will happen, and I may not see when it will happen, and I might be like you and think it's crazy to figure it ever will happen. But if I'm going to follow the God who says it will happen, then I'm going to act like it will happen.

I can look in the mirror and see evidence of someone who has heard God's promise that he has all things in his hands but who doesn't always act it, of someone who claims to follow and tries to follow Christ but who way too often follows himself and where he wants to go. But the wonderful thing about the promise of God is that it's a promise of redemption, not just for all of the failures I've had up to the time I committed myself to following him, but for all of the ones I've made since.

That sounds like good news to me.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Pottery (Jeremiah 18:1-11)

Jeremiah gets told to go to the potter's house to hear a word from God. Considering that one of the other things God told him to do to was to walk around with a yoke on his neck and that God once told Isaiah to walk around naked for three years, Jeremiah is probably quite relieved at this simple instruction.

While there, he watches the potter work at his wheel. His project is somehow spoiled, so the potter re-shapes it into something else. After Jeremiah sees this, God asks him, am I not to Israel as this potter is to his clay? Can't I reshape the people I called into something else if I want to? Warn the people that I will reshape them just as this potter reshaped what he was making.

Likening God's creative work to the potter at the wheel has a long history -- when God makes the first man from the dust of the ground in Genesis, the Hebrew verb used there also gets used to talk about the work of a potter. It can explain a lot of things as we consider how God works in our world today. We sometimes get caught up in the idea that when someone does good, God does good things to him and when he does bad, God does bad things to him. Boiled down: He had it coming.

While that may work in Chicago, the playground and a court of law, it's not how Christianity says God operates. We say God deals with humanity by grace, not retribution.

But if God shapes us as the potter shapes the pot, isn't God responsible for what kind of shape we have? The potter's hands smooth the clay, build it up, hollow it out, bend it in here and out there. The clay by itself is a lump that does nothing until the potter begins to work on it. If God is the potter and we are the clay, then surely we can say that God is at hand in whatever happens to us, good or bad. And since God is just, he wouldn't do something bad to us unless we'd done something bad to earn it, right?

Maybe. But look again at the potter at work. The potter's hands shape the clay, but when the clay is on the wheel, those hands are not the only force at work on it. There is the centrifugal force of the spinning wheel. There is the dryness or moisture of the clay. There is the composition of the clay itself -- some clay is dense while some is lighter weight. Some holds more air and some is smoother. And some combines different properties in the same lump.

Changes in any one of those factors can affect the clay as it turns on the potter's wheel. Maybe the wheel wobbles unexpectedly. On an old-fashioned human-powered wheel, that might happen if the potter gets a leg cramp or hiccups or sneezes. Maybe as the potter applies hands to the clay, the pressure needed to shape dense clay is too much for a patch of lighter clay and pushes the vessel off-center or otherwise upsets it. Many other things could happen. The point is that the potter's hands are not the only force at work on the clay, and sometimes the potter has to respond to what those other forces do to the clay.

God's hands weren't the only forces at work on the kingdom of Judah. Though they were God's chosen people, they themselves had chosen to rely on worshiping additional God's other than the Lord. They'd decided to rely on playing the games that nations played, allying with one great empire and then the other to play both ends against the middle and maintain some kind of sovereignty of their own. God's people had decided they could be whatever kind of people they wanted to be and still be God's people, regardless of what kind of people God said his people should be.

And so God would have to reshape the vessel that he had intended them to be, in order for them to still be useful to his purpose. Remember, as Jeremiah watched the potter, the vessel he was making didn't shape right and he had to reshape it into something else. He didn't change the shape arbitrarily. He had to re-shape based on what had happened to his clay. Over the course of time, the people God called to himself and led out of Egypt had become spoiled just as the original pot was spoiled. But God still wanted a people through which he could work in the world, just as the potter still wanted a vessel to contain some kind of liquid. So just as the potter reworked his pot, God would now rework his people. The potter didn't wreck the pot and God didn't wreck the kingdom of Judah. But both creators remade their creations in light of what they had to work with.

God's work with us has many of the same characteristics. Although we try, we know that sometimes there are other forces than God's hands at work in shaping our lives. We can't control some of them. People do things that affect us. Physical things such as the weather or disaster happen. But we do affect others. We try to shape our own lives according to what we think is good, sometimes paying little attention to the kind of shaping God wants to do. And so God will change what kind of shaping he does with us.

That change might be unpleasant. Unlike the clay in the potter's hands, we have our own feelings and perceptions, and the kind of drastic change that may come to us might overwhelm us. We might see it the way the people of Judah saw it -- as "evil" being done to us. Even if we don't have that strong of a view, we still might not like it. I know I haven't always liked it when it's happened to me. I like it less when I realize how often these changes occur because of some choice or another I made.

But with the healing power of time and distance from the shaping, I've usually found myself able to concentrate on something that helped me. The change that happened came from God's hands. God is still shaping me to be a vessel for his purpose. Which means I still have a purpose, and God neglects neither that purpose nor me. Whether I'm one kind of vessel or another, shaped by God this way or that way, I am still being made by God. And that, as I understand it, means I am not junk, even if I'm going to wind up being a different kind of not-junk than I thought I might have been otherwise.