Sunday, January 31, 2010

Epiphany IV - Dr John Jarick

Dr John Jarick, Old Testament tutor at St Stephen's House, preached on Jeremiah 1:4-5 & 17-19 at the Solemn Mass for Epiphany IV.

We heard in this morning’s Old Testament reading that “the word of the Lord came” to Jeremiah, telling him that he was to be “a prophet to the nations”. I wonder if you realize just how intriguing that statement is, that the word of the Lord came to a man named Jeremiah.

Well now, any person’s name is of course part of that person’s identity, but in the Old Testament a prophet’s name is also almost inevitably connected with that prophet’s proclamation, in that it usually resonates in some way with the message that the prophet enunciates.

Take the name Isaiah, in Hebrew yeshayah, a name that combines the element of yasha, meaning “to save” or “salvation”, with the divine element yah, designating the God of Israel, “Yahweh” or “the Lord”. The very name Isaiah is thus proclaiming that “the Lord saves” or that “the Lord is salvation”. And so we read in the book of Isaiah such resonant elaborations upon the prophet’s name as “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation, and you will say in that day, ‘Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name’” [Isaiah 12:2-3]. Or again: “It will be said on that day, ‘Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation’” [25:9]. Or again: “The Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler, the Lord is our king; he will save us” [33:22]. Isaiah, Isaiah, Isaiah: the Lord saves, the Lord saves, the Lord saves. Now that’s what I call a word of prophecy — an entire teaching effectively summed up in the message-bearer’s name.

Or take the name Ezekiel, in Hebrew yechezeqel, a name that combines the element of chazaq, meaning “to be strong” or “to strengthen”, with the divine element el, designating the deity as “Elohim” or “God”. The very name Ezekiel is thus proclaiming that “God strengthens” or that “God is strength”. And so we read in the book of Ezekiel such resonant elaborations upon the prophet’s name as “The spirit lifted me up and bore me away…, the hand of the Lord being strong upon me” [Ezekiel 3:14]. Or again: “I will strengthen the arms of the king of Babylon, and put my sword in his hand… I will strengthen the arms of the king of Babylon, but the arms of Pharaoh shall fall; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I put my sword into the hand of the king of Babylon” [30:24-25]. Or again: “‘Ah, you shepherds of Israel, … you have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick or brought back the strayed or sought the lost… I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep …’, says the Lord God. ‘I will seek the lost and bring back the strayed and bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak’” [34:2,4,15-16]. Ezekiel, Ezekiel, Ezekiel: God strengthens, God strengthens, God strengthens. Now there’s another exceptionally fine word of prophecy — the great prophet of the exile is in his very name bringing flesh back to the bones of his broken people.

So let’s now take the name of Jeremiah, whose book sits in our Bibles between the book of the prophet “The Lord saves” — Isaiah — and the book of the prophet “God strengthens” — Ezekiel. Uplifted by the company he keeps, let’s see what his name has to say. That’s Jeremiah, in Hebrew yirmeyah, a name that combines the element of ramah, meaning “to deceive”, with the divine element yah, designating “the Lord”. Mmmm. The name Jeremiah thus appears to be saying that “the Lord deceives”. And indeed we read in the book of Jeremiah such startling outbursts as “Ah, Lord God, how utterly you have deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying ‘It shall be well with you’, even while the sword is at the throat” [Jeremiah 4:10]. Or again: “O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me… For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long” [20:7-8]. Jeremiah, Jeremiah, Jeremiah: the Lord deceives, the Lord deceives, the Lord deceives. Now just what kind of prophetic proclamation is that?

Perhaps this Jeremiah is simply an intensely angry young man, bent out of shape by his experience of being a prophet unloved in his own land and rejected by his own people. We can certainly detect in the reading we heard earlier that what he felt compelled to do in his time and place was a decidedly uncomfortable and friendless pursuit. We listened in to Jeremiah’s representation of the Lord’s call upon him in these words: “But you, gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you. Do not break down before them, or I will break you before them. And I for my part have made you today a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall, against the whole land — against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you!” [1:17-19]

Well, that’s hardly a recipe for the easy life, is it? And yet Jeremiah might previously have imagined an easy life for himself. He was “the son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin” [1:1], so he was a privileged youngster in the national priestly system of that time, and he could so easily have gone along with the expectations of that system and benefited from the structures within which his family was embedded. Everybody else was going along with the system: “the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land” [v. 18] — they were all more than content with the way things were, and they were determined to believe that things would always go on in exactly that way. And here’s the crux of the matter: Jeremiah’s society possessed an unquestioned confidence that God was on their side, smiling down upon them no matter what they did, so long as they kept up the religious rituals that tradition had laid down for them.

And then along comes Jeremiah, who would have been expected to take his place as one of the dutiful performers of the rituals in the temple, and indeed to take his ease as one of the beneficiaries of the system. But instead of quietly parading into the temple complex, he stands at the gates and yells out (in the words of chapter 7), “Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in those words that deceive: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place … but here you are, trusting to no avail in words that deceive’” [7:2-8].

Notice that expression, “words that deceive”. The confident assertion of the temple custodians and of the people flocking there that “this is the temple of the Lord” was shown to be a deceptive assertion, in view of their wanton disregard for what the Lord truly desired. They claimed that they were doing the Lord’s will, but they were self-deceived and deceiving others. Only Jeremiah, the man whose own name referred to deception in the name of the Lord, actually spoke the unsettling truth. How’s that for irony? — though not an irony appreciated by “the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land”. They would rather fight against the divergent voice, and silence it, than question their own comfortable assumptions about God or their own lives. They would rather sleep-walk into a disaster than re-examine their ways. For who, after all, wants to contemplate that they might have been deceived?

Yet Jeremiah persists in this nagging suggestion. In a letter that he writes to the citizens of Jerusalem who had been deported to Babylon, he hammers away on the same theme. “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel”, he writes, “‘Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them’, says the Lord” [29:8-9]. So there it is again, that unsettling notion that you can be led astray by someone claiming to speak in the name of the Lord.

Does Jeremiah really need to keep coming back so insistently to this same theme? He evidently felt so, that there was a recurrent need to remind his listeners or readers to be alert, and not simply to go along with anything that is said by self-styled leaders or opinion-shapers. The gadfly that is Jeremiah indeed proclaims already in the very name that he bears this need for discernment between ideas that seem persuasive, or appear to be widely and unquestionably held, and ideas that bite and nudge and unsettle. Jeremiah himself did not choose the easy life that his society and its religious traditions had mapped out for him, but instead stood against the consensus of opinion in the kingdom of Judah. It cost him a great deal personally, and there were times when he railed against the Lord who had compelled him to be the counter-voice to the prevailing sound of his day. But he remained true to the calling that we heard repeated in this morning’s reading. His name may seem strange and almost heretical in its prodding of his own people, making them contemplate the notion that they have been deceived in their understanding of God; yet the prophet’s pained voice resonates still for us, calling on us too to re-evaluate where we stand and where we are going.

Actually I’m rather glad that in our Bibles we have the resonant names of Isaiah — “The Lord saves” — and Ezekiel — “God strengthens” — on either side of the book that supplied today’s Old Testament reading, but nonetheless the uncomfortable name of Jeremiah — “the Lord deceives” — has something to say to us as well, to alert us to the need to re-examine the easy assumptions that we make about our lives and our views. And let’s not overlook the last words of today’s reading, which resonate strongly with those other two prophetic names: “‘They shall not prevail against you, for I am with you,’ says the Lord, ‘to deliver you’” [1:19]. Isn’t that another way of saying that “God strengthens” and that “the Lord saves”? Our friend Jeremiah is not in disagreement with our other friends Isaiah and Ezekiel; he just has his own unsettling angle on things, and maybe it’s no bad thing for us to be unsettled from time to time.

“The word of the Lord came to [a man named] Jeremiah.” Now there’s a riddle to reckon with.