Sunday, November 24, 2019
Driving around town, I’ve been listening to a book on CD in my car, My Reading Life. Pat Conroy tells his life story through the lens of the great books that have shaped him. He begins with Gone with the Wind. I am not from the South. I never read that book or saw the movie.
Have I just spoken a sacrilege? Why was this book formative for Conroy? His mother prided herself as a southern woman, a southern lady. Gone with the Wind was her story. Writer Margaret Mitchell she did not have Peggy Conroy in mind. She didn’t know who Peggy Conroy was.
Once the book came to life, Gone with the Wind no longer belonged to Margaret Mitchell. It became the setting for all who entered. Pat Conroy’s mom found herself in this story. She inhabited it.
When we read the Bible, we need to enter and inhabit it. Jeremiah wrote his prophecy at the end of the 7th and beginning of the 6th centuries BC. God was going to punish Judah for her sins by allowing her to be completely overrun by the powerful Babylonians. Jeremiah had to say this even though his countrymen didn’t listen, and, in fact, punished him for saying it.
Jeremiah wasn’t thinking about you or me when he wrote. But, we can find ourselves in his story. He wasn’t speaking to or for us, but through him, God speaks to us. Inhabit the story. Find out what God has to say to you.
“[You shepherds of Israel] have scattered my flock, and driven them away. You have not attended to them. So I will attend to you.” Attend. The leaders fail to care for the people the Lord told them to watch. The Lord, will watch those negligent leaders. The Lord sees their evil. When we fail to care for those God entrusts to our care, that is evil and the Lord sees it.
Jeremiah describes a coming calamity – exile! But, that’s not all he says. In chapter 23, God promises a reversal. God will undo the damage of the wicked, self-serving shepherds.
“I myself with gather the remnant,” God says in verse 3. “I will bring them back.” Exile is going to end with the negligent rulers wallowing in poverty in Babylon and the scattered sheep brought back home to God. God gathers hurting, broken people into a divine embrace.
“I will bring them back; … they shall be fruitful and multiply.” God gathers and frees us up to live out His purpose for us. “Fruitful and multiply;” hear the echo of Eden? Genesis 1:28, the very highpoint of creation. God creates human beings in God’s image and gives them their life’s mission. “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.” Human beings obeyed God and then disobeyed so massively that God started over. God washed all the sin out of the world with the flood and began again, because the plan had not changed.
Noah is just off the ark, the ground still muddy. God sees our propensity to sin, yet again declare humans to be His image bearers (Genesis 9:6). Nothing in all of creation matters to God the way humans do. After the flood, God repeats the command because the plan has not changed. “You be fruitful and multiply. Abound on the earth and multiply in it” (Genesis 6:7).
God stays committed to His own vision. In Jeremiah 23, God goes right back to it. “I will bring them back and they shall be fruitful and multiply.” Adam and Eve in Eden; Noah and his family after the flood; the returning exiles foreseen in Jeremiah 23; be fruitful and multiply. Human beings, the pinnacle of creation, fill the earth with God’s goodness.
Now, consider Jesus speaking to his disciples after the resurrection in Acts 1:8. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (v.8b). Do you hear the command? Be fruitful. Grow in Christ and grow the church by leading the people of the world to follow Christ. We are to fill the earth with the knowledge of God by drawing the world to Jesus.
After noticing the evil shepherds, in Jeremiah 23:4 God promises new, better shepherds, true leaders, and the people “will not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing.” Surely Jesus was thinking of this promise of God from Jeremiah when, in the opening verses of Luke 15, he told the parable of the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to seek out and save the one that is lost. Under the protection of the Good Shepherd, our Lord, none are lost.
Finally, God promises, “I will raise up … a righteous branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness” (v.5). In God’s earth made new, the Righteous Branch, King Jesus, executes justice, but then, He exceeds the demands of justice. With justice everyone is treated fairly. Righteousness means everyone gets what he or she needs in order to thrive.
When we inhabit the story, it gets in us. Filled with the Holy Spirit, we follow our master. We work for justice and then reach beyond to strive for righteousness. As we stand in the middle of the layers of moral decay coating society’s walls, we insist on and fight for justice and then take the next step. Following our righteous Lord, we work for equity and inclusion so that everyone in the flock of the Good Shepherd, every person Jesus died for has the opportunity to thrive.
Inhabiting the story, we give ourselves to working for God’s righteousness just as Jesus did. He leaves the 99 to find the one who is lost even when it is that one’s fault that he’s lost. For love’s sake, we do the same.
We’re sitting in Jeremiah seeing our own story told in the words and story of a Jewish prophet in ancient Israel. Our lives make sense as we learn who we are through Jeremiah’s words. As Christians we enter this story through one door – the cross. Jesus is the heartbeat of this story written 600 years before his birth. Jesus is the heartbeat of my story, and yours.
Jeremiah’s story comes as one of this week’s lectionary readings. The lectionary is a schedule of readings on a three-year cycle. Each Sunday usually includes an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, Gospel reading, and a New Testament reading. Jeremiah, whether he fully knew it or now, anticipated the coming of Christ when he wrote God’s promise. “I will raise up … a Righteous Branch.” He anticipated Christ at a distance. In our story, with great longing we wait for the new thing God will do.
Today’s Psalm, Psalm 46, like a blockbuster movie trailer, whets our appetite. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. … We will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam” (46:1-3a). Because God is raising a Righteous Branch, we will not fear.
The distant anticipation grows closer in the Gospel reading, Luke 1, the speech of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. This is the new trailer, out just a few weeks before the show’s big release. “Blessed be the Lord God. … He has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a might savior for us in the house of David as he spoke through the prophets of old” (v.68-70). Rescued as we are, we are freed to serve God.
Every promise Jeremiah spoke, every great blessing the Psalm sings, every truth Zechariah sees points to the coming of Jesus. And Colossians 1, the New Testament reading, fills out the picture with bigger colors, a cosmic backdrop. Jesus, the baby born in a manger, is God in the flesh.
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all thing in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and before him and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
We, Jesus’ church, beat with Jesus’ heart. Working through us, he executes justice, brings righteousness – peace and thriving for all – and defines who we are. When we point the world to his cross, his resurrection, and to life lived following him, we know we that we have inhabited the story and are living the story. When we work for good in the world, the story of the Psalm, of Jeremiah, of Luke, or Colossians, and of Hillside is all one story.
That’s the church at work in the world. Narrow the focus. Zoom in so closely, it’s you, staring into the mirror of your soul. What do you see? In the very depths of my own heart, I see a sinner who can be petty and short tempered and selfish. The worst victims of my relational crimes are the people I love most, my wife and my three kids. And I am the victim of their sins against God.
That’s not all I see. I also see Jesus – right there in the deepest parts of me. It’s not because my faith is perfect, so mature and developed. It’s because God is love, the good shepherd who repeatedly goes out to find me when I wander and brings me back. It’s because when I am at my very best, in those moments, God is actually speaking through me. So people look at me and see Him.
In my best moments, in my worst moments, and in my banal, boring, non-descript-Tuesday-in-February moments; in all the frozen seconds of time of my life, my life only makes sense when seen in light of who Jesus. All who find themselves in Him would say what I must say. He is the heartbeat of my story.