Sunday, 30 April 2017

Whenever Jehudi had read three or four columns of the scroll, the king cut them off with a scribe’s knife and threw them into the firepot, until the entire scroll was burned in the fire. – Jeremiah 36:23

Today’s Scripture Reading (April 30, 2017) Jeremiah 36

Personal Note: Today, a long journey comes to an end. I have been working on a Master of Divinity Degree for the past eleven years, and today the journey comes to a close. Today, I graduate. It has been an exciting time, I have met a lot of really special people, and heard some interesting stories.

One of my Fellow Graduates told me a story of family opposition to her even starting her journey toward a degree. After all, don’t people who obtain too much education tend to fall away from the church? She admits that, for the length of her journey toward her graduate degree, she has enjoyed sharing tidbits of information from her seminary classes with her family that they might find deeply disturbing. (Apparently, she enjoys poking the bear.) But her family is not alone. Over the years I have met many people who seem to be deeply suspicious of knowledge. We are quite content believing what we believe without ever having that knowledge challenged. It is something that my friends have come to understand about me – I love to challenge beliefs of the people around me. If we depend on our feelings to establish our spiritual principles, then we are traveling down a very dangerous road because what we feel (and what I feel) does not always lead us toward truth. We need to be challenged – and that includes me. And providing a challenge to our established beliefs is something at which educational institutions usually excel. But the understanding that challenging of ideas or beliefs or doctrines is always wrong is incorrect. We need to be challenged, or we will be in danger of continuing to believe what is false.

Jehoiakim thought that everything was going to turn out alright. God would come through in the end. He always did. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been carried off into exile, but they were not Judah. That was not going to happen to Judah. God would come through. However, the message from Jeremiah was exactly the opposite. Babylon had been sent by God to get the attention of the King, his court, and his people. Apparently, Jeremiah had gotten the message through to the court, but Jehoiakim was still not a fan. And so, he ignores the message, silently cutting it up as it is read and burning it so that it cannot disturb him anymore. Much like my friend’s family, he seemed to believe that information that he did not possess could not hurt him. He just felt that everything was going to be alright.

Meanwhile, just outside the city gates, God stood with the Babylonian army just as he had told Jeremiah. The city was about to fall, and Jehoiakim’s ignorance could not stop that reality.   

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 37

Saturday, 29 April 2017

The descendants of Jehonadab son of Rekab have carried out the command their forefather gave them, but these people have not obeyed me.’ – Jeremiah 35:16

Today’s Scripture Reading (April 29, 2017) Jeremiah 35

In 1839, Rev. Joseph Wolff, a Jewish Missionary, discovered a tribe of nomads in Yemen who believed that they were the descendants of Jehonadab, the son of Rekab (or Rechab) and the father of the Rekabites (or Rechabites.) The biblical Rekabites were a nomadic group who believed that they had been ordered by Jehonadab to abstain from living in houses and drinking of alcoholic beverages. The Rekabites were a portion of the Kenite tribe. The Kenites were not Jews, but they had developed a close relationship with Israel and had settled among the tribes of Israel when they came into Canaan. Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, was a Kenite.

Later in the 19th Century, another tribe who self-identified as Rekabites was found, this time around the Dead Sea. As well, some Muslims also claim to be descendants of Jehonadab, the son of Rechab. These descendants of Jehonadab, more than 2500 years after the order had initially been given, were still committed to a lifestyle that is nomadic and continues to abstain from any alcoholic beverage.

The two things in this passage that should jump out at us are why are the Rekabites, a nomadic tribe who do not live in houses, living inside the city walls of Jerusalem, and why would God order Jeremiah to give these teetotalers wine to drink? The reality is that the Rekabites were about to become a powerful example of obedience to the disobedient inhabitants of Jerusalem.

We find out that the Rekabite Tribe had been forced into Jerusalem to escape Nebuchadnezzar and his army. Now, with the city surrounded by the Babylonians, the Rekabites could not leave. But existence inside the city walls for a people who believed that they had been commanded by their ancestor to live nomadically, was not easy. When the Jeremiah offered the Rekabites wine, they politely refused. Even in times of extreme stress, the commands of their human ancestor were not to be ignored.

God’s message for Jeremiah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem was to see the example set by this group of people. Two hundred and fifty years after the original command had been given by Jehonadab, his descendants still heard his voice and followed his instructions. Why was it that thy heard the voice of Jehonadab while the people of Judah ignored the commands of their God regularly delivered through his prophets? In the presence of the Rekabites of our time, we might ask ourselves the same question. Why is the Faith of the Father’s so easy for us to disobey? There is no easy answer.   

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 36

Friday, 28 April 2017

Everyone was to free their Hebrew slaves, both male and female; no one was to hold a fellow Hebrew in bondage. – Jeremiah 34:9

Today’s Scripture Reading (April 28, 2017) Jeremiah 34

During the American Civil War, African American soldiers fought freely on the Union side of the war. Over 185,000 African American Soldiers fought in over 160 units. But on the Confederate side of the equation, the use of African American soldiers, whether free or slave, was a hotly debated topic. The role of the African American in the south during the civil war was as a strictly as a common laborer, not as a soldier. They were used for tasks that required manual labor, but they were not armed.  Near the end of the war, the Confederate Congress approved a plan to arm the African Americans of the South, but fewer than 50 were ever enlisted into the Confederate Army. And in the end, the Confederation fell to the Union Army.

Jeremiah sends word to the king instructing him to free the slaves. Scholars are split as to whether the original command indicated the freeing of all of the Hebrew slaves, or whether it was just the freeing of the Hebrew slaves that were being held illegally – against the instructions of God. Under Jewish Law, a Hebrew man or woman could be enslaved, but only for a limited period of time, and then they had to be released. But there is some question as to whether that ever actually happened. The result would have been a population of Hebrew people who were enslaved against the law of God. And these slaves needed to be freed if God’s law was to be taken seriously. So Jeremiah’s instruction started a debate in Jerusalem that would have been similar to the discussion in the Confederation Congress. The question was, what are we to do with the slaves?

The act of freeing the slaves could have possibly been simply an act attempting to appease God – a promise to God that the people of Judah were willing to do things differently, to do things God’s way. But another explanation might have been more about self-preservation. A slave might have been reticent to fight for the nation that was responsible for holding them as slaves, and with the gathering of the Babylonian forces around the city of Jerusalem, the king was going to need every available person to be ready and willing to enter the fight.  

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 35

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Have you not noticed that these people are saying, ‘The LORD has rejected the two kingdoms he chose’? So they despise my people and no longer regard them as a nation. – Jeremiah 33:24

Today’s Scripture Reading (April 27, 2017) Jeremiah 33

Author Paul Coelho once wrote, “Don't waste your time with explanations: people only hear what they want to hear.” I sometimes feel like that every time that I log onto Facebook. People believe what they are going to believe. Even if what they think makes absolutely no sense. (Or maybe it is because what I think makes absolutely no sense.) Everything that we understand comes from the way that we perceive external reality. None of us are objective. We believe what we believe. We hear comments that support that particular belief, and we ignore messages that go against that belief. And it often takes a catastrophic event to get us to reconsider what it is that we believe.

It was a catastrophic event that Judah was experiencing. In the midst of the unthinkable, the people were trying to figure out exactly what the event meant. In a world that understood the power of a particular God was displayed with the force by which that God protected a nation, the God of Judah and Israel looked weak. After all, both of the nations that had chased after him had been destroyed.

Or maybe it was that God had walked away; that he no longer cared for his people. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was on the prowl for a new people who would honor him better than the ones that had now been destroyed.

But for a remnant led by Jeremiah, they were willing to wrestle with the situation. Had God stopped caring for his people, or was there something else at play in the negative response in which Judah currently found herself. Could it possibly be that there was another answer to the emerging question? Is it possible that God was merely trying to get their attention, to provide the catastrophe that was needed to get his people to reconsider what it was that they believed?

For Jeremiah, this was the only possible answer. God had not left them alone as he walked away, and his arm was not too short to reach out and save them. But God, in his wisdom, had realized that the only thing that will cause his people to take their responsibility to the world seriously was a catastrophe. And he is willing to withstand the gossip of the nation’s who would question his love and power to get his people into the place for which they were intended. God was on the move, and a remnant would respond to his move, and change the world in which they lived.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 34

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The army of the king of Babylon was then besieging Jerusalem, and Jeremiah the prophet was confined in the courtyard of the guard in the royal palace of Judah. – Jeremiah 32:2

Today’s Scripture Reading (April 26, 2017) Jeremiah 32

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. The order allowed Secretary of War to prescribe certain areas as military zones which, in turn, cleared the way for the United States to declare the Western Coast of the nation as a restricted zone. The result was that Japanese Americans who lived on the coast could be detained in relocation centers. By the end of the war, over 100,000 people of Japanese descent were held in these centers – and 62% of these detainees were American citizens.

The incident became one of the black mark incidents against the United States that occurred during the Second World War. Specifically, the incident has resulted in numerous court cases asking the same fundamental question – are there any boundaries placed on a nation with regard to the actions that are permissible to be taken against its own people? What moral limits exist on the treatment of people during times of conflict? The question hovers around the central tenet of law stating that a person is innocent until proven guilty. For the vast majority of the detainees, there were no legal charges ever even considered, let alone laid and established. Innocent Americans had their rights suspended without any deliberation or objective reasoning. The rights were suspended merely because of their race – and the belief that some might be in league with a foreign power. In retrospect, the hope was that we would never return to those days. But the reality is that in times of stress, it is amazing how swiftly a nation will turn on its own.

As much as we want the question to be an easy one, it seldom is. Some firmly believe that during extraordinary moments of war, extraordinary measures are necessary. But those on the other side of the argument are just as adamant – no circumstances can ever be used as an excuse to take action against innocent citizens of the nation. To do so would be an immoral act.

Jeremiah was a citizen of Jerusalem, but as the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Army begins, Jeremiah finds himself in his personal relocation center. The reason for the detainment is found in the prophecies of Jeremiah. In his effort to faithfully carry the message of God to the national leaders in Jerusalem, he makes himself an enemy of the state. The leaders simply did not like the what Jeremiah felt God was telling him. Jeremiah would have considered himself a patriot of Judah, but the king questions his loyalty and detains the prophet.

For the leaders of the nation, they could not believe that God would subject them to the same exile that their northern brothers had suffered. They were different, and no good could come out of a Babylonian exile. While I am not sure that Jeremiah really understood, he had clearly heard the voice of God and realized that God intended good out of everything that was about to happen – even a defeat in war at the hands of the Babylonians.

We sometimes face numerous challenges, but if we learn the lesson from Jeremiah, even the bad things in our lives God can use for good - if we will let him.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 33

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

How long will you wander, unfaithful Daughter Israel? The LORD will create a new thing on earth—the woman will return to the man.” – Jeremiah 31:22

Today’s Scripture Reading (April 25, 2017) Jeremiah 31

Tomyris was a queen of a nomadic people that inhabited the Iran during the 6th Century B.C.E. How she rose to be queen is unclear, but she was queen, and she ruled well over her people. Ancient historical records indicate that the Persian Emperor, Cyrus the Great, wanted to rule over Tomyris’ people. But rather than attacking Tomyris, Cyrus offered to marry Tomyris and take over her empire in that way. But Tomyris refused the offer. Instead, relations between the two leaders deteriorated until Tomyris offered to meet Cyrus on a level plain in Central Asia so that the two armies could meet in an honorable battle. And Cyrus agreed to the offer.

But Cyrus knew that Tomyris’ people were unfamiliar with the effects of wine. So Cyrus left a camp for the soldiers of Tomyris that was well stocked with food – and wine. When the soldiers found the camp, the soldiers ate and drank themselves into oblivion. And when the soldiers of Cyrus showed up, the soldiers of Tomyris were no match for Cyrus’ experienced army. But when Tomyris learned of the treachery, she personally led her army against the Persian forces. And it was in this battle that Tomyris’ troops got the upper hand and inflicted heavy casualties on the Persian forces. And in this fight, Tomyris had a chance to face down her former suitor, and it was Tomyris that won, killing the great Persian Emperor. This battle on a plain in central Asia was enough to lift Tomyris to the role of a warrior queen.

Jeremiah asks Israel how long she intends to wander and be unfaithful. Some versions of this text have translated the word Daughter as a virgin. And the line of thought seems to be that Israel was supposed to be the one who was faithful, but they had desired something different. So God was going to save them, but he was going to do it with a daughter – a virgin – who would remain faithful to him.

The key passage is that God ‘will create a new thing on earth.” A woman who will protect the man – a virgin that will give birth to a child. The prediction is not of the rise of a Tomyris or even the return of a Deborah – a warrior woman within the Israelite historical story. This would be new. When interpreted from within the Messianic passages, we see this as a woman who will be the protector of the man – the one who would be the Messiah.

A virgin will be with child, and she will bear the child and protect the child – the Messiah – until the time came for him to be revealed. This faithful woman would be a key factor in the ultimate saving of Israel – and in all that would follow afterward.
Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 32

Monday, 24 April 2017

Their leader will be one of their own; their ruler will arise from among them. I will bring him near and he will come close to me—for who is he who will devote himself to be close to me?’ declares the LORD. – Jeremiah 30:21

Today’s Scripture Reading (April 24, 2017) Jeremiah 30

I have to admit that I love Dana Carvey’s “The Church Lady.” Carvey says that the inspiration for “The Church Lady” arose out of Carvey’s somewhat infrequent church attendance as a child. There was a row of older ladies with blue hair that seemed to look at him a little funny every time his family showed up for church. He could imagine what it was that they were thinking. “Well, I guess some of us feel that it is only good to come to church when it’s convenient.” And there, in Carvey’s childhood Catholic Church, “The Church Lady” was born; always condescending and speaking with the royal we or us and offering a righteous commentary from those stuck in the holy tower that can sometimes be the church. “I see that some of us came to church this morning with some pretty fancy cars. Jesus has heaven; I wonder who wins.”

The poet Alexander Pope satirically wrote that “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” Sounds like something “The Church Lady” might say. But the problem is that there is also no hope for change in “The Church Lady” or Pope’s satirical beatitude.  Everything is as it is, and that is all that it will ever be.

As the worst chapter in Judah’s history continues, Jeremiah offers hope. Things can change. Someone would show up, not because it is convenient, but because he is sent. There are actually a few candidates for the one who would rise from among them. Zerubbabel led the first of the exiles back to Judah. Over 42, 000 people returned with him. He was the grandson of Jehoiachin, the second to last king of Judah. But Zerubbabel never reigned as king. Instead, he served as the governor of Judah, and he was responsible for laying the foundation of the Second Temple, the one that would replace the Temple built by Solomon and destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. He was a great leader who was one of their own.

Nehemiah would shun the comfort of the palace and the position as advisor to the king to lead another wave of exiles home. He, along with the Priest Ezra, restored the Law of Moses to the people and the religious life to a nation. He brought order when Jerusalem was in chaos. He encouraged the people to continue the reconstruction of the city. And he was a leader who was one of their own.

But ultimately, this prophecy is not about the leaders that would rise up at the end of the exile, Rather, Jeremiah is speaking of the one who would come to redeem his people – all his people. It was Jesus who would devote himself to come close to God. It was Jesus who would bring the needed change. It was Jesus who would measure up in a world where no one measured up.

The Church Lady reminds us that Jesus has heaven. But the reality is that he gave up heaven in order to save us – at just the moment when we needed it the most. And he was a leader that was also one of Judah’s own.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 31