Sunday, 5 April 2020

The prophecy that Habakkuk the prophet received. – Habakkuk 1:1

Today's Scripture Reading (April 5, 2020): Habakkuk 1

Virginia Woolf, in "A Room of One's Own," wrote that "Anon (Anonymous), who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman." It is an interesting assertion, but one that is ultimately unprovable. But Woolf's statement does make sense. Often the female authors of history found it much harder to find publishing support or to be taken seriously than their male counterparts. It is for this reason that some women adopted a male nom de plume to publish their books. For instance, Mary Ann Evans published one of my favorite nineteenth-century works, "Silas Marner," under the name male name of George Eliot. So, Woolf's assertion may well be correct, but the evidence is at best anecdotal, Anonymous essentially means that we know nothing about who wrote the work. Any guesses about the author's identity are not based on fact.

And, sometimes, even a work that has a name attached to is essentially anonymous. Such is the case with the oracle of Habakkuk. No biographical information is provided in Habakkuk's prophecy; in fact, even the gender "he" is just a guess. We don't know what we don't know.

We can make some educated guesses. Likely, Habakkuk was living in Jerusalem at the same time as Jeremiah. His prophecy consists of declarations concerning the Chaldeans or the Babylonians, which supports the theory that he lived late in the history of the Kingdom of Judah. Some traditions hold that Habakkuk watched the destruction of the Temple and the demise of the city. Tradition also holds that, like Jeremiah, Habakkuk was not taken to Babylon in the Babylonian exile. Habakkuk is mentioned in "Bel and the Dragon," which is a non-canonical extension of the book of Daniel. There, the story is told of Habakkuk, who was at home in Judea cooking supper, when he received a vision of Daniel in the lion's den. God commands Habakkuk to take a portion of his supper to feed Daniel. Habakkuk responds that he does not know where the Lion's Den might be, or even how to get to Babylon, and in response, an angel transports him to the lion's den so that he can minister to Daniel's needs.

The Zohar, a foundational work in the area of Jewish mystical thought, argues that Habakkuk was the son who was born to the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4) as a result of Elisha's declaration. But this actually stresses how much we don't know about Habakkuk, because the boy born to the Shunammite woman was born over three centuries before Daniel met his lions. So, unless the angel who took Habakkuk to Daniel also was adept at traveling through time, both stories can't be accurate. And the reality, because we know so little, is that neither story may be true, as is true with the assumptions that we make about all other anonymous works. All we know for sure about Habakkuk is contained in the pages of his short oracle. And in the mind of Habakkuk, who he is, is simply not relevant.

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: Habakkuk 2

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good. – Jeremiah 10:5

Today’s Scripture Reading (April 4, 2020): Jeremiah 10

Polish poet Stanislaw Jerzy Lec wrote that “Every scarecrow has a secret ambition to terrorize.” Anyone who has stumbled into one in the dark, or watched a horror movie, knows that they are sometimes very good at what they aim to do, even to those of us who understand what it is that they are. Even in daylight, the presence of a scarecrow presents an eerie feeling to those who see them. But the truth is that, while the ambition of the scarecrow might be to terrorize, in reality, they can do nothing but play imaginary games with their victims. Someone had to place the scarecrow in its perch. And for a scarecrow to move, it needs the assistance of a human partner, and it was only that partner who had the real power to terrorize. The voice that the scarecrow uses is merely a reflection of our own.

Jeremiah compares the scarecrow, standing alone in a field among the ripening cucumbers, and the idols inhabiting the homes of some of the households in Jerusalem. Some of the people feared what these idols might do in the coming crisis, or they depended on these gods to deliver them from the impending invasion. And Jeremiah needed to stress that both the fear and the hope are misplaced. There was nothing that these idols could do to help. These gods were made with human hands and then sold at a price to human buyers. The idol was put in its place in the home by human worshippers, must be cleaned by human cleaners, and they will not move again until a human comes and moves them. And when they speak, they speak with a human voice or a human imagination. Like the scarecrow, they might have a secret ambition to terrorize, but they can only do so utilizing our imaginations.

Jerusalem did not need an idol who could not accomplish anything, either for the good or the bad. The idols, like the scarecrow, would be inconsequential in the coming battle. What Jerusalem needed was to lean on the reality of the living God and his divine interaction. What God had decided to do, he could accomplish. And no human effort could disrupt the action that God had decided to take.

It was not that there was nothing that the people could do. They needed to place their faith in the creator of the world, and not in the works of their own creation. They needed to lean God’s help, the one who had called them, rather than on the gods that they had conjured up in their imaginations. They needed to take their attention off of the scarecrows, who had the ambition to terrorize, but no power to support their aspirations, and turn to the God who could save. It was time to leave the scarecrows in the field to take care of the birds. Jerusalem’s need was for something more substantial.  

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Habakkuk 1

Friday, 3 April 2020

Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! I would weep day and night for the slain of my people. – Jeremiah 9:1

Today’s Scripture Reading (April 3, 2020): Jeremiah 9

J. R. R. Tolkien, in “The Return of the King,” writes, “I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.” I know Tolkien’s words are true with my heart, but my head often rebels at the thought. We frequently want to do whatever we can to protect ourselves from the things that will cause us tears. But often someone, usually a woman, will tell me that something that I have said or written has made them cry. My first reaction is to apologize, but they then remind me that sometimes tears are a good thing. Sometimes, the truth is that we need to cry. It is one action that allows us to express our grief, and to live healthy lives; our pain needs to find a way that it can be shown. Trying to avoid grief is not a good, long-term solution. Grief revealed in us simply means that someone, or something, has made a positive difference in our lives. And those are often good and beneficial tears.

Jeremiah is remembered as the weeping prophet. And as he moves through the things that God is revealing will happen, the prophet turns poetic, trying to express his grief. He wishes that his head was a spring of water and his eyes a fountain. Then it might be possible for him to express the depth of his grief adequately. But the prophet neither has the time nor the tears to express the feelings of his heart correctly. He has a message that he feels he must carry to the nation. He has work that needs to be done.

But we also need to recognize that there is something beautiful about Jeremiah’s tears. The tears originate from a deep love of the people of Judah. And they are seen by God, who keeps an active record of his tears (Psalm 56:8). These tears of Jeremiah are not evil, even though a great evil was on its way. The tears were good, and a necessary response to all that was about to happen.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 10

Thursday, 2 April 2020

At that time, declares the LORD, the bones of the kings and officials of Judah, the bones of the priests and prophets, and the bones of the people of Jerusalem will be removed from their graves. – Jeremiah 8:1

Today’s Scripture Reading (April 2, 2020): Jeremiah 8

King Tutankhamun, or King Tut, might be one of the best known of the Pharaohs of Egypt. Tut is remembered as the boy king who died in 1325 B.C.E. at the age of 18 or 19. His death was likely a result of an infection he received because of a broken leg. Tut was buried in a tomb we identify as KV62 in the Valley of the Kings, and with him was buried a great wealth of treasures, as was a common tradition with Egyptian burials. While the tombs of the Pharaohs were supposed to be secure resting places where the kings could spend eternity with some of the wealth they had acquired during life, this practice of burying treasure with the deceased kings encouraged unscrupulous people to rob these graves of their wealth.

And it appears that King Tut’s grave, in particular, was robbed twice in ancient times. But despite those robberies, there was still a lot of artifacts in KV62 left for modern researchers to discover – and essentially to steal – when they found the burial place. The temptation presented by the treasurer was too great, even for us. Much of what was found in KV62 has been removed. The treasures have toured the world museums, trying to satiate our curiosity for things from that part of World history. The mummy was removed and studied, giving us more information about King Tut, then we could obtain from just the historical records alone. But we need to admit that we are simply more considerate robbers; we have also removed wealth from a tomb that was supposed to be a resting place for eternity. The body of Tutankhamun has been returned KV62, where it currently rests. But his treasure will not return to King Tut’s resting place. Eventually, it will find its final resting place in the Grand Egyptian Museum, where it can be seen and protected.

Because treasure was often buried with earthly kings, soldiers routinely looted the graves that they found in the nations that they defeated. Sometimes, just the treasure was removed. But often, the anger and hatred for the defeated nation resulted in graves being opened, the treasures stolen, and the bodies being left on the ground out in the open, a symbol of disrespect. Adam Clarke argues that “This custom of raising the bodies of the dead and scattering their bones about, seems to have been general. It was the highest expression of hatred and contempt.”

And Jeremiah’s vision revealed that this desecration was going to happen in Jerusalem and Judah. It wasn’t just that those who died in the coming battle with Babylon whose bodies would be left to rot unburied, desecrated by the enemy and the sun. It was also those who had died long ago, including kings, priests, and the ordinary people of the nation, who would be dishonored. Their artifacts would be stolen, and their bodies would be disrespected, and there was nothing that anyone could do to change the coming desecration.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 9

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Stand at the gate of the LORD’s house and there proclaim this message … - Jeremiah 7:2

Today’s Scripture Reading (April 1, 2020): Jeremiah 7

A few years ago, I had the privilege of speaking on a fairly regular basis with a couple who were divided on the concept of religion. She was a Christian, although likely not as plugged into the Christian community as she might have once been. He professed to be an adherent of a different faith but didn’t seem to know much about the belief that he confessed. The critical element that appeared to have attracted him to his belief system seemed to be that it was “not Christianity.” And while the different spiritual outlooks had once not been all that important, it was becoming more critical. And part of the problem was becoming how they could communicate essential messages to each other when they both experienced the world so very differently.   

Jerusalem, and specifically the Temple, was built with the idea of religious and spiritual separation in mind. The outermost court of the Temple was where anyone could gather. It didn’t matter who you were or what you believed; here, you were welcome. The next court was the Court of Women, a place where Jewish women could gather. The next court was the Court of Israel, where the men of Israel could gather. The innermost part of the Temple was a place only the priests could go and minister before God and on behalf of the nation.

As a priest, Jeremiah could have proclaimed his message in the innermost part of the Temple, empowering the priests to repent and carry the message to the people. But that is not what God orders Jeremiah to do. God tells him to go to the gate of the Temple, go to the place where all of the people were permitted to be, both those entering into the Temple and those who were just passing by so that everyone can hear the message that God was giving to his prophet.

It seems likely that this command was given to Jeremiah during one of the great festivals of Judaism; Passover, Pentecost, or the Feast of Tabernacles. It was then that Judah came to Jerusalem. At such times, the city would be filled with people from every corner of the nation, and everyone could hear the message from God spoken through Jeremiah.

But just because the people heard Jeremiah’s voice, that did not mean that they were internalizing the message and genuinely listening to Jeremiah’s warning. The message was heard physically, but it did not change the behavior of the people, and that was a problem.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 8

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

But I am full of the wrath of the LORD, and I cannot hold it in. “Pour it out on the children in the street and on the young men gathered together; both husband and wife will be caught in it, and the old, those weighed down with years.” – Jeremiah 6:11

Today’s Scripture Reading (March 31, 2020): Jeremiah 6

One of the strong messages that has come out of the COVID-19 pandemic of 2019 – 2020 is that what you do impacts other people. The selfish reaction that this pandemic doesn’t apply to me because I am not in a vulnerable group is not sufficient. One Facebook user made the argument that since the deaths due to the virus will likely spike within those who have lung and immune issues, and since he was not in that category, why did he have to be laid off from his job. And I understand the angst, but the reality is that, while we might not be among the most vulnerable of the nation, we have contact with them, and the restrictions placed on us, protect them.

Jesus made the argument that whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). The COVID-19 pandemic adds a new focus on the impact of these words. We are not just responsible for ourselves, but for those who are in need and vulnerable as well, and how a society cares for the “least of these” really defines the society.

It is easy to read the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and get the impression that we serve an angry God who seems to pour out his wrath indiscriminately on all people. But that is not entirely true. God asks us to be aware that our actions have consequences, and often those consequences can be unexpected. But what I do matters. And so, what I do needs to be well thought out. If I act selfishly, then someone will always get hurt. And that is not fair, but it is also not up to God to protect the people who we can protect. He has given that responsibility to us to do as we can.

Does that mean that we need to be the Saviors of the World? Yes, and no. Jesus is our Savior, and he is in us. And together, we can make the difference that individually we could never make. But God desires to move through us, all of us.

Jeremiah argues that the wrath of God is full because of the sin of the people. And this wrath would be poured out on all the people; the children, husband and wife, and the elderly were all going to be caught in the middle of it. The rich and the poor will suffer the results. There will be no section of the society that will be safe, even though some of the people on Jeremiah’s list were likely innocent. The prophecy’s fulfillment was found in the defeat and exile of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians. Every section of society felt the adverse effects of Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion. But the message that we need to take from Jeremiah’s words is not about the indiscriminate action of God, but rather about our power to change the outcome if we are willing to act cautiously and love indiscriminately.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 7

Monday, 30 March 2020

Although they say, 'As surely as the LORD lives,' still they are swearing falsely." – Jeremiah 5:2

Today's Scripture Reading (March 30, 2020): Jeremiah 5

Mahatma Gandhi argued that "It is unwise to be too sure of one's own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err." True humility is found in the admission that we can be neither strong nor wise enough for what life asks of us. And we will never be in a position where we do not have to depend on the generosity of others, no matter how long we might strive for that kind of independence.

And spiritually, even though we try to follow the dictates of God, we know that we always fall short. We misunderstand the things that God is asking of us. We are often culturally, rather than biblically influenced. I have admitted to anyone who might ask that I think my theology is 90% right. Some are surprised that that number isn't higher, while others often think I am bragging, and it probably isn't even that high. But don't miss the message of the statement. As much as I read, listen, and study the Bible, I am sure that I don't have it all right. But what is even scarier is that I don't know where the error might be, and I suspect it is not where some of my friends and colleagues might think it is, or else I would correct the situation.

God promises that if Jeremiah could find one person who deals honestly and seeks truth, that he would forgive the city. It seemed like an easy task. After all, wasn't Jeremiah honest and seeking the truth. Wasn't Huldah in the city, working honestly and seeking truth among the women of the city. One is not a high number. But God stresses that many might swear that they are honest and seeking truth, but the promise itself is a lie.

I think God's comment was less about the spirituality of the city than it was about the pride of the people. The problem was that the people of Jerusalem were not humble enough to listen to God's prophets. They believed, because the Temple was right there in the city, that they were spiritually beyond reproach. And God's response was that we are never in a place spiritually where we do not need to hear from God; we are never in a place where we can ignore his prophets.

It is a reality with which we need to become comfortable, admitting that we do not always know the correct answers. But then, our faith has never been based on the right answers, but rather on the right person. Our hope is in Jesus Christ, who paid the price for us. In the words of the author of Hebrews, Jesus is where we place our confidence, and not in the things that we can know.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16).

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 6