31st January 2016 - Hugh Perry
Jeremiah 1: 4-10
This reading is Jeremiah’s call and commission and follows what is called a word-event formula.
‘The word of Yahweh came to me saying’ combines both speaking and happening as Yahweh appoints Jeremiah as a prophet to the nations. Maurice Andrew writes that Jeremiah is the prophet most associated with doom and he often felt that Jeremiah is the journalist’s favourite prophet. He recalls a TV programme where Hamish Keith spoke of ‘the Jeremiahs of journalism’.
However although the book of Jeremiah has doom it also has hope and Maurice Andrew would rather say Jeremiah is realistic in saying disaster can happen. .
Last week’s reading showed Jesus in his home town having an initial response of admiration and wondering but it now takes an extremely negative turn. The quotation of the two proverbs indicates that Jesus understood that the people expected him to demonstrate some of the extraordinary deeds that had been reported from Capernaum and perhaps the peoples proximity and familiarity tended to blind them to the miracles he did perform.
Fred Craddock suggests that Jesus may have been rejected because the people of Nazareth assumed privileges for themselves and resented Jesus taking God’s favour to other people, especially to Capernaum which had a large non Jewish population.
Writing about our Luke passage Bill Loader suggests that Luke uses this incident to give an introduction to the mission of Jesus. He concludes his commentary by suggesting that, at first glance, the message appears simple and uncontroversial. If you join Jesus in living a life of compassion that is inclusive and without prejudice against the despised and feared, you will be living the life of the Spirit. But you will also be courting danger. However if you start hating the sources of danger and dehumanising your enemy, you become part of the problem rather than part of its solution.
According to Luke the mission and message of Jesus is concerned with undermining dehumanising categories wherever they have been applied. Loader also notes that it is usually people who are seen as a threat that those dehumanising categories are applied to. Obviously we apply dehumanising names to people who are trying to kill us like terrorists but we also do it to quite gentle people. Indigenous people, colonists, overseas investors, refugees, boat people, the unemployed, trade unionist, employers, hippies and greenies are all seen as threats by those in other groups.
Following Jesus is not about being naive about the risk of danger where it exists but after taking whatever precautions possible Jesus’ challenge is to live out the freedom that love brings so that people never lose their value and are never written off.
Loader concludes by suggesting such a challenge is really good news, and certainly good news for today’s world.
As we think about mitigating the danger of following the Jesus way it is worth remembering that, faced with mortal danger, Jesus shielded his disciples from that risk. He couldn’t save himself but he nevertheless minimised the risk and saved both his disciples and his movement. Jesus’ mission may well be dangerous but it is not suicidal. The early church honoured martyrs but was very critical of those who sought martyrdom. For instance Ignatius of Antioch was martyred at a time when Rome wasn’t persecuting Christians and there is a suspicion that he sought the glory of martyrdom by going out of his way to annoy the authorities in some way.
Nevertheless being a follower of Jesus means we have to live out our convictions, we have to speak our truth as just Jeremiah did but we also have to live as Jesus would live in our time and place. For the kingdom of God to be at hand we have to live that realm into reality.
Jeremiah got put under house arrest and shut in a well for criticising his king’s foreign policy and what probably saved him was that he was right. He saw it as a bad move to form an alliance with Egypt when the Assyrians viewed Egypt as a threat. As he suspected the Assyrians reaction was to attack Jerusalem and take its leadership into exile in Babylon. In the interesting episode where Jeremiah buys a field he also makes a statement that there is hope for the future. Jeremiah could not only predict doom but was astute enough to be able to see that future Assyrian leadership would find it more profitable to send the peasant farmers back home and take rent off them than keep them as slaves.
Maurice Andrew suggested that Jeremiah is the journalist’s favourite prophet. Jeremiah was someone who finds out what is happening and is realistic enough and bold enough to say to governments, and to populations, ‘if you carry on like that bad things will happen’. In terms of journalists we might think of John Pilger, documentary maker, Michael Moore or our own Nicky Hager.
However contemporary prophets cover a range of occupations and Massey University scientist Dr Mike Joy is on a campaign to clean up our rivers and lakes. In terms of international voices Noam Chomsky is a stand out example. Wikipedia describes Chomsky as an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, social critic, and political activist. Chomsky is very much a prophet of our time and very irritating to politicians and corporate leaders who wish to pursue dehumanising and destructive policies that will damage people’s lives and spoil the planet for generations to come. All these people can be disturbing to individuals with a self-cantered view on life and a worldview constructed around their own hopes and fears.
The prophetic view opens our awareness to others and challenges our assumptions and is very much part of what it is to be Christian. Although being Christian involves living our truth as well speaking our truth.
The opening passages from the book of Jeremiah tells us that the prophet was predestined to be a prophet and it is worth thinking what that might mean for us. Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you. (Jeremiah 1:4, 5)
Many of us were predestined to be Christians because we were born into a Christian family and many of our families were Christian because they lived in a Christian culture. Although my parents weren’t church attenders I was baptised as an infant because that was a cultural expectation. I also suspect there is a deep anthropological need to publicly name a new born child and symbolically welcome the child into the family, tribe or community. Religion provides that opportunity but it also goes someway to predestine the child’s religious affiliation. That is something that needs to be remembered in both honouring our own religious heritage and accepting the religious convictions of others.
The way we seek to understand who we are and our place in the great mystery of life is predestined by the culture we were born into, at least initially. It is a truth that is very important to remember when relating to people of other faiths which is becoming very important in our increasingly diverse society.
The effect that our genetics and our upbringing have in predestining our future has long been a topic of debate. There are certainly general trends that have been observed but there have also been spectacular exceptions.
We can be fairly certain Jeremiah was brought up in the Hebrew tradition but we know nothing of his parents and the upbringing that might have shaped him into the astute political commentator he became.
The fact that Jeremiah was called as a prophet to the nations hints that he had a wider perspective of God’s involvement in the world than simply just the God of the Hebrew people. However in writing about him, or choosing to include his poetry in the Hebrew Bible it is easy to say he was predestined to be a prophet. Not only did Jeremiah’s predictions come true but they are also timeless insights into political folly and offer hope in the face of disaster.
The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke’s gospels along with the opening verses of John’s Gospel certainly claim a predestined life for Jesus. As with Jeremiah we can conclude he was brought up in the Jewish tradition of first century Palestine. Furthermore the gospels also a stress on his genetic connection to King David. Most notable however is the episode of the twelve year old Jesus in the temple in giving us an extra insight and suggesting the young Jesus already had an interest in re-interpreting his religious tradition for the circumstances of day.
The other speculation we can make with the limited information available is that as well as a Jew, Jesus was a subject of the Roman Empire and therefore surrounded by greater cultural diversity than Jeremiah had been. That diversity is highlighted in Luke’s Pentecost episode and the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch along with Paul’s mission to the gentiles.
We can look at the book of Jeremiah, evaluate his predictions and the contribution he made to prophetic realism and a more inclusive understanding of the divine and say he was obviously predestined to fill that role.
In the same way, as much as we learn from the gospels about Jesus, it is the impact he had on his followers that suggests his role in salvation history was predestined. It was after all the impact he continued to have on his followers after his death that first gave us Paul’s letters and then inspired the writing of the gospels.
Therefore as we move to understand these two reading in terms of our own lives we need to appreciate how circumstances affect our lives. We also need to recognise that we will never really understand our potential until we have realised it. However the most important learning in realising our potential is that no matter how we might be predestined, consecrated in the womb or social conditioning we have to accept our call ourselves.
Jesus faced temptation in the wilderness and Jeremiah cried out to his God. ‘Ah Lord Yahweh! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy’ (Jerimiah 1:6)
The idea of going into ministry percolated in my mind for years but when the Rev Myrtle Rough suggested that one day I would be a ‘wee minister ’. I quickly rebutted the suggestion by saying that I was fifty years old and therefore far too old to train.
On the way back to my studio I remembered a JC training day where the speaker gave the example of someone who said they always wanted to be an accountant but he would be forty by the time they finished training. The words of wisdom we were given was that if he didn’t commit to the training he would still be forty in eight years’ time, he just wouldn’t be an accountant. Although I would see that as a lucky escape we are all called to different tasks and we don’t reach our full potential unless we follow our bliss, unless we say ‘yes’ to our calling.
As those who have been set apart by our baptism, our culture or our conviction to become followers of Jesus we have an ongoing calling to live the Risen Christ into reality in our time and place.
It is a risky calling, although it is mostly ridicule we risk in our society. The real risk is that we will make a difference in peoples’ lives.
There is really no greater bliss than realising that, as we have made a difference in someone’s life, we have in some small way transformed our world.
Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), pp.449, 450.
 Fred B. Craddock Luke. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2009),pp.62,63