(a bible study from the 2011 Church of the Brethren Annual Conference)
27The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. 28And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. 29In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” 30But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. 31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31)
Jeremiah’s prophecies came during a time of incredible upheaval for his people. The book of Jeremiah – which was originally a set of spoken prophecies – came about over the course of a lifetime of uncertainty. During his life, Jeremiah saw King Josiah attempt to reclaim political independence for the Hebrew people. He supported Josiah, and hoped with the best of them for a renaissance of the Kingdom of Israel, a resurgence of world and political power for his people. And Jeremiah watched as that attempt failed miserably, watched as Israel got pushed one way and pulled another as the empires of Egypt and Babylon battled for control of their land and their people. He saw Jerusalem finally fall to Babylon, he watched as Hebrew leaders became exiled from the empire, and he watched (with what I can only imagine must have been a bone-shattering grief) the destruction of the Temple – watched the dwelling place of God on earth crumble to the ground.
Can you imagine what that must have felt like? Can you even begin to imagine what the Israelites must have been thinking during those decades? “This is it,” I guess they thought, “We’re doomed. It’s over. The temple is gone, our King is gone, we’re being tossed around like a hot potato.” Except, even in the midst of all this chaos, there were pockets and reminders of hope.
I think King Josiah must have run his campaign in the midst of such depressing times on a platform something like “hope and change.” And the people got behind him – they hoped for something better. And they had good reason to hope: remember God made these ancient promises to the Hebrews – to Adam and Eve and Abraham and Sarah and Moses and Zipporah – promises that were meant to stand the test of time.
Hope and despair, destruction and possibility – they must have all been tangled up together. Sounds kind of familiar, if you ask me.
And, as much as the Hebrews wanted a clear, decisive answer for what would ultimately happen to them – salvation or destruction, independence or slavery, life or death – they just couldn’t get anything definitive, they couldn’t find any prediction rich enough or certain enough to sink their teeth into, anything sturdy enough to anchor them. In fact, in the text of Jeremiah, the answers are decidedly ambiguous.
Chapters 30-33 of the book of Jeremiah are often referred to as the “Book of Comfort” because they present incredibly beautiful promises of what life will be like, of what will happen when God’s promises are finally fulfilled:
God will gather all of Her people from the ends of the earth and “plant them in THIS land” – the promise of a home, a place, a sure thing.
And when everyone gets there, there will be singing (I sort of hope for a capella four part harmony) and dancing (with timbrels – which, in case you were wondering, are really just big ‘ol tambourines).
We’ll plant vineyards, build houses, and nurture relationships. The goodness of the Lord – an astounding abundance of grain and wine and oil and flocks and herds - will make us “radiant” (well, yes, of course, after partying with all that bread and meat and wine, “radiant” might be a generous description).
Our mourning will be turned to joy. We’ll come home weeping and find consolation. God will “feast the soul of the priests with abundance,” (good news for all y’all pastors out there) and God says all of her people will be “satisfied with my goodness.” “Our life,” we’re told, “will be like a watered garden, and we shall languish no more.”
Just take a minute and imagine that - that glorious abundance, that deep hope, that overflowing beauty.
Except. None of it is certain. None of it is a foregone conclusion. It’s promised, yes, by God, yes, but even Jeremiah – privy to the very thoughts of God, the guy whose career started out with God actually touching his lips and inserting God’s words into his mouth – can’t even say it with complete conviction.
You can hear, in his speech, the chaos of the world: “For thus says the Lord,” Jeremiah reports in chapter 4, “the whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end” (4:27). And, later, here in chapter 30 – right smack dab in the middle of all those glorious images we just envisioned, the Lord says: “there is no medicine for your wound, no healing for you,” but just four verses later, God promises, “your wounds I will heal.”
I imagine Jeremiah must have gotten branded as a “flip-flopper” several times over the course of his life. His political career was riddled with inconsistencies: all will be well, but all will not be well. We’ll make it through, but we probably won’t. All that wine and comfort and singing and dancing will happen, except we’ll also be completely and utterly destroyed before it does. Jeremiah would have needed a very powerful press secretary to endear the public to his wishy-washy message.
Luckily, Jeremiah wasn’t a politician. He was a prophet. And his words – both hopeful and despairing – are the honest attempt to carry God’s message of promise into a world that seems to be crumbling beneath his feet.
Jeremiah’s honesty about the despair he felt, about the destruction of his world and the hopelessness of his people is not an indicator of lack of faith. Instead, it represents the best of faith – the ability to see the realities of the world around us, to remember God’s promises fully and clearly, and to hold them together – as different and contradictory and ridiculous and peculiar as that combination might seem.
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says that “the central theological issue in the tradition of Jeremiah is the deep and raw shift from pain to possibility, from judgment to promise.” And that shift is not an easy one to make. It isn’t a straight line, and it isn’t a straight shot. It’s a constant negotiation of back and forth, holding onto hope even while honestly acknowledging crushing despair.
This is where I think we might find some sympathies with Jeremiah. We life in a chaotic, rough and tumble, back and forth time, ourselves. 30 years ago, the philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre proclaimed that we were now living “among the ruins.” He wasn’t talking about a physical Temple getting destroyed, like Jeremiah and his friends experienced, but he was saying something similar – that most of our time-tested and age-old bedrock truths about how life was supposed to be lived were being dismantled, block by block, thrown down, disproved.
This is how Walter Brueggemann paints the picture of our day:
“I believe that the great pastoral reality for the church in the United States is that we are watching the termination of the world we have loved too long and lost – a world of Western, white, male, heterosexual domination, privilege and certitude. It has evaporated before our very eyes. Its loss creates acres of rage and anxiety. That loss, moreover, may be like the loss of Jerusalem – according to the text of Jeremiah, a judgment of God on a power arrangement too long recalcitrant. The two positive verbs of Jeremiah [to build and to plant] may script hope for the newness that God is giving, a newness that we cannot see clearly and that may come in forms we do not prefer.”
If it’s true that our time resembles Jeremiah’s, then maybe we can find in his words some instruction for how to navigate them.
Brueggemann says that these huge losses are creating “acres of rage and anxiety.” It might be easy to pin those emotions on the people across the divide or across the aisle from us, to assume that people we disagree with are acting out of hatred or out of fear. But Jeremiah insists that we are ALL anxious and angry – that none of us can escape such massive shifts. So then, what can we do?
I think we have to take a cue from Jeremiah, and hold these two visions of reality up clearly before us, even when it’s painful. We have to take a wide-eyed look at the world around us, and be honest with ourselves and with each other about what’s happening. And, at the very same time, we have to hold firmly to that vision of life as a watered garden, of the promise of singing and dancing and abundance and LIFE.
It’s enough to make a person crazy. I cannot imagine the mental anguish that Jeremiah endured, the emotional rollercoasters, the difficulty of discernment. How do you know what to say when you hold both these things as true, at the same time? How do you know what to do when you’re pulled equally toward both deep despair and rich hope? How do we move from one to the other?
Brueggemann suggests this: that “the only way from here to there, from despair to hope, from death to new life, is by way of weeping, of grief, of exile.” In order to walk into new life, we have to first walk out of the old. In order to live into the vision of promise and abundance, we have to leave out from our old habits of scarcity and fixedness. And when we leave, we have to grieve: grieve over the lost paradise of Adam and Eve, the lost home of Moses and the Israelites, the lost temple of Jeremiah and his people. We have to go ahead and acknowledge loss, be honest about our fears and our anxieties and our anger, weep over them, and commit ourselves to finding a new way, a new home.
And I suggest this: at the end of Chapter 31, Jeremiah writes:
33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
God will write God’s law on each of our hearts. And we won’t have to yell at each other or chide each other or disrespect each other or doubt each other. We’ll just have to trust each other – and trust that the God we know, the God whose law is written on our hearts is the SAME God, the same law, the same gospel that our sister or brother knows, even though we might disagree with them about some of the particulars.
The temple was gone, so what else did the Israelites have? The place they had always gone to meet God and to learn God’s law had been completely destroyed. All they had left for guidance was the law inscribed on each others’ hearts. All they had left was to trust one another – that together they could find a way, and to trust in God’s promise that on the other side of all this weeping was life like a full, abundant, verdant garden. Seems to me that’s all we have left, ourselves.