FIRST LESSON: Jeremiah 4: 11-12, 22-28
This lament of Jeremiah is part of the larger unit that describes the looming Babylonian threat on the horizon. In sight of this threat, the people have not heeded warnings and have continued down paths that the prophet feels called to denounce and condemn. In the context in which this was written, Israel was a virtual land bridge between Asia and Africa, a place of trade between East and West. Look upon it as a crossroads, as a place where the decision could be made to go one way or the other.
Egypt was the great power to the South and Babylon to the North. Assyria had just been defeated by Babylon, the monster just north of Israel. This was a time of rebellion after rebellion against Babylon, to which Babylon acted with greater and greater punitive measures until the Temple was completely destroyed in 587 BCE. This began nearly three centuries of exile for the people of Israel. Jeremiah tried to stave off this rebellion against a great power of Babylon and cautioned a more humble approach to international affairs. He was reminding the people to not act so mighty and powerful and look at what was happening. According to Old Testament commentator R. E. Clements (1988, p. 42): “Jeremiah appears to have addressed a people who were so self-assured in the rightness of their cause, and in the backing God must give to it, that they discounted the serious possibility of harsh Babylonian reprisals taken against them.”
We are told of a hot wind, an unbearable wind. This is not a gentle flowing breeze like we begin to get this time of year. This is the hurricane-force winds that come when we are near the eye of the storm. This is a wind that is destructive. Jeremiah saw imminent political and military disaster for his nation and for the world around him. He was trying a last-ditch effort to turn the tide toward good. He desired the kings to be more humble and the people more compassionate. He was trying to open the eyes of his hearers that they might be honest with themselves. No more looking for someone to blame. Things were bad.
The prophet depicts a coming destruction of all of Creation, of everything that the people know. It is literally the “unmaking” of Creation, borrowing some of the same language from the Creation story in Genesis. But rather than “it is good”, it is proclaimed to be a desolation, an ending. It is a bleak passage, void of plans for redemption or resurrection. Instead, we are left with a desolate silence.
Some would take it as a promise of a vengeful God to destroy the Creation that has in essence turned its back on its Creator. But instead, what if it were a warning? God has given us the power to make decisions, to choose right or wrong. It is not an easy thing. Power can be destructive when we choose to use it that way. Perhaps this is a warning against the ultimate destruction that we humans hold in our hands. After all, God has entrusted us with this Creation. What happens when we don’t choose to respond to God’s call? What happens when we forget who and whose we are? What happens when we let power get in the way of conversation and greed get in the way of compassion? We have, then, set our feet on a path of ultimate destruction.
It’s hard to read this and place ourselves in this passage. It’s so bleak and depressing. SURELY we’re not that bad. SURELY this is about another time and another people. Well, it is. It’s about a people that were sure that God was on their side no matter what. They believed that this line of David would never be broken and that God would always dwell with them. So, when Jeremiah enters, it’s really just downright insulting. (Jeremiah was probably accused of being unpatriotic and unfaithful!) And yet, we DO somehow belong here. Maybe we’re a little too sure of our rightness, a little too sure that God is pleased with what we do. And, uncomfortably, the whole prospect of the unmaking of Creation is looming much more closely to us in our world today as our nation and our leaders make the case for yet another military action. But we don’t want to hear this in church. We want to leave feeling better about ourselves. We want to come and be protected from weapons of mass destruction.
So, did we miss it? Aren’t Scriptures supposed to have some sort of good news in them? The good news is that God patiently waits until we turn away from ourselves and toward God. God is always and forever remaking us and unmaking us into what God envisions we can be. (Hmmm! Have you ever thought that God might not be unmaking God’s Creation, but rather ours.) You see, God did not promise that the world would be easy; God did not offer a Creation that did not sometimes shake and tear and come down upon its people and itself; God never told us that the road would be straight and protected. God promised us that when it was all said and done, we would have life abundant—here, now, for the taking. Life is not easy; life is eternal; and it is very, very good.
- What is your response to this passage?
- How would this depiction play out in our world today?
- Where do you see our world in this warning from Jeremiah?
- What keeps us from turning toward God?
NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Timothy 1: 12-17
The two letters of Timothy and the letter of Titus make up what is known as the Pastoral Epistles, meaning that they were addressed to the whole church, rather than a specific group. This letter is assumed to be pseudipigraphic, not written by Paul but in the form and shape of Paul. It is a letter to a young person that wanted to further the gospel to encourage and guide him, to remind him that there will always be rough patches.
So here, probably in the words of one of Paul’s apostles rather than Paul himself, we begin with a letter of thanksgiving for Paul’s ministry. It is likely that this letter stems from the period well after Paul’s death when new generations were having to cope with problems similar to what Paul faced, to cope with the veritable “unmaking” of Creation around them. For that reason, it also echoes Paul’s sentiment toward fellow children of God.
It matches Paul’s thought that responding to God’s compassion is not receiving a guarantee for a future gift, but taking up an offer of a relationship with God. We are invited in grace to get on board and go along with this God who is on a mission and where there will be a role, often a distinctive ministry, for us. Paul became a model of conversion, a hero for many early Christians and that understanding comes through in the passage.
It is interesting that whoever the writer is sees himself or herself as the ultimate in sinners—the “foremost”, the NRIV translates. It is the ultimate “lostness”, the quintessential wilderness. And the fact that we are found is the ultimate “foundness”, the amazing grace that is our lives.
You may or may not know the story of an 18th century slave trader named John Newton. Sailing back to England in 1748, the ship he was on encountered a severe storm and almost sank. While in route, he read the Bible and began to think about God and God’s impact on his life. He would become an Anglican minister. But it would be years before he finally accepted the fact that the slave trade was wrong and that his life truly needed to turn toward God. In 1779, Newton wrote the words of his life, a hymn of forgiveness and redemption, regardless of whatever it is we do. Amazing Grace is one of the most recognizable hymns in the Western world.
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What does this passage say about our image of God?
- What is grace to you?
- Why do we have such a hard time with the fact that grace is “undeserved”?
GOSPEL: Luke 15:1-10
Lost and Found…the theme appears again and again in the Scriptures. It is both comforting and disconcerting, because at times we are the found children telling our story and helping others and at other times we are the lost ones, trying to find our way back to God. The truth is, it is not that our lives go back and forth between the two, but that we learn to live with the two in juxtaposition—both the found children and the lost souls. We want to be comfortable with the words of this passage, but we’re not…not really.
The shepherd and the woman both show that careful attention to detail that is also known as hard work. Think of all that hiking over hills, the scrambling down creek banks and climbing through brambles: all in search of one sheep that could have nibbled itself into trouble a thousand different ways. Or think of all that housework! Sweeping, moving furniture, rearranging clutter, crawling around on the floor. We can live our whole lives this way, always diligently searching for lost items and responsibly returning them to their correct location: a place for everything and everything in its place. That everything-in-its-place kind of responsibility is not what these searches are about. Instead, the search of the shepherd and the woman are all about joy, a joy that comes with celebration that what was lost is now found.
The truth is, there is a lot of lostness around us. We try hard to look for God, to find that place where we are both comfortable and committed to God. But we continue to waffle back and forth between the found children and the lost ones, trying to find our way back home. We want to be found; we want to feel joy. After all, it is the foundness that matters, the foundness for which we are searching. It is the foundness that our faith is about.
We spend a good part of our lives trying to look for God. And yet, the Scriptures remind us that it is not God who is lost from us but rather we who are lost from ourselves, lost from who God created us to be. God created us in the image of the Godself. And in those times when we seem to wander away in the darkness and lostness of our lives, it is God who unmakes us and recreates us once again, gathers us in and again breathes a part of the Godself into our being. Perhaps it is our lostness that teaches us how to be with God. Because once we lose ourselves in God’s being, once we relinquish control and quit working so hard to find ourselves, once we realize that we are never really lost at all, it is then that we will know that we are always found by God.
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- To what do you equate being “lost”?
- To what do you equate being “found”?
- What part of yourself do you need to lose to be found?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
The word dies whenever reality demands absolute dominion. (Amery, at Yad Vashem (Israel Holocaust Museum))
Give me a transformed and undefended heart. (St. Augustine)
Let yourself get shaken up. What are you willing to give up to ensure your own unfolding, and the unfolding of what is holy in life? Where you stumble, here is your treasure.(Joseph Campbell)
In the beginning, O God, When the firm earth emerged from the waters of life You saw that it was good. The fertile ground was moist. The seed was strong. And earth’s profusion of color and sent was born. Awaken my senses this day to the goodness that still stems from Eden. Awaken my senses to the goodness that can still spring forth in me and in all that has life. Amen.