Readings: Acts 2: 14a, 36-41, Psalm 116, 1 Peter 1: 17-23, and Luke 24: 13-35
The Luke reading is the ‘Walk to Emmaus’ text which is very familiar and very well represented in art. Here are some selections:
Readings: Acts 2: 14a, 36-41, Psalm 116, 1 Peter 1: 17-23, and Luke 24: 13-35
The Luke reading is the ‘Walk to Emmaus’ text which is very familiar and very well represented in art. Here are some selections:
The primary text for this Sunday is John 20: 19-31 where Jesus first appears to the rest of the disciples and then a second time when Thomas is present. Known by a lot of people as the ‘doubting Thomas’ story which is unfortunate since doubt, although there in most English translations, is not there in the Greek but that is a whole long story. Here are a few of the images for the week.
The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. 2 At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, 3 where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him. Zedekiah had said, “Why do you prophesy and say: Thus says the LORD: I am going to give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall take it; 4 King Zedekiah of Judah shall not escape out of the hands of the Chaldeans, but shall surely be given into the hands of the king of Babylon, and shall speak with him face to face and see him eye to eye; 5 and he shall take Zedekiah to Babylon, and there he shall remain until I attend to him, says the LORD; though you fight against the Chaldeans, you shall not succeed?”
6 Jeremiah said, The word of the LORD came to me:7 Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” 8 Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the LORD, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.” Then I knew that this was the word of the LORD.
9 And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. 10 I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. 11 Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; 12 and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. 13 In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, 14 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. 15 For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.
The first two verses of the chapter fix the context of when this prophetic action takes place, during the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian forces while Jeremiah has been placed under arrest for his prophecy. Jeremiah’s words have been heard by the king enough that he can parrot them back to Jeremiah, and what I believe is the dominant question of the chapter comes out for the first time: Why? From the king’s mouth to Jeremiah: Why have you said these things. For Jeremiah his calling doesn’t give him a choice in this matter, there are many times Jeremiah would have preferred to stay silent but the words were like burning fire within him (Jeremiah 20: 9-10).
While Jeremiah is in the court of the guard the word of the Lord comes to him telling him that he is to redeem a piece of property from a relative. This concrete action of what seems like foolishness becomes an action of hope. Jeremiah publicly purchases the field of Hanamel in Anathoth, his hometown, a place where he has met opposition in the past but it is the land of his family and he redeems it. In a time of siege this would be a questionable investment, but there is the obligation to ensure the land remains in the family as well as the word of the Lord commanding Jeremiah to purchase this field. For this to happen the action must come to Jeremiah and Jeremiah is surprised when Hanamel comes. Perhaps Jeremiah has been charged with a proclamation of destruction, a proclamation that went against the cheap hope of many other prophets of his day, that this message from the Lord seems so out of step with his previous messages. Hanamel’s coming confirms the word of the Lord and Jeremiah seals the deal, weighing out the silver, signing the deed, getting witnesses to ensure it is a public and legal act. Jeremiah has the deed placed in an earthenware jug to be preserved for the end of the exile, but the action signals for Jeremiah and the people that in the midst of the death and destruction of the siege that the coming exile is not ultimate, the people will return and life will return to normal.
Now it is Jeremiah asking why, we hear his prayer narrated much like a Psalm or many of the other prayers in the Hebrew Scriptures where the way God has acted in the past is lifted up as a prologue, preparing the way for the question to be asked. Jeremiah in this narration reminds himself and God who God is, how God has acted and the frame in which he views God’s action (God’s actions in bringing the people of Judah under siege by Babylon are directly linked to the continuing disobedience and idolatry of the people over a span of generations). Jeremiah’s why in all of this is simple, Jeremiah wants to know why, at this very moment of judgment, has Jeremiah been commanded to buy a field, an act of hope in a time of hopelessness. The Lord’s answer does indeed confirm that the disobedience and idolatry has led to the siege and the upcoming exile, but a return is in the future. The Lord indeed will gather the people from all the places they have been scattered, the social and economic life of the nation will resume and like in chapter 32 the language of covenant returns. “I will make an everlasting covenant with them. (40) There will be another great reveral, misfortune will be transformed into fortune, in a place of death life will be reborn, disobedient hearts will have the fear of the Lord placed within them, and in Jeremiah’s actions we see the prefiguring of the return here at the beginning of the exile.
There are a multitude of images of the resurrection out there, but here are a few
At that time, says the LORD, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.
2 Thus says the LORD:
The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
3 the LORD appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
4 Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel!
Again you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
5 Again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit.
6 For there shall be a day when sentinels will call in the hill country of Ephraim:
“Come, let us go up to Zion, to the LORD our God.”
7 For thus says the LORD: Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say, “Save, O LORD, your people, the remnant of Israel.”
8 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
9 With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.
10 Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.”
11 For the LORD has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.
13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
14 I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty,
says the LORD.
Chapters 30 and 31 are together a part of the book of consolation in Jeremiah and they along with the chapters that follow are brought together by the editor of the book (remember Jeremiah is assembled in a non-linear fashion jumping throughout times of his ministry) as the heart of the prophet’s hope. Where one places these chapters in Jeremiah’s story matters greatly for how you understand the prophet. If, like Rabbi Lau, you place these chapters at the beginning of Jeremiah’s calling (Lau, 2013, pp. 22-28) you see him ending his ministry in a place of hopelessness. It may reflect a personal bias to want to see hope at the end of the story, but I tend to see this emerging, much like what is often referred to by scholars as second Isaiah (Isaiah beginning at chapter 40) in the aftermath of Jerusalem’s destruction and in the midst of exile.
These chapters are some of the more familiar chapters of Jeremiah, probably because they are the most hopeful. Although Jeremiah probably has a framework for understanding the way God is at work in the world Jeremiah does not write as a systematic theologian but more as a poet and a prophet. As Brueggemann states eloquently:
Clearly the prophet is not a systematic theologian, but a poet who lives very close to the hurts and hopes of God’s own heart. It is God’s heart made visible here which gives Israel a new chance in the future. (Brueggemann, 1998, p. 282)
And as a poet, Jeremiah lapse into the language like that of the Psalmist, recasting the events of the Exodus and pointing toward a new future on the other side of exile. God’s judgment is not to be misunderstood as an abandonment of God’s faithfulness. The current time of mourning and lamenting is not the permanent state, dancing and rejoicing will return. The experience of ending will make a place for a new beginning. The lame and the blind, those with children and those in labor, the weeping: all those who have been looked upon as weak and worthless in the eyes of the nation will be brought back to a place where they are valued by God. A new day will dawn, a new beginning and there will be an abundance where now the people know scarcity and deprivation. Even Ephraim, northern Israel gone into exile many years earlier than Judah will know the return and the Lord will reunite the long divided nation.
It is the language of poetry and utopia, projecting a future that is not there which can be dreamed and hoped for and infects the present of hopelessness with new possibilities. Does it ever occur exactly as the poet sees, if we look at second temple Israel we would have to honestly answer no, at least not in the way that many envisioned. Yet, if this is from the time of the exile, the prophet was able to emerge from the desolation of despair brought on by the destruction of the world around him into the hope of a new future under the promise of God.
15 Thus says the LORD: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
16 Thus says the LORD: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work, says the LORD:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
17 there is hope for your future, says the LORD:
your children shall come back to their own country.
18 Indeed I heard Ephraim pleading: “You disciplined me, and I took the discipline;
I was like a calf untrained. Bring me back, let me come back, for you are the LORD my God.
19 For after I had turned away I repented; and after I was discovered, I struck my thigh;
I was ashamed, and I was dismayed because I bore the disgrace of my youth.”
20 Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he the child I delight in?
As often as I speak against him, I still remember him.
Therefore I am deeply moved for him; I will surely have mercy on him, says the LORD.
21 Set up road markers for yourself, make yourself guideposts;
consider well the highway, the road by which you went.
Return, O virgin Israel, return to these your cities.
22 How long will you waver, O faithless daughter?
For the LORD has created a new thing on the earth:
a woman encompasses a man.
Continuing on with the poetic recasting of the present in terms of the past, Jeremiah harkens back to the ancient figure of Rachel, the favored wife of Israel and the mother of Joseph and Benjamin (and because of this associated with Northern Israel or Ephraim). She takes on a representative role mourning the lost generations of the children of Israel who have seen so much war and desolation, heartbreak and homelessness. Like a mother grieving the loss of a child who is inconsolable she represents the people who have lost their identity, loved ones and many of them perhaps their children as well. Rachel’s grief also plugs in to the grief of both the prophet and God. God takes on a fatherly type identity with the people of Israel, and the people of Israel take on the role of the prodigal son who the father is waiting to welcome home. The road for Israel to return is poetically opened in the words of the prophet and yet, as will happen among the people when the opportunity comes to return under the Persian empire, the is a reluctance. God shows an openness to do something new out of the desolation of the past and the present and to create hope in a time of hopelessness.
For Christians this passage of Jeremiah has a second recasting when it is placed by Matthew into the story of King Herod the Great’s slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem.
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.”
19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said,
Matthew 2: 16-19
The evangelist Matthew, like Jeremiah and many other faithful Jewish people before him goes back into the language of the story of God’s interaction with Israel to make sense of events in his own time. Here, appropriately, Matthew is able to find hope in the senseless violence of a king. Matthew is also very keen to tell the story of Jesus intentionally as the story of the people of Israel and finding points of resonance between the scripture and the story of Jesus. In neither case does the hope for the future erase the disaster of the past or the present of the stories, but rather it points to a reality that the disaster is not the final answer.
23 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Once more they shall use these words in the land of Judah and in its towns when I restore their fortunes:
“The LORD bless you, O abode of righteousness, O holy hill!”
24 And Judah and all its towns shall live there together, and the farmers and those who wander with their flocks.
25 I will satisfy the weary, and all who are faint I will replenish.
26 Thereupon I awoke and looked, and my sleep was pleasant to me.
27 The 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. 28 And 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. 29 In those days they shall no longer say:
“The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
30 But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.
The poetic language of reversals continues in this vision of return where the God of Israel restores the fortunes of the people who seem to have lost everything. The city of Jerusalem and specifically the temple are blessed again. Judah is now safe and secure, farmers return to their fields to bring in the harvest, shepherds have returned to the pastureland. Israel and Judah are replanted and growing healthily and God is watching over the growth. For it seems, perhaps the nightmare the prophet has lived has come to an end and the prophet can finally rest peacefully. No longer will the current generation bear the weight of the unfaithfulness of the previous generations, but now there is the chance for a new beginning where they will have a new chance at a new beginning in their covenant with God. It is the language of new beginnings, but it is always a beginning in a relationship, in a covenant with the God who desires nothing more than to be their God and for them to be God’s people.
31 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It 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. 33 But 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. 34 No 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.
For Christians, this is the most commonly heard piece of Jeremiah with its image of the law written on the heart and new covenant. Because it is so familiar and so often heard extracted from the wider context of Jeremiah it is often easily applied to either a supercessionist (Christians as the new covenant, the Jewish people as the old covenant-highlighted by the use of Old Testament, New Testament) or particularly for American Christians steeped in individuality, a very individualistic and judgmental reading. Jeremiah is writing this to the Hebrew people in exile about the opening and hope that God has granted them for a new beginning, a new start in their covenant relationship. It is a new start where the past is forgiven, the law is known by all and written on their heart rather than being the prerogative of the elite (kings and priests) to verbalize. Knowledge and access to God is also no longer restricted to the priests but now all are enabled to know the Lord.
That doesn’t mean that these words are meaningless for Christians, as those grafted onto the olive tree, to use the Apostle Paul’s evocative image in Romans 12, we too are brought into this covenant relationship in a new way. Our being grafted in does not eliminate the natural branches, but just as Jeremiah’s language talks about is entirely the prerogative of the God who cares for God’s covenant peoples. Just as Matthew was able to interpret the words of Jeremiah 31: 15 to reflect the needs of his time we also are able to hear Jeremiah’s words and the similar images in Ezekiel as opportunities where God’s covenant can become as natural as the heartbeat that makes our lives possible and we can all have access to the God who makes new beginnings possible, from the greatest to the least.
35 Thus says the LORD,
who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar– the LORD of hosts is his name:
36 If this fixed order were ever to cease from my presence, says the LORD,
then also the offspring of Israel would cease to be a nation before me forever.
37 Thus says the LORD: If the heavens above can be measured,
and the foundations of the earth below can be explored,
then I will reject all the offspring of Israel because of all they have done, says the LORD.
38 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when the city shall be rebuilt for the LORD from the tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. 39 And the measuring line shall go out farther, straight to the hill Gareb, and shall then turn to Goah. 40 The whole valley of the dead bodies and the ashes, and all the fields as far as the Wadi Kidron, to the corner of the Horse Gate toward the east, shall be sacred to the LORD. It shall never again be uprooted or overthrown.
The hope for home is a powerful hope. Jeremiah’s images of hope are grounded in a physical place, the city of Jerusalem and the territory of Judah and here the concrete image of the city being rebuilt and God now dwelling in the midst of the city again. In the midst of this image of the city which is rebuilt bigger and better than before is the promise of God’s unfaithfulness. Finally God’s wrath has passed and is overtaken by God’s love which is greater. God has never stopped loving the people, never abandoned them and it is only in the unmeasurable could be measured, the unending would end that God would abandon the covenant people. The poetry brings together the past and the future longing for the dreams of what will be emerging out of the ashes of the nightmare of the recent past. The God of new creation is opening the eyes of the prophet to see something new and finally the long years of despair give birth to hope and promise.
I’m returning to this project after a short break where I was doing a series that didn’t line up with the lectionary readings over lent. There are a lot of images for this part of Holy Week and depending on how one approaches Maundy Thursday and Good Friday would determine what types of images one seeks (ex. footwashing or last supper on Thursday, stations of the cross or crucifixion on Good Friday) I have tried to gather some interesting images that I have not used elsewhere (for example see my poem Stay Here and Keep Watch)
Neil White, 2014Other Holy Week poems: At The Table, Golgotha, Stay Here and Keep Watch
1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 2 Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Write in a book all the words that I have spoken to you. 3 For the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah, says the LORD, and I will bring them back to the land that I gave to their ancestors and they shall take possession of it.
4 These are the words that the LORD spoke concerning Israel and Judah:
5 Thus says the LORD:
We have heard a cry of panic,
of terror, and no peace.
6 Ask now, and see, can a man bear a child?
Why then do I see every man with his hands on his loins like a woman in labor?
Why has every face turned pale?
7 Alas! that day is so great there is none like it;
it is a time of distress for Jacob; yet he shall be rescued from it.
8 On that day, says the LORD of hosts, I will break the yoke from off his neck, and I will burst his bonds, and strangers shall no more make a servant of him. 9 But they shall serve the LORD their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them.
10 But as for you, have no fear, my servant Jacob, says the LORD,
and do not be dismayed, O Israel; for I am going to save you from far away,
and your offspring from the land of their captivity.
Jacob shall return and have quiet and ease, and no one shall make him afraid.
11 For I am with you, says the LORD, to save you;
I will make an end of all the nations among which I scattered you,
but of you I will not make an end.
I will chastise you in just measure,
and I will by no means leave you unpunished.
Chapters 30-33 of the book of Jeremiah are chapters of hope, it is not the easy pie in the sky, everything is going to turn out all right kind of hope, but it is a hard won hope born out of the disappointment and heartbreak of the exile and the ending of the misconceptions of privilege that come with the collapse of Jerusalem, the Temple, and the Davidic Monarchy. The events that have occurred in the Near East, with the rise of Babylon, the conquering of Judea and Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple: all of this is interpreted theologically by Jeremiah. As the people find themselves in exile, beyond the ends of their strength where the military leaders find themselves powerless, compared to women in labor, in the double play of this metaphor that precisely in their powerlessness and their inability to bring something new to birth, the God of Israel is working to do just that. This is not the far too hasty breaking of the yoke of Babylon we saw attempted by Hananiah in chapter 28, but the breaking of the bonds at the time God has appointed. God’s judgment for the people in Jeremiah is not easy, it is not cheap, but it is also not without end. God will again show compassion and mercy to God’s people. God will not let what appears to be the end of the Davidic line or the destruction of the temple be the end of the Jewish people’s identity as the people of God.
12 For thus says the LORD:
Your hurt is incurable, your wound is grievous.
13 There is no one to uphold your cause,
no medicine for your wound, no healing for you.
14 All your lovers have forgotten you; they care nothing for you;
for I have dealt you the blow of an enemy, the punishment of a merciless foe,
because your guilt is great, because your sins are so numerous.
15 Why do you cry out over your hurt? Your pain is incurable.
Because your guilt is great, because your sins are so numerous,
I have done these things to you.
16 Therefore all who devour you shall be devoured,
and all your foes, everyone of them, shall go into captivity;
those who plunder you shall be plundered,
and all who prey on you I will make a prey.
17 For I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, says the LORD,
because they have called you an outcast: “It is Zion; no one cares for her!”
18 Thus says the LORD: I am going to restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob,
and have compassion on his dwellings;
the city shall be rebuilt upon its mound, and the citadel set on its rightful site.
19 Out of them shall come thanksgiving, and the sound of merrymakers.
I will make them many, and they shall not be few;
I will make them honored, and they shall not be disdained.
20 Their children shall be as of old, their congregation shall be established before me;
and I will punish all who oppress them.
21 Their prince shall be one of their own, their ruler shall come from their midst;
I will bring him near, and he shall approach me,
for who would otherwise dare to approach me? says the LORD.
22 And you shall be my people, and I will be your God.
23 Look, the storm of the LORD! Wrath has gone forth, a whirling tempest;
it will burst upon the head of the wicked.
24 The fierce anger of the LORD will not turn back
until he has executed and accomplished the intents of his mind.
In the latter days you will understand this.
There is a sense of justice that undergirds the book of Jeremiah that the guilty will be punished, that goes back to the Mosaic memory and covenantal understanding that Jeremiah understands the world through. The punishment had come, but it is not final or ultimate. There is an ending, a rescue. This is by no means cheap, it takes a generation in exile, a complete reconfiguration of the people’s identity of what it means to be the covenant people of God without the land, temple, king. In this time of exile they return to the promise and calling of their identity, they become truly a people of the book as they record their stories and the promises and covenant of God into many of the books that will make up the Hebrew Bible. On their own they are in an incurable state, there is no balm in Gilead that will heal their sin sick souls, yet they now rely upon the turning of God’s compassion to them. Like when their ancestors remembered the captivity in Egypt and God’s hearing of their cry, now the people of God in exile in Babylon rely upon their Lord hearing their cries in their displacement and oppression. As Walter Brueggemann says very well:
Nothing has changed about the propensity of Israel. Israel is still guilty, is still sick, still under threat. Everything however has changed about God….The Indignant One has become the compassionate One. God who would abandon Judah is now prepared to intervene to save Judah. The poem traced in dramatic fashion, albeit with elliptical articulation, the transformation of God from enemy to advocate. (Brueggemann, 1998, p. 277)
God’s wrath has now turned from the people of Israel’s to the oppressors of Israel, and in the compassion of God there is the hope for the return home, for a new identity as the people of God and for a future beyond the crisis of the exile.