• 5/30/2021: Jeremiah 1:1-10; 7:1-11 Call and Temple Sermon • 6/6/2021: Jeremiah 18:1-11 Potter and the Clay • 6/13/2021: Jeremiah 36:1-8, 21-23, 27-31 Scroll Burned and Rewritten • 6/20/2021: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14 Letter to the Exiles • 6/27/2021: Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 Planting and Building • 7/4/2021: Jeremiah 33:14-18; 31:31-34 Messiah and New Covenant
The book of Jeremiah references several turbulent periods in the history of ancient Israel. In fact, the book, or at least the version we use in English Bibles, comes together at a time when the community tries to make sense of a traumatic past. Since Jeremiah is not a novel that follows a clear chronological path, an orientation to the compilation and arrangement of the book helps to avoid the bewildering experience that comes with reading a book marked by trauma. In preparation to preach a series on Jeremiah in these pandemic and post-pandemic times, here are a few suggested resources. Carly Crouch in An Introduction to the Study of Jeremiah (T&T Clark, 2017) provides a useful orientation on more recent understanding of the historical background to the book. Kathleen M. O’Connor’s Jeremiah: Pain and Promise (Fortress, 2012) offers a solid treatment of Jeremiah paying attention to formation and interpretive considerations in light of trauma. And since no preaching from the Hebrew Bible in the months and years ahead should avoid engaging how these texts emerge in the context of national trauma, David Carr’s, Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins (Yale University Press, 2014) offers good support for how to understand biblical texts in their contexts marked by trauma. These resources as well as the guiding question should provide paths for preaching.
These two passages merge Jeremiah’s vocation narrative with an episode in his prophetic career that provides a window into the challenges of leadership during national crises. Jeremiah’s vocational narrative contains elements that we find in Moses’s story, such as the hesitance to speak and the equipping with divine word as a sign of assurance (Exodus 4:10-17). Before we come to know Jeremiah, the book shows us the historical scene through the reigns of kings but more importantly the significant national event of the golāh or the exile or the captivity (Jeremiah 1:1-3). While Jeremiah’s career doesn’t begin at the point of near national collapse, this pending reality frames the book and most certainly Jeremiah’s life. The tasks that he receives as a prophet are equal parts destructive and constructive (1:10).
Romanticized notions about the Bible might lead to the expectation that Jeremiah would perform all the pleasant parts of the prophetic role. The report of the delivery of the sermon on the outskirts of the temple shows the challenges he faced (Jeremiah 7:1-2). Jeremiah preaches not as an invited guest. In fact, he is more of a nuisance disturbing the comfort of worshippers headed to the temple. His words are nothing short of rebuke that disturb the comfortable security of national symbols and their gift of exceptionalism (7:4). Rather than a “god on your side” message, Jeremiah’s chastises those who may have paid him any attention with a “god against you” sermon. Despite his crude strategy, Jeremiah rethinks theological traditions and settled dogmas that stand as obstacles to the community facing their challenges in beneficial ways.
What theological ideas need to be revisited as a result of living through the pandemic?
In addition to receiving words from God, Jeremiah perceives divine messages in actions and events. In this scene at the potter’s house, Jeremiah observes the painstaking process of pottery making (18:4). The potter revises and reworks the clay quite frequently before settling on a finished product. The observation of the potter, here a symbol (18:1-4) points to the possibility of starting over again when things go wrong. However, the conclusion of the interpretation of the sign (18:11) suggests impending destruction rather than creation. Jeremiah hears a word that interprets the potter’s work as an act of dominance over the clay and yet at the same time it appears that the clay has a will of its own (18:6). The clay is not always responsive to the potter’s molding and in fact, frustrates potter’s forcing constant revisions. In this passage, we don’t see the potter lashing out in frustration by smashing his work. However, in the next chapter Jeremiah smashes pottery as a marker of divine judgement (19:10). Threats of destruction appear in Jeremiah’s words in this chapter. This passage expresses divine anger and frustration about the inability to control everything, particularly human behavior.
Where are the spaces for voicing frustrations relating to the loss caused by the pandemic?
Memory fails at some point and requires the assistance of recording technology. In this chapter, Jeremiah relies upon the skill of the scribe Baruch to record the words that he has been speaking. The expectation is that his words can be repeated and perhaps heard in a context where they can be followed (36:7). This expectation is threatened by those who are uncomfortable with Jeremiah’s words, noticeably a number of powerful people (36:11-12). There are several instances in the book where Jeremiah and his words are an unwelcome presence (20:7-10; 26:10-11; 28:10-11). Recording Jeremiah’s words to preserve them for a longer time and a wider audience seems unsettling to those in power. The various attempts to silence Jeremiah fails (36:26). Here King Jehoiakim approaches the written text as a magical product believing that by burning the scroll, the words and their impact will also disappear. He succeeds in destroying Jeremiah’s words and their painful implications for the ruling power. Yet only for a time. The burned scroll is re-written and the word resurfaces, and creates a memory with significant consequences for Jehoiakim’s lineage (36:30-31). These consequences cannot be avoided by because they result from Jehoiakim’s decisions. He can no more bury these implications as he can erase the evidences of his poor choices. The scroll serves as a memory aid to a future generation who will feel in their bodies the histories of their ancestors.
What pandemic memories that need to be written, even if we would wish to destroy them, because they reflect inevitable consequences?
Jeremiah keeps in touch with the fractured community and sets out a path for their future away from home. The notice of the deported community reminds readers of the elite group that are removed to work in service of the Babylonian Empire (29:1-2). Their experiences shape what it means to be in exile and therefore colors what a return would look like. Jeremiah seems uninterested in supporting talk of a quick end to the exile (29:8-9). Instead, he provides advice to those in Babylon that would lead to establishing a life there that would resemble their life at home (29:5-7). His advice amounts to the maintenance of the cultural and religious identity to ensure a stable community. The direction to build families, homes, and the resources to support their life provides more than simply survival strategies. Rather, Jeremiah encourages those in Babylon to make their home there. By using language from Deuteronomy associated with blessings and curses (Deut 6:10-15; 28:30, 39), he provides the reminder that divine blessings can reach them in that new place they will call home. Jeremiah’s position in the book and his advice in this chapter runs counter to other prophetic voices. His words always appear like disinformation to a community longing to only hear easy words. Recognition of the reality before the community and the frankness to put this before them characterizes Jeremiah’s posture in the book.
What truths exposed by the pandemic cannot be hidden or made palatable?
The second siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians forms the setting for this chapter. The confinement of the entire city mirrors Jeremiah’s own confinement in prison by King Zedekiah. This dual detention also reflects a twofold struggle in the book: Jeremiah and Zedekiah on the one hand and Babylon and Judah on the other. Zedekiah’s challenge to Jeremiah regarding his unsupportive words goes unacknowledged in the chapter (32:4-5). The narrative moves quickly to the Babylonian crisis. The pending offer from Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel to purchase property in his ancestral hometown of Anathoth picks up from that hanging thread (32:6). Exactly how Hanamel enters the city during the siege if he lives in Anathoth remains unclear. Nevertheless, the property transaction functions as another sign with interpretive significance (32:15). The real estate transaction points to a future where similar transactions will occur. The measures taken to ensure the survival of the deed suggest this all may take place in the distant future rather than a near turn around (32:10-14). Even further, the inevitability of judgment as expressed in the deep divine anger, in response to Jeremiah’s supplications, indicates that there will be no short cut to restoration (32:26-41). At best, Jeremiah’s purchase implies defiance; defiance against his arrest by Zedekiah and against Babylonian imperialism. The deal sustains traditions relating to the land to ensure that ancestral land remains in the family. By transacting this deal in the middle of the siege, Jeremiah’s action focuses on the capacity of the land to sustain the dailyness of life. To thrive amidst the disaster, Jeremiah summons the critical community resource needed to be resilient.
What does resilience look like for your community in this time of pandemic?
These two passages look beyond the disaster periods to a time of restoration. They address different concerns: leadership (33:15) and interior renovation (31:31). Leadership at various levels receive harsh criticism in the book (22:1-30; 23:9-40). Despite this negativity, 33:14-18 anticipates a future where a Davidic monarch and the Levitical priesthood perform prominent functions. The David monarch springs as a new branch that bears, in this period, the appropriate fruits of righteousness and justice. That the branch springs from the same tree that presumably bore branches that we cut down does not matter since the branch will bear the divine name and nature built upon right relationships (33:16). Restoring relationship becomes another critical feature of the new age. If the restoration of the monarchy seems forced and incomplete, lacking any hints of transformation, then individual transformation springs from interior renovation (31:33-34). Restoration to ensure right relationships will rest upon an internalization of divine teaching. As Jeremiah ingests the divine word in order to speak to the people at the initiation of his prophetic career (1:10), the future is marked by the intake of teaching that leads to living right with one another. Renewed relationships serve as the start of a new dispensation of mutual help and divine forgiveness.
What are the critical relationships where trust needs to be rebuilt in order to live into a future marked by justice and right relating?