I love the book of Jeremiah. I don’t know why. Most people love Isaiah. Isaiah is majestic, beautiful, poetic – Isaiah is a lot of captivating things, that is for sure. But Isaiah is also very white-collar. Although there are several passages in the book of Isaiah that resonate with me, the overall feel of the book just eludes me. Jeremiah, on the other hand, connects with me. Jeremiah shakes his fist at God and has the audacity to accuse God of taking advantage of him. Jeremiah is blue-collar, dirt under your fingernails, sweat dripping in your eyes kind of prophecy. Isaiah gets to see the throne room of God; Jeremiah gets thrown into a stinking, muddy cistern. Jeremiah can at times rise to the heights of Isaiah, but he does not do so nearly as often, and when he does he does not stay there nearly as long as does Isaiah.
So, my daily Bible reading has me in the book of Jeremiah for a while. I am going to enjoy the next few days reacquainting myself with this “weeping prophet.” Today I read one of the more well-known of Jeremiah’s teachings/lamentations:
My people have done two things wrong. They have abandoned me, the fountain of life-giving water: They have also dug their own cisterns that can’t hold water. (Jeremiah 2:13, God’s Word Translation)
Here Jeremiah identifies two tragic, catastrophic decisions that the people of Judah have committed. One, they rejected God. That is the tragedy, but if that was the only thing they had done, a remedy would be available. When you reject something you can eventually return to it, because there is a likelihood that you will come to miss that which you have rejected. You will learn you really needed it. Unless it was absolutely worthless, you will come to recognize that you are not complete without that which you rejected, and you will seek it out once again.
But, if you find a cheap substitute for that costly item the temptation, indeed the likelihood, will be that you will be content with the impostor and you will not feel the need to return to the genuine article. This is the catastrophe of the Judean “faithful.” They not only rejected the priceless and irreplaceable life-giving water that came straight from God, they replaced that treasure with a bunch of broken, worthless, meaningless cisterns.
In these words from Jeremiah we can hear the pathos of God. It is God’s voice we hear through the pen of Jeremiah. It is God Himself who is being rejected – not some physical chemical composition. Even though we often say that God is omniscient (which is a Greek concept, not a Hebrew one, by the way) there are some things that God does not understand. He does not understand why His people can wallow in the riches and greatness of his love, and then almost in the blink of an eye replace that heavenly comfort with the filth and muck of an earthly pigsty.
One of the great evangelical past times today is lamenting the decline of the American moral situation. I suppose that is tragic – it would be far better and far healthier for us if our culture would return to a more “Christian” framework. But, tragic as that might be, it could be remedied if it were not for the catastrophe that has followed the tragedy. The catastrophe is that the American “Church” has followed American culture into the pigsty of relativism. Once the church decided it could hew out its own cisterns, broken and worthless as they might be, it decided that it no longer needed the life-giving water from above.
There is no hope for American culture if the American church has given up on God.
I read and hear evidence of this collapse every day. “The church needs to listen to the people who are leaving.” No it does not. The church needs to listen to God! Do we need to hear what the people who are leaving have to say so that we can correct unchristian attitudes and behaviors? To be sure. But there is only one voice that we need to listen to and that is the voice of God. “The church needs to be more open and affirming.” Affirming of what – sin? How can we “affirm” a sinful lifestyle and even remotely proclaim to be a holy people. We are commanded to be holy, but I can not think of a single passage of Scripture that commands us to be affirming – especially when it comes to affirming unholy lifestyles. “The church needs to be more modern, more relevant to today’s culture.” This one is truly fascinating. In the midst of today’s utter and complete moral chaos, people are asking for more rootlessness and subjectivity, as if getting drunk for longer periods of time is the ultimate cure for alcoholism. No – the answer to today’s moral and religious vacuum is the return to solid ground. The church needs to be the one place where people can have a safe refuge from the endless and meaningless cycle of change and relativism.
Jeremiah had it right – but the people refused to listen to him, and what he prophesied came true. Jerusalem was destroyed. You can recover from a tragedy, but not if that tragedy is compounded by the willful, catastrophic rejection of the only thing that can save you.
Are we going to go back to the pure, life-giving water from God, or are we going to continue to depend upon our broken cisterns?
How horrible it will be for those who go to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who depend on many chariots, who depend on very strong war horses. They don’t look to the Holy One of Israel. They don’t seek the LORD…The Egyptians are humans, not gods. Their horses are flesh and blood, not spirit. When the LORD uses his powerful hand, the one who gives help will stumble, and the one who receives help will fall. Both will die together. (Isaiah 31:1, 3, God’s Word Translation).
This has been a transformative year for me. It was my first year of teaching in a university setting. I have been working on preparing myself for my doctoral dissertation – basically trying to refine my thesis and research possible resources. I have been forced to re-think some old cherished ideas and have been driven back into some that I had foolishly set aside. In some ways I think I have grown more in the past 12 months than I have in the previous 12 years. And, considering that time period in my life, that is saying something.
Weird way to introduce my thoughts on Isaiah 31, I know. But there is something, well, just - transcendent about Isaiah 31. You actually have to go back to chapter 30 and read chapters 30 and 31 together. Isaiah set it out so clearly for the Israelites. God is saying, “Listen, trust ME. Believe in ME. Don’t worry about these foreign armies – do you think they can defeat ME?” But Israel would not listen. They looked at the armies of the oppressors, looked at the armies of Egypt, and said, “Wow, we need some of those, a couple of those – aw, just send the whole kit and kaboodle.” And God said, “Okie fine, you won’t trust me, you won’t believe in me, so I’ll give you what you want.”
Jeremiah had basically the same message to the nation of Judah two centuries later, and guess what? Yep, the leaders of Judah still preferred to trust in the power of the Egyptian armies rather than trust in God. Honestly, some people are so stubborn that they will not learn.
Well, we have the messages of both Isaiah and Jeremiah and guess what? Have we learned? Are we willing to trust in God?
Our military spending is into the multiple hundreds of billions of dollars, and even though the top brass in the Pentagon says we can get by with less, the Congress refuses to cut any military spending because of the political repercussions in the districts of the Representatives and Senators.
Following every mass shooting, when the national conversation turns to even minor and sane gun ownership legislation, the ultra-conservative right-wing of our country goes ballistic (love the pun) and sales of both guns and ammunition go through the roof.
The more right-wing and ultra-conservative a person is, the more likely that person is to defend the ownership and use of multiple weapons – even those weapons whose design and use is strictly for the taking of human life. In addition, the more likely that person is to defend the creation of a personal defense shelter and the hoarding of many months, if not years, of food in the event of a “cataclysmic” event.
Many of those who I described in the last two points would also describe themselves as “Christians.”
The underlying rationale for the building up of an unbeatable military force, a personal arsenal, and a stockpile of food and water is the fear of the unknown, and of the known but misunderstood. We either do not see the boogey-man in the dark, or we see what we think is a boogey-man in the dark and we over-react.
And God is still telling us not to worry, not to trust in foreign powers, or even in our own military power, but to trust in Him. Question is, will we listen?
I find it enlightening that at least one scholar in the Restoration Movement referred to Barton W. Stone as having an “apocalyptic” theology. That is to say the difference between Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell can be described as the difference between someone who saw history as being on an inexorable climb to perfection (Campbell, who saw the Restoration Movement as the crowning jewel in that climb) and one who saw mankind in a hopeless quandary and utterly dependent upon the power of God (Stone, who saw the Restoration Movement as an ultimate submission to that mysterious power). Up until the Second World War the Churches of Christ were generally, although not exclusively, under the influence of Stone and his successors, Tolbert Fanning and David Lipscomb. As the Churches of Christ became more “mainstream” and also more “evangelical,” the apocalyptic view of Stone, Fanning and Lipscomb became an unwanted burden and was soon excised almost entirely from the theology of the Churches of Christ.
Although couched entirely in the prophetic genre, Isaiah 30 and 31 proclaim the message of the apocalyptic theologian perfectly. We may see only the tanks, armies and inter-continental ballistic missiles of our enemies and also of ourselves and our friends. We may see only the guns and ammunition in our personal bunkers. We may take courage and feel safe because of those weapons.
But God looks down and laughs. Use a tank against God? Shoot a missile at God? Out last a famine that is sent by God?
I get the reality that atheists might want to trust in their armies. I understand that those who deny God might want to build a bomb proof shelter and store up enough food to last a generation. But disciples of Christ? Really? Where is our faith? Where is our trust? In what do we actually trust, God or ourselves?
Faith is a leap into the unknown because we know and trust who it was that told us to jump. I think Stone, Fanning and Lipscomb all shared a far greater faith in God and a far greater distrust in humans than we do in the 21st century.
Call me an apocalyptic theologian if you want to. Actually, I believe I am in pretty good company. That fellow John wrote a pretty good apocalypse, and we have it as the last book of our Bible. If you read it carefully you will note that it is God who is in control of history, not mankind.
And, just as an aside, what happens to those who trust in their armies in that apocalypse?
Yea, thought so.
Then Assyrians will be killed with swords not made by human hands. Swords not made by human hands will destroy them. They will flee from battle, and their young men will be made to do forced labor. In terror they will run to their stronghold, and their officers will be frightened at the sight of the battle flag. The LORD declares this. His fire is in Zion and his furnace is in Jerusalem. (Isaiah 31:8-9, God’s Word Translation)
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we need to continue our reserve as we approach this verse, because that which is common is also often misunderstood. I do not claim any kind of clairvoyance here, so the warning is as much for me as for anyone.
Growing up with the King James Version the way I came to memorize this verse is “Blessed are the meek.” Now, meekness is certainly not a trait that is honored or even talked about very much, so I never really knew what “meekness” was. All I ever heard was what it was not – most expositors said it definitely was NOT weakness, but when you are a little boy, if it does not involve getting dirty or scuffing your shoes or maybe even getting a bruise or two, the definition of any word fell into the category of weakness. Even when I would preach on this verse and would share the same warning, “now this word does not mean weakness,” my words just sounded hollow. It is kind of hard to define something by explaining what it is not, but I never really could get around the term “meek.” Maybe it’s because it just sounds so close to “weak.”
That is where the value of other translations comes in. Some translations try to improve on the word by using “humble,” but humility is hardly an improvement. In our vernacular humility is still considered a very close relative to the idea of weakness. Biblically I do not believe that is the case, but the art of translation is to make things understandable in today’s common speech, not the speech of two millennia ago.
Two fairly recent translations have hit upon a nice equivalent – one that communicates what I believe to be the meaning of the word. The Holman Christian Standard Bible and the God’s Word translation both use the word “gentle.” Now, gentleness does run the risk of being considered weakness, but I do believe most people are familiar with the sight of a big, huge, burly, biker type dude cuddling a little baby, or a little kitten or puppy, or performing some other act of kindness or gentleness. It is momentarily incongruent – and that is precisely the image that I believe Jesus wants us to create in our mind. Gentleness is not much of a character trait if you have no ability to be anything other than gentle. Gentleness only reveals a strength of character if we have the ability and the willingness to be anything other than gentle – meaning vicious, mean, cruel, overpowering. So, when we see the aforementioned big, burly, unkempt biker dude bending over a little kitten we may initially think he is stomping it or something. But when we realize he is lifting it out of a precarious position to return it to its mother we understand the depth of his compassion, and therefore understand he is acting gently.
So, the first step in understanding this passage means that we must understand Jesus is blessing those who have both the capacity and the willingness to use the powers of cruelty and power, but who choose to subjugate those inclinations and to act gently. Simple you say. Not so fast, Jesus would respond.
Acting gently is perhaps one of my greatest difficulties. Now if you saw me you would immediately recognize that I am not anywhere close in physical stature to the big, burly, he-man biker dude that I described above. I feel in the depths of my heart that I was supposed to be 6’5″ and weigh 220 pounds and be the starting running back for the Minnesota Vikings. However, my genes somehow got confused. I’m more like 5’6″ and the only way that I could tip the scales at 220 is to have about 70 or 80 pounds of rocks in a backpack while I stood on the scales. On the other hand, somehow or another I developed a deep love for the English language and a propensity for both sarcasm and teasing. That allows me to get myself into a lot of trouble, much of it deserved but even a considerable amount that is undeserved. My point here is that “gentleness” is not just a matter of restraining physical strength. It is also a matter of restraining the tongue, the bitter gossip, the witty comeback, as well as the self-righteous rolling of the eyes, the haughty turn of the head, the snobbish snort. “Gentle” encompasses all of our being, not just our ability to overpower or destroy something physically.
The second point that I would like to make in regard to this verse is that Jesus is not making this teaching up out of thin air. This phase is virtually a quote from Psalm 37:11, but can also be taken as a commentary on the entirety of Psalm 37. (As you read the psalm pay attention to v. 7, 9, 22, 29, 34). But, in addition, consider also Psalm 25:13, Proverbs 1:33 and 2:21, and because Isaiah figures so prominently in Matthew, see also Isaiah 57:13 and 60:21. These Old Testament references should give us a clue that what Jesus is teaching here has been the will of God for all of his relationship with man, that the coming of Jesus is a fulfillment of his eternal will and not a brand new “religion” that some consider Christianity to be.
It should go without saying that the life of Jesus exemplifies this beatitude most completely, as his life exemplifies all of the beatitudes. He, among all people, had the ability to be utterly ruthless and cruel. He had the power to use his incomprehensible power. But, in the words of Isaiah once again, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” (Isa. 42:3)
One more brief comment, and that is on the blessing – what does it mean to “inherit the earth?” I think for far too long we have focused on the “earth” part and did not consider the “inherit” part, and I believe from the Old Testament passages noted above, the emphasis should be on the “inheritance.” The gentle will receive that which is promised to them. They will receive that which is rightfully and legally theirs. They will receive what sons (and daughters) are bound to receive, and that is what the parents bequeath to them. Simply speaking, the “earth” was the biggest physical thing that the ancients could conceivably bequeath. “Earth” here stands for “everything, all, the totality of existence.” It is at this point that I also like Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the beatitude (although I am not too crazy about the way he interprets the term “meek” or “gentle”) – “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are – no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.”
You cannot buy an inheritance. You cannot obtain a gift in any other way than to simply receive it – to accept it. That is the way the gentle people of the way of discipleship will receive the entire world – by simple and loving acceptance of the blessing that Jesus bestows, both now and in the future.
I begin with a seemingly incoherent digression. My father was one of the most sure-footed individuals I have ever seen. He could scamper over rocks, tree limbs, logs – he loved the out-doors and it really did not matter where he was, he was able to keep his feet under him. I honestly cannot ever remember seeing him fall, and I have seen him in some pretty amazing predicaments. One vision is especially clear, and that is how he ferried me and my sister on his back across numerous rivers and creeks without so much as getting our feet wet. I don’t know how many times I was carried across the Pecos river, it has to be in the hundreds. No matter how strong the current we always made it across safely. When I was old enough to get my own pair of hip boots he taught me very carefully how to wade across a river. After having dunked myself in the same river more times than I really care to admit, my admiration for his sure footedness only grew.
I was especially impressed with my father’s ability to wade across a river when it was murky or even more than murky. It is one thing to cross a river when you can see the rocks beneath your feet. When you cannot see the bottom the challenge is exponentially more difficult. But, somehow he managed to feel his way along the bottom, finding just the right crevice or big rock to brace his foot against.
So, what does my father’s ability to wade across free-flowing trout streams have to do with interpreting the Sermon on the Mount? Interestingly enough, much if I do say so myself.
I have already mentioned the difficulty we as Americans have in understanding the word “Blessed.” This is illustrated in translation of the Greek word makairos that was published in the Common English Bible as “happy.” We in America want our Christianity to be a happy one, full of little smiley emoticons, full volume hip-hop music and stories that end “happily ever after.”
In my last post I discussed an equally difficult problem we have with “poor in spirit.” We as Americans are just so proud of our ability to be self-sufficient, do-it-yourselfers. We rebel against any suggestion that we are or even have been dependent upon anyone. In the words of the Pharisees to Jesus, “We have never been slaves to anyone!” And, just for good measure, we refuse to be slaves to anyone now. Unfortunately, that includes God as well.
So, we are in murky water here. This sermon, which I have labeled as “radical” is profoundly disorienting – especially to a culture such as ours. We are barely a few verses into it and already our head is spinning. That, I am convinced, is its perfect design.
So now we turn to the word “mourn.” And, I must confess right up front, the water under my feet is no more clear than it is for anyone else. There are as many interpretations of what this word means as there have been for “blessed” and for “poor in spirit.” But, using other passages as a guide, I think there is a way to understand what Jesus is teaching.
First, as I so often do, a couple of things I think Jesus is NOT teaching. One, I do not believe Jesus is advocating some kind of histrionic cataract of tears that can be called up on a moment’s notice. I have in mind the paid mourners as is illustrated in the story of the little girl Jesus raised from the dead in Matthew 9. A stout onion and a good crowd is all it takes to get some people weeping and wailing. Second, although I am not 100% sure of what he was talking about, I am not convinced that Jesus is talking about the tears that Ignatius of Loyola was talking about in his Spiritual Exercises. I am not a Jesuit, so I must admit some ignorance here.
Rather, I think what Jesus is referencing here are the tears of the great prophets – Ezra, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel just to name a few. And, because the blessing on those who mourn comes immediately after the blessing on those who are poor in spirit, I believe the two are inextricably linked. When we realize our utter dependence upon God we realize how frail and weak we are as humans. That realization should also reveal our sinfulness and brokenness, and having come to that realization we are driven to our knees in sorrow. In other words, we mourn our human frailty and sinfulness. In his great vision of the throne room of God, Isaiah first comprehends the majesty of God, and then comprehends his own unworthiness. Isaiah’s “woe is me” is not the rambling of some deranged neurotic, but is the honest reflection of a person who has come into the presence of the Holy One. It is the response of EVERY person who comes into the presence of the Holy One as recorded in the pages of Scripture.
Second, and just as important, I believe Jesus is speaking here of our ability to weep over the sins of others. It is not only our own sin that should drive us to our knees, but also the brokenness of humanity. Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41). Ezra wept for his people. Jeremiah has been labeled “the weeping prophet.” Our inability to weep over the sins of others is manifested in countless ways. Every year I hear of calls to march in front of Planned Parenthood offices, but I never hear of services where Christians are called to weep for the women who make use of the doctors inside those facilities. We rant and rail against all kinds of sexual promiscuity and perversity, yet how many of us weep for the young women caught up in the sex trade? How many of us weep for the men and women so broken by the world that they have lost the reality of their own gender? We cheer the death of some “terrorist” whose name we cannot pronounce, never even once stopping to ask ourselves about the manner in which they were killed, or about those who were killed with them whose only offense was that they happened to be in the same vicinity?
We cling to our “rights” as American citizens, never ever even once stopping to consider how those “rights” affect countless millions across this globe, or even how they are a part of the massacre of 26 innocent people whose only “crime” was that they happened to be in an elementary school.
Americans, and disciples of Christ in America, have lost the ability to mourn. And, following the words of Jesus, if we cannot mourn, we will never experience God’s comfort.
As long as we are self-sufficient, as long as we proudly bear the banner of our “inalienable rights,” as long as we are able to look down upon others in self-righteous contempt, as long as we are able to overlook our own brokenness and sinfulness, we may have the comfort of our own pathetic little egotistic shell. But that comfort will be fleeting, and we will have to grasp another “right,” we will have to find someone yet more contemptible, we will have to turn away from our own reflection even more violently in order to shore up our crumbling self-defense.
Or, we can hear the words of this radical sermon, and we can confess our utter and complete dependence upon God, and we can fall upon our knees in the depths of righteous sorrow, and pray that God will see our tears and hear our sighs.
Then, and only then, may we receive the blessing of comfort.
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. (Isa. 40:1-2)
This verse has become one of the most treasured verses in the English world, mostly due to Handel’s oratorio, Messiah. That is why I quoted it from the KJV, as it tends to be the most lyrical and measured.
I think of this passage today for a number of reasons. One, Handel’s music is flowing through my mind. And two, after a week of the kind of hell that I have lived through in dealing with the massacre in Newtown CT, I simply wanted to hear a word of comfort.
Isaiah 40:1 marks a significant change in the tone in the prophecy. So significant that a number of scholars think that an entirely different author is at work here. I reject that proposal. I think those who argue for a second (and sometimes third) prophet in the book of Isaiah simply fail to understand the nature of prophecy and the overall picture of what is going on. Just because an author changes tone and outlook does not mean that he has surrendered his pen to another writer, especially one several hundred years after he first wrote.
So, Isaiah changes tone. Why? Because he can see God’s judgment, God’s punishment. Jerusalem will receive “double” what her sins call for. She will be broken, and broken to the extent that only the LORD can call her back to health. So God also allows Isaiah to see his comfort. God has punished, but God will restore. Comfort.
I do not want to suggest that America has received “double” for her sins. Hardly. I don’t even think that God has yet fully begun to punish America for her pride, obstinacy and violence. But I do want to pray that within his punishment he reserves a measure of comfort. It is true that America stands guilty of a great many sins, but America has, primarily due to her Christian citizens, been a beacon of hope and life to countless millions of people.
I used to equate being an American as something to be proud of. I don’t think that way any more. Being an American is an accident of my birth. I did not choose America, America did not choose me. I am an American just like I am a male – it just happened that way. I am proud of America’s great accomplishments, and I am sickened by her arrogance, her overweening will to power, and her increasing rejection of all things spiritual.
However, I did choose to be a Christian, a disciple of Christ. That is my commitment. It is my belief and my faith in Jesus that will identify me as one of God’s people, not the nation on my birth certificate.
And as one of those people, I pray for God’s comfort during this time that we focus on the birth of the Prince of Peace.
This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through
My treasures are laid up, somewhere beyond the blue;
The angels beckon me through heaven’s open door,
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.