Jeremiah 29:1,4-7; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19
Have you noticed an odd thing about prophets? Their message seems often out of sync with the outer appearance of things. For instance, when life appears to be going well as far as superficial measurements are concerned – as in the job rate is up, GDP is growing, the stock and housing markets are buoyant, the prophet is likely to sound a message of warning and foreboding. When it appears that the weave of the society around us is unravelling, it’s then that the prophet offers a message of hope and consolation.
As far as I can discern, the distinction between prophecy and other kinds of social analysis or commentary lies in the way prophecy connects the past and the future in order to arrive at an accurate understanding of present time events. Present-time action uninformed by memory and careless of future consequences spells trouble for any individual, group, or society.
Remembrance of things past is the most accurate guide to predicting the shape of the future. This does not mean that the future is an inevitable repetition of the past. What it means is that if we want a future different from our past, then we need to understand how to act differently in the present.
We often note a wise individual as someone who clearly learns well from their experience. Yet many of us learning from experience – something so obvious, is the last thing we are likely to do. You remember the definition of madness -repeating the same mistakes expecting different results.
The prophet Jeremiah around the year 587 is writing a letter to the exiles who had recently been taken into captivity in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar following his destruction of Jerusalem. Jeremiah had been prophesying doom and gloom – a thorn in the side of the Court and Temple authorities since around the first signs of international crisis in 798. But all he got for pains was an accusation of treason.
Yet, Jeremiah, true to his calling, had persisted in the face of attempts to silence him. There is that memorable scene in Chapter 36 where his prophecy is being read out to King Jehoiakim, who is so incensed by what he is hearing he grabs the scroll and cuts off the offending lines, throwing them into the fire – believing evidently that out of sight, is out of mind. Well we all know how that normally turns out. Doesn’t this kind of leadership response feel uncannily familiar to us in 2019?
Eventually, the king has Jeremiah imprisoned, which is where we find him as he composes his letter to the exiles.
Having accurately foreseen the destruction which had now arrived, Jeremiah might have reminded the exiles that they had nobody to blame but themselves. Instead, the Lord instructs him to write words of encouragement, urging them to build new lives in the place where they have been taken:
Build houses, take wives and have sons and daughters; multiply there and not decrease – seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
This is a piece of really good advice and the exiles heeded it. It’s the advice that waves of immigrants to America have followed to find success. It continues to be the dream of those who seek to build more secure and prosperous lives for themselves and their families despite currently being the target of unprecedented official persecution.
Over the next 70 years the exiled Jewish Community not only prospered in Babylon, but they undertook a root and branch religious reform that led to a complete reshaping of Judaism into a new kind of religion. In this new kind of Judaism, God communicated not through temple sacrifices or even prophetic utterance, but through the interpretation of a sacred text. For the first time the Jews become truly the people of the book.
It was during the Babylonian captivity Judaism developed structures that would equip them for a new kind of future. A future marked out from their past by a renewal of hearts and minds, and a purification of their covenant relationship with God.
As is usually the case however, this was a process of two steps forward and one step back. For when the 70 years were up, and Cyrus freed them to return home many, though not all of those taken into exile would return and try to pick up where they had left off with the rebuilding of a new Temple and a futile attempt to restore the Kingdom of David. Yet, when their rebuilt Temple was finally destroyed once and for all during the cataclysmic rebellion against Rome from 65 -70 A.D., the Jewish people found that the reformation begun in Babylon after 587 had equipped them to at times prosper, but always to survive during the next 2000 years of permanent exile.
Contemporary America seems to have lost the art of learning from the experience of its, albeit short history. To learn from our history would be to remember the countless times when the false narratives of otherness have stoked fear and justified violence. Narratives that for a short time thrive on drawing sharp distinctions between us and them repeatedly rise from the depths of our fear of the other as if we have never trod this road and learned this lesson before.
Yet these periods when the false narratives of fear and division have erupted must be viewed within the overarching trajectory of the building of a different and new kind of nation; one nation forged from the confluence of many nations; a nation in which we are all at the same time both us and them, familiar and other.
The Constitution, like the Bible is a foundational text that invites each generation into an often tense encounter with it. This act of encounter is, by its nature, an act of interpretation arising out of the dynamic tension between text and the specificity of context (time and place). This is a dynamic tension that breathes new life into the dead letters on the page.
In his letter to Timothy, known to us as the 2nd Timothy (refer back to last week) Paul echoes the central discovery learned from experience:
If we are faithless, God remains faithful – for God cannot deny God’s own nature.
Mounting evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors in the highest echelons of our government; the draconian separation of families at the Southern Border; the capricious lurches in foreign policy that lead to the abandonment of faithful allies and the greenlighting of strongman governments around the world reveal the depths of our need for a renewed soul searching. Unlike God, it seems it’s all too easy for us to deny our own (better) nature.
Columbus Day is a celebration that highlights the complexity of the past. Just which lesson from our history are we celebrating? The lessons of our history should remind us we have been in bad and even more shameful places before. Yet this cannot be used as a justification for finding ourselves in a bad place yet again. Like the Jews exiled to Babylon, we need to ask how have we come to this state? However, more importantly, like them it’s time to act in the present-time to ensure that the trajectory of our future is something greater than an endless repetition of our past sins.
Can we do it? I know we can!