The Common Good
September/October 2007

God's Refining Love

by Malinda Elizabeth Berry | September/October 2007

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary Cycle C.

Last month's Hebrew Testament readings introduced us to Jeremiah, beginning a nine-week focus on the book that bears his name, along with Lamentations. Readings from both books give us a sampling of the rich images Jeremiah uses—wilderness, fountains of living water, a potter forming clay vessels, the earth laid bare, healing balm, and land to which God holds the deed.

Jeremiah was at work from 628 to 586 B.C.E., during which time the southern kingdom of Judah twice came under threat by the Babylonians. Having been aided by the Egyptians during the first threat in 588, the Jewish monarchs were not able to protect Jerusalem the second time around. In 586, the city was sacked, beginning the second wave of the Babylonian captivity.

Commentators generally agree that Jeremiah's career as a prophet serves as a microcosm of the entire Hebrew Testament. As Elmer Martens writes, "The book of Jeremiah … depicts the alienation of people from God, God's unceasing attempts to bring them back to [Godself], God's judgment on their evil through exile, the delights of restoration, and [God's] actions not only on behalf of the people of Israel but for the benefit of the world of nations."

The very definition of the word prophet means "to speak for." In order to voice authentically God's message, a prophet must not fear intimacy with God, because the prophetic word comes from the mysterious depths of God's own heart. This is why Jeremiah's commissioning includes God's foreknowledge of Jeremiah: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you" (Jeremiah 1:5).

Contrasting God's intention for one person with the global reach of God's intention for the world calls to mind something my Mennonite high school chemistry teacher told us before we took tests: "Remember, the Creator of the electron loves you." God, who formed something that has negligible mass, loves us. This makes perfect sense—after all, what are the nations but electrons, neutrons, and protons that form the atoms that give all materiality mass?

As you ponder the lections, consider that along with our Creator's relational love for us as the created, Jeremiah reminds us that this love is also a refining and just love. In her commentary on Jeremiah, Elizabeth Achtemeier urges us to listen to the message God gives this prophet in ways that can deepen our Christian understanding of God in personal and biblical terms: As "Judge and Savior, Warrior and Healer, Destroyer and Builder," God is showing us, through Jeremiah, "that the cross of Christ is both judgment and salvation for us, both death to the old ways and life anew."

Malinda Elizabeth Berry is a dissertation fellow at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.

September 2
Indifference to God
Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

Like a frustrated parent speaking to a belligerent teenager, the verses from the second chapter of Jeremiah begin with God asking the nation a rather pointed question: "What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?" (Jeremiah 2:5).

Elizabeth Achtemeier observes that God is speaking as one who is presenting a case in court. But God is not just the prosecutor. God is also the plaintiff addressing the company of the heavens who serve as the jurors at this "trial." And who is sitting in the hot seat? "This is a case directed not only at the Israel of the old covenant, but by analogy at the new Israel in Christ, the church," Achtemeier writes. She points out that in verse 13 we hear the double offense: The people have 1) forsaken God by 2) looking in spiritually barren places for the sustenance only God can provide. These two offenses demonstrate that sins of commission and sins of omission may be easily distinguishable from each other, but they bear the same consequence: We stand accused of being indifferent to God.

This accusatory word from God is balanced by Jesus' teaching in Luke about where to sit at a wedding feast: "When you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted" (Luke 14:10-11). Together, Jeremiah and Luke send the message that indifference toward God is a form of arrogance, while the attitude with the most authenticity—the one that offers us the most meaningful relationships with each other and with God—is humility.

September 9
Shaped and Fired
Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

The Bible's treasure trove of allegories, metaphors, and similes are powerful and enduring because the meaning of any one image can change based on our personal and communal experiences.

The metaphor of God as a potter, a master artisan, begins in Jeremiah 18:2. God sends Jeremiah to the potter's house, where Jeremiah sees the potter working at his wheel. "The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him" (Jeremiah 18:4).

God says Israel is like a lump of clay that the potter has the power to shape and reshape. Then God turns the metaphor around: If the people don't change their ways, then God will shape evil to work against them: "Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you, from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings" (Jeremiah 18:11). If either form is going to withstand the elements or have any function beyond the shaping process, it has to be fired. And once it's been fired, it can't be reshaped.

The psalmist employs another metaphor—one of the Bible's most poignant—when he confesses to God that "it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb" (Psalm 139:13).

September 16
Turn from Evil
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

This week's passage from Jeremiah comes from a section of the book filled with oracles of impending doom. There is an enemy to the north (Babylon) threatening Jerusalem (within the bounds of the southern kingdom of Judah), where Jeremiah lives. Jeremiah doesn't specifically name the enemy, he simply describes in detail the absolute destruction of a doomed nation: "I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light" (Jeremiah 4:22).

After the storm system we call Katrina devastated the southeast United States around Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, there were people who interpreted the advent of the storm as biblical judgment. This interpretive trend included conservative Christians who looked upon New Orleans as a contemporary Sodom and Gomorrah, and liberal Christians who wondered if Katrina wasn't an example of creation groaning, calling our attention to the environmental abuse we inflict upon the earth.

Do you believe God acts in human history? Do you believe God has the ability to control the forces of nature? Do you believe that the ferocity of God's anger can lay, has laid, and will lay waste to cities? Turn productive farmland to deserts? Cause the earth to quake so that mountains fall in on themselves? Extinguish the lights in the sky?

Leo Perdue's commentary on this passage in The HarperCollins Study Bible points out that the literary quality of Jeremiah 4:19-26 reminds us of Genesis, which leads to an important interpretive possibility: "While hyperbolic, the poem indicates that the devastation of war is like the end of the world and a return to primordial nothingness." Jeremiah's prophecy becomes more accessible if he is trying to open our eyes to the way humanity can be the catalyst either for new life (like the woman in labor in Jeremiah 4:31) or for self-destruction. Being God's children, Jeremiah reminds us, has something to do with turning away from evil and doing good.

September 23
Sin-Sick Souls
Jeremiah 8:18 - 9:1; Psalm 79:1-9; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

The famous "balm in Gilead" referred to in this week's reading from Jeremiah—resin that ancients extracted from balsam trees growing in the region of Gilead—doesn't seem to have held any significant medicinal properties, but we can see it has symbolic meaning for the prophet.

The people are suffering the devastating effects of war. Instead of being places of healing, the fortified cities of Israel and Judah are places of terror. The people can even hear the neighing of Babylon's horses as Jeremiah warns that the army will enter the city like an uncharmable adder whose bite is lethal (Jeremiah 8:17). The balm is needed to purge the people of the snake's venom.

But the adder is not simply representative of invading armies. Earlier in this chapter, Jeremiah makes a clear link between invasion and Judah's rejection of God. Judah's problem is not just imminent attack; the people are sick in heart and neither the best physician nor the most potent balm will help their condition.

The African-American spiritual referring to this oracle reflects our common response to Jeremiah's questions: "Is there no balm in Gilead? … Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?" (Jeremiah 8:22). "There is a balm in Gilead /To make the wounded whole /There is a balm in Gilead /To heal the sin-sick soul."

Is the balm from the balsam trees, or does it have another source? Perhaps it comes from within, from a heart that shares intimacy with God. Surely this balm heals all soul-sickness.

September 30
Reclamation
Jeremiah 32:1-3, 6-15; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

In a rather odd episode, Jeremiah buys a piece of land during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem. His literal act is also a symbolic action or "sign-act," according to Elmer Martens. "A reason for symbolic action was to reinforce visibly the oral word which people refused. ... Sign-acts arrested people's attention; they riveted the prophet's message in the memory." I am reminded of the Berrigan brothers and the symbolic actions Christian activists have taken—from pouring their blood on draft cards to hammering on missiles—to symbolize the hope that we might "beat our swords into plowshares" (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3).

But what is symbolic about Jeremiah's purchase? Jeremiah 32:15 gives some insight into what God's message is to the people through Jeremiah's action. The day will come when people will build houses and till the soil rather than being alienated from the place they call home. By claiming his family's threatened land, Jeremiah sets the stage for God's words of covenantal renewal that follow in Jeremiah 32:36-44.

In times of terror and trouble, and despite all the words of judgment and accusation, Jeremiah was able to deliver God's promise: "They shall be my people, and I will be their God" (Jeremiah 32:38). This is part of God's beauty and mystery, that no transgression is too deep, no infidelity too severe, and no alienation too long that God's justice and love cannot repair.

October 7
The Restoring God
Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

The book of Lamentations was written during Jeremiah's career as a prophet. While tradition attributes authorship to him, the five chapters of this book reflect the feelings of Jeremiah's community in response to the judgment God meted out upon them, just as Jeremiah warned.

The poems that comprise Lamentations were written as a series of acrostic verses following the Hebrew alphabet. Werner Lemke points out that using this level of structure, the poet's voice is disciplined in its expression of grief, pain, and disappointment: "Instead of being allowed to spill over without limit, the pathos is channeled into a literary structure that brings a measure of order to social and emotional chaos." Lemke notes that structure also plays a second, paradoxical role: "The alphabetic acrostic device ... sets limits to feelings at the same time as it allows for complete expression, 'from A to Z.'"

The opening words of the first lament, thick with images, name the desolation caused by war: "How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become" (Lamentations 1:1). Jerusalem is personified as daughter Zion, who has become a "mockery" and whose "uncleanness was in her skirts" (Lamentation 1:8-9).

What are we to make of this troubling and all-too-familiar imagery of the unfaithful daughter/wife/mother who, Kathleen O'Connor points out in the Women's Bible Commentary, is now "the object of scorn" and "the cause of her own suffering"? The fallen woman trope alienates some of us as modern readers, and this conundrum is precisely what makes lamentation so powerful: The one who is brought low is never without recourse. God is never unwilling to hear Zion's confession and call for restoration.

October 14
Where is Home?
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Psalm 66:1-12; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

Returning to Jeremiah, this week's reading contains a verse that is the foundation for and shapes the vision of many urban ministers: "But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare" (Jeremiah 29:7).

These words are from a letter Jeremiah wrote to a community in exile, but when we read them today, we hear the urging to expand horizons, to seize God-given opportunities to move beyond our comfort zones. But there is more to Jeremiah's encouragement than meets the eye. There are false prophets at work who want to convince everyone that exile—separation from the Promised Land—will end quickly. It won't; nor is it simply a waiting game, Jeremiah says. He urges his listeners to "Build houses and live in them" (Jeremiah 29:5). They are to marry, have children, and seek the welfare of the place in which they live.

Just as God creates us and animates our lives, God also pays attention to the cultures we create. Cities and small towns have distinct differences, but each is made of people building social networks. The fact that we can make ourselves at home in such vastly different places is a gift. Our experiences and the ways they teach us to adapt, change, and grow is part of God's shalom project—caring about the communities where we find ourselves because our welfare is beautifully bound up in those places we call home.

October 21
Intimacy with God
Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14 - 4:5; Luke 18:1-8

In this chapter, Jeremiah lays out the terms of a new covenant. The promise of intimacy with God is not new. What is new is the promise of knowledge of God: "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," God declares (Jeremiah 31:34).

But what about the "sour grapes" and teeth "set on edge" (Jeremiah 31:29)? Commentators say Jeremiah has borrowed this verse from Ezekiel. As part of this new relationship, God wants to abandon the system of punishment that this proverb describes— namely, a view of sin that implicates generations of a family. Now, since we can each know God, it is on this basis that we are accountable for our own sins.

Might we interpret this new covenant as the promise that all of us will be prophets? Prophets are people able to embrace an intimacy with God that takes them to the depths of creative love, moral strength, and spiritual energy. We know there are many gifts—Paul explains in Romans 12 that teaching, exhortation, ministry, generosity, diligence, cheerfulness, and prophecy are all examples of different gifts. But Jeremiah, in some ways, is offering us a different model for thinking about what God created us for, who God calls us to be, and how God invites us to understand the world.

The widow in Jesus' parable offers some insight into the connection between persistence, justice, and commitment (Luke 18:1-8). Knowledge of God, and a commitment to living in that knowledge, prepares us to take our place in the ongoing struggle for justice, a struggle that often requires prophetic witness and that is witness to the depth, persistence, and power of God's love.

October 28
Resting in Hope
Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22; Psalm 84:1-7; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

Toward the end of this passage from Jeremiah, we hear the voice of the people responding to God as they have heard God's voice through the prophet. "We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord, the iniquity of our ancestors, for we have sinned against you. Do not spurn us, for your name's sake; do not dishonor your glorious throne; remember and do not break your covenant with us," they implore (Jeremiah 14:20-21).

The dialogue between God and God's people is intense—there's a great deal of negotiating and bargaining going on. We can see how scarce honesty and trust seem to be. On one hand, the people are contrite as they plead for mercy. But God is not convinced, telling Jeremiah not to bother himself about the people's welfare (Jeremiah 14:11). Little about this relationship between God and the people seems healthy. How might trust be built when there is such a deep sense of mutual rejection?

Hope seems the only way. Hope is daring to believe that God needs us as much as we need God—not a mutual interdependence that puts us on equal footing with God, but a new life, the salvation that comes from finding our way back to right relationship with God, and God with us.

An oft-quoted passage from Reinhold Niebuhr's 1952 book The Irony of American History captures the way hope can help us find the strength to trust, which opens the door to salvation and the deep knowledge the creator loves us: "Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness."

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