Behold the days are coming declares the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah
Jeremiah is a prophet. He is someone who has been given insight about God. And so he is able to speak for God. The words he speaks are prophecy. Prophecy looks forward. It appears to predict the future: “Thus says the Lord. . . . This is how it will be.” Prophets do look forward. But only for the impact that the promises they make will have on the moment they are speaking into. Prophets live and speak in a particular moment of history. They look forward, but only to have an influence on the moment they are living in. It is not the “when” of what they are predicting that is important. Rather it is the “what” and what kind of difference it is going to make right now.
Jeremiah lived and spoke at a time of national catastrophe. The nation, Israel, was about to be overwhelmed by foreign powers Its power had been destroyed and its prestige lost. It was about to lose its independence. Its capital city, Jerusalem, was about to be destroyed. And its ruling class, the king, the priests, the elders of the nation, the rich and the powerful, were all about to be carried into exile. Though actually for the ordinary folk the catastrophe was different and had been much longer lasting. For the longest time their rulers had become indifferent to the plight of the poor. The poor in the words of the prophets are always represented by widows, orphans and immigrants. The rich had become concerned only with their luxury, and had exploited the poor and the powerless. There was inequality and there was injustice. And those charged with responsibility in the nation, the king, the priests, elders, were doing nothing about it. Indeed rather than being part of the solution they had become most of the problem. But these circumstances were exactly those which the Jeremiah and the other prophets had been predicting all along. They had been saying that if somehow the nation forgot the kind of people they were meant to be there would be dire consequences. The prophets had said all along this is what would happen if they forgot their relationship with God. This would be the result if they no longer remembered what God expected of them and what God would do for them. They were supposed to create a society which provide security and well-being for all its members. The were meant to built and lead a community that especially ensured fairness for those least able to secure it for themselves. They and the society they moulded was meant to protect the vulnerable from exploitation and exclusion. And the nation was now experiencing the consequences of failing to do that. The prophets’ predictions, if that is what they were, were coming true.
Someone once said “Anyone who thinks history repeats itself isn’t paying attention to the details.” Which is true. But there are always some broad, recurring themes. Jeremiah’s times were like ours, in outline if not in detail. And certainly the times we live in have created a good deal of anxiety about the future. There are deep and genuine fears about our security. There is anxiety about our well-being as a society and as individuals. There is inequality. There is exploitation. There is a failure to be open and welcoming to the stranger in need. And it is the weakest and most dispossessed on whom all the burdens weigh heaviest. We often sense that the future is not as bright as the past. And if these things are true of society at large, Jeremiah’s words also find parallels in the life of the church. We have experienced a catastrophic decline, our power and our prestige have all but evaporated. And we have a realistic fear that some day soon, like Israel as an independent kingdom, we will vanish altogether.
Jeremiah is the longest book of the Bible. It is if you count the words. If you want the answer to the trivia question, in the original Hebrew, there are 33,002. And almost all of them are gloomy. In almost everything he says, Jeremiah is unrelentingly bleak. It is a grim book, almost all doom and destruction. It is so because most of what he is fighting against is false optimism. Most of the people around him were still hiding their eyes from what was going on. They are telling themselves and one another: “don’t worry, everything will turn out right in the end.” Their optimism meant they were ignoring all the things that were wrong in their society and doing nothing about them. As if exploitation and inequality and exclusion would go away if you ignored them long enough. As if they could rely on unjust and unrighteous rulers, kings, priest and elders, to make them safe and secure. Jeremiah prophesied doom and destruction but he also offered hope. It is a contrast we seldom recognise. Hope and optimism are not the same, they are not even alike. Optimism is noting more than wishfulness, “things will be ok.” But often they are not! Optimism disappoints, because reality cannot live up to our wishfulness. Optimism, paradoxically, leads to despair. Hope is not optimism. It is not mere wishfulness. Hope has a solid foundation. Jeremiah in the midst of the doom and gloom points to the foundation of his hope: the promises of God. Jeremiah knows God. He is able to say to his people facing catastrophe: “This is what God is like, and this is what God does. So this is how it will be for us.”
Actually, Jeremiah looks back to do his looking forward. He says to the people around him: “Do you remember King David. How things were when he was around. Well God’s promise is to provide leadership like that for his people. The kind of leadership that will see that things are done right. The kind of leadership that will make the widow, the orphan and the immigrant safe among us. A leadership which will remind us where our security and well-being come from. So much so that our capital city will be renamed: The Lord is our righteousness Because in the end we should have no king but God.”
This is the way God is, so even in the face of catastrophe, even if things aren’t turning out the way we would wish, we can still be sustained by hope. We read Jeremiah in Church at the beginning of Advent. Advent is a season for looking forward. Though for most its a rather limited looking forward. “Behold the days are coming. . . ” – when the presents must be bought and wrapped, the decorations found and put up, when family and friends must be welcomed and entertained and when a good time must be had by all. But in Church our looking forward is a little broader and longer. For us Advent isn’t just about looking forward to the very short term and definite “when” of Christmas. And like Jeremiah, we’re not concerned so much with “when” but with “what.” We are concerned with the what of the Christmas event. And with the kind of difference that it will make to us now. Which is of course why we have read Jeremiah in the first place. And like Jeremiah our looking forward begins in a kind of looking back: This is what God has already done. The shoot for David, which Jeremiah is anticipating, has already emerged. One of the most characteristic ways which Christians read prophecy like Jeremiah’s is to see it as prediction that has already been fulfilled, fulfilled in Jesus. But this is still definitely “what” not “when,” not something stuck in the past or still postponed to the future. The story we tell of Christmas is a story of how God acts We look back to see how God has acted and how God will act. And like Jeremiah’s words this is a sure foundation for hope, rather than the unreliable sands of optimism. What we see when we look back is God acting through the weak and the dispossessed. We see God acting with people caught up in catastrophe and national disaster. We witness God acting through parents displaced by power, God bringing hope through a helpless baby, born in what could only be called squalid circumstances. And it continues, by God calling together a people through Jesus, a people who will act out the promise made by Jeremiah and the other prophets.
They will be a people who “execute justice by loving their neighbours, neighbours who include their enemies. They will be a people whose organising principle is not exploitation or exclusion, but mutual service. And they are brought together by God bringing victory out of what appears to be defeat, in the movement from Crucifixion and Death to Resurrection and New Life.
Looking forward not to when but to what in order that it change our experience of now and fill us with hope:
Thus says the Lord, I will fulfil the promise I have made. . .
Not When But What by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0