The Scales of Hope and Doom

Jeremiah, the “Weeping Prophet,” balanced his messages from God. His experience with the Israelites occurred during the optimistic times of King Josiah, but ended as Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. His prophecies mirrored these historical events, providing motivation or correction according to the “norm of appropriateness.” When the people were feeling optimistic and comfortable in their successes and innovations, Jeremiah’s prophesies were reminders of doom, providing critique and correction to those in power, lest they become lazy in their practices and goals. Conversely, during the most horrific atrocities against the Israelites, Jeremiah’s prophesies brought visions of hope and a reminder that God has come through in the past, and will again.

The following examples demonstrate Jeremiah’s balance of prophesies:

Prophesies of Doom

Jer. 2:1-13 God is reminding the Israelites that their ancestors were faithful in following God, who then sustained them into the wilderness. But the people didn’t follow through with their promise, and defiled the land and did not stay true to God’s laws and practices. They are doomed because they have forsaken God and have built a future based on empty beliefs.

Jer. 5:1-5 There are no second chances even for the rich. Not one single person seems to understand they need to turn from their wicked ways. No one is left to set an example of faithful living.

Jer. 7:1-34 This isn’t the first time God has brought wrath and consequence to God’s people. And yet it doesn’t appear they are considering the ramifications of their ancestors to keep them from the doom of destruction.

Jer. 8:18–9:3 The prophet recognizes that the people are destined for disaster – yet he is sad because they didn’t heed God’s warnings – it could have all turned out differently.

Jer.18:1-12 There WAS hope, in that God was willing to give a second chance, but the people chose to carry on and ignore God’s warning. They are doomed.

Jer. 23:9-32 False prophets cause God’s people to go astray. Because of their false visions and message, disaster will befall the people.

 

Prophesies of Hope

Jer. 1:1-19; This prophecy punctuates God’s love and encouragement. Jeremiah has been called and God has equipped him for this mission. He may feel inadequate, but God has chosen him for such a time as this – God will make him victorious if he complies.

Jer. 4:23-28 Even though devastation has occurred, God promises to relent and will continue to further God’s purpose on earth. It’s a reality check that things are going very wrong, but God has spoken and is faithful.

Jer. 18:1-12 Because the prophet did not succumb to the temptation to turn from God, there is hope in saving him from destruction.

Jer. 20:7-13 The prophet is lamenting that he is damned if he does…damned if he doesn’t. He is being persecuted for telling the people to turn from their wicked ways, but if he keeps himself from telling them (to save himself from their anger), God brings about internal angst such that the prophet can’t be at peace. In the end, the prophet remembers the hope found in righteous living and a fair God.

Jer. 31 The prophet brings hope in the way of a God who historically has delivered God’s people. Recalling the deliverance and freedom provided from past oppression give hope and assurance that one day God will again repeat this action.

Jer. 32:1-15 The prophet offers hope in the midst of a seemingly impossible situation. Hope lies in property purchased as a way to see that the future holds freedom and prosperity.

(Addition/Preaching connection)
Jeremiah’s model of preaching a balance of both hope and doom has modern day application. For example, if I were preparing a sermon to a congregation who had overlooked Jesus’ central message of “Love your neighbor as yourself,” I might introduce examples of past circumstances where children of God were excluded and oppressed. Where individuals were seeking a better life for themselves at the expense and detriment of others. These examples would also include the ultimate character deterioration of the individual who had been seeking success above everyone else. On the other hand, messages of hope, within a sermon, would balance those times when a congregation felt they had to take matters into their own hands because it seemed God was absent. When events in the community or world seemed to be out of control – messages of hope bring God’s faithfulness through past difficulties into the present and future.

A Holy Do-over

When all hope is lost, when there is no end to the suffering or injustice, when a community of people believe they’ve done everything they can to be faithful and righteous… the only thing left is to hope that one day all things will be made new and God will eliminate all evil and suffering in the world. A new world order. A Holy Do-over.

Apocalyptic literature in the bible, can be found when God’s people were in the most dire and hopeless of situations. Dr Lester’s lecture develops the crisis of the Jewish community during the rule of the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV. Up until that time, the Hellenistic rulers didn’t mind the practices of the Jewish people. The Greeks weren’t bothered by a wide variety of god-worshippers. However, Antiochus IV determined that Jerusalem would become fully Greek and thus outlawed that practice of Judaism. This was an important event in the history of the Jews – oppression and crisis had happened before in this community, but never through the direct suppression of their faith and practices. Antiochus IV went to work in stripping the Jewish people of all semblances of culture, tradition and faith. This included the destruction of the Torah, the murder of circumcised infants, defiling the temple and forcing Jews to abandon rituals and practices. (Stanley, p. 486) The Jews were at the end of their rope, and even Prophets who could call the Jewish people into hope and social change, couldn’t provide outlook for a better future. The Apocalyptic writer in Daniel provided hope to the Jewish people, and prompted faithful resistance so that they could envision how “one day” their world will be different. Yahweh will bring victory to Yahweh’s righteous people.

Daniel’s vision in Chapter 7 begins with the apocalyptic identifier of a dream or vision “witnessed by a seer,” (Bandstra, p. 444) and is attributed to Daniel, a notable person in Jewish History (Stanley, p. 483) “In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream: ‘I Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea,’”(Daniel 7:1-2.) As this vision develops, Daniel describes creatures and beings that have fantastic elements and features. As Dr. Lester described in his lecture, this apocalyptic literary feature mixes known or “old” symbols and characters in new ways. This feature punctuates the author’s intent to describe a new thing about to take place. Examples of this can be found in Daniel 7, verse 4 (lion with eagles’ wings), verse 8 (a horn with eyes like a human, and a mouth speaking arrogantly), and Daniel 10:6 (his face like lightening, his eyes like flaming torches).

As the vision develops in Chapter 7, Daniel observes a harsh judgment taking place, resulting in a beast put violently to death. (Dan.7:9-12). This event describes some type of “cataclysmic” event and intervention (by Yahweh), which will bring about radical change in the present world order. Stanley describes this apocalyptic element as having an “eschatological orientation.” (Stanley p.483) The end of things as they knew them. A new heaven, and a new earth.

Most of the time, apocalyptic writings were interpreted to or by the individual who had the vision. The listener or the reader didn’t necessarily need to read between the lines. (Stanley, p. 484) “As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me. I approached one of the attendants to ask him the truth concerning all this. So he said that he would disclose to me the interpretation of the matter.” (Dan 7:15-16)

A dominating element of apocalyptic writings is the vivid depiction of Yahweh’s victory over evil, and the importance of God’s chosen people staying strong, faithful and persistent in the face of political and religious persecution. Apocalyptic writings were “intended to encourage perseverance by revealing the destruction of the wicked and the glorious future that awaited the faithful.” (Bandstra, p. 443) This is seen at the end of Daniel’s first vision, “…the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High” (Dan. 7:27), and most profoundly in Daniel 12:12, “Happy are those who persevere and attain the thousand three hundred thirty-five days.” There was an assurance that, even if pain and suffering and injustice was their present reality, they will be richly rewarded by Yahweh – salvation would be theirs, and their enemies crushed and harshly judged.

These writings reveal a time in the history of Judaism, when hope was fading and life as they knew it was gone. There must have been extremely strong temptation to conform to Greek ways, and Antiochus’ demands. The book of Daniel serves as a call to the Jews to a life of righteous living and following the commandments of Yahweh, even and especially in the face of evil and death. The book of Daniel is loaded with hope, consolation, and a way through the pain of their current worldview. The visions of victory are teamed with examples of individuals staying strong in the face of oppression and death. Fred Clark’s article, “Who were the apocalypses written for?” writes that the “embodied disciplines are exemplified by Daniel, Shadrak, Meshak and Abednego who serve as a paragon of faithful resistance.” Armed with visions of victory, passionate examples of individuals from the Jewish community holding on to their faith, and the assurance that Yahweh hadn’t forgotten them, the Jews were able to persevere and eventually establish their own kingdom and independence.

Prior to this assignment, I brushed past the apocalyptic genre in the bible. I had been introduced to the “Left Behind” series and confused them as one and the same. These books and other media determined to scare people into believing in Christ or find them selves left at the kitchen table while their saved spouse disappeared to heaven, made me disinterested and annoyed. And so I was cracking up at the remarks by Fred Clark in his article, “L.B. A Less Graphic Experience” as he brought to light the convoluted schemes imposed on scripture in the way of Left Behind. “This unrecognizable heterodox puree includes chunks of John’s apocalypse, mixed together willy-nilly with the stranger bits of Daniel, Ezekiel and the minor prophets and slices of St. Paul’s meditations on death and Christ’s warnings of judgment.” Love it. An unrecognizable heterodox puree. I guess we tend to do this with many scriptures in the Bible. Stanley emphasizes, “Later readers, unaware of the original significance of these images, have mistakenly associated them with characters and events far removed from the time when the texts were written.” (Stanley, p. 484)

But even so, who doesn’t want a do-over sometimes? Even better, a Holy Do-over, when God is on “our” side and we wait faithfully and patiently until God obliterates the evil in the world. But, as much as my mind can imagine a world where peace, justice, forgiveness and love are the norm and the only way…and I want to sing with longing, “somewhere over the rainbow” …I believe it’s up to me, and to all of us to confront and over-throw the injustices of our day. Dreams and visions should still prompt us to bring messages of faithfulness and hope – and also, in the apocalyptic tradition, actions of confronting evil and proclaiming a better way.

When God is Nowhere to be Found: A Psalm of Lament

 

I’ve written a few songs that have been Lament-like before…maybe not within the form of the Old Testament Writings, utilizing: Address, Complaint, Statement of Trust, Petition, Vow of Thanksgiving. But in efforts to work through something that’s been hard to understand or makes me angry or makes me want to give up, I’ll put words and music together to help me make temporary sense of things that are mostly unexplainable. I don’t really share those songs – I suppose I don’t like to “live there” for too long. I have felt that lamenting and complaining seems to cause me to not see the beauty and blessing that actually surrounds me.

But now, Brueggemann’s article, “The Costly Loss of Lament” has me thinking. I can see how the whole “keep your Lament’s to yourself,” discourages honest struggle with doubt and anger with God. If I have those moments…don’t other people have them, too? And if, during worship, we only praise and only celebrate evidence of God moving in our midst, aren’t we really creating a dishonest community and barriers for people who are experiencing distance from and dissatisfaction with God?

This week, one of our Essential Questions was: “Can competing claims about God both be true? What makes it true?” I believe the answer to this lies in the vast experience of God’s presence in our lives – or perceived lack of presence. The Psalms allowed, and actually encouraged tension between expressions of pain and expressions of joy; feelings of comfort and feelings of abandonment. And when Psalms of Lament were used in community as liturgy, it must have created space to honor “disorientation,” with God, all the while recognizing that this is part of the pattern of life. Experiencing doubt, loss of faith, and anger with God happens. To all of us. And Brueggemann’s reference to communal worship being a “training ground” for people to continue their relationship with God outside of worship, makes me wonder when and why we abandoned Lament in worship. We practice prayer, reading scripture, praise and thankfulness. But we don’t practice angry.

I took a stab at writing an Individual Lament song. I tried to use the five elements found in Lament Psalms, and have a tune that’s beginning to evolve. It’s still a bit rough, but here goes:

(Untitled Lament Song, by Jenny Willison)

This familiar road
I’ve walked too many times
Looking for answers
I’ve already made up in my mind
The bitter root that grows
In my thoughts and in my heart
Leave no room for grace
Or healing to start

Oh I cry out to you Lord
First thing every morning
But each new day comes with a warning
That this broken world won’t mend
Why do you stand so far from me
How long until I hear from you
In silence, I wait
Have you forgotten me?

(chorus)
And I need you
To sort it all out
And I need you
To sort it all out
If justice comes from you
If peace comes from you
I life my hands up to the sky
I put my hope in you hands
Help me to know that
Help me to trust that
You will sort it all out

That pattern repeats again
I know it all by heart
I want to have faith again
But I don’t know where to start
Patience has never been mine
“be content” is what I’m told
Speak into my life
Your promises I’ll hold

(chorus)

The night has come again
The road is still dark
a single star breaks through the night
Washing me in light
Your still small Voice
Speaks a message to my heart
And in that moment I know
You have not abandon me

Surrender. That’s a tough one for me. I’d like to think my actions, brains or experience can guarantee a particular outcome or joy-filled life. It’s certainly counter-intuitive in our culture, where self-sufficiency and independence are valued and celebrated. That’s why my petition of asking God to “sort it all out” comes in the chorus, the location for the message that describes the essence of what the song is about.

As William Carlos suggests in “How to Write a Poem,” I attempted to leave space for the hearer to complete what the poem has begun, and not provide the details of the event or events that were the seeds for this writing. My intent was to make personal the anger over injustice that affects more than just one.

Something I just noticed for the first time…depending on how you split up the word “nowhere,” as in my blog title, “God is nowhere to be found”…we can see comfort and hope and thanksgiving, because “God is now here, to be found.”

There’s more to the Old Testament than Esther?

I usually gravitate to a number of stories in the Old Testament, namely the female characters who demonstrated courage, faith and strength. Like Esther. I love Esther. I could read about those women all day. But the killings, the battles, the endless list of rules have never been of interest to me, nor have I seen their purpose as spiritual formation, in my opinion. I know I am guilty, big time, of gleaning meaning only for my own life, and setting, and leaving the other chapters, books and stories of the Old Testament untouched.

As soon as I began to read the introduction, and became aware of the four main components of reading the Old Testament: Text, author, referents and reader…I knew how tiny I had made the scriptures contained within this testament, and ultimately God’s story of redemption and interaction with God’s people.

My Protestant, white, middle class experience, flavors the lens through which I view scripture and God’s message. How deep and rich my understanding of these stories will become this semester, as I learn about the “Master Narrative” and accounts and stories of rescue and freedom, disobedience and disaster, and ultimately God’s faithfulness and blessing upon God’s chosen people.

While Esther will always hold a special place in my heart and in my personal faith story…I have a feeling I’ll be introduced to new characters and truths that will shape my faith in profound and life changing ways.