Read this: Jeremiah 36: 1-8, 21-23, 27-38, 31-32
The prophet Jeremiah’s career extends impressively across the extent of the SHtF process. It begins when the S is being collected; it reaches a peak with the S actually HtF; and it concludes with the much splattered S drying and stinking up the joint. Hopefully at this point you understand the acronym; I’d say give it a Google, but I don’t know your security settings.
Jeremiah sees the Babylonians coming; he provides advice on how to deal with it; and he watches as the Temple is destroyed, the king (such as he was) deposed, and the land once again occupied. Jeremiah sees it all, and the book that bears his name is surpassed in length only by the Book of Psalms. It is a book about a devastating time in Israel’s history in which the religion could have died; in fact, what scholars refer to as First Temple or Classical Judaism gives way to the Second Temple period, into which Jesus was born, and that ends in 70 CE. Arising from that is the rabbinical model that defines Judaism today. The Book of Jeremiah allows us to see, almost in real time, how the people dealt theologically with their extreme circumstances.
God has a track record of sending prophetic voices when S is about to HtF. One thinks of Martin Niemoller‘s famous remarks about how we humans have a tendency to shut up if we think it will save us; sadly, it has historically only been a minority of Christians, like Niemoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who have truly understood what Christ did and what we are called to do in our own times, should circumstances dictate. Christ would have died in a concentration camp. Christ would have been beaten in Birmingham. And once again Christ is calling the Church to be prophetic in its witness amidst signs of impending SHtF.
In the year of Jeremiah’s call, 627 BCE, the last of the great Assyrian kings died. The superpower that had decimated the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE was no more, while Egypt was once again in a position of strength and was seeking to ward off the rising Babylonian giant through strategic alliances. In the southern kingdom, and even stretching into the north, there were stirrings of nationalism and feelings that the fall of Assyria was a sign of God’s favor and a changing tide. King Josiah initiated vast and deep religious reforms seeking to cleanse the land and the hearts of the people of any allegiance to paganism or false notions of self. He wedded his religiosity to a nationalistic fervor; any shrines–even those dedicated to YHWH–outside of Jerusalem were pulled down. He sought to centralize religion in a way that it hadn’t been since the time of David and Solomon, and even then, Solomon loved many foreign women and built altars to pagan deities. Biblical evidence seems to show that Josiah’s attempt was both short-lived and rather unsuccessful, but the attempt was strong enough to cause resistance groups to arise.
Josiah died in 609 BCE and the Egyptian king swooped in, killed the son selected by the people to rule, and deposited on the throne another son, Jehoiakim. as a tribute-paying puppet. It is this king we encounter in today’s pericope.
Now those who are not regular and careful readers of Scripture are at a bit of a disadvantage with today’s passage; while there is plenty of action and much to catch one’s attention, the real umph of the story comes with knowing what Jehoiakim is ripping up.
We learn from the selection that Baruch, Jeremiah’s scribe and secretary, has written all that Jeremiah has said, from the time of Josiah until the present time. That’s a whole mess of stuff. That’s at least 20 chapters worth of material, and it is not kind, milquetoast stuff. Jeremiah makes it clear that God is gathering up a whole bunch of S and is currently looking for a fan big enough to make huge splatters. The charges are myriad and wife-ranging, from worship of false idols to ignoring the needs of the poor. And in graphic detail Jeremiah lets it be known, screaming and red-faced in the Temple, that God’s vengeance is coming. In fact, Jeremiah claims that God counsels submission to the Babylonians as the only path to redemption. Chapters 27-29 detail why this is the case, and chapters 30-33 contain what is called The Book of Comfort and other assurances of future salvation. First, though, the people must submit to Babylon. It is this that Jehoiakim rips up.
We almost have to feel sorry for Baruch, his secretary, who is sent to the king to read these myriad oracles and damnations; clearly they have been heard before, as that is why Jeremiah is himself banned from the Temple grounds! Speaking truth to power is dangerous work. And Baruch is not speaking to a necessarily eager audience; he is sent on a fast day. People from all around are descending on Jerusalem, and as Baruch reads it word spreads. I encourage people to read the entirety of Jeremiah 36; it is almost cinematic, the descriptions of each subsequent reading taking Baruch, and hence God’s words, closer to the seat of power.
Jehoiakim himself cuts an interesting fiture; he is attempting to no longer be a puppet king, but he vacillates between two different masters. He flips back and forth between the Egyptian and Babylonian kings in order to secure his own rule; he is not respected like his father, and seems to have none of his religiosity. The writer of chapter 36 cuts the king as a devastatingly arrogant figure. We can see him, resplendent in robes that bespeak his facile haughtiness; he sits, perhaps with a leg thrown over the arm of a chair, periodically taking a knife, cutting the papyri scroll, and tossing God’s word into the fire with a flick of the wrist. The disdain pours off the page, and the writer assures the reader that the king will soon meet a brutal and certain fate.
I’ve been living with this story all week, as our own world unfolds around us. White House advisors with White nationalist ties; a national security advisor who is anti-Muslim; and an attorney general nominee who was deemed too racist for a judgeship back in the 1980s, which certainly is not some halcyon period of racial equality. And I watch as American Evangelicals continue to support these moves in overwhelming numbers, as a vote, in some real capacity, is an endorsement of what the candidate cum office-holder wishes to do. Just do a search engine entry for the name of the president-elect and “agent of God,” and behold a world in which people claim God is now going to rid us of heathens and interlopers. They regard the last 8 years as an ungodly assault on them and their liberty, and look to a new period in which God is raising up warriors to cleanse the land. They foresee a race war. This is real.
I would be lying if I said that I am not afraid. I am afraid. At moments, terrified. I realize that this is how many of my friends of color, Muslims, women, GLBT+, and other marginalized persons feel often; but for me, it is rather new. I’m terrified not because I am worried about what is going to happen to me–to be sure, I wish I could just ignore everything and bury my head in the sand, pretending that incidents of racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic violence is not on the rise, but I can’t because I have given my life to Christ and I know what that means–but rather because of what is going to happen to vulnerable persons while those not yet on the chopping block stand idly by. I’m terrified because I know that there were lots of nice Nazis who did not think they were antisemitic. I am terrified because I know there were a lot of good Christians who just simply did not know what they could do to stop slavery, or Hitler, or Jim Crow.
The truth is, we are all in the Jeremiah story right now. We get to decide who we are going to be. Will we be Jeremiah who talks so much he is banned? Are we Baruch who will go in the stead of those who have gone in first? Will we be the people who hear the word and push it up the chain just waiting to see what will happen? Or will we be the king who rips up the message. Who, in this case, rips up the Gospel.
We as Christian people have decisions to make. I am not interested in vilifying those of our faith who chose differently; I know that I will have plenty of time to talk–or perhaps yell–to them. I am interested in showing solidarity to those who believe we are part of the coalition against them. I believe that one of the most important things to do, if Christianity is to survive and be something relevant and life-altering for people, is to make it clear that we in the Church recognize that Christ is our king. Our sovereign.
I used to really hate language like this; Christ is my shepherd. My king. My savior. It seemed cheap. Hokey. Sanctimonious. A shortcut way to seem deep and connected, only to turn around and be shallow and vitriolic. Christ the King Sunday did not begin until 1925, and it was largely a response to the Catholic Church having lost all of its real power and territory. Pessimistically, one could say that like the doctrine of papal infallibility, it was a desperate attempt to redeem a falling Church, if not in numbers in wealth, in influence and relevance. Protestants should not feel any better; the same thing is happening to us less than 100 years later. But God has used the feast day for good, methinks. Christ the King Sunday, which ends our liturgical year with Advent beginning next Sunday, reminds us that Christ should have domain over our lives. The Living Christ, as Thich Nhat Hahn reminds us; the Living Christ who leads us to wells of compassion and selflessness, especially in service to others. Christ the King Sunday remains us that we should be wary of leaders who rip up God’s word when it makes them uncomfortable. They rip up God’s word when it says that power has oppressed the people; that the widows and the orphans have been subjugated while the rich get healthy and the sick stay poor.
Christ is my king. And my Christ is the Christ of King. The Christ of Bonhoeffer. The Christ that Hahn sees hanging out with Buddha. The Christ that reveals to us that darkness will always find you; but if you nurture God’s light, like the start that guided the astrologers to Jesus’ crib, you will not be overtaken or lose your way. The S might be HtF soon; it really might, and I think that the Church needs to be prophetic in both word and deed. As we see the vulnerable among us being targeted and exposed, we will have a choice to make. Will we burn the scroll, or allow God’s word to burn inside of us?