Archives for August 2015

Psalm 104:24–30; Jeremiah 29:15–30:11; 2 Timothy 2:1–13

Psalm 104:24–30: The Moravians are rightly taking us through this psalm not only because of its beauty but its many parallels to the Creation Story as well. “How many Your deeds, O Lord,/ all of them You do in wisdom/ And the earth is filled with Your riches.” (24) acknowledges God’s mastery over all Creation but that God remains active, particularly in his relationship with each of us. These lines also remind us that it is God who possesses wisdom. Whatever wisdom we may think we have acquired through long years of experience is puny by comparison. 

Although humankind may be the only part of God’s creation that is imago deo, the bounty of God’s creation extends everywhere: “The sea is great and wide,/ where creatures beyond numbers stir,/ little beasts and the and the large.” (25). Even today, we are discovering creatures in the sea that we didn’t even know existed. Would that in these discoveries we reflected more on the generosity of God’s gifts to the earth.

Although we humans are the ones who consciously look back to God as our Creator, even the  the other creatures seem to know God’s generosity at some level and in return they bring enormous pleasure to God, as we read the famous verse, “There the ships go,/ this Leviathan You fashioned to play with./ All of them look to You.” (26) “To play with” reminds me that our image of God as a stern old man is so wide of the mark. God takes pleasure in his creation–even to he point of play. What an example: Part of life is play. Do we play or is life simply work and striving? How much we would miss absent that simple pleasure.

God is also provider for the creatures–including us: “All of them look to You/to give them food in its season.” (27)  It is God who controls the destiny of his creation, including us, in this image of the seasons: “You withdraw Your breath and the perish,/ and to dust they return./When You send forth Your breath, they are created,/ and You renew the face of the earth.” (29b, 30) Another beautiful reminder that God’s creative act continues through time. Unlike the 18th century view of God as watchmaker, who set creation in motion and then went away, here we are reminded that each day and all that happens in it is also part of God’s ongoing creative act.

Jeremiah 29:15–30:11: More terrifying prophecies as to Judah’s fate: “ I will pursue them with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, and will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be an object of cursing, and horror, and hissing, and a derision among all the nations where I have driven them,” (29:18) For one simple reason: “because they did not heed my words.” (29:19a) even though they were warned by a long line of prophets. And these sad words: “because they would not listen.” (29:19b)

There’s a fascinating backstory here about prophets: who are real prophets of God and who are not. A prophet named Shemaiah, who is in Babylon, sends a letter back to Judah wondering “why have you not rebuked Jeremiah of Anathoth who plays the prophet for you?” (29:27) When Jeremiah hears this he responds in typical Jeremiah fashion: “Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: Send to all the exiles, saying, Thus says the Lord concerning Shemaiah of Nehelam: Because Shemaiah has prophesied to you, though I did not send him, and has led you to trust in a lie, therefore thus says the Lord: I am going to punish Shemaiah of Nehelam and his descendants.” (29:30-32)

The question is, how to discern. I think it’s safe to say that since we have the book of Jeremiah and not the book of Shemaiah just who was truly speaking for God. But I can identify with the frustrations of the people hearing these conflicting prophecies! Once again, we’d rather hear good prophetic news than bad, but it’s important to pray for discernment when it comes to prophecy. I also think that like Judah, we are subject to more false prophets than true ones.

Now we encounter one of Jeremiah’s greatest prophecies and one that is contentious down to today: “For the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah, says the Lord, and I will bring them back to the land that I gave to their ancestors and they shall take possession of it.” (30:3) That is certainly what happened when the Jews returned from Babylonian exile. But was it fulfilled again in 1949 when the Jews returned to Palestine?  My Evangelical background persists in this area: I’d like to think that the modern restoration of Israel is in fact an answer to this prophecy. But is modern Israel any better than the court and people who listened to, but did not heed, Jeremiah’s warnings?

2 Timothy 2:1–13: Now we come to a potentially disturbing metaphor about living the Christian life: “Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving in the army gets entangled in everyday affairs; the soldier’s aim is to please the enlisting officer.” (3,4). Who knows, but did Jesus have this metaphor in mind when he gave us the Great Commission? In this politically correct era we no longer sing, “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and we tend to look somewhat askance at the Salvation Army. But having served in the military, I completely get the point here: it is obedience and good order. At this point in the early church it was becoming necessary to creature structure and rules.  

The two subsequent metaphors clarify the point: “in the case of an athlete, no one is crowned without competing according to the rules.” (5) There have to be laws and bylaws; we cannot be members of the body of Christ and do just what pleases us without regard to the welfare of the body. The third metaphor, “ It is the farmer who does the work who ought to have the first share of the crops.” (6) says that one cannot just walk in and take over. We must respect the labor of those who have been working before we arrived. I think it is also a cautionary note for new pastors as they seek to implement change.

Interestingly, this rule seems to fly in the face of Jesus’ parable of the workers, who all get paid equally. But for better or worse, these rules have a practical real world application. Church polity depends on them. Otherwise we end up with independent churches that are dominated by a single charismatic leader who does what he please to the detriment of the Body. When the charismatic figure departs (or is found to have been having an affair) the whole structure collapses. 

Psalm 104:19–23; Jeremiah 28:1–29:14; 2 Timothy 1:8–18

Psalm 104:19–23: There’s a beautiful diurnal symmetry in these verses. God has established night and day: “He made the moon for the fixed seasons;/ the sun–He appointed its setting.” (19)  The night is time time of the animals: “You bring down darkness and it turns to night/ in which all the beasts of the forest stir.” (20) Not only “stir” but “The lions roar for prey,/ seeking from God their food.” (21) I’m intrigued by the implication that while lacking language, lions (and other animals) may somehow be aware that God is their provider. In any event, the psalmist is making it clear that lions seeking their prey is part of the natural order.

At dawn the animals retire: “When the sun comes up, they [the lions] head home,/ and in their dens they lie down.” (22) In God’s order, daylight is man’s dominion: “Man goes out to his work/ and to his labor until evening.” (23) The verses connote God has established a natural order. Now that we have lit the night and so many of us are sleep-deprived we have upended that order–to the detriment of ourselves and the lions as well. One more example of how we wish to dominate and control the earth, little realizing once again that our self-centeredness is to the detriment of all nature.

Jeremiah 28:1–29:14: Jeremiah notes the very precise dates and place as he recounts what happens next after Jeremiah has appeared in the king’s court wearing the symbolic yoke: “at the beginning of the reign of King Zedekiah of Judah, in the fifth month of the fourth year, the prophet Hananiah son of Azzur, from Gibeon, spoke to me in the house of the Lord,” (28:1) Jeremiah’s prophetic rival, Hananiah, delivers exactly the reverse of what Jeremiah has said, asserting, ““Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon.” (28:2) and that God will bring back the exiles presnetly in Babylon.

Jeremiah’s response is generous: “Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles.” (28:5) He then points out,” As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.” (28:9) Things are sounding pretty good for Hananiah and he takes the yoke off Jeremiah’s back and dashes it to the floor, breaking it, shouting, “Thus says theLord: This is how I will break the yoke of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon from the neck of all the nations within two years.” (28:11)

But all prophetic assertions are not necessarily God’s truth. God speaks to Jeremiah, “Go, tell Hananiah, Thus says the Lord: You have broken wooden bars only to forge iron bars in place of them!” (28:13). Jeremiah does so, telling his colleague, “Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you made this people trust in a lie.” (28:15) and predicts that Hananiah will be dead within the year. Which he is.

So, what’s the takeaway here? That we would rather hear good news than bad. But sometimes bad news is what we have to accept. This also tells me we should be wary of me and women who claim to speak for God and deliver self-esteem “God will bless you” pablum. Once again, I’m talking about you, Joel Osteen and all your megachurch TV successors (and predecessors for that matter…)

Jeremiah sits down and writes a letter to the exiles in Babylon to “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.” (29:5,6) He also warns them, “Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord.” (29:8,9) In other words live where you are planted, don’t follow delusions of false prophets, but trust in God.

We arrive at the verse that Susan has quoted for many years and is such a wonderful reminder that we are not drifting through the vicissitudes of life alone: “ For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (29:11) And then less often quoted, if we seek God, “ I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes” (29:14) It’s not we who find God but stretching all the way back to the Garden, it is always God who finds us.

2 Timothy 1:8–18: The theme here is similar to Jeremiah 29. When we feel abandoned and hopeless, “join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.” (8,9) And the all important reason that we live in this hope as our author picks up the kerygmatic theme almost exactly echoing Paul’s words in Philippians 2: “This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” (10).

There we have it folks: the core of the Good News. And if we truly know and accept its reality we will be able to discern “the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” (13) And it’s our responsibility to hold fast and “Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.” (14). Just as in the early church, there are still too many who would add to or subtract from the the beautiful simplicity of the Gospel message. Why? Because like always we want to be in control and impress others with our insight and knowledge when all that is required is to understand and communicate the unadorned Good News.

Psalm 104:10–18; Jeremiah 26:10–27:22; 1 Timothy 6:17–2 Timothy 1:7

Psalm 104:10–18: The focus of God’s creation now descends from the heavens, the earth and seas down to a single small place in the desert. The poet speaks of the crucial importance of water in a parched land (that is very much like the California landscape) and how God provides this life-sustaining element for both domesticated and wild animals: “You let loose the springs in freshets,/ among the mountains they go./ They water all the beasts of the fields,/ the wild asses slake their thirst.” (10, 11)

Water from streams and the rain is the source of life. “He waters mountains from His lofts, /from the fruit of Your works the earth is sated.” (13) And it is water that provides sustenance–and pleasure–for humankind as well: “He makes the hay sprout for cattle,/ grass for the labor of humankind/ to bring forth bread from the earth,/ and wine that gladdens the heart of man…” (14, 15a) Water is the what brings the “bread that sustains the heart of man.” (15b)

Surely, Jesus’ listeners would have thought of this psalm when Jesus told them “I am the bread of life.” The flow of this poem is from God to creation to water to grass to bread. With the image of bread Jesus is making the direct connection back to God the creator. The Pharisees, who doubtless knew this psalm even better than the hoi polloi, would have one more reason to be incensed at Jesus’ effrontery.

But also, this psalm is a reminder of whence our sustenance comes and whence our thirst is quenched. Our technological culture is so far removed from the land that we think these things are human creations. To be sure, humans are involved just as the psalmist reminds us, “the labor of humankind,” but water, bread, and wine are the elements that make our direct connection back to God through Jesus Christ.

Jeremiah 26:10–27:22: Jeremiah has communicated a message form God that the people definitely do not want to hear and they are now ready to kill the messenger. The officials only stir up the crowd further: “the priests and the prophets said to the officials and to all the people, “This man deserves the sentence of death because he has prophesied against this city, as you have heard with your own ears.'” (26:11). Jeremiah says, “here I am in your hands. Do with me as seems good and right to you.” (27:14) but then reminds the people, “Only know for certain that if you put me to death, you will be bringing innocent blood upon yourselves and upon this city and its inhabitants, for in truth the Lord sent me to you to speak all these words in your ears.” (27:15)

The cooler heads of the elders remind the people that other prophets have come before Jeremiah, and they name Micah of Moreseth of prophesied similarly some years back and the people did not put him to death. They also recount the story of certain Uriah who said words similar to Jeremiah but unlike our prophet who was willing to stand there and be killed, Uriah fled to Egypt, was caught and executed by the king. Jeremiah’s courage saves him. Of course this scene of Jeremiah standing before the court presages the silent Jesus standing before the Sanhedrin.

The question here is, would I have similar courage or would I say my piece and flee the city? Would I even speak out in the first place? Is our culture coming to the point of Judah where it would kill the messenger rather than listen to a prophecy that predicts its demise?

In chapter 27, God has Jeremiah perform another object lesson. This time God tells him, “Make yourself a yoke of straps and bars, and put them on your neck” (27:2) God tells Jeremiah to tell the court and people that he has decided to temporarily turn control of Judah over to the king of Babylon: “I have given all these lands into the hand of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, my servant, and I have given him even the wild animals of the field to serve him.” (27:6)

Jeremiah appears in court wearing the yoke and tells them, “Bring your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serve him and his people, and live. Why should you and your people die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, as the Lord has spoken concerning any nation that will not serve the king of Babylon?” (27:12, 13) Jeremiah then further inflames the crowd by telling them that all the other prophets who are predicting the imminent return of the Temple treasures are wrong. Instead, Jeremiah says, “They shall be carried to Babylon, and there they shall stay, until the day when I give attention to them, says the Lord. Then I will bring them up and restore them to this place.” (27:22)

Notice that amidst the really bad news there is a glimmer of hope: the promise of return. A promise that we still have as well: the return of Jesus Christ.

1 Timothy 6:17–2 Timothy 1:7: Would that we today would follow these words if advice: “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” (1 Tim 6:17) And yet here I am worrying about my 401(k) rather than trusting God who so richly provides for us, not just financially, but in every other way as well.

This letter, so crammed with dicta, ends with a marvelously contemporary piece of advice: “Avoid the profane chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge; by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith.” (6:20, 21) If there are two words to summarize what is going on around us it is “profane chatter.” The other thing to remark here is that true knowledge is not contradictory.  People intent on proving the stupidity of Christianity continually post things on Facebook about the contradictions and inconsistencies of the Bible. And there are others of deep faith who devote enormous effort to showing how the Bible is always consistent, which leads to equally stupid conclusions.  Both parties have failed to understand this verse and have indeed missed the entire point of God’s story that culminates in the revelation of Jesus Christ and what he has done for us.

Psalm 104:1–9; Jeremiah 25:15–26:9; 1 Timothy 6:3–16

Psalm 104:1–9: The psalm opens with the same line of almost ecstatic utterance that the previous psalm closed with: “Bless, O my being, the Lord!” suggesting it is a continuation of a long poem of thanksgiving. However, the Psalm editors probably broke 103 and 104 into two psalms because here, rather than celebrating God’s righteousness and justice, it celebrates the magnificence of all creation with incredible energy and evocative similes.

God is the animating Light who brought the earth and heavens to their present glory: “Wrapped in light like a cloak,/ stretching out heavens like a tent cloth.” (2) The poet’s use of present participles recreates the almost breathless activity of creation:
“Setting beams for His lofts in the waters,
making His chariot the clouds,
He goes on the wings of the wind.
He makes His messenger the winds,
His ministers, glowing fire.” (3,4)

Having created the heavens, God turns to the creation of the earth itself, consisting of solid land and water:
“He founded earth on its solid base,
not to be shaken forevermore.”
With the deep You covered it like a garment.
over mountains the waters stood.” (5,6)

The last line, “over mountains the waters stood,” might suggest the Noahic flood, but given the context, I think the poet had Genesis in mind: “And God said,“Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” (Gen 1:9)

Creation is a joyfully noisy process; we can hear the roaring waters of rivers and the roar of the surf: “From Your blast they [the waters] fled,/ from the sound of Your thunder they scattered.” (7) But God’s creation also connotes a cosmic order: “A border You fixed so they could not cross,/ so they could not come back to cover the earth.”

Joy, activity, energy, noise. But also order. What a wonderful description of God’s creation. When we read Genesis 1 we should really read these verses as well.

Jeremiah 25:15–26:9: Jeremiah is back in form in these chapters as he communicates the harsh words of God in striking metaphors of drinking and drunkenness. Only this time it’s not just Judah that will be punished, but “all the nations to whom I send you drink it. They shall drink and stagger and go out of their minds because of the sword that I am sending among them.” (25:16), which he then goes on to name, including Egypt, the Philistines, Arabia and all the well known enemies of Israel: “Edom, Moab, and the Ammonites; all the kings of Tyre, all the kings of Sidon, and the kings of the coastland across the sea;” (25: 21-25) Jeremiah is instructed by God, “ Then you shall say to them, Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Drink, get drunk and vomit, fall and rise no more, because of the sword that I am sending among you.” (25:27)

What follows is a passage worthy of the destruction described in Revelation (or more correctly, we can see sources of the descriptions in Revelation here) as we read one of the starkest images in this starkest of books: “Those slain by the Lord on that day shall extend from one end of the earth to the other. They shall not be lamented, or gathered, or buried; they shall become dung on the surface of the ground.” (25:33). To those people (and to us!) there is no greater dishonor or punishment than to “become dung on the surface of the ground.”

As always, Jeremiah tells them (and us) God always offers an escape clause to avoid this fate: “It may be that they will listen, all of them, and will turn from their evil way, that I may change my mind about the disaster that I intend to bring on them because of their evil doings.” (26:3).

But Jeremiah’s jeremiad doesn’t go over well and we see the usual response, kill the messenger: “when Jeremiah had finished speaking all that the Lord had commanded him to speak to all the people, then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying, “You shall die!” (26:8) Like all great drama, today’s reading ends on the threatening note, “And all the people gathered around Jeremiah in the house of the Lord.” (26:9)

We are exactly the same as the inhabitants of Jerusalem. But our culture has replaced Jonathan Edwards with Joel Osteen–so we don’t even hear jeremiads anymore, much less get angry at the messenger.

1 Timothy 6:3–16: Our author is nothing if not judgmental, a Jeremiah of the early church: “Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness, is conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words.” (3,4). Interesting observation there: “a morbid craving for controversy.”  There are certainly people who thrive on controversy and all of them are not just on the cable news channels…

But whether or not we like the judgment, there’s no question that self-centered teaching rather than just communicating the “sound words of Jesus Christ” has bad results in the church: “From these come envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among those who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.” (4b, 5) That last phrase–“godliness is a means of gain”– is especially striking when we reflect on the motives of various wealthy televangelists such as Benny Hinn or Creflo Dollar. If nothing else, we know that their kind have always been a scourge of the church.

Contentment not advancement is the message here because “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction,” (9) which gives us the proper context for one of the top three well known by those outside the church (but usually misquoted) verses of all: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” (10a). But it’s the latter half of this verse that matters just as much: “and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (10b) Our quest for wealth does indeed bring many pains–and here we learn that if our priorities are straight: contentment over wealth-seeking we will be far happier.

Even if Paul was not really the author of this epistle, we certainly get a sense of that old Pauline warmth in these closing verses in the instructions to Timothy–and to us all: “But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.” (11) We can’t ask for a better set of priorities than those. Because when we are right with Jesus then with Timothy we are well prepared to “Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” Yes, not just pastors are called; we are all called.

Psalm 103:19–22; Jeremiah 23:33–25:14; 1 Timothy 5:17–6:2

Psalm 103:19–22: The concluding verses of this magnificent psalm leap from the relationship between God and us to the glories of heaven as the scene opens Revelation-like at the Throne of God: “The Lord set His throne firm in the heavens/ and His kingdom rules over all.” (19) This is also one of those places that causes us to believe the Kingdom of God is “up there” above us.  I also suspect that Milton picked up some of his themes for Paradise Lost right here in these verses, particularly the part about angels as an powerful warriors and an army: “Bless the Lord, O His messengers,/ valiant in power, performing His word,/ to heed the sound of His word.” (20)

One of the things about angels (here “messengers”) is that unlike we humans they never fail to carry out God’s orders. They are the always obedient servants and messengers: “Bless the Lord, all His armies,/ His servants performing His pleasure.” (21) This tells me that angels lack that essential component that makes us humans imago deo: free will. In short, to be an angel means at once to possess other-worldly power but the inability to act on his own. And as the OT makes clear elsewhere, seraphim and cherubim are quite different than humans, what with bodies of lions and the like. Clearly, they were not created in the image of God. I’ll take my humanity, thank you very much.

And I think it is the wonderfulness of our very humanity that for all its flaws the psalmist is ultimately getting at here. Unlike the angels we can stand and decide of our free will to dedicate the entirety of ourselves to God: “Bless, O my being, the Lord.” (23) For the psalmist there is no higher calling and he has dedicated his entire being to God. Is it the same for me?

Jeremiah 23:33–25:14: One of the fascinating things about the OT and here in Jeremiah in particular is how God keeps giving object lessons. Here, “Lord showed me two baskets of figs placed before the temple of the Lord.” (24:1a). Our author is careful to note, “This was after King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon had taken into exile from Jerusalem King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah, together with the officials of Judah, the artisans, and the smiths, and had brought them to Babylon.” (24:1b)

To make sure Jeremiah gets the point, God asks, “What do you see, Jeremiah?” and Jeremiah logically replies: ““Figs, the good figs very good, and the bad figs very bad, so bad that they cannot be eaten.” (24:3) God goes on to explain that the good figs are those who have already been taken captive to Babylon, while the bad figs is the corrupt administration, “King Zedekiah of Judah, his officials, the remnant of Jerusalem who remain in this land, [Judah]” (24:8) And they are about to meet a grisly end: “I will send sword, famine, and pestilence upon them, until they are utterly destroyed from the land that I gave to them and their ancestors.” (24:10)

We tend to think that God thinks subtly about all the complexities of us humans, but at the core it’s really quite binary: good figs vs. bad figs. In the end we we can decide to listen to and obey God or or we can go our own corrupt way. And now, through Jesus, we have an even more straightforward way to end up in the good fig basket (or perhaps to use Jesus’ metaphor: sheep vs. goats). But absent looking to and trusting God, our self-centered drive ensures that we will always end up in the bad fig basket.

At this point, Jeremiah abandons poetry for straight up narrative as he warns the people of Judah of what is coming: the Babylonian captivity. He starts off reminding his listeners, “For twenty-three years, from the thirteenth year of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, to this day, the word of the Lord has come to me, and I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened.” (25:3) Jeremiah reviews how all the prophets who have come have given fair warning but, “Yet you did not listen to me, says the Lord, and so you have provoked me to anger with the work of your hands to your own harm.” (25:7)

That phrase, “you have provoked me to anger with the work of your hands to your own harm,” leaps off the page. Of course this is a reference to the incessant idol-making that Judah engaged in. But it is also a greater statement: that we attempt to become creators ourselves rather than remembering our status as God’s creatures. There’s noting wrong with us creating stiff. After all, God has given us the smarts and the resources to do that, But as soon as we hold our own creations to be greater than God himself we get into deep trouble. Now that our culture has declared itself not only to be greater than God, but in fact has decided there’s no God in the first place, I fear will will only see further corruption God’s created order. Certainly the physical world, but the corruption of social order that results from spiritual emptiness. Jeremiah’s message is just as relevant to us as to Judah.

The prophet predicts the Babylonian captivity will last 70 years. What will our own Babylonian captivity look like?

1 Timothy 5:17–6:2: This compendium of practical advice about church organization and leadership gets down to finances: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching;  for the scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves to be paid.”” (5: 17, 18).  Absolutely. And there are lessons in basic church polity: “Never accept any accusation against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” (5:19). Although the next verse, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest also may stand in fear.” has led to lawsuits in the US when members of a church have been publicly ostracized. Once again, I am struck by the Jeremiah-like sternness here. It’s as if there’s a list to be checked off. Where is the grace? This list sounds too much like a corporate HR manual and too little like inspired Scripture to me.

Then, to further emphasize the checklist nature of this passage we have the complete non-sequitur: “ No longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” (5:23) Ive always wondered what the tee-totaler denominations do with this verse other than to note that wine may be OK as a medicine but not as a drink.

Far more troubling to our modern ears is, “Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed.” (6:1). This is one of those places where we be ned to be careful not to inject our contemporary mores on an ancient culture (the practice of “presentism.”). As ugly and distasteful as this verse is to us now, it doubtless reflects the reality that slaveholders viewed the early church as likely source of a slave rebellion and if the church was to survive in that culture it had to remain quiet and squeaky clean, by being honorable above all else.  What does this say about our role as the church in the present cultural reality?

Psalm 103:6–18; Jeremiah 23:1–32; 1 Timothy 5:9–16

Psalm 103:6–18: Many psalms talk in the abstract about God’s kindness, but this psalm describes exactly what God’s kindness and forgiveness means for us failed humans: “Compassionate and gracious, the Lord, slow to anger and abounding in kindness.” (8) We don’t think much about God’s anger at our sin and the injustice of the world, but our psalmist tells us it is intense but not long-lived, more like a passing thunderstorm than a long drenching rain: “He will not dispute forever/ nor nurse His anger for all time.” (9)

We deserve far greater punishment than God metes out: “Not according to our offenses has He done to us/ nor according to our crimes requited us.” (10) Instead, there is mercy that is far greater than we can imagine: “For as the heavens loom high over earth,/ His kindness is great over those who fear Him.” (11) It is mercy expressed as absolute forgiveness: “As the east is far from the west,/ He has distanced us from our transgressions.” (12) And instead of the punishment we so richly deserve, there is compassion: “As a father has compassion for his children,/ the Lord has compassion for those who fear Him.” And nowhere has God’s compassion been more wonderfully expressed than in sending his Son to die for us. That was the final once-and-for-all east-west separation from our sins.

We often don’t read the verses that follow, but they are crucial in trying to get our minds (and hearts) around this unfathomable mercy. We are God’s evanescent creatures: “Man’s days are like grass,/…when the wind passes by he is gone,/ and his place will no longer know him.” (16) Reflect on that last line: we will live and then die and then mostly be forgotten. But by contrast, “the Lord’s kindness is forever and ever.” God will never ever forget us and his kindness will be expressed over the generations: “…and His bounty to the sons of sons.” (Grandchildren!)

Jeremiah 23:1–32: In a powerful reversal of Psalm 23, Jeremiah stands before the leaders and Judah and shouts, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord.” (1)  Then he describes the nature of failed leadership that resonates down to today: “It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them.” (2) Despite the evil unleashed by the kings of Judah, a faithful remnant remains and it is they to whom Jeremiah’s attention now turns: “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.” (3).

Better leaders are in the offing for this remnant: “ I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.” (4) Like so many prophecies we can read this at two levels: the short term and the long term. It applies first to those who heard Jeremiah’s words: a better leader is coming. But second, it applies to us because we hear a prophesy that gives us a clue of what God has up his sleeve: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” (5) Indeed, Jesus was that Righteous Branch that arose out of the house of David.

Jeremiah is in this alone, surrounded by a host of false prophets, so we can imagine not just Jeremiah’s lack of credibility, but the derision and hatred greeting these words: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you; they are deluding you. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord.” (16). Why? Because like the sycophants they were, they only told the kings and people what they wanted to hear: “They keep saying to those who despise the word of the Lord, “It shall be well with you”; and to all who stubbornly follow their own stubborn hearts, they say, “No calamity shall come upon you.” (17)

This is also a truth that applies across time. False teaching drove Paul (who certainly had Jeremiah-like qualities) crazy. And there is ample false teaching today as e.g., the so-called “prosperity Gospel.” And don’t we like people who tell us only what we want to hear, reenforcing our preconceived notions? Leadership requires hearing the hard truths and acting on them–and it requires a staff person who is willing to say those hard words. Only Jeremiah was willing to say the unvarnished truth and accept the cruel suffering he received in response for what he said “in the name of the Lord.” Would I have the same courage? I think I have too often been the sycophantic courtier.

 1 Timothy 5:9–16: Here’s one of those places where I think it was someone other than Paul writing: “Let a widow be put on the list if she is not less than sixty years old and has been married only once; she must be well attested for her good works, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the saints’ feet, helped the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way.” (9, 10) That’s just a little too specific for Paul, who tended to write more abstractly when it came to behaviors. Then we read about who is to be excluded: “ But refuse to put younger widows on the list; for when their sensual desires alienate them from Christ, they want to marry,” (11). Really?

Then there is substantial and rather harsh judgement: “Besides that, they learn to be idle, gadding about from house to house; and they are not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not say.” (13) That seems to be a pronouncement about an entire class of people, not just a few individuals. Even when Paul was at his harshest, as he was for example with the Corinthians, I never sensed that kind of prissy moral rectitude and certainly not the wholesale judgement on classes of people. I think Paul that felt anyone, regardless of his or her position, could be an equal opportunity sinner. 

And in contrast with today’s Psalm, this passage seems more about man’s judgement than God’s mercy. Grace seems pretty absent here.

Psalm 102:12–22; Jeremiah 18:1–19:9; 1 Timothy 3:8–16

Psalm 102:12–22: As the psalmist himself fades, “My days inclined like a shadow, /and I–like grass I withered,” (12) he recalls God’s own eternal kingly power: “And You, O Lord, forever enthroned,/and Your name for all generations.” (13)  Summoning what little strength he has lef, our poet pleads, “have mercy on Zion,/ for it is the hour to pity her.” (14) For now, there is not much left of the once great city as “Your servants cherish her stones/ and on her dust they take pity.” (15)

But, the poet knows that God can return and once again bring the greatness that existed when the people worshipped God and “the nations will fear the name of the Lord,/ and all the kings of the earth, Your glory,” (16) because “the Lord has rebuilt Zion,/ He is seen in his glory.” (17). But this is not the poet’s greatest joy. Joy comes because “He has turned to the prayer of the desolate/ and has not despised their prayer.” (18)

We talk casually about the ‘power of prayer,’ and here in this psalm we have a brilliant imagining of what prayer can do: restore an entire fallen city. I think that we Christians are too easily discouraged as it seems that the culture is not only rejecting the faith and mores on which it was built, but now seems to be working to move religious expression out of the public sphere so it exists only inside private spaces and churches. We look back almost nostalgically on what once was. But our duty is not to despair, together with the psalmist, it is to pray.

Jeremiah 18:1–19:9: Pottery is the overarching metaphor of these verses. Jeremiah is instructed by God to “go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” (18:2). Jeremiah obeys and observes that  the “vessel [the potter] was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.” (18:3) So, too, Israel, which is mere clay in God’s hand. And like the potter God can mold and reject: “At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it,” (18:7). Or, “at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it,” (18:9)

God makes it clear that “if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.” (18:10). Israel’s only hope is to “Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.” (18:11) But, as usual, Israel refuses, clinging to its idolatrous ways: “But my people have forgotten me,/they burn offerings to a delusion;/…making their land a horror,/a thing to be hissed at forever.” (18:15, 16)  Today, as in Jeremiah’s time, warnings of moral decay and idol worshipping are only scorned and laughed at as we pursue our own delusions and believe we control forces that are God’s alone.  

Jeremiah’s warnings not only result in no repentance on the part of Israel, but they seek to get rid of this carrier of bad news: “Yet you, O Lord, know/ all their plotting to kill me.” (18:23a). And Jeremiah responds just like the psalmists who wish disaster upon their enemies: “Do not forgive their iniquity,/ do not blot out their sin from your sight./Let them be tripped up before you;/ deal with them while you are angry.” (18:23b)

The pottery metaphor becomes an actual pot when God says to Jeremiah, “Go and buy a potter’s earthenware jug.” (19:1) and warn the people once again: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle.” (19:3)

But perhaps the greatest warning here is this: “I will make void the plans of Judah and Jerusalem, and will make them fall by the sword before their enemies, and by the hand of those who seek their life.” (19:7).  Isn’t it remarkable how we make our plans and build our expectations based on our faulty assumption that we control circumstances. But as the victim of any natural disaster or the person who hears he has a cancer diagnosis or the woman who is felled by a heart attack can tell you, God is perfectly capable of voiding our plans.

1 Timothy 3:8–16: The comportment of deacons comes next after the qualities of the bishop: “must be serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.” (8,9) But to qualify for office, deacons must also be  “tested.” What is the nature of this test? My own take is that it is life experience and especially experiences that have tested their faith. Twenty-two year olds need not apply to be deacon. Of course seriousness can take many forms, but there’s no question that looking back from my 68-year-old perch, that wisdom needed to be a deacon or anyone who serves in a faith community comes only through knowledge and experience and a not a few personal traumas.

This passage is also where we doubtless get our image of the stern, unsmiling church official. Not only “Deacons likewise must be serious” (8) but also “Women likewise must be serious,” (11). But we need to read “serious” as serious in purpose not necessarily in temperament. The short message is: we cannot take our faith casually; we are making a serious, life-long commitment to mold our entire being and behavior in the image of Christ. Faith is far more than a coat we put on on Sunday mornings.

Once again, an interesting (but to my eyes, un-Pauline) passage that sets out an early creed–and one again that must have been considered at Nicaea: “Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great:

    He was revealed in flesh,
        vindicated in spirit,
            seen by angels,
    proclaimed among Gentiles,
        believed in throughout the world,
            taken up in glory. (16)

The “proclaimed among the Gentiles” may seem out of place to our modern eyes, but there’s no question it was of prime importance in the early church as it moved from a Jewish sect to a worldwide phenomenon.

Psalm 102:1–11; Jeremiah 16:14–17:27; 1 Timothy 2:8–3:7

Psalm 102:1–11: This beautiful psalm of supplication opens by describing the physical plight of the supplicant as he prays in a somber mood approaching despair: “A prayer for the lowly when he grows faint/ and pours out his plea before the Lord.” Like all psalms of supplication, the opening plea is for God to hear his cries: “Lord, O hear my prayer,/ and let my outcry come before You” (2) because God seems to be completely absent: “Hide not Your face from me/ on the day when I am in straits.” (3) These verses are an apt description of the abandonment we feel when our own lives have  turned desperate and we feel completely alone. Even though we know intellectually that God is close by, our loneliness swamps any sense of God’s presence.

In a striking metaphor and a haunting simile our poet describes both the ephemerality of life and the agony of disease: “For my days are consumed in smoke,/ and my bones are scorched like a hearth.” (5a) I well remember after being diagnosed with cancer the feeling that disease had taken over my life, which was a mere vapor. So dreadful is the poet’s state that he has stopped eating: “My heart is stricken and withers like grass,/ so I forget to eat my bread.” (5b)

He describes his physical state in similes of birds in bleak circumstances: “I resemble the wilderness jackdaw,/ I become like the owl of the ruins” (7) and an carries the bird image into an unforgettable image of insomnia: “I lie awake and become/ like a lonely bird on a roof.” (8). Nor is his relationship with other people any healthier than his body: “All day long my enemies revile me,/ my taunters invoke me in curse.” (9) And not surprisingly, he blames God for his woes: “because of Your wrath and Your fury,/ for You raised me up and flung me down.” (11)

So when we are in are own desperate circumstances, be it emotional or physical distress and think we are the first person to have suffered so greatly we need only turn to this psalm to be reminded that there is nothing unique or original about our feelings or our cries to God.

Jeremiah 16:14–17:27: Jeremiah is a fascinating juxtaposition of imprecation and promise, of curse and comfort. God always holds out hope and immediately following “I will doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols, and have filled my inheritance with their abominations.” (16:18), we read the famous lines, “O Lord, my strength and my stronghold,/my refuge in the day of trouble,” (16:19a)

Jeremiah is no slouch when it comes to metaphors: “The sin of Judah is written with an iron pen; with a diamond point it is engraved on the tablet of their hearts,” (17:1) And while he is writing about Judah’s sin of idolatry, he might as well be writing about all of us. Sinfulness is deeply engraved in who we are–at the very core of our being. And thus, there is no escape from sin on our own. Only one person will be able to erase that sin.

There is stern but practical advice for all of us who read Jeremiah’s words:
    “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
      and make mere flesh their strength,
      whose hearts turn away from the Lord.” (17:5)
because that trust leads only to thirst and moral desiccation:
   “They shall be like a shrub in the desert,
        and shall not see when relief comes.
    They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness,
       in an uninhabited salt land. ” (17:6)

Is there a better description of life lived without trust in God and his love? Desert emptiness is the fate of a world that trusts in empty idols. Just look anywhere, but especially among the wealthy, who, if they are willing to stop for a moment and ponder, will find that deep in their hearts there is only emptiness. Immediately following this verse is the incredible promise:
“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit.” (17:7, 8)

It’s an appropriate simile for those of us here in drought-stricken California in the middle of a long summer. With trust in God we need not be anxious for anything. A loving God is our water of life.

1 Timothy 2:8–3:7: Uh, oh. Here we arrive at one of those inconvenient passages that prescribe roles and behavior that are appropriate for the culture into which they were written: “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” (2:11) Given Paul’s generous praise of women who assisted him in other epistles, these verses further increase my suspicions regarding Paul’s authorship.

That said, this passage has resulted in a church that treats women as second-class citizens, where I can find not theological justification for such treatment. In the same way that we can accuse today’s zealots of presentism for wanting to impose present-day mores on historical cultures (e.g., erasing all traces of the Confederacy), I think we can accuse others of biblcism, which is the practice of assigning ancient Roman social mores to the present day.

The letter then describes the qualities of a bishop, which among other things suggests other authorship since bishops do not appear to be a role of the earliest church. That said, the Pauline list is a useful one for anyone who would aspire to be a pastor or even lay leader: “must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way.” (2:2-4)  Given the (often undeserved) reputation of PKs (preacher’s kids) I’d love to know the back-story that generated that last requirement here.

But in the main these are useful qualities that deserve our respect. Another back-story that would be cool to know is, “He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.” Unfortunately, there are too many preachers today who have come to believe their own press releases (Franklin Graham, I talking about you) and would do well to ponder these verses.


Psalm 101; Jeremiah 15:1–16:13; 1 Timothy 1:12–2:7

Psalm 101: This psalm turns inward as the poet describes the blameless life he wishes to lead before God. As usual, it opens on a note of worship of God’s two overarching qualities: “Kindness and justice I would sing./ To You, O Lord, I would hymn.” (1) The remainder of the psalm deals with the personal behavior he wishes to follow and to instill in his household.

Achieving righteous behavior requires study and perseverance: “I would study the way of the blameless:/ when will it come to me?” (2) The first place to work on being righteous ourselves is at home: “I shall go about in my heart’s innocence/ within my house/” (2b) Going about achieving this objective requires avoiding temptation: “I shall not set before my eyes/ any base thing./ I hate committing transgressions./ I will not cling to me.” (3) and substantial self-discipline: “May a twisted heart turn far from me./ May I not know evil.” (4) The lesson here is clear: in terms of our personal behavior we must discipline ourselves. The underlying theme here is that as fallen people we turn fairly naturally to corruption absent a conscious desire–and practice–to avoid (as our Catholic friends put it), “occasions of sin.”

The psalmist then turns to relationships between the righteous person and others, suggesting first that conspiracies are to be exposed: “Who defames in secret his fellow/ him shall I destroy.” (5) Same goes for those who are condescending and prideful: “The haughty of eyes and the proud of heart,/ him shall I not suffer.” (6) Rather, we look to other faithful people as our example: “My eyes are on the land’s faithful,/ that they dwell with me.”(6), and which I see as a call for us Christians that we be in community with each other–a theme Paul certainly hammers home repeatedly. Finally, we are responsible for those in our family: “Within my house there shall not dwell/ one who practices deceit./ A speaker of lies shall not stand firm before my eyes.” (7) If ever we needed a “secret formula” for leading a just and upright life it is right here: well-practiced personal behavior, following upright examples, and being in a community of others with similar values.

Jeremiah 15:1–16:13: Now we get down to serious jeremiads as the prophet, speaking in the voice of God, describes the punishment–and ultimate destruction of most–of the people he loves but whose behavior and intransigence he can no longer abide. There are four forms of punishment:
   “Those destined for pestilence, to pestilence,
        and those destined for the sword, to the sword;
    those destined for famine, to famine,
        and those destined for captivity, to captivity. (15:2)

And there are “four kinds of destroyers, says the Lord: the sword to kill, the dogs to drag away, and the birds of the air and the wild animals of the earth to devour and destroy.” (15:3). What’s fascinating here is that Jeremiah is naming names: “ I will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth because of what King Manasseh son of Hezekiah of Judah did in Jerusalem.” (15:4). The failure of leadership has led to the corruption of society–and the consequences of that failure will be suffered by everyone.

There is a lesson here for us. We are a society that has abandoned true leadership and replaced it with rhetoricians. Absent any example of servant leadership, like Judah we become increasingly corrupt. And the leaders we are contemplating to replace our current leaders are buffoons or skating on the edge of corruption. We deserve the leadership we get because of our failure of collective discipline.  I think the reason God punishes the people of Jerusalem together with its king is that they have allowed corruption to fester and turned a blind eye to immorality.  They–we– have failed to follow the example of the psalmist above and have welcomed haughtiness, pride and ultimately corruption into our public and private lives. We are certainly no better than the people before which Jeremiah stood.

But as always, God offers a way out. All we need to do is turn around–the literal meaning of redemption:
   “Therefore thus says the Lord:
    If you turn back, I will take you back,
        and you shall stand before me.
    If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless,
        you shall serve as my mouth.” (15:19)

“God has never once abandoned his promise:
    for I am with you
        to save you and deliver you,
    says the Lord.
       I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked,
        and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.” (15:20b, 21)

Or will our overweening pride cause us to reject this generous offer? And today, unlike Judah, we have Jesus Christ to turn to. Why do we resist? Does our self-centered pride know no limits?

1 Timothy 1:12–2:7: Paul uses his own experience as an example of grace: “ I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” (1: 13,14) Exactly the offer that is before each person and that is so enthusiastically rejected by so many.

Like today’s psalmist, the point of this epistle is instruction: “I am giving you these instructions, Timothy, my child, …so that by following them you may fight the good fight, having faith and a good conscience.” (18, 19a). And like Jeremiah, Paul does not hesitate to name names of those who have ignored this instruction: “By rejecting conscience, certain persons have suffered shipwreck in the faith; among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have turned over to Satan, so that they may learn not to blaspheme.” (1:19, 20) [This is one of those places that makes me suspect Paul’s authorship because this seems even harsher than the angry, but ultimately graceful, Paul we see elsewhere.]

I would like to know the backstory of relationship between the church and the authorities that led to: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” (2:1,2) In other words, he seems to be staying, stay quiet and therefore unnoticed. He may also be saying, ‘don’t interfere with the political process.’ A lesson for certain present-day Evangelicals here?

But the centerpiece of the reading is this wonderful, simple creed that so clearly illustrates not only the relationship between God and Jesus, but reminds us of why Jesus came in the first place:

    “For there is one God;
there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
who gave himself a ransom for all.” (5,6)

Those words were certainly on the minds of the Council of Nicea.  And in the end, it’s all we really have to know theologically…

Psalm 100; Jeremiah 13:20–14:22; 1 Timothy 1:1–11

Psalm 100: When I was in the 5th grade Sunday School at Lake Avenue Congregational Church in Pasadena, I memorized this psalm )in the original King James Version, of course). The joy of thanksgiving is so palpable. We can easily imagine–and hear–the worshipping throngs crowded into the Temple courtyard: “come into His gates in thanksgiving,/ His courts in Praise./ Acclaim Him,/ Bless His name.” (4,5)

In my old age, though, the true centerpiece of this psalm is:
“Know that He is God.
He has made us, and we are His,
His people and the flock He tends.” (3)

Has there ever been a more compact statement of worship–and of the theology of our relationship with God? First, we are to acknowledge that God is God. Second, we are to acknowledge that we are God’s creatures. Third, that by virtue of being God’s creation we belong to Him. And finally, in just four words–“the flock He tends”–we know that this relationship is that of a shepherd to his sheep: that we will always be protected and cared for. And as Jesus made clear in his parable, even when we wander off or even abandon God because we think we know better and decide we don’t need God, he will still relentlessly seek us out. As the final verse of this psalm makes clear: “For the Lord is good,/ forever His kindness,/ and for all generations His faithfulness.” Would that we be so faithful in return.

Jeremiah 13:20–14:22: Even though the people of Israel seem to permanently have abandoned God, there is always hope: “Then also you can do good/ who are accustomed to do evil.” (13:23) But this is a single glimmer of hope in a relentlessly pessimistic chapter where the eternal question hangs in the air: “Woe to you, O Jerusalem!/How long will it be/ before you are made clean?” (13:27) A question that seems especially relevant in today’s culture that appears to have abandoned God even more than Jeremiah’s Jerusalem.

Chapter 14 opens with a perfect description of the effects of drought on humans and animals: ”
   the cry of Jerusalem goes up.
   3 Her nobles send their servants for water;
       they come to the cisterns,
   they find no water,
       they return with their vessels empty.
   They are ashamed and dismayed
       and cover their heads,
   4 because the ground is cracked.
       Because there has been no rain on the land
   the farmers are dismayed;
       they cover their heads.
   5 Even the doe in the field forsakes her newborn fawn
       because there is no grass.

Of course, to Jeremiah, this is a direct consequence of Judah’s abandonment of God, and God even instructs Jeremiah, “Do not pray for the welfare of this people.” (14:11) Drought in that land is seen by the people as punishment and they seem to realize that their idols are ineffectual and that God may be their only hope in ending their misery as they plead, “Can any idols of the nations bring rain?/ Or can the heavens give showers?/Is it not you, O Lord our God?/We set our hope on you,/ for it is you who do all this.” (14:22) But the question hangs in the air: Is Judah truly repenting or is this a foxhole prayer asking for rescue that will only result once again in abandoning God once the crisis has passed?

Of course, that’s a question that is still relevant today. There is no better recent national example when in the days following 9/11 the churches were full and people cooperated with each other and helped each other. Of course, now that is merely fond memory as our society seems more contentious than ever and even more resolute in its abandonment of God.

1 Timothy 1:1–11: There’s lots of controversy about whether or not Paul actually penned the Pastoral Epistles (1, 2 Timothy and Titus). Personally, I think the evidence is that Paul did not. That used to matter to me more than it does now, and I will write presuming that Paul is indeed the author.

If nothing else the concerns about which Paul writes are the same as those in his letters to Colossae and Thessalonia: that the churches have fallen under the influence of false teachers. Here, he asks the folks to take action: “that you may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine, and not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training  that is known by faith.” (3b, 4) This verse also lays out the theme of this book: “divine training,” i.e., discipline. That the Christian faith is not just a random experience to be enjoyed serenely, but that like other disciplines it requires instruction and practice.

But equally important is the attitude with which such training and discipline is to be carried out: “The aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.” (5) The problem is that “Some people have deviated from these and turned to meaningless talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions.” (7) Wow! How much “meaningless talk” spews forth today, asserting itself as wisdom and insight? The explosion of social media, blogs and on-line discourse suggest that there are more opinions than knowledge, more unfounded assertions than wisdom.

My hope is that this blog, by hewing close to Scripture and attempting to be observational rather than instructional, does not fall into the meaningless category…