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.

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