Date: June 26, 2011
Texts: Jeremiah 28:5-9, Psalm 89
Author: Isaac Villegas
Jeremiah is stuck in a battle of the prophets. There are two prophets at the center of this drama, Hananiah and Jeremiah, and each of them offers a competing vision of the future.
Jeremiah offers a difficult word to the people of Judah, a word of judgment: that the people will live under Babylonian captivity, that many of the people of Judah will have to live in exile, away from the temple in Jerusalem, far away from the holy land of their mothers and fathers. No one likes Jeremiah’s prophecy. The leaders threaten to kill him for speaking of such a dismal future.
Hananiah offers a very different vision of the future. Within two years, he says, God will set Judah free from Babylon; the temple in Jerusalem will be restored and all the people taken into exile will be able to come back home. The people of God will no longer have to live under captivity (Jer 28:3-4).
Hananiah’s message is hopeful; he offers good news, welcome news. Life will soon get back to normal. The people will be able to go back to their former lives. Babylon will be destroyed. In Hananiah portrait of the future, there will be no more enemies. Peace, according to his prophecy, will look like a return to life as it used to be—a re-establishment of the king of Judah and the priests of the temple. Of course the people of Judah fall in love with Hananiah’s message—it affirms their position of power, their control over the land and society.
Jeremiah’s vision is not so hopeful—or, at least, the hope of his prophecy has nothing to do with re-establishing the old forms of power, of Jewish control over the land and the people. Jeremiah would be considered a pessimist—there will be no return to life as it was before. Instead, Jeremiah invites the people to live out of control, to live without power over the land, to live as exiles among the Babylonians.
Basically, Hananiah offers a vision of the future, where Israel will be in charge again; they will be in control. But, according to Jeremiah’s prophecy, the people are supposed to learn how to live without being in charge, without controlling their destiny.
I will confess that I like Hananiah’s vision better. I find Jeremiah’s word difficult to hear. I have a hard time imagining what it would mean to live without exercising some kind of control over the world, of pushing society in what I think would be the right direction. I guess I have a hard time hearing Jeremiah’s word of exile because I live in the United States, where we are taught, from childhood, that we, as a people, have power; that we can make the world a better place; that we have a responsibility to use our power, our privilege, to change the world; that we have to be good stewards of our position of privilege. But, if Jeremiah is speaking to me, I would have to figure out how to un-school myself, to unlearn, all the ways that I have been taught to think that I am in charge, that I am in control of my life and the lives of others.
America runs deep within me. Some kids collect baseball cards. Not me, when I was a kid, I collected war cards—instead of pictures of players with their batting averages on the back, the cards I collected had pictures of tanks and fighter jets and tomahawk cruise missiles.
I was around twelve years old. The first president Bush was going about his war against Saddam Hussein, staged in Saudi Arabia. I think I picked up my first pack of Top Flight, Operation Desert Storm cards from the grocery store nearby my house in Tucson. I don’t know why I bought them, but I soon became a collector.
I remember sitting in the living room, watching the daily press conferences where General Norman Schwarzkopf—his fans called him “Stormin’ Norman”—I remember watching Stormin’ Norman on the TV as he showed his maps of the Middle East, giving us the play by play of the progress of the troops. As he described the military operations, I would get out my Desert Storm cards and consider the stats of each player in the war—the distance a cruise missile could travel, the number of fighter planes on an aircraft carrier, the capabilities of the A-10 bomber or the Apache helicopter.
I no longer collect war cards; I don’t even know if they make them anymore. And while I’m committed to Christ’s way of peace, I admit that some habits die hard, some ways of thinking are not easily undone.
When I pay attention to myself, I notice that there is something inside of me that still thinks that I am in charge, that I should take hold of the power I have and use it to change the world, to restructure society—to, for example, put a president in office that is a little less violent than the one we have, to rewrite our national and state budgets to include more provisions for the sick and the poor, and to find ways to let undocumented residents to live here without fear of deportation. I could go on and on about what I want, about how I want to change society, about what I would do if I were in control, if I were in charge.
I know that violence and war don’t solve any problems; but I still struggle with letting go of control, of letting go of trying to be in charge—which seems to be the logic behind violence: to be in power, to overpower enemies into submission, to establish control through violence, or at least the threat of violence, to change laws and force them upon others with law enforcement. I can let go of the need to kill our enemies; that makes sense to me. But I have a hard time letting go of the desire to make others follow my vision for society, even if they disagree with me—to coerce them through legislation and policy, which appeal to the threat of violence, of law enforcement, to keep everyone obedient. In other words, I have a hard time with the idea of living a noncoercive life, of letting go of control, of letting go of the appeal to the threat of violence, of not seeking to push society in the right direction with the tools of the powerful.
I know that my situation isn’t the same as that of Jeremiah’s community in exile, living under Babylonian captivity. Yet I know that somehow Jeremiah’s vision is also a word for me and our world. And part of that vision means that we are supposed to live in exile, to not be in charge. Instead, as Jeremiah says in chapter 29, we are supposed to build houses and plant gardens, and to pray for the peace of our cities.
So, even though I struggle to think through what it might mean to live a life without coercion, without making other people live by my vision of a peaceful society, I think you, as a church, are helping me see what Jeremiah’s prophecy looks like. Jeremiah says to build houses, and I know that over the past few weeks, many of you have spent your Saturdays working on a building project for a woman who lost her house in the recent tornado. Jeremiah says to pray for peace, and every week I hear your prayers for peace, for our cities, for our neighbors, and for the world.
Maybe I am having such a hard time thinking through how to live without coercion because I have a hard time believing God will do anything with our prayers. Maybe I have a hard time listening to Jeremiah’s invitation into a posture of exile because I have my doubts about God. Maybe I have a hard time adopting a position that does not resort to using coercive power over society because I doubt that God is in control, because I have a hard time believing sometimes that God has not abandoned the world, because I wonder if indeed God will be faithful to establish the kingdom of Christ’s peace. If God’s not going to do it, I think to myself, I guess I’ll have to.
If that’s the heart of the matter—i.e., my doubts about God’s faithfulness to the world—then I can do no better than to learn to pray the words of our Psalmist, who says,
I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations. I declare that you stead fast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens. (Ps 89:1-2)