Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sunday, October 13, 2013
The Rev. Kealahou C. Alika
When I first heard Hoyt Axton’s version of “Joy to the World” in 1970 I was still a teenager. It was nothing like the Christmas carol we know so well. Some described the song as a “silly song” or a “kid’s song” although not all of the lyrics were appropriate for children.
In any case it was hard not to hear the music in my head when I realized that one of the Scripture readings for today is from The Book of Jeremiah. Axton’s song was made famous by the rock band Three Dog Night and the lyrics went like this:
Jeremiah was a bullfrog, was a good friend of mine
I never understood a single word he said
But I helped him a-drink his wine
And he always had some mighty fine wine.
Joy to the world, all the boys and girls
Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
Joy to you and me.
At the time I knew more about Jeremiah as a bullfrog than Jeremiah as a prophet. Now I know better. Far from the silliness of Axton’s lyrics the book bearing the name of the prophet consists of a collection of oracles against the people of Judah around 600 BCE.
It has been said that “for no other prophet in the Hebrew Scriptures do we have a comparable reflection of the spiritual struggle with God.” (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version, Metzger & Murphy, Oxford University Press, New York, 1991, page 960) Jeremiah was profoundly concerned about rewards and punishment (Jeremiah 1:10), the consequences of good and evil, of faithfulness and disobedience.
He criticized Judah for its worship of other gods and warned that judgment would come. In our reading from Jeremiah judgment has come.
It is 597 BCE. The Babylonians have captured the city of Jerusalem and the Temple has been destroyed. The leading citizens of the city are taken into exile. Jeremiah offers commonsense advice for their survival in a foreign land but it is advice that brought little comfort to the elders, priests, prophets and people.
The reading for today provides us with the heart of Jeremiah’s letter, probably the first of several letters written from Jerusalem to those exiled in Babylon. His letter was entrusted to envoys from King Zedekiah to Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon (Jeremiah 29:3). No one was named individually, instead it was a letter directed to the exiles in general.
The news was not good. The exile to Babylon will not be brief. It will last for seventy years. (Jeremiah 29:10) He announces judgment on those prophets who would say otherwise.
But there was also good news – good news that in time God would return the people to the land promised to their ancestors. The present may seem hopeless and the future ominous, but Jeremiah insisted that a new and more enduring relationship with God would come.
There are Biblical scholars who contend that at the heart of Jeremiah’s letter there is an unusual message from God. Instructions are provided for the behavior and the attitudes of the people in exile. They are advised by Jeremiah to settle down in Babylon for the long term.
They are to “build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.” (Jeremiah 29:5) “Moreover they are to ensure the people of God by marrying and having children and by seeing that their children marry and have children.” (Preaching Through the Christian Year, C, Craddock, Hayes, Holladay & Tucker, Trinity International Press, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1994, page 434). The purpose is to “multiply there, and do not decrease,” (Jeremiah 29:6) so that there will be people for God to bless in the future.
Instead of rebelling against their oppressors, they are to “seek the welfare of the city” where they have been sent into exile. The exiles are instructed to “pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 19:7) “The hated enemies are to be lifted up in their prayers.” (Op. cit.)
We learn from Jeremiah’s account and from others like Ezekiel that those sent into exile were not sold off into slavery but were allowed to keep their families and communities together. Public gatherings and worship were permitted. As difficult as it may have been, Jeremiah makes clear the Babylonians are carrying out the will of God and that by submitting to them, the exiles are submitting themselves to the will of God.
If the people are to survive in exile, his instructions make sense. But for Jeremiah his words are not intended to be simply practical in their application but instead they are intended to be a theological interpretation of the historical events that have occurred.
There is a time for planting. There is a time for new growth and new life.
For some of us it may seem that the words of Jeremiah would have little bearing on our own lives. All this talk of a nation and a people makes no sense if we are already a nation and a people.
But it may not be so for those whose ancestors were brought to the U.S. from Africa as slaves. Between 1620 and 1700 around 21,000 Africans were brought into the Thirteen Colonies. Over time a total of 600,000 slaves or 5% of the 12 million who were brought from Africa to the Americas would eventually settle in what would become the United States of America.
For others the experience of the exile may be more internal to our history as a country.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 saw the forced relocation and movement of the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations from their homelands to what is today known as the state of Oklahoma. Within seven years, 46,000 Native American Indians were removed opening up 25 million acres for settlement by European immigrants.
A little over a century later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the internment of over 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry into relocation centers. The internment was ordered in 1942, shortly after Japan’s attack on Puʻuloa or what we now know as Pearl Harbor.
Some attribute the action taken to wartime hysteria; others to fear. In 1980 a Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to conduct an investigation to determine whether putting Japanese Americans into internment camps was justified. The commission concluded that there was little evidence of disloyalty and that justice was denied.
I mention these three historical events because I believe the impact is not only about relocation but about dislocation. For our Hawaiian ancestors, such a dislocation came swiftly.
Within a generation the Native Hawaiian population had been decimated by the diseases that came with the arrival of foreigners. At the time Kalakua ascended the throne in 1874 there were fewer than 48,000 Native Hawaiians remaining; this from a population that was once estimated to be between 800,000 to 1 million.
Kalakaua took great pride in the kanaka maoli or the people of Hawaiʻi. His motto was similar to the instruction of Jeremiah – Ho’oulu Lāhui – “Increase the race” or “Let the Hawaiian Race Flourish.” Kalakaua witnessed the decimation of the Native Hawaiian population and like Jeremiah he sought to ensure the future of the people by encouraging to marry and to bear children.
All of these historical events may give us a deeper appreciation for those who were exiled to Babylon falling the fall of Judah. Jeremiah understood what we know to be true and that is if our faith in God is to endure, it is very likely that we will find ourselves facing pain and suffering in our own lives as individuals and as a people as did those who were exiled to Babylon. That is the lesson from our reading from The Second Letter of Timothy.
Like Jeremiah who insisted that the people turn away from false prophets so it is that Timothy warns against false teaching. Timothy calls us to have our faith anchored in Jesus Christ in the same way that Jeremiah called on the people of Judah to have their faith rooted in God.
By doing so we will discover that despite the pain and suffering in our lives and in world, faith endures – even when we are faithless, the God we have come to know in Jesus Christ remains faithful. There is a time for grieving. There is a building. There is a time for having children. There is a time for planting.
By being anchored and rooted in our faith, we will discover that Jeremiah the bullfrog and Jeremiah the prophet were not so different after all. There are reasons enough for us to sing with Jeremiah the bullfrog and Jeremiah the prophet: “Joy to the world, all the boys and girls. Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea. Joy to you and me.”