Friday, January 19, 2018

WHY I WROTE "STAND AT THE CROSSROADS"

Few events are more dramatic than is a city's fall to a foreign invader. Such an event awakens in us questions:

what went wrong?
how did a place once strong become weak enough to succumb to outside forces?
did weakness come from within?
could that weakness also be in us?
what can we do to avoid the fallen city's fate?

In the Book of Jeremiah, we witness the fall of God's holy city, Jerusalem, and get answers to our questions about that fall — answers valid for us today. The answers come through a prophet — a person called by God to reveal God's word to the world — a young man born to be a priest, but repurposed by God for a thankless, but needful task. He'd face relentless opposition to his work in revealing God's will, yet would persist in that work through the fire of God's Holy Spirit within him. He was a hero of the faith because he stood up for the truth amid a world in which all things had become relative to the people's short-term desires and fears. In facing opposition, he felt all of the fear natural to one in deadly danger. He was not a superhero, but an ordinary person like any of us. From him, we can learn how to rely on God's promises to enable us to do what fear would keep us from doing.

Tragically, Jeremiah had to oppose rulers whose authority had come from God. The kings of Judah, the kingdom in which Jeremiah lived, were legitimate successors to David, the shepherd — the man after God's own heart — whom God had called to reign from the holy city of Jerusalem. The priests in God's temple were, as Jeremiah himself was, legitimate descendants of Aaron, the high priest whom God had called to start the cycle of offerings and sacrifices still going on at Solomon's Temple in Jeremiah's day.

Sadly, the leaders were legitimate, but their beliefs, their speech, and their actions weren't. As the leaders had gone, so had the people. They'd chosen short-term, material benefits in the here and now at the cost of abandoning the long-term, spiritual benefits of staying faithful to God. They'd chosen to justify their choice of wrong beliefs, speech, and action at the cost of oppressing those who desired to believe, say, and do what's right in God's eyes. They'd chosen to make peace with a world that'd fallen into apostasy, idolatry, materialism, aggressive war, slavery, and political oppression — a world more like our own than we may wish to admit it is.

Whether we know peace — our living safely and prosperously with one another in right relationships rooted in a right relationship with God — depends on the kind of shepherd that we have over us. We don't like to think of ourselves as sheep, but, in terms of our acting blindly, going astray, and harming ourselves and others through unwise choices, we often are. To make things worse, we're sheep with the nature of wolves, preying on other members of our flock. It takes a good shepherd, whether of sheep or of human beings, to ensure that a flock's physical needs are met and that it's protected from outside predators — in the case of human beings, sometimes from its own members. Sadly, in Jeremiah's day, many of the shepherds had become wolves, preying on the weak and the needy whom they were supposed to protect. What was the people of Judah supposed to do? What are we when we face bad shepherds?

In the short term, the faithful citizens of Judah suffered. They watched their beloved city go through a siege and be burned to the ground; they went into exile in Babylon, a city that's become a byword for godless, self-indulgent, oppressive materialism. There, they faced choices: they could fall into despair, they could strike out against their oppressors in vengeful violence — or they could choose hope. Jeremiah's word to them was to choose a lifestyle based on trusting in God and doing the right thing: building homes, raising families, praying and working for the good of the evil city in which they lived, and waiting for God to restore them to their homeland of faith.

In the long run, Judah's faithful citizens expected the coming of a heaven-sent deliverer, the Branch — Messiah, the anointed ruler who'd deliver the faithful from oppression and rule the world with righteousness. Those of us who are Christian identify Messiah with Jesus Christ, the Son of God — our Savior. The Branch, Messiah, would be a faithful shepherd who'd put the flock's needs ahead of his own and win for the flock safety in which it could serve God, not with outward ritual, but with inner belief resulting in outward service of love for God and of love for neighbors.

Through the examples of Jeremiah's successes and failures, and through God's word as he revealed it, we can learn how to handle hard times. While we wait, as the faithful in Judah waited, for Messiah's coming, we can believe, think, and act as God wants us to. We can be witnesses to a fallen world by living in faith rather than surrendering to despair. We can be lanterns shedding the light of God amid the world's darkness.


STAND AT THE CROSSROADS: Lessons from the Book of Jeremiah is available in Kindle format. You can read the book's opening chapters by clicking on Look inside.

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