Saturday, 30 August 2014

Symbolic imagery in Jeremiah

The Old Testament section of the Bible is comprised of 39 books. Seventeen of these are termed books of the prophets – writings of individuals who were entrusted by God to bear a message to His people. Jeremiah is classed as a “major prophet” – major in the sense of volume of work, the book of Jeremiah being one of the longest in the Bible.
Prophecy is given by God, through individuals, to foretell of coming events, in order that His people will be prepared. God gives us information in the Bible telling of events which have happened and will happen in the history of the world.
Jeremiah lived in a time when God’s people had fallen into moral decay – worship of foreign idols, immorality, false teaching, the sacrifice of infants and disregard for God’s law and provision had reached such an extent that God was to send His judgement in the form of the Babylonian army which would conquer the land and take the people of Judah captive. God being the loving Father that He is, sent Jeremiah to warn the people and call them to repentance and faith.
There are some symbolic images used by God through Jeremiah to demonstrate His feelings towards His people. In chapter 13, Jeremiah is told to buy a belt made of linen and tie it around his waist. He is then to take it off and put in a crevice in some rocks. This, says God, is what my people were like- useful and pure. Fine linen is used elsewhere in the Bible as a symbol of purity and holiness. The angels in Revelation are dressed in “clean shining linen” (Revelation 15:6) and the bride of the Lamb is given “fine linen bright and clean” to wear, “representing the righteous acts of God’s people.” (Revelation 19:8). In Ephesians we are admonished to “stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled round your waist” (Ephesians 6:14). The belt removed from the crevice was what the people of God become without Him- spoilt and filthy and useless.
In chapters 18 and 19 Jeremiah is told to go to the potter’s house and buy a jar of clay. He finds the potter shaping the clay on the wheel. In the same way, God makes us and shapes us into vessels for His purposes. Paul, when speaking about the light of Christ in our lives, reminds us that “we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7). In 2 Timothy 2:20,21 Paul writes: “Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work.” Jeremiah was told to take the clay jar that he had bought and smash it. In the same way God would destroy the people who had rejected Him and disregarded His love and just laws.
Chapter 24 of Jeremiah describes a vision given by God to the prophet of two baskets of figs placed in front of the temple of the Lord. One basket holds very good figs; the other figs so poor that they cannot be eaten. Fig trees are used many times in the Bible as a symbol of fruitfulness, particularly of the people of God. James poses the question “can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs?” (James 3:12) The people of God who abide in Christ will be blessed and produce good fruit. Why were these two baskets placed in front of the temple? Because God knew which people were fruitful for Him and which in the temple were not. In the week leading up to His crucifixion, Christ curses the barren fig tree on His way into Jerusalem, before clearing the temple of the moneychangers. He knows which offerings are for Him and which are human vanity. There is no fooling Christ.
There are a few other images in Jeremiah which speak of God’s judgement, including God asking Jeremiah to take a cup of wrath from His hand and drink it (Jeremiah chapter 25:15). The nations would stagger and go mad, in the same way that no doubt many citizens of the time were individually becoming drunk and reeling around.
A more hopeful image is found in Jeremiah chapter 32, when God asks the prophet to buy a field. With the prospect of invasion and destruction looming, the purchase of the field serves to remind Jeremiah that God can and will restore His peace and blessings to those who remain true to Him. In Chapter 33, we are given a reference to the promise of a coming Saviour:

“‘In those days and at that time
    I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;
    he will do what is just and right in the land.
 In those days Judah will be saved
    and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it will be called:
    The Lord Our Righteous Savior.’ (Jeremiah 33 15:16)

In the usual occurrence of “stoning the prophets” Jeremiah was ignored, persecuted, imprisoned and  threatened and his message fell on deaf ears.
Like many of the accounts in the Bible, what was relevant in Jeremiah’s time (around 600 BC) remains true today. Often a Biblical account has relevance for a particular time and situation, but can also be relevant to other times and places. In our time the things of God are being rejected and ridiculed and Christians persecuted and murdered. This world is full of moral decay and wickedness, murder, satanic practices, abortion, greed, hedonism, war and abuse. Despite medical advances, sickness of body and mind is widespread. The light of Christ is this world’s only true and lasting hope.
Christ had some angry words and strong action judgement for the religious hypocrites of his day, and if the church is to be effective in this world, it needs to be faithful to God and His word. False doctrine is now being taught in some churches, with repentance and judgement low on the preaching priority. Some “Worldly Christians” are more concerned with their own comfort than the plight of the persecuted and poor. Yet many other Christians are seeking to follow Christ wholeheartedly and demonstrate His love in many different areas to this world that desperately needs Him.
We are reminded throughout the book of Jeremiah that we all have choices. Through the juxtaposition of impending doom and, in some of the most exquisite prose in the Bible, the blessings of God, we realise our ultimate fate if we forsake God, and the joys and eternal life we have in Him if we choose to follow Him in love and faith:

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
    after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
    and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.”    Jeremiah 31:33

“But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
    whose confidence is in him.
 They will be like a tree planted by the water
    that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
    its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
    and never fails to bear fruit.”   
  Jeremiah 17:7-8

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.  Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.  You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
                                                                        Jeremiah 29:11-13

Barossa Valley, South Australia

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Moving On

One of the barriers to forgiveness is memory. It’s in Satan’s best interests to keep us in a state of unforgiveness. As long as we continue to remember all the details of the hurt, we are rendered ineffective in our Christian walk in the here and now. Around and around we go in our minds, reliving the hurt, imagining what we should have said and didn’t, or what we could have done differently and didn’t. What could have been done and should have been done wasn’t done. If we just go over it all in our minds one more time, we, the injured party, at least validate our own experience.
Abuse never happens in isolation. It occurs in a climate of secrecy, of indifference, or lack of communication, or ignorance, or cowardice, or alliances. As someone who has had a longstanding interest in bullying behaviour, I know that bullying occurs not only because of the bullying nature of an individual, but also because of the lack of action of those who are aware of the situation and cooperate with the bully for their own reasons or fail to stand against them, giving them free rein to continue. This situation happens in a school playground, and on the world arena between nations and people groups.
Some memories can never be fixed. But, praise God, they can be transformed. Somewhere along the line, in the process of forgiveness, I believe that one can reach the conclusion that all that was done, was done. Nothing more can be gained by going over old ground. That unjust situation may still be unjust. That awful behaviour exhibited by a person or church or organisation may still be continuing, with the likelihood of them repenting and apologising unlikely. But if you can mentally “wrap up” a past incident and pray for those who hurt you, and symbolically offer the whole thing up to God, you will gain what He wants most for you – your freedom.
It’s important to forgive not just those who have hurt, but those who by their collusion or omission, did nothing to help the situation.
Satan would have us think that forgiveness is a very difficult thing- again, he would not like us to move on in faith for all the good things that God has in store. Having forgiven, there is no need to keep repeating the process. It is done. We might remember past events, but there is no need to think that those events control us or make us less than what God would have us be.
The Bible tells us that  “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). God can use past experiences in our lives to make us credible witnesses to others for Him. Whole ministries have developed from terrible experiences because of the depth of understanding and empathy of those who have been through them. God does not waste anything in our lives. He transforms. He comforts. He strengthens and makes us whole.

“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”  (Philippians 1:6)

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Standing in solidarity with our persecuted brothers and sisters

This is the letter "N" in Arabic. Pronounced "noon" it has been spray painted on houses in Iraq to denote that there are Nasara or Nazarenes living in the dwelling. This symbol has been adopted by Christians worldwide to show our solidarity with our persecuted brothers and sisters, who have been denied what the United Nations has determined to be a universal human right:

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance." United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Love is a wild creature

Love is a wild creature,
beautiful and free
Chase after it and it will flee away
Wait for it expectantly
and it will come silently
stepping on paths of its own choosing
Shy, elusive love
Waiting in the shadows
Love in a gilded cage
Is misery withering
But follow the contours of its wild forests
Bathe in the freshness of its running waters
Breathe the scented air of tenderness
Love love
And it will trust your very soul.

 This one's for you Liss! Photos taken at Cradle Mt National Park, Tasmania.

At the Crossroads

“Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
and you will find rest for your souls.”
(Jeremiah 6:22)

“Castaway” starring Tom Hanks, is one of my favourite movies, providing a lot of thought provoking ideas about the nature of time and chance, love and commitment; even the wild desire many of us harbour to escape the rat race to an uninhabited tropical island. The movie ends with the main character standing in the middle of the intersection of two roads, trying to determine which one he will take, and we, the viewers are left to imagine the continuation of his life story. We have a sense that the choice he makes at this point will affect his future, so the roads represent far more than their physical presence, but are a visual metaphor.

Similarly, we all make choices throughout our lives that impact our future and wellbeing, and that of others. The Old Testament book of the prophet Jeremiah includes many chapters where blessings and warnings are juxtaposed. Follow God’s rules, walk in His paths, and you will know the blessing of His presence, the salvation of His Son Jesus and the comfort and guidance of His Holy Spirit. Turn away from God, make up your own rules, let popular culture by your guide and there is no reason to expect God’s blessings. Like any loving parent, even more so, God imposes rules and boundaries and consequences for ignoring or flouting them.

When we stand at the crossroads, some decisions are simple ones. Others are not clear cut. Some decisions clearly disobey God’s directions in the Bible. Others may provide alternatives which are all possibilities in themselves. Some decisions are easy, some very hard and painful.

Should I apply for university or look for employment?
Do I take that job offer with the high salary, or pursue the ministry studies I’ve considered?
Should I date the man who is so attentive, even if he’s not a Christian?
There’s no harm in a married man having a coffee alone with a female workmate is there?
Do I press the “enter” button, or the “close window” button?
We’ve grown apart. Should we divorce?

The Bible tells us of the alternative roads in life that we can choose to be on:
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:13,14)

In other words, don’t follow the crowd. Even if everyone else is comfortable with some course of action, even Christians that you know, if you don’t think it lines up with scripture, don’t go there. So many people whose lives are in a mess can, in hindsight, remember a point when they could have walked away down that narrow path.

How do we take the right road when we come to life’s major intersections? As Jeremiah states in the verses above- ask. Seek the counsel of the Holy Spirit. The Bible tells us
“...whatsoever you shall ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive.” (Matthew 21:22). This is not an invitation to take a shopping list of material things to God, but rather affirmation that when we long for things which He desires, He will respond. When we ask Him for direction as to His will in the decisions that we are making, He will give us that direction.      

One of my favourite Bible verses is John 10:10 “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” The devil wants to take away your relationship with God and other people, to steal your joy and purpose, your very life if he can. But praise God, the devil is forever defeated through Christ Jesus our Saviour. Commit your life to Christ and it will be the fullest, most worthwhile life you could ever hope for, both in this world and for eternity to come.