“The narrative of redemption is the most beautiful and the longest love story ever told. But it is not a sugar sweet story. It is a dramatic story because it is the story of God’s love, passionate, jealous, as strong as death itself; a fragile love, versatile and subjected to all the infidelities of man.” (Bernard Sesboue, Dean of Theology at the Catholic Sèvre Centre, France)
Eons ago, a campaign designed to smear God’s character opened the gate to overt rebellion—first in heaven, then on Earth. Unknown to us is what God did to reclaim the allegiance of the angels who were swayed by Lucifer and restore harmony. God’s effort failed for the one third that were expelled from heaven. Cast to Earth, Lucifer turned his attention to God’s latest creation.
Insinuating doubt about God’s character in Adam’s mind ultimately resulted in the alienation of mankind from their Creator. Only one recourse was available to God if He were to regain the love and trust of human beings. He had to open himself to the scrutiny of those that he wished to win back, hoping they would discover that God is love.
Christians believe that the primary purpose of Scripture is to reveal God’s character because eternal life is to know God (John 17:3).
“To know,” in the Biblical context, is relational. Trust in God and relationship with him belong together. Both come from knowing. It is impossible to trust and relate with God unless he is known. It follows that the narratives in Scriptures must be interpreted with the expectation that every story tells something about God that will build and strengthen trust and foster the relationship with him. It rests with every Bible student to look at the stories with that objective in mind.
Two lessons can be drawn from Jeremiah’s troubles.
1. What do we learn about God from these stories?
The simple answer is that God’s deeply emotional desire to turn Israel from their waywardness and back to him lead him to express his feelings in ways—shocking at times—designed to catch the attention of the people. Gentle reproof having failed, God was left with two alternatives: either leave Israel to its fate or give them an explicit, emotionally charged, highly visual warning of what was ahead.
Jeremiah’s anguish was meant to awaken the people from their spiritual slumber and open their eyes to the traumatic events looming around the corner. Initially, God had clearly outlined the consequences, positive or negative, that would follow loving obedience or open rebellion. Time and again, the people had spurned God’s appeals and warnings as they either simply turned a deaf ear or, adding insult to injury, did away with his messenger (Matthew 23, 29-37). Dark clouds were gathering over the horizon. The people had changed their God, and war would soon be within the gates (Judges 5:8), followed by defeat and captivity. The trauma of the Babylonian captivity is poignantly expressed in the words of Psalm 137.
Seen from that perspective, Jeremiah’s bitter experiences were but an inkling of the far more hopeless situation soon to be experienced by the nation unless profound repentance followed by reformation occurred. The prophet was forbidden all social interactions (marriage, parenthood, attending weddings and funerals). He was asked to carry an unyielding, heavy yoke, he was the object of merciless taunts, and he experienced ultimate rejection, which created the kind of emotional turmoil that would send our contemporaries to counsellors, if not mental institutions. What Jeremiah went through was a concrete, highly visible illustration of the soon to be experienced torments that would sweep across the nation.
However, there is more to these stories. As truly as Jeremiah’s troubles illustrated the traumas soon to affect the nation, in a deeper way they also exposed God’s profound sorrow and affliction caused by the constant and relentless spurning of Israel. Ezekiel 16-18 expresses God’s emotional struggle. Nothing is more touching than the final pathos charged appeal, “Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone. Repent and live!”
God used Jeremiah’s emotional traumas as visual messages that expressed his own sadness, frustrations, and at times dismay and disgust. They were also to show graphically the fate that awaited the people. The weird, questionable behaviors of the prophet were designed to jolt the people out of spiritual apathy by providing live and concrete insights into what their religiosity looked like to God and the pain they caused him.
Other prophets were also commanded to do strange things for the same reasons. Ezekiel was told to eat a scroll; sleep so many days on his left side, then on his right; use human excrement as fuel to cook his food; shave his head and beard, burning a third, scattering another third in the wind. Ezekiel 24:24 says that he would be a sign to the people. Hosea was told to marry a harlot then woo her back every time she rejected him to go after her lovers.
It is not difficult to imagine the curiosity of the people as they watched the antics of their prophets. But that was all it was and remained: curiosity, then mockery. No trace of repentance and reformation.
Eventually God gave the ultimate visual revelation of himself in the person of his Son, Jesus. “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:8, 9). In Jesus, God chose to show himself rather than talk. Yet again, the people for the most part did not get it. The nation’s leaders did to Jesus exactly what the leaders of the past had done to the prophets. Only the few who stopped to look, to consider, and to respond were touched and saved.
2. What do we learn about personal witnessing from the stories?
The second lesson is about presenting the Christian life as a visual aid that will draw the attention of a hostile world. Witnessing is ultimately about demonstrating the transforming power of God in one’s life. It may at times be difficult, but it need never lead to despondency. Writing from a prison cell, Paul declared:
I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation. . . . I can do all everything through him who gives me strength.
Effective witnessing is about presenting to the world the true picture of God’s love and ability to change people from self-serving egocentric individuals to totally selfless, altruistic serving ones. Today, the spoken word has little effect on people. Communications experts say that we hear only half of what is said, remember half of what we hear, understand half of what we remember, and implement only half of what we understand. God himself encountered this problem as His spoken messages of love and warnings were often lost on the people. He then went from the verbal to the visual.
Witnessing is all about showing who God is. At sundry times, prophets came along who by their deportment revealed some aspects of God’s character. Jesus came and demonstrated God’s character fully all the time. I am afraid that we, God’s modern witnesses, talk a lot but seldom show anything about God. Christians have been talking for two thousand years with little significant impact.
It would seem that except for the first few decades, when people were drawn to God because they saw Christian love in action (see how much they love one another), the centuries that followed witnessed nothing more than Christianity subverted by the ambient egocentric culture. The lives of modern-day Christians do not challenge the Dawkins of this world, whose view of God is that
of the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticide, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully,” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 31).
God is still waiting for a prophetic people whose conduct will give to the world a vision of his love and grace—to display a worldwide vision of God’s power to transform the believer’s life into one that loves the unlovable and the unloving. To present such a life for all to see is what witnessing should be like if it is to attract the attention of the sceptic postmodern West, touch the teeming millions of Asia and Africa whose view of Christianity is linked to past colonial exploitation, and remove the profound distrust of the Islamic world for anything Christian.
The story about Jeremiah’s yoke is not primarily, as many would have it, intended to teach individual believers how to face traumatic life experiences. It has much more to do with teaching the believers that their lives, not their words, are the concrete message that this deeply troubled world needs.
Such a life is not for the faint hearted. It requires unquestioning acceptance of God’s leading. It is a life that ruthlessly curbs (silences and muzzles) the ego—a life that is permanently under the control of God’s enabling grace. Has the time not come when the Christians are called to live the kind of life that is far more revealing of God than the spoken word can tell?
In the musical My Fair Lady, the frustrated main female character screams at her suitor Freddy: “Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words. . . . Show me!” Being God’s witness is more about showing— not so much about telling.
This is part one in a three-part series. The second article will deal with the idea that the life of the Christian as the reflection of God begins at baptism (i.e. baptism rightly understood). The third article will discuss communion as a regular reminder of what the Christian life is about, and how to nurture it.
Eddy Johnson is the director of ADRA Blacktown in New South Wales, Australia, and a retired pastor.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Jeremiah on the ruins of Jerusalem by Horace Vernet.
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