“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” – Charles Dickens, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’.
It is the best known opening sentence since “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” There is a resonance with Dickens that has made him a must read in Western civilization. It is this same resonance that makes Jeremiah a must read in our culture of faith. He lived in the best of times and the worst of times of Judah. His contribution to the Biblical witness of those times and all that led up to it is vital to all we know about the history of Israel and movement that gathers around Jesus.
This month I will be sharing a sermon series about the prophetic ministry of Jeremiah (who was not a bullfrog!) Through four key passages of the book that bears his name I hope to open us to the prophet that quite likely was second only to Moses. A priest and prophet, perhaps even a law giver and principle historian of the Jewish tradition, he was a product of a tale of two cities: Shiloh and Jerusalem. His life spans the great hope of Josiah and his far reaching reform of Judaism, a king who did everything God asked him to do, and the demise of the kingdom of Judah and the destruction of everything they held dear.
Dr. Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? was transformational for me in his understanding of Jeremiah’s and his faithful scribe, Baruch’s, contribution to the written legacy of early Judaism. Or perhaps Baruch and his inspired prophet Jeremiah led to the formation of the Books of Jeremiah and Lamentations. But Friedman’s scholarship has made a strong case for their authorship of the law book of Deuteronomy, strangely found next to the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies of the Temple during their life time. In that book are eight unique Hebrew phrases found only in two books: Jeremiah and Deuteronomy.
If this is true, it opens up questions about the Deuteronomic history, six books of the most indispensible telling of the story of the Jewish people from Joshua and Judges to the books of Samuel and Kings. These stories, so familiar to us, theologically and thematically, lead to the time of Jeremiah and Baruch, and their beloved king, Josiah. What once was an everlasting covenant, on the tragic, early death of Josiah, becomes a conditional covenant which requires the faithful living of both king and people. It opens the door to the expectations of a Messiah who will come and restore what was the hope of Josiah and his reformation.
To understand this approach to reading the Bible, one must become aware that the people of God were divided by a common religion. The tribes of the north (Israel) had a priesthood that was believed descended from Moses. Those in the south were served by priests believed to be the sons of Aaron, Moses older and yet lesser brother. The northern faith community was centered on Shiloh which hosted the tabernacle and the Ark. David took it away and brought it to Jerusalem where the sons of Aaron served. Within two generations, Israel and Judah would be in a civil war until Assyria destroys Israel and the priest of the north flee to the south. Those sons of Moses would be sent to a village of Anathoth, not far, but far enough from Jerusalem. It is the place of Jeremiah’s birth to a descendant of those northern priests.
I think I have spent forty-seven years in ministry preparing to give this series of sermons. Some of you have heard bits and pieces over the years, but in September I hope to pull it together that we might let this great prophet speak to our day, our faith, and the hope that is born out of both the best and worst of times. – Rev. Ed Light