by Joshua J. Graves
January – April, 2006
NOTE: The author presented portions of this material in a sermon with the Rochester Church of Christ on June 8, 2005 and in his Discovering the New Testament Class at Rochester College (The Prophetic Nature of Jesus’ Ministry) in the fall of 2005. This essay was written exclusively for New Wineskins.
“In a pluralistic world, a religion is valued by the benefits it brings to its nonadherents.”—Brian McLaren, quoting one of his mentors.
“Christians go to church to make their last stand against God.”—Karl Barth.
“A religion that cares about the souls of men but not men’s bodies might be a religion, but it is not the Christian religion.”—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Message from GOD to Jeremiah: “Stand in the gate of GOD’s Temple and preach this Message. Say, ‘Listen, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship GOD. GOD-of-the-Angel-Armies, Israel’s God, has this to say to you:
“Clean up your act, the way you live, the things you do, so I can make my home with you in this place. Don’t for a minute believe the lies being spoken here “This is GOD’s Temple, GOD’s Temple, GOD’s Temple!” Total nonsense! Only if you clean up your act (the way you live, the things you do), only if you do a total spring cleaning on the way you live and treat your neighbors, only if you quit exploiting the street people and orphans and widows, no longer taking advantage of innocent people on this very site and no longer destroying your souls by using this Temple as a front for other gods, only then will I move into your neighborhood. Only then will this country I gave your ancestors be my permanent home, my Temple (Jeremiah 7:1-7, The Message).
There is a great distance between this passage in Scripture and the world I live in. The term “prophet” is tossed around recklessly to the point where I need to go back and remind myself of Scripture’s witness. Television and Mass Media Christianity presents a perverted understanding of prophet. Though prophets forecast the future, address social justice, and announce judgment, none of these is the prophet’s primary function. In fact, these secondary emphases of the prophet’s role, as understood in today’s religious language game, lead to an even greater gulf between now and the Hebrew world then.
I also sense the gulf when I consider the difference between Israel (Judah) and the United States. Many Christians have the false notion that, in its prime, Israel was a superpower; that the Nations lived in envy as Uganda might envy a more developed nation. This myth must be exposed. Even in the golden years of David and Solomon, Israel was a meager country when compared to the surrounding presence of the foreign Nations. In fact Christians today are quick to forget that Yahweh chooses Israel precisely because they have no power, numbers, or wealth. May our eyes be uncovered to the reality that Israel is the work of God and God alone (e.g. Genesis 50:22ff; Exodus 3:19, 6:1ff, 15; Deuteronomy 7, 30:1ff; Nehemiah 9:9).
Today, unlike Israel then, Christians in the United States live in a country of significant influence. The United States exerted more power and influence in the twentieth century than any three nations combined. When followers of Jesus read the prophets we need to remember that this nation is not Israel. The United States, according to the witness of Scripture, is more like Assyria, Babylon (or even Rome), jockeying for position on the world stage, controlling nations for her own interest.
As students of God’s word, we need to let the Bible speak without apology or political correctness. The church should desire to enter into Jeremiah’s world—to experience the crowd, the smells, the anticipation, angst, and fear. It is not enough for the church to read the Bible as a dictionary or history book. We must be willing to allow it create a world. A world that will set the agenda for our lives. A world that will tell us what to think, feel, and believe. A world that will show us how to live Christian. A world that will invite the church to experience God, and in doing so, be changed.
***Across the gulf that has divided us from ancient life, back in Judah, the external structures are falling. The Northern Kingdom is slain. All evidence suggests the fate of Judah will follow in the footsteps of her sister Israel. They are no longer in the glory days of previous kings David and Solomon, nor are these times of revival as witnessed in the reign of King Josiah.
No, these days are dark. Military threat from Babylon is coming. Death and dislocation are real and close. If one can imagine how the Iraqi citizen felt that long night in March a few years ago when the mighty superpower from the West invaded this small nation, one might have a glimpse of how Judah is feeling at the turn of the seventh century. Darkness, chaos, uncertainty, and instability. Their small precious kingdom is about to be destroyed.
Hear how the religious respond, according to Jeremiah. “But we are the people of God — this shouldn’t happen to us. Yahweh is on our side. He’s our God. He favors us. We’re his favorites, right?”
If one listens carefully, one can hear the indictment placed before Israel by her God.
You are not living like the people of God. Oh, you think you are. You think that by knowing the right jargon and coming to the right building you are winning God’s favor. But you’re not. You’re only fooling yourselves. You discriminate against anyone who doesn’t have the same skin color as you. You ignore someone who has an inferior education. You won’t associate with someone if they’re not in your economic bracket. What about the widow and the orphan? Has not Yahweh cared for you in such a way that you would want to speak on their behalf. Jeremiah does not bring an encouraging word to these people. In fact he mocks them. “The Church, the Church … we belong to the right church.”
***In the twentieth century, segments of the Christian faith got their story wrong. Portions of the Church turned a Christian family into a segmented, disenfranchised group. In the name of Jesus, the church in the West acted on behalf Satan. They were acting out their version of the story. Stories that reveal how Christian this nation is, or any nation, can be. Stories of little school girls murdered in Alabama. Stories of lynching. Stories of immense discrimination against anyone not “white and male.” Stories lived out in the name of Jesus.
Essentially, Christians living this story, in this area (geographically and theologically), were guilty of many of the charges listed in Jeremiah 7; especially the Christians who did nothing to disarm this perverted gospel.
Malcolm Little recalls from his youth, not only blatant spoken racism but, physical violence and oppression imposed on his father (a Baptist minister who preached the teachings of Marcus Garvey) and the rest of his family. Malcolm’s father, Earl, was murdered by a group representing the Black Legion, a Michigan version of the Ku Klux Klan. Malcolm was just six years old. The Legion beat Earl Little to a pulp and left him to be crushed by an oncoming train.
When the insurance company refused to pay the family the money it rightfully deserved, the family could no longer function. The State moved in, disbanded the Little family, pushing Malcolm’s mother to a nervous breakdown. Eventually, Mrs. Little “went crazy” and spent the majority of her adult life in a psychiatric home outside of Lansing. Malcolm would never recover from such brutality. Malcolm would later recall that the Legion were Christians who went to church together on Sundays.1
These events as well as many other run-ins with counterfeit Christianity forever shaped the man who would become an important leader in the Civil Rights Movement in America. Remember the charges found in Jeremiah 7? Hear how eerily they resonate with the biography of Malcolm X. Standing in the courtroom of God, the church should be charged with the same charges listed in Jeremiah’s account. In fact Israel’s guilt is the only thing she shares in common with the alleged Christian Nation: the United States.
Charges of ungodly action involving theft, murder, and false testimony.
Charges of ungodly attitude against the alien, widow, and orphan.
Israel may seem far off in the distance. The Civil Rights struggle might seem irrelevant. Where is God calling the faithful to act and serve today? What will our legacy be? Will our children remember expensive vacations or time spent at the local homeless shelter feeding the poor? Will our children remember the pomp and flair of a progressive worship service or will they remember the times we set aside for the family to pray and live out the radical nature of our faith? As my friend Lee Camp points out, notice that “we” and “our” should refer to the church, not a political party or particular form of government.2
***I am convicted that living in the prophetic literature is one way Christians can actually understand the prophetic nature of the ministry of Jesus. In my reading of the gospels, Jesus is priest to the outcast, and prophet to the religious. Jesus mediates the word of God to those broken by communal and individual sin (sinners, tax collectors, those unclean) but challenges the religious for the way in which they are trying to live out their Jewish convictions. We are often guilty of what Dallas Willard calls “vampire Christianity”: religious folks only want Jesus for his blood at the expense of ignoring the way Jesus teaches us to live.
As one raised in the inoculated suburbs of Detroit, I have found the gospels to be a powerful remedy towards indifference and apathy. The gospels refuse to let pat answers and naïve programs stand as the solution to economic and race division. The gospels make a radical demand on my life to follow the rabbi wherever he might be going and with whom he might be traveling with. The way of Jesus is waiting for us in the often ignored pages of the gospel accounts.
I’m haunted by the story he told about two men who went to the temple to pray: one, a sinner, the other a very important man. “God, I thank you that I’m not like that man. I give a bunch of money. I teach Bible classes. I haven’t missed a Sunday morning in four years.” Meanwhile the sinner cannot even stand in the presence of God. He kneels, bows his head saying, “have mercy on me Lord, for I am full of sin.”
The prophet is speaking.
I’m chased by the story of the man who asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was in light of the complex Jewish law system. Jesus answered by reciting the Shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” The second greatest command, according to Jesus, is to love your neighbor as yourself. On these two truths hang all of the law and the prophets. His neighbor theology is what gets him in trouble. In the Kingdom, even the enemy is our neighbor.
The prophet is speaking.
And what about the time Jesus talked about salvation in terms one rarely hears in many branches of the Christian faith? Do you want to know how I’m going to judge the Nations? The ones who fed me, gave me drink, showed me hospitality, clothed me, and visited me in prison—these are the ones who will be judged righteous. For in doing this to the least (the orphan, alien, and widow) you’ve done it for me. Christ can be found in the margin.
In fact, it is Jeremiah 7 that Jesus, the prophet, is quoting, when he storms the temple in Matthew’s Gospel (21:13). Once again, the religious leaders are abusing God’s precious children; especially the poor.
Will our churches be passionate about redemption, reconciliation, authenticity, confession, and accountability? Will we be a place where an executive can sit next to a janitor and, in the name of Jesus understand this as the way of the Kingdom? Will our families remember that Jesus cared more about those who did not have family than those who belonged to well-established and well-educated family systems?
The top question of the day for American churches is not whether we are right, rational, or biblically accurate. Whether we have a progressive worship service on Sunday’s or whether we are on the cutting edge in our particular tribe. The top question for the Church is, “Do we understand who God is and the way he understands worship?” Our lives are worship more than the songs that flow from our lips. The Living God is calling the church to be a prophetic people. To be prophetic in the way Jesus taught and lived while he was among us, revealing the Kingdom of God.
Are we a prophetic people? Is the prophet speaking in our church?
1 Malcolm X. The Autobiography of Malcolm X (As Told to Alex Haley). (New York: Grove Press, 1964), 1-39. Chapter 2 is aptly titled Mascot- the best any “nigger” could hope for in this particular social world. Though not as drastic, Martin Luther King Jr. would share similar sentiments in recalling his childhood upbringing in the Jim Crow South. See Martin Luther King Jr., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. (Edited by Clayborne Carson). (New York: Warner Books, 1998), 1-16. For more on the influence of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in the thinking of James H. Cone see James H. Cone, Martin and Malcolm: A Dream or a Nightmare. (New York: Orbis, 1992).
2 See his book Mere Discipleship: Radical Discipleship in a Rebellious World (Grand Raids: Brazos Press, 2003), 44. Also, I have co-written the study guide with Lee Camp for Mere Discipleship and it should be available soon from Brazos Press (www.brazospress.com).
Jeremiah’s Preaching: Back to the Roots of Israel’s Forgotten Faith
This is a good point to hit the pause button and remind ourselves of the basic foundational theology the people of God are forgetting. Why is this “word” coming to the people? They have forgotten who YHWH called them to be from their very inception. Israel has forfeited their identity as a “set apart” community. Jeremiah is bringing the radical word of YHWH, which simply means he is calling the people of God back to the root of their forgotten faith. The people have laid aside four pillars of their story.
- Imago Dei. All of humanity is created in the image of God. This means Christians no longer see themselves as Americans, Christians and humans (in that order). It means that we confess our responsibility for humanity, the church, and the country we live in, in this exact order. This is where the Nazi’s got it horribly wrong (the Jews are not rats—they are children of God); the early leaders of America got it wrong (Africans were not animal-slaves—they are children of God); the Hutu’s of Rwanda got it tragically wrong (the Tutsi’s were not cockroaches—they are children of God). Men from the Middle-East are not “rag heads,” as I’ve heard Christian men call them—those Middle Eastern men and those patently wrong in calling them “rag heads” are men created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26; Luke. 11:25-37).
- The significance of the covenant. The covenant between God and a people began in the early stages of the Holy Story. God initiated this relationship, set the stage, and has been the one who acts in human history to ensure the survival of the covenant. God acts in human history—that is a bold confession (Genesis 9:1ff).
- The divine blessing. The nature of the covenant, however, if often lost: God chooses to bless his people so that they would bless the Nations. In the space following chapter seven the divine intent becomes crystal clear: “I’m using Israel so that the world would know the name and character of the Creator,” (Genesis 12:1-3; 15). “Israel, you’ve been blessed in order to be a blessing.”
- Sacred/secular myth. An expanded notion of worship is needed in our churches. All of life is worship because all of life is sacred. If we think we can categorize our lives into sacred/secular or holy/profane we are only fooling ourselves. Church and worship are what happen when we leave the Temple (Jeremiah 7:1ff)
Joshua Graves is a minister serving the Rochester Church of Christ in Rochester Hills, MI and adjunct professor of religion for Rochester College. Josh served under Rubel Shelly and John O. York at Woodmont Hills Family of God while doing his Master of Divinity degree at Lipscomb University. Josh is married to Kara (Mead), “the nearest gospel experience in his life.”