We resume w e e k l y w o r d this week after a two month break
It was a sober America Romkje and I passed through last week, en route from New Zealand back to Europe after a two-month furlough. Flags everywhere flew half-mast in honour of the Columbia space-shuttle crew. The nation was on orange-alert for terrorism, one stage lower than red-alert. Airport security was the toughest we had ever met outside of Israel. A national debate was raging about Bush’s war plans. The passenger across the aisle from me dismissed his president as the ‘global village idiot’. A full page advertisement in the New York Times promoted Jimmy Carter’s proposals for peaceful alternatives to war. Other articles decried the wimps in Europe: “at least they’re consistent; they’re always there when they need us.”
America’s usual self-confidence had given way to a subdued uncertainty. And despite the strong euro, the mood awaiting us in Europe was hardly more upbeat. Piles of magazines greeted us in our living room along with the back-log of mail, headlines forecasting a stormy year ahead. What were we returning to? What would 2003 bring? Another Twin Towers? another Bali? A war that would loose more demons than it could bind?
Of course, none of us really knows. What was it Forrest Gump’s mother used to say? “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know watcha gonna get.” Traditional Dutch wall tiles phrase it slightly differently: “No-one has the programme of the concert of life.”
If we look around us, we can note four common responses to the future.
1. The fatalist – millions of hindus, moslems and new agers live as though their fate has already been determined by spiritual forces, Allah or the stars. “Que sera sera, whatever will be will be, the future’s not ours to see, que sera sera…”
2. The escapist – millions of westerners pass time amusing themselves to death, living for the moment in a world of noise and excitement, power and possessions, sensation and sensuality, giving scant thought to deeper questions of life and death.
3. The optimist – others look for the silver lining in every cloud, embracing the power of positive thinking to “seize the day”, and to become captains of their own destiny, as self-made individualists.
4. The pessimist – still others view the gathering clouds of doom and gloom with fear and resignation, always expecting the worst of every situation, and often drawing justification from apocalyptic biblical passages. We often call them “Jeremiahs”.
But wait a minute! Was Jeremiah really a “Jeremiah”? a grumbler and a doomsayer? The more I study Jeremiah, the more I feel he’s had a bad press through the centuries. In fact, I have come to see him as a great prophet of hope.
Remember how he bought that field when enemy soldiers were encamped on it? What a declaration of hope for the future!
Remember the lesson he learnt from the potter who remade the marred vessel? Creative destruction was a necessary part of the restoration process.
Remember the word of encouragement he sent to the exiles in Babylon? God’s plans were plans to prosper them and not harm them, plans for hope and a future. (29:11)
No, Jeremiah was not a fatalist, an escapist, a mere optimist nor a pessimist. He was what I’d call a biblical realist. And his responses to the tragedies of his day model for us how to face whatever 2003 will bring.
Whatever that will be, it could hardly be as severe as the tragedy that engulfed Jeremiah. There he stood in the midst of Ground Zero of his day – the rubble of the temple of Jerusalem, the levelled symbol of God’s presence, focus of the nation’s hope for generations. God seemed to have deserted His own people, who had now been carted off ignominiously into captivity. The unthinkable had happened. As unthinkable as September 11.
In Lamentations, Jeremiah vents his feelings: “My groans are many and my heart is faint!” (1:22) “My eyes fail from weeping; I am in torment within…” (2:11) The hurt is real. He faces the present reality squarely. He describes it as it is.
Then, right in the middle of his dirge, Jeremiah suddenly finds the grace to say: “Yet this I remember, and therefore I have hope. The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning. Great is Your faithfulness…” (3:21-23)
Jeremiah now faces his current realities in the light of a greater reality, the Ultimate Reality. As he remembers the truth about God, hope is restored. He doesn’t deny the terribleness of his current reality. But he receives grace to see it in new, eternal perspective. Hope comes through remembering the truth about God – his character, his actions in history and his promises for the future.
Like Jeremiah, we too live in a fallen world. Forrest Gump has another saying which basically states that bad things happen. That’s very biblical. Until the restoration of all things, we continue to live in a world where tragedies, wars and calamities occur. Believer and unbeliever alike perished together on September 11. As followers of Jesus, our response should not be fatalistic or escapist. We need to accept that things are not as they were meant to be.
As I write this, I have just heard of the young wife of a missionary colleague, a mother of three, suffering from a brain tumour. Oh God, why!!? Yes, we live in a fallen world of sickness, death, unemployment, relationship breakdown, terrorism, and suffering. And things will remain that way until Christ’s return.
Jeremiah lived six centuries before Christ. We have the added advantage of living after the Resurrection, God’s ultimate sign of hope to mankind that the best is yet to come.
Whatever 2003 brings us, we too must learn to face our current realities in the light of the ultimate reality of God, the historic reality of the Resurrection, and the coming reality of the Restoration of all things
Till next week,