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Misquoting Scripture: Before I Formed You in the Womb

Picture this scene with me.  You are watching cable news one night, and you see images of a rally on Capitol Hill.  It seems that the Supreme Court is handing down a ruling on abortion, and both sides are out to make their opinions known.  In the crowd, there flashes a picture of a person with a placard that has a Bible verse on it: Jeremiah 1:5.  You don’t immediately recognize that one, so you decide to look it up.  “Before I made you in your mother’s womb, I knew you.”  Aha, must be a pro-life sign.  Someone is clearly making the point that God is anti-abortion because he knew Jeremiah before he was born.  Case closed.  But then you read on, and realize that the passage really takes another direction.

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
 ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’
Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ But the Lord said to me,
‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
 Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,

says the Lord.’
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.’

Jeremiah 1.4-10

Now, I don’t know about you, but for me, I have to wonder if that passage is really about abortion.  Of course, I can see how people might use this passage to support an anti-abortion stance.  After all, if Jeremiah had not been born – for any reason – the world would have been robbed of one of its greatest prophets.

But even then, abortion is a complicated topic.  A complex set of issues, including the rights of the child and the rights of the mother, the task of protecting of life both before and after birth, the question of morality and the legislation of that morality.  But Jeremiah 1 seems to be a passage about none of that, but about something else entirely!

And putting Jeremiah 1.5 on a sign in order to promote a political ideology seems to come pretty close to proof-texting.  If you don’t know the phrase, proof-texting is using one verse or phrase from a verse to pull out of context in order to use it to support what an already preconceived ideology.

 

And, lest I sound like I am picking on one ideology over another, let me make my point about proof-texting in broader terms:

  • In a speech in 2002, George W. Bush spoke about the importance of caring for those in need. We must show acts of kindness, care for the poor, and quoting Matthew 25, care for the “least of these.”
  • In a speech in 2004, Bill Clinton spoke about the importance of caring for those in need. In fact, he said, Jesus commanded us to do so, when he spoke in Matthew 25 of the importance of caring for the “least of these.”

Two men.  Two political speeches.  Two very different ideologies.  The same Biblical passage.

Or another example.

  • In 2003, it was again George W. Bush speaking, this time about what he called an army of compassion. After all, he spoke, the Book of James tells us that “faith without works is dead.”
  • And then in a speech in 2004, John Kerry spoke, “It is not enough, my brother, to say you have faith, when there are no deeds…Faith without works is dead.”

Two men.  Two political speeches.  Two very different ideologies.  The same Biblical passage.

My point is not to disparage any of these men, nor to suggest that the Bible has nothing to say when it comes to controversial issues and complex questions.  But my point instead is this: If you are looking for a Scripture passage to support your political ideology, you’ll probably find it.

Whether you are anti-abortion, or pro-choice, anti-LGBTQ or pro-LGBTQ, anti-food stamps or pro-food stamps.  There’s a verse for that.  We can find a way to proof text our political ideology, if that is what we are prone to do!  And, that is what we are prone to do.  Both sides do it.  Most of us are guilty of it from time to time.  And here, on the heels of the Republican National Convention last week, and on the cusp of the Democratic National Convention this week, we are likely to hear it, or even do it ourselves over and over again.

And the Bible has a word for that: idolatry.  When we have this ideology that becomes our center, and our faith simply serves what Paul Tillich calls our Ultimate Concern, we have created an idol.  Money can be our idol.  Our sports team can be our idol.  And our political party can be our idol.  Idolatry is looking at the world through another lens, with another ultimate concern, valuing another authority, and letting that way of thinking tell you, “this is who you were created to be.”  A consumer.  A fan.  A voter.  A political donor.  This is the core of who you are. And then everything around that core falls under the authority of that ultimate concern.  Our time.  Our energy.  Even our Scriptures are used to serve that authority – and we use them as proof-texts to support our ultimate faith.

And I’d like to say that idolatry is a new dynamic, but it was just as dangerous in Jeremiah’s world as it is in ours.

As the book of Jeremiah opens, the world is crumbling around Jeremiah’s feet.  The prophet was called in the last days before the Babylonian Exile of the Israelites.  The people of God were scrambling to align themselves with the powers of the day.  Some suggested the path of violence: God’s people must partner with the enemies of Babylon, and fight against her power and survive to fight another day.  Others suggested the path of appeasement: that they give up and try to align themselves with Babylon herself, try to make peace and save their own hides.

But God tells Jeremiah that he needs to tell them that they are all wrong.

Jeremiah, of course, thought this was a horrible idea.  “So you want me to make everyone mad, telling them that they are all wrong?  Tell the war hawks that war is a miserable plan, and tell the peace doves that peace does not matter if you don’t have the right heart of obedience?  Well, God, that sounds like a job for someone older, and wiser, and more skilled orally, and, well, absolutely anyone else but me.”  Just like Moses and Gideon and Isaiah, and really most of God’s prophets, Jeremiah told God that he was just not skilled enough to be used by God.

But we can see Jeremiah’s point, right?  In the world of competing ideologies, and competing idolatries, it takes some series guts to walk in and tell them that they are all wrong.  But that is exactly what God told him to do.

But Jeremiah would not go into this task empty-handed.  Like the old cliché goes, God doesn’t call the equipped; God equips the called.  Jeremiah’s age or experience or ability were all completely irrelevant.  God would give him what he needed to accomplish this task.

And so, when we look at Jeremiah 1 in context, it appears that it is not really about the viability of a fetus, but the viability of a vision.  God is telling Jeremiah that he was born to share this vision: “Before you were born.  Before you were in your mothers’ womb.  Before you were a twinkle in your parents’ eyes, I knew you.  And I knew that you would be a great prophet.”

And God commands Jeremiah to share a new vision for the people of God.  Some wanted the way of violence.  Some wanted the way of appeasement.  But God called Jeremiah to speak to a third way.  His was to be the voice on the edge of Exile.  The voice that would clearly and faithfully point to God instead of the powers that be.  The third way was basically this: God will be with us through the bad; and God will bring us back to the good.  It was not a vision of appeasement, nor a vision of violence, but a vision of trust.  Trust that the presence of God would be amidst God’s people, regardless of their external situation.

And God equipped the called to share this vision.  And that is what he did.  Even when they laughed at him.  Even when they rejected him.  Even when they put him in chains and led him away to Exile, Jeremiah was faithful to his calling, and let God use him to speak words a new vision – a third way.

So what does that mean for us today?  What does the call of a prophet thousands of years ago have to do with you and me?
I believe that we are all called, like Jeremiah was.  Maybe we are not called to be famous prophets, but each of us is called to witness to the power of Christ in our lives.  To proclaim that vision: this is what were created to be!

Perhaps you heard the news coming out of Wichita this week.  Like many communities around the country, the citizens of Wichita had been told that they had to choose.  Who would they support?  Black or blue.  Either black lives matter.  Or blue lives matter.  If you supported the police, then you believed that Black Lives Matter protestors were thugs, whiners at best and inciting violence and murder at worst.  And if you supported the Black Lives Matter movement, then you believed all police were Gestapo-like racists.

But the citizens of Wichita believed that there was a third way.  A way that suggested that there were things to be done to fight deep and inherent racism in their community.  And ways to fight that racism that did not incite violence against women and men – often of color themselves – trying to do their jobs and protect the peace.  They tried a third way.

Last week, members of the Wichita police force and members of the Black Lives Matter movement in the community sat down to a barbeque dinner, dance party, and listening session.  Where the police listened to significant concerns that the community had.  They know that it is only the beginning.  In fact, they called it the First Step Barbeque.  But it is an important beginning.  The Wichita Police Chief, Gordon Ramsay, has received a lot of attention for initiating this conversation and choosing this third way.  National news stories.  An invitation to the White House.

But what you may not know is that Chief Gordon Ramsay, did so in close cooperation with a group calling themselves “The God Squad.”  A group of faith leaders in the Wichita area who have been working with both sides to ease tensions, foster communication, and keep the peace.  Together, they have chosen to speak a prophetic word: that their God is the God of peace.  Their goal, as they say, is that everybody goes home.  If there is a traffic stop by the police – everybody goes home alive.  If there is a rally, everybody goes home alive.  This group of church leaders is committed to the idea of peace, and have become leaven in the community to make that peace a reality.

Today, may we be prophetic in our calling to speak the vision of truth to a world of political and ideological division.  May we bring hope to a world more than willing to accept despair.  And may we preach love, in all that we do and all that we say.

 

 

 

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