Jeremiah 31 and 36
In the days of slavery in the United States and the Caribbean, one of the ways that slaveowners would seek to pacify their Black slaves was to show them the Bible. But not all of it. Perhaps you have heard of what is commonly called the Slave Bible. The official name was Parts of the Holy Bible, selected for the use of the Negro Slaves, in the British West-India Islands. After Haiti had a successful slave revolution, other slaveholders were afraid that they would be next. So, they began a program of disinformation that used this alternative Bible with alternative truths.
Slaveowners gave copies of this Slave Bible to slaves to teach them principles such as “turn the other cheek,” “obey the governing authorities,” and bluntly, “slaves, obey your masters.” They showed slaves the places in the Bible in which God’s people were enslaved, but stopped short of telling the whole story. Carefully edited out of this “Bible” were the parts in which God’s children demanded justice. Cut out were the sections about freedom in Christ. Cut were sections that demanded equality, proclaiming “there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.” Cut out was the entire book of Revelation, proclaiming a new heaven and new earth beyond this one. Included was “the Israelites served their Egyptian masters.” Left out was “Let my people go.”
These slaveholders carefully curated and controlled the Bible so that it would say what they wanted it to say. They weaponized the Bible to oppress and control others. The Gospel of freedom was replaced by a clarity and consistent message: “be good slaves.”
While we have not been that overt, the danger still exists for us today. There is still the temptation to weaponize the Bible, to control it, to use it to say what we want it to say. When I was young, I remember adults in my life talking about this big word: “fundamentalism.” Fundamentalists, I remember hearing, reduce the faith to a basic premise: “I am right and you are wrong.” They are black-and-white in their thinking, unbending, and refused to share leadership or power. One of the favorite weapons of fundamentalists is the Bible. Because with the Bible in their hands, they had an authority to hold over peoples’ heads, to use by any means possible to defeat them, even if those means go against the words actually written in that Bible. Like the editors of the Slave Bible, fundamentalists use the book to destroy and control.
Now, when I was young, I remember associating this word “fundamentalism” exclusively with conservatives. As I grew older, I found that progressives can be just as fundamentalist in their beliefs. Just as unyielding and rigid. Just as unwilling to listen. Just as unbending or able to share power. Just as willing to use the Bible and the Church and the tools of faith to bend others to their will. Liberal or conservative, Christian or otherwise, the way of fundamentalism is particularly damaging and destructive to the children of God.
Like it or not, fundamentalists have a progenitor in the person of the King Jehoiakim. We read about this king of Judah, both in the histories of Scripture, as well as the prophetic writing of Jeremiah. Several weeks ago now, I preached about his father Josiah, who “discovered,” or rediscovered or reclaimed, the Torah with a little help from the prophet Huldah. And the reforms that he conducted were more or less supported by the prophet Jeremiah. But toward the end of Josiah’s reign and the beginning of his son Jehoiakim’s, Jeremiah was becoming more and more disillusioned that the people were actually changing their hearts and ways, and more and more convinced that they were all selling out to either Babylon or Egypt or really to both.
By the time we get to the 36th chapter, Jeremiah has made quite the name for himself as an enemy of the state. In fact, he has a message to deliver to the king, but he tells his scribe Baruch, “I’m afraid for my life because of the king, so you go deliver my message for me.” By this time, Jeremiah has been preaching and prophesying and standing up against the injustice of the people and kingdom for something like 23 years. But they aren’t getting the message. So God tells Jeremiah, “Write down everything that I have said to you, 23 years of prophecy and oracles, and have Baruch go and deliver it to the people.” So Jeremiah writes all of this down and then they wait until it is a fast day, a day when the people will all be gathered, and Baruch goes to deliver this message to the people.
What happens next tells us a lot about Jehoiakim, and perhaps more than we would like to know about ourselves. I pick up in Chapter 36, vs. 14-26.
The officials hear Baruch reading this and they look at each other and say, “the king’s not going to like this.” And they were right. They take the scroll and find out that it came from Jeremiah, and they take it up to the king. And here, the king takes these words, the words of God, and when he hears them, he takes a penknife and carefully cuts off a section, and burns it in the fire. When he hears something he doesn’t like, he literally cuts it out and sets it ablaze.
Like the slaveholders, and the fundamentalists of every age, Jehoiakim removes the parts of God’s words that are inconvenient to him. There is a random statement where the king and all of his officials were not alarmed, nor did they tear their garments. This is a direct contrast to Jehoiakim’s father, Josiah, who when he heard the words of the Torah was exceedingly alarmed, and tore his garments in grief. Now, a generation later, the words of God are no longer a reason to sit up and notice, but are in fact a tool to be weaponized, used to perpetrate injustice, and literally removed when they become inconvenient.
Compare the ways of Jehoiakim to the message of Jeremiah. Here is a man in Jeremiah who has spent a 23-year career up to this point preaching the words of God. He has spoken things that are unpopular, making himself a laughingstock before the people, in order to share God’s prophecy of justice and hope. He has worked to enact and envision that word into his context and his time.
Then, God asked him to take that word to the people again. To write down everything that he has heard from God and deliver it. But if you read between the lines, this wasn’t a quick action. Those of you who have written a book, or a dissertation, or any major work, know what it takes. And for Jeremiah to take 23 years of words and put it into one work took a long time. It depends on how you count it, but some scholars suggest that it took nine months. And perhaps that was not coincidental. Jeremiah was birthing this thing. Waiting with hope and expectation to be able to deliver this powerful new word to the people. Again, it makes you feel for the violence that the king does to this document. Delivered to the people…and burned by the king.
But for Jeremiah, even that violence was not enough to stop the words of God. Scholar Amy Robertson suggests that the book of Jeremiah is more topical than it is chronological. So, the narrative lectionary is not out of bounds by listing today’s reading a bit out of order. It goes back to a word that happened earlier in the text, but really serves as a rebuttal to the king’s action. If we read chapter 31, we see this word from Jeremiah that tells the king, “Oh yeah? You can burn all you want, but you aren’t getting rid of God’s word.” Listen to this passage from 31.31-4.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
A new covenant, not written on a scroll, but written on their hearts. A covenant that cannot be broken by disobedience. Jeremiah is not hopeful for the immediate future. He knows the Babylonians are on the doorstep, and he knows that God’s people have thrown God’s laws and command and justice out the window. But he is hopeful for the long game. For the long-term future, where God’s people will return, and find the covenant written on their hearts. It won’t be about the scroll, or even the Temple or the land or the other stuff of covenant. The stuff that has created haves and have nots and division and anger. No, now, “they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”
Jeremiah is not bothered by the petulant actions of a petulant king. He knows that God is the God of the long game, the God of the least of these, and the God of a covenant written on our hearts.
The way I would talk about this in our context today is our fourth and final W: Wonder. It is the antithesis of Jehoiakim, and the Slave Bible, and the violent clarity of fundamentalism. Like Isaiah last week, to live in wonder causes us to approach God on the throne, in humility and awe. It causes us to put away the weapons of a fundamentalist faith that we use to control and attack one another. It reminds us that we are all learners in the life of faith. Like Jeremiah, it waits for God to write the covenant on our hearts.
Jerome Berryman was born in Ashland, KS, graduated from KU, and went immediately to seminary. That began a lifelong study for Berryman of the theology of childhood. He studied with some of the greatest minds of his time on this topic, including those committed to the educational style of Montessori. Out of this study and work came the concept of Godly Play. Godly Play is a way to teach children theology that sets aside clarity and certainty, and picks up instead the tool of wonder. Godly Play lessons ask open-ended “wondering questions” of Scripture: “I wonder what part of the story you like best. I wonder which part of the story was the most important to you today. I wonder which part of the story is about you?” Berryman understood that to invoke love for Scripture and for God, one must touch their experience of wonder.
I wonder why we think we can grow out of that! We, like Jehoiakim, grow to a point where we don’t need daddy’s Bible anymore, and start to cut out the parts that we don’t like anymore. I think Berryman was brilliant to understand children…and adults as well. I believe along with Jeremiah that our covenant with God must be written on our hearts. It must be a thing of wonder. Of Awe. Of hope. It is why I work each week that I stand in this pulpit to come to the Scriptures with humility and expectation. I don’t pull it off, and admit to bringing my penknife more than I would like to admit. But I see it as my task to invite you into a life of wonder. And it is one of the main reasons that I insist on inviting voices every week to the Two Way [sermon discussion group], recognizing that you are priests to me, as much as I am to you. Lucy Atkinson Rose writes that this is the work of the Church. She says it “seeks to nurture the reading of Scripture as a conversation between the community of faith and texts about matters of ultimate importance—our relationships with God, one another, and the world for which Jesus died, which God continues to love, and which is branded with God’s promise of shalom.”
Which is, eventually, the word that the slaves heard as well. The slaveholders had done their best to cut out the parts of the Bible that saw even these slaves as God’s children. But God’s word was not to be cut away and burned. These slaves discovered that Christ was a God of freedom. They found the stories of Moses, demanding freedom and liberty. They found the stories of the prophets, demanding justice for all of God’s children. They found the stories of Jesus, who demanded release of the captives, and who died for them, too.
And with this liberty and freedom in their ears, and written on their hearts, they found power and strength and hope and justice and love. And wonder.