Thursday Scripture - Jeremiah 31:34
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
Charlie Brown decides that a real Christmas tree is needed to inspire some meaningful Christmas spirit. But he cannot find a tall, full, brilliant green tree. He finds a sad, spindly, lop-sided tree. And I can still recall the look of despondency when he realizes that his grand plan to inspire Christmas spirit, has failed.
As uncomfortable as it may be, I would suggest that this is just where Jeremiah is. Some scholars suggest that today's verse is not just rhetorical, but a personal expression of Jeremiah's despair that his words have failed to inspire repentance on the part of his people. 'No longer will they teach,' is another way of his confession that his teaching made little to no difference. 'no longer will they… say to one another…' the discouraging realization that his words had no impact. Jeremiah has reached that place that many of us avoid at all costs. Jeremiah has come face to face with his lack of power, with his inability to control or effect the situation he finds himself in. Like Charlie Brown looking at the sad little tree, Jeremiah looks back at all his scrolls and sees a sad and ineffective response to a problem too big to fix.
There is no doubt that this is a painful place to be. So painful in fact that in our culture, even our Christian culture, we avoid it at all costs. There must always be something we can do, some way to respond, a way to keep moving, working, and striving. Jeremiah is in an empty place where the present is untenable, the status quo hopeless and the future bleak. He has done all he can and there is nothing left for him to do. Except that oddly enough Jeremiah's realization does not end with despondency and despair, but instead with a new hope. Where he has realized his limitation, even his failure, God is still working. And this is the God who created beauty from nothingness and established creation from chaos. So when we have realized our limits, God begins to create anew.
It is true that for many generations the church in America was all too happy to sing and pray without active to advocate for and establish justice, like Judah, hiding behind worship from the work of the kingdom. The silence of many white churches during the civil rights era being one example. But the another truth is that the opposite side of the coin can be just as dangerous. We can fall into believing that if any justice and righteousness are to be established, it is all up to us. When we despair believing God can, will is doing, nothing we are left to our own devices. But that can be harmful. Many an unjust, violent and destructive action was undertaken from the desire to do good. The end justifies the means we tend to tell ourselves. So I would suggest that there is some virtue, some merit to acknowledging our limitations and not avoiding those moments when our plans have failed. This isn't an excuse for inaction. It is a necessary corrective so that we do not think the future completely dependent upon our actions which may lead to furthering instead of correcting injustice.
What does this all mean to simple folks like you and me? It means that we remember that Jesus promised the kingdom would grow from the smallest of seeds. Even when we do not see fruit, does not mean the seeds we plant are pointless. Jeremiah's words, while apparently ineffective in his lifetime, inspired the early Christians and live on, challenging, comforting and inspiring to this day. So this story shapes us by reminding us that the victory, the justice, the kingdom is not only our responsibility. God is still working. It reminds us to be patient with failure and defeat. Even these, the cross and resurrection stories remind us, can be used by God to create something new. So let us not avoid risky action or fear failure. Even failure can lead to magnificent new beginnings.