I am considering these texts through a specific grid today. Missio Dei comes to Providence on Thursday, and MissionFest Manitoba is in Winnipeg this coming weekend. With this in mind, I am reading these texts with missionary eyes. Since I believe that the Bible is a missionary text from beginning to end, this perspective reveals an essential strand of the passages we have read.
One word of definition: By missionary, I mean God’s activity seeking to reconcile the world to himself (as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5). We participate in God’s reconciling mission as God sends us into this world as his reconciling agents.
Jeremiah 1So we turn to Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s call is a curious mixture of the obvious and the obscure. Hear the passage:
4 The word of the Lord came to me, saying, 5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
6 “Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.” 7 But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord.
9 Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. 10 See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”Note briefly that God appoints Jeremiah as prophet to the nations. To be “prophet” is to be one who speaks for God to the people. We might call the prophet, “the mouth of God”. The prophet’s characteristic beginning for each statement is, “Thus says the Lord.”
Jeremiah responds with excuses reminiscent of Moses when he was called to go to Pharaoh and demand freedom for God’s people. God’s response here is decisive, leading to the commission of verses 9 and 10: that God has put his words in Jeremiah’s mouth (so he really is a prophet); that God will speak destruction and renewal of all nations and kingdoms through Jeremiah’s ministry.
So much for the obvious, but there is at least one great puzzle in these verses. Jeremiah was made “prophet to the nations”. But Jeremiah spoke the great majority of his prophecies to Judah and concerning Judah. The final chapters of the book concern the nations, but in general Jeremiah is (in Wiesel’s words), “the most Jewish of the Jewish prophets.” As Brueggemann puts it: “the poet of the land par excellence.” What can it mean then to say that he is “prophet to the nations”? We will return to this question after we look at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’” 24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
In the verses preceding, on which this passage builds, Jesus had read the daily Scripture in his home town synagogue—words from Isaiah that he says here describe his ministry. His friends’ response is curious: “All spoke well of him.” Wouldn’t that suggest a positive response? Except that they ask, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” Well, the answer is, “Not exactly”, but their point is something like: “Who does this local boy think he is?”
Jesus responds with the example of Elijah going to a Gentile widow and Elisha healing a Gentile soldier, although there were many in Israel who needed their help. For some reason that is not immediately obvious to me, this response infuriated the people and they tried to throw him off a cliff. This kind of action suggests that they saw his words as blasphemy.
Reading through the lens of missionary thinking, I want to focus on what these verses say about the mission of Jesus. There is nothing in the passage that Jesus read in the synagogue (from Isaiah 61) to suggest that the coming of God’s Spirit is specifically for Gentiles. Isaiah 60 tells of the restoration of Zion, which will be for God’s Chosen People (of course), but also for the nations that come to Zion. So I take the verses Jesus read to apply first of all to Zion (or the Jews), but also to be shared with the Gentiles.
Jesus turns this “Jew first, and also the Greeks” (in Paul’s words) into “outsiders first, who will serve as a spur to the Children of Israel.” To put it another way, Jesus makes it clear that his ministry, his call is to God’s people, and that this call includes the ultimate outsiders—Gentiles.
I think that there is a principle at work here that runs throughout Scripture and throughout life. God calls people to follow him, but God’s call is not simply for the benefit of those he calls. The call always goes beyond one called to include the rest of the world.
Think again of Jeremiah. He prophesies constantly about Judah. He prophesies to Judah. When the Babylonians offer him a chance to go to Babylon, he prefers to remain in his ruined land: Judah is his home. When some rebels in Judah offer him safety in Egypt, he turns them down only to have them carry him off to Egypt, where he dies. Clearly Jeremiah was a prophet of, for, and to Judah. But God appoints him to be a prophet to the nations.
I think that what is going on has to do with the way that we are all interconnected. What God does with Judah, God does also with the world as a whole. God called Abraham for the sake of the nations (in Genesis 12). God called the Chosen People to be a nation of priests on behalf of the nations (in Exodus 19). Jesus came to the Jews in order to save the world.
Elie Wiesel puts it like this: “The prophet of Israel has become the prophet to all nations. He now understands—and makes others understand—that Israel’s destiny affects everyone else’s. What happens to Judah will happen to Babylon, then Rome, and ultimately to the entire world. And so the most Jewish of the Jewish prophets becomes the most universal among them.”
What does any of this have to do with Missio Dei? Some simple thoughts:
· Although we do not all receive a call to speak God’s word the way that Jeremiah did, still less to set the world free the way that Jesus did, I believe that God has called each one of us to represent him in this world. Missio Dei gives you and me a chance to hear that call anew, to reflect on the call that we have heard—or to hear God’s call for the first time. The words in Jeremiah are sobering: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart.” This is true for all of us.
I don’t subscribe to the idea that this call is a comprehensive blueprint in which each step of our lives is laid out. Rather, God calls us, and has been calling us from the deeps of time, to follow him.
· Your call may take you to a church in Altona or to a refugee camp in Turkey. God may lay your path through Steinbach or through Switzerland. In any case our world is interconnected, and God’s call in Winkler is part of God’s work in Ethiopia. And God’s call in Sweden is part of God’s work in Winnipeg.
For this reason I don’t pay much attention when someone says, “I am not called to be part of God’s mission.” God calls us all to be part of his mission to reconcile the world with himself.
· The content of our call requires God’s Spirit for us to respond. Jeremiah had no ability within himself to carry out the appointed task. Jesus states explicitly, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” We depend on God’s Spirit to do the work of God.
The message and ministry of reconciliation takes us into territory completely strange to the people around us. Selfishness is the natural path. God leads us into a life that is not safe (consider Jeremiah), but is truly good. Only God’s Spirit can help us walk this unnatural path. As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5: “14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”
These verses link us to 1 Corinthians 13. The essential reason that God goes to so much trouble in his reconciling mission is his relentless eternal love, which he seeks to replicate within us. We act naturally out of self-interest. God is growing God’s love in us, acting out of a desire to honour God and to see all people reconciled with God. Human love is limited and sentimental; God’s love is forever, unlimited, flowing from the heart of God through you and me to God’s world all around us.
PTS Chapel: 2 February 2016
Lectionary: Jeremiah 1:4-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30