John 12:20-33, Jeremiah 31:31-34
Dear Friends: Good morning and Happy Cherry Blossoms to you all!
Here in Washington, there is a very thoughtful syndicated newspaper columnist with a background in Middle East affairs. She is a Christian lady, with a most excellent and blessed name. Her name is “Geyer”: Georgie Anne Geyer. She and I have met several times—but, to my regret (if not hers!), we have not been able to discover any family connection.
Two weeks ago, in a very somber reflection on the war in Iraq, at the war’s very beginning, Georgie Anne Geyer wrote these words:
America stands on the brink of a vast unknown, facing a world in which its principles, its values, . . . and its worldview have been bared for all the world to see. This unknown encompasses far more than the war in Iraq. . . . The unknown in America is not so much what Iraq will become as what we will become.
Ms. Geyer writes from a rather conservative perspective on what she fears we are becoming. Her concerns focus on this country’s pre-emptive unleashing of “sheer power” in a war, she says, that betrays a loss of commitment to traditional Christian and Western ethical and legal principles. And on policies, she says, that are destroying our relations with the United Nations, with Islam, with NATO and most of our traditional allies. We are, she laments, under delusions of “hubris” and “illusions of grandeur” that tempt us to “believe that no one will strike back” at us. “But of course they will,” she says, “with new [recruits] for terrorism, with the pervasive hatred that is growing toward America” all around the world.
Dear Friends: That is heavy, heavy going! I confess I do not know whether to agree with all these lamentations. Ms. Geyer herself suggests the full consequences of this war are unknown. High officials of our government have said a victory will prepare the way for democracy throughout the Middle East and peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
But I suspect Ms. Geyer may recently have been reading the Book of Jeremiah to which our lectionary has directed us today.
Do you remember that many centuries after Jeremiah’s lonely struggle to turn his nation away from oppression and war, he made a comeback of sorts in the Israel of the New Testament? So many of those who first met Jesus of Nazareth in person, who heard Jesus’ words, who felt the healing touch of his hands, wondered who he really was. So one day, Jesus put a curious question to his disciples: “Who do these people say that I am?” And the disciples told him: “Some say you’re John the Baptist. Some say Elijah. And still others say: ‘He must be Jeremiah!’”
It’s not really so strange for Jesus to have been taken for Jeremiah. For Jeremiah’s intense consciousness of God, his grasp of an innermost spirituality that far transcends merely obeying the laws, his insistence that true peace and security must be established by justice and righteousness, his sheer audacity and self-sacrifice—all these things and more reveal Jeremiah to have been the noblest of the Old Testament prophets, the one who brings the Old Testament closest to the New Testament.
All this is made especially vivid by Jeremiah’s own passionate style and the warmth of his very human feelings. We actually have a substantial autobiography of this man believed by some people in New Testament times to be reincarnated in Jesus Christ.
So Jeremiah’s life has been the inspiration of artist of many sorts: stunning paintings by Max Lieberg and others; a powerful play about the courage of peacemaking by the Austrian playwright, Stefan Zweig; a hauntingly beautiful symphony, the Jeremiah Symphony, by a very young composer named Leonard Bernstein.
But nothing links the Jeremiah story more firmly with the Jesus story than the words we have heard this morning. No passage in all of Hebrew scripture connects more directly with Christian faith. So listen once again:
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. . . . I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. . . . For they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, . . . for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no longer.
That, Friends, is the Christian Gospel-in-anticipation: the Good News, 600 years ahead of time!
That New Covenant, that Covenant of Peace, came with Jesus of Nazareth who, even and especially at his own Last Supper, spoke of that covenant, “the New Covenant in his own blood.”
So: In our Eucharist this morning, when we are instructed to remember our Lord Jesus Christ, we would do well to remember Jeremiah also.
Remembering Jeremiah is especially appropriate in fearful times of troubles like our own—and particularly in these last days of Lent— unless, like some mistaken Christians, you imagine that Lent is the season for withdrawing from the world.
When Jeremiah was only a teenager, he learned that God had a plan for his whole life. God told him one day: “Before I formed you in the womb, Jeremiah, I appointed you to be a prophet to the nations.”
And so it was that a very young and very reluctant Jeremiah set out on his lonely lifelong path of prophecy. But he quickly got himself in deep trouble and pain. So he would cry out:
My heart is beating wildly. I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war. Disaster follows hard on disaster. This whole land is laid waste.
Then Jeremiah dared to rebuke some of the priests and political leaders for manipulating both their laws and their religion while claiming to promote peace and national security—but Jeremiah knew they were actually destroying both peace and security.
As the years passed, Jeremiah’s repeated warnings made him increasingly unpopular. And then he would get angry with God:
O Lord, you have deceived me!
I have become a laughingstock.
Everyone is mocking me!
So he wanted to quit being a prophet. He even cursed the day he was born. Then it got even worse for him. He was beaten with rods, put in stocks, called traitor, thrown into a slimy cistern. Ugh!
As his nation’s dangers increased, a succession of political and religious leaders tried to maintain a life of luxury and oppression—even while unleashing military adventures—until, as Jeremiah had foreseen, Doomsday happened. Babylon seized Jerusalem. The Temple and the palace were looted of their treasures. And most of the priests, nobles, soldiers, and artisans were carried off to exile in Babylonia—in the heart of what is now the land of Iraq, just south of Baghdad.
So Jeremiah had witnessed all these miseries. His heartbreak for his own nation that he loved so much was voiced in perhaps the most sorrowful, most anguished lamentations in all sacred scriptures. He could not stop weeping and crying out for what had happened to his people—but even he could not know it was just the beginning of more than 400 years of exile and the subjugation of his nation.
Yet it was in this most bitter time of grief and despair that Jeremiah could somehow hear God’s promise of a “new covenant”: a future of deliverance, and hope, and love.
Now, Friends: We today must be very, very careful about supposing that any bit of biblical history will be replicated exactly in our own time. The awful mischief caused by some manipulators of selected Bible passages can lead us to political and religious disasters, especially in the Middle East, disasters that cannot possibly reflect the will or the love of God.
Of course, Israel was not a superpower in Jeremiah’s day. Babylon was. And there is this big, big difference right now. Those who may have assumed a prophetic stance against the war in Iraq have not really been lonely Jeremiahs in this country. Not when some of our generals opposed this war—like Marine General Anthony Zinni who was head of the Central Command before General Tommy Franks, and who believed the U.S. priority should instead be peace between Israel and the Palestinians. No, not lonely martyrs when the leadership of almost every national Christian church body has declared itself opposed to this war: the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (along with the Pope, who has firmly opposed it), Presiding Bishop Griswold of our Episcopal Church, our own Bishop John Bryson Chane of this Diocese of Washington, the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Ecumenical Affairs Bishop of the United Methodist church, the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches.
There has been very close to unanimity of conviction among these national leaders of our churches. And not because they are pacifist. Most of them are not.
But they have said NO to this war because they know that nothing in the whole history of Christian ethics and teaching on war and peace, including the classic just-war tradition, justifies a pre-emptive war or a so-called “preventive war.”
The Catholic Bishops have warned that such a war might lead to the most serious “negative consequences” that would violate classical Christian imperatives—like proportionality: that any war “must not produce evils graver than the evil to be eliminated.” Accordingly, the Bishops in November declared that an invasion of Iraq “might provoke the very kind of attacks that it is intended to prevent, could impose terrible new burdens on an already long-suffering civilian population [in Iraq], and could lead to wider conflict” throughout the world.
We are on the brink of a vast unknown. Perhaps too few Americans understand the sacred and universal Muslim memory of Baghdad as the very center of “the Golden Age of Islam” and its greatest theologians, philosophers, scientists, poets, artist, and architects. And that is when and where the Renaissance really began. And that may be why some Syrians, Saudis, Sudanese, Lebanese, and Egyptians have streamed into Iraq in recent days to fight against the invaders—not to support Saddam Hussein but to vindicate that sacred city.
No Christian can be more offended than many faithful Muslims are by the identification of Baghdad now with the inhumanities of Saddam Hussein’s regime. But that is the Baghdad that has been bombed day and night for so long, and in whose streets the climactic battles are being fought this very day, even as we worship here.
So the war came, in spite of so much Christian and worldwide opposition. In the midst of all the bombing and burning and wounding and dying, do not doubt that the American and British forces have taken great care to minimize civilian casualties, to spare the mosques and other holy places, and to befriend and help Iraqi citizens. Those who oppose the war must not scapegoat the soldiers.
The recent Pastoral Letter of the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops reminds us that “Christians are called by Jesus to regard all persons as neighbors, to reach out in mercy, and to pray for one another and for our enemies.” The Bishops recognize that “within the community of faith there are a variety of opinions” about the rightness of going to war. They invite us to pray especially for “all who [are] caught up in this conflict, our military personnel including [their] chaplains and their families, people who suffer for conscience’s sake, Arab Americans of all faiths, followers of Islam around the world—the great majority of whom share a longing for peace, and the people of Iraq, among whom are more than a million Christians.”
Dear Friends: We do indeed stand on the brink of a vast unknown. And we must prayerfully and thoughtfully ask some questions of the sort that perhaps Jeremiah would suggest:
- What, if anything has our own nation done to provoke the enmity not only of Iraq but of majorities in most Muslim countries—and even the alienation of our mostly Christian allies?
- What are the likely long-term consequences, for us and other peoples, of waging war against the heirs of Babylon today? What will we become?
- What must this nation, and the United Nations, and our churches now do to bring peace to Iraq and the whole Middle East—and to bind up the wounds of war?
These are discussable, debatable questions. None of us is entitled to claim the certainty of Jeremiah for our own views.
But the New Covenant foreseen by Jeremiah and embodied in Jesus Christ is indeed a Covenant of Peace promising, as today’s Gospel promises, a great new day when the Prince of Peace will draw all peoples and nations together. May that day come soon! Amen.