Monthly Letter – August 2019

Dear Friends,

I wonder what you make of the prophet Jeremiah.

I like him. I have something of a soft spot for him. Or maybe more a certain affinity.

In part, I guess that’s something to do with my name being essentially his. Names matter. They certainly did in Bible times, and I like to think they do so still. There’s something almost prophetic about the name you’re given. And like it or not (and most of the time growing up I didn’t like it at all) I did at least feel a certain sort of kinship with the man whose name I bore.

Where I lived at the time there wasn’t another ‘Jeremy’ in sight: none of my pals at school had ever even heard of the name before – and half of them couldn’t pronounce it. So I found myself drawn to the only other person that I knew (or knew of) who had a name remotely like my own. The prophet Jeremiah.

I soon learned, though, that he didn’t get rave reviews: the prophet Isaiah was the pin-up boy, it seemed. Isaiah was class: his poetry seemed to delight the cultured ‘literati’ of the Bible texts, and the rich and extravagant promises of grace he brought had Bible buffs almost salivating with anticipation.

Whereas Jeremiah was known as the ‘weeping prophet’. A ‘wet blanket’, over against Isaiah’s ‘comfort blanket’. Where Isaiah was dazzling, Jeremiah was simply dour. The word on the street had branded Jeremiah as the archetypal ‘kill-joy’, full only of doom and gloom, with a personality and perspective on life, so the branding went, which would have made Private Frazer of Dad’s Army fame seem like an eternal optimist.

I wasn’t too chuffed to begin with. I sometimes even wondered what sick sort of joke my parents had played by giving me this man’s name. But it wasn’t just the name which slowly drew me to this man: it was his calling, too. I read of the way he struggled in his youth against the call of the Lord on his life, and I began to see that he wasn’t just my namesake, he was a kindred spirit as well.

The instinctive excuses he’d been quick to rehearse before the Lord … well, I found they were my excuses too. Way too young: and by the way, I can’t speak. I liked the man’s directness with the Lord, his almost childlike honesty: I felt I had an ally in this awkward and reluctant preacher from a bygone age.

And the longer I spent in the company of this man the more I found some comfort, too, in the way the Lord had firmly re-assured His ‘new kid on the block’.

“Too young? Forget it,” said the Lord (I’m paraphrasing of course): ‘it’s not your age but your call which is the thing that counts – just go where I call you to go, and say what I tell you to speak.” Excuse number 1 out the window.

“And you can’t speak? That’s as maybe,” insisted the Lord, “but I can: I’ll put the words in your mouth.” Excuse number 2 thereby binned: the Lord would be his enabling.

I knew a growing sense of unexpected excitement (unexpected because ‘excitement’ and ‘Jeremiah’ were not two words you’d commonly find in the same paragraph, let alone the same sentence). But excitement there was as I heard the Lord saying that He’d not only give him the words to speak, but He’d make him the man to say them. “Today” (and my pulse began to quicken at the immediacy of that), “I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land ..” It maybe wasn’t the language I would have used, but I got the picture all right.

Jeremiah against the world. Or at least the world of Judah.

This was the battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer’s last stand, transcribed across to the realms of spiritual warfare. As a boy brought up on westerns and for whom the Lone Ranger had always been the peak of heroic action, I started to see Jeremiah in an entirely different light: he was John Wayne wearing a cassock, Gary Cooper with a collar; he was the last-minute charge of the cavalry appearing along the horizon, a last-gasp attempt at a rescue when all was otherwise lost.

Or, in the rather different genre of disaster movies, he was a Fire Chief Mike O’Hallaran in the Towering Inferno of persistent rebellion and sin which the land and people of Judah had become.

Check the script and see if the essence of Jeremiah’s message isn’t matched pretty much by that of Fire Chief Mike O’Hallaran – “It’s your building, but it’s our fire. Now let’s get these people *** out of here” (maybe I should have left the asterisked words in!)

“When there’s a fire,” said the Chief in one of his famous quotes, “I outrank everybody here.”

Which didn’t go down a bomb with a lot of the self-important people who comprised the ‘everybody’ there: any more than God’s ‘fire chief’, Jeremiah, went down a bomb with the people of his day.

However I viewed it, there was a certain sort of drama about this servant of the Lord, the prophet Jeremiah, which I was only beginning to learn.

No wonder Isaiah and he were so different – their respective sets (or settings) were poles apart. Isaiah was a one-man firm of graphic designers in a day of relative calm, portraying to their best advantage the stunning, forward-looking plans of the Architect supreme, the great Creator God (it wasn’t quite as simple as that, but you get the gist): Jeremiah, by contrast, was a one-man, blue-light fire brigade, tackling, by God’s authority, a ‘wiring’ of chronic corruption which had burst out into the flames of a towering inferno.

A different day, a different age, different times entirely.

We don’t get to choose the day in which we live, or the ‘set’ on which we serve. And when Jeremiah dropped a ‘Dear Sir..’, strongly-worded complaint along those lines into the Lord’s ‘Suggestion Box’, he got an immediate reply.

“If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?” (Jer.12.5)

Indeed, so thoroughly was this probing question descriptive of the life and ministry to which this man was called that it prompted the title of Eugene Peterson’s book about the prophet – ‘Run with the horses’.

And in many respects that question of the Lord to Jeremiah is precisely the challenge which faces us 21st century followers of Jesus in the western world today. Do we really think it’s been tough thus far being a follower of Jesus Christ? I mean, in a land, in a setting, where for 400 years and more the culture and society in which we live has been shaped by, steeped in, and has therefore also been essentially sympathetic to, the Christian faith.

If living our life and fulfilling our calling as the church of Jesus Christ in that sort of context has worn us out and left us exhausted and spent – then we’re in trouble, big trouble, when, as is happening here in our land today, the context radically changes and the going gets significantly tougher.

‘Get used to this, Jeremiah, it’s horses now you’ll be running against: not men. It’s about to get a whole load more demanding.’ It did for him, and it is for us.

We’ve a lot to learn from the man. Isaiah may still be everyone’s favourite ‘pin-up boy’, but Jeremiah is surely our ‘man for the hour’. Jeremiah’s the man who’s long since run this particular race and who’s tackled the challenging course which lies before us now.

The church has grown accustomed to a context where the benefits (if, indeed, you can call them such) – where the benefits of ‘Christendom’ prevailed: familiarity (at least in very general terms) with the content and the message of the Bible: acceptance of the ‘worldview’ and perspective which the Word of God sets out: agreement with the values and the tenets of the Christian faith: and adoption of the premise that there are in fact clear ‘absolutes’ which give substance to the concepts of both true and false and right and wrong.

Not all agreed with the message of the Bible. Not all were exactly comfortable with the worldview of the Word. Not all adhered by any means to the values and the tenets of the faith. And not all concurred as to what those absolutes were.

But that has been the context here in which our calling as the church of Christ has had to be lived out. And yes, that had its challenges. It wasn’t ever easy following Jesus, even in a context such as that. There was still a race to be run; and running any race is never a stroll in the park.

Things are changing rapidly, though.

As, of course, they were in Jeremiah’s day. He lived in the choppy, cross-current waters of a massive cultural ‘sea-change’, the turbulent transition from one familiar context to another, a new and strange and unwelcome one: from kingdom to exile. “If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?”

Are we ready for the challenge? Instead of any familiarity with the content and the message of the Bible, there’s now maybe three or four generations’ worth of widespread, total ignorance, and a burgeoning, growing disdain, of the Book. Instead of the general acceptance of the ‘worldview’ of the Word of God, there’s a whole different outlook on life. Instead of the common agreement with the values and the tenets of the Christian faith, such values and tenets are met with both scorn and derision and viewed as restrictive and crass. Instead of there being absolutes, the post-modern world has decreed that everything’s relative, anything goes, and there’s no such thing as the truth.

Running the race, proclaiming the gospel, following Jesus – it just got a whole load tougher. It’s ‘horses’ now we’re competing with. It’s the swirling, dangerous, cross-current waters of the shift from kingdom to exile that we’re having to sail. And it helps to have a man to hand who’s already had to navigate such seas and who’s learned how to ‘run with the horses’.

We’ll do well to learn from Jeremiah. We’ll do well to be taking a deep, deep breath, and, demanding as life has maybe been as we’ve raced on foot with men, we’ll do well now to ‘up our game’ and ready ourselves for the altogether tougher sort of challenges these coming days present. Another ‘High Noon’ is beckoning!

Yours in Christ’s service

Jeremy Middleton