Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
This letter of Jeremiah to the exiled Jews in Babylon comes as a great surprise. God wants them to settle in, he reports, to build houses, have kids, and pray for Babylon. In short, become something like citizens. The letter throws light upon the conditions of the Babylonian captivity. It was already obvious that the Jews had been ghettoized. Now we see that within their ghettos they had great freedom. Now we can better understand the enormous religious advancement that took place in captivity. The captive people created the first synagogues. Without a Temple, the influence of priests was minimized; the influence of rabbis in the synagogues maximized. Without any cult worship, the emphasis fell upon reading and scholarship. They had already a document that had in some sense been canonized, the Deuteronomic Code. To this they added documents some regarded as sacred that they had brought with them into exile, the Priestly Code, the works of “J” and “E,” the codes reportedly by Moses, the traditional stories of holy days. From these and some pieces of their own writing, they put together the first Bible, the Torah. As you probably know these are the first five books of our Bible, which we call the Law (“Torah” means law) or the Pentateuch. The Torah, unchanged from the days of Babylon, is the center of Jewish worship today.
ALTERNATIVE FIRST READING
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
II Kings 5:1-14
The young prophet Elisha has succeeded Elijah, and carries on his master’s mission to reform the Kingdom of Israel. He is noted for the miracles he evokes, all of which win over doubters to the true faith. Our story is one such, but it is unusual because it plays down the prophet’s activities and focuses upon the moral drama. Naaman, the powerful general of the armies of Aram, asks Elisha to heal his leprosy. His refusal to accept the simple cure the prophet offers him arises from the overblown pride of a general who could crush the Kingdom of Israel. He finally submits, immerses himself seven times in the River Jordon, and is healed.
To me, personally, the healing properties of the Jordon are real. Once, though only one time, I stood in a shady grove of trees and watched the clean waters of the Jordon moving steadily, quietly, between green banks, seeming to make no great claims for itself, but with a certainty of purpose. Lovely waters, and holy waters I did not doubt.
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Our lesson continues Paul’s instructions to the young minister Timothy. Here Paul concentrates upon the state of mind needed to convey the gospel, the story of Christ: focus and courage. Paul knows about these, for his ministry has taken him thousands of miles by foot, depending only on charity. More than once he has suffered imprisonment and beatings. The saying he quotes (the original lost to us) speaks of the martyrdom of many thousands who died at the hands of Rome rather than deny their belief in Christ. “If we deny him, he will also deny us,” seems like common-sense justice. But it is followed by the surprising statement, “If we are faithless to him, he remains faithful to us.” This is beyond common sense. Why would God do such a thing? “He cannot deny himself.” He cannot will himself to be other than a God of love.
Paul will soon expand upon idea of God’s faithfulness to sinners as a grace when he writes Romans (see 3:3-4, 21-26). But in Romans he fails to give us the excellent point of theology we find here: “He cannot deny himself.”