Friday, 30 June 2017

Persistently persistent

It is a new day. The light pushes through the curtains a little earlier, the sky is a little paler, the birdsong a little brighter than yesterday. The winter solstice has come and gone, and with each day the dawn arrives earlier, and dusk is pushed back ever so slightly. A solstice happens when the sun's zenith is at its furthest point from the equator. On the June solstice, it reaches its northernmost point and the Earth’s North Pole tilts directly towards the sun. There is a tenacity in nature, a persistence in the earth's steady orbit around the sun. Seasons follow one another with a certain predictability, varied only by the amazing creativity of it's Creator.

I am re-reading a book on the life of Jeremiah*, a book simply packed with insight. Page by page, I am given a glimpse into the life of the man whom people refer to as "the weeping prophet". The first recorded words that God speaks to Jeremiah, sets the scene for a life completely set aside for God's purposes. "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations." ~ Jer. 1:5. Jeremiah was known before he knew. Before he chose to serve God with his whole being, God had chosen him. God appointed/gave (nathan) him as a prophet to the nations. As He gave his Son Jesus, so that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.

Jeremiah hesitates. He is so young, so inexperienced and without confidence. It would seem that this youth needed learning, or at least some rigorous training to prepare him for what lay ahead. But once again God's words to him, turns human expectation and logic inside out. "... to all whom I send you you shall go and whatever I command you you shall speak. Be not afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you... Behold, I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land." ~ Jer 1:6-8, 18

From "only a youth" Jeremiah is transformed into a pillar of strength and confidence. As God spoke, the appointed prophet received the conviction that God is personal, alive and active, and that what was going on in Israel in that exact time in history, was critical.

Jeremiah was given the task of delivering an unpopular, convicting message to Israel, one that caused him great mental anguish, as well as making him despised in the eyes of his own people. God says that His truth sounds like “foolishness” to those who are lost, but to believers it is the very words of life (1 Cor 1:18). He also says that the time will come when people will not tolerate the truth (2 Tim 4:3-4). Those in Israel did not want to hear what Jeremiah had to say, and his constant warning of judgement annoyed them.

For twenty three years he persisted. Right there, at the center of the book of Jeremiah, there is a word which has been challenging me for the last few weeks. "Persistently" (hashkem). For twenty three years... When I was 17 years old, I woke up one morning and decided that I wanted to be a vet. A few days later, the conviction changed to dreams of being a fashion designer. Then there was a time when I was convinced that I wanted to be a journalist. I was a fickle youth. When Jeremiah turned 40, he had already been God's mouthpiece for 23 years. There are 11 instances in Jeremiah where the word "persistently" is used. For twenty three years he got up before the dawn to pray, to listen. For twenty three years he went out every morning and spoke God's word to the people. While the people slept in, sluggish and indolent, hearing nothing. 

Jeremiah suffered. There was the personal torment of a prophet who saw what God saw. His obedience cost him dearly. He was ostracised, shunned, mocked and rejected. He was imprisoned, flogged, placed in stocks and in thrown into a dark cistern, with a thick layer of mud at the bottom, into which he sank. He wrestled with discouragement and despair and thought of quitting. God challenged him by saying: "If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? If you stumble in a safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?" ~ Jer 12:5. Jeremiah looked up from the pit of despair he had sunk into and once again saw the God who had made him into a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall. He wanted to run with horses. He wanted to live persistently and urgently. He did not give up, for God did not give up. He shows us that the good life, is not necessarily a life lived well. To have the bucket list all ticked off, does not mean that I lived abundantly.

The word hashkem has a sunrise in it. Jeremiah got up before the sun to do his/God's work. But to him it was not drudgery. Each day there was the anticipation of listening to God, who unfailingly, creatively gave him new words, new ideas of how to take God's message of warning to his people. He did not get up to face rejection, he got up to meet with his God. This I found to be the secret of Jeremiah's persistence. Not thinking with dread about the long road ahead, but meeting each day, each moment with obedient and expectant hope. I used to feel so sorry for Jeremiah. We see him in a painting by Rembrandt, in a dejected pose, his head resting heavily in his hand, with a sombre expression on his face. But Jeremiah does not need to be pitied. He was committed to a purpose, even when it broke his heart. His days add up to a life of incredible tenacity, amazing stamina. He ran with the horses.

In contrast to his persistent faithfulness, stands the erratic and impulsive nature of the people whom he lived with. They ran this way and that, always after new ways of satisfying their wild enthusiasm for pleasure. But nothing added up. They were like the character in a story I once read. "He wanted Everest in a day; when it took two, he lost interest..."

Israel had a long history of unfaithfulness. Every attractive promise distracted her from her God. Every new fad was taken up and tried in a burst of short-lived eagerness. For centuries it had been one lover after the other. Meanwhile, God never stopped loving her. And God cannot permit the people he loves and created for glory, to live in such silliness and emptiness. Jeremiah learnt to live persistently toward God, because God was persistent toward him.

At the very centre of Lamentations (most likely written by Jeremiah), which laments the sin and suffering during and after the fall of Jerusalem, there is this beautiful verse: "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness." ~ Lamentations 3:22,23.

God's persistence is not a dogged repetition. It has surprise and creativity, and yet all the certainty and regularity of a new day. "Sunrise, when the spontaneous and the certain arrive at the same time" ~ Eugene Peterson. Daybreak is always a surprise to me. There are times of course, when I fail to respond. The repetition of nature is never boring, and so much less so the repetitions in God. This was the source of Jeremiah's living persistence. Rising early, he was attentive and quiet before his Lord. Long before the mocking, yelling and complaining started, there was this time of listening and discovery with God. He had chosen what Jesus called "the one thing needful" and he stuck to it.

"The mark of a certain kind of genius, is the ability and energy to keep returning to the same task relentlessly, imaginatively, curiously, for a lifetime" ~ E. Peterson. Beethoven composed sixteen string quartets because he was never satisfied with what he had done, and kept trying to perfect it. He put fresh, creative energy into each attempt. The same thing over and over, yet it was never the same, for each time there was that new dazzling creativity put into the repetition.

Despite his persistence - the life of Jeremiah ends inconclusively. I wish I could know the end, but there is no end. The last scene of Jeremiah's life shows him, as he had spent so much of his life, preaching God's word to a contemptuous people (Jer 44). I wanted to know that he was finally successful so that, if I live well and courageously, I would also be successful. But this is all we get. The image of a man who persisted with "the one thing needful" regardless of personal failure. In Egypt, the place he does not want to be, with people who treat him badly, he continues. Determinedly faithful and courageous. A towering life terrifically lived for God's glory.

There is only one thing needful. To sit at the feet, and live in the presence of Jesus. Mary chose it, while Martha complained. The "good" part, which would and could not be taken away from her or from you and me. There is only today in which to do it. And then do it again. And again...

Persistently. Not with mindless repetition - but with all the exuberance of an encore!

* Run with the horses - Eugene H. Peterson

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