Would you rather be settled or unsettled? At ease or uneasy?
I’ve been looking at a lot of the prophetic passages in the Bible recently, and two of the big themes are of judgement and hope. Judgement when people are warned that if they carry on how they are living things are going to go dramatically wrong, and hope when people are suffering that God has not forgotten them, that things will not remain like this forever – that things will get better. In fact they are themes that run through the whole Bible.
The interesting thing about the passages of judgement and hope are that both are disruptive – make us feel a sense of unease. We don’t like feeling unsettled as a general rule. But actually, to be unsettled, biblically speaking, is often a good thing – it’s countercultural, and not easy, but far better than easing into a culture that is based on harmful values, and settling for the status quo.
Walter Brueggemann says in his book ‘The Prophetic Imagination’:
“Our consumer culture is organised against history, there is a deprecation of memory and a ridicule of hope which mean everything must be held in the now – either an urgent now or an eternal now.”
In other words – we don’t like to learn from our history, or our past actions – our memory – so we run headlong into disaster even when we’ve been told it’s coming – like when the prophets warned the Israelites about what their life choices were leading towards.
But we also ridicule hope – our culture laughs when alternative ways forward are suggested, it undermines those that work for justice, and those that creatively imagine how things could be done differently if we were to work with God to build His kingdom. It’s an age old trick of the powers that be to make those under its influence believe no other way is possible so that they can keep hold of power, wealth and control.
At the moment we are going through a period of heightened uncertainty – and it’s disruptive, unnerving even… but even more so when we refuse to learn from our mistakes, and when we lose sight of the hope we can trust in.
We would prefer to be able to explain everything rationally, to plan ahead and be able to predict how things are going to unfold. But that is actually a false view of reality. Walter Brueggemann goes on to say:
“We think in terms of systems and continuities and predictability and schemes and plans, and I think the Bible is to some great extent focused on God’s capacity to break those schemes open and violate those formulae.
What it means is that the reality of our life and the reality of God are not contained in most of our explanatory schemes. And whether one wants to explain that in terms of God or not it is nonetheless the truth of our life that our lives are arenas for all kinds of disruptions because it doesn’t work out the way we planned.”
We can see examples of this all around us – the pandemic, unrest, economic collapse… as well as personal examples of disruption in our lives – good and bad. Strangely perhaps, I found it comforting to know that the Bible is full of these times of uncertainty, and that disruption is actually something God specialises in, that he uses.
But it has also made me worry that perhaps I am missing something – what am I praying for? A lot of my prayers and desires have been centred around wanting things to go back to how they were. That everything will be sorted out as quickly and smoothly as possible so I can get back to the comfort of my life previously.
I think I have missed an opportunity here – have I missed the warnings of the prophets – stop living in this way or else… Or have I heard them, and if so, have I changed anything? Or am I trying to bullishly carry on as close to normal as possible? So first I’d like us to reflect on these words from Jeremiah – perhaps pausing to repent and lament where we have become too settled in the destructive ways of the culture around us. But then we will finish with a more hopeful reflection to match the balance the prophets tend to keep.
18 “Your own conduct and actions
have brought this on you.
This is your punishment.
How bitter it is!
How it pierces to the heart!”
Oh, my anguish, my anguish!
I writhe in pain.
Oh, the agony of my heart!
My heart pounds within me,
I cannot keep silent.
For I have heard the sound of the trumpet;
I have heard the battle cry.
Disaster follows disaster;
the whole land lies in ruins.
In an instant my tents are destroyed,
my shelter in a moment.
How long must I see the battle standard
and hear the sound of the trumpet?
“My people are fools;
they do not know me.
They are senseless children;
they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil;
they know not how to do good.”
I looked at the earth,
and it was formless and empty;
and at the heavens,
and their light was gone.
I looked at the mountains,
and they were quaking;
all the hills were swaying.
I looked, and there were no people;
every bird in the sky had flown away.
I looked, and the fruitful land was a desert;
all its towns lay in ruins
before the Lord, before his fierce anger.
Once we have repented and lamented over our mistakes we move on to hope. Rachel Held Evans emphasises that:
“Alongside these cries of anguish and anger, condemnation and critique, the prophets deliver what is perhaps the most subversive element of any resistance movement: hope.”
Are we daring enough to hope for a better future? To imagine alternatives that the powers that be would like us to think are impossible. Can we bring ourselves to believe that God really is building a kingdom that is radically different from the one currently calling the shots? This is also not comfortable; it is also unsettling – but revolutions always are unsettling – even when they bring about a far better reality – because they call us to leave behind the former things which we had begun to settle into… So now let’s reflect on these words from Isaiah and see if we dare to dream and hope:
This is what the Lord says—
he who made a way through the sea,
a path through the mighty waters,
who drew out the chariots and horses,
the army and reinforcements together,
and they lay there, never to rise again,
extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:
“Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.
The wild animals honour me,
the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
the people I formed for myself
that they may proclaim my praise.
May we be a people whose memories are active, who learn from the mistakes that have been made in the past, and who dare to hope in an alternative future – however unsettling that may be – God’s kingdom springing up in the most unlikely times and places.