I began this year with a study of Jeremiah, the longest and one of the most complex books of the Bible. Robert Carroll once wrote: “The reader who is not confused by reading the book of Jeremiah has not understood it.”
Like the study of any biblical book, knowing a bit about its historical setting is important in its interpretation and in finding application of its ancient words to our current lives.
The historical event which lies behind the writing of Jeremiah and the ministry of the prophet is the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. There is no greater watershed event in the history of Israel than the destruction of the Holy City. This event in 587 B.C. left the people of Israel with shattered lives, a shattered faith, a shattered government and a hope that was as reduced as the rubble of the city destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar and his army.
I am reading Jeremiah with the devastation of the tsunami that hit the coastal countries of Asia as my modern-day backdrop. Since the day after Christmas, the focus of the world has been on Asian countries most affected by the tsunami. All of us have been shocked at the devastation. We have been repulsed at the extent of the loss of life, the loss of dignity as corpses were buried in mass graves with front end loaders and the loss of hope written on the faces of many of the people.
As the faces of people have been posted on bulletin boards and on Web sites, Americans have been reminded of how families and friends searched for their family in similar ways following 9/11, frantically searching, praying, hoping to be reunited with a friend or loved one.
The emotions and needs of the coastal communities of Asia provide a lens through which Jeremiah can be read. When the walls of the city of Jerusalem fell, the city was decimated. The best and the brightest were carried away into exile. Families were separated. Dead bodies lay unburied. Hunger was so rampant that some were forced to eat their young. On top of the emotional and physical crises presented to these Jewish people, the destruction of Jerusalem presented them with a major spiritual crisis.
Up until this time, the Jewish people believed the temple would not, nor could not, be destroyed. God lived in the temple. If God lives in the temple and since God is all powerful, no power on the earth could destroy the temple, because God wouldn’t allow it to happen–or so they thought.
Jeremiah challenged their theology, but it did nothing to change the way the people lived. Eventually, the words of this prophet and the words of other prophets came to pass.
Tragedy has a way of changing how we look at the world and sometimes how we understand God. I have no idea how the people of Asia are interpreting this disaster spiritually. Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims mostly populate this region of the world. Whether the magnitude of their suffering is causing them to question their faith is likely to be as individual a matter as it would be if such a disaster struck any of the shores of this country.
For the Israelites of Jeremiah’s day, the destruction of the city and the temple, the separation of families, the widespread stench of death, the rampant poverty and hunger that followed were indeed a spiritual crisis. Through the years which followed, they learned some things about God they had not understood before.
They learned through Jeremiah that God was a God of great empathy and compassion. They learned God wept with the people and desired to heal their land. They learned God did not live in the temple but rather in the hearts of those who believed and trusted in Him. Therefore, no matter where the people were, God would always be among them.
Last week CNN reported about a stock broker from New York who had medical experience as a paramedic. His heart was so filled with empathy and compassion after the tsunami, he purchased a ticket to Asia and made his way to the wounded and displaced people and begin helping the doctors. When interviewed, he said for years he’d tried to live a life where he “walked the walk” and not just “talked the talk.” He said he’s often worn a W.W.J.D. (What Would Jesus Do?) bracelet. He decided to go to Asia and help because that’s what he felt Jesus would do.
Tragedy has a way of changing us and changing the world. Sometimes what we think we knew and believed about God is changed or challenged in an instant. At other times, despite having no real answers about why things happen as they do, we are like Job and hold strong to our faith.
Still at other times, tragedy has a way of allowing people to see love and compassion from others at such a deep level that they are introduced to the love of God, sometimes for the very first time.
We are all fellow pilgrims on this journey called life. We cannot ignore the deeper questions of faith that are raised in times of crises and disaster. We must grapple with them and struggle with them as did Jeremiah and Job. Hopefully, whatever interpretation we ascribe to such events, in the end we show love and compassion to those in need. These qualities are the essential qualities of humanity which will help hold our planet together. These qualities transcend culture, language, ethnicity, financial barriers, and religion.
Although the man from New York who went to Asia to help with the wounded couldn’t understand a word they said to him, I believe they all understand him because his presence and his help in their time of need speaks the universal language of love.
Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. His column appears in The Moultrie Observer.
Michael Helms is pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson, Georgia.