Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
August 7, 2022
Scripture: Baruch 3:33–36
In a recent interview, the public radio program host Krista Tippett, whose popular show On Being has been a welcomed source of spiritual and religious conversation within the noisy marketplace of talk radio, said that a show featuring conversations about faith, hope, and forgiveness was an intentional search for enduring wisdom to address our fraught world above quick fixes and easy answers. Krista Tippett, her guests, and her listeners’ conversations were guided by the hope-filled belief that “there is more to reality than we can see, and more change possible than we can imagine.” The reality and change we imagine may not be visible. Still, they can help us exercise our moral imagination whereby we dare to ask ourselves, “To what divine abiding wisdom and ethical truth can we appeal to benefit humanity?”
In these politically polarized times, there is a surprising consensus that nothing is working as it should—not politics, economics, culture, and the natural environment. Institutions we’ve relied upon, like the church, the congress and the courts, and businesses and governments, have failed us. Where do we look for a different way or better way to move forward? In our reading today, that is the project Baruch undertook with Israel when she could not see beyond exile and destruction: helping the people of God see that the fallen and chaotic place in which they were languishing was not beyond hope and redemption. Upon what can we draw to help us reset and move forward in a way that reflects the reign of God?
The biblical, historical character we know as Baruch was the prophet Jeremiah’s scribe, a kind of administrative assistant who handled Jeremiah’s business affairs but also transcribed, collected, and presented Jeremiah’s divine oracles. Baruch had a ringside seat for the drama of Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry when Israel was menaced by Babylon, including stepping forward to ensure that there was no interruption in Jeremiah’s prophetic utterances when he was imprisoned and commanded not to prophesy. While scholars do not believe that Baruch ever authored any books or artifacts, either canonical or apocryphal, it makes sense that later believers would be curious to know what Baruch may have witnessed or what influence a major prophet like Jeremiah may have had on someone who saw up close what Israel went through at a critical moment in its history. So, they begin to imagine what wisdom Baruch may have to offer at a time of pending exile and destruction and collected it in what would become the book of Baruch.
Trial, trouble, and destruction were ongoing realities for Israel, which always prompted among the people a deep examination of their circumstances. Whenever Israel forgot or forsook the divine wisdom that formed, shaped, and liberated God’s people, Israel lost her way and succumbed to outside destructive forces. God’s prophets warned them that their failures, hypocrisies, and compromises would lead to destruction. They also prophesied to them amid exile and amid the rubble of the destruction of all they knew that hope lives. Each time, Israel would come to understand that as bad as things are (and they are bad), as complete as the destruction may be, as uncertain and unpromising as the future may appear, their hope will not be frustrated if they remember their covenant with God. Perhaps, the way forward is to grasp again God’s enduring wisdom and ethical truth that can restore them.
So the book of Baruch looks at Israel’s history and tradition and mines them for enduring wisdom that could be found in the previous experiences of exile and destruction. Baruch becomes a bearer of knowledge that can serve the needs and interests of the covenant people who find themselves once again dominated and scattered and unmoored from what they’ve always known. Baruch assumes the position of advisor and comforter to the people in their pain and suffering. Through collective expressions of repentance and the communal act of prayer, Israel is reminded of who God is and remains for them at this time of exile and destruction.
Because of Baruch’s prayers and exhortations, the people wept, fasted, and prayed. They were able to face up to the role they played in the calamity that had befallen them. They had to reject their narratives of chosen-ness and exceptionalism and admit that their kings, rulers, priests, and ancestors had failed in their covenant commitments to God and to each other. They confessed to being too focused on pursuing their own interests, comforts, and success at the expense of building and being the kind of nation God had called them to be.
If their way forward seems frustrated, there is no better answer than God’s wisdom. In their tradition, the Torah’s exhortations and commandments, and the wisdom of their faith and tradition, they have everything they need to steady them, hold them, inspire them, and encourage them. Even in this moment of chaos and confusion, exile and destruction, they are immersed in God, a fountain of wisdom. The oppressive forces of a foreign country and the shattered surroundings of a desecrated temple and captured holy city cannot compare to the wisdom and creative power of a God who has delivered them before and promises to do it again. Don’t cower under the shadow of the despair of the present moment, for God remains the source of life-giving wisdom. This is our God, who calls and sends forth the light, and it obeys, shining only to please the great One who created it in the first place. The whole creation testifies that this is our God, whose wisdom endures. Surely, this fountain of wisdom can lead us to a better, more peaceful place.
This is not a matter of positive thinking that things will look up if we stay positive. This is also not a call to return to orthodoxy as if the present suffering is precisely the same as what our forebears experienced. It is a reminder that God is a fountain of wisdom from which we can drink no matter the despairing circumstances we are currently enduring. It is a reminder that perhaps the solutions we seek won’t be found in the wealth, power, and endless choices a privileged people have amassed, convincing us that we are our own god. It is a reminder that we may do well to abandon the individualistic pursuit of our own interests, comforts, and material prosperity at the expense of neighbors. It is a reminder that God’s enduring wisdom is more than sufficient to address the failure, hypocrisies, and compromises that got us to this place of confusion, noisiness, and pending doom.
Over the last few years, in the classes I’ve taught and workshops I’ve presented on, I have met a lot of young people just starting out in ministry who wonder to me aloud what is the future of the church and the institutions of democracy they thought would never fail. They have witnessed firsthand the failures, hypocrisies, and compromises of church and a nation thought to be exceptional. They know people who have suffered religious abuse, and they have seen the impact of toxic theology that justifies war and imperialism, racism and homophobia, and political and economic power in the name of God. And yet, they also feel God’s call. They have a work and a ministry to do but they cannot escape the sinking feeling that something fundamental has been lost.
When we are honest, we understand their confusion and their anxiety. It’s not just the church that seems to be suffering from the sense of confusion and lack of clarity. It’s also all the other institutions we assumed would never fail to anchor and stabilize our politics, economy, and culture. The failures, hypocrisies, and compromises of once-reliable institutions are starting to show such that nothing appears to be working anymore. The easy answers and quick fixes we had hoped would arrest the decline and despair have been exhausted. And we are now questioning if and how what has been familiar, what has worked for so long, will survive. We, too, wonder what’s next for the world, for the church, in general, and our church in particular. There is wisdom in the sacred. There is wisdom in the ways, words, and things of God on which it is worth reflecting and pursuing.
Those conversations Krista Tippet had with her guests, those questions young people are asking as they prepare themselves for ministry, and Baruch’s poetry and prayers to a people trying the find their way home hold the answer to their fraught world: God’s enduring wisdom. One of the reliable truths of covenant relationship with God is that the character of God is not negatively altered by our failure to be faithful. That is, God remains a God of mercy, forgiveness, and lovingkindness. No matter how far we have fallen, no matter how lost and chaotic the creation may seem, God remains the fountain of enduring wisdom to which we always have access when we come to ourselves and speak honestly and truthfully about our broken social reality. It is found in the good news that with God, we are assured that after destruction, there is restoration; after exile, there is return.