As you know, I have been preaching a series on the important stories of the Hebrew scriptures, our Old Testament, and I chose all of those stories way back at the end of the summer. Back in August, I spent a few days skimming through the Bible and reviewing commentaries in order to compile the list of stories that I would preach on this fall and I tried to choose a story from each of Israel’s historical periods: the formation of the tribes, the Exodus, the Conquest, the Judges, the monarchy, the prophets, the exile, and the restoration (which we will get to in a couple of weeks). Not surprisingly, those stories were centered on the major players in Israel’s history and so I have preached about Jacob, Joshua, Saul, David and Abigail — the people who dominate the pages of our Bible — but when I came to the period of the prophets, I read an interesting tidbit that diverted my attention away from those celebrities to a handful of obscure men that because of their obscurity, felt more real to me than any of the rest.
Let me share with you that tidbit before I read today’s scripture.
In 1975, a collector of antiquities was browsing an antique shop in East Jerusalem when he saw on the shelves several hundred bullae inscribed with Hebrew letters. Bullae, or the singular, bulla is a small lump of clay that was attached to an ancient document to seal it, like we might do with wax. As an aside, bulla is spelled b-u-l-l-a which is why we call Vatican decrees “Papal bulls” because the Vatican traditionally attaches a similar bulla to its documents, that the Vatican’s is made of lead. In the case of the ancient clay bullae, a name or insignia was impressed into the clay to identify the sender, and in 1975, when that collector inspected those bullae in that antiquities shop, he saw Hebrew letters impressed into the clay which to his eye looked quite old. He bought the bullae and took them to an expert at Hebrew University in Jerusalem for examination who determined that they were from the period of the last of the Israelite kings. Even more exciting, among the many names pressed into those pieces of clay was the name Elishama. Why was the name Elishama important? I want you to remember that name as I read today’s scripture: excerpts from Jeremiah 36.
“Then Jeremiah called Baruch son of Neriah, and Baruch wrote on a scroll at Jeremiah’s dictation all the words of the Lord that he had spoken to him….[and Baruch read the scroll to the people.] When Micaiah … heard all the words of the Lord from the scroll, he went down to the king’s house, into the secretary’s chamber; and all the officials were sitting there: Elishama the secretary, Delaiah son of Shemaiah, Elnathan son of Achbor, Gemariah son of Shaphan, Zedekiah son of Hananiah, and all the officials. And Micaiah told them all the words that he had heard, when Baruch read the scroll in the hearing of the people….
“Leaving the scroll in the chamber of Elishama the secretary, they went to the court of the king; and they reported all the words to the king. Then the king sent Jehudi to get the scroll, and he took it from the chamber of Elishama the secretary; and Jehudi read it to the king and all the officials who stood beside the king. Now the king was sitting in his winter apartment (it was the ninth month), and there was a fire burning in the brazier before him. As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a penknife and throw them into the fire in the brazier, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the brazier. Yet neither the king, nor any of his servants who heard all [Jeremiah’s] words, was alarmed, nor did they tear their garments. Even when Elnathan and Delaiah and Gemariah urged the king not to burn the scroll, he would not listen to them. And the king commanded Jerahmeel the king’s son and Seraiah son of Azriel and Shelemiah son of Abdeel to arrest the secretary Baruch and the prophet Jeremiah. But the Lord hid them.”
There, pressed into these little lumps of ancient clay sitting on a shelf of an antiquities market in modern day Jerusalem, was the name of one of the men who gathered in King Jehoiakim’s court to listen to Jeremiah’s words of warning to that King, the same man who watched as the King burned that scroll in an arrogant display of disregard, the same man who would soon be driven from his homes by the Babylonian invasion that was brought on by the foolishness of that king. This was a real person, a clerk whose only legacy would be the record of his name on a pellet of clay, and a few sentences in our bible recording his witness to a decision by their King that sealed the fate of Israel’s destruction. (1)
The Bible often feels to us as if it is bigger than life and so, though we read and rehearse its stories in our Sunday Schools and worship services, its people likewise feel bigger than life. Even though we know that they were human beings just like ourselves, it’s hard to imagine David, the slayer of giants, coping with the ordinary annoyances of life that we ourselves face. Like the celebrities of our own time, these biblical men and women feel to us as if they live in a world different from our own where they remain untouched from the ordinary cares and concerns of daily life. Here, however, in Jeremiah, we read the names of a man who was an ordinary office worker in the court of King Jehoiakim and the reality of that mundane life is seen in the numerous clay bullae discarded in the dirt of Jerusalem to one day be dug up and stashed away on an antiquities shelf. Here is a men we can relate to, who never fought giants or led battles against Jericho or killed anyone with the jawbone of an ass. He just sat at his desks, day after day, copying the documents and letters of the Israelite bureaucracy, and pressing his name into the seals of clay like a notary public. And yet, this most ordinary of men in the middle of an ordinary day at the office was called into the presence of the king where he watched the king commit an act of defiance that ultimately led to the destruction of the kingdom. In that moment, he had the opportunity to show as much courage as David or as much moral backbone as Abigail but he chose not to. He instead, remained silent.
“After Jehudi would read three or four columns [of Jeremiah’s scroll], the king would cut them off the scroll with his pocketknife and throw them in the fire. He continued in this way until the entire scroll had been burned up in the fire. Neither the king nor any of his officials showed the slightest twinge of conscience as they listened to the messages read.”
How would the history of Israel been different if Elishema or any of those officials watching that day had spoken up and challenged the King to listen to the words of Jeremiah? We don’t know if their words would have made a difference: we don’t know if Jehoiakim would have listened to their arguments on behalf of the prophet; we don’t know if the king would have changed his policies, reconsidered his position, and made peace with Babylon; we don’t know if Elishema could have changed the course of history with his words but we can know for sure that his silence changed nothing. In 1867, the British philosopher and political theorist John Stuart Mill said, “Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”
“Neither the king nor any of his officials showed the slightest twinge of conscience,” the Bible says, “as they listened to the messages read.” In that moment, in the midst of a mundane day for a handful of ordinary men just like you and me, there was an opportunity to change the course of their nation’s future, but they refused to speak, and their silence was their epitaph. Babylon would tire of the arrogance of Jehoiakim and as Jeremiah had warned, would come riding in upon Jerusalem, razing its land, destroying the Temple, and hauling its people off to exile including Elishema and his family. (2)
The story of this man struck me in a way that all of the exploits of the more famous biblical characters could not because while I can’t imagine myself fighting Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, I can imagine myself sitting in an office rubber stamping a bunch of documents when suddenly someone acts in a morally offensive way and I have to decide whether to say anything. It isn’t always the larger than life heroes and villains that determine the course of a civilization’s moral progress; it is often decided by the ordinary men and women who either acquiesce in silence to the discomforting bigotries, oppressive policies, or harmful attitudes of their communities, or instead choose to speak up and say, “This is not what God means by love your neighbor.” Our single voices may feel very small and inconsequential but then Elishema may not have felt as if his words would have made a difference either, but he never had a chance to find out because he chose NOT to speak. How often in his exile did he wonder, “Would I be here if I had spoken out?”
We are the Elishema’s of our time. Over the 36 years of my ministry, we in the church have struggled with how to respond to the ravages of poverty and hunger, to refugee crises, to the victims of prejudice and violence, to immoral policies, and to intolerance. What we are facing in our nation today is nothing new: it’s been going on since I started preaching and probably the most frequent question that I have heard in the aftermath of each distressing event is, “What can we do?” What can we do to stop gun violence in our schools? What can we do to forestall climate change and the environmental suffering that comes in its wake? What can we do to battle racism? What can we do to bring humane practices to our nation’s judicial system? In that question, I have heard two things: first and foremost is your heartfelt conviction that these issues are for us as Christians at the core of our faith. We believe that Christ has called us to care for the poor, welcome the stranger, and be peacemakers in our communities. We know that as Christians we don’t have the luxury of shrugging our shoulders and shutting it all out while we hunker down in front of Netflix. The second thing I hear, however, is the doubt that we can make a difference. We see the enormity of the problem and in comparison, we see the smallness of our own lives and our doubting hearts say, “I am only one person. What possible good could it do for me to speak out?”
And over the years of my ministry I have come to the conclusion that we simply cannot and will never know the answer to that question. We cannot know what possible good it will do for us to speak out; we cannot know if anything we do or say will make any difference in the long run; we cannot know if a word from us will be the word that creates real change; but there is one thing we CAN know for certain. We can know for a fact that we will not make any difference in the world if we choose NOT to speak out.
Over the years, I have come to accept that fundamental uncertainty and tried to live a life that speaks out. I am not, as you know, an extroverted flamboyant kind of person who is comfortable marching in massive protests or shouting through megaphones, so instead I have sought quieter ways of speaking out. I carefully research the issues I believe God wants me to care about and every month I give a pledge to six different organizations that work in effective ways to combat poverty, bigotry, gun violence, and environmental decay. These are not one time donations but monthly pledges withdrawn automatically from my bank account so that I will ensure my giving doesn’t depend on my mood of the moment but is a constant pledge of support. I send emails to my congressional representatives regularly sharing my concerns, urging them to act, or thanking them for work I think has been effective; emails that they probably never read but I take heart in knowing for a fact that they would not read them if I didn’t write them! I hammer away in my sermons ad nauseam about God’s call to welcome all people into fellowship regardless of race, sexual orientation, or background, not because I think you all need to hear these reminders again but because the one week I don’t say anything might be the week a visitor comes to church who needs to hear that God cares about all people. And I try to practice compassion and acceptance in my own daily life hoping that my actions will speak as loudly as my words.
I don’t know if any of it will make a difference. I don’t know whether I in my tiny tiny ways can move our society toward greater justice and right relationships. I do know, however, that I, for one, do not want to sit in the ashes with Elishema wondering if things would have been different if I had not kept my silence. And I suspect that neither do you. So whether it makes a difference or not, let us all follow the calling of Christ to continue to speak up and speak out on behalf of all of those who need our voices. It may or may not make a difference, but it will certainly have more power to change the world that any silence.
1. Scholars are fairly certain the Elishema in the Bible and the Elishema on the bullae were one and the same because the names of several other officials of Jehoiakim’s court were also found on the bullae specifically Baruch, Jerahmeel, and Gemariah. I focused on Elishema because he was among those who remained silent. Baruch was, of course, the one who delivered the manuscript and Jerahmeel actively supported the king, while Gemariah did try to dissuade the King from his actions. One could argue that because Germariah’s protest did no good, Elishema speaking out wouldn’t have helped either but it’s possible that one more voice could have made the difference. My point remains that his silence ensured that he did not make a difference.
2. There are no lists of the people taken into exile but the bible emphasizes that the court officials were among those taken so we can assume that if Elishema survived the invasion, he and his family were among the captured.