In Jeremiah 13, the Lord tells Jeremiah to do something odd. “Go and get yourself a linen sash, and put it around your waist, but do not put it in the water.”
So he did it.
And then the Lord told him to take it all the way to modern day Iraq, the Euphrates River, and hide it under a rock. He did it. And then he had to dig the sash, which was a priestly garment, and then put it again under a rock in the water. Later the Lord told him to dig it up.
This was odd in so many ways. It “accomplished” nothing except for the lesson that the Lord told him that as the sash clings to man, so does the whole house of Judah cling to Me.
Back in the 1980s, while writing for Style Weekly in Richmond, I revived a column I had seen in an old Richmond newspaper. It was called Richmond Oddities, and we did the feature yearly. One of the oddities remarked on (I can’t remember whether my editor let me publish it; she thought it exploitative) was a short little homeless looking man, who would wander around Richmond’s Fan District, pouring water out of a beat up, plastic, two liter soda bottle. He would kneel in front of various structures, including the Beth Ahahah Synagogue and St. James Episcopal Church, and say something, and then move on.
Many people noticed him; he was sort of a neighborhood feature. It was terribly odd, yet in the biggest sense, rather normal, as nobody seemed to question him praying in front of these churches and synagogues. It made me think we lived in a sort of magical, Jerusalem like city where people sort of walked around in different levels of consciousness, even though the reality was somehow less special. I never wanted to stop and ask him about it; it was more interesting to me that the guy was doing it. I was certainly not afraid to ask him about it, though I did have a fear that if he told me something prosaic about the bottle trick, it would ruin the myth.
I think of another example of being obedient in an odd way. In the 1990s, then-Councilwoman L. Shirley Harvey, either before or after her election, saw fit to march around Richmond’s New City Hall (or perhaps go to the observation deck atop New City Hall) to extricate the demons. This, I thought, was a hoot, in a good (and God) way. While it was “foolish” to the non-Christian, and perhaps a bit funny, to me it was a serious gesture, one that I would be afraid to do or admit to in public. Harvey, however, as an African-American evangelical, could, I then assumed “get away” with something so public, as she was popular in her district, and a Pentecostal.
Years later, and perhaps, I admit, in a quiet respect for Shirley’s obedience, I would and will say quiet prayers near and in front buildings and places, but never publicly. Saying prayers at places is not so much of unleashing God’s power, but instead helping to align myself with His wishes. I said quiet prayers while wandering and walking the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in May of 2013; only Muslims are allowed to pray there, so you get in trouble if you kneel. I still prayed standing up and walking, and it was one of the boldest, most outrageous prayers of my life.
But back to Jeremiah, writing 600 years before Christ. Thinking on his 700 mile trip to the Euphrates with what ended up to be a wet kilt, we should ourselves look to be obedient to the Lord. But how? Crazy thoughts do go through our heads, and how do we differentiate those thoughts with the odd, useless thoughts that would not be helpful.
Some criteria on obedience, and ways to define it. Obedience involves these seven characteristics:
- Safety: The action that the Lord told Jeremiah hurt no one. What he asked was not dangerous or destructive.
- Anonymity: The action was done quietly, so that no other person was involved in talking Jeremiah out of this journey, or telling him it was stupid to waste time putting a piece of cloth under a rock. He may have had a traveling companion, and certainly would have met others along the way. But the story does not indicate that others were involved in the mission, nor needed to know.
- Prayerfulness: When we are called to action, we can act. Those who are in the grips of evil and called to action can do harmful things. However, if we are in a place where our lives are in all other places seeking the Lord, it makes us better able to judge and act on what the Lord is saying.
- Clarity: Because of the prayerful place of Jeremiah, he could hear God more clearly, and be certain that the voice he heard was real, and not something from a darker place.
- Sacrifice: What Jeremiah did involved a cost of time and travel. I suppose he could have taken the linen to the Jordan, or the streams that ran near Jerusalem, but the Lord did not ask that.
- Tested: It says in verse 13:2 that Jeremiah got the sash “according to the word of the Lord.” This means that Jeremiah knew the Bible, and compared his thoughts and accomplished his action according to the reality of the Jewish tradition and law.
- Repeated: The obedience of the simple but long trip to the Euphrates must have been difficult, but it was not impossible. If we are obedient in small things, we learn to trust. And then we can be more obedient in larger things.