When the contents of the tomb of Tutankhamen was opened and the contents revealed, surprisingly enough there were undergarments waiting for the Pharaoh’s need of them. Looking at the tomb graphics and figures, many figures, including Pharaoh, are wearing short kilts or even just plain loincloths. Almost every culture has worn loincloths and some, like Sumo wrestlers among others, continue to wear them as part of their identification. Today we’re more likely to hear about boxers, jockey shorts or even thongs, but they all started as an improvement (more or less) on the loincloth.
The story today begins with Jeremiah’s underwear. Underwear isn’t a subject often mentioned in the Bible. In this story, God told Jeremiah to go get a new linen loincloth. Jeremiah was told not only to buy the undergarment but to put it on and wear it without washing it or letting it get wet. We aren’t told how long he wore it but at some point God came and told him to take it to the river and hide it among the rocks. Some time later, Jeremiah was told to go dig it up and what Jeremiah found was a rotten, stinking mess that could never be used again. Symbolically, it represented the people who had once again proved unfaithful to God.
The job of the prophet was to warn people of the dangers of the course they were taking. It wasn’t foretelling the future by saying something like “A week from next Tuesday a plague will hit and the people living on X, Y and Z streets will be decimated.” It was seeing the cultural and religious bodies being infected from within and trying to tell them that they needed to change their ways of doing things or else.
God often made prophets do strange, not to say weird, things in order to get the people’s attention. Isaiah had to walk around town naked for three years which must have scandalized the neighbors since even accidental exposure of certain areas of the body was not acceptable. Ezekiel had to lie on his left side for 390 days, then on his right side for 40 more before baring his arm and prophesying against Jerusalem. Ezekiel was also told to cook barley bread over a fire of human dung but he bargained God down to cow dung instead as human excrement was considered unclean while a cow’s was a normal fuel. Jeremiah had to wear and then bury his underwear. In each case, using an extreme visual to go with a warning from the prophet was God’s way of trying to get Israel and Judah to listen.
Occasionally something would get their attention and the people would return to the way it was supposed to be, but then they would slide off into apostasy, greed, selfishness and downright sin of any and all varieties once again. Another prophet would give them a message, but again like so many times before, the intimacy with God would be rejected in favor of being like the alien neighbors who seemed to be having so much more fun.
Some fancy stores have departments such as “Ladies’ intimate apparel,” a very dignified name for women’s underwear. Intimate apparel suggests garments that cling to the body, close, familiar and comfortable. Intimacy is more than underwear, though. Intimacy is a relationship that is close, familiar, comfortable and sometimes even passionate. It’s a kind of relationship that everyone craves but sometimes are too afraid to pursue. They fear disclosing too much and giving others power, especially the power to hurt deeply, that comes with a person sharing that information with another.
One thing we are assured of is that God loves us and wants the best for us, even if we don’t know what that is for ourselves. God extends intimacy to each of us yet often we reject it or completely forget about it. We become the dirty underwear stashed in the crevice like Jeremiah’s. We go chasing after foreign or false gods, becoming dirty in the process and straining the intimacy that we, and God, crave.
What does it take for us to return to that intimacy with God that we were intended to have? It isn’t something that just suddenly comes on and sticks around; it has to be fostered, like adding kindling to a tiny fire to make it grow. Prayer and meditation can be a good start, as can being mindful of our actions and thoughts.
Where are we failing God when we mentally curse at the person who just cut us off on the freeway or whose dog left a “gift” on our front lawn? Where are we failing when we see pictures of hungry children and then blithely go on to our favorite restaurant for lunch or dinner that would cost enough to feed that child for days? When we fail at caring for others we fail at caring for God, for each of us carries some God-stuff within us. We fail when we forget to pray or when we only shoot up arrow prayers when we are in trouble but don’t bother with thank yous for help received or for something good that happens.
Intimacy takes work, unlike underwear that just clings to the body. It is a relational thing that has to be carefully tendered. Yet intimacy is a gift from God that lies within us all and that we can return to God as our gift and our duty. Maybe we don’t need a nude prophet or one with dirty underwear, but we do need to pay attention to those who tell us where we are failing in terms of God, our neighbors and even our planet.
Paying attention is another of those intimacy things–a closeness, familiarity and even passion–that will help grow a kingdom, God’s kingdom, here and now.
Image: The prophet in his loincloth. (artist unknown)