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Over the next few weeks we’ll be spending some time with the prophet Jeremiah. We will see him in full prophetic voice as he chastises Israel for its systemic evils, as he confronts another prophet’s vision of the future and we will watch him weep over the very people he chastises, helping us to understand the complexities and dichotomies found in being a prophetic voice.
A little background first – what we would call Israel today was, in the time of Jeremiah, split into two kingdoms – Israel to the north and Judah to the south. Jeremiah, we are told in the verses just before what you heard read, received this “call” from God in the thirteenth year of the reign of king Josiah who ruled over Judah from 640-609 B.C.E., about 700 years before Jesus. It is a time of great turmoil for Israel and Judah, if you can imagine a map in your head and understand where Israel is located, then you will note that all around that nation is desert to one side and the Mediterranean Sea to the other. Israel lies between the major powers of the time, Egypt to the south and the Babylonian empire to the north – a tiny sliver of fertile land perfect for a trade route in between the empires. And, as we can see in our news headlines today, controlling the trade is a critical function of empire.
This nation was under the constant threat of invasion, and they saw their ability to avoid such conquering as a mark of God’s protection, God’s favor, so when invasion was imminent, it was a theological as well as a political crisis. And the role of the prophet – Jeremiah in particular – is to point out that God seeks covenant, meaning that God’s “favor” comes with strings attached. God expects righteousness from us, the Biblical code word for doing the right thing, and when we systematize injustice and oppression, when we build social structures that protect and nurture greed and inequality, we are not producing righteousness…at least that’s what the prophets say, and what Jeremiah says to Israel.
Jeremiah was a PK, a preacher’s kid, raised in the central highlands in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, the “priestly class” of the 12 tribes of Israel. In the conflict of leadership that occurs right after King David’s time on the throne, a subsection of this priestly class is banished for their dissent of the “David program,” a sort of “Make Israel Great Again” merger of military, patriotism and religious authority. Jeremiah is raised in a family that has long been opposed to this trajectory of economic-military autonomy which David started and Solomon continued, he comes by his “propheting” naturally.
The purpose of the prophet in the biblical world is to deliver the “word of God.” So we need to unpack that because we think that the “word of God” is the Bible, but before there was a Bible, before people even wrote things down, there was revelation, prophecy, the speaking of God’s will from people who were seen as conduits for divine proclamation. But here’s the thing with such proclamation, conduits are contextual. A prophet might be recognized by some people, and flatly rejected by others. How do you know a prophet really is delivering the “word of God?” And how do we hold up the “word of God” as a possibility, even in our days where the words are written out on a page and we yet we still translate and interpret them differently based, largely, on context?
I’m sure that we could talk a lot about what makes for a prophet, and probably have very different lists. Instead, let’s talk about prophetic action – what prophets do. They proclaim, they examine, they look at the world around them and ask why it is not better. And, in the Bible, they do this in very specific ways. They always speak of justice, of mercy and the ways that we, as human beings, seek God’s grace for ourselves, but fail to deliver that same grace to our fellow human beings. Prophets DO things that call this habit out. Acting as the voice of God, they announce God’s judgment. We tend to hear judgment as individual, God’s wrath called down upon me for something I’ve done, a byproduct of a culture that sees lots of things – if not everything – through the lens of self. Not so for the ancient Hebrews whose prophets speak of judgment on Israel itself, on the systems and the cooperate structure.
I think that we also hear judgment as a negative thing, by and large, and often attach it to images of a punitive, angry God that we were raised with, but that’s not what is at work in the ancient Hebrew model of God. There we find judgment as a natural and cyclical consequence of the breaking of the covenant, or people not being righteous. Think of it as Judeo-Christian “karma,” you get what’s coming to you. If you act unjustly, justice comes knocking. If you treat people unfairly, God rights the scales. Now, we may be able to give a lot of examples of where this seems NOT to be the case, but the Biblical prophetic witness claims that God’s justice comes – so if it ain’t here yet, just wait. It’s on it’s way.
In our context, if this prophetic genre is going to still have impact on us, and I think we need it to, we will need some redefinition of things like judgment and righteousness. We have been taught by the biggest chunk of Christian expression in the 20th century that righteousness is found in identity – it is what group you belong to, what church you are a member of, what profession you make, what baptism you have. Righteousness is often presented as if it is contained in a carefully selected list of “do’s and don’t’s” that you need to at least appear like you are following, almost as if it’s more important to look righteous than it is to actually be righteous. It’s how you can have a leader slapped with the label “righteous,” who has affairs and questionable business practices, who uses the most unjust and brutal tactics against those deemed “the other,” and who lies and manipulates to get what he wants. I am, of course, talking about King David. Who did you think I was talking about?
In some ways, the prophetic voice reaches across the ages because it calls out something that seems to be part of the human condition. Every age has it’s tyrants, every time sees it’s own evil and injustice, yet these conditions stay with us throughout the generations, as if the human struggle to reach the Holy, to stay in covenant with God, is an eternal struggle. Jeremiah calls out injustice and meets it with the intervention of a God who balances the scales…maybe because it often seems only God who can do such work. We always miss the mark.
There is an opportunity for we so-called “progressive” Christians to hear the call of the prophets anew. While we may hear the criticism and the cry for justice with clarity, we miss the process that the prophets set before us. While we try to positively spread the message of a loving God, we don’t have very much room for that love to contend with the very real evil and injustice in the world. Jeremiah will preach destruction coming from the hands of Babylon, destruction and exile. But that formula doesn’t stop there, it’s always destruction in order to rebuild, an ending so that a new beginning can happen. In psychological terms, and in academic terms, we often talk about deconstruction and reconstruction, a process that disassembles one way of thinking or one set of assumptions so that there is room for something else.
Like clay made into beautiful pottery, only when we’re willing to be shaped and re-shaped can God mold us into something beyond what we already are. Love, we should note as we preach a loving God, is not without pain, or even suffering. Destruction has such a negative connotation, but in order to hear the prophets effectively, we will have to work through that connotation, allowing that all change – even positive change – comes with destruction. A butterfly springs forth from the death of the caterpillar, a beautiful flower springs forth from a broken seed, our whole lives rotate around the cycle of life though we rarely see it – life comes from death. And, for our more hopeless times, we say in our Christian ethos – life, death and resurrection.
When faced with this formula, with this plan of life from death as the “word of God,” Jeremiah does exactly what I think we’d all do, he says, “Pass.” He pulls the Moses trick with God, “O, mighty and sovereign Creator, I am but a lowly worm, incapable of speech worthy of your glory.” To which God replies, “Pffffttttt – you’ll be fine. I am with you. Get moving.” How would you feel if you were, “appoint[ed]…over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant?” Would that fill you full of confidence, or leave you feeling supremely unqualified…in over your head? And this, friends, is a primary “call” story in the Bible. It’s preached on at people’s ordination! Not mine, thank God, but this is the weight that can be handed to us – and not just ministers – for we are ALL called, the Bible teaches us. God’s promise is to send us forth with this message and a trust that God will be with us, giving us words when we need them.
All os this is set before us at a time when, like Jeremiah, we may feel overwhelmed by the call, insufficient to the task set before us, we might even feel like we’re working on it, but it’s like screaming at a wall. And yet we probably all also feel like the screaming has to go on, even when it feels ineffective, for there are a few things that need to be plucked up, and a few things that we need to plant. There are even some things that we will likely have to destroy because, like a crepe myrtle or some kudzu, they are too deeply rooted to simply pluck up…there are some things that we will have to overthrow because they are such an ingrained part of what we have considered “normal” that they won’t step down, we’ll have to tip those thrones over. And there is plenty of room to build new structures, new systems that recognize we actually need one another, that our differences sharpen us, they don’t weaken us. There’s plenty of good soil in which to plant the seeds of hope – and then wait for that hope to sprout, for we may labor for things that we ourselves will never see bloom, but our labor is not in vain.
Do not be afraid, God says, for I am with you…to deliver you.