Sermon for Pentecost 4 2020

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The way we read scripture in church is by its nature problematic, necessitated by the fact that few would show up weekly for hours-long expositions on lengthy bible passages (though the Puritans may be one modern exception that proves this rule). Because we tend to get thematically connected “snippets” of scripture from week to week, the lack of context for a particular lesson may obscure its meaning. Here I don’t mean the historical and cultural and linguistic context of a passage, though that is always in danger of being lost. I mean, much more simply, reading a passage without the rest of the text that surrounds it can give us exactly the wrong impression of its meaning and relevance.

This morning’s Old Testament lesson from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah is a perfect example. The five short verses we heard a few minutes ago might strike us as positive and hopeful. Jeremiah seems to be congratulating the prophet Hananiah for preaching a message of peace and liberation. He seems to be saying “Right on [that’s my modern translation of the word “Amen”] let the Lord bring back the captive Israelites from Babylon like you said!” This is exactly the opposite, though, of what Jeremiah is saying in this morning’s lesson.

In the preceding chapter, God told Jeremiah to warn Zedekiah the King of Judah–who had been appointed king by the Babylonian Emperor Nebuchadnezzar–and all the people of their land not to rebel against Babylon but to remain in the uncomfortable situation of being a tributary to that great Empire and to come to terms with the fact that many of their countrymen had been deported and scattered throughout the empire as a means of discouraging rebellion. As a sort of object lesson, Jeremiah had fashioned and placed himself in a wooden yoke to symbolize the status which his nation would have to come to terms with and endure. He also gives a stern warning to those who might listen to a more welcome prophecy:

Thus says the LORD: Do not listen to the words of your prophets who are prophesying to you, saying, `Behold, the vessels of the LORD’s house will now shortly be brought back from Babylon,’ for it is a lie which they are prophesying to you.

In the chapter from which this morning’s lesson is taken, we are told that less than a year after this display another prophet does just what Jeremiah had warned against. Immediately preceding the lesson we heard, Jeremiah records:

In that same year, at the beginning of the reign of Zedeki’ah king of Judah, in the fifth month of the fourth year, Hanani’ah the son of Azzur, the prophet from Gibeon, spoke to me in the house of the LORD, in the presence of the priests and all the people, saying,”Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the LORD’s house, which Nebuchadnez’zar king of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place Jeconi’ah the son of Jehoi’akim, king of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the LORD, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.”

Jeremiah’s response is not “Right on, let the Lord bring back the captive Israelites from Babylon like you said!” Rather he employs sarcasm and irony to shame, we might even say to poke fun at, Hanaiah’s overly-optimistic prediction.

So, we might interpret Jeremiah here, tongue firmly in cheek, saying something like, “Oh yeah, all those doom and gloom prophets were a real buzzkill. Go ahead and revolt against Babylon. It’ll be easy! Plus, Nebuchadnezzar is going to through a party for all the captives and give them cake and ice cream before he lets them walk home.”

Apparently, Hananiah didn’t get the sarcasm, or didn’t care, and immediately after this morning’s lesson he took the wooden yoke off of Jeremiah and broke it to pieces. And what did Jeremiah do? He went home and then, at God’s command, came back with an iron yoke in place of the wooden one. Oh, and then Hananiah was struck dead. A decade later, King Zedekiah would rebel against Babylon, hoping an alliance with Egypt would make him prevail, but he was captured, Jerusalem and its temple were utterly destroyed, and the Jews would end up spending sixty years in exile before Cyrus the Great and the Persians would defeat their captors and let them return.

There is both a practical and a spiritual lesson this can teach us. The practical one is simple enough, but how easy we forget it. If somebody tells you exactly what you want to hear, he may not have your best interests at heart. He may, rather, just want to curry favor or manipulate you for his own ends. If something seems too good to be true, it may well be. I’m overly credulous, so I know this to be the case; for example, I should never be trusted to buy a car by myself.

The spiritual lesson is a harder one. There are obvious examples that hardly bear mentioning- the “Prosperity Gospel” approach of promising success and riches if you send enough money to the church or televangelist or whomever is really low-hanging fruit. Assuming that’s not where most of us are, though, I do think there is an even more pernicious trap we are all prone to fall into.

I have often heard folks say something like “I always leave church feeling better than when I arrived.” This can be both good and dangerous, I think. It’s wonderful when the experience of worship gives us comfort and peace when we so badly need it. It can be dangerous, though, if our entire spiritual life only serves to make us feel better. I think I said in a sermon some weeks ago, that God both comforts the afflicted and arouses the careless. Sometimes what each of us needs is to find God’s healing, calming balm applied to our weary hearts, and that should not be discounted. Sometimes, though, what each of us needs is for the Holy Spirit to give us a kick in the pants, to convict us when we are called to be more faithful or loving than we have been.

The biblical prophets were masters of both calling people to a greater faith and instilling hope for God’s provision in God’s time. Somebody like Hananiah might make a more successful preacher or televangelist, if success were measured not in a growing faithfulness and deepening spirituality, but in terms of people in the pews and money in the plate. But if our “success” is to be assessed in terms of our growth into “the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” we may need more Jeremiahs, more Isaiahs, more John the Baptists.

“Whoever welcomes a prophet,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel “in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.” May God give us the ears to hear such messengers and the hearts to accept his message spoken through them, even when that message is uncomfortable–even when it calls us to repentance and growth and hard work–because God’s Kingdom is not won easily, but the prize is life and salvation in this world and the next.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.