Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

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

The benefits of being in a church which requires use of the lectionary are manifold. It means that, despite some differences between our lectionary and those used by other churches, the similarities are such that we usually hear more-or-less the same lessons that the majority of Christians around the world are hearing on the same day. It saves you from being subjected to my own hobby-horses all the time, which is a danger when the preacher simply gets to choose his or her own text. Most importantly, it makes one deal with difficult texts one wouldn’t choose to. I mentioned to Bishop Jolly last week that I was relieved she had to deal with that Gospel text about the difficulty and division which faithfully following and witnessing to the Gospel can introduce into our lives and relationships.

So, I dodged a bullet and we have nice happy readings this week, right? Well, at first blush it seems that way, but this brings up a problem with lectionaries. Like any document produced by committee, the lectionary emerged from a political process, and that means that sometimes we miss some important things that somebody somewhere was uncomfortable with. Sometimes we’re forced to hear the nasty bits, but other times we get the sanitized version and miss the point which the authors of the various books of the bible intend for us to get. This is absolutely the case with this morning’s Old Testament lesson from the book of the Prophet Jeremiah. In fact, if we read this lesson out of context, we get a message which is precisely opposite that which is intended.

Our reading this morning sounds awfully hopeful. The time for preaching war and famine and pestilence, it seems, was over. “As for the prophet who prophecies peace,” Jeremiah says, “when the word of the prophet comes to pass, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”

Now to give you some context, Israel was captive to the Babylonian Empire, the greatest force in the near East at the time, the early 6th Century B.C. Jeremiah, like many of the prophets, engaged in some of what today we would call “street theater”. He had placed a wooden yoke around his neck to symbolize Israel’s bondage to Babylon and its King, Nebuchadnezzar. Hananiah, the prophet to whom Jeremiah addresses his words in this morning’s reading, had just prophesied Israel’s deliverance. Israel’s problems were all over, Hananiah said, and Jeremiah believed Hananiah’s prophecy was from God. In the two verses which immediately follow this morning’s reading, it says:

Then the prophet Hananiah took the yoke-bars from the neck of Jeremiah the prophet, and broke them. And Hananiah spoke in the presence of all the people saying “Thus says the Lord: Even so will I break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon from the neck of the nation within two yeas.”

Israel’s problems, it seemed, were at least very nearly over.

But if we read just a few verses further, we find the truth was very different. It continues:

Sometime after the prophet Hanani’ah had broken the yoke-bars from off the neck of Jeremiah the prophet, the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah: “Go, tell Hanani’ah, `Thus says the LORD: You have broken wooden bars, but I will make in their place bars of iron. For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I have put upon the neck of all these nations an iron yoke of servitude to Nebuchadnez’zar king of Babylon, and they shall serve him, for I have given to him even the beasts of the field.'” And Jeremiah the prophet said to the prophet Hanani’ah, “Listen, Hanani’ah, the LORD has not sent you, and you have made this people trust in a lie. Therefore thus says the LORD: `Behold, I will remove you from the face of the earth. This very year you shall die, because you have uttered rebellion against the LORD.'” In that same year, in the seventh month, the prophet Hanani’ah died.

So when we read just a little bit further, we find that Jeremiah had been tricked. The prophecy of peace which we find in this morning’s reading was the result of deception and wishful thinking. Hard times were still to lie ahead for the children of Israel.

What does this mean for us, beyond the seemingly obvious, namely, that when the lectionary gives us a text we should pay attention to context? I think it means that we have to be careful about false prophets. If Jeremiah, himself a prophet, could be taken in, how much greater is the danger for us!

Jesus says “he who receives a prophet because he is a prophet receives a prophet’s reward,” but just a few verses earlier (from last week’s Gospel lesson) he says “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

A false prophet tells us exactly what we want to hear, namely that all is just peachy. He fools us into believing that the suffering we see around us is just an illusion. He tells us that if we sew our seed by sending in a bunch of money to his cause, we’ll be healthy and wealthy.

To receive a prophet who is truly a prophet is to welcome news we might not want to hear. We don’t want to hear that we might be complicit in sin. None of us wants to hear that he’s selfish or uncaring. None of us wants to hear that he needs a change of heart or a renewed commitment to God or he’s going to be in spiritual danger. We don’t want to receive a prophet because he is a prophet, because the false prophet makes us feel so good about ourselves.

We learn from Jeremiah and from Jesus that the truth can be unpleasant and it can be divisive, but we’re nonetheless called to accept it, and Jesus himself has told us that it will set us free. Let us set aside our fear of the truth, knowing that false hope and false security and a false sense of our own perfection are the quickest way to bonds more uncomfortable than Jeremiah’s yoke. The truth delivered by a true prophet may hit us like a ton of bricks, but when we climb out from under that pile we’ll find the yoke finally removed and we’ll find within us a will we never knew we had to walk in the light, seeing the world for what it is and working to make it what God would have it be.

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