“What Is a Prophet? Who Is God? Why Does It Matter?”
August 21, 2016
This morning I’m beginning a series of
sermons based on readings from the Book of Jeremiah, one of the great prophets
of ancient Israel.
And because the start of a school year
is about moving into what is not yet known, I start with three questions: What
is a prophet? Who is God? And why does it matter? I want to propose some
preliminary answers, but we will be better able to answer all three questions
as we live with Jeremiah in the weeks ahead.
So—what is a prophet?
Someone who can predict the future?
Someone who is angry and judgmental?
We throw the word around so much that we
lose sight of its meaning.
Does anyone remember when Peter, Paul,
and Mary were described as “two bearded prophets in the folk idiom together
with a blond-and-a-half”? I guess as with many jobs in the early sixties,
“prophet” was one for which women need not apply. And yet the Hebrew Bible tells
of several women prophets, including Huldah, Miriam, Deborah, and even the wife
Frederick Buechner wrote that: “Prophet
means spokesman”—again, what about the women?—“Prophet means spokesman, not
fortune teller.” And wasn’t it Robert MacAfee Brown who said that a prophet is
not one who foretells the future, but
one who tells forth the word of God.
Prophets claim to speak for the Holy One of Israel, the Creator of heaven and
earth, the Judge of the nations.
And they do speak. The great twentieth
century rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, said: “They speak as if the sky is about
to collapse.” They speak with a sense of urgency. They speak because they are
concerned about injustice—we might even say obsessed they are obsessed with it.
When prophets speak, they don’t beat
around the bush or trade in generalities. They are concrete, specific. They
speak about widows and orphans, the poor and the hungry, who are victims of
crippling economic systems. They speak about refugees. They speak about armies
and foreign powers. They speak about sex and the faithlessness of rulers and
That is to say, they speak about the
very things that concern us today.
Prophets know that even religion and
religious leaders can distort our understanding of God’s justice and God’s
unceasing mercy. So they speak out against people like me. They speak out
against the kind of things that we do in this space: mouthing empty and
lifeless words, making promises we will break, withholding our best from the
One who gives us all good things. Jeremiah himself was told to stand in the
gate of the temple and shout at those who arrived for worship: “Amend your ways
and your doings…Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of
the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’”
Jeremiah is not the kind of guy who will
be invited to join others for lunch after worship over at Atlas. We might even
hope that we wouldn’t join us for coffee and donut holes downstairs—although
we’d be glad if the rest of you did. You might agree with the person who said:
“There is no evidence to suggest that anyone ever asked a prophet home for
supper more than once. The prophets were drunk on God and in the presence of
their terrible tipsiness, no one was ever comfortable.”
What are we to make of the prophet who
loudly and incessantly demands our attention today and in the weeks
ahead—Jeremiah, son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land
His name means something like “the Lord
exalts.” And that name has given us the word “jeremiad”—a lamentation, an angry
tale of woe, a bitter lament, a sustained invective. A quick Google search
shows that the word is increasingly popular for use in describing the
oratorical style of at least one Presidential candidate this summer.
By coincidence, the back page of the
latest issue of The Christian Century
has a photograph and a short description of a statue of Jeremiah by
Donatello—not the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, but the early Renaissance
sculptor—that was carved for the bell tower of the cathedral in Florence.
“Jeremiah is depicted as middle aged and sorrowful. The psychological intensity
of his life’s trials—imprisonment, betrayal, persecution—are manifest in his
misshapen head. Jeremiah looks downward, demanding the repentance summoned by
That message, of course, did land him in
trouble again and again. It’s been said that “for his twenty-three years of
faithfulness to God's call, Jeremiah got what you might expect. He was beaten,
received death threats, imprisoned, thrown down a well, and derided as an
unpatriotic crank and traitor. Almost no one listened to him.”[i]
That message was angry, desperate, and,
as we will discover, in the end it was a message of compassion. What Abraham
Joshua Heschel said of all the prophets is true of Jeremiah: “Ultimately they
are concerned about God’s love for human beings, which is why they are so
What is a prophet? In spite of all of
their anger and invective, a prophet in general—and Jeremiah in particular—is a
“partner with God,” concerned, as we are, about God’s love for human beings.
But who, then, is this God?
That, of course, is a question that
really requires an entire sermon to answer. Actually it takes an entire
lifetime, and even then our answers are incomplete.
But let us ask the question “Who is
God?” in the light of this morning’s lesson from Jeremiah.
As is often the case with scripture, our
question is answered, not with a final statement that settles the matter, but
with further questions.
So hear the questions of God:
Am I a God who
is near—the Lord’s word—and not a God who is far off?
Can anyone hide
in some hole—the Lord’s word—and I not see that person?
Am I not the one
who fills both heaven and earth?—the Lord’s word.
Do you like the answers that God gives?
Do you like the questions that God asks?
The God in whom we live and move and
have our being is as close to us as our breathing, the One who is near to
support and strengthen us. You have known such a God at times. Some people want
to know only this God—the One who is with us, even the One who is on our side,
making all go well.
But you also know the God who is as
distant as the farthest star, the God who seems far off and removed from our
concerns and our crises, unheeding of our cries and complaints. Again, some
people want to know only this God—the One so distant as to be insignificant, so
far off as to be of no consequence in this world or in our lives.
Listen to those questions. We hear of the
God who fills both heaven and earth, who is all in all.
Would we think that we could flee from
such a presence?
This morning we sang a setting of Psalm
139, a psalm that asks of God, “Where can I go from your spirit?” Can we hide
in a hole and not be seen?
Paul Tillich said that we can try to
flee to a heaven of our own making, where God would be unnecessary. We can try
to flee to a hell of our own making—and usually that is much more possible, a
little closer by, where we can lament God’s absence and live beyond God’s reach.
But at sunrise or sunset, in light or darkness, we live always in God’s
This is the terrifying awareness of God
that the prophet understands. We might want to hide. We might think that we can
hide. But God who is all in all knows the ways we live and God’s judgment and
mercy are upon us all. The warmth of God can become a burning fire. The
strength of God at times feels like a smashing hammer, shattering our
perceptions and our comfortable ways of thinking.
This is not the either/or choice that
the false prophets offered—usually suggesting that God was always close at hand
to save. They cried “peace” when there was no peace. They spoke of the unfailing
protection of God as the city was under siege. They encouraged the people to
see only part of who God is.
In Jeremiah’s time, the most popular
prophet of the day was Hananiah. Hananiah spoke of good things to come. And
Jeremiah responded by saying, “I sure hope that happens, but I don’t think that
Hananiah was popular. The people liked
what he said. But there is no Book of Hananiah that we read today. Two and a
half millennia later, however, we still read the words of Jeremiah.
We read his words because, while
Jeremiah doesn’t always say what we would like him to say, he points toward the
God of both judgment and mercy, the God who is both far off and nearby.
A prophet is a “partner with God,”
concerned, as we are, about God’s love for human beings.
God is the Holy One, from whose presence
we cannot flee.
But, we must also ask, why does it
It matters because we are not prophets.
We lack their anger over injustice. We lack their fervent desire for the right
worship of God. At our best we lack the self-righteousness that we see in the
prophets at their worst.
It is good for us to read through
Jeremiah, to listen to him rage and complain and accuse, because he is not like
us. And in his strangeness, Jeremiah might be able to help us look at our lives
and our world in new ways. He might help us see that what we take as “normal”
is actually strange and far removed from the good things that God desires for
our lives and for our world.
It matters because while we are not
prophets, it also goes without saying that we are not God. God’s ways are not
our ways. God’s love is not our love.
And yet, in the midst of this life, in
the midst of these busy days filled with obligations and opportunities, at the
start of a new school year, in the height of an election season, we are called
to discernment. We are called to think through our ways and God’s ways.
And even though we are not prophets the
task that is given to each of us individually and all of us together—and it is
not a simple one—the task is to listen to all that we hear in our time out of
the prophet’s wisdom. Our task is to discern truth from falsehood, true comfort
from deception, true challenge from words of fear. And Jeremiah can be a guide
Two quick examples:
There was an article in the New York Times this past week titled
“Flooding in the South Looks a Lot Like Climate Change.” It said that “Climate
change is never going to announce itself by name. But this is what we should
expect it to look like.” Since May of last year there have been eight “five hundred year floods” in the
That increase in heavy rainfall and the
resultant flooding “is consistent with what we expect to see in the future if
you look at climate models.”[ii]
This news came the day after The Washington Post reported that July
was absolutely the hottest month ever recorded in in 136 years of
record-keeping. It was the 10th straight month of recording-breaking
temperatures in NASA’s analysis.[iii]
And yet we hear, we still hear voices
announcing the comforting news that climate change is a hoax, that we need not
change our ways of living, that no harm can come to us or our nation or our
What do we discern? How shall we live?
This year it seems as if we are being
told either that everything is fine or that everything is going to hell in
handbasket. As in Jeremiah’s time, there are many voices today that speak of
peace and protection. They announce the good news we want to hear—that the
nation is exceptional, that we are a people preferred by God, that God’s care
What voices will we heed? How will we
Let us start by listening closely to
We will live challenged by the words of
the prophet who reminds us of the judgment and the compassion of God, who calls
us to justice in the world and faithfulness in our relationships with one
We will live in the presence of the God
who is nearby and far off, the God who is our life.
We will live knowing that our lives and
our actions are of deep and lasting significance to that same God whose love
and mercy are without fail.