“What Is a Prophet? Who Is God? Why Does It Matter?”

August 21, 2016

 

Jeremiah 23:23-29

 

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 of Isaiah.

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 common people.

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 of Bejamin?

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 his message.”

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 upset.”

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 presence.

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.

Nearby.

Far off.

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 it will.”

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 matter?

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 United States.

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 world.

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 is certain.

What voices will we heed? How will we live?

Let us start by listening closely to Jeremiah.

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 another.

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.