12/02/18 – JV – Reluctant Prophets

Reluctant Prophets

December 2, 2018
Jazz Vespers Homily
Jeremiah 1:4-10:7:1-11; Matt.21:12-13
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

 

We begin with the presentation of Jeremiah’s prophet credentials in chapter 1. God delivers a call to prophecy to a very reluctant Jeremiah. Jeremiah complains that he is too young for such a responsibility. He begs off with the excuse he does not know what to say, but God assures him he will put the words in his mouth. Check-mate, Jeremiah becomes a prophet.

Then we go to chapter 7 and Jeremiah’s famous Temple Sermon.” The historical context is that the Northern Kingdom of Israel has already been conquered by a foreign power, the Assyrians. Babylon is now threatening to invade the southern kingdom known as Judah. Biblical scholars place this passage after the reign of King Josiah, during the reign of Jehoiakim. Josiah was one of the few “good guys” amongst the many corrupt or ineffective kings of Israel. Josiah brought many positive reforms as well as a revitalized appreciation for Scripture and religious practices. When Jehoiakim came to power he undid all the positive changes Josiah made. He was a king, who thought he was supposed to follow God’s model of a just and righteous king was self-centered and had no allegiance to God. Jehoiakim brought back the pagan rituals Josiah had banned. Jeremiah issued a warning to Jehoiakim and the people of Israel.

Jeremiah was known as “the weeping prophet” because he wished for a “fountain of tears” with which he might weep for the slain of his own people (9:1). But, for most of this book, we read that Jeremiah was just plain mad. He was mad at the king, the people, and the religious leaders. He even got mad with God for making him a prophet to such a despicable group of back-sliding evil-doers.

Why was Jeremiah angry? The people had broken covenant with God. They were following every god that gave them that “come hither” look or waved a wad of cash. The religious leaders made a great show of their piety while ingratiating themselves to the king and neglecting their duties to be the peoples’ “moral compass.” Jeremiah saved most of his anger for the political leader, King Jehoiakim. Jehoiakim was an incompetent, puppet of the King of Egypt, who spent vast sums on his own palatial home while impoverishing his people.

As one might expect of such a king, Jehoiakim didn’t take well to Jeremiah’s prophecies of doom and gloom. Jeremiah sent old-fashioned letters on parchment paper warning the king of God’s wrath and impending punishment. Not being able to inundate Jeremiah with nasty Twitter responses and a barrage of insults, King Jehoiakim burned the prophecies.

Nobody wanted to hear what this lonesome prophet had to say. Jeremiah accepted God’s call to be faithful amid the faithless, to be a prophet among a people who would rather close their eyes to the signs of a failing nation. For his courage, he was thrown in jail. He was also thrown into a cistern, which fortunately was empty. Covered in mud he climbed out and kept on talking. He denounced idol-worship – worshipping the nation as an idol, the king as an idol, the temple as an idol and all the other idols that had taken the fancy of the faithless.

The people mistakenly reasoned that Judah had been spared the fate of the northern kingdom, Israel because they had the temple. Jeremiah corrects this false idea by telling them God has no need of a temple. They had put their trust in a building, a religious institution, rather than their God. Jeremiah makes it clear that what matters to God is that the people keep their covenant by being obedient to God. This is exactly what the people have not done.

Jeremiah condemns the king for his act of violence against a prophet. The prophet, Uriah, had spoken for the Lord against Jehoiakim, and Jerusalem for their failure to keep covenant with God. To shut him up, Jehoiakim killed him. Dictators and despots around the world are still employing this strategy for silencing critics – the most recent notable examples being Russia’s Putin having political rivals poisoned, and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince having the Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi abducted, murdered and dismembered.

Jeremiah accused the people of dividing their loyalties between God and idols, which made their worship false and deceptive. He calls them out for neglecting both their promises to God as well as rejecting their obligations to their community. Jeremiah reiterates God’s command to prioritize their care for the most vulnerable of society – widows, orphans and aliens (foreign visitors and immigrants) Under King Jehoiakim, justice was not given to the deserving, but the rich. Jeremiah condemns this practice.

After summoning the people to forsake their ungodly ways, Jeremiah lays out the ethical and religious values which are essential for covenantal faithfulness. He warns that the perceived blessings of the false gods they are following are curses in disguise.

Yet, there is a word of grace here. Jeremiah assures the people:

          “If you truly act justly one with another, 6if you do not oppress the alien,
           the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if
           you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, 7then I will dwell with
           you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever
           and ever.”

But they didn’t listen. Such is the fate of many prophets. I wonder: in the future who be viewed as the prophets active in the world now? As Christians, we are called to be prophetic, especially when injustice prevails. We are reluctant prophets. We do not want to offend or suffer the consequences of speaking truth to power. We could easily use the “but what about them?” excuse and point to those who use their false sense of righteousness to mask their lack of faithfulness. The challenge is to judge and correct our own so that our prophetic voices are not shouted down by our own actions. This is the work of Christmas preparation – to prepare for God’s entrance into our world in the form of a vulnerable child for us to protect, a prophet to heed, and a king to worship with our lives lived faithfully in his footsteps.

Amen.

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2018, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church
1420 W. Moss Avenue – Peoria Illinois 61606
WestminsterPeoria.org   |   309.673.850