June 28, 2020
Jeremiah 28:5-9, Romans 6:12-23 and Matthew 10:40-42
What do you want to hear?
In 2017, Chris Thomas pastor in the Alabama countryside preached a sermon on the Beatitudes. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
To these, the pastor added a verse of his own: “Blessed are those who seek refuge and have the door shut on their face.” The new administration had just issued a travel ban that included refugees from Syria. A few days after the sermon on the Beatitudes, a group of congregants wanted to talk: “You’re criticizing our President,” they said. From thereon Pastor Thomas said: “My words were being measured.”
Years ago, I preached a sermon on social justice. With youthful enthusiasm I was convinced that I spoke on behalf of God when I proclaimed that all human beings, all races are created in the image of God. And as such everyone is equal before God and should be treated with respect and dignity.
Not long after that Sunday an Elder wanted to see me. “You are preaching politics”, he said. “No, I am not”, I responded. “Social justice is a theological and not a political concept. The church cannot allow politicians to hijack Biblical concepts for political purposes.” Needless to say, he did not agree with me. From thereon I was very hesitant and nervous to preach about topics that may be perceived as political. My words were being measured too. I did my very best to stay honest and faithful in my preaching but it was not always easy.
Jeremiah was a prophet with an extraordinary long ministry. His ministry lasted over 4 of the most turbulent and decisive decades in the history of the Jewish people. He is sometimes called the weeping prophet. You see, his message was not a popular one: he preached about the destruction of the city Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. He lived to see the dreadful series of events he prophesied. Jeremiah did not find any joy in preaching to his own people that their lives and actions are not aligned with their calling as God’s covenant people. As a matter of fact, he suffered immensely even as he felt compelled to be faithful to his calling as a prophet. He wanted to be faithful to God.
His own people did not want to hear the truth – especially when the truth contained bad news. They did not want their political or religious views criticized or questioned. For example, priests, national leaders and the population held onto what we call, a “temple theology”.
“Temple theology” went something like this: God had chosen Jerusalem, Zion, as God’s earthly dwelling place. God had promised to David and his descendants a kingdom forever. Therefor God would not allow either God’s dwelling place, the temple, or God’s chosen ruler, or God’s chosen people to come to harm. The Temple was a symbol that nothing would harm them. They even had an expression to remind them: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” In short, the people of Judah were convinced that God is with them and on their side. Everything is therefore fine!
In Chapter 7:4-7 the prophet preaches a sermon that was not well received. He says: “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This isthe temple of theLord, the temple of theLord, the temple of theLord’.For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another,if 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,then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.”
The prophet is not preaching a new sermon. This was old news: God’s people had a responsibility towards others. It mattered how they treated others for God wanted from the very beginning that they should love their neighbor.
But they were so convinced that God was on their side that they conveniently forgot what God required of them! They forgot or did not realize that when God calls people, this calling comes with responsibilities. They wanted to hear good news, they wanted to be reassured that everything is fine. But now the prophet shows them that their land and her people were not well! Their privilege comes with responsibilities! And the people did not like his sermon!
It was a tough task for the prophet to tell people that they were wrong in assuming that everything is fine when things in the society are not. No wonder that the prophet in Jeremiah 8:18 says: “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.”
Now at this time the world power was Babylon and Babylon bullied Judah. It was a tumultuous and dangerous time.
In chapter 28 we are introduced to another prophet, Hananiah. He preached a sermon – and people loved it: “God is going to break the yoke of Babylon!” Everything is going to be fine! This was what they wanted to hear. Good news! Everything is ok! No criticism! We are good! God is with us!
Jeremiah was tempted to embrace Hananiah’s sermon when he responded: “May God do so! May your words be true! – But they are not! Because of your transgressions, the yoke of Babylon will not be broken!”
Some of Jeremiah’s opponents were so angry with him and his message that they conspired to kill him: “let us cut him off from the land of the living, so that his name will no longer be remembered” (Jer. 11:19). They pushed back! They wanted to silence him!
People want hear good news and we all dread bad news. It is normal for us to be reminded we are a good and generous people, that God loves us, that we are baptized, that we are redeemed, and blessed every day. It is nice to hear that God loves me! It is lovely to be affirmed, to be reassured that my views are fine, and that I am in essence on the right track.
Furthermore, we all love our families, our church, our people and our country. We want to think the best of all of these, we want to believe that God blesses us and that we are part of God’s redeeming work. We like to think the best of ourselves, our people and our institutions. Good sermons are typically the sermons where we, our people, our country and our institutions are affirmed as good, exceptional and exemplary.
When anyone points out that we, our people, our country and our institutions are not perfect, we are annoyed and we are offended and we respond by saying that the messenger is political!
Jeremiah and Jesus pointed out that all people, all institutions, all countries, in summary everything that people touch and are involved in are potentially tainted by sin. That’s what humans do! Nothing in this world is perfect, not even the church, because it consists of people and because humans are involved, it is not perfect! Human beings, human institutions, nations, countries, and organizations need redemption to be better! And all their flaws need to be illuminated when God’s light shines on them! That is how we grow and become more what God wants us to be. Our actions matter. God calls us to do what is right!
And this was the task of the prophet: To let God’s light shine on individuals, groups, countries and institutions. And letting God’s light shine on people, country and institutions is a very difficult and painful task. It is not for the faint of heart and it is not something that comes naturally or easily! God called people in the past to let God’s light shine! And God still calls us to do so!
God surely calls ministers to fulfill a prophetic role. Ministers have to let the light of God’s Word shine on every aspect of human life and human institutions.
But in our tradition, it is not only ministers who are called to have a prophetic word. You are called to be a prophet too! One of our standards, the Heidelberg Catechism, in Question and Answer 32 asks the question: “Why are you called a Christian?” And here is the answer: “Because I am a member of Christ by faith and thus share in his anointing, so that I may as prophet confess his name, as priest present myself as a living sacrifice of thankfulness to him and as king fight with a free and good conscience against sin and the devil in this life, and hereafter reign with him eternally over all the creatures.”
You and I are prophets, priests and kings. And as a prophet we need to let God’s light shine on every aspect of this world: people, church, country, politics and institutions.
Jeremiah, the other prophets and Jesus show us that pretending that everything in this world is just fine is not fulfilling our prophetic response. We need the courage to point out the discrepancies between what is and what could be. If we pretend that there are no discrepancies between what is and what could be, then we are not honest. If we do what the false prophet Hananiah did and just preach what people want to hear, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
If we are faithful we will let God’s light shine in every corner of this creation. Not because we think we are better or because we want to judge. No, it is because we know what God wants for us is good, and as people of faith we have seen glimpses of what God wants this world to be. This is never easy. We will always feel a bit restless in this world, we will never really fit in and we will never be content with how the world is! For we have seen glimpses of something better!
And as people with a prophetic voice we have to aware that the danger is always real that ideology, expediency, popularity, fear, our own desires will make it hard for me to let God’s light shine.
The Apostle Paul argues that those who died in Christ and are alive in Christ are now instruments (or weapons) of righteousness. What does it mean to be instruments of righteousness? It simply means to do what is right! As people who have been freed from sin and death, we are now enslaved to God. This simply means that God is in charge of my life. God determines our priorities.
Finally, our Gospel reading places everything in perspective: Prophets will encounter opposition and criticism if they faithfully do what they are called to do. There will always be a temptation to avoid speaking the truth, avoid letting God’s light shine on people, the world and her institutions. Why? For people, the world and her institutions will not always appreciate God’s light revealing their dark corners. People will not always take kindly to those who do what is right because they consider worldly things their priority.
In these verses Jesus prepares his disciples for their difficult task as bearers of the Gospel. He also promises them that the faithful will receive their rewards. In other words, Jesus urges the faithful, to be courageous and determined to persevere as people and to point out what is wrong and do what is right! Amen.