Proper 20 September 15, 2019 Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 “The Only Ticket to Prophecy”

Proper 20 September 15, 2019 Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 “The Only Ticket to Prophecy” September 4, 2019

There are any number of modern religious public speakers who fancy themselves to be prophets. They and I use that term in its clear biblical sense. The Hebrew word translated “prophet” literally means “mouthpiece” or “spokesperson”. A prophet, in the biblical sense, means someone who imagines themselves speaking on behalf of God, one able, or “called” in its most religious meaning, to bring the divine word into a contemporary setting. In a world of democratic openness to practically anyone claiming such a prophetic status, darn near any babbler can allege that they have a direct phone line to the Almighty, that what they say bears the imprimatur of the creator of heaven and earth. It is an astonishing assertion to make.

The ancient world, too, was apparently filled with such people. After all, the so- called writing prophets of the Hebrew Bible—how much any of them actually wrote is a contested subject—use as one of their prime targets for opprobrium self-proclaimed prophets, who, at least according to the prophets whose names we know, are no prophets at all. A classic example may be found at Jer.28 where Jeremiah and Hananiah square off in a kind of Super Bowl of prophecy. The latter prophet announces that God has determined that the exile of Israel into Babylon will be a short-term event and of no lasting significance. Jeremiah, by contrast, preaches that YHWH has sent Judah away into Babylon for a long time, and adds that he wishes what Hananiah said was true, but he is sorry to contradict the “easy” word that has not come from God at all. But does that in fact always define who is a “real” prophet? That is, is it always the case that the comfortable word cannot ever fall from God’s lips into the ears of a prophet? I have often said, perhaps in my snarkier tone, that the words of one who drives to church in a Bentley automobile (cost: $250,000+) may not be words that God has inspired, but rather words that human greed and the pleasures of luxury have brought forth.

Deuteronomy 18 has frankly bizarre tests to determine who is a true prophet: “If a prophet speaks in the name of YHWH but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that YHWH has not spoken.” Well, thank you very much! Since I lack a functioning crystal ball, I can hardly know in advance what will “take place” and thus “prove true.” So, just how are we to judge those who spend their days mouthing what they aver are God’s words?

Jeremiah can be helpful here, I think. In the text for today, surely one of Jeremiah’s finest proclamations, he offers to us a portrait of a true prophet that can serve us even now as we are bombarded with words that allege divine origins. In the first 7 1⁄2chapters of his prophetic book, Jeremiah spares no prophetic thunder against targets that include false prophets, those who oppress the poor, leaders who have forgotten YHWH, teachers who care less for YHWH than they do for their own power and notoriety. It is a familiar and very harsh assault against a people who have no clue about what God has called them to do. One could well expect that the prophet would go on in similar vein for chapter after chapter, and then gloat while these reprobates are herded off to Babylon, a fate they richly deserve. Many modern-day mountebanks do precisely that. John Hagee of San Antonio, announces ad nauseum that only those who believe as he believes about the sanctity of the state of Israel, about the second coming of Jesus, about the need for Jews to be in the Holy Land, about their necessary conversion to Christianity when Jesus appears, about the doom of those who do not along with their enshrinement in the eternal lake of fire “prepared for the devil and his angels (along with unbelievers as determined by Rev. Hagee. Hagee demonstrates not a shred of sorrow or remorse as he consigns billions of his fellow humans to eternal torment while he and his followers will, I suppose, sit on heavenly thrones, singing from the hymnal, while gazing down on those writhing in unimaginable pain forever. Could one conceive of a more perverted idea, a more ghastly notion about the fate of vast swaths of human beings than that one? Hagee makes Adolf Hitler appear tame in his absolute hatred of so many people.

Precisely here is where Jeremiah diverges completely from Pastor Hagee and his ilk. Listen to how Jeremiah speaks of those he has just excoriated: “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Listen to the cry of my poor people, from far and wide in the land, ‘Is YHWH no longer in Zion; is her Ruler not in it? The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.’ For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt; I mourn and dismay has seized me” (Jer. 8:18-21). Jeremiah ceases his harsh rejection of the people of Judah long enough to feel a profound empathy for them, to identify their pain as his pain, to recognize their deep longing and struggle as his own deep longing and struggle. In short, Jeremiah never forgets that he is one of those to whom he has been called to speak. And because Jeremiah never forgets that simple fact, he could never send his own people to an eternal torment, could never imagine that their fate will be monstrous while his fate will be glorious with God. How many of our so-called modern prophets plainly forget that they too are human beings, subject to the shortcomings of those they are called to serve, not raised above them by some divinity who values them more than their listeners?

John Hagee is one among many of those whose notions of specialness, whose ideas of a divine call to condemn those who will not agree, to send millions off to Hell who cannot accept the bigotry and narrow-mindedness that their preaching requires. Their number is unfortunately legion: Jerry Falwell and his son; Franklin Graham, whose father possessed a degree of humility that his son seems to lack; Robert Jeffress whose unabashed defense of Donald Trump’s supposed morality and righteousness reaches absurd proportions; Paula White; Creflo Dollar (was any prosperity preacher more aptly named?); Pat Robertson; James Robinson, and on and on. Not only do these announced prophets of God lack humility; they, unlike Jeremiah, also lack empathy for those who think otherwise, who just cannot swallow their hatred against so many people merely because they are different in some ways from those who unreservedly attack them.

Surely these men and women can be no true prophets by the standards of Jeremiah. I, too, as a called person of God, must take care when I make my strong judgments of what is right and wrong in the world of religious speech, that I do not fall into the trap of bigotry, of refusing to find empathy even for those who find what I say and believe as nothing less than anathema. I too must heed the words of Jeremiah, among the finest he was remembered to have spoken: “If only my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people” (Jer.9:1)! Only then can I claim the right to speak God’s truth into a world in desperate need of that truth. But, empathy for my detractors must be experienced first before any prophetic word is made possible.


(images from Wikimedia Commons)

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