Prophet, priest or pragmatist?

The prophet’s life is never simple.  Jeremiah is called from the beginning to speak to God’s people who have fallen from grace – headfirst:  “they have made offerings to other gods and worshipped the works of their own hands.” (Jeremiah 1: 16).  Jeremiah is called by God to speak against the status quo; against the seeming comfort of the nation; against the word that suggests ‘God will save us because God loves us more than our enemies.’

But because God loves the people, their behaviour will not be tolerated. Exile is coming, and the hope is that time spent living under Babylonian rule may remind the people that they do not serve themselves, but God.  They might remember what it means to give heed to a power not their own; they might recognize God’s freedom and dominion over the entire Creation – Jew and Gentile; friend and ‘enemy’ – all alike under God.  This is the troubling reality for Jeremiah’s generation, and it is to this reality that Jeremiah is called to speak ‘a word from God’.

But he is not the only one.

Hananiah has also felt the call to prophecy.  Hananiah comes to the house of the Lord and brings a word that promises peace.  Against the word of Jeremiah, who speaks of Babylon’s dominion lasting generations – Nebuchadnezzar, his son and his grandson will rule (says God – Jeremiah 27: 7) “until the time of his own land comes.” – Hananiah offers a different word: two years, and all will be well; two years and the temple will be the temple again, Judah will be Judah again, “for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.” (Jeremiah 28: 4).

We Jeremiah’s response this morning:  ‘May it be so, brother.  But remember “…when the word of [the prophet] comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent that prophet.” (Jer 28:9).   And Jeremiah’s challenge brings us to the question that troubles us even now; how do we know when someone really has “a word from the Lord”?

As Christians in the Reformed tradition, we claim a heritage that prides itself on earnestly seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  We are heirs to a tradition of the diligent study of Scripture whose wisdom guides our actions in the world.  That guidance and study is driven by the desire, for many,  to say with some certainty “thus says the Lord”.  But even the Scriptural witness makes it challenging to know who has the inside track: “When the word of the prophet comes true…” says Jeremiah – which sounds very much like “just wait and see.”

Using what happens tomorrow to confirm yesterday’s predictions is a peculiar business, that is usually given over to professional historians.  Yes, Hitler was a madman and Churchill a shrewd genius who “saved Great Britain” – that is the comfortable assessment of the historian – but when those two larger than life leaders were weaving their way through the 1930’s and 40’s, the outcome was far from certain.

History vindicates our Scriptural hero.  Jeremiah’s difficult task is ultimately shown to have been ‘the word from God’. The nation is conquered – generations are spent in exile – Hananiah’s death has the effect of declaring him a false prophet…so is this question of ours a ‘life or death’ question?

Maybe so.

Maybe the life of the people of God will be enriched by the harsh realities spoken by one who believes, as Jeremiah did, that God’s judgement often takes us in a direction that no one wants to go.

Maybe our stubborn refusal to create new yet faithful responses to the changing world we live in will result in the death of ‘the church as we know it’.

Everyone involved in the ministry of  the Presbyterian Church in Canada today adds a voice to the prophetic chorus.  Some call for change, others cry ‘peace’.  There are calls for unity, and a desire for a single, powerful voice to ‘lead us through the wilderness’ – and most believe that, while the future of the church is in God’s capable hands, the present is very much in doubt…

So how do we know?  Whose voice should we credit as having a holy word?  How do we find the balance between hope and honesty that might lead us closer to the elusive ‘will of God’ in our witness and work in the world?

We could, I suppose, just ‘wait and see…’  ; let the various voices pull us in divergent directions until the last group standing declares an awkward, ‘post-prophetic’ victory.  We could give in to the fear of this ‘big, bad world’ and retreat into smug self-assurance or uncritical certainty that “God loves us, so it will be okay.”

Or we could follow Jesus’ example.  Jesus, who is both shepherd and prophet – Jesus, whose ministry evoked curiosity about its source and its end (is he from God or Satan?)  – Jesus, who declares that the prophet, the righteous and those who follow a disciple’s path, whatever else may happen along the way, will not lose their reward.

Even Jesus hesitates to tell us how to determine who is “correct”.   Instead, he offers an innocent suggestion that becomes the way forward.  “…and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…”

Actions are the measure for Jesus.  Our actions, works of compassion, signs of solidarity; these things represent the true exercise of our personhood.  These are the things that mark the way forward, even as we wonder about the path, the call, the will of God.

There are those who will claim that (as Reformed Christians) it is the solid foundation of our doctrines that will see us through – that only when we are certain about how we should believe will we be able to bring that belief to life in the world.  Yet Jesus came to a world and a people who believed that right-thinking could lead to peace with God, and he dismissed that notion out of hand.

It was not with perfect ideas and carefully delivered arguments to (or against) the realities he faced that Jesus changed the world.   Indeed, it was by being among us – touching, teaching, healing, living, dying, rising; in relationship to the needs of the world and with compassion towards those affected by those same, harsh realities – it was Jesus being that made real the goodness and mercy of God.  When our lives bring God’s love, mercy and justice to those around us, then we are on the way to God’s promised peace in the kingdom.  Neither the terrifying truth of a prophet nor the orderly goodness of the righteous holds the answer.  It is the simplicity of an offer of grace that is bringing about the salvation of the world.


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