A sermon for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost, July 2, 2017
Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York
As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.
Our lesson from the book of Jeremiah this morning shows two prophets in conversation, Jeremiah and Hananiah. Hananiah has just made a prophesy:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house… and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon.”
As we read it in today’s lectionary, it would appear that Jeremiah is agreeing with him:
“Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord and all the exiles.”
All of the people of Judah deeply wanted this good news, and so did Jeremiah. He wanted the restoration of the wholeness of the people and peace with all his heart. There’s only one problem. Hananiah’s prophecy was not true. The story continues this way: Jeremiah says, “As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.” Hananiah breaks the wooden yoke, which Jeremiah had put on his own back to represent the rule of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. And then, Jeremiah has another word from God: “Go tell Hananiah, ‘Thus says the Lord: You have broken the wooden bars only to forge iron bars in place of them!” Hananiah died within a month and the exiles remained in Babylon seventy more years.
Jeremiah had not been exactly agreeing with Hananiah. Not at all. Hananiah had painted a vision for his country that had everything that everyone wished for. Jeremiah wanted the same things, but he was skeptical. It did not fit with what he honestly saw, or the words he heard from God.
“The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient time prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”
In the words of modern-day twitterspeak, shorter Jeremiah would be: IF. If the word comes true, then the Lord has truly sent the prophet.
In our church and in our country, people are anxious for good news, for news of peace and prosperity. Sometimes, we try to cut the story short, looking for a quick, happy ending. Even the framers of the lectionary seem to want to cut the story short in a misleading way, so that things can be peaceful and resolved on a summer morning. But the false prophet Hananiah brought nothing but a brief, transitory false hope, based on a story made up from the wishes and fantasies of people.
The word of God, however, is only the story of truth, and that can contain some darkness, nastiness and evil. It can take longer to realize than we wish. The falseness of wishful thinking can make things worse: Jeremiah pronounced that the consequence of Hananiah’s removing the wooden yoke from Jeremiah’s back was that an iron yoke was placed on the people of Israel—wishful thinking about Nebuchadnezzar did not make the Babylonians go away or make their rule any more humane. It did not shorten the time of exile or reduce its pain. The only prophesy that could give any healing or hope is the truth. Jeremiah sternly spoke the truth of God’s love and called the people to return to God—to God’s truth and God’s love.
This weekend is when we celebrate Independence Day in our country. We rejoice in love of country and express our patriotism. Just as Jeremiah did. We are in a troubled country at a troubled time. For many, the solution is to express hopefulness and say that all will be well if we simply express our loyalty to happy outcomes that are just around the corner. Throughout the whole book of Jeremiah, the prophet was constantly running afoul of that kind of view—he might want things to turn out fine with a minimum of conflict and suffering—but he had to tell the truth. Likewise, in our country, we have to live with and acknowledge the truth of the fearfulness, anger, distrust and dishonesty that arises around us. Of cruelty masquerading as political necessity and thoughtless panic taking the place of constructive engagement. I’m not going to talk about policies here, or about personalities, but there is no magic solution in our country. Patriotism and hope can only emerge in full truthfulness and courageous compassion.
The same can be said for the church at the present time: the Episcopal Church and all Christian churches. Quick and superficial fixes will not address the issues and anxieties of the present time. It is only in the truth that there is a pathway forward.
The truth is simple: it’s what is in this morning’s Gospel: “whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…” It is our anxieties that are complex. Like those who listened to Hananiah, we want a quick solution that restores everything to its previous comfort. However, that is not, and never has been the promise of God.
The prophet who prophesies peace and delivers it in truth is Jesus. For our country or our church, all he offers is truth. Truth that is not magic or easy. The peace that he gives is found in living his compassion—that is a very challenging peace indeed, but the rewards are greater than the return of the vessels from Babylon.
We are welcomed into this world by God, and we live by extending that welcome:
Listen once more to what Jesus said:
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”