“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves.” Jesus warned us, in Matthew 7:15, to look out for those who SAY they speak for God, but really do not. But how do we discern who is speaking for God and who is not?
What is a prophet?
Prophets function as a spokesperson for God, communicating God’s words to others.
A Prophet does more than just tell stories, give sermons or speak just to hear his or her own voice… Prophets intend their message to change the behavior of their audience! A prophet must speak because the lives of his audience depend on his message! A prophet must speak because the God has a message of God’s people! A prophet MUST speak, because knowledge kept secret has no liberating force. (1)
Adam Hamilton – in our bible study “Making Sense of the Bible” used this image to explain how we can discern which Bible stories and verses speak for God and which ones we can perhaps leave to history. But I find it is helpful in the discernment of prophets as well.
Jesus was asked “Which is the greatest commandment? And he said.. “Love God with all you heart, soul, mind and strength. and Love your neighbor as yourself.” That is the colander with which we drain everything else.
- Is there a prophet telling us to separate children from their families? That does not stay in my colander.
- Is there a prophet telling us to love some people and hate others? That teaching does not stay in my colander.
- Is there a prophet telling us that we have the right to all the good things in life, and that others don’t? That does not stay in my colander.
In our series, we will be looking at the “prophecy” of Jesus by comparing his words with the words of Jeremiah. But this is a bit of an unfair comparison, because many of us know about Jesus, his life, his background, his teachings and we don’t know that much about Jeremiah. SO, who was he?
Jeremiah was born during the reign of the wicked king Manasseh when the land of Judah was under Assyrian control. Scholars date Jeremiah’s life and work from 627BCE – 580 BCE, that’s some 600 years before the birth of Christ. Jeremiah lived during a time in which Judah was poised between two Great Powers, Egypt and Assyria (modern day Iraq). In Jeremiah’s time, Assyria fell into decline and its historical rival, Babylon (also now Iraq), rose to prominence. The rulers of Judah relied on the power of nearby Egypt to defend it from both the Assyrians and the Babylonians, and they thought that after Jerusalem survived the Assyrian onslaught of the prophet Isaiah’s day (in 701 B.C.), that Jerusalem would never fall since Israel’s God wouldn’t allow it. It did however, when the Babylonians captured Jerusalem in 586 BCE and drove the Jews into exile and into slavery.
Jeremiah was a man who spoke the truth, often angering those who listened. He was persecuted not only by the prophets and priests of Jerusalem, but by his own relatives in Anathoth. (3) And so, we begin with this scripture from the Prophet Jeremiah, chapter 2, verse 4-13. For your information…this part of Jeremiah’s prophecy is the “destroying” part, the part which tells of God’s anger at the people – the “building up” and hopeful part comes in chapters 30 and forward…
Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the Lord: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? They did not say, ‘Where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?’
This initial part presents the Exodus as the idyllic period between God and Israel, the “honeymoon period’ of the relationship between God and God’s people. This was the pinnacle of their relationship. The people of Israel, Jeremiah says, did not need to ask, “Where is the Lord?” because their faith in God assured them of God’s continual presence. Their faith held firm in spite of the hardships they endured. Whatever they went through, their faith in God remained steadfast. Then Jeremiah’s God turns to the current “believers:”
7 I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination.
8 The priests did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’
Those who handle the law did not know me;
the rulers transgressed against me;
the prophets prophesied by Baal,
and went after things that do not profit.
Now, verse 8 is a scathing condemnation of empty, fraudulent leadership (false prophets) —priests who fail to call on God, judges making judgments from the law without knowing the spirit of the Law’s author. (2)
Similarly, Jesus often condemned the religious leaders of HIS time, accusing them of forgetting the spirit of the Law while proclaiming the strict adherence of the Law. And we are confronted with a kind of cultural rule that had become a contentious of the Pharisees in our scripture lesson from the gospel of Luke.
Apparently group meals, whether wedding banquets or communal meals, were an important community event and among the ‘rules’ for common meals of this kind was the correct order of seating. Everyone had a place: from the most important to the least and each person’s worth was stated with his or her placement. Thus the people of the ancient Jews conducted a kind of annual performance review for such placements. (3)
But Jesus said, no. This is not the way God intends for us to see one another: who is most important and who is least. Jesus asks Jeremiah’s question, “Where is the Lord?” And Jesus doesn’t find the Lord with those in the places of honor; Jesus finds the Lord sitting in the furthest seat from the “important” people. Jesus sees the Lord among the poor and instructs his followers that when they host a community event, a wedding banquet, an event for the important people to, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’”
And so we ask the same question in our time: “Where is the Lord?”
Our ancestors, wandering in the desert, did not need to ask it, for their faith told them: God is here with us. God is ever-present, through the journey: through the days and nights in the wilderness, through the days of feast and the days of famine, through the doubts and the fears, God is here.
The people of Jeremiah’s time asked “Where is the Lord?” and when disillusioned turned to the ‘gods’ of their time: gods that were convenient and maybe didn’t require so much, gods that were easy. And the prophet called them to return to the God of their ancestors. The God of OUR ancestors.
Jesus asked “Where is the Lord?” and found the Lord in communion with those not considered to be exalted, but were exalted to God. And in doing so, he calls us to look beyond the conventions of our cultures “easy gods” of wealth and power and status and discover God in the humble.
That question is worth asking: Where is the Lord for us? Where is the evidence of God’s faithfulness?
Mother Teresa, the Albanian nun who founded the Missionaries of Charity on the streets of Calcutta; the old woman who ministered to the sick, orphaned, poor and dying while building global awareness to the plight of the “poorest of the poor” in India. I find evidence of God’s faithfulness through her work and her words, calling us ordinary people, just to love : “Do not think that love, in order to be genuine, has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired.”
“Where is the Lord?” Here. Whether we are suffering through the wilderness or celebrating the love shown through ordinary people. In the joys and the challenges of life: There is where we find God. In the tears of hungry children, in the simple gestures of friends, at the bedsides of the sick and dying and in the lineup for a helping hand. For the exalted will be made humbled and the humble will be exalted.
Today, the Lord is calling us to be his messengers of love and hope. God is calling us to prophesy to the lost and lonely, to share the genuine love of God with others. May we dare to ask the question “Where is the Lord?” and may we pay attention and may we take loving action when the answer comes.
- Gary V. Smith, The Prophets as Preachers, Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1994, 192-3.
- Howard Wallace, Jeremiah 2:4-13 found on http://hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au/WebOTcomments/OrdinaryC/Pent14Jer2.html
- William Loader, found on http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/LkPentecost14.htm