(Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-281; Luke 15:1-7) – J G White
11 am, Sunday, September 15, 2019 – UBC Digby
A woman in New Zealand told about a little sermon her daughter gave one day for their family devotions time. The daughter was nine years old. Here is Lucy’s sermon: When I think about God I think of a person who would never murder or kill anyone. But when you think about it you wonder because wasn’t it God who swept the angel of death over Egypt? It makes you think doesn’t it? Is God against it or is he not? I mean what had the boys done to die? It was Pharaoh wasn’t it? Now do you realise how little we know about God? I hope this made you think, thanks for listening. (Brian McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration, 2016, pp. 110-111.)
We are thinking about God as we hear words of scripture, words of the great prophets. We are walking with the prophet Jeremiah now. We are merely sampling from the 52 chapters, fifty Bible pages of ancient speech and drama. Today, we glimpse this prophet of judgment, bringing a tough message with tough language and tough imagery. Through years of dramatic events in Judah, Jeremiah pursues his message, warns his people, and eventually leaves the holy land, like so many of his fellow Jews had done.
Our biblical prophets are people with big personalities. As we study Jeremiah, we find several portraits of this man, here. He is a prophet of severe judgement, against his own people, and outsiders. He is a person of deep caring love for his people, a weeping prophet, with inner struggles. He is a preacher of the truth who battles falsehood. He is a proclaimer of scripture and a composer of scripture, sharing what he learns from Almighty God.
Today, these words – the LORD says:
I speak in judgment against them.
My people are foolish, they do not know me.
They are skilled at doing evil,
but do not know how to do good.
The whole land shall be a desolation.
The lyric of Psalm 14 goes well with Jeremiah’s word from the Lord.
Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
There is no one who does good.
We, we don’t really like bad news, warnings, and harsh correction in our religion, do we? If you did, you would be attending a church where you’d get a direct verbal rebuke much more often.
Preachers with sermons like those of Jeremiah are negative, nasty, and not compassionate, we might think. Our mind easily, as Richard Rohr says: [The dualistic mind] presumes that if you criticize something, you don’t love it. Wise people like the prophets would say the opposite. (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, September 11, 2017)
A real prophet, in any age, loves the people and the religion. That is why he or she is a good person for the job. He cares so deeply about what is going on, that divine warnings can come from his mouth.
I think immediately of one of the people who was a pastor to me in my young years, and who is still a friend. This week he will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his ordination as a Baptist Minister. He is a unique personality. He is very opinionated. He speaks often of what he likes and what he dislikes: he’s known for this. He’s famous for saying: ‘I do not approve!’ He knows what he believes, and what he likes, and he sticks to it! Here are some examples, from a book he wrote a decade ago, about Christian Hymns. He was inspired to write this long essay because of two church services he’d been to in one day, that, he would say, failed. Let me quote:
Recently, an order of service asked a neo-classical, elderly, white, Anglo-Saxon, United Empire Loyalist congregation to sound as close as possible to a southern United States afro-american congregation — of a hundred or more years ago. It was pathetic. Obviously most of the people could not comprehend the meaning or the context of the spirituals. (R. H. Prentice, Hymns at Heaven’s Gate: The Use & Abuse of Hymns, Gaspereau Press, 2008, p. 14)
On the same day as the above experience, another congregation sang hymns that were perfectly attuned to the people who had gathered, but were misplaced, brutally torn apart, leaving some to wonder what had gone wrong with the message of familiar hymns. One hymn, by F. W. Faber, ‘There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,’ was ripped apart at the seams with three consecutive but crucial stanzas missing: the very three that contained the whole kernel of the hymn’s message. The result was tragic. ( Ibid, p. 15)
These judgments about hymn-singing sound so much like the man who wrote them; this is so quintessentially him. 🙂 But I say this lovingling: because I do love and still respect this opinionated chaplain. He is a beloved man. Today, in a church where he served as youth pastor, 50 years ago, people in their 60s who were in his Baptist Youth Fellowship are having a big reunion to celebrate him! He has always been able to tell people how they are going astray because he also cares so much for them. And people love him for his opinionated attention and faithful compassion.
Like Jeremiah of old, the best prophets of our day are those who speak out, and speak strongly, while they love us and our world. Out of intense caring comes intense action. Look for genuine compassion in the loudest voices: this will help us know who to heed and who to forget. Not every loudmouth is loving!
Richard Rohr has written of six characteristics of biblical prophets. He says one is this: [Sixth,] prophets simultaneously announce and denounce. They announce God’s reign of justice and peace and publicly denounce the world’s regimes of injustice and war. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., they hold high the alternatives of nonviolence and disarmament and lay low the obsolete ways of violence and weapons. (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, September 14, 2017)
The Good News, proclaimed, has it’s bad news. We call it all, Gospel, Good News. For the good gets the final word.
So we end with the words of our great Prophet, Jesus, the Messiah, the Saviour. Skim through the middle chapters of Luke. Christ says things like:
You hypocrites! Chapter 12.
Unless you repent, you will all perish. Chapter 13.
You hypocrites! Chapter 13.
Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Ch. 14.
But Jesus also says this, Ch. 15: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.
Jesus: the Shepherd of the sheep, the Good Shepherd of the sheep! We start to get the message that the God who looks like a stern judge, truly cares so much, and loves all of us deeply. God comes after us, looking for us, seeking and saving the lost.
Along with Psalm 14 we could remember Psalm 23. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me – pursue me – all the days of my life.
When you hear the words of some prophet of judgment, bearing down on your conscience and your actions, look in that also for the Love that pursues you. The Holy One is chasing you down,
because we have strayed, yes;
because we are loved and we belong, yes!