THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Psalm 89:1–4, 15–18
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you direct our lives by your grace, and your words of justice and mercy reshape the world. Mold us into a people who welcome your word and serve one another, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The longer I live, the more I learn and the wider I read, I become increasingly convinced that prophecy, biblically understood, has a good deal more in common with fiction, poetry, music and the graphic arts than with systematic theology. Prophecy employs symbols and allusions enabling us to see the big picture. It appeals less to our intellect and more to our imagination. Like the parables of Jesus, prophecy comes through the back door of our consciousness and shatters our strongest beliefs and convictions through which we filter what we see and hear. That, in turn, allows us to see and perceive in a new way.
Prophecy helps us make sense of the world and the way we experience it. Like art, prophecy is often disturbing, upsetting and even offensive. The prophet Isaiah walked through the streets of Jerusalem stark naked to bring home the tragic fate of Israelites from the Northern Kingdom already themselves paraded naked into exile by the Assyrians. This served to evoke compassion for these unfortunate kin and bring home the threat of a similar judgment against the people of Jerusalem. The prophet Ezekiel portrays Israel’s faithlessness in a graphic poetic fable about an unfaithful bride using imagery we would surely consider obscene. In today’s first lesson, Jeremiah wears a yolk upon his neck to illustrate God’s placement of Babylon over Judah as punishment for her sin and to warn the people against the futility of rebellion.
But just as art, literature and music can be employed to spread propaganda, so prophecy can lie. False prophets can induce us to consume lies and trust false promises. They can trick us into accepting “alternative facts” and embracing false narratives. False prophecy gains traction because it helps us make sense out of what otherwise seems incomprehensible. It fixates blame on others instead of encouraging introspection and repentance. It’s no wonder I can’t get a decent job when illegal immigrants are flooding across the border to take the few jobs that have not been shipped overseas. Of course morals are in rapid decline. What can you expect when our universities are staffed by America hating, God denying scientists who teach our young people that we all came from a bunch of monkeys? There is a perverse comfort in believing that one’s life is miserable because there are malicious forces at work in the depths of the “deep state” manipulating the economy, the job market and the media in order to make it that way. If these narratives offer nothing in the way of hope, they at least relieve one from having to take responsibility for one’s own life and give one a target against which to vent.
False prophecy points the finger of blame and shifts responsibility for change away from where it needs to begin. The false prophet blames outsiders for our problems. True prophets invite us to examine ourselves to discover the sin at the source of our misery. False prophets insist that we are miserable because the world is such a miserable place. True prophets insist that the world suffers because we are so bent on having our own way. False prophets comfort us with easy lies and pamper our inclination to self-pity. True prophets open our eyes to the very real opportunities we have for change, repentance and faith.
There is no shortage of “prophets” these days purporting to tell us what God demands of Americans and how America figures into God’s will for the rest of the world. It should come as no surprise to anyone who follows me with any regularity that I reject all claims of “American exceptionalism” and preaching that blends patriotism and white middle class morality with Christian faith. I must say that I am also skeptical of “progressive” equations of various social causes, however noble they may be, with the cause of the gospel. One should not say lightly those words, “Thus saith the Lord.” God’s ways are not our ways and God’s view of what constitutes progress in the grand scheme of things might not coincide with what we view as advantageous through the narrow lens of any current election cycle. A true prophet takes care not to say more than s/he knows.
True prophecy, like genuine art, stands the test of time. Jeremiah’s words were rejected in his own day and the nationalistic jingo of his opponent, Hananiah, was popularly received with great enthusiasm. Yet it was to the words of Jeremiah that the people turned during their long exile in Babylon. It was the prophecy of Jeremiah that helped Israel rise from the ashes of her darkest hour and find her way to a new day and a renewed community. Jeremiah’s words are preserved for us in the Hebrew Scriptures. If Hananiah’s words were ever even written down, they have long since perished in the dust bin of rightful neglect.
Here’s a poem by Muriel Rukeyser speaking eloquently of genuine prophecy as “the song of the way in.”
THE WAY OUT
The night is covered with signs. The body and face of man,
with signs, and his journeys. Where the rock is split
and speaks to the water; the flame speaks to the cloud;
the red splatter, abstraction, on the door
speaks to the angel and the constellations.
The grains of sand on the sea-floor speak at last to the noon.
And the loud hammering of the land behind
speaks ringing up the bones of our thighs, the hoofs,
we hear the hoofs over the seethe of the sea.
All night down the centuries, have heard, music of passage.
Music of one child carried into the desert;
firstborn forbidden by law of the pyramid.
Drawn through the water with the water-drawn people
led by the water-drawn man to the smoke mountain.
The voice of the world speaking, the world covered by signs,
the burning, the loving, the speaking, the opening.
Strong throat of sound from the smoking mountain.
Still flame, the spoken singing of a young child.
The meaning beginning to move, which is the song.
Music of those who have walked out of slavery.
Into that journey where all things speak to all things
refusing to accept the curse, and taking
for signs the signs of all things, the world, the body
which is part of the soul, and speaks to the world,
all creation being created in one image, creation.
This is not the past walking into the future,
the walk is painful, into the present, the dance
not visible as dance until much later.
These dancers are discoverers of God.
We knew we had all crossed over when we heard the song.
Out of a life of building lack on lack:
the slaves refusing slavery, escaping into faith:
an army who came to the ocean: the walkers
who walked through the opposites, from I to opened Thou,
city and cleave of the sea. Those at flaming Nauvoo,
the ice on the great river: the escaping Negroes,
swamp and wild city: the shivering children of Paris
and the glass black hearses; those on the Long March:
all those who together are the frontier, forehead of man.
Where the wilderness enters, the world, the song of the world.
Akiba rescued, secretly, in the clothes of death
by his disciples carried from Jerusalem
in blackness journeying to find his journey
to whatever he was loving with his life.
The wilderness journey through which we move
under the whirlwind truth into the new,
the only accurate. A cluster of lights at night:
faces before the pillar of fire. A child watching
while the sea breaks open. This night. The way in.
Barbarian music, a new song.
Acknowledging opened water, possibility:
open like a woman to this meaning.
In a time of building statues of the stars,
valuing certain partial ferocious skills
while past us the chill and immense wilderness
spreads its one-color wings until we know
rock, water, flame, cloud, or the floor of the sea,
the world is a sign, a way of speaking. To find.
What shall we find? Energies, rhythms, journey.
Ways to discover. The song of the way in.
Source: The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, (c. 2006 by Muriel Rukeyser, pub. by the University of Pittsburgh Press). Mureil Rukeyser (1913-1980) was an American poet and political activist. She is known for her poems about equality, feminism and social justice. Her poems were influenced by her roots in Judaism and contain numerous allusions to Hebrew scriptural and Talmudic themes. She grew up in the Bronx and graduated from Vassar College. She also attended Columbia University. Rukeyser is a recipient of Yale Younger Poets Award, the Harriet Monroe Poetry Award, the Levinson Prize and the Copernicus Prize. You can find out more about Muriel Rukeyser and sample more of her poems at the Poetry Foundation website.
Today’s lesson comes from a larger drama in the Book of Jeremiah that could be given the title, “The Dueling Prophets.” Unfortunately, you only get a little snippet of it in the reading. It all begins with God commanding Jeremiah to proclaim to the people of Judah that God is about to bring the Kingdom of David and the Temple to an end by the hand of the King of Babylon whose armies are even now advancing upon Jerusalem. To make the point, Jeremiah is told to wear a yolk over his shoulders, the kind used for oxen. It is God who brings the yolk of Babylonian bondage upon Judah. To resist Babylon is to resist God. Jeremiah 27:1-11. You can imagine how that must have gone over. How would you like to be sent out to meet the Fourth of July parade with a yolk on your neck to tell everyone that God is about give victory in the war on terror to ISIS?
The drama unfolds in Jerusalem where the prophet Hananiah is rallying the people of the city behind the flag. “Salvation is on the way! The Lord is coming to the aid of his people just like he always has in the past! The Lord is coming to rescue Jerusalem! The Lord is coming to save his people! The Lord is coming to whoop those “Babliofascists,” that terrorist scum and give victory to Israel! Within two years we are going to see all the treasures taken from us by the Babylonians returned. We are going to see freedom! We are going to see peace! Do I hear an ‘Amen.’?” (Paraphrase of Jeremiah 28:1-4) “Amen” shouts a voice from the midst of the cheering crowd. Everyone turns to see the prophet Jeremiah-wearing his yolk. “Amen!” shouts Jeremiah. “I hope you are right Hananiah. I hope everything you say comes true. Nothing would make me happier than to be dead wrong about everything I have said. But this is much bigger than you and me, Hananiah. This is much more important than who is right and who is wrong. The question here is, ‘What is the word of the Lord for us this day?’ Don’t forget,” says Jeremiah to Hananiah, “there have been prophets before you and me. Not all of them prophesied salvation. Some foretold disaster and destruction. Remember Elijah, remember Amos, remember Micah who once prophesied that this very city would be laid bare as a mown field. Time will tell what the word of the Lord is, who proclaimed it and who received it faithfully.” (Paraphrase of Vss. 5-9). So ends the lectionary reading, but not the story. Next Hananiah, in a dramatic and brilliant show of oratory, jumps down from the podium, breaks in two the yolk off of Jeremiah’s neck and cries out, “So shall the Lord break the yolk of Babylon from the neck of his people.” Jeremiah 28:10-11. The crowd roars its approval and Jeremiah goes his way. He lost the duel.
It is easy for us two and one half millennia later to recognize Jeremiah as the genuine prophet. But what if instead of being here today, you were among that crowd in Jerusalem at the outbreak of war? Who would you believe? Both prophets have biblical precedent on their side. Hananiah could point to the Assyrian invasion of only a century before. Sennacherib, emperor of Assyria swept down and conquered every nation in Palestine, and most of Judah. Only Jerusalem remained standing-with what was left of Judah’s defeated army cowering behind its walls. God sent an angel of the Lord to slay the Assyrian army during the night and Sennacherib was forced to retreat. Jerusalem was saved against all odds. See II Kings 18:13-19:37. If God could do it then, God can do it now.
Jeremiah, on the other hand, could point to the time of the Judges when the Israelite army, facing an attack by the Philistines, went to the Tabernacle at Shiloh and took the Ark of the Covenant, thinking that God would never let them be defeated if it meant that the Ark would be captured. But God is not one to be manipulated by lucky charms. God handed Israel a defeat and, in fact, permitted the Ark to be taken captive. I Samuel 4. So also, argued Jeremiah, don’t think you can oppress the poor among you, worship idols, ignore the commandments and then go running into the Temple like a band of fugitives from justice to escape the consequences of your deeds. God values holy hearts over holy places. God did not spare the Tabernacle in Shiloh, God will not spare the Temple in Jerusalem either.
So we have two prophets. Both are speaking in the name of the God of Israel. Both have a word consistent with the Bible, but each has a very different message. How can we know which one is speaking the word of the Lord for this people at this time? I wish I had an easy answer for that one, but I don’t. I am not aware of any definitive test that will distinguish between true prophecy and false prophecy. But here are a few observations that might help. First, prophecy is not all about the future. Rather, it is a word that helps us understand what is taking place here and now. For the people of Jeremiah’s time, the big event was the Babylonian invasion. What does it mean? How would God have us respond? What is God’s word to us now? Which scripture speaks to this circumstance?
Second, true prophecy is tempered by humility. If you read further into the story you will find Jeremiah confronting Hananiah again-not in public this time but alone. “And the prophet Jeremiah said to the prophet Hananiah, ‘Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you made this people trust in a lie. Therefore thus says the Lord: I am going to send you off the face of the earth. Within this year you will be dead, because you have spoken rebellion against the Lord.’” Jeremiah 28:15-16. I don’t know what to make of that except this: You better be careful what you say after the words, “Thus sayeth the Lord.”
Feminist reformer Susan B. Anthony once said, “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.” I think Ms. Anthony is onto something here. I am afraid we are far too confident these days in our beliefs about what God wills, what God is for and what God is against. That goes as much for mainline “advocacy” as it does for right wing efforts to make government strengthen and preserve family values. If Roberta Combs’ Jesus looks suspiciously similar to Ronald Regan, ours sometimes bears an uncanny resemblance to Fritz Mondale. When I see churches and individual congregations neatly split along the lines of “red” and “blue,” it is hard not to conclude that we have become proxies in the so called “culture wars” and that our ministries are driven less by theological conviction than ideological prejudices.
That is the difference between Jeremiah and Hananiah. Jeremiah was prepared to admit that he might after all be mistaken, that he might have misunderstood God’s word and that he might need to listen more closely to that word. By contrast, Hananiah knew he was right, was sure he had the truth and therefore felt entirely justified in shouting Jeremiah down. Arrogance is the surest mark both of a weak mind and a false prophet.
This is a royal psalm celebrating God’s salvation as mediated through God’s covenant with David. As always, I urge you to read Psalm 89 in its entirety. It is divided into three sections: 1) vss 5-18 assert God’s power as creator and ruler of the world and expresses the blessedness of Israel as God’s people; 2) vss 19-37 describe the covenant God makes with the house of David; 3) vss 38-51 describe a severe defeat for the house of David and a prayer that God will soon act to restore it. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 188. Vs. 52 is a doxology closing the third book within the psalms (Psalms 72-89) rather than a part of psalm 89.
Scholars are not in agreement over the event giving rise to the third section of this psalm dealing with the monarchy’s defeat. Because the monarchy was brought to an end by the Babylonian invasion of 587, it is unlikely the subject of the psalm, particularly as it is spoken by a king who, though defeated and humiliated, remains on the thrown. Some biblical commentators suggest that the reference might refer to the Assyrian crisis of a century earlier, but there is not enough specificity to assign these verses with certainty to any known historical period or event.
Although it celebrates God’s covenant with David as God’s saving act, the psalm acknowledges that the true sovereign of all the earth is God Himself. Vs. 18. God makes a “covenant” with David. A covenant is more than a mere contract. In the ancient near east, covenants were usually made between kings-and generally not between equals. It was common for a dominant king to enter into a covenant with the king of a subservient nation. Under the terms of the covenant, the stronger king would promise to provide military protection from common enemies (and a promise that he himself would not attack!). In return, the weaker king would pay tribute and promise undivided allegiance to the stronger king. The weaker king would often give his daughters in marriage to the stronger. (The fact that one’s daughter is at the mercy of a foreign king would naturally make one think twice about commencing hostilities!).
In the covenant with David, God is clearly the dominant partner. Yet, oddly enough, God promises both protection and eternal faithfulness. God’s love for and support of David is not contingent on David’s past accomplishments or on his promise to be loyal to the Lord. This is a one way covenant in which all of the promises flow from the God of Israel to David and his line.
The Davidic covenant was not universally recognized in Israel as was the covenant made at Sinai. Sinai was definitive both for the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Both kingdoms drew from the traditions growing out of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the Exodus, the Wilderness Wanderings and the Conquest of Canaan. The David tradition belonged uniquely to the Southern Kingdom of Judah that was ruled by one of David’s descendants from its inception around 1000 B.C.E. until Judah’s final destruction in 587 B.C.E. For Judah, the rise of the Davidic Monarchy represented another of God’s saving acts, solidifying the twelve tribes and uniting them against their many enemies. Chief among these foes were the Philistine peoples whose professional armies and superior Iron Age technology gave them a significant military advantage over the loose confederation of Israelite tribes and their largely volunteer defenders. David’s political skills and his use of mercenaries to lead his armies transformed Israel into a formidable nation state.
But Israel’s view of the Davidic Monarchy was always conflicted. Doubts about the advisability of monarchy in general are reflected in I Samuel 8 where Samuel warns the people that the security promised through the reign of a king will come at the cost of taxation, oppression and military conscription. These very evils came to fruition under the monarchy and were severely denounced by the prophets. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we find denunciations of the monarchy and its abuses alongside expressions of hope for a messianic descendent of David capable of delivering Israel from her enemies and ruling justly. This hope was burning with white hot fervor during the First Century in which Jesus lived and ministered. Nevertheless, beliefs about where the messiah would come from, what he would do to liberate Israel, how, when and where he would go about doing it were varied and conflicting. Not surprisingly, Jesus appeared reluctant to claim that title. Doing so would have invited a host of misunderstandings about his mission and ministry.
For my general reflections on the book of Romans and the introduction to this chapter, see last week’s post of June 25th. In Sunday’s reading Paul picks up where he left off last week. Again, he poses the rhetorical questions: “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under the law but under grace?” vs. 15. As discussed last week, this conclusion follows only if we assume that sin is the mere breaking of law and that successfully following the law amounts to righteousness. As Paul has already pointed out, that assumption is altogether wrong. Sin is not a matter principally of wrong behavior, but of the self-centered orientation of the heart. Because we are incurably self-centered, we wind up bending the law to serve our own selfish objectives even when we keep it to the letter. This is what it means to be in bondage to sin.
Here we come up against the much maligned and misunderstood doctrine of the “bondage of the will.” Nowhere is the brutal reality of this bondage better portrayed than in Martin Luther’s book by that name. To sin or not to sin is not a choice. Sin is the bondage into which we are born. We can no more decide to be free from sin than we can decide no longer to be bound by the law of gravity. Just so, we cannot will ourselves to be obedient or faithful to God. Luther does not mean to say that we are altogether without the ability to make choices. We can, in fact, choose to marry or remain single; to study chemistry or pursue a law degree; put on the plain tie or the striped one. Indeed, we might even choose to put an end to war, eliminate hunger or stem the tide of pollution. Ironically, folks who chafe most insistently at the notion that we are unable to will obedience to God are usually the first to complain that ending war, hunger and carbon emissions are hugely complicated tasks, fraught with opposing political/economic interests and altogether “utopian.” Yet this world with all of its conflicts and challenges is precisely the arena in which the human will is free and enjoined to act. A clearer testament to the fall into sin you could not ask for: Human freedom extends to every corner of the garden but one-and that is exactly the corner in which human nature insists on exercising it to the neglect of everything else!
So, too, Paul points out that human freedom with respect to God is illusory. We are slaves either of God or sin and, of course, a slave is not free to choose its master! Nothing will change unless God acts to alter our bondage under sin. God has done just that in Jesus. In Jesus God puts an end to our bondage under sin and exercises mastery over us. Our legal status has changed fundamentally. We no longer owe anything to sin, but everything to God. This is not simply metaphysical slight-of-hand, a magic number for X that causes the algebraic equation to work out. Sin is inability to trust God and let God be God. God’s righteousness is God’s irrevocable determination to redeem creation and win back the trust of our unbelieving hearts. This righteousness, this determination of God to remain faithful to the covenant promises made to Israel for the sake of the world is not cheap. It comes at a great cost to God. It is because and only because God is faithful to the point of the cross that faith on our side is possible. Faith comes not from any decision on our part to be faithful, but from the wonderful proclamation that God is faithful. Nothing short of this good news of God’s righteousness, God’s determination to save-no matter the cost, can turn our suspicious and distrustful hearts toward faithful obedience.
Paul therefore never conceives of freedom in the abstract. Freedom is not an end in itself, nor can it be. As between God and sin, one of them must be our master. Sin is a ruthless master whose wages are death, but Jesus is a gentle master who gives life-not as a wage, but as a free gift. Vs. 23. In Christ we are thus set free “from” bondage to sin “for” bondage to God in Christ Jesus. Freedom, then, is not the liberty to do whatever one desires, but the power to do that which is good and life giving. Freedom to sin is therefore an oxymoron. Such “freedom” is in reality the worst kind of bondage, leading invariably to death. Vss. 20-21.
This brief reading constitutes Jesus’ final words to his disciples before they embark on their mission of preaching, healing and casting out demons throughout Israel. Jesus impresses upon them the profound importance of their task. They are all of Jesus that many people will ever see. Acceptance of Jesus comes through acceptance of the disciples and their ministry. That is profoundly unsettling when one considers the degree to which the church persistently falls short of the community Jesus calls it to be. If the disciples had been exemplary saints with near superhuman goodness, we might despair of our own mission. But in all four of the gospels, we find disciples that mostly fail to comprehend the kingdom Jesus proclaims, mostly fail to be faithful precisely when faithfulness is critical and mostly fail to be the community united in love to which Jesus calls them. The church is at best a poor likeness of its Lord. Yet Jesus seems confident that his half-wit disciples will get it right. Ever so slightly more often than not, it seems they do.
The reading is also a reminder that the disciples’ mission depends upon the hospitality of those to whom they are sent. There is something beautiful about this arrangement. The mission of the disciples is not a one way transaction: “We are here to bring you the gospel. We are the helpers, you are the helped.” The disciples come to their audience with the most basic of needs; food and shelter. Just as they will call upon the villages to whom they have been sent to trust their proclamation of the kingdom and accept its gifts of healing and exorcism, so they must rely upon the kindness and generosity of their hearers. Naturally, then, the rewards of this mission also flow both ways. Not only are the disciples blessed, but also those who support them in their good work. Vs. 42.
This text is also a reminder to me of the hospitality I experience each day of my life. Every week between 25 and 40 people gather to listen to me talk. How many friends do you have who would put up with that? That people are willing to give us pastors an hour of their time to listen is already a huge act of hospitality. Moreover, I am surrounded by people who give of their time, their incomes and their prayers to ensure that the work I do goes on. After almost nine years, these folks know my shortcomings, my flaws and my failures. Yet hardly a day goes by without a word of encouragement, a prayer for support or some random act of kindness. Yes, I know how difficult life in the church can be and I spoke about that last week. I know all about “clergy killers” and “alligators.” Some days we need to take more than our share of aggression. “Into each life some rain must fall.” But let’s not choke to death on the camel while trying to strain out the gnat. We preachers have received an enormous helping of hospitality from the people we serve. They are deserving of our thanks and recognition.