Monday, June 23, 2008

True Prophets, Honest Disciples

Scripture cited here includes Jeremiah 20:7-13, Romans 6:1b-11, and Matthew 10:24-39

That Gospel, and that passage from Jeremiah, are meant to show how demanding obedience to God can be. Perhaps they’re just the right texts for a Sunday when we send off medical missioners to the Dominican Republic. The fact that these members and friends of ours are packing their bags this week says that they’re dealing with the God who calls people to respond, to serve, and to grow.

So let’s roll up our sleeves and get in there with Jeremiah and Matthew, who know all about mission trips. Let’s start with Jeremiah.

Here’s this bright young fellow, raised in a cultured home, a talented poet whose gift at finding words and conveying meaning has been commandeered by God. “O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.”

Jeremiah was the son of a priest. From childhood, he had known the influence of the great prophet Hosea. Becoming a prophet was not likely high on Jeremiah’s to-do list. Becoming a fine poet, yes. He knew how to struggle with his words, to find just the right ones. But becoming a prophet—Jeremiah knew this—meant struggling against the very word given to him to speak. “For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”

Jeremiah knew that becoming a prophet meant hitting the road and leaving behind a settled life. Why? Because the obedient prophet speaks for God, rattles everybody’s cages, goes where God sends, and once there spits out the truth without cushioning the blow.

Prophets are thought of as religious figures. And if prophets stick to what’s narrowly religious, no one minds them. For instance, if they criticize idolatry, or if they preach against the kind of pride that refuses to acknowledge dependence on God, or give fine speeches on ethics, then they’re basically acceptable. Maybe people laugh at them behind their backs, but they’re treated as harmless. And the professional prophets a king might keep on his palace staff—at the White House they’re called advisors— might actually be popular, especially when they forecast rosier times ahead. Very few are doing that, these days.

Nor does Jeremiah. “For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, ‘Violence and destruction are coming upon this people if they do not change their ways, if this country does not denounce violence and destruction, that’s what will keep befalling us!”

The obedient prophet is the exact opposite of a politician. A politician, to make the message acceptable, avoids extreme language, steers the speech so as not to offend or lose the audience. A prophet has no filter system, lets nothing of his own get in the way of speaking the whole truth. And an obedient prophet travels real light, because once the majority of his hearers have laughed at him, there will always be a few who are ready to rub him out. “Denounce him! Let us denounce him!” Even formerly close friends watch for the prophet to stumble: “Perhaps we can prevail against him, and take our revenge on him.” So the prophet keeps moving—not running like a coward, but keeping on the move like a resistance fighter. “The LORD is with me like a dread warrior.”

And what’s at the core of the true prophet’s message? What makes it so abrasive to hear? For one thing it’s often about the economy… “Sing to the LORD; praise the LORD! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.” The great prophets denounce every shape injustice takes, especially when the rich press their advantage against the poor, because this violates the covenant love that Israel owes to God. Translated into today’s terms, tax advantages for the wealthy, loopholes for corporations, prophets talk about these—and, for sure, the disparity between the minimum wage and the outsized pay packages of more than a few CEOs. Why? Because to prophets like Jeremiah God is equally sovereign over the life of the nation as over the interior life of the prophet, and God holds all sectors of society equally accountable to one standard of justice that makes of all citizens equal stakeholders in the covenant, equal claimants to the status of child of God.

“Then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones…” We shouldn’t be too surprised when we hear Jeremiah vent his heat and pray, “Let me see your retribution upon my persecutors.”

But that is not what we hear in Matthew’s Gospel. There, the disciple is expected to be like the teacher, and Jesus our teacher does not condone retaliation. If Jeremiah shows how demanding it is to be a prophet, Matthew helps us see that the bar is raised for Christian obedience.

I know, he does say that he comes not to bring peace, but a sword. Jeremiah has prepared us to hear that the Messiah in prophetic tradition is going to rock the boat. Creating a new heaven and new earth is going to require one heck of a lot of commotion, that we can understand.

But what’s with the sword? The Hebrew word for sword means literally “flashing”, lightning. Used as a figure of speech as Jesus does here, the sword represents judgment. Think of Jeremiah’s pent-up burning fire flashing free in his oracles of judgment against the nation. In the Letter to the Ephesians, remember that one part of the armor of God worn by Christians is “the sword of the spirit”, and in the Letter to the Hebrews and the Book of Revelation the authors explain that the sword of the spirit is the Word of God.

It has a mighty sharp edge, cutting deep into families within that first-century community. The message appears to be that the hallmark of true disciples is that nothing silences their expressing the reason for the faith and hope and love they feel, nothing pulls the plug on their acknowledging what God means to them in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit that has been given them. Not even fearful family members who understandably worry that their enthusiastic children or parents or inlaws, openly showing their new allegiance, may be arrested for breaking the rules of the all-seeing empire.

It’s thought that this portion of Matthew describes what makes legitimate Christian evangelists. It was meant to instruct the first Christians how to tell the difference between authentic missioners and flashy entrepreneurs trying to create a following. The bona fide witness to the love of Christ has first been honest and consistent at home in his or her personal life, has resisted the natural desire to keep peace in the family at all costs, and has chosen to let the truth make them free.

Jeremiah shows what it takes to be a prophet. Matthew reports what it takes to be a disciple of Christ. In both, it appears to be a tough love.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t come by tough love easily. I’m in my sixties and I’m still learning it. What allows that toughness? St. Paul answers that in his letter. What’s the worse that a prophet or a disciple might fear? Death? Paul says that fear of death is what we stare down in Christ. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his…. If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”

That attitude towards death toughens love. Death is not alien to the purposes of God. It is not physical death that a prophet or a disciple needs to fear.

The fuller story of Jeremiah shows what is to be feared. Jeremiah did everything he could to awaken his nation, Judah, to a particular danger. That was the threat posed by the Babylonian kingdom. Superimpose a modern map on that ancient territory and you’re looking at the region of Iraq.

Jeremiah’s King, Jehoiakim, believed that nothing could bring down the Kingdom of Judah. God had blessed Judah and given her a high mission. God would never let her suffer disgrace. Jeremiah knew otherwise, that headstrong Judah was deluded by pride. Jeremiah’s oracles were brought to the King, written on a scroll, and King Jehoiakim would read a few verses then, with a penknife slice them off and toss them into the fire. He had no ear for differing points of view.

Jeremiah’s prophetic poems predicted that Babylon would invade and defeat Judah. King Jehoiakim’s advisors called Jeremiah a traitor, and the blindered King could not see or hear the truth. Inch by inch, he cut off dialogue, refused to allow honest debate.

That’s what needs to be feared: the head of state whose own head is deaf and blind to the bigger truth of what’s happening in the world, and who leads a nation to ruin by false appraisals, and refuses to consider information that doesn’t fit his own ideas or those of his advisors.

Why does the Church keep reading Jeremiah? I’ll ask you to judge that. The wise and healthy nation listens to its truest prophets.

And why should we care about tough gnarly Gospel texts like Matthew’s today? Because the Gospels equip us to test the spirits of those who present Christianity to the world. The Gospels remind us that Christian discipleship is not about having a flashy presence in the media and making a big noise at a microphone. Christian discipleship is about the desire and the discipline to be like our teacher, Jesus. Our medical missioners are about to have unique opportunities to give the same humble service of hospitality, healing, befriending, and loving that our Gospels record Jesus giving to the people around him. He does it now, and our missioners will feel the mystery of how their actions become what is needed by the power of God at work in their touch, in their trust, in their relationships with unknown people well-known because they bear the same image of God who blesses all.

“If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.”* That is Jesus’s message in Matthew today.

Jeremiah would have understood that. Matthew says that’s the call of God in Christ. We need our missioners to come back and present to us fresh what happens when disciples act on that call.

* Matthew 10:39 as paraphrased by Eugene Peterson in The Message