Texts: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Luke 4:21-30
Of all the prophets in either Testament, Jeremiah is the one with perhaps the most complicated reputation. Jeremiah’s reputation was so intriguing, so powerful, that some of Jesus’ time thought he was Jeremiah come back to them. There are many things we know, we think we know about Jeremiah.
Jeremiah was a child when he was called. The exchange we heard between God and Jeremiah took place when he was young, too young he claimed.
Jeremiah was a child not ready to take on the mantle of God’s word, not ready to tell his people about destroying or overthrowing.
Jeremiah was a child who had the Lord put words in his mouth, words which would later pain him if he did not speak them.
Jeremiah was a child who grew to a man who never become completely at ease with his call as prophet.
Jeremiah was a prophet who called the people to repentance, who warned of the foe from the north, who protested the broken covenant between the people and God.
Jeremiah was a man who carried this burden with few supporters, who became known as an introspective prophet, a weeping prophet, a broken-hearted prophet, a whining prophet, a judgment-bearing, yet small hope-offering prophet.
Jeremiah was a man who knew, who lived, the pain of a prophet’s call. He knew what it was to have to bring words of inevitable punishment, words which made him rather unpopular.
Jeremiah was persecuted, taunted, imprisoned, even put in a pit to die at one point.
Jeremiah was a man who bore a literal yoke for his people in an attempt to get the word of the Lord across to them.
Jeremiah was a man who suffered and he was not one to hold back on God – he let God know his aches and pains.
Jeremiah was self-described “man of strife and contention to the whole land.”
Jeremiah was a man who spoke God’s word and then saw that word fulfilled.
Jeremiah was a man who saw his city invaded, temple destroyed, people exiled.
Jeremiah was a refugee – leaving Jerusalem with other Israelites.
Jeremiah was a man who in all his pain, turned to God both in agony and in hope, in prayer.
But, of all of these, there is one thing Jeremiah is perhaps best known for, at least among this our generation:
Jeremiah was a bullfrog. He was a good friend of mine. I never understood a single word he said but I helped him drink his wine, and he always had a mighty fine wine. Joy to the world, all the boys and girls, joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, joy to you and me.
Quite a silly song, yes, but one many of us know. One that whenever the topic of Jeremiah comes up, it seems inevitably someone sings to him or herself. Even though the Jeremiah of this song written by Hoyt Axton and made famous by Three Dog Night is really just one part of nonsensical lyrics, it strikes me that their Jeremiah sounds not too far off the mark from our Jeremiah.
In some ways, a bullfrog is exactly what a prophet is. Someone who speaks in a loud voice which carries over great distances, whose sound is so much bigger than he or she is. These prophetic bullfrogs are ones who carry the word of God – that word which is greater than anyone of us, which covers the face of the earth. These prophets aka bullfrogs are also those whose voice is that annoying sound that you can’t block out, but it’s so annoying you don’t listen to closely enough so that you can’t fully understand a single word.
We may like to think we listen to God’s prophets, God’s words, but let’s be honest. How many of us enjoy the sound of a bullfrog’s call? How many of us welcome words which challenge us, make us uncomfortable, even threaten our way of life? Who wants to hear the words of Jeremiah? Words of destruction, words of despair, all of which will come to be because you strayed from God’s truth. Who wants to hear: your practices mean nothing? You are worshiping idols? You have betrayed your God with your hatred, your prejudice, your privilege? Jeremiah’s listeners didn’t, at least not for the most part. Do we?
Few of us, I would think, want to hear the words of prophets – at least not those tough words. The things we’re comfortable with we’ll take, but the stuff that makes us squirm, no way.
Jesus experienced this when he was in his hometown of Nazareth. He went to the synagogue and was given the familiar words of Isaiah to read. He read a passage about social justice, good news to the poor, the year of the Lord’s favor – even said these words had been fulfilled in the people’s hearing. He spoke powerful words – but non-specific words, words from another prophet who often spoke of hope.
And the people’s response to this – well, they enjoyed this mighty fine verbal wine, just like the good folks at Canaan enjoyed his literal wine. Commented on how well he spoke, amazed at the “gracious” aka palatable words which came from his mouth. They respond “is not this Joseph’s son, how nice it is to see a kid from the neighborhood grow up to be so well spoken, so poised. Wonderful to see the son of Mary turn into such a well-mannered man.”
Jesus, I suppose, could have received these laurels with a smile, taken a bow, and gone about his way knowing he was so loved. But he does not. Instead, he speaks the words he must speak, words of warning, words which his audience will NOT, does NOT receive well, words which take him from nice hometown boy to a dangerous rabble-rouser. He told them that in time of sorrow, of widowhood and leprosy, God sent prophets, prophets who offered solace and healing to outsiders, not Israelites. Jesus told the people who knew themselves as chosen that, at least in sometimes, they were not. They were not the one’s in God’s favor, perhaps not the ones to receive the year of the Lord’s favor.
Jesus knew a prophet would not be accepted in his hometown, in the place where they had too many excuses, too many reasons not to listen to him. They knew him when he was a child, like Jeremiah was when he was called; they knew his family, his history, they knew he was one of them. What right did he have to say such words? Just because he’d garnered a reputation for being able to do a few tricks, because he had a nice speaking voice.
The people in the synagogue were so filled with rage that this hometown kid would presume to be this voice of God, to take such authority, that they drove him out of town. Not only that, but they wanted to throw Jesus, the man they knew since he was a boy, whose family they knew, throw him off a cliff! Murder him! His own people, his own community.
This is what it can mean to be a prophet. Prophets are those so connected to God, that it is God’s words in their mouths, God’s message on their tongues, God’s reality they see, God’s truth they promote. And as much as we may long for a cuddly and comfortable God, when we have strayed, when we have broken covenant, when we have sinned and show no sign of repentance, God can be anything but warm and cuddly. Walter Rauschenbusch, a man was a key figure in the Social Gospel movement at the turn of the century, said that prophets were people “so alive to God and felt God’s righteousness so overpoweringly that they beat their naked hands against jagged injustice and inhumanity. They were centers of religious unrest, creators of divine dissatisfaction, and the unsparing critics of all who oppressed and corrupted the people.” If prophets are the ones to speak God’s powerful, challenging word, it is no wonder Jeremiah suffered, no wonder Jesus’ hometown wanted him dead. Unrest, dissatisfaction, unsparing critics – nothing about these speaks of making friends.
The last few weeks in Kerygma, along with discussing the Gospel According to Mark, we have been engaging in an interesting discussion about prophets – specifically, do prophets still exist in our day? My response: a resounding yes. But who are these prophets, you might wonder, who are our Jeremiahs, Elijahs, Elishas, Annas, Ezekieals, Miriams, who are those among us who see God’s reality, God’s truth, and speak to it?
If we took a survey of who we thought of as contemporary prophets, I’d expect to hear several MLKJrs, a Gandhi or two, a few other religious and perhaps political figures. But I wonder how many of us would name people we actually know and how many of could think of more than a handful of prophets.
We wonder about where our modern day prophets are, where those who proclaim not a new word but the word anew may be. We wonder why the days of many prophets, days seen in both Testament times, before and after Christ, seem to have passed. Perhaps these days have not passed. The conditions of our world seem ripe enough to bear prophets – plenty of God’s word needing reiteration here and now. Perhaps, instead, the days of our recognition of prophets is what has passed.
In the text of gifts we read two weeks ago from 1 Corinthians, Paul speaks of prophecy as one of these gifts. As far back as the Old Testament, Moses expresses a wish that “all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put the spirit on them.” Well, God has put the Spirit on each of us. We could say that each of us may have moments of prophecy in us. While some of us may know prophecy as our main calling, each of us may come across moments where the word of the Lord is placed in our mouths, where we are called not to speak only words which will bring us acclaim, but words which will bring us scorn.
But such a call – who wants to be the one scorned, derided, thrown out of town, even harmed? No wonder we stop listening for it. No wonder we don’t like to recognize it in others.
Whether we are the ones who are supposed to listen, or the ones who are supposed to speak – we don’t pay much attention to the call of prophets. We, like Jeremiah make excuses about the prophet (be that prophet us or someone else) – too young, too uneducated, too liberal, too conservative, too much of an agenda. Or we, like those in Nazareth, let the person’s (even if that person is us) humanness keep us from seeing and hearing the prophet before us – that’s just Joseph’s son, we knew him when he was a mischievous young boy, we knew her when she ran around with the wrong crowd, you know he’s divorced, she’s gay; I’ve got a history, a past, baggage…
None of these excuses stopped Jeremiah from his work, nor Jesus. None of them should stop us. We must listen. Listen for both the call of God to us AND the word of God for us. For no matter who may be speaking it, the word of the Lord is THE WORD OF THE LORD. We must listen for the moments we may be called to speak God’s word, to speak to God’s truth amid those who would not listen, to speak, demonstrate, act – whatever it takes to help the people hear. And we also will be called to listen to those who do just that – listen and receive those words which may be hateful to us because they challenge us, force us to examine our lives, our faith. We will be called to listen, receive, and act.
We will be called, you and I, this much is true. Whether we hear that call with open ears, open hearts, whether we respond, has yet to be determined. Amen.