Today when we think of a prophet we think of someone who does the difficult job of speaking the truth. Someone with a gift, but also with guts, for standing up to injustice and speaking the truth to power, someone who calls out the wrongs of others in order to bring about the change that is wanted or desperately needed in a relationship, community or nation.
Our modern day prophets are often politicians, journalists, social reformers and even the occasional minister who tend to prophesy in a particular kind of way by point away from themselves, away from their own community and towards another person or group when they place judgment or blame for what ails us. And the modern prophet then typically points back at themselves or those with the same ideology when they’re locating or identifying the solution.
It’s easy for us to close our eyes and picture someone doing this in a political debate on TV, or in an OP/ED in the newspaper, but this is also what takes place in our homes, around our kitchen tables and in our minds every day. We call out those who think, or act, or simply are different than us—you’re the problem and I’m the solution.
This is who we are, it’s what we do, and we’re all really good at it. So congratulations, you’re a prophet, but you’re a prophet and I’m a prophet in a way that is in stark contrast to the picture of a prophet that we get from the Bible.
Jeremiah was a prophet who lived during one of the most crucial and terrifying periods in the history of the Jewish people in biblical times, including the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon, and the beginning of the Babylonian Exile some six hundred years before the birth of Jesus.
Throughout the book of Jeremiah, the prophet displays the refreshing characteristics of humility, vulnerability and painful honesty as he struggles to understand the tragic events of his lifetime. In doing so he tells us a lot about himself, like the anguish and empathy he feels at the suffering of his own people, as well as his outrage at God for forcing him to speak truth in laying blame and judgment at the feet of his own nation. Jeremiah is not an unrelatable super hero. He expresses anger towards God, just as so many of us do when the wheels of our lives fall off and we’re faced with the unspeakable suffering of those we love, and Jeremiah shows no joy in playing the role of calling a spade a spade—in the face of sin and suffering he reminds us that we are not free from sin, that we are broken. And while we may have a lot of experience in deceiving ourselves into thinking that we are purely innocent bystanders, the reality is that not one of us is firmly on the side of righteousness.
You can see how this would not be a popular job—having to walk around delivering this bad news to your own people. So, it’s no surprise that prophets were often unwilling, initially, to undertake the work God had called them to. You might remember that one of our readings a few weeks ago included Jeremiah, who much like Moses, anxiously argued with God, saying that he wasn’t the right man for the job, that he couldn’t speak well—he certainly couldn’t be a leader or a prophet. It’s only when the prophet was convinced that divine power would compensate for their weakness did the prophet undertake the Lord’s mission. This revelation that it is God who is at work in the work of the prophet, and it is God who is at work in all the work of justice, shapes the way Jeremiah sees the world and our place within it.
And so Jeremiah tells us where we ought to place our hope and trust in difficult times, which, who are we kidding, really means all the time. He says:
“those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, who trust in themselves, [they’re in serious trouble]. They shall not see when relief comes, [because they’ll be too consumed with themselves]. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. But Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.”
Rather than pointing at themselves as the source of their salvation and the solution to their problems, the biblical prophet points at God and God alone. And this is for a really good and uncomfortable reason, it turns out that we are the problem, not the solution.
A few months ago Courtney’s grandmother let us know about a problem that had come about in the retirement home where she lives. I think it’s a problem that demonstrates how capable we are of taking advantage of one another, how incapable we often are when it comes to picking up the pieces of our lives and putting them back together, and sad as this story may be, I think it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard in my life. So, a little while ago, there was an outbreak of missing dentures. Dozens of folks couldn’t find their teeth and it became apparent that they hadn’t just misplaced them. After some interrogations and searches, the culprit was found—a sweet old man who had been sneaking into people’s rooms, taking their dentures and hiding them under his bed. The problem was identified, but the solution would turn out to be a bit illusive, sad and hilarious. You’ve got a dozen people without and in need of dentures, and you’ve got a bin of unidentified teeth…what do you do? Of course you line up the toothless seniors and you try out the recovered dentures one at a time, looking for their rightful owner until, pop, Cinderella finds her slipper. Perhaps the funniest part was hearing Courtney’s grandmother tell the story with some confusion, she didn’t understand the need for process, in her words, “a tooth is a tooth. This sort of thing happens all the time.”
There are a lot of problems in this story; the thief is certainly a problem; the staff have the problem of not being able to solve things in a clean and comfortable way, and clearly I’m a problem for finding this story so funny!
The work of the biblical prophet is a painful one. Jeremiah is called to speak the truth, to call us all out, to show us that we are all the problem, not the solution. That the human “heart is devious above all else.” No one likes hearing this, and no one likes having the job of delivering this bad news. But it’s true. Our addictions to sex, money, power, and pride, to non-stop critical commentary of others and the illusion that we’re in complete control of our lives cause problems—real problems. This isn’t fun to hear, but it’s just true.
On the other hand, we enjoy and rally behind the work of the modern prophet. It feels good to support them, to get behind them and try to raise our voices along with theirs as they hurl judgement and ridicule that may in fact be entirely justified. The booming voice of the modern prophet delivers good news to us, as long as she is on our side, or as long as he is the prophet of our cause.
But the low stuttering voice of the biblical prophets, of Moses and Jeremiah, the news that they deliver is always bad news before it’s good. It’s always the uncomfortable voice of truth. But God know this truth about us and He still comes after us with all His love. We are a problem, but God’s property when come face to face with us, knowing us better than we could ever know ourselves, God’s property is always, always to have mercy.
The Biblical prophet stands mud-spattered amid the ruins of life, while speaking honestly to God about who we are, and truthfully to us about who God is. The prophetic witness that we see in the Bible makes God real, present, and necessary to us in situations that seem to deny that God exists. The true words of the prophet show us that God is present with a power in our lives, that God’s will for us is not death but life.
While we may feel like we’re living in a fog of depression, trauma or isolation, God is present and at work. And this is no empty platitude, it is simply true because in Christ, God comes to the broken places of this world and the broken places of our hearts to find us and to save us. He has died for you and for me, and in His resurrection we too are lifted up and out of the fog. By his grace, and his alone, our hearts have been made clean. Through his power and presence in our lives we have been brought out of death and into life.
We no longer have to pretend to be something that we aren’t. We can see ourselves as men and women who’ve lost their way and maybe even their dentures. We can see ourselves as the broken but beloved children of God who have been given the Good News of a solution from the source of our salvation. From the one unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.