OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 9 – Jeremiah 23:23-29 (Related)

This is a great passage to go with today’s Gospel, about Jesus bringing division rather than peace (Lk 12:49-56). Jeremiah is well known as a bit of a misery among the already dour OT prophets. The calling of God on him was a heavy one, and we know quite a bit more about his personal life that we do about those of other prophets. Since chapter 11 he has been in conflict with the ‘leaders of Judah’ or, as they are described, her ‘shepherds’. He has one message, and they don’t want to hear it. Things begin to hot up in chapter 21, where Jeremiah turns his attention onto his opponents. Today’s passage is part of this condemnation of those who claim that God is saying something different to them from what Jeremiah is hearing.

So what is this great divide all about? What controversy can possibly be causing all this trouble. What is it which causes the dramatic pronouncement of ‘Woe’ to these leaders in 23:1? This word signals a solemn curse, and has real power to it. Jesus pronounces woes on the towns around the Sea of Galilee in Luke 10, and if you visit the Holy Land today you simply won’t find those places. Woes matter! So what is such a serious issue all about? In a nutshell, the leaders wanted peace when in fact there was no peace. Jeremiah had been consistently warning the people that their abandonment of true worship and the consequent lack of moral standards would be met by God’s punishment as they were carried off into exile. But the leaders obviously had a vested interest in keeping that message off the public radar. They resented the idea that a new, true leader would come and dethrone them, and no doubt, as with all corrupt leaders through all time, they were profiting financially from unchallenged greed. So this upstart prophet was a threat to the status quo, and had to be stopped.

One strategy, of course, was to fight fire with fire. If they could produce their own prophets to say what they wanted, it was simply Jeremiah’s word against theirs. Produce enough of them and the majority, surely, would win. So the real question here is about how one discerns the authentic voice of God from the voices of self-interest and the status quo. Jeremiah’s defence is simply to claim that the false prophets were just that, and had not heard God, but were making things up to suit their own ends. He begins by reminding his hearers that God knows the false from the true, even if humans find it difficult at times. In our brief passage he makes three points about true versus false prophecy.

The first is that just because we claim, or even believe that a word has come from God, it might not have done. There is an interesting juxtaposition in v.25-26. The prophets are lying prophets, speaking from the delusions of their own minds, yet they claim to be speaking in God’s name. Just putting ‘Thus says the Lord …’ in front of a prophecy is no guarantee of its genuineness. Whether they really believed that they had the mind of God, or whether they were deliberately setting out to deceive is not clear, but it amounts to the same thing.

Secondly, false prophecy will tear God’s people apart. This is an OT equivalent of ‘by their fruits will you know them’. If so-called words from God lead people away from him, rather than back to him in repentance, they cannot possibly be the genuine article. And of course a real prophet would know that.

And thirdly Jeremiah asserts, with Jesus, that genuine prophecy is often tough to hear. In three clear pictures Jeremiah distinguishes true words from God as being like a consuming fire, a threshing machine to separate truth from lies, and a sledgehammer which cracks rocks open. None of these images is cosy or comfortable, any more than God is comfortable for those deliberately opposing or ignoring him.

So does that mean that God’s word to us will always be harsh and rebuking? Is it in the very nature of the prophetic that it is only there to tell us off? The answer, I believe, is ‘only if that’s what we need’. Like the Holy Spirit himself, prophecy is there to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable. We can trust our God to say to us what we need to hear, when we need to hear it. True prophecy just feels right to those whose heart’s desire is to please God at any cost.

OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 8 – Genesis 15:1-6 (Related)

The cycle of stories about Abraham and Sarah contains two profoundly important conversations between God and Abraham, here and in Gen 18, where Abraham intercedes for the city of Sodom. In both cases Abraham appears a bit cheeky, if we’re honest, in the way he speaks to God. Whilst these conversations have been seen as authenticating holy boldness, is there more to them?

This conversation begins, though, with God, not Abraham. He tells Abraham not to be afraid, which raises the question of what or whom he might be afraid of. He has just rescued Lot, and perhaps fears a counter-attack and retribution from Lot’s enemies. But as the conversation progresses, it becomes clear that God is addressing a much deeper fear. However, he begins by describing himself as Abraham’s shield and reward. The shield is a protective piece of armour, set between the attackers and the victim: God sets himself between Abraham and all that would harm him. As for the great reward, there’s the rub, which allows Abraham to voice his real complaint. In spite of God’s promise three chapters earlier, he has still not given Abraham a son and heir. So Abraham responds by saying (and I paraphrase) ‘It’s all very well that you plan to reward me, but you haven’t given me the one thing which I really need to make any sense of my life. It’s not that I’m not grateful, but without a son everything you give me will end up being left to my servant. So thanks, but when are you going to reward me with the very thing you promised but have not done?’

For many people there is that One Thing. For Christians who believe in a God who answers prayer, the dilemma is made even more difficult. They simply can’t put it down to ‘life stinks’ or bad luck or whatever. God has promised, but he hasn’t followed through. For many couples it is the same issue, that of childlessness. For some people if goes back even further: they long to find Mr or Miss Right but it just hasn’t happened. Many struggle with chronic health conditions, or unfulfilling work, or … You can fill in the blanks yourself, and maybe you can even fill in your own blank. Many do what Abraham feared, and go to the grave with unfulfilled promises. These are real pastoral issues for so many people.

This passage offers no false hope, but does, I think, make a couple of important points for those struggling with unfulfilled hopes and shattered dreams. The first, which will seem harsh, is to ask exactly what is it that God has promised? Sometimes we struggle because God hasn’t done what we would like, but when we think about it, he has never promised to. If I spend my days in unfulfilled longing for a Ferrari and a holiday cottage in Provence, I need to ask myself the question ‘When exactly did God promise me those things?’ Unanswered wishful thinking can be as painful as unanswered prayer, but it is not the same. God has not necessarily promised me all the things I would like him to have promised.

The second, though, is more positive. This is not just wishful thinking on Abraham’s part. He can look back to the day when God specifically said to him that he would make him into a great nation. He promised! So where is it? I’ve not even got one son, let alone a nation! It’s an audacious thing to say to God, but the response is for God to restate the promise in even more detail. Your nation will not come from Eliezer of Damascus – it will come from your own natural offspring. And when I say ‘nation’, I mean this many! Look at the stars above and the sands beneath your feet. That’s what I promised, and here and now I make that promise to you again.

Of course Abraham had to wait for this reiteration of the original promise to come to pass, and in the meantime he tried to make it happen himself, and had to hear the promise a third time, around 25 years after he first heard it. We are impatient creatures compared to God, and so many of our unanswered prayers are not because God has said ‘No’ but because he has said ‘Not yet!’ But if you have some Big Issue, and are sure that God has spoken to you and has promised, it’s OK to ask him to remake the promise to you, and to ask for confident patience as you wait for him to act.