THE PROPHET’S ROLE
Last week we began to talk about Jeremiah. We looked at Jeremiah 1 which describes how God called him to his prophetic purpose. Do you remember how Jeremiah reacted when he heard God’s call? He said, “Not me God. You must want someone else.” Do you remember the excuses he made? He had two of them. The first one was that he was only a child and therefore too young to be a prophet. The second excuse was that he wasn’t a good speaker and everyone knew that prophets had be articulate. Basically, he said, “Hey God, don’t call a little tongue tied kid like me. Go find some articulate older dude.”
God heard the fear in those two excuses and calmed Jeremiah by responding in a positive way. God said, “Jeremiah, don’t say that you are too young because if you agree to be my prophet, I will go with you. You won’t be alone. You might be young but I really am older than dirt.” Regarding Jeremiah’s concern about his speaking ability, God said, “And don’t worry about that either because I will give you the words. All you have to do is open your mouth and let them fly.” In the end, that’s exactly what Jeremiah did. And in doing that, in saying yes to God’s call upon his life, he became one of the greatest prophets in the Bible.
But what is a prophet? Have you ever wondered about that? What is a prophet? A prophet is a person who has the courage to say it as it really is. A prophet is a person who is willing to say the things that everyone else knows but is too afraid to put into words.
You might recall the wonderful tale by Hans Christian Andersen about the Emperor’s new clothes. In that story, the Emperor who cares for nothing much beyond his wardrobe, hires two weavers who promise him a fine new set of clothes but with a twist. The clothes, they claim, will be made from fabric that is invisible to those who are either stupid or incompetent. The weavers, of course, though cleaver, are lying swindlers. When they present these new clothes to the Emperor, he, of course, sees nothing because there is nothing to be seen. But not wanting to appear stupid or incompetent, the Emperor pretends to see them and put them on. Word of these new clothes soon gets around the Emperor’s court and all of his ministers and courtiers do the same. Not wanting to appear stupid or incompetent, they too marvel at the Emperor’s new clothes.
The Emperor is so amazed at the response he is getting to his new clothes that he decides to parade them down main street for all to see. All of his subjects line up for the procession. They too, not wanting to appear stupid or incompetent, are stupefied by the Emperor’s new clothes.
But there is one single solitary voice in the crowd. It belongs to a child who stands up and declares that the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. The Emperor, suspecting that the child is right but not wanting to admit it, proudly holds up his head high and walks on.
Of all the people in the story, who is the prophet? It is the child, right! The child says what everyone else knows but is afraid to say, that the Emperor is stark naked. He is parading around the city in his birthday suit and no one has the courage to say anything to him except that one little child. The child says what everyone else is afraid to say and that makes his voice prophetic.
Jeremiah is a prophet because he says what everyone else is afraid to say. Listen to the word of God that he speaks to the people of Israel in Jeremiah 2:5-9 (NIV)
“What fault did your ancestors find in me, that they strayed so far from me?
They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves.
They did not ask, ‘Where is the Lord, who brought us up out of Egypt
and led us through the barren wilderness, through a land of deserts and ravines,
a land of drought and utter darkness, a land where no one travels and no one lives?’
I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce.
But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable.
The priests did not ask, ‘Where is the Lord?’
Those who deal with the law did not know me; the leaders rebelled against me.
The prophets prophesied by Baal, following worthless idols.
“Therefore I bring charges against you again,” declares the Lord.
“And I will bring charges against your children’s children.
Do you see what I mean? No one in Israel is thrilled with Jeremiah’s blatant accusations. But they aren’t actually Jeremiah’s words; they are God’s and clearly God is ticked! We are told why in Jeremiah 2:13 (NIV) where we read:
“My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me, the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.
What does he mean by that? In this verse, God is making a comparison. He is saying that the people made a choice between two things, between the things of God and the creations of their own hands. God offers them the spring of living water that flows from the heart of God. It is abundant and full and fresh. It is an ever-flowing spring that will never dry up. As long as it flows there is no need to store any water because no matter how much the people drink, there will always be more. This is an image of God’s love for the people and of God’s power to provide for their needs. As long as they choose him, they will never be spiritually thirsty. They will always have more than enough.
Jesus says something very similar to the Samaritan woman at the well. In John 4:10 Jesus said that he can give the woman living water. Then in John 4:13-14 (NIV), he describes this living water. He says:
Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.
Do you hear the similarities with what Jeremiah says? This living water is not only good for this life. It will quench a person’s thirst even in eternity.
You don’t get water like that from a cistern but that is exactly what God accuses the Israelites of trying to do. They built spiritual cisterns by their own hands and their own thoughts. They tried to forget the refreshing living water of God and replace it with stale and stagnant cistern water.
Has anyone here ever drank water from a cistern? A lot of houses in the old section of Cottam were built with cisterns. They were used to catch rain water and store it so that it could be used for washing and laundry and cleaning the floors. You could drink it if you had to but you never knew how many dead mice were floating in it or how much algae scum lined the sides. And yet this was the quality of the water that the people of Israel were trying to store for themselves.
The irony, of course, is that they couldn’t even do that right. According to verse 13, the cisterns are broken. They can’t store the water that the people try to collect. It is God’s way of saying that their venture is totally useless. It is a waste of time. They can have refreshing, flowing, living water from God but they prefer to try to store for themselves stale stagnant, water in cracked cisterns and they can’t even get that right. No wonder God is ticked. He offers them everything and they prefer, like rebellious fools, to go their own way and it isn’t going to work.
THE PURPOSE OF PROPHECY
That is the situation into which Jeremiah shares his prophecy. Can you see why prophets are not popular? They expose the nakedness of the nation. They tell it like it is and are honest about the condition of the people’s relationship with God. People in positions of power don’t want to hear that they’re fools. And yet that is what Jeremiah says. He calls a spade a spade and makes no bones about it and in doing so, reminds the people just how far they have wandered from the path of God.
People of faith often misunderstand the purpose of prophecy. We get the impression that prophecy is God’s way of telling us what is going to happen in the future, that it is some kind of forth-telling, like a psychic looking into a crystal ball. But that is not a correct understanding of biblical prophecy.
The purpose of biblical prophecy is virtually always the same. It is to bring the people back to faithfulness. It is not primarily about the future. It is primarily about now. That’s not to say that God doesn’t sometimes give us hints about the future through prophecy. God does do that but even those hints about the future are intended to lead his people back to faithfulness.
Look at what God says through Jeremiah. It is the stuff that people don’t want to hear but it is all true. Through Jeremiah, God tells the people exactly what he thinks of them. They have been unfaithful. They have followed worthless idols. They have not kept the law of Moses. The have defiled the land and rebelled against God. God is not impressed.
In reminding the people of how they are living, God is providing them with a choice. They can either continue in their rebellious ways or they can return to God. They can wallow in their faithlessness or they can return to faithfulness.
And here’s the key thing. God’s words through Jeremiah are like a great big ‘if – then’ statement. You don’t get that from this short passage but if you read the whole book of Jeremiah it is crystal clear. It sort of goes like this. God says, “If you do this, then I will do this. But if you do this other thing, then I will do something else.”
The situation in which the people of Israel find themselves is that they are being threatened by the growing might of Babylon. Babylon is the ascending power of the day. The mighty days of Egypt are gone. Assyria is crumbling to the north. Babylon is taking over the world and Babylon has its eye on Israel. Why? Because Israel sits right in the middle of one of the most prosperous trade routes of the day. If you want to get from Asia to Africa, guess where you have to go through? Right through Israel.
The rulers of Israel know this and they try to ward off Babylon’s aggressions by making pacts with both Assyria and Egypt. They try to establish the treaties in order to preserve their independence. But guess who they don’t trust? They don’t trust in God.
In Jeremiah’s prophecies God says to the people of Israel: “So you want to make deals with Assyria and pacts with Egypt. What about me? What about trusting me? Haven’t you seen what I have done for you in the past? Don’t you remember how I brought you out of slavery and into the Promised Land? Have you forgotten the rich land and the productive fields that I gave to you as an inheritance? Didn’t I do all of that?
“So why have you turned to foreign nations to aid you? All you had to do was come to me and I would give you even more. I have offered you flowing streams of living water but you have built leaking cisterns that will never provide what you need.
“And so I will give you a choice. If you return to me and be my faithful people, then I will protect you and preserve you. I will defend you from the might of Babylon and you will live in peace. But if you continue to rebel against me, I will bring down the Babylonian hoards upon your heads like a ton of bricks and you will be carted off into captivity.”
GOD’S INTOLERANCE OF SIN
The bottom line is that God will not tolerate sin. But neither will God stop us from falling to temptation. It’s the free will stuff that we’ve mentioned so many times in the past. God will allow you to be tempted and God will let you fall into sin if that is what you choose. God will not force you to follow him but, if you don’t, there are consequences.
Israel chooses to be unfaithful. The people do not return to faithfulness. They continue in their rebellion and when the mighty armies of Babylon sweep down on them, there is nothing that their allies in Egypt and Assyria can do about it. Israel is crushed, Jerusalem levelled, the Temple razed, the palace destroyed and the brightest and best of the people are carted off to Babylon where they will live in exile for the next seventy years.
Here is one of the tough teachings of the Bible. God will not tolerate sin. In fact, God will not only not tolerate it, God will abandon you to your sin. God is more than willing to say, “Okay if you want to go and do your own thing, then be my guest. But the results of your sin will come home to roost and you won’t like what happens.”
Sadly, people have this notion that God shouldn’t let anything bad happen to us because God is love. How could a God of love let bad things happen to people? And God is love. But God is also justice and judgement and mercy.
The purpose of prophecy is for God to call his people back to faithfulness. “If you do this then this will happen but if you that then that will happen. If you worship me and live according to my laws and commandments I will be with you. I will walk with you and live in you. I will fill you with living waters from the spring of my being. But if you insist on living in rebellion I will make you accountable for your choices. I will abandon you to your sin. I will let you discover how well you will do on the stagnant water that is left in the broken cisterns of your souls.”
But let’s get one thing straight. Sin is not the only reason why people suffer. Sometimes even the best, most upright and faithful of God’s children will have to live with unimaginable hardship and pain. Just as Jesus did. No one was as faithful as Jesus was. No one was sinless except him. And yet he suffered on the cross, not because of anything that he had done wrong, but just because there is sin the world and none of us is immune to its effect. But thank God that he did suffer because if he hadn’t we would never be able to be reconciled to God through the blood he shed on the cross of Calvary. Yet sometimes, like Jesus, we suffer because of the sins of others and the ripples of those sins have crossed our lives.
The purpose of prophecy is to call people back to faithfulness. If we insist on rebelling against God, God will abandon us. But the good news is this; if you repent of your sins and return to God, God will accept you. God will embrace you and once again offer the living waters that spring up to eternal life.
The people of Israel turned away from God and God abandoned them to the might of the armies of Babylon. But God says in Jeremiah 3:12 (NIV), “‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will frown on you no longer, for I am faithful,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will not be angry forever.” Eventually, the people did just that. During their Exile in Babylon, the prophets continue their oratory. Jeremiah is one of them, carted off to Babylon with the rest of the people. While in Babylon, the prophets Ezekiel, Daniel and Zechariah also are used by God to call the people back to faithfulness.
It took a while but the people of Israel to finally get it right. While in Babylon, they put aside their rebellion and return to God. And because they return to God, seventy years after being defeated and carted off into exile, God returns them to Israel. Jerusalem is rebuilt as is the Temple. Worship is re-established and the laws and commandments followed. More than seventy years earlier, God said, “Return Israel. I will frown on you no longer for I am merciful.” God’s frown disappears. He smiles on his people and overwhelms them with an abundance of his mercy.
Because of Jeremiah’s faithfulness, he was able to speak the prophecies of God to the wayward nation of Israel. It took a while but they eventually took those words to heart and returned to God. They returned to faithfulness and were restored to their homes. Jeremiah was faithful. Eventually, the people of Israel were faithful. God was faithful because God is always faithful. The ultimate lesson for us is that we too need to be faithful.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
God of Creation, we come before you in thanksgiving and wonder. You have blessed us in abundant ways. You have given us a smooth path to walk and offered your guidance in the Holy Spirit.
We would pray for those who are travelling during this summer vacation season. Protect them. Defend them. Bring us to their destinations and safely home again. We also pray for those who will be returning to school in just a little over a week. We pray for the teachers, the staff, the students and the parents as they all prepare for another year of study and preparation. We pray especially for those who will be travelling away from home to go to school in post secondary institutions. Be with them in the transitions.
We pray for the people of Ukraine as they continue to struggle against Russian oppression. Keep them strong and may he world unite with then in opposition to tyranny. May justice reign and peace flourish.
We also pray for our Kyiv Home Project and the shelter that it will provide for families as they transition to a new country and neighbourhood.
We life up in prayer the sick of our congregation, community and families. We remember Mark, Carol, Ron, Rachel and Hazel. Bless them all with your healing presence.
Help us, O God, to honestly evaluate our lives: our words, decisions, and actions, or lack thereof. Do our lights shine brightly? Can others truly see you in our words and actions? Help us to receive into our hearts the honest answer to those questions. May our lives illustrate your character and way of living in all that we do, in every word, every interaction with other people, so that we may clearly point others to the light of your grace.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
August 28, 2022 / Proper 17 / Pentecost 12
Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Jeremiah 2:4;13; Luke 14:1, 7-14; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
CALL TO WORSHIP
We are truly blessed to be in the presence of God.
We are honoured to be able to worship in the Spirit.
Let us proclaim the name of the One who saves us,
and magnify the God of heaven and earth.
Loving God, we seek your presence in our worship this day. You are powerful and loving, strong and compassionate. Your wisdom far surpasses our human intellect. Still you call us your children as we gather before your throne of grace. Regardless of the struggles and distractions that we face in this life, help us to always remember that there will come a day when we will be called to stand before you, our Judge and Redeemer. Thank you that you have given us the assurance of eternal life with you.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
Hear our confession, O God of the Ages. There are times when we fall victim to the sins of prejudice and narrow mindedness. Help us to recognize and appreciate the unique callings, talents, and gifts of each member in the body of Christ. Every part is important and has a needed function. When we fail to understand or appreciate a person role and ministry, help us not to reject or criticize them, because we are all part of the one whole. Forgive us when we fail to accept others as you have accepted us.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
When we fail to love others, there is still a God who loves us and accepts us just as we are with all of our blemishes and sin. Not only does God forgive us, through the Spirit we also are enabled to walk the sanctified life of Christ.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
Our gifts we offer, our hearts we bring, our lives we give to you, O God. Use our offerings for the service of your Kingdom that all may hear your Word and seek to live the sanctified life of Christ. We ask your blessings and your grace, in Jesus’ name.
Go into the world as servants of the Living God to be a light in the darkness and a fresh scent in a lonely land. God calls us to reach out a hand to our neighbours and welcome them as Jesus welcomed all people. Open your heart, open your home, open your life to those around you that the Spirit may shine through you and transform the world.