A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, June 29, 2014
If you find yourselves wondering about this morning’s text, I will say that I have similar thoughts. What is going on here and how is it relevant for us? I must confess that I chose this text and title in a scramble to provide overdue worship themes for the Spire. As I quickly read through the texts, the phrase “prophets of peace” stood out to me. I thought I ought to be able to pull together a serviceable sermon on this topic. The problem is, I was taken in by the prophecy of Hananiah in much the same way those who first heard his words must have been.
I can’t put all the blame on the creators of the lectionary, but this does seem like one of those times when they have taken a passage out of its context and set it out in a confusing way. What’s going on here? Do you know? Neither did I until did some further research. Today’s text comes in the middle of what one commentator calls a “prophetic throw down” between Jeremiah and Hananiah. There is a setting and an outcome to this confrontation.
To begin with, we need to understand that Jeremiah is a gloomy prophet. His word from God is about destruction and exile. He is not a popular preacher. No one wants to hear what he has to say, and even those who accept his word wince at the language and tone of his proclamation. Remember that the people to whom he brought his prophetic word were covenant people. That is, they had a strong faith claim that God would be their God and they would be God’s people. But what Jeremiah and other prophets insisted on saying to them was that this covenant was conditional. They would be God’s people as long as they kept the covenant. And though God was characterized as being faithful and merciful, gracious in loving kindness, there were also limits to God’s patience.
I think we struggle with this notion whenever we are confronted with these texts from Hebrew scriptures. We want to believe in a God of infinite grace and unconditional love. What are we to do with a God who also judges and punishes? One way to look at the phenomena that is helpful to me is to say that we are either in relationship or we are not. The more we are centered in God, the more likely we are to know infinite grace and unconditional love. The further we wander from the relationship, the less likely we are to know those qualities. There are consequences to being out of relationship, not punishment as much as the absence of grace and love in our lives.
Anyway Jeremiah is carrying a word from God that at least spells out the consequences for the people of Judah whom he insists have broken the covenant and fallen out of relationship with God. Who knows for certain if Yahweh could have saved them from the workings of the Babylonian superpower? But it does seem that the destruction of the land and the exile are a direct result of their engagement in entangling political alliances in an effort to control their destiny.
In the 27th chapter, Jeremiah has instructed the king of Judah and his co-conspirators to give in to Babylon. He claims that it is God’s will that they live under the yoke of King Nebuchadnezzar and to dramatize his point he has created a yoke to wear around his own neck. For people who have believed that they were God’s chosen it is inconceivable that the Babylonian king could be God’s servant. Jeremiah is uttering blasphemy.
“In the beginning of the reign of King Zedekiah son of Josiah of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord…Make yourself a yoke of straps and bars, and put them on your neck. Send word to the king of Edom, the king of Moab, the king of the Ammonites, the king of Tyre, and the king of Sidon by the hand of the envoys who have come to Jerusalem to King Zedekiah of Judah…Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel…It is I who by my great power and my outstretched arm have made the earth, with the people and animals that are on the earth, and I give it to whomsoever I please. Now I have given all these lands into the hand of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, my servant, and I have given him even the wild animals of the field to serve him. All the nations shall serve him…
But if any nation or kingdom will not serve this king, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and put its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, then I will punish that nation with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, says the Lord, until I have completed its destruction by his hand.”
For Jeremiah, God’s word, God’s intention is clear – as a religious perspective on what is surely a political reality.
But here is the crux of the conflict with Hananiah. Jeremiah continues his witness,
“You, therefore, must not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your dreamers, your soothsayers, or your sorcerers, who are saying to you, ‘You shall not serve the king of Babylon.’ For they are prophesying a lie to you, with the result that you will be removed far from your land; I will drive you out, and you will perish. But any nation that will bring its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will leave on its own land, says the Lord, to till it and live there” (From Jeremiah 27).
Now you can imagine this was not a popular word. It did not fit the political or theological mindset of his hearers. This group of kings, perhaps with the aid of Egypt, the other great superpower of the time, believed they could rebel against Nebuchadnezzar and drive him out of their lands. And, of course, each nation believed they had their own god or gods on their side. “Not so,” cries Jeremiah. “Get real or get ready for destruction and exile.”
So in the beginning of chapter 28, the prophet Hananiah calls Jeremiah out, in the temple courtyard, in front of all the people. “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house, which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. 4I will also bring back to this place King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.” Take that, Jeremiah. The gauntlet is thrown.
Hananiah sounds like a prophet, carries himself like a prophet, uses all the right language. If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, waddles like a duck… To Jeremiah’s credit, he does not jump to conclusions. When he says, “Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied…” there may be a note of sarcasm but there also seems to be a note of longing for peace and prosperity. If only what Hananiah is saying could be true.
After Hananiah has dramatically broken the symbolic yoke around Jeremiah’s neck, Jeremiah leaves the scene, not so much in defeat as to wait for the word of God. The work of discernment is essential to knowing if a word comes from God. Jeremiah goes away to pray, to contemplate, to listen for God. I think there is wise instruction here for us in terms of how we evaluate the words, the prophecies, the promises that come to us from all angles. Will we step aside before rushing to judgment, to listen for God’s word, to look for God’s way, to center ourselves in the One whom we live and move and have our being?
The story concludes with a word from God, reiterating the desire for Nebuchadnezzar to rule and showing Hananiah’s prophecy to be false. There is no place for proclaiming peace where it is not possible. Hananiah may cry “peace” and the people and the leaders may break into thunderous applause but that will make it so.
Prophets of peace must also ensure they unveil the way of peace. It is a hard and challenging road and it may very well lead through destruction and exile. It seems Hananiah is proclaiming peace because it’s what people want to hear. It is reminiscent of a certain US president standing on the deck of a war ship proclaiming, “Mission accomplished,” or any public figure of any political persuasion referring to weapons and armies as instruments of peace and war as a a peacekeeping mission.
In the end, the way to peace is through compassion, love and justice. Peace is born of right relationship. It requires that we forgo our enmities and lay our weapons down. In the Choral Project concerts this week, we are singing Erik Johns’s words for Aaron Copeland’s great chorus from his opera, The Tender Land. The words say this, “The promise of living with hope and thanksgiving is born of our loving our friends and our labor. The promise of growing with faith and with knowing is born of our sharing our love with our neighbor.” The promise of peace is always and only in right relationship, with God and neighbor – next door, nationally and globally.
As Oscar Romero writes in today’s words of preparation, “Peace is not the product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is not the result of violent repression. Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all. It is right and duty.” Or as peace activist, John Dear, proclaims, “Being part of a community of peace is what it means to be human.” Shall we then embrace our humanity in communities of peace?
Jeremiah longed for peace but he also knew it would not come just because Hananiah said so. True prophets of peace act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God. Let’s give the last word to Jeremiah, a true prophet of peace, who, in the end, viewed God’s future eventually unfolding full of hope and promise. “Thus says the Lord…I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you, and you shall be built…Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.’
They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again. Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (From Jeremiah 31).