29 August 1999

All Saints, Benhilton

Profiting from the Prophets Part One

Jeremiah 20: 7-9,
Rom 12: 1-3
Matt 16: 21-27

The reading which we heard from Jeremiah this morning reminded me that the whole subject of Prophecy deserves a bit of an airing.

There was a time, not so long ago, when everyone who attended church on anything like a regular basis could be relied on to know who the prophets were, what they said, and why they said it.

But that's not true any longer. Few churchgoers know anything about Jeremiah, for example and his name conjures up a deeply pessimistic crotchety old gentleman, finding fault with everyone and everything in the way that old gentlemen so often do, and the origin of the word Jeremiad.

the facts are otherwise. There's every reason to suppose that Jeremiah was quite a young man when he was recording his prophetic utterances about 600 years before the birth of Christ; and whilst it is true that things were pretty dire, socially, morally, economically, religiously and politically in the Jerusalem of his day, Jeremiah's message, like that of the other pre-Exile prophets such as Isaiah, Amos and Joel, to name but three, was shot through with a strong sense of hope, so that even the most gloomy passages like the one we heard today, stand out as a contrast, like the effect of the sun shining directly on black clouds in the sky, making them looked even blacker than they really are.

Why was Jeremiah so "down in the dumps"? Well, it seems that nobody would listen to him. "The word of the Lord has meant for me insult, derision all the day long". To his message that violence and ruin would for a certainty catch up eventually with the nation which turned its back upon God, the retort of his hearers was, "Well, it hasn't happened to us so far, so let's carry on as we are".

"This is a waste of time", thought Jeremiah to himself. "I'll keep my mouth shut". Yet no sooner had he decided this than he became aware of an irresistible pressure to "speak out". "There seemed to be a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones. The effort to restrain it wearied me." he said. Like the Author of Psalm 39 so graphically put it "My heart was hot within me, and while I was thus musing the fire kindled: and at the last I spake with my tongue "Lord, let me know mine end and the number of my days, that I may be certified how long I have to live."

The prophets spoke because they found they had no alternative. Let's remember that for the greatest part, what they said was addressed to men and women of their own time about things which were happening then and there. Very, very occasionally one of them would be inspired to look more distantly into the future and suggest what might happen in the long term. But we should be quite wrong to confuse the prophets with fortune-tellers and soothsayers.

Goodness knows there were enough of them around, telling people what they liked to hear and getting paid handsomely for it. These sort of prophets were the spin-doctors of their age, and it was largely against their utterances that the true prophets of the Lord were called by God to speak out.

If you look at any age, distant past or more recent, false prophets, like spin-doctors have always outnumber true ones by several hundredfold. Who, after all, would relish the idea of being in a permanent minority whose job was to tell people what they would rather not hear!

What sort of things did the true prophets say? Well, think of St Paul in the second reading for today when he said "Worship God... in a way that is worthy of thinking beings, by offering your living bodies as a holy sacrifice, truly pleasing to God. do not model yourselves on the behaviour of the world around you, but let your behaviour change, modelled by your new mind the mind of Christ"

Can you imagine a less popular, less acceptable message in the present climate of opinion! the prophets of this age are endlessly urging people to strive for "self-fulfilment". What they and their hearers seem totally incapable of understanding is that self-fulfilment, like happiness and joy, doesn't come about by striving for it. As William Blake said of joy, it has to be kissed as it flies.

there can be no more striking example of this truth than our Lord Jesus Christ who "for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame" as the writer to the Hebrews puts it.

As a young man in his early thirties, Jesus was much the same age as Jeremiah. Jesus had a highly successful ministry behind him, a gang of enthusiastic apostles beside him and a rosy future as the Messiah of God's chosen people before him, and it must have seemed obvious to him that this was the way forward. And yet another voice, unmistakable in its authenticity, rose up above the "obvious" one in his mind and suggested that his Father's will for him, the Eternal Son, was something very different. It was that he should "suffer grievously at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, to be put to death and to be raised up on the third day

No wonder Peter protested, "This must not happen to you". Seen from the worldly point of view, the death of Jesus on the cross was a tragic waste; seen through his eyes, and the eyes of his Heavenly Father it was "the one, true pure immortal sacrifice which reconciled us to God himself"

"Heaven preserve you, Lord. this must not happen to you!" exclaimed Peter passionately to Jesus. But Peter was looking at things through man's eyes rather than god's eyes, and the two perspectives, whilst they are sometimes identical are more often not so.

It would be easier in some ways, no doubt, if the two ways of looking at things were always or never the same. If they were always the same then we would know anything our nature prompted us to do would be automatically God's will for us. That would certainly save us a whole lot of moral effort, wouldn't it? Do what you like would be our motto as it was that of the Hell Fire Club and Sir Francis Dashwood in the 18th century.

By the same reasoning, if we knew for certain that our natural wills were always exactly the opposite of god's will for us, then at least it would be easy to distinguish right from wrong, because "right" would always be the exact opposite of what we desired. It wouldn't make life easy, mind you, to obey God's will, but at least we'd have a clear idea of what God's will was.

As it it, the problem for us is that the two wills, ours and god's are sometimes alike, sometimes opposed to each other. Discipleship means learning how to tell which is which in a particular case. And it's here above all that the prophets can act as our guide.

For, above all, the prophets were people who learnt how to discern the will and purposes of God, not just for themselves but for their contemporaries, and by taking a leaf out of their books, so to say, we can become more skilled at doing the same thing.

Next week we'll look at how this process, let's call it Profiting from the Prophets works in practice.

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