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Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Prophet is Unloved (Cheer Up! There’s Worse To Come)

Home is where you’re safe, right? Home is where you’re welcome, yes? When you’re troubled, when you’re low, you can go to your family for strength, for comfort, for help, right? If you’re not a prophet, perhaps. Jesus said, “A prophet is despised only in his own country, among his own relatives and in his own house.” (Mark 6:4) Jeremiah, son of Hilkiah, one of the priests living at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin during the days of King Josiah, King Jehoiakim and King Zedekiah, was threatened by many enemies during his life: he was beaten and put into stocks by priest Pashhur, son of the high priest (20: 1-4), imprisoned by King Zedekiah (37:18, 28:28), threatened with death (38:4), and thrown into a cistern (38:6), but perhaps the most hurtful of the abuse he suffered came from those closest to him. Jeremiah was not loved and welcomed in his hometown; the people of his home town, and members of his own family even, plotted to kill him.

“You must not prophesy anymore,” they said. “You must not prophesy in the name of the LORD or you will die by our hand!” (11: 21)

This violent antipathy for the prophet seems to have surprised Jeremiah. Perhaps we would say that he was foolish and naïve. Perhaps he really should have realized that his vigorous defense of the religious reforms initiated by King Josiah, even after King Josiah’s untimely death on the battlefield against Pharaoh Necho II – even after those reforms had been halted and undone by Josiah’s successor, would stir up fierce animosity among the many of the religious leaders, especially among those religious leaders whose work was threatened by Josiah’s reforms. Perhaps Jeremiah should have realized that even the priestly members of his family would see him as an enemy. And yet, Jeremiah doesn’t seem to have anticipated the hatred that came from his own country, among his own relatives and from his own house.

The LORD informed me, and I knew -
Then you let me see their deeds.
For I was like a docile lamb
led to the slaughter;
I did not realize
that it was against me
they fashioned their plots:
“Let us destroy the tree with its [sap],
Let us cut him off from the land of the living.
That his name be remembered no more!”
(11: 18 – 19 JPS)

God had warned Jeremiah, told him about the evil in the hearts of his family, and Jeremiah knew it. He knew it, but couldn’t believe it, couldn’t bring himself to accept the truth of it. These were his own, his friends and family. He’d played in the streets with them, he’d gone to school with them. He’d studied side by side with them. He trusted them. He loved them. And even though God had informed Jeremiah, it wasn’t until an unnamed confidant of Jeremiah showed him proof, provided evidence of their treachery, that he was finally able to admit to himself that the men of Anathoth (including members of his own family) were trying to have him killed.

He trusted them, even as they were planning his death, He trusted them. And why shouldn’t he have trusted them? They were family. They were friends. They were, ostensibly, ‘on the same team,’ working together to minister to the people in the name of their God. They wore the same uniform, offered the same prayers, offered the same sacrifices… But these men of Anathoth (11: 21), his brothers, members of his own house (12: 6) were scheming to destroy him. And Jeremiah is ashamed of his own trusting naïveté.

I have
been naïve;
I’ve been callow.

I trusted those who planned my destruction;
those who were my comrades and my brothers.

If family
and friends fail,
who is

(The Prophet's Lament)

This is the way of it – life is hard and we are hurt and abused by many, but it is the ones closest to us who hurt us the worst. Our wickedest wounds come from those we trust. Jesus’s family thought he was crazy – when they heard of the crowds that were following him and the things he was saying, they set out to take charge of him, to seize him and drag him home saying, “he is out of his mind.” (Mark 3: 21) His followers betrayed and abandoned him and left him to die alone. And Jesus warned his disciples that those who followed him would find that their enemies would be the members of their own households (Matthew 10:36).

This abuse comes in many forms both direct and indirect. There are the obvious examples of yelling and hitting, cruel words and physical blows. These kinds of hurts are immediate and evident. But there are many subtle forms of aggression that can be easily overlooked (or easily hidden) in what should otherwise be a close-knit relation: spreading gossip, ignoring phone calls or emails, showing up late for meetings, sabotaging projects, giving the silent treatment, disguising criticism as compliments, etc.

These forms of abuse are easily masked behind smiles and compliments, and can be difficult to describe or pinpoint, but they are real. The wounds of passive-aggressive behavior may be hidden, but they hurt as much as a physical blow. This abuse can come from relatives and co-workers and leaders and bosses, from trusted friends, from those in our church. From people we trust. 

There is nothing particularly friendly about “friendly fire.” Soldiers expect to be shot at by the enemy, but when the shells are coming from our own lines, from our friends, we are disheartened. We hesitate to try again. We lose confidence in our leaders. We lose confidence in ourselves. We are demoralized (U.S.Congress Office of Technology Assessment 2).

And the prophet Jeremiah was demoralized as well. The realization that his own house, his own family, his brothers and co-ministers were out to destroy him caused him to question all that he once believed to be true. Suddenly the goodly order of the universe and providential care of God seemed not so manifest. 

“You will win, O LORD, if I make a claim against you,” said the prophet. You are God, and I’m only a pitiful man – what could I say? How could I challenge you or your word or your world? “Yet I shall present charges against you,” he continued (12: 1a). The disillusioned prophet, shattered by the attacks he’d suffered at the hands of those who were closest to him, now dared to question the goodness and graciousness of the God who’d called him to service.

“Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why are the workers of treachery at ease?
You have planted them, and they have taken root,
they spread, even bear fruit.
You are present in their mouths,
but far from their thoughts.” (12: 1b – 2)

The prophet begins to doubt the goodness of God. The abuse that Jeremiah has suffered is God’s fault. The wicked prosper – because God allows it. The workers of treachery have lives of ease – because God allows them to live at ease. For crying out loud! He planted them where they are – he put them into those positions of authority from which they abused the prophet. But they hid their abuse well. They spoke of God fluently and frequently, but he was far from their thoughts.

O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain—
Hamlet I – V – 106 - 108

But why? Why? Why would God allow this? Why would God allow these men to abuse his faithful prophet? This is what Jeremiah could not understand. And I would like to be able to tell you that eventually he came to understand at some point, that the clouds lifted and the sun came out, that the mysteries were revealed. I would like to say that there was peace and comfort for the mistreated prophet. But there wasn’t. Not really. The five ‘confessional’ passages of Jeremiah’s book (11: 18 – 12: 6/ 15: 10 – 21 / 17: 12 – 18 / 18: 18 – 23 / 20: 7 – 18) are increasingly dark. His life and sufferings are unrelieved. There is little in the way of divine comfort. There is no guiding hand of God, no miracle. No ravens feed him in the wilderness (1 Kings 17: 2 – 6). No angels bring him a meal of bread and water to fortify him for his journey (1 Kings 19: 4 – 8). No angel shuts the lion’s mouth (Daniel 6:22). Jeremiah is alone, abandoned to suffer abuse from those he trusted.

Yet in all of this, Jeremiah persisted in preaching the message he’d been given, and persisted in bringing his complaints to God. He persisted in proclaiming the prophetic message even when there was no change, even when there was no repentance, even when there was no increase in the weekly attendance statistics He spoke the words he was given. And he persisted in bringing his despair, his frustration, his anger directly to God.

In all of this, however, He never sought vengeance for himself. The prophet was content that God, the Righteous Judge, would decide and give acceptable recompense for what he’d endured.

“O LORD of Hosts, O just Judge,
who test the thoughts and the mind,
let me see Your retribution upon them,
for I lay my case before you.” (11: 20)

He calls upon God to ‘butcher’ or to ‘slaughter’ his abusers (12: 3). And this sounds at least as violent as the plot of those who wanted to see Jeremiah dead – (I know I’ve frequently admitted my own discomfort with the imprecatory parts of the bible) - But in this response (as dark as it may be) he has NOT denied the abuse or the hurt that he’s suffered (because denial of abuse can lead to self-destructive attitudes and behavior) and he has NOT sought personal vengeance (to do so leads to hatred and to violence). Instead he has allowed the Just Judge to work out the appropriate response.

In this case it is God assurance to Jeremiah that those who have conspired to have him killed will themselves be cut off from the land of the living and that their children and descendants would be wiped out, that their name would not be passed down.What they wanted for Jeremiah would be turned around upon them. (There were, however, 183 of the “sons of Anathoth” who returned from the exile – (Ezra 2:23). Perhaps there were some in Anathoth who repented and were given mercy and we can filter those imprecatory prayers through grace…)

I know that as a minister of the gospel I am expected to bring “good news” – the joy of salvation in Jesus Christ – but sometimes that good news is “Cheer up! There’s worse to come…” and I say that with as much wry, black humor as I can manage.

Jeremiah, the faithful prophet, was abused throughout his career as a prophet. He made few converts, his statistics were abysmal. He was abused by his enemies and (what is worse) by his own friends and family. He was beaten. He was arrested. He was jailed. He was cut off from his community. And through it all he persisted. He persisted through the abuse, and through God’s persistent silence.

Jesus endured much the same. His family thought he was crazy, and rejected his message. His friends betrayed him and left him alone in his darkest hour. And Jesus said that his followers could expect the same as well.

But “do not be afraid of them [who conspire to abuse you]. Everything now covered up will be uncovered, and everything now hidden will be made clear. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the daylight; what you hear in whispers, proclaim from the housetops.  Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; fear him rather who can destroy both body and soul in hell. Can you not buy two sparrows for a penny? And yet not one falls to the ground without your Father knowing. Why, every hair on your head has been counted. So there is no need to be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.  So if anyone declares himself for me in the presence of human beings, I will declare myself for him in the presence of my Father in heaven.” Matthew 10: 26 - 32


U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment, Who Goes There? Friend or Foe OTA-ICS-537 (Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, June 1993) 

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