Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

August 14, 2022

Texts: Jeremiah 23:23-29; Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2; Luke 12:49-56

Once, two monks were talking about the Lord’s Prayer. One says to the other, “If you can say the Lord’s Prayer without letting your mind wander, I’ll give you my horse.” “Okay,” says the other. “Our Father, who art in heaven…do I get the saddle too?”

If the prophet Jeremiah is to be believed (and this prophet does have a reputation for being painfully truthful) there’s irrefutable evidence that when it comes to God, we suffer from attention deficit disorder. From the beginning, humankind has felt God’s presence. We’ve known God’s love and God’s desire for us to survive and to thrive. And yet…

How easily we forget these good things! How quickly we turn our ears to other messages that do not serve us so well? Our minds and our hearts do wander.

This is exactly the message that comes to us in the scriptures today. Jeremiah has the guts to take on prophets who pretend to speak for God and yet are pursuing their own purposes. Dreams are a very common vehicle for divine encounters. It was understood that a prophet might encounter God in a dream and be given God’s word to speak.

But that’s only part of the equation. Encountering God is only the first part of speaking God’s word. There are two more critical parts to a prophet’s work. They are faithfulness and discernment. And this, says Jeremiah, is where a lot of prophets go off the rails.

After all, as Jeremiah said, these very same prophets’ own ancestors got mixed up with the Canaanite deity Baal. Along the way they’d forgotten to listen to Yahweh’s voice. The name Baal means master. Effectively, the prophets were giving their allegiance to another master rather than to the Lord God who made covenant with Israel.

And what had these other masters ever done that was commendable? In Psalm 82 God takes these other lesser masters to task for influencing the world with unjust judgments, and for favoring the wicked.  All at the expense of the poor ones, the weak ones, the needy ones and orphans.

This was a serious matter. The prophets were unfaithful with what God was speaking to them. And now, said Jeremiah, it was happening all over again. The words of these Israelite prophets no longer carried the wisdom, love, and will of the God of Israel.

Then, as now it comes down to this: how does a prophet, or anyone else for that matter, know when it’s God speaking and not some lesser master? How do we, like the prophets, discern the word of God and respond in faithfulness amid all the wishful dreams and all the chatter around us? Jeremiah provides us with good guidance.

Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word, speak my word faithfully.” We’re accustomed to thinking of God’s word as something that ancient people heard and wrote down, turning it into scripture – the Holy Bible. So some people think that Jeremiah is comparing the unfaithful prophets’ insubstantial dreams to God’s reliable scriptural word.

But in Hebrew, the term that is translated “word” is more accurately “speaking”. It’s in the present, active tense. So what God spoke through Jeremiah was this: “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my speaking, speak my speaking faithfully.”

From the very beginning, in creation God was speaking…quite literally speaking creation into being. So God’s word is performative. It does things. As Isaiah 42:9 says, “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.” God Is Always Doing A New Thing.

God’s word is also transformative in that it tends not to let things settle into permanence. God creates AND God redeems. Isaiah 43:19 says, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

Change doesn’t come easy to us. Even if what we do is unproductive, lopsided crazy, or just downright mean, we still prefer the familiar. When God does a new thing and speaks new creation into being, not everyone embraces it. Jesus caused such division by his faithful teaching.

The job of a prophet and any faithful person for that matter, is to listen to God speaking, and then carry that speaking to all who will listen. You may recall the incident in which God sent Jonah the Israelite prophet to Nineveh, an Assyrian city. Not God’s people even remotely. Which Jonah complained about bitterly. But after the sticky situation with the whale and being coughed up on the beach, Jonah went there and spoke God’s word. The Ninevites heard God loud and clear. They repented and changed their ways. And let that be a lesson to us!

The division that Jesus said he came to bring was personal. It would cleave the members of every typical Israelite household. Husband and wife, daughter and son, and the mother-in-law who was the husband’s mother.  The usual basic kinship unit that was ALWAYS to present a tightly bonded and indivisible group. In other words the institution that always had to be honored. Even if it had become dishonorable.

Among creatures we humans excel in the gift of perceiving patterns and learning from them. Jesus said, you know the patterns of wind and weather, but you don’t know what time it is! It’s hypocritical to say we are relying on God’s way and word speaking to us in some respects, while being blind in others. Faith is cross shaped. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” Faith should take us out of our comfort zones and put us at odds with unquestioned actions and institutionalized belief.

When God speaks all bets are off. A new thing is happening. Expect everything we know to be in the cross hairs. If this makes you nervous, thinking of the terrible roll call of martyrs in the letter to the Hebrews; if it seems so not like peaceful Jesus, then consider carefully what Jesus said. He came to bring peace to our hearts but division to the earth. Peace in our hearts is the holy gift on the other side of faithful, even costly obedience to God who always speaks in love.