Jeremiah’s Yoke – First Sunday after Trinity 2011

We get to read a little bit from the Prophet Jeremiah this morning,  a small segment that doesn’t mean much on its own, so I want to put it into context.

The period is about 600 years before Christ; and the big issue in Jerusalem and that Near East is, what shall we do about the threat that is the Babylonian Empire? All kinds of plotting going on: perhaps if the little states band together with Egypt they will be able to resist Babylon. Jeremiah has a different opinion: resistance is futile. God has decreed that Babylon is in power – at least for the present; so Jersualem should submit, behave itself, keep its head down, and ride out the storm. This was not a popular opinion. It sounded like defeatism, lack of faith; it smacked of treason, undermining the public morale in time of war. To express his message, Jeremiah had made a wooden yoke – in the sense of the instrument whereby oxen were compelled to pull a plough, not in the Irish sense – and wore it on his shoulders as a sign that Jerusalem should submit, both to Babylon and to God’s decree. Such “acted sermons” were part of the prophetic repertoire – but I suspect this might have appeared to the people as a kind of ill-wishing of the nation. So another prophet, Hananiah ben Azzur, steps in, and takes the yoke off Jeremiah’s shoulders, and breaks it, and says, “God says, Thus do I break the yoke of the king of Babylon”. Hananiah says that Jeremiah is wrong, and predicts that the sacred Temple vessels which have already been taken by Nebuchadnezzar will be returned within two years. “I wish you might be right”, says Jeremiah, “but I don’t think so. Generally a prophet is safe when he foretells disaster; if you foretell peace, then time will soon tell whether you are false or true”. And the story goes on, that Jeremiah replaced his wooden yoke with an unbreakable iron bar, and told Hananiah that he would die within the year, which apparently happened. You don’t mess with prophets.

 

We read this story with hindsight, because we know that Jeremiah got it right – otherwise I suppose we might be reading the book of the prophet Hananiah. Whether it would have been so easy at the time to know who was right, I’m not so sure. Even though Hananiah gets stuck with the name of a false prophet, I don’t suppose he intended to be such – he acted in good faith, but nonetheless he was in the wrong. Is there anything we can learn here to help us from getting things wrong?

One factor perhaps is an element of complacency. The royal propagandists had built up a very strong sense that Jerusalem and the Temple and the House of David were instituted of God, and could never fall. And indeed, there had been times in the past when threatened disaster had failed to materialise at the last moment. “Sit tight, and trust in God, and don’t surrender” was the received wisdom. Now, trusting in God is one thing; assuming that any human institution is invulnerable is another. It’s always a mistake to tie God down to any particular church institution, or theological opinion, or political arrangment, History is full of discarded things which were once thought to be unassailable. But it’s always more appealing to hold on to the things we know rather than to look for God in the new and the unknown.

Another factor perhaps was an unwillingness to face reality. If we don’t mention the bad thing it might never happen. Don’t talk down the economy. Send out positive vibes. But when does the “power of positive thinking” become “wishful thinking”, and then “no thinking”? Individuals and nations have times of crisis when there are unpleasant realities that we don’t want to face. Sometimes we hide ourselves in delusion rather than dealing honestly. It’s understandable, but not really helpful.

Jeremiah rejects Hananiah’s dream that “It’ll all be all right very soon”. But neither does he despair, and say, “God is defeated, Babylon has won”. Instead he affirms the power and control of God, even when the traditional signs of that power – temple, city and king – are no more. He affirms God’s presence in the unpleasant and unwanted experience of disaster and exile, and so helps make that experience creative for the future. Jeremiah offers, not shallow optimism, but profound faith; and in the end, this is of much more use when everything turns dark. This is the kind of faith that makes it possible to take up the cross in the hope of resurrection; Jeremiah the suffering prophet is a role model for Jesus himself. When Jesus speaks in the Gospel about welcoming prophets, he is asking us perhaps to discern God at work even in the unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Our faith is meant to engage with reality, however awkward, rather than to delude us with comfortable fantasy.

 

 

 

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