St Francis, Terriers - Trinity 4 (09.07.2017)

Tony Dickinson

That picture on the screen is not a reminder that by being in church we’re missing the omnibus edition of “The Archers”. It’s a picture that links us to what was going on at the time of today’s first reading. Those three warriors, with their spears and their bows and arrows, are soldiers in the army of the King of Babylon, like the soldiers who captured Jerusalem not long after the row between the two prophets that we heard about in that reading.

Prophets get a mention in both our readings today. Jeremiah was very cross about people who claimed to be prophets but who weren’t bringing a message from God. And Jesus encouraged those who followed him to welcome prophets. What sort of people were they talking about? What do prophets actually do?

Well, in bygone ages, people tended to think that prophets foretold the future – and particularly that they foretold the coming of Jesus. In the New Testament, and especially in Matthew’s Gospel, there are quite a few places where it is clear that this is what people thought. But it was only as they looked back that people understood the prophets in this way. The argument between Jeremiah and Hananiah that we caught the tail end of in our first reading has nothing to do with the coming of Jesus. It has a lot to do with the coming of those three archers, and thousands more like them, to attack what was left of the kingdom of Judah.

Jeremiah realised that their coming meant the end of the kingdom of Judah. He thought that the way that the kings of Judah and their advisers were behaving was wrong-headed and disobedient. They weren’t listening to God and they – and the people – would have to pay the price of their disobedience. Hananiah pooh-poohed such talk as “unpatriotic”. He thought Jeremiah should stop being negative and get behind the king and his advisers instead of criticising them all the time. Hananiah thought that everything would turn out all right – and that that would happen very soon, within the next two years. Jeremiah on the other hand thought that things would get a lot worse before they got any better.

Now, that wasn’t a popular line to take. It got Jeremiah into trouble many times. The king and his advisers in Jerusalem thought that he wasn’t so much a prophet as a dead loss. Every so often they arrested Jeremiah and locked him up because of the things he was saying. Once, the king and his advisers were so angry with something Jeremiah had said that they had him dumped in an empty water storage tank, with a thick layer of mud on the bottom, and it was only by the kindness and courage of an African slave that he got out of there alive.

Prophets aren’t always easy people to have around. Their task is to look at the world through God’s eyes and to say what they see. Somebody once said that it is their job to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. That means that, like Jeremiah, they mustn’t be afraid of the powerful even though they know that what they say will not be welcome to those in authority. Jeremiah often complained to God that he was always being given tough and unpopular messages to share – but he couldn’t duck out of proclaiming them. The people’s well-being, the people’s life, depended on it.

So when Jesus talks about “[welcoming] a prophet in the name of a prophet”, he is warning those who follow him that they must be prepared sometimes to listen to a demanding message, and to act on it. He is warning us, too, that we must listen to those who speak in God’s name about peace and justice and not to go for the choices that seem comfortable or make us feel good. As Jeremiah reminded Hananiah, “the prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms.” If prophets prophesied peace, the truth of their message had to be judged by what actually happened. We were warned last Sunday that the way of Jesus isn’t always easy. But if we follow it, if we look to the true prophets of our age and pay attention to what they tell us about the ways of justice and peace, then we will share their reward in God’s kingdom. And now to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit...