Psalm 89.1-4, 15-18
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
I think it’s fair to say that Boris Johnson and the prophet Jeremiah wouldn’t have got on very well. Whether it be climate change activists or critics of his Brexit policy, Boris Johnson has frequently taken aim at “prophets of doom”. And when we’re talking about “prophets of doom”, Jeremiah is surely the boss. So much so that his name has entered the English language as a term for someone who complains a lot or foretells disaster, and has also given us the literary term Jeremiad, meaning a literary work denouncing a society and predicting its downfall. I don’t think the prophet Jeremiah and our Prime Minister would get on terribly well, and it’s no surprise that Jeremiah didn’t get on too well with the political and religious leaders in his own day. In consequence he was beaten and put in the stocks, dumped in a dry well, and threatened with death. They preferred the easier prophecies of those such as Hananiah, who we heard about in our Old Testament lesson, promising a swift restoration for the kingdom of Judah.
We shouldn’t feel too smug in relation to those who persecuted the prophet Jeremiah. It’s all too easy to understand their motivation. The kingdom of Judah was threatened by the might of the Babylonian Empire. What the religious and political leaders want is prophets like Hananiah who will preach an encouraging message, prophets who will give hope to the people, prophets who will give them a will to continue the struggle. Then along comes Jeremiah and tells everyone that there isn’t any hope, and that the Babylonians will triumph because of the sins of the people and their leaders. His preaching is not unreasonably regarded by the authorities as undermining the defence of Jerusalem and discouraging the soldiers; we might say that he is considered a threat to national security, and so they try to get rid of him. And to be perfectly honest I think the overwhelming majority of political and religious leaders in any era would do something similar. At a time of national crisis the last thing anyone wants is someone like Jeremiah spreading doom and gloom and undermining the collective effort. And if we think even about the church in our own age, and the way for example that complaints about child abuse were for a long time hushed up, we can I think see something of the same instinct that shoved Jeremiah down the dry well.
The gospel we preach is the good news of Jesus Christ. How then do we understand the prophecy of a Jeremiah within the context of the gospel? How do we make sense of bad news in relation to the good news of Jesus Christ?
I think the first thing to say is that of course not every negative voice is a true prophetic voice. There are sadly those who for whatever reason are temperamentally inclined to negativity, there are those who seem to enjoy bringing others down, there are those who apparently get pleasure from spreading doom and gloom and pouring cold water on things that give others hope or pleasure. The name of the prophet Jeremiah has, I think unfairly, become associated with this sort of thing. How do we distinguish prophetic truth-telling from destructive gloom-spreading?
First we must attend to the nature of the message. Biblical prophecy is generally focussed on two things. The first is idolatry: putting things in the place of God, making created things the objects of worship, treating things that are less than God as our sources of meaning and motivation. Denouncing idolatry is one of the distinctive themes of biblical prophecy.
The other is denouncing injustice. A major strand of the biblical prophetic tradition rails against injustice, and especially the abuse of power. We might think of the story of David and Bathsheba, when David’s abuse of his kingly authority is denounced by the prophet Nathan. Or we might think of the story of Ahab and Naboth’s vineyard, and the prophetic judgement of the prophet Elijah. The moral force of biblical prophecy distinguishes it from recreational misery or destructive gloom-mongering.
The second thing to attend to when discerning prophetic truth-telling from common-or-garden negativity is that biblical prophecy almost always carries a note of hope. It is true that it is sometimes hard to discern, but it almost always there if you listen carefully. The point of prophetic truth-telling, the point of a Jeremiad in the biblical sense, is not to bring people down, but rather to turn people around. The point is repentance, the point is to turn people back to God, to turn people from evil to good, and that is always ultimately a hopeful enterprise.
What else can we say about prophetic bad news in relation to the good news of Jesus Christ? We must acknowledge that fake news is never good news. A false and shallow optimism that seeks to paper over the cracks, shut up the skeletons in the closets and sweep the dust under the carpets can never be the basis of anything good. Jesus came preaching good news, but He also came preaching repentance, and He wasn’t afraid of a good Jeremiad now and again, turning His powerful preaching against the religious leaders of His day. Like Jeremiah, He predicted a coming catastrophe. Jesus came preaching good news, but not fake news; He did not shy away from speaking truth, because as He says in John’s gospel, the truth sets us free.
Jesus came preaching good news – good news about repentance, good news about forgiveness, good news about healing, good news about reconciliation, good news about the coming of the kingdom of God. But repentance, forgiveness, healing and reconciliation cannot come without honesty, and that honesty is not always going to be easy and comfortable. There will be hard truths to hear and acknowledge.
We see this most clearly in the Cross. Here we see most clearly that the good news that Jesus brings is not a shallow optimism that brushes over uncomfortable truths and harsh realities. Now is the judgement of this world, Jesus says. On the Cross, the depth of human sin is literally brought into the light and held up on high for all to see; on the Cross, the divine compassion wrestles with the weight of human wickedness. We cannot be saved from sin and death by pretending it doesn’t exist. The price of forgiveness, the cost of reconciliation, is measured out in the drops of Christ’s precious blood; we must not hold it cheap.
So how do we deal with negative voices? In our personal lives, in our families, in the church, in our communities, and for that matter in our political culture? Do we try to silence voices that seek to expose injustices and wrongs, those that try to bring uncomfortable truths to our attention? Do we try to dismiss them, to brush them off, to explain them away? Do we prefer the easy prophecies of a Hananiah to the awkward truth-telling of a Jeremiah? Do we prefer fake news to the truth that will set us free? Without honesty, without facing the hard truths about ourselves, individually and collectively, true repentance is impossible, and the path to forgiveness and healing is obstructed.
So if we really want to experience the joy of the gospel, if we really want to enjoy the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ, we must be prepared to face not a few uncomfortable truths along the way. Welcoming a Jeremiah is not an easy thing to do, but “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward”.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.