The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost - 15 August 2010

Jeremiah 23:23-29
Psalm 82
Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2
Saint Luke 12:49-56

Jeremiah - Marc Chagall

There is a stream in American religious consciousness that is attracted to and almost obsessed by the notion of prophecy.  Perhaps it is the product of that stream of thought that saw America as a new Israel, or in the Mormon writings, as the place were the “Ten Lost Tribes” found a home, or as the place that Jesus visited.  There is a similar stream in British folk thought as well.  The prophetic aspect fits well within this mindset, but it has a basic misunderstanding of the nature of prophecy in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Real prophecy, not the dreamy stuff that Jeremiah (23:23-24) condemns, was the stuff of God speaking to the present, not revealing the future.  A good example is Nathan’s confrontation of David, fresh from the king’s adulteries with Bathsheba.  Some of this misunderstanding stems from the manner in which some of the Gospels layer on their Birth and Passion Narratives the “prophecies” from the Hebrews.  The power of God speaking to the here and now seems much more powerful to me – and in that guise Jesus is truly a prophet, following in the train of Jeremiah and Amos. 
Jeremiah 23:23-29

Am I a God near by, says the LORD, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the LORD. I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, "I have dreamed, I have dreamed!" How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back-- those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart? They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal. Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? says the LORD. Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?

The Bible is full of dreamers: Abraham, Joseph, Daniel, Jacob, and Joseph, Mary’s husband, and St. John the Divine.  Jeremiah, however, is taking a different view of things, and speaks in favor of prophecy rather than dreams.  Perhaps the notion of dreams and their subsequent interpretation was too close to the divination practiced by their Canaanite neighbors.  For Jeremiah, true prophecy is rooted and indeed is the Word of God for the here and the now.  Dreaming seems ephemeral to him.  Prophecy, however, edgy and controversial, was the breath of God.  He uses to striking images of true prophecy – a power like fire with the force of a hammer.

Breaking open Genesis:

1.     Do you ever have religious dreams or visions?  What do they mean to you?
2.     Has God ever spoken a difficult word to – one that was hard to understand or follow?
3.     Who are the prophets in your life?

Psalm 82 Deus stetit

God takes his stand in the council of heaven; *
he gives judgment in the midst of the gods:

"How long will you judge unjustly, *
and show favor to the wicked?

Save the weak and the orphan; *
defend the humble and needy;

Rescue the weak and the poor; *
deliver them from the power of the wicked.

They do not know, neither do they understand;
they go about in darkness; *
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

Now I say to you, 'You are gods, *
and all of you children of the Most High;

Nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, *
and fall like any prince.'"

Arise, O God, and rule the earth, *
for you shall take all nations for your own.

The subtext of this psalm is the existential question of the suffering of the righteous (see Job).  The speaker in this poem is God, and he speaks in a mythological context in the midst of the council of the gods.  God questions the justice that these gods dole out, and wonders why they do not know what is right and just.  In a way this psalm is an instrument of instruction, so that the reader might move from the ancient gods to the one God.  In the psalm, the very nature of creation, namely justice, is threatened; “All the earth’s foundations totter” (Alter).  God deposes the rivals and lifts up true justice.

Breaking open Psalm 33
1.       What does the word “justice” mean to you?
2.       Where can true justice be found in this world? 
3.       What role do you have in making for justice in the world?

Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets-- who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented-- of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

The author of the Hebrews rehearses the history of the heroes of Israel, including Rahab, the prostitute.  In a way, the author addresses a similar problem addressed in Psalm 82 (above), namely, where is justice?  In spite of the righteousness of the heroes mentioned there is still injustice, death, torture, chains, and imprisonment.  The author’s point is that these heroic actions are incomplete – waiting, if you will, for the true hero.  So they are likened, in a stunning phrase, as a “great cloud of witnesses.”  And to what do these witnesses attest?  It is to the work of Jesus, “pioneer” and “perfecter”, who is not shamed by the cross, or any of the humiliations mentioned earlier, but is exalted to the seat at the hand of the Father. 

Breaking open Hebrews:
  1. Who are your heroes?  Who are your biblical heroes?
  2. Have your heroes done all that they could?  Was something left undone?
  3. How is Jesus a hero to you?

Saint Luke 12:49-56

Jesus said, "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:

father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."

He also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, `It is going to rain'; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, `There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?"

If Jeremiah hoped for an edgy and controversial prophet to come and pronounce God’s word, he certainly would have seen one in Jesus, at least in the Jesus that Luke portrays to us in these readings.  Jeremiah saw God’s word as “fire”, and indeed Jesus promises fire.  The passage is similar to one in the Gospel of Thomas (§ 10), “Jesus said, "I have cast fire upon the world, and look, I'm guarding it until it blazes."  The edginess continues as Jesus talks about the peace he brings – a non-peace that threatens those who are satisfied with the status quo.  Not even Jesus is exempt from the anxiety of his message.  He speaks of his “stress” and a baptism (his Passion) with which he must be baptized.  This unsettledness extends to the very core of life – the family.  The prophetic word cuts sharply, and we are not always aware of its true meaning.  Like Jeremiah, Jesus has nothing to do with dreamers.  It is purification and refinement that he wants.

Albrecht Dürer - the Apocalypse

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Are you a “satisfied” Christian, or do you want something more?
  2. What might that “more” be?
  3. How “edgy” is your Christian faith?
  4. Have you ever had religious disagreements with your family?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


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