Jeremiah: True Prophets and False Prophets
Jesus says to us: there is something greater than your heart and your head. I call it: the reign of God.. The word of God comforts hearts without shattering rocks. Jorg Zink has been a Protestant pastor for 50 years.
JEREMIAH: TRUE PROPHETS AND FALSE PROPHETS
Bible Study on Jeremiah 23, 16-32
By Jorg Zink
[This meditation at the 31st Evangelical Kirchentag (church day) in Koln, 6/8/2007, is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.kirchentag2007.de. Jorg Zink, born in 1922 and beloved German pastor for 50 years, offered this meditation as part of the series "Neither Dream nor Gossip."]
O God, your goodness reaches
as far as the heavens,
and your truth
extends to the clouds.
as the mountains rise above the valleys.
Your justice stands over the world.
as the ocean spreads endlessly,
Your power is without limit.
How precious is your goodness, O God!
With you, we children find protection.
Often we are satisfied by the rich goods
offered by the earth.
You water us
like a stream.
With you is the fountain of life.
In your light we see light.
I wish all of you a wondrously beautiful morning, dear sisters and brothers, honored women and men, dear children. I hope each of you will find what you seek and need at the Kirchentag.
For this morning, the Kirchentag proposes a biblical saying that seems strange at first. It is a fiery street sermon of the prophet Jeremiah to the people of Jerusalem. We will need some time to understand this severe word in its meaning in Koln in 2007.
Thus says the Lord of hosts: "Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes; they speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, "It shall be well with you," and to everyone who deliberately follows his own heart, they say: "No evil shall come upon you."
For who among them has stood in the council of the Lord
to perceive and hear his word,
or who has given heed to his word and listened?
Behold, the storm of the Lord!
Wrath has gone forth,
a whirling tempest;
It will burst upon the head of the wicked,
The anger of the Lord will not turn back
until he has executed and accomplished
the intents of his mind.
In the latter days you will understand it clearly.
I did not send the prophets,
yet they ran.
I did not speak to them,
yet they prophesied.
But if they had stood in my council,
then they would have proclaimed
my word to my people,
and they would have turned them
from their evil way,
and from the evil of their doings.
Who was this Jeremiah speaking in God's name? Jeremiah the prophet toiled in Jerusalem in the 7th century B.C. At that time, Jerusalem was in the greatest danger. Jerusalem, the capital of a tiny country Judah, tried to maintain its independence amid the vast realm of domination of the Babylonian superpower. Day after day it had to fear the enormous army of Babylonians appearing at the city gates. With its few soldiers, it would have no chance. One day they actually stood before the city, besieged, conquered and destroyed it and drove the people after walking 1200 km through the wilderness into captivity in Babylon near present-day Baghdad.
In that whole era, there were four decisive powers in Jerusalem. There was the king and the king's party. People convinced themselves: We can assert ourselves. We can resist. We will fight to the final victory. Secondly, there was the temple and the priesthood. They said: Our God is stronger than the god of the Babylonians. With God's help, we will smash them. Thirdly, there was a group of false prophets who said what people wanted to hear. Nothing bad would happen. We will pull through uninjured. Everything will pass by. Fourthly, there were a few persons like Jeremiah who saw with political clarity and said: Don't delude yourself! We don't have a chance. Surrender to the Babylonians. Then you will at least stay alive.
As a young person, I had such a faith in a final victory and knew what would happen to people who did not believe in the final victory. The fate of Jeremiah was a long ordeal.
Jeremiah could only say again and again: If you want to survive, if the city would be preserved, adjust to the inevitable. We should not play any political role any more. Nothing is left of national brilliance. Look soberly at reality. God wants something different from you than in David's golden age. He wants you to turn inward and begin loving God your father. The many gods to whom you turned cannot help you.
However Jeremiah had no success. His words were written down but not taken seriously by the people, the priests or the king. The catastrophe took its course. During the siege of the city, Jeremiah was thrown into a well where he could have died. Friends pulled him out. When Jerusalem lay in debris, the nationalists rebelled against the Babylonian occupying force. When the Babylonians struck back, the rebels escaped to Egypt. They seized Jeremiah and dragged him away. His trace was lost in Egypt.
Among the prophets of the Bible, Jeremiah suffered the most grievously under his commission and was the most unsuccessful. All the threats with God's anger brought no conversions. The attack on the false prophets did not bring any clarity. The appeal to God's word that had the force of a hammer and shattered rocks accomplished nothing. Nothing he wanted to achieve occurred. Everything crumbled in his hands.
The hard-core issue is: what does God really say now? Is it what the prophet says, what the political actors carry out, what the priests proclaim or what the false prophets prophesy? When does God speak? Before we find an answer, everyone can claim what he says is God's word.
With this question, the history of Jeremiah begins to concern us. How can we Christians claim our language is God's word? We call the Bible God's word. On this word, we found our church. Do we know what this word is? Do we know something about the future when we hear God's word or only about the present hour? How is God's word discerned?
Jeremiah was completely right when he said: Don't listen to the people who know the future. They only voice their own desires, what they invent in their hearts. He was undoubtedly right when he said: Who was God's counselor before his throne and heard God speak? How could he show he was so near to God that he knew what God's will is and what the future would bring?
He was entirely right when he was angry about the dullness of people in his city. How could he make clear he expressed God's anger and not his personal private anger? What did he know about God's word?
Telling people what is demanded of them according to our faith and our judgment or why their way leads to catastrophe can be a very important and serious office. Clarity about imminent decisions can only come with responsible scrutiny of the situation - according to our common faith and our responsible reflection.
What will really bring the future is hidden from us. We could say what is lined up. We could say: Look out! This is happening! This is coming to us. This is the consequence of our errors. When your eyes are open, you will see it. Say something!
To say what I say is what God also says may go beyond my competence. How do I know whether at the end I am not one of the prophets who say what they invent in their hearts? I will say this to everyone who tells me: God asks, how do I know this? I ask myself again and again when I advocate something publically: How do I know this? How do I know God's thoughts? Am I competent about God's intentions?
When we look at the Christian history of the last 2000 years, prophets who knew the world would shortly perish and convinced honest hearts God's reign would soon come on earth were never lacking. For example, those very respectable pious persons from Schwabian pietism stood outside their houses because their visionaries said Christ would return very soon and they wanted to immediately go to meet him. They took their Christian faith incredibly seriously and we have nothing against this. But their expectations were wrong. A sober mind able to judge what is right before us in salvation or disaster is given to us. Resisting where we see disaster coming is vital. That was also the achievement of Jeremiah. He was right in his prediction. The catastrophe occurred. His fate corresponded to that. He was persecuted by the people of his land as a traitor, caged, kidnapped and probably killed at the end.
We could say: The alleged Christian war in Iraq is a mockery of the Christian faith. Oil and the Christian faith are not the same. I can argue this with a good conscience. But can I say how God thinks about the participants and how God judges the whole course of events?
Can I say: God's word is like a hammer that smashes rocks? Don't I know God's word is also a very gentle word that is hardly audible, one that demands that I listen very carefully and open myself? Can God's merciful word be so violent?
Even if our Kirchentag theme is God's word as living, powerful and sharper than a sword, shouldn't we carefully beware that our theme does not become a Christian swaggering in which we miss the truth? God's truth does not appear as a hammer in our contemporary German economy. Rather in its gentle form, it passes by most people of our land and leaves them to their dreams.
What did Paul say when he spoke with his community in Corinth?
When I ask myself what is special in the Christian faith, I realize it is not a dogma, doctrine, initiation, morality, ethic or some ritual however beautiful and solemn. No, only the solitary gaunt figure of the man from Nazareth is important. Only what he said and showed simple persons in his Galilean hometown is central and characteristic. What is special in the Christian faith and the signs of its truth is the way he encountered them. Jesus saw the overstrained and commodified and told them: Come! I will take away your burden. He saw the exploited in the villages of his homeland and said to them: Arise! Be of good courage! I will help you. This man who invited mourners, the poor and despised to his table and overturned all the authorities in force in his land is the beginning and essence of everything we call Christian.
Jesus saw the people and felt sorry for them because they were scattered and abandoned, helpless and hungry like sheep without a shepherd. He saw them as sick. He didn't say: `sickness is inevitable' but healed the sickness. He was a "healer." He saw the darkness in their souls and led them to the light. He saw them break down, entangled in offenses and incapable of peace with themselves and others. He took from them the fear about the past and fear about the future, the fear of earthly judges and the fear of God. He saw the many resigned ones from whom the just expected nothing and spoke of the new birth of exhausted persons out of God's creative goodness. Whoever came to him did not need to prove he had changed. He received the strength to change himself and was dismissed with the word: Go in peace! End all discord between yourself and others and the discord in yourself. God's love will not abandon you even if you don't do what you should do, even if you do everything wrong and are a failure in every area.
He said: Be of good cheer. Leave your cares behind. Happiness is freedom from care and arises when you leave your worries with God. Composure appears where God's will prevails instead of your will. Happiness is the confidence that life is not a trap, fate or penal colony but will lead to a good end.
Jesus says: You are seen. God sees you but not as a curious bystander, overseer or detective. Quite the contrary, God sees you as one who loves you. God's love is unerring knowledge that doesn't despise, judge, meddle, humiliate or shame. God knows all things because God is great and his greatness is love.
Jesus says God is greater than your heart. God is love. This is the beginning of peace in you and the beginning of peace everywhere, wherever people live, suffer and do without, where they feel their life is meaningless or too hard. That is true up to death.
From his nearness to God, Jesus sought nearness to people. When it was dangerous, he didn't withdraw but defended what he said and did. With his death, he sealed in blood: what I said and did was true. Do not cling to your hatred of God. You can be reconciled with God. God loves you. I die for that.
At the end, Jesus still says: I live and you shall live. Nothing will be at the end after your life on this earth. Nothing will have been in vain. You will enter in life as I enter in life. In death, you will meet God in a new clarity. You will live in him and in his love.
With this word, Jesus comforts us people. He heard this from God and repeats it. Jeremiah heard the thunder on the mountain, God's mighty authority. Jesus hears the voice of the Father on our earth below and refers us to God.
At the beginning of his public activity, Jesus says in his programmatic speech:
"God has anointed me
To proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovering of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed,
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."
Jesus gave these poor a new identity. Many of them at that time were regarded as the last dregs. A pious person could not see himself together with them. Jesus tells them: You are in no way the last dregs. You are earth. You are a field. Imagine someone sows a seed on this field. Fruit, the good future, grows from the seed. You are the field. I sow my word in you. Accept it and let the wondrous reality that I call the kingdom grow in you. Trust this as your destiny. Jesus does not smash any rocks. With his gentle word, he rebuilds people with their frightened souls from within.
Secondly, Jesus affects the persons encountered. Occasionally, he is invited to a house for a meal. Hundreds of others came to him, in part despised and excluded persons. Jesus celebrated his feasts with the good and the bad, the respected and the scorned. To all of them, Jesus said: Come! Put down your burdens. I will give you peace. He let them lay all their burdens, worries, fears, their past and their guilt at his door so they could come to the feast as free persons.
I imagine Jesus standing at the door and receiving his guests. A just person appears and wants to enter. Jesus says to him: You are welcome. How fine that you have come! Put down outside what you don't need now: your reputation, qualities, merits and achievements. All this does not matter. We only want you. Afterwards a degraded person from the village comes. Jesus says: Come! You are welcome. Put down what depresses you: your anxieties, your travail, all your discord, vulgarities, tricks and evasions. Celebrate with us. When you sit with us at table, you are as God intends you. Bringing your own accomplishments, you think you wont receive enough here. Jesus says to him: We have abundance. You don't need your accomplishments. Thus he relieves the just from his justice, the unjust from his injustice and the anxious from his need for security. In God's name, he assembles indiscriminately the just and sinners, the recognized and the rogues and declares these guests to be God's table friends. What he describes with the strange foreign word "justification" becomes graphic here.
The first thing he gave people was a new consciousness of themselves. Secondly, he integrated them in his community and in the community with God. Thirdly, he healed them, above all in their souls.
When the question was asked how he could accept such depraved wicked persons, he answered: these you call evil are sick, not evil. They don't need any condemnation, moral speeches or contrition. They need a physician. They need a healing hand. Morally reprimanding a sick person is pointless. My task is to heal him.
Jesus was occupied with their physical sicknesses, their obsessions and fears, their confusions and obstructions. What he did to them he called a sign, not a miracle, a reference to the possible healing that people expected from God.
When we speak of a healing activity, we speak of "therapy." The word means a horticulturalist relation to the earth. Applying therapies means preparing the soil for what would thrive afterwards. A therapy makes the soil of the human body and the human heart and spirit receptive for God's seed. The person should arise in whose hands conditions among people can change.
He showed this in his own person, in his own life and work and in his own suffering and death. He described his commission as a descent to the sufferings and follies of people. Therefore Paul writes about him:
"Have this mind among yourselves,
which you have in Christ Jesus,
who though he was in the form of God,
did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a servant,
being born in the likeness of man.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself and became obedient unto death,
even death on a cross."
When we persons are called, Jesus says: your destiny is to be a lover. Extend your sphere more and more in which your love radiates. You love your neighbor. Love those far away. Love the refractory, even those you hold as evil, love your rivals and your enemies - until there is no one to whom you cannot offer your love - as God loves the world.
Second, he says: Descend. Forego your dignity, your rank and your claims. Renounce on your status. Descend until you are at eye level with the one who now needs your love.
Jesus' ethic does not consist of commands, laws and moral rules but beyond all morality the free action of a person ready to descend and love in this present. This is the quintessence of his instructions. Descend and love. Then do what you will. All further moral instructions are unnecessary.
Now we are closer to our goal. What do we mean when we speak of God's word? John summarizes:
"In the beginning was the word.
The word was with God and the word was God.
And the word was made flesh
and dwelt among us."
Jesus is "the word." God's voice strikes our ear in him. This word is the gospel of God's descent in our human world. God loves you. Become a lover. God blesses you on the way. Let blessing radiate from you. God takes your hand. Take the hand of the person next to you in your careful hand. When God measures you, the standard does not concern your head where you have so many Christian thoughts or your moral correctness. It concerns your heart. To change people, you must love them.
You can teach, enlighten, activate, annoy and challenge them by showing your standards. But you will only change them with the power of your love. You will become free of the lowlands of your ego in descending to them. You will find yourself to the extent you lose yourself. If Jesus would speak with Jeremiah, he would say: your lecture will change nothing. Let people feel you love them. Then you may perhaps change them and their opinions.
But how do we hold out, Jesus? You go through the villages of your homeland to the sick and wretched, the self-righteous and the idiots, the humiliated and the abandoned. How do you deal with human poverty? When Jesus once spoke with a difficult person at a well, his disciples asked whether or not he wanted something to eat. He answered: "My food is to do the will of my Father." Jesus ate the unhappiness, so to speak. Whoever is ready to feed his soul by what God offers will have something to eat. He will not become sick from the sicknesses of others. He will have a stronger more sensible life. Power is given, not taken away.
Like Jesus, the lover is called to be weak at the side of the weak and mourning in the community of mourners. Perhaps he will overcome for those who cannot overcome, a lover in the desolation of the unloved. In this sense, the command of love is not an exaction we must obey. Rather it is a way to successful life. This command is in force in our little circle and between the churches and the nations. Humanity must find this wisdom if it wants to have a future worth mentioning on this earth.
Love and do what you will. Go in the vast space of life beyond the moral reason. You are a free person on the way to God and on the way to humankind. You have no power and no authority but you are free. You can not do everything but many things suited for your simple thoughts and your little hands, many things for which your heart can take responsibility. Your heart liberated by God can follow the rule
until you are at eye level with
one needing your love.
For the rest you are free
to do what you want and know
this is what God says to you.
That is his word to you."
A poem by Rainer Kunzer says this with different words:
to the earth
Cast no shadows
in the shadows of others
In this way you answer the word of God that you heard.
Thus we cannot say: God says this. We can say: Jesus Christ says to us in God's commission. So we can hear God's address. When we accept and repeat God's address for ourselves and for others, then we can say: this is now a word of God for you.
Jesus says to us: there is something greater than your heart and your head. I call it God's reign. He tells us: at the end, happiness and fulfillment can be expected from what goes beyond the borders of your life. Rely on this one reality until nothing fills you more than the longing for the undivided world of the loving God and loving persons.
What we call God's word can be the source for our courage, our freedom and our great independence. We will gain this independence more through contemplation than action. We must practice this great contemplation. What does not need to be held fast can be left behind. What is dispensable can be renounced. Let go of what fills our hands. Leave undone what need not be done. Abandon what holds us captive. Release what ties us down. Refrain from what is only the novelty of the moment. Rely on what supports and leads us. Pursue a first goal of a deep Christian composure.
I hear Jesus say one thing. You need not remain what and how you are. You can extend yourself. You can expand yourself - from your little time to a great future and from the narrow circle of your life to God's reign. Extend yourself. Don't wall yourself in. One day you will be a citizen of a greater reality. If you don't know what you should do, then do something through which your inner person gains possibilities. You will discover you can do more than you thought and that you have powers you didn't know you had. Seize the courage to be a free person, the courage to take responsibility in this world, to turn to the living, the courage to resist what deforms or destroys one's own dignity, the courage to oppose the claims of all kinds of powers with your faith and knowledge, the courage to take your life from the hand of the great lover of life and do your work together with him.
My friends, I should have spoken about Jeremiah this hour. But I believe if the unsuccessful despairing prophet had thought things through with us to this point, the great figure of the preacher of Nazareth would have mightily comforted him: What I said to the people of Jerusalem about God's anger was not the whole thing. It wasn't what was most important. The greater truth is that this word of God comforts hearts and doesn't shatter rocks, shows ways and leads to a goal in which everything is good and moves our hearts to the necessary political decisions.
I thank you, dear sisters and brothers, for your patience.
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