This is the sermon I delivered today at Barnes Methodist Church. The readings were Jeremiah 1:4-19 and Luke 4:16-30.
What do these various objects and animals have in common?
- a basket of summer fruit,
- a pan boiling over,
- a plumb line,
- figs (good and bad),
- a scroll to be eaten,
- an almond branch,
- sheep without a shepherd,
- a model of a city under siege and
- a soiled loincloth.
The answer is that they are all found in the visions of Old Testament prophets, and we shall look at them in a little more detail shortly. In some cases, God uses them to teach the prophets a lesson about the present or the future – often in a dream or vision – and in others the prophets use them in their warnings to the people.
I am sure that you could think of other examples from the Old, and New Testament. What they all have in common is that they are highly memorable images, designed to shock and provoke (and often anger) the prophet’s audience. They are meant to illustrate the problems with contemporary society, and to present a radical vision of God’s alternative.
In today’s readings, we shall hear verses from the opening chapter of Jeremiah, where two of these examples come from. They speak of Jeremiah’s call to be a prophet and the message which he is commissioned to deliver. We shall then hear from Luke’s gospel, continuing the story of Jesus’ reception in his home town of Nazareth. He has gone to the synagogue, as usual, but after reading a passage from Isaiah, he dares to suggest that the prophecy may be referring to himself. A suggestion that does not go down well with his home crowd!
During his ministry, Jesus was regularly compared to the prophets we encounter in the Old Testament. Sometimes favourably, as when the woman at the well at the gospel acclaimed him as one (John 4:19); sometimes unfavourably, as when the soldiers mocked Christ before his crucifixion (Luke 22:64). Jesus was much more than a prophet, as we know, but there were undoubtedly many similarities in the way that they behaved and were treated, as our readings today show.
First, they often behaved and spoke in very strange and even shocking ways. Let’s look at our table of objects again and work our way through them. The two we have just heard about were visions given by God to Jeremiah to pass on to his contemporaries. The almond branch (Jer. 1:11) relies on wordplay that cannot easily be translated: almond in Hebrew is shaqed, which sounds remarkably similar to shoqed, which means watching. The branch is a symbol that God is watching and their sins will not go unpunished. The pan boiling over (Jer. 1:13) is perhaps easier to understand. From the north, i.e. Babylonia, destruction shall come upon the people.
These are just two, though, of the signs we have here today. The others are:
- a basket of summer fruit (Amos 8:1-14) – again, a pun based on the Hebrew, indicating that the ‘end is nigh!’;
- a plumb line (Amos 7:1-9) – “See I am setting a plumb-line in the midst of my people Israel”;
- figs (good and bad) (Jer. 24:1-10) – an indication of how God would treat those who fled Judah before the wrath that was to come, and those who would remain at the court of the corrupt King Zedekiah;
- a scroll to be eaten (Ezekiel 2:1-10) – a prophecy to be ‘digested’ by Ezekiel!;
- sheep without a shepherd (1 Kings 22:13-18) – a vision given to the prophet Micaiah about the fate of the people when the king went out to battle;
- a model of a city under siege (Ezekiel 4:1-3) – the prophet was told to sit in the market place and act out the siege of Jerusalem that would soon take place; and
- a soiled loincloth (Jeremiah 13:1-11) – Jeremiah was ordered to bury a new loincloth in the banks of the Euphrates and then return months later, its ruined state indicated the Judah’s destiny.
I am sure that you could think of others. (I decided to refrain from trying to bake bread over human dung, as Ezekiel was ordered to do (Ezek. 4:12)!) Some are fairly easy to understand, others require interpretation and a great deal of personal endurance on the part of the prophet. In each case, the vision or action was designed to be shocking and memorable – and that is why we are still talking about them today.
Jesus was not required to do anything with plumb lines or loincloths but he certainly inherited that tradition of shocking behaviour from the prophets. In our reading today, he made an outrageous claim in his hometown – almost certainly to the deep embarrassment of his own family – that Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah had been fulfilled in him (Luke 4:21). We could think of many other examples, where Jesus flouted social convention or norms, and the exaggerated, often shocking, language of some of his parables and sayings. Lessons, for example, that seemed to encourage people to cut out their own eyes or throw themselves into the sea with millstones tied round their necks!
The second connection between Jesus and the prophets that I would highlight this morning (and you will be pleased to hear these are much briefer!), is the reaction they provoked in their audiences. Both Jesus and Jeremiah were given hard messages to deliver to their contemporaries. Messages about sin and the need to turn back to God. They were called to criticise their leaders and even their own family and friends. Unsurprisingly, the messages did not go down well, and both knew the pain of rejection and much worse.
Jeremiah’s story is a seemingly desperately sad one. Commissioned to be a prophet at the very worst moment in Israel’s history, in the years running up to the Babylonian Exile. A time of appalling government and a stubborn refusal to heed the obvious warning signs all around them. Jeremiah would live to see his prophecies burned before his very eyes, the destruction of his beloved Jerusalem and his own forced exile.
Jesus’ story is, of course, even better known to us. The reception he received in our reading today in Nazareth was just a tiny foretaste of what was to come: anger, hatred, and accusations of blasphemy and fermenting revolution. No wonder that later in his ministry, Jesus would link himself so clearly to the apostles and prophets that God had sent before to his people and, in a foretaste of the crucifixion, speak so passionately about:
the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. (Luke 11:50-51)
Third, and finally, we come back to those strange signs with which we started today. Because what they, and the prophets and Jesus, all have in common, is that they were signs pointing to a greater truth. I have mentioned before that John in his gospel never talks about miracles, instead he always uses the word ‘sign’ (John 2:11, for example). In the same way, this random collection of allusions and metaphors were not an end in themselves. They were the means by which God’s people might be given a glimpse of the much larger truth behind the universe. The truth that God ultimately holds the fate of nations and empires in his hands, and that we – bounded by limitations of time and space – can only ever understand a tiny part of God’s eternal vision.
Jeremiah and the prophets were all great examples of being such signs in their own lives, pointing the way back to God and his commandments. Jesus, though, was God’s ultimate prophetic sign to his world. A cross-shaped sign that pointed to the greatest truth about God, humanity and the world: the true love of God. A love that not even the death could extinguish. But a love that also called us to be the kind of people that God created us to be. A people living in harmony with our creator, with our fellow humans and with the world around us. The power and relevance of that sign has continued undiminished ever since.
The challenge for us all here today, both individually and collectively as a church, is to ask what are we are signs of? Where do our lives and our church point? Do they point people to ourselves or to God? To our own fears and prejudices, or the limitless love of Jesus? To bricks and mortar, or the great spiritual truths that our world is longing to hear? Our world, just like Jesus’ and Jeremiah’s, is in desperate need of the good news that Christ has to offer: news of hope, of purpose and a different way of living. Yet do we as Christians and our churches point the way, or do we just go along with the flow because it is easier simply to nod politely, rather than upset people by challenging their behaviour?
As a church here in Barnes, we are considering our future and what work God has for us to do in this place. At our next Church Council meeting, we shall be considering our mission plan again. Is God calling us to do something radical? Perhaps not involving loin cloths and almond branches, but are we being called to be a sign of the shocking story of God’s grace in our little community? We know from the prophets and the example of Christ that to stand out, to be different, is not an easy place to be, either individually or collectively. But we should take heed of those words of comfort he gave to Jeremiah. Words that are as relevant for us, as they were to him: “They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the Lord, to deliver you.” (Jer. 1:19) Amen.