The Life of a Prophet: The Weeping Prophet

Scripture: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

What are some things that make you cry?

Don’t worry, you don’t have to answer that out loud.  I’m sure we can all think of the obvious answers: the death of a loved one, a breakup, any very bad news of one kind or another.  Sometimes we might cry when we’re angry, in the middle of a fight with someone, or out of sheer frustration—I cried the other day when I couldn’t bend over enough to tie my shoes.  (It had been a long day.)  Maybe sad movies get some of us; or there’s a certain song that reminds us of a certain memory; maybe some of us even cry at happy occasions like weddings and graduations.  Some of us are bigger criers than others, of course.

But you wouldn’t think a prophet would be a big crier.  You’d think a prophet would be more someone standing apart from the people he or she is prophesying to and angrily pointing a finger at everything they’re doing wrong.  And you’d think a prophet would be pretty thick-skinned; if you’re going to forecast the destruction of nations and kings, like we talked about last week, you’re going to need to be prepared for people not to like you very much, and not break down in tears every time that becomes obvious.

But if that’s our image of a prophet, then Jeremiah breaks the mold, because Jeremiah is known as the Weeping Prophet.  We hear it here: “My heart is broken,” he says.  “Because my people are crushed, I am crushed.”  “Is there no balm in Gilead?” he famously laments, knowing that Gilead was where the trees grew that produced that soothing ointment; if there was no balm in Gilead, there wasn’t any anywhere.  And he cries even because he doesn’t have enough tears: “If only my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, I would weep day and night for the wounds of my people.”

So—what was it that made Jeremiah cry?

You may remember from last week that whereas Isaiah was writing during the time when the Assyrians were taking over the Ancient Near East, Jeremiah writes later, maybe a hundred year later by now, when the Assyrian Empire is on its way out and the Babylonian Empire is on the rise.  And the people of Judah, with Jerusalem as its capital, have managed to lay low, pay some tribute, and get through the whole Assyria thing relatively unscathed, but as the Babylonian army marches its way south, that is looking less and less like it’s going to be an option this time.  The people of Judah are in trouble.  Like, really big trouble.

And you remember that when threats surround us from every direction on the outside, where do the prophets want us to look?  On the inside.  And on the inside, Judah has actually just undergone this whole period of religious reform under King Josiah, centralizing worship at the Temple and standardizing rituals and purging any sign of Assyrian religion that might have crept its way in during their rule.  That sounds like it should be good news, but instead what it’s done is made people too sure of themselves.  They’re going through all the right motions, maybe, but their hearts haven’t really changed; they’re still greedy and deceitful and self-righteous and going around oppressing the orphan and the widow; they may have gotten rid of their Assyrian idols, but they are still worshipping other things besides God, like for example money; only they imagine they are holy, and God should be stepping in to save them.  In fact, they seem shocked that God doesn’t seem to be doing so.  “Isn’t the Lord in Zion??” they say.

So it’s both of those things, I think: the knowledge of what is coming and how bad it’s going to be—and it’s going to be bad, because in a decade or two the Temple in Jerusalem will lie in ruins and the people of Judah scattered throughout the Babylonian Empire—and the knowledge of what has brought his people to this point, that makes Jeremiah cry.

It’s amazing to me, in a way, that Jeremiah could know his people so well, could see their sin and brokenness so clearly, and still call them his people, and still cry for what was coming.  He could have stood opposite them, pointing his finger (and he did some of that), but he also cried, for them and with them.  Maybe because he knew his fate was entwined with theirs—or maybe because for all their brokenness, he really did love his people.

But maybe that’s not so amazing to you.  Maybe you know what it’s like as a parent or a partner or a friend to see someone in a spiral of self-destruction, to know that the responsibility lies only with them and there’s nothing you can do, and still feel your heart break for them, and still shed tears for the inevitable end that you see coming.  Maybe that’s what Jeremiah’s tears are like.

Or maybe, we could even say, that’s what God’s tears are like, because it’s actually not very clear whether these words we are hearing are God’s or Jeremiah’s, and when you’re dealing with prophets, that’s the point: their words are not just their own.  Maybe Jeremiah feels like this about his people and everything they’re about to face because, in fact, that’s how God feels.

And it’s here where a prophet’s job gets all jumbled up, because their job is to speak to the people on behalf of God, but sometimes their job is also to speak to God on behalf of the people, or maybe sometimes even to cry to God on their behalf.  Tears go both ways.

But whichever way we look at it, maybe one aspect of living more prophetically is the capacity to weep on behalf of God’s people.

My friend Kim spent our first year of seminary as a chaplain intern at a maximum-security women’s prison.  I always enjoyed, and/or appreciated, the stories Kim brought back from her time at the prison.  I know Kim saw and heard a lot there, and she got to know the stories of a lot of women.

One day Kim was assigned to make her chaplain rounds in the building where the mental health patients were housed.  She was still relatively new, so she ventured in, saying hi and asking how everyone was doing.  As she was doing this an older woman came up to her, leaned in close, and said, “Are you who we confess to?”

And Kim said, “Uh, I guess.”  So she and this woman went into a private cell to talk, and as soon as they sat down, the woman burst into tears.  And not just a few tears, but sobs racking her body as she rocked back and forth and said, “Oh God. Oh Jesus. Oh God.”  Kim was like, “What’s going on?”

The woman cried out that her youngest son had just committed suicide.  It was the third child she had lost: one to a car accident, one to cancer, and now one to suicide.  And then the woman cried out: “And it’s all my fault!”

So Kim tried very pastorally to assure her that it wasn’t her fault, that there was nothing she could have done, but the woman wouldn’t hear it: “No!” she said.  “Don’t you see?  I killed three people, and now three of my children are dead.”  Kim tried every theological argument she knew—about grace and forgiveness, about how she doesn’t believe in the kind of God who would do that as revenge, and all the woman did was become more agitated and say, “No! No!” until finally, Kim just began to cry too.

And they cried together for a few minutes, until the woman reached for a Kleenex, sniffled a little, took Kim’s hand and said “Thank you, Chaplain.”  And then she left.

I don’t know exactly what happened there and I don’t think Kim does either, but I suspect that tears said what theology couldn’t: that someone shared this woman’s pain, deserved or undeserved.  That even as she faced the consequences of her actions, as she saw things, that not everyone was rejoicing at her misfortune; that, in fact, someone who even represented God to her would let her heart be broken, too.

Were Kim’s tears for God on behalf of this hurting, broken woman?  Or were they for this hurting, broken woman on behalf of the God who loved her?  I think Jeremiah would answer, “Yes.”

There’s a saying I love: May my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.  Let me ask you this: what are some things that you think breaks God’s heart? (Maybe poverty, homelessness, racism, materialism, complacency, war in Syria, suffering after natural disaster…)

Now let me ask you: Is your heart broken by those things?

That’s a real question.  We know the answer is supposed to be yes.  But is your heart really broken by those things?  It’s so easy to be overwhelmed by all the need and brokenness in this world, and maybe by our complicity in it, that sometimes maybe all we do is keep walking or change the channel or vow to think about it later, and we dismiss those heartbreaking things and move on without really allowing ourselves to feel the world’s pain.  And I get it: you can’t just around feeling everyone else’s pain all the time; you’d have to get some serious counseling for that.  But then maybe sometimes we keep up our guard so much that we don’t let ourselves feel it at all.

But Jeremiah was on to something: sometimes the only way to make a difference in anything is not to stand there and point fingers at people and say, “You should fix this!  Someone should fix this!” but to let ourselves actually enter into the pain and the brokenness of it all.

Doesn’t that sound like what God eventually did: when even the weeping of the prophets didn’t work to bring people back to God, God entered into the pain and the brokenness of this world Godself.  Jesus became the prophet who brought the people’s pain and brokenness to God, and brought God’s wholeness to the people.  And by the way, some would call Jesus the other Weeping Prophet.  He wept for his friend Lazarus, who died, and for Lazarus’s sisters who came running to Jesus with grief and blame because Jesus hadn’t saved him sooner.  He wept for Jerusalem, knowing not only that his own death was impending but that in a few decades, the Temple would once again lay in ruins, this time at the hand of the Romans.  “If only,” he said, “if only you had known the things that made for peace.”  Jesus allowed his heart to be broken on our behalf.

Somehow, knowing that God allows God’s heart to break on my behalf makes me a little more willing to allow my heart to break on behalf of others.

When Paul describes the kind of Christian community he’d really like to see in his letter to the Romans, he says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”  Apparently this is our job not just as potential prophets, but as Christians, too.  And I think it starts with being willing to see the pain of others, deserved or undeserved: to not walk so quickly past, to not so quickly change the channel, to not want so badly to protect ourselves from that pain; but to linger for a moment, to keep reading, to sit with that hurting person, maybe even to let ourselves cry.

My friend Nancy told me story from when she worked at a Christian camp years ago.  It was the kind of camp where the kids all lived and did their activities in groups, a certain group all week.  And instead of having all their activities programmed for them, they got to decide as a group what to do, whether it was hiking or canoeing or archery or any of those camp staples.  It was an exercise in Christian community, deciding on these things together and working through their disagreements.

One group of kids had decided that they wanted to go hike Old Rag at the end of the week, and so all week they worked up to this big hike that would be the culmination of their camp experience.  Only the day before their big hike, one of the kids in the group sprained his ankle, and he had to spend the day in the infirmary, instead.

What would you have done?  You’ve worked up to this hike all week, and it’s not like you can make this kid better, anyway.

They decided not to go to Old Rag.  They decided, instead, to stick around close to the camp so they could check in on their friend, and so he didn’t miss out on the one thing they all wanted to do.

Maybe we simply call that kindness.  Dare we call it prophetic?

Well, does it speak a word from God into that situation?  That God cares about this one person who is hurting?  That God feels his pain and as a result, his friends are willing to, too?

Maybe something like that is more prophetic than we know.

It’s always worth it to remember that even for the Weeping Prophet, tears don’t have the last word.  Even through his tears, Jeremiah sees a future in which God’s people are in love with God once again, and able to enjoy what it means to live as part of God’s covenant community, back from exile, in the land that God had promised them.  But sometimes we need to know that someone is willing to cry with us before we can see that vision for a good future, don’t we?  Then we can believe the words of the Psalm: “They who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy, and those who set out in despair will return with arms full of blessing.”

And maybe helping others see the Reign of Heaven here on earth simply begins sometimes with seeing someone’s pain, and letting ourselves cry.

The Life of a Prophet: “I’m only”

Scripture: Jeremiah 1:4-10

How does a prophet become a prophet?

The simple answer, I suppose, is that God makes them one.  God appears, and the prophet stands at attention.  God sends, and the prophet goes.  God gives them words to speak, and the prophet speaks.  That is the simple answer.

Of course, things are rarely as simple as that, even in the Bible.

Last week we were talking about Isaiah and as you may remember, Isaiah was preaching in a world where Assyria was rising to power on the world stage and the question was how to stop them, what alliances to entangle oneself in, or whether to oppose them at all.  By laying low and paying tribute, for better or worse, the southern kingdom of Judah managed to generally hold itself together, though its northern sister Israel was not so lucky.  By the time Jeremiah steps onto the stage, however, the sun is beginning to set on the Assyrian Empire.  They are still officially in charge in the Ancient Near East, but Babylon is growing stronger.  Jeremiah begins his career as a prophet in the year 627 BCE, something like 75 years after Isaiah began his, and it will still be forty years before Jerusalem falls and its people are scattered throughout the Babylonian Empire.  But once again, by the time Jeremiah starts preaching, storms are already beginning to gather to the north.  Things are about to go down, and everyone knows it.

And that’s the overall scene in which God appears to the son of a priest in the region of Anathoth, north of Jerusalem, and says those famous, beloved words: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I consecrated you.”  And then God tells Jeremiah that God has a job for him to do.  This is Jeremiah’s call story.

And Jeremiah says, “Yeah, that’s nice, but I’m pretty sure you’ve got the wrong guy.”

You can’t really blame him for not simply going when God says go.  Being a “prophet to the nations” sounds like a pretty big job.  Who among us, if God told us we were being appointed as a prophet to the nations, would be like “Oh, OK, let me just grab my purse.”  Sounds good, God.  Especially when God gets a little more specific a few lines later: “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

To pluck up and overthrow kingdoms?  That’s the kind of job that’s liable to get a person killed.

Besides, Jeremiah isn’t some big-shot public figure.  He’s not a government person and he’s not a celebrity.  He’s also apparently fairly young.  He’s not an experienced public speaker and he doesn’t exactly have the gravitas that is going to make people turn around and listen to him, yet.

“I’m not saying it’s not a worthy thing for somebody,” he tells God, or at least this is what I imagine telling God if I were in Jeremiah’s place.  “It’s just not for me.”

And God laughs.  I imagine God laughing.

“Don’t say, ‘I’m only a boy,’” God tells Jeremiah.  “Where I send you, you must go.  What I tell you, you must say.”  Notice God doesn’t refute anything Jeremiah says or must be thinking.  God doesn’t say, “You’re old enough for people to take you seriously.”  God doesn’t say, “You really do have outstanding gifts for public speaking.”

It doesn’t matter.  The one who knew Jeremiah before he took shape in his mother’s womb knows all these things already, knows that the one being called is inadequate to the task at hand, and it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that God is telling Jeremiah to go—and, of course, that God will go too.

Jeremiah, by the way, is in good company with his objections.  We may be reminded of Moses, who similarly objected, “I’m not a good speaker.”  We may think of Isaiah, who upon hearing God’s call protested, “But I am a man of unclean lips.”  I’m not worthy, he said.  We may even think of Jonah, who tried to sail away from the job God had for him to do, less out of a sense of personal unworthiness and more out of a sense of the inherent unworthiness of those God was calling him to preach to.  Nevertheless, the biblical pattern is that when God calls, God’s prophets and servants run in the other direction.  Again, it’s hard to blame them.

It’s also, I think, easy to identify with them.   Because when God has work for us to do, we can also be full of all kinds of excuses.

It’s not always “I’m too young.”  That’s one we can only use for so long, right?  But maybe it’s “I’m too old.”  Maybe it’s “I don’t have time.”  Maybe it’s “I don’t know enough for that, I’m not an expert.”  Maybe it’s “Surely someone else would do it better.”  I’m only a child, I’m only one person, I’m only, I’m only, I’m only.

The thing is, if it’s God calling us to a task, none of those things ultimately matter.  When God is calling us, none of our excuses hold up to the urgency of the call.  The one who knew us before we were formed in our mother’s womb knows all the reasons why we’re probably not a good pick, and picks us anyway.

I admit I’ve always kind of had a problem with that, though.  You may have heard the saying, God doesn’t call the equipped; God equips the called.  I was inspired when I first heard that saying, in college, as I was first discerning my own call to ministry.  It made me feel like I could do anything.  It made me feel like there were exciting adventures ahead.  But as I began develop my understanding of what it meant to be called, I realized I had some questions.  God created me with a certain set of gifts, right?  Before I was formed in the womb?  And God has given me certain opportunities and experiences in my life, right?  So wouldn’t God call me to something that put all of those gifts and graces and opportunities and experiences to good use?  And if I didn’t have the gifts and graces and experiences that equipped me for a certain job or a certain kind of life, wouldn’t God call someone else who did, to that?

I mean, if God showed up to me tomorrow and said, “I want you to quit your job in ministry and be an engineer; we really need some good engineers,” I would be like, “That’s nice, God, but I’ve never really liked math, so why don’t you find someone who does?  That seems like a better bet.”

Or more realistically in my case, even, if God showed up to me and said, “I need you to be a church planter, to start a new church out of nothing,” I would be like, “God, that kind of sounds like you have to talk to a lot of people out in public, and there are a lot of people out there who really like that sort of thing, but I’m really kind of a work-quietly-at-my-desk kind of person, so maybe go ask one of them, and that would probably work out better for everybody.”

You see, I want to believe that God generally calls the people God has already equipped.  So I have some questions about what he is doing with Jeremiah here.

But then I have to admit that even that understanding of how and to what God calls us hasn’t always held up for me.  In this job, for example—and this is a job I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my call to—sometimes I have to do things I don’t feel equipped to do.  For example, I got here and a couple months later I got a call from the people next door and they said, “All of Rosslyn is about to get redeveloped, so let’s talk about what’s going to happen to your building.”  And I didn’t want to talk about the building.  I don’t know anything about buildings.  I find it hard to get really passionate about buildings.  And I thought, I am the wrong person to be here at this time.  You’ve got the wrong person.

But it didn’t matter, because I was the one here, and it was my job, now.  My job, I should say, with a lot of help, but my job nonetheless.  My only choice was to believe that God would equip me for the work that God put in front of me to do, inadequate or not.

I keep a Bible verse taped to my computer because I came across it one day and it seemed like the kind of thing I needed to be reminded of, especially on those days I feel inadequate to the work God has called me to do.  It’s from 2 Corinthians and Paul is writing about a terrible ordeal he and Timothy have gone through on their missionary journey, possibly including imprisonment.  He writes: “We felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.”

Here is one step toward living more prophetically: when we are “only” something, when we are too young, too old, too dumb, too shy, too awkward, too whatever to do the work that God has in front of us to do, we need to remember that the God who calls us is not only the God who knows us, but the same God who even raises the dead.

When we’re dead, you see, it’s obvious that it’s not about us and our own limitations: it’s about God breathing new life through us.

And when God calls us, it’s not about us and our own limitations: it’s about God’s power to work through us.

But maybe, you say, that’s not the problem.  Maybe, you say, if I was sure it was God who was calling me, I would go, no questions asked.  But the Word of the Lord doesn’t come to all of us the way it came to Jeremiah, in clearly articulated syllables, and it’s hard to tell if our excuses are really excuses at all, or actually legitimate skepticism.

When you hear “Could you serve on this committee,” is that God calling you to the work of ministry, or is it just Pastor Allie?

When you identify some social ill that we should collectively be working to solve, does that mean God is calling you to dedicate your life to doing something about that?  Because another one might be brought to your attention tomorrow.

I remember a woman from the church I grew up in standing up once and telling a story about how she was just minding her own business one evening and all of a sudden she got this really strong sense that she was supposed to call someone she knew.  It was out of the blue, but she called, and the woman on the other end said, “I’ve just been diagnosed with cancer.”

I can’t say that I have often felt that kind of immediate pull to call someone.  Once I did, I think.  It was a classmate who I knew was lonely and going through some stuff.  The feeling was strong enough that I remember it now.  But it was late, and I lay in bed thinking, is this God really telling me something, or is this just night making everything seem more dire than it is?  Probably I can just IM this guy later, right?  I just IMed him later.  I don’t remember any big revelation coming from that.

It’s not exactly the same as being appointed a prophet to the nations, but still, I think God’s call comes in all forms, from something that gives a singular direction to our lives to the call to simply feed someone who is hungry or be there for a friend who needs us, and a lot of things in between.

And here’s the comforting thing when we are not sure if it is God’s call we are recognizing: When Jeremiah says no, God has something more to say.

God doesn’t simply say, “Well, OK, then, I guess I’ll go find someone older, if you don’t want to do it.”  God insists.

I heard a colleague preach about a youth from her church who told her he thought God was calling him to ministry.  My colleague, like me, was probably the kind of person who normally talked about God speaking in that still, small voice—not in grand visions like the prophets—but this student had heard God speaking to him, clearly, and he wanted to know if that was crazy.

And she told us that he reminded her of something she needed to hear—that “the call of God will not necessarily be missed.”

If it’s God, and we excuse ourselves from the task God has for us to do, we can be pretty sure that God will have something more to say.  Maybe it still won’t be in clearly articulated syllables.  Maybe it will be a feeling that persists until we can’t ignore it any longer.  Maybe it will be another hungry person we might be meant to feed, and then another.  God’s call isn’t a one-day sale.  If you say no, God will keep working.  Think about it: would you trust a prophet who was really that eager to go prophesy destruction to the nations, anyway?  To his own nation?

Eventually, though, if it’s God, we’re going to have to say yes.  Or at least—I hope you do.  I hope I do.

Because I believe that God has a vision of heaven taking shape right here on earth, and I believe we are meant to be a part of making that happen, and I believe that God has work for each one of us to do as part of that.  I believe God calls us—we who are only human, only weak, only ill-equipped—only, only, only.

But God hears our excuses and God laughs and God calls us again—because this is a God who even raises the dead.

The Life of a Prophet: Love Song to a Vineyard

Scripture: Isaiah 5:1-7

I like to think I know a good love song when I hear one.  I will never fail to start singing along with Build Me Up Buttercup when it comes on.  I can hit all the high notes of Unchained Melody—if only when I’m by myself.  I know all the words to a lot of Taylor Swift songs, if those count.

So when Isaiah tells us that he is going to sing us a love song, I’m listening.  In verses 1 and 2, I’m humming along, even if I don’t know the words yet.  My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill, sings Isaiah.  He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines.  He built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it.

I mean, it’s not exactly Taylor Swift, but that’s OK, it’s from the 8th century BCE, and besides, I’m liking the imagery.  If you’ve ever been to a vineyard you can imagine the beautiful scene Isaiah is describing.  The vines are all laid out just so in rows on rolling hills against the backdrop of a crystal blue sky.  Maybe we are hanging out on a porch somewhere drinking a glass of wine and just looking out over it all.  Life is good.  It’s a beautiful vineyard and someone has lovingly cared for it.

But then, Isaiah sings, He expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.  Oh.  OK.  I don’t really know much about grapes, but I guess wild grapes are bad.

And now, the song goes, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.  What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?

Oh.  This is that kind of love song.

But that’s OK.  I’m on board with that too.  I listen to country music.  Not all love songs are happy ones.  We need the sad songs and the songs dripping with hurt and indignation too.  We’ve all been there.  Taylor Swift has certainly been there.  You can hear the pain and disappointment in these lines.  The vineyard owner has done everything he possibly can to love and care for this vineyard—those of us who have been listening since the beginning can vouch for that.  Somehow, it wasn’t enough.  Somehow, everything he did and everything he tried and everything he was wasn’t enough.  This is that kind of love song.

And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard, the song continues.  I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.  I will make it a waste.

And, that’s where I reach over and change the station.  This is not a good love song anymore.  Thanks, Isaiah.

The problem, of course, is not that Isaiah doesn’t know what a good love song sounds like.  The prophets are actually pretty good writers.  They know what they are doing.  So let’s take a look at what Isaiah is doing here:

Isaiah’s audience, if you remember from our little lesson on Ancient Near Eastern geopolitics last week, consists of the people of the Southern Kingdom of Judah in the mid-8th century BCE, shortly before the beginning of the Assyrian Exile.  Judah is in trouble because King Ahaz has refused to join a coalition with Israel and Syria to stand up against Assyria, so now Israel and Syria are determined to depose Ahaz and put a more agreeable king in his place.  Things are not looking good for the people of Judah, and remember, when faced with threats all around us on the outside, the prophets want us to look on the inside for what’s really going wrong.

So Isaiah tells the people of Judah he is going to sing them a love song.  That’s nice.  An escape from the harsh realities of the world for a little bit.  He says he is going to sing it on behalf of his beloved, or his friend, whose identity is not yet clear.  When he starts singing about a vineyard, that won’t strike his audience as surprising.  In Hebrew poetry the vineyard is a common image representing a female lover (you know, fertility, and everything.)  In fact, it’s possible these first lines may even have been an existing song.  It’s possible Isaiah’s original audience would have heard it and started to sing along.  The prophet has them just where he wants them.

But all of a sudden there’s a key change.  And the singer is different.  All of a sudden it’s not Isaiah but the friend or beloved himself, the owner of the vineyard, who is singing.  We’ve read the rest of the passage, but his original audience still doesn’t know who this friend is.  Still, they are ready to judge on his behalf.  How dare that vineyard not produce good grapes when he did everything for it!  Maybe it’s not the song they expected at the beginning, but they’re still on board.  We need this kind of love song sometimes, too.

But the song gets darker still, with all this talk of judgment and devouring and destruction.  By the last line, nothing is left of our beautiful vineyard but ruins.

Then Isaiah picks up the mic again, and if they hadn’t already figured it out, he clears it up for them: the owner of the vineyard is God.  The vineyard that you all have just proclaimed judgment against—the vineyard is you.

We’re reminded of the story of King David and the prophet Nathan, when David has just had his little thing with Bathsheba and had her husband killed to cover it all up.  Nathan tells the story of a poor man with one little ewe lamb that gets stolen by a rich man with flocks and flocks of sheep, and David gets himself worked up into a fit of righteous anger, until Nathan lowers the boom: “You are the man!”

There’s also a great section in the book of Amos where Amos is calling down God’s wrath upon all of Israel’s enemies.  God will punish the sinful people of Tyre! he says.  God will punish the sinful people of Edom!  God will punish the sinful Ammonites and the Moabites!  And you can almost hear his audience getting more and more worked up—yes! Yes! God will punish them!  Until he ends with: God will punish the sinful people of Israel!

Oh.  It’s about them.

Again, the prophets are pretty good writers (and orators.)

But still—Isaiah has promised us a love song.  And it’s a love song that turns quickly to judgment.

And that’s one thing when we’re talking about human love—we’ve all felt spurned, we’ve all wanted revenge, we’ve all probably used stronger language than we should have or done things we’ve regretted because we were hurt; it happens—but what about when we’re talking about God?  What do we do with a God who will sing us a love song in one breath and threaten to destroy us in the next?  Do we really worship such a Jekyll-and-Hyde kind of God?

We’re talking over the next few weeks about what it means to be a prophet, and one aspect of being a prophet is this: you have a strong sense of both God’s love and God’s righteous judgment, and they go together.

And I think we’re not used to seeing those things as going together.  Plenty of us are happy to avoid the judgment side of things completely.  God is a parent figure who always sees the best in God’s children, who delights in everything we do, and if we don’t always do exactly what God would want us to, God at least knows we are trying our best.  And that’s not a bad image of God.  It’s certainly one I gravitate toward.

But don’t we want God to get angry sometimes?  Don’t we want to believe that God cares about poverty and racism and exploitation and all the other ways we don’t treat each other well?  Isn’t that part of love?  What kind of a God would simply chuckle to Godself in heaven and say, Those silly humans, always killing and exploiting each other?

Then on the other hand there are those of us—or at least I bet we know some people—who get so hung up on the judgment side of things that they forget that God is love.  They’re the people standing outside ballparks with bullhorns telling you no one’s getting out of this world alive.  They’re the people who want so badly to talk about sin that you end up feeling like God is someone to run from rather than run toward.  And maybe it’s true that all of us have a little of this side of things in us—usually reserved for the people we don’t like or approve of.  God, we think, is definitely judging them.

And in that case we forget that the whole thing was supposed to be a love song.

To some of us it’s strange to think of God as a lover, as opposed to a parent or friend, but maybe only then can we understand the God of the prophets: a God who loves us fiercely.  Who is enamored of us.  Who will do anything for us.  And who, like us, is hurt when we don’t love God back.  It is always the people we love the most who have the power to hurt us the deepest.  It’s the people we love who we condemn the most when they disappoint us—because we expected more.  We hoped for more.  That’s the God that the prophets know.

One writer puts it this way: it’s so easy to only focus on grace and forgiveness, he says, that “in no time, we are lounging back into the easiest of all the world’s religions, leaning back into the entitlements of grace and an arrogance of heritage.  Love was looking for something else.”[1]

What else was love looking for?  How do we love God back?  The answer is those two words that the prophets love – righteousness and justice.

Isaiah gets specific right as he finishes up his Song of the Vineyard.  You people who buy up all the land and build big houses so there’s only room for you—I’m talking to you, he says.  You people who do nothing but drink and feast and party all day, I’m talking to you.  You who take bribes to acquit the guilty and punish the innocent, I’m talking to you.  When you’re facing destruction from these countries all around you—this is the real problem.  It’s you.  God is looking for something else.

God loved God’s people.  But they didn’t love God back.  That hurts.  That calls for some response that’s more than just God pretending it’s no big deal.

This kind of love is the same kind of love we see Jesus displaying when God comes to earth in human form centuries later.  It’s a love that welcomes and accepts and makes the people who have been told that that had no value feel like they have value after all.  But it’s also a love with an edge to it.  It’s a love that weeps over a city that is destroying itself, that doesn’t let the Pharisees off the hook for their exclusion and legalism and hypocrisy, a love that tells us to go and sin no more.  It’s a love that is unconditional, but that also demands a response.

And the beauty of it all is that while it may be the people we love who have the most power to hurt us, it’s also the people we love who have the power to make us the best version of ourselves.  I’m going to switch genres from love songs to romantic comedies here: one of my favorite movies of all time is As Good as it Gets.  If you don’t know, it’s about a curmudgeonly loner with OCD named Melvin Udall, played by Jack Nicholson, who falls in love with Carol, a waitress at his favorite restaurant, who goes back and forth between seeing good in him and pretty much thinking he’s a ridiculous man who needs to get away from her family.  At one point in the movie, after Melvin has been particularly curmudgeonly, Carol demands that he give her a compliment, and after waffling a bit, he says, “Since I met you I started taking my pills.”

She says, “See, I don’t really get how that’s a compliment to me.”

And he says, famously, “You make me want to be a better man.”

The thing is, he didn’t want to be a better man because she thought he was someone who could do no wrong.  He wanted to be a better man because she was someone who saw good in him, but who also expected better.  She held him to a higher standard.  Judgment, at its best, isn’t all lightning bolts and wanton destruction.  It’s being held to a higher standard.  It’s hearing, “This is wrong, and I expected more.”  Love expected more.

Even when God does talk judgment, God isn’t sending down lightning bolts in punishment.  Instead, in Isaiah’s song, we have a picture of God withdrawing from God’s vineyard.  God will remove the hedge and the wall that apparently weren’t wanted in the first place.  God won’t pick up the hoe to keep all the weeds at bay any longer.  If this is what you want, God says, I’ll leave.[2]

But if only they knew what the future looked like without God.  And if only they knew what the future could look like with God.  As that same writer put it: “Righteousness and justice are tumbling mountains of delicious, beautiful fruit; they are wine, shared and lifted, for family, neighbors and strangers gathered in glad, new community.”[3]

Because God loves God’s people, that’s what God wants for them.

And that’s why God’s love means that God is always expecting more—more justice, more righteousness, more love, more forgiveness.

It’s a love song, all of it, even the parts where it turns to a minor key and the words don’t rhyme anymore.  It’s a love song, all of it, from God to God’s vineyard.  And it’s about the people of Judah, so many centuries ago.  But in the end, it’s also about us.



[1] Paul Simpson Duke, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, p. 345

[2] Thanks also to Paul Simpson Duke for this concept

[3] Duke, Feasting, p. 345

The Life of a Prophet: End Evil, Do Good, Seek Justice

Scripture: Isaiah 1:10-20

The year is 745 BCE (or thereabouts.)  On the international stage, Tiglath-Pileser III has just come to power in Assyria.  He is putting the pieces in place to begin expanding his empire across the Ancient Near East.  In Israel and Judah, the Northern and Southern Kingdoms of God’s chosen people, things are starting to get tense.

Israel, the stronger of the two kingdoms, is willing to do what it takes to stand up for itself.  Its king joins with the king of Syria to face the Assyrians.  They want Judah’s king Ahaz to join their alliance, too, but he says no, that doesn’t seem like a good idea.  Israel and Syria vow to overthrow Ahaz and put a new one in his place, one who will cooperate with them.  Ahaz, for his part, does the only thing left to do: he reaches out to Assyria for protection.  Judah becomes a vassal state of the Assyrian empire.  Israel, more begrudgingly, eventually becomes one too.

When Tiglath-Pileser dies, several of the states in his power see their chance.  Israel is one of them.  The plan fails.  Its capital, Samaria, is destroyed and its people scattered throughout the empire—the beginning of the first exile. The year is 722 BCE.

Judah, however, now ruled by King Hezekiah, keeps paying tribute and keeps the peace, as it were.  But this sort of arrangement, however wise, is only tenable for so long.  It’s only so long before people start chafing against those who rule them.  If they are to stand up to Assyria, they will need help.  Hezekiah turns to Egypt, as well as a new power just emerging on the international stage: Babylon.

Assyria, of course, will not abide this, and its king Sennacherib turns against Judah.  Jerusalem finds itself under siege, and is about to fall.  Hezekiah does what he has to do: he surrenders, and Jerusalem, for the most part, escapes unscathed.  The year is 701 BCE.

A century later, it is Babylon that will become the great regional power, Babylon that will become the enemy, and eventually, Babylon who will finally cause the city of Jerusalem to fall and take its people away in exile.  The year will be 587 BCE.

If you think the state of our world is dire, with ISIS and Russia and North Korea and Donald Trump, you can imagine living in the Ancient Near East during these couple hundred years.

It is against this international backdrop that the biblical prophets step on to the stage.  They prophesy at different points during this whole drama and they write about things like trust in God, false piety, idol worship, faithfulness to God’s covenant, ethics and economics.  They’re not fortune tellers, though they are perceptive enough to be able to see the political writing on the wall; but more than predicting the future, the prophets claim to have a direct line to God and something to say about what is going on in the world around them.

Of the biblical prophets, we call three of them Major Prophets, probably just because their books are the longest: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.  Over the next few weeks we’re going to read some excerpts from these three prophets and see what they tell us about what exactly it means to be a prophet—and maybe how we can live a little more prophetically in our own dire times.

The prophet Isaiah comes on the scene at the beginning of this whole international drama.  He is not, shall we say, a fan of entangling alliances.  He does not think it is a good idea to get involved with Israel and Syria, against Assyria.  He also doesn’t think it is a good idea to get tied up too closely with Assyria.  Later, when the alliance with Egypt is on the table, Isaiah walks through the streets of Jerusalem naked for three years in protest against that idea.  Instead of relying on any of these military powers, he says, the only one we need to rely on is God.

But the problem as he sees it isn’t just with foreign policy.  It is, instead, with the soul of God’s people.  The prophets see God at work in history in a way that many other people don’t, using kings and armies to call God’s people back to faithfulness.

It’s a dangerous way of thinking, and a way I’d be careful about applying to modern day situations, because when we do we get people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell blaming 9-11 on gay people or earthquakes in Haiti on people practicing voodoo.  God doesn’t use other people or other countries or even the weather like chess pieces to teach us a lesson.  Even so, there’s something to be said for the idea that when outside threats surround us and overwhelm us on every side, instead of throwing up our most powerful defenses, the appropriate place to look is in—at ourselves.

Isaiah begins his message: Listen up, you people of Sodom and Gomorrah!  But he’s not talking to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.  He’s talking to the people of Judah, who apparently he thinks are no better.  And we know what happened to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, so there’s reason to listen up.

I’m fed up with your sacrifices, God says, with Isaiah quoting.  I don’t want your burnt offerings.  I don’t want your incense.  I don’t want your religious celebrations.  They are a burden to me, God says.

If those words don’t sound shocking to you because it never occurred to you that God wanted burnt offerings in the first place, replace them with the things you take to be sacred: I’m fed up with your hymn-singing, God might say.  I’m not looking for your tithes.  I don’t care about your perfect attendance, and I’m not in it for your prayers.

It’s not that God literally hates those things, or that they have no value.  It’s only that they have no value when they don’t come with or lead to the one thing God really wants: Put an end to your evil.  Learn to do good.  Seek justice.

This, apparently, is the question God’s people are to ask when outside threats surround them: Not, How can I vanquish my enemies??  But: Am I being faithful to what God expects of me?  Am I living justly?

It’s a message echoed by many of Isaiah’s prophetic counterparts, like Micah, who asks, What does the Lord require of you, but do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?  And like Amos, with his vision of justice that rolls down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

As Abraham Heschel says in his classic book The Prophets, “[The prophets’] breathless impatience with injustice may strike us as hysteria.  We ourselves witness continually acts of injustice, manifestations of hypocrisy, falsehood, outrage, misery, but we rarely grow indignant or overly excited.  To the prophets even a minor injustice assumes cosmic proportions.”  (4)

To live more prophetically, then, must mean becoming a little more indignant about the injustices we see.

Here’s the problem, as I see it, though: “justice” can be a pretty vague concept.  None of us really agree on what it means.  To some of us it’s Black Lives Matter and to some of us it’s Blue Lives Matter; to some of us it’s protecting workers by raising the minimum wage and to some us protecting small business owners by keeping it low; to some of us it’s being hard on crime and to some of us it’s doing away with the death penalty and for-profit prisons, and banning the box and restoring voting rights.  To some it is military intervention on behalf of the less powerful and to some it is a willingness to put ourselves in danger for the sake of nonviolence.  To many of us in the church, it’s changing the Discipline to allow for the ordination and marriage of LGBT people, and to others, it is not.  None of us really agree on what “justice” means, and when we hear Isaiah’s words, any of those things may come to mind, and any of those things may or may not be what God had in mind.  It’s easy to fancy ourselves prophetic when we are sure; it’s harder to live a prophetic life while still embracing the nuances of what God’s vision of justice really is.

But the flip side of that is that we make justice just a nice, unobjectionable word that we can all agree on.

Once around the beginning of seminary I applied for a job, and it was a job on campus that had something to do with human rights and international affairs, though maybe it’s telling that I can’t remember what exactly the job was.  But I remember sitting across from the professor interviewing me, a hippie-looking guy with a ponytail, and telling him, “I’m really into social justice!”

He said, “I don’t really like that term.  Who says they’re into social injustice?”

I didn’t get the job.

So Isaiah isn’t going to let justice become just a nice agreeable word that we can all imagine we are living into.  He is going to be specific.  At least, he is going to be a little more specific.  He doesn’t rant about bringing down interest rates or land seizures or ending the institution of debt slavery, even though all of those things were part of the changing economy of his time.  Here’s what he does say: “Seek justice: rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan; plead for the widow.”

In other words, doing justice, living justly, means being on the side of the vulnerable.  And not just with a hashtag; not just in spirit, with moral support; but putting words into action: Rescue.  Defend.  Plead.  I know for me sometimes it is easy to believe I am on the right side of history because I have the right opinion about some social issue or another; but I don’t think the prophets will let us stop there.

If you had asked Isaiah for some specific policy recommendations he might very well have said bring down usurious interest rates and stop seizing land from the people who already don’t have much of it just so the rich can have more and we have to put an end to debt slavery.  Some of those things sound downright modern, when you think about things like title loans, where people in desperate situations trade in their car title for a loan with something like 400% interest, which they can often never pay back.  But the way he says it also lets us interpret his words for our own time.  Who are the orphans and widows in our society?  Who are the socially and economically vulnerable?

The homeless, we might answer.  The mentally ill.  Ex-cons trying to make a new start.  Children in families living below the poverty line.  LGBTQ youth.  Undocumented immigrants.  Depending on the situation, anyone without the protection of white, male, Christian privilege.

In our own times of political intrigue and international drama, Isaiah asks us: what are we doing to rescue, defend, plead for such people?

Justice, says Cornell West, is what love looks like in public.

But we need the prophets because they, through their intimate connection to God, often have eyes to see what we don’t see.  Or maybe it’s that they feel strongly enough to not ignore what we are content to ignore.  Or maybe it’s simply that they, through their intimate connection to God, are willing to stay and stick it out when we get so overwhelmed by all the need and injustice around us that rather than do something, we do nothing.

We need the prophets to make justice specific for us.

The prophets hold our own sin and complacency in front of our faces.  Perhaps when we stop and look, when we are willing to let ourselves feel on behalf of the vulnerable, when we are willing to stand in the overwhelmingness and not let it make us turn away, we are also on our way to living more prophetically.

It can sometimes come across as a grim message, which makes sense, when your nation and people are facing destruction, as Judah was.  But Isaiah does not leave us without hope.  The prophets never do.  Isaiah promises that things can be different: that no matter what is going on right now, inside and out, that no matter what threats surround us, if we turn our attention to the orphan and the widow and the oppressed in our midst, our future will be good, together.  “You will eat the best food of the land,” he says.  If you do these things.

And that is a promise for us, too—that if we let the prophets turn our attention to the orphan, the widow, and the oppressed in our midst—no matter what else might be going on in this crazy world, our future will be good, together.