Our first reading comes from the prophet Jeremiah. It is well worth reading all of the prophet Jeremiah because in it you find a description of what it is like to be a prophet. Jeremiah tells us that God called him, the famous description of his sense of vocation. And included in that is his sense of not being up to the task. However, God reminds him: it is not about you; it is about me. God tells Jeremiah: if I say you are ready, then you are ready.
We also read in Jeremiah the tension he experiences between the misery of proclaiming God’s Word and the felt impossibility of not proclaiming it. We see in Jeremiah a deeply spiritual person, one who wrestles with the Word of God, one who cannot let it slide. Jeremiah suffers deeply for his vocation, desperately doesn’t want to do it at times, hates being the bringer of bad news.
However, what he hates even more than this job is not doing this job. He hates the sense of meaninglessness that his life would have if we were to wander away from the Word of God. He has an overwhelming sense that the Word of God is precisely the Word of God. There is no getting away from it. Jeremiah cannot pretend that there is another way other than that of fidelity to God. Even if fidelity to God brings ridicule, even if it costs him dear friendships, even if it means resulting loneliness, Jeremiah must preach. Jeremiah can see the truth of God’s Word in the particular message at any given moment, but more importantly he can see the fundamental truth of God’s Word – that God loves God’s people – and therefore he has to tell them the Word because there might be a chance they can hear it and be saved and come to know how much God loves them.
However, there is another aspect of Jeremiah that I would like to focus on today: the sense of hope. Jeremiah is rightly known as a prophet of doom and gloom. A kind of Debbie Downer if you know that comedy sketch. We hear in our reading that his nickname is “terror on all sides”. He knows all too well that he is always preaching the destruction of Israel and what kind of reputation he has as a result.
And this sentiment – one of doomsayer – is a familiar caricature of a prophet. The one who stands in the city saying the end is nigh. It is probably familiar to each one of us when we have had to defend an unpopular teaching of the church, or where one of our loved ones feels judged by our beliefs. No one likes to be the bearer of bad news or, worst of all these days, to be seen as judgmental. No-one likes to lose friendships. And I think there is a tendency to be caught up in the secular characterisation of Christianity as fundamentally negative. And I think this is where the sense of hope can help us in our task as prophets.
One of the mistakes in talking about our faith is to start with the Nos rather than the Yes. This is a mistake for a couple of reasons. The first is that being positive is much more attractive and therefore more likely to be heard. The second very important reason is coherence. What do I mean by coherence?
If all I do is point out what is wrong, then my life is defined by what is wrong instead of what is right. I therefore lose the big picture. Right makes sense by itself; wrong does not. Evil is parasitic on the good. It is only what is good that in the end explains why what is wrong is wrong. And hope is the belief that good is not only fundamental but will in fact win in the end. It therefore makes sense to be hopeful in our preaching.
In Jeremiah, even though he preaches the destruction of Jerusalem, even though he preaches the impossibility of Israel saving itself, his preaching is based on God’s fidelity. His preaching is based on a deep sense of God’s power to intervene and set right what is wrong. And that God will do this.
We hear something similar in our second reading. Notwithstanding that sense of original sin, notwithstanding that powerful knowledge that something has gone deeply wrong, Jeremiah and Paul both know that this is neither the beginning nor the end. Creation begins with God’s Yes, it is sustained by God’s Yes and is destined to echo God’s Yes with its own Amen.
And I think it is such hope and such vision that not only is the only true context for any hard teachings, it is the only way such teachings can be palatable. Only if one knows the love behind the discipline, only if one trusts the source of the challenge, that one will be enthused enough to listen and have a go.
So, this week we might make that our task. What is a teaching that we have found challenging? What is a conversation that I am afraid to have with friends or family? When I find this, let us pray that God show us the deep yes to creation that lies behind the doctrine. Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to show us how this is an example of God’s love. So that we can, as Christ instructs us, be not afraid when he calls us to be prophets to the world.