Sermon Archives

“Prophecies of Hope and Peace”

Carlyle Stewart
Sun, May 12

Text: Jeremiah 28:5-9, Luke 2:33-38

There is a theme of hope and exile throughout the Hebrew Bible. The prophet Jeremiah was active in the Southern Kingdom of Judah during the reign of Josiah. In fact he lived through the fall of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon. He was called to prophetic ministry to paint a vivid picture, that illustrated Jerusalem's destruction and future estrangement.

According to scripture, Israel had been unfaithful to the laws of the covenant. They had forsaken Yahweh by worshiping other gods. He accuses leaders of being corrupt, and abandoning the rituals and laws of the Torah. He also condemned the resurgence of the Canaanite practice of child sacrifice that occurred in service to other deities. Jeremiah was a prophet in the sense where he wasn't only making predictions, but he also called attention to a deterioration in values and rampant social injustice. With widows, orphans, and immigrants being subjugated and oppressed. Though many leaders didn’t seem to care. In his ministry he proclaimed that the nation would enter an exile that would last 70 years.

Now when we look at his interaction with Hananiah, who is identified as a false prophet, we typically think of them as people who improperly predict the future. Or people who falsely enact gifts of healing or divine guidance. Some may even use those gifts for evil purposes. False prophets are known to exploit, they lead people astray, or they misguide others. In our text, Hananiah improperly claimed the Lord would restore Israel and her leaders after 2 years of exile instead of the prophesied 70 that was revealed through Jeremiah. In the previous verses there are warnings against this type of prophet.

When we look at how Jeremiah responds to Hananiah he says, “Amen! May the Lord make the words that you prophesied come true and bring us back to this place from Babylon. But understand something Hananiah, the prophets before us prophesied war, famine, and pestilence. But As the prophet who prophesies peace, when their word comes to pass then, we will know that the Lord has sent that prophet.”

So here Jeremiah is acknowledging that prophecies of turmoil were more common. And ones of peace led to skepticism. Especially in a time that wasn’t all that peaceful. Jeremiah says Yes Hananiah I hope these things your saying are true too! but we’ll only know that this is true when we actually have peace. Especially since peace seems so foreign and unlikely. But note that Jeremiah is not condemning prophecies of peace, he is acknowledging the truth of the current social and religious situation of Israel.

Hananiah may have gotten it wrong because he avoided the truth choosing instead to make idealistic projections. But this brings up the question for us all. What does it mean to prophesy or look forward to peace and hope even in bleak or unhopeful situations?

I think about when I was 11 years old. I really wanted to play football and before each season they require you to get a physical. So I went to the doctor and did all the tests. And when they took my blood pressure it was astronomically high. Severely abnormal for a kid that age. So they ordered more tests from the cardiologist. I went in to see a specialist and got an MRI, an EKG, the whole deal. I was there all day. And after, I was sitting in the examination room with my Mom just goofing around, waiting for the doctor. A few minutes later he came in with all these recordings and X-Ray images, with this slightly unnerved look on his face. No one spoke, there was an extended silence, just long enough to be slightly uncomfortable. He sat down, took out the results, and continued to scan through them. And my mom snatched them from his hand, and upon her face crept that same disturbed expression that he had. She works in the medical field so she understood all this stuff.

I could tell my mother was visibly petrified. They stepped out of the room and talked amongst themselves. And when they came back in, here comes the bad news, he kept throwing more and more and more bad news. Using all these medical terms that I didn’t understand, still not really telling me what was wrong. I was confused. They talked amongst themselves further which I could hear the whole conversation. And the worst part was he said to her if I didn’t address the issue, considering my size and how fast I was growing as an 11 year old, I wouldn’t live past the age of 12. That’s how bad it was…. You know often to my detriment I made a joke out of everything as a kid.

But after all this information had been revealed, I didn’t completely grasp everything cause the doctor wasn't clear, which put me in denial, I asked my mom. I said, "Ma! Am I alright?" She said “Baby boy, No. No you’re not, you need a new heart. But you’re going to be fine."

You will be restored.

So I had the surgery a couple weeks later. Spent 3 months in the hospital, missed almost my entire 6th grade year. But by the grace of God I was restored to health.

See my mother. She chose in that moment to be so brutally honest with me about the gravity of my condition. She didn’t sugar coat it. She didn’t downplay it. She didn’t speak to me in foreign medical language. No, I was not okay. Not even in the slightest. I was in a state of extreme physical affliction, but even in that moment of agonizing worry and anxiety she told me the truth. But she left room for Hope. It was only by knowing and facing the truth, that I could work towards finding a glimmer of hope. To believe that I would be okay despite the odds. Its only when we know the truth that we can gain the freedom to find hope and build resilience. In the covenantal promise of Yahweh, however tumultuous our situation may seem, if we face the truth, stay faithful, and confront our iniquities there is always assurance for a future.

They call Jeremiah the weeping prophet because his words and cries condemn, critique, and tear down structures of religious and social corruption. But! His words also existed to build the people up. He warns of the coming judgement, but he also has a message of restoration that the Lord will bring us back to the places from which we were sent into exile.

Hananiah’s mistake was that he did not face reality. Hence why in Jeremiah’s mind, considering the dismal state of Israel’s situation. Peace!? Peace!? There is no peace on the foreseeable horizon for us! People shouldn’t be lured and pacified with antidotes of peace when all hell is breaking loose around them! That is Jeremiah’s point.

We must understand that prophecies of peace and optimism are not inherently bad, nor do I believe this text is saying that. In fact they are necessary, but the point is that we cannot graze over or obscure the facts. Even if they show an afflicted future.

What are those facts? In Israel it was corruption and impending exile. For us. When we consider the current state of affairs in our nation. The social and political turmoil; the ideological division. The increase in hate crimes and extremism, school shootings, violence against women and our siblings in the LGBTQ community. When we think about the moral cowardice of the power elite. The tyrannical sabotage by those who took vows to represent us. It's hard not to be cynical about the future. Its hard not to prophesy war, famine, and pestilence. “Where is this road leading to?”

When we open our eyes and see the eradication of civil liberties and due process, the criminalization and mass incarceration of innocents, militarism at home and abroad. The wholesale of democracy to the corporate state. The nullification of social programs. It's hard not to prophesy conflict. It's hard not to look at the future with tired eyes and a defeated spirit.

But hear this!

Without hope, prophecies of pessimism lead only to despair and disillusionment. And on the other hand. Prophecies only of peace, that fail to consider social realities, lead us to a place of defenseless ignorance and dangerous indifference. So, how do we balance the two and face our affliction, without falling into the trap of cynicism or apathy?

We balance these two poles by accepting the truth but never losing hope. A main virtue of the Christian faith.

And rest assured when I speak of prophecies I do so with a humble spirit. I’m speaking about prophecies here not making prophetic claims. Prophecies pertain not only to nations or societies, but also to us on a smaller scale as people. We all have a future don’t we. We all have our afflictions and personal battles. We may be faced with spiritual, literal, or metaphorical exiles of various forms. We may be in a state of alienation from God or others. There are people in this house of worship whose daily lives are a living hell. Exiled from love, our communities, our family…

We cannot deny the fact that exiles do occur, or that they may take place in the future. The realization of the truth demands that we fight with mind, body, and spirit, to resist evil, and walk with gallantry, courage and strength to work towards our restoration.

When we think of our history, we have to reclaim that moral courage that is represented by the many great leaders of resistance. The civil rights movement (a movement started, organized, and sustained by women), movements for labor, women’s suffrage, anti-war protests organized by Vietnam veterans who in the name of peace, relinquished their medals on the white house lawn. These were all initiated by warriors who refused to succumb to a spirit of cold and cynical rationalism. They refused to believe that they were powerless.

We need courage like the prophetess Anna from our reading, who performed a spiritual sit-in, and took extreme measures by refusing to leave the temple. Fasting and praying day and night. Proclaiming the truth of Jesus.
When I think of the courage of my ancestors who suffered under Jim Crow, and the demonic institution of chattel slavery.

How did THEY! Refuse to languish in despair even when freedom was a world away. When ideas of liberation struggled to exist even in their dreams.

How did THEY! triumph over hopelessness when living in a brutal and savage land that had no regard for the sanctity of human life.

How did they survive an exile that lasted much longer than 70 years. An exile that is ongoing. Forced to become sappers on the treacherous mine field of enslavement, facing their own mortality before every waking dawn and under each setting sun.

Centuries of wading through their own blood on soil that would never be theirs. Enduring the separation of families, the sale of children, and the psychological demoralization of social death. STILL, a spirit of hope pervades. Through organized revolt and work stoppages, the concealment of ancestral beliefs in the pleats of a corrupted version of Christianity. Through worship in unfinished churches under the cover of dreadful southern nights. Through field hollers and work chants, and the melancholic realism of the Blues. It was only through vocalizing the truth of the pain of their exile and agony of their suffering that they could then follow their cries with prophecies of hope and peace. This is relevant to us all. Even from the basements of our own personal hells, many of us have to prophesy peace in order to survive! Many of us have to prophesy hope in order to hold on to a reason to live!

But hoping and striving for peace, comes with the mandate of resisting systems of oppression. Resisting those systems that say because you are of a certain, color, age, gender, ability, or because you are POOR, that you are not deserving of the respect and reverence of royalty. But in Gods Kingdom, every soul has the right to stand tall and dignified to say I AM somebody, and I will be treated as such. On earth as it is in heaven

When looking at an uncertain future we do have a choice. If we choose hope! If we refuse to be seduced by despair, we can flee from indolence and accept a commission to fight injustice through non-cooperation even in places of exile. Resistance is the antidote to despair, which is the only act through which human dignity can be restored. We don’t fight injustice because we’ll always win, we fight injustice because its unjust!

Reinhold Niebuhr calls it sublime madness, which is the understanding that radical evil must be opposed with moral courage, even when everything around us says that we will fail. Though it seems that our species is suspended in this chasm of hope and despair, goodness and evil, courage and cowardice. There is this struggle to avoid brutish and sinful ways while acknowledging that we can never be angels. But we can choose to sit on the side of the good.

When we have the courage to face our afflictions in truth, with a spirit of resistance and fearlessness, compassion and empathy, even if battle is on the horizon, we can prophesy peace, hope, and restoration. Although the prospects of our victory lie in the hands of God, and God alone, at least we’ll be free.

Amen.

The First Church Shelter, located in the  basement of our church building, co-funded by First Church in Cambridge and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, has served dinner to fourteen guests every night for the last thirty years. The vast majority...

Volunteer signups are underway for the Friday Café! The Friday Café is a weekly community gathering space, where neighbors experiencing homelessness and food insecurity can relax and eat. It’s also a place of encounter, where people can get to...