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Jeremiah 28:5-9

Discerning the work of God is difficult.

Not even prophets know precisely how God will work.

Read that sentence again. If you’re a person of faith, it should catch you off guard.

“Not even prophets know precisely how God will work.”

Note that my claim is nuanced. I did not state that Prophets don’t know *that* God will work. I stated that prophets do not know *precisely* how God will work.

This is an urgent and important issue in our day today for discerning God’s will and an urgent issue in discerning how we interpret prophetic texts generally and especially this most difficult event in Jeremiah’s life as described in Jeremiah 28.

The few explicit verses used in this week’s lectionary reading are framed by an important social and historical context, narrated in the chapters that precede Jeremiah 28, and which come in the next chapter in Jeremiah 29. The historical context of Jeremiah’s audience involves civil, social, economic and international unrest concerning the nation of Judah and her capital city, Jerusalem. Babylon was the dominant empire. Babylon had already conquered many nations. As Babylon was threatening the borders and boundaries of Judah, the Judean were likely asking questions like this:

  1. Should we Judeans give-in to Babylon or should we fight

  2. Should we accept Babylonian culture and Babylonian religious views?

  3. How do we act in these complex and contentious political circumstances?

As they sought answers to their urgent questions about real life matters facing their nation’s political, economic and social future, they sought out the “best voices” for discernment. And the best voices include prophets. Yes, prophets, not just a prophet. And among prophets, there were contesting perspectives on the future. Judeans were both asking about how to respond to the Babylonian situation, and they had to determine too, which prophetic voices could best guide them. There was more than one voice in their local version of “social media” offering a perspective. Judeans must also have been asking:

  1. Who is correct about current and future political events?

  2. Which news is true news about Judah’s situation in life?

  3. Which prophet brings “fake news” concerning Judah and Babylon?

  4. Who can be trusted?

  5. Where is God?

· When more than one person speaks for God with an authoritative voice and demonstrated actions, who should we trust?

If you’ve read these questions carefully, you will discern that these same questions can be asked in any year in any country facing social, political, economic and international upheaval. The questions ultimately boil down to these:

  1. Do we ‘give-in’ or ‘protest’ new ways for seeing the world?

  2. What “rights” do we concede and what values do we protest?

  3. Who do we trust as human agents of wisdom in discerning God’s will in these decisions?

It seems to my view, as a middle-aged-white-male-American that these questions have become increasingly part of “everyday” life in the past decade in America.

It seems these same basic sets of questions might have been asked in the early 1900s at the outset of a crisis in Europe that would later involve American involvement in World War I. The same questions would have been asked about conflicts in Europe and Asia in the mid 1900s, with Vietnam, Korea, and in the late 1900s and early 2000s with Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, Crimea, Sudan, Nicaragua, Venezuela and more.

And these questions are not new – as Jeremiah 28 shows us – these complex questions of social-political direction and cohesion, discerning the future for a nation, have been asked for more than 2600 years!

These questions emerge in political rallies, civil rights marches, or protests that evolve out of shut-downs from pandemics or protests that emerge from human rights violations captured in video from various forms of barbarous brutality.

Jeremiah 28 narrates a publicly contested dispute between two prophets. Simply put, both prophets Hananiah and Jeremiah *knew* that Babylon is an immediate threat to the culture, economics, politics, and day-to-day life for Judeans. Additionally and both *knew* that the citizens of Judea wanted insight from God about how the future would unfold.

What is complex in this story is the fact that *neither* prophet knew precisely how the future would unfold. In the narrative of the “war of words” that goes on between Hananiah and Jeremiah – Hananiah predicts Babylonian dominance, yet, only for a time. In a brief two year period (Jeremiah 28:2), Hananiah states that Babylonian dominance will be broken, Judah will emerge. The king and all those forced to migrate as exiles, will return (28:3) as victors is Hananiah’s proclamation as the Word of the LORD (Jeremiah 28:2).

Standing in the presence of priests and people, with the ability to influence people and share God’s reply, the book of Jeremiah records “and the prophet Jeremiah said, “Amen! May the LORD do so; may the LORD fulfill the words that you have prophesied, (Jer. 28:6 NRS)”

Jeremiah, like his audience, was facing the calamitous realization that their lives were on the brink of catastrophic change. Persons within Judah would be forcibly removed. Families would experience death and disruption. Lives would be lost, migrations would occur and the disruption would be catastrophic. Jeremiah, with priests and people, certainly hoped for restoration, and sooner rather than later.

Jeremiah though, within the context of the verses of this week’s lectionary reading, is not sure *precisely* how the future will unfold. Jeremiah seems to state that what Hananiah has said is inconsistent with what most have claimed in the near and distant future. Jeremiah said, “Amen! May the LORD do so; may the LORD fulfill the words that you have prophesied, (Jer. 28:6 NRS)”

And yet, Jeremiah offers a partisan other option. A possible other reality as he reminds people of what the past “news” has been from previous prophetic voices.

Where Hananiah announces a brief time of dislocation followed by restoration within two years, and the peace and renewal this would bring, Jeremiah knows and reminds the people of Judea that war and pestilence had previously been the dominant “news reports” of most prophetic messengers.

Jeremiah follows his “amen” to Hananiah with: “The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. (28:8).

This is a curious passage of human testimony and difficulty in discernment with the Prophetic texts of the Bible. It seems that Jeremiah wants to believe with Hananiah that peace might be possible with Jeremiah announcing: “Amen!” and “May the LORD fulfill” these words of prophesy. And yet, in the midst of this calamitous time of partisan (party) politics, Jeremiah does not know precisely what the future holds. He knows only that in this moment, at this time, “war, famine, and pestilence” has been more frequently proclaimed and more likely believed. Only the future will reveal if Hananiah’s announcement may come to pass, and Jeremiah announces: “As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the LORD has truly sent the prophet.” (28:9 NRS)

The lectionary reading ends there.

Two contesting opinions.

Jeremiah has not stated that Hananiah is wrong, only that Hananiah’s proclamation is out of sync with earlier claims of prophetic reports on the important news for Judea.

This is a hard passage for us to discern, from the real historical and situational drama that Jeremiah, Hananiah, Priests, and People must have felt in this moment. In fact, it may be impossible for us to understand *precisely.* As Richard Weis notes: “We know that Hananiah was wrong and the in the end Babylon destroyed Jerusalem, but when Jeremiah and Hananiah are having their debate about the future of Jerusalem and Judah, NO ONE – not Hananiah, not Jeremiah, not Zedekiah, not Nebuchadnezzar, knows which of the two prophets is right. So the debate is real, the options are real, and the audience who hears the two prophets has to decide which one to believe.” (Cf. NOTES ON JEREMIAH 28:1-17 Richard D. Weis )

We need to explore for a moment where Jeremiah 28 ends, moving past where the Lectionary intentionally ends, and then we will return to discern how to engage the lectionary end.

In the next verses of Jeremiah 28, separate from the lectionary reading, Hananiah will physically break the yoke that Jeremiah had been wearing (28:10-11) confirming his claim that within two years the yoke of labor that Babylon forced on Judah would be removed.

Jeremiah does not protest.

Jeremiah does not contend with the proclamation.

Jeremiah, it seems, receives the announcement “on its surface” as the real news of God’s intended future.

And yet, “some time after” (28:12) [not in the lectionary reading], something emerges anew. We do not know if it was within a day, a week, or a month. We know it was a period of less than three months (28:1 frames the story beginning in the fifth month, and 28:17 ends the story before the start of the eight month).

“Some time after” Hananiah declared a short period of victory for Babylon – a separate new Word from the LORD was given to Jeremiah. This new word of new announcement was not present on the day the yoke was broken in the sight of the crowd. The new word will contest the old news from Hananiah such that that old word from Hananiah – only now and only after a time – becomes “fake news.” The new word, given days or weeks later, from the LORD to Jeremiah details new information, namely that Hananiah has lied to people. Days later, a more precise message to Jeremiah announces that since Hananiah had misled the people, he will die (28:16). And, within a period of less than three months later, Hananiah is dead.

The curious issue for our lectionary reading this week is that it does not end with the story I’ve just narrated – even though this is clearly part of the entire story in Jeremiah 28

And so we should ask ourselves, Why? Why does the lectionary end with Jeremiah hoping that Hananiah is correct and yet stating that others have announced a different message? Why does the lectionary not include the later announcement of Jeremiah’s later Word from the LORD?

While I can not know why the lectionary does this – I would suggest we should learn something from it.

In our day, in our age, when people in calamitous situations are asking the age old questions:

  1. Do we ‘give-in’ or ‘protest’ new ways for seeing the world?

  2. What “rights” do we concede and what values do we protest?

  3. Who do we trust as human agents of wisdom in discerning God’s will in these decisions?

This lectionary texts ends with even Jeremiah not knowing *precisely* what to say nor knowing *precisely* what to believe nor knowing *precisely* what to announce. The lectionary ends with Jeremiah’s “Amen” and “then it will be known.”

And, maybe that is where we should end our questions, too – in between the announcement and the unknown. Maybe this, too, is where we should end with our proclamation. At least for now.

Mind you! I am not saying that I think we are clueless. I am not stating we should doubt. I am stating that maybe we should model the activity of Jeremiah and simply sit in the ambiguity of the present unknown. Maybe we should ponder the present complex moment of calamity as it stands. Maybe we should live in the ambiguity of the old news, the new news and what might yet unfold. To live in the complexity of it and to not offer a solid answer.

Maybe like the Judeans in their setting – and we in our complex worlds today – we should at times not offer a solid answer *until* . . . until a new word of precise authority comes from the LORD.

As I’ve shared, the passage in Jeremiah 28 as a whole does narrate that within a day or few days, a new revelation from the LORD does bring clarity and *precision* to the LORD’s intention. God *can* give a *precise* announcement to a prophet and to a people.

And yet, the lectionary in this week does stop us in media res – in the middle of the story – to remind us I think, that in complex situations of chaotic disruption – for a time even the prophets don’t know *precisely* how God will work!

And so, perhaps, we, also – in situations of great calamity and complex dislocation ought to wait – pray, discern, listen, share, ponder, question – and wait until a new word from the LORD emerges.

Maybe we ought to be like Jeremiah and the Judeans. In between past news and new news, before acting, await a clarifying and new Word that might give clarity to God’s new work and new intention.

At times, for a time, not even prophets know *precisely* how God will work.

And where the lectionary ends in this reading – and what our proclamation might share in preaching- is that Jeremiah models for us, in the ambiguity of historical disruptions, we, like Jeremiah, wait on the LORD.