Friday, March 13, 2009

What's a Prophet to Do?

Jeremiah, in the Sixth century B.C.E., prophesied an unavoidable disaster coming upon the Hebrews. He began his mission from his home village, which immediately rejected him. He complained to God: "I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me." (Welcome to the real world, Jere!)

Jeremiah has been called "the weeping prophet," for none would listen to his rather bitter remarks about their idolatry. We have all seen cartoons of men in shrouds carrying signs "Repent! The end is near!" This was Jeremiah. If they were not throwing rocks, they were laughing at him.

He was informed of God there was a terrible punishment coming to Jerusalem. Their sin was bringing their destruction. This is a common theme throughout the Old Testament: suffering comes because of sin. I can't go along with that completely. Lots of folks suffer when sin has nothing to do with. Tsunamis, earthquakes, typhoons do not plague our world because of sin. (They do if you are a follower of the late Jerry Falwell or the aging Pat Robertson.)

Jeremiah was so outspoken about the doom that was coming, the king in Jerusalem (Zedekiah) considered him an outlaw and had him locked away in prison. (This actually probably saved his life there in the dungeon as Nebuchadnezzar's army destroyed and sacked the city.)

Jeremiah leaned that his message of doom was not the best way to be a prophet. He more and more began to emphasize the brighter side. The destruction that turned the people into refugees in a foreign land was temporary. Those left in the misery of war were not impressed. As he tired to assure them there was a "balm in Gilead," they merely clutched their rags and turned away. I would not condemn these hungry, hurting, homeless people for not listening to Jeremiah. They may have thought he brought the whole thing on them. He didn't, but the God of Israel did. Now God wants them to feel better.

Gilead was a fertile, mountainous region east of the Jordan River between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. (The area is now the western part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.)

Gilead was known for its spices, myrrh and healing balm. Jeremiah is saying there is help, there is medicine for their wayward spiritual disease of ignoring God.

The prophet asked a simple question: "Is there no balm in Gilead?" Don't give up. It is not the end of the world (but it was for thousands, as well as their Temple). Wake up and look around you (not a good turn of phrase, as all was rubble, and Gilead was far away)!

Most in the destroyed city knew the stories how the Northern Kingdom of Israel had vanished 200 years before. Totally gone from the face of the earth – to be known forever as "The Lost Tribes of Israel." Now, they too, were on the road to annihilation. A balm in Gilead was not in their list of needs. Hence they refused to listen to their coot of a prophet. What's a prophet to do?

Jeremiah could tell them over and over he was speaking for God, but they didn't like the message and thought less of the messenger.

From there, things began to go down hill for Jeremiah. He had every reason to be known as the "weeping prophet." He tired to do what God wanted him to do, but nothing ever turned out good.

If the Babylonians had not invaded Israel, the Egyptians would have. Israel (the Promised Land) just happened to be on the route to the two great civilizations of the time. Israel's bragging of having the only true God, just made neighboring countries and tribes that more angry.

God gave Abraham a promise, to make him a blessing and that his descendents would bless all peoples. After hundreds of years of famine, slavery and wars, the sons of Abraham sort of forgot their part of the deal. They turned the God of creation in their own national God and looked down on all other peoples and their gods year after year. There has never been any tolerance in Israel.

Centuries later, Jesus the Christ told his disciples to go into all the world and make disciples and make it a better world. But they did not rush out to the ends of the earth until the Roman persecution made them refugees. Just as old Israel did not take God very seriously, neither have the followers of Jesus.

Sometimes I feel discouraged,/ And think my work's in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit/ Revives my soul again.

There is a balm in Gilead/ To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead/ To heal the sin sick soul.

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