A sermon for the Church of the Epiphany. In the country, impeachment has been mooted in the wake of a whistleblower report. In the world, governments are as confused as we are (Brexit, prorogation, Afghan elections, Israel’s indecisive election fallout). The global climate crisis prompts a child to scold world leaders at the UN. In the lessons of the day, the rich man regrets his neglect of Lazarus at his gate, and Jeremiah prophesies from prison in word and deed.
Words have power. We see it at the beginning, when God says “Light,” and light is created, and when God says, “Night,” and the day turns away.
God’s word is not empty. Words have power. But this is not magic. To unlock the power of our own words, we need to join them to creative action, to act in the image of God.
In this morning’s reading, Jeremiah is in prison. Jerusalem is under siege by the Babylonians, against whom it has been struggling to stand for some years. A brief relief in the form of intervention by Egypt, an unreliable ally itself, has given way to renewed severity of the siege of the city of Zion. The king, Zedekiah, will preside over the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of the political and ruling classes to Babylon. Jeremiah, the prophet, refuses to give oracles that will tell him otherwise.
Prophets, true prophets, are truth-tellers. They are not in the prophecy business for popularity. Unlike politicians, their constituency is not power brokers but the poor in spirit, the people of God who seek hope not in empires and armies but in the word of God, God’s promise to their ancestors to walk with them and not to leave them lost and alone.
So Jeremiah refuses to give the king the comfort he seeks, a false prophecy that all will be well and that God is on his side. Jeremiah does not promise a magical deus ex machina that will rescue Jerusalem from its impending exile. Those would be empty words.
But Jeremiah does offer something else. And this is where it gets interesting.
The word of God came to Jeremiah, that his cousin would ask him to buy a field, to keep it in the family. The right of redemption was a line of inheritance that meant that if property was on the brink of falling out of the family – through death or debt or bankruptcy – it must first be offered for sale to a relation, who had the right of first refusal to keep it in the family.
It might be thought that Jeremiah, imprisoned by the king and knowing as he did that the whole city, the whole country was about to fall, might have better things to do and to think about than to buy his cousin’s field. But Jeremiah was a prophet. And when prophets prophesy, they do not only use words. A prophecy is not a scroll, but a seed. A prophecy does not only tell you the word of God, it enacts the word of God. And as the word of God has power, so the prophet does not only speak of the will of God, but he or she brings it to life.
Jeremiah knows that Judah has betrayed its duty to God and to the people, turning to idols. He knows that they have debased themselves such that they are low enough to be overrun by their enemies. But he knows, also, that the mercy of God endures forever; that the love of God will not leave God’s people as long as God lives.
So Jeremiah performed a prophetic action. He bought the field. He went through the ritual transaction that conveyed the property from his cousin to his own hand, and he handed the deeds to the scribe, Baruch, and charged him to place them in an earthenware jar, to protect them and preserve them, for, he said, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”
In prison under the guard of a king in a city under siege, Jeremiah performed the prophetic action of seeding the future with a piece of land that his family could inherit again; protecting their place in the promised land; trusting in the unbroken covenant of God and the redemptive mercy of God’s grace. He made the prophecy literally not with words only, but with deeds. He spoke the word of the Lord and he acted it out.
Jesus was more than a prophet. He was, he is the very Word of God. And that Word is powerful and active. Jesus did not come only to preach and to teach. When he said, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand,” he demonstrated the inbreaking of God’s rule of mercy and grace, healing the sick, bringing good news to the poor and to the poor in spirit, those in need of forgiveness and redemption. He raised the dead. He not only prophesied self-sacrifice, but he performed it. He not only prophesied resurrection, but he embodied it.
If you read Morning Prayer regularly, which is a practice I recommend, and one which I am happy to help you learn if you need some help, well then you are familiar with the Second Song of the prophet Isaiah:
For as rain and snow fall from the heavens and return not again, but water the earth,
Bringing forth life and giving growth, seed for sowing and bread for eating,
So is my word that goes forth from my mouth; it will not return to me empty:
But it will accomplish that which I have purposed, and prosper in that for which I sent it.
Thus says the Lord.
My word will not return empty, but it will accomplish that which I have purposed. The word of God is pregnant with power. It bursts upon the world with the power to forgive sins, redeem the irredeemable, sow repentance in the stony soil of the hearts of humanity, seed the suspicion of mercy among us. It raises the possibility and the promise of resurrection.
Jeremiah was not in denial about the state of his world when he bought his cousin’s field, but he knew that the ultimate reality, the best bet in the world, was on the mercy of God. He invested in that hope, word and deed.
We know that we live besieged by sin, which whispers through personal temptation to love our neighbour less than ourselves and our own interests; to love God with something less than our whole bodies, minds, and souls, keeping something back for ourselves. We are imprisoned by systemic evils that bind us, through the idolatry of greed and power, racism, sexism, phobias and prejudice. We are seduced by alternative sources of salvation, putting our trust in idols and empires, heroes and Pharaohs, great armies and grand schemes.
Yet, even when we think we do not know which way to turn, we remember that with God all help is possible. Jeremiah said, “Nothing is too hard for you.” Paul wrote, “With God all things are possible.” Jesus said, “I am the resurrection, and I am life.”
From the heart of the besieged city, Jeremiah prophesied redemption, and he acted upon his word as though it were true. In word and in deed he proclaimed the goodness, the faithfulness, the mercy of God, calling the people to repentance and promising that it would be worth it.
We have promised at Baptism to proclaim by word and example – by word and deed – the good news of God in Christ: Christ who healed the sick, fed the hungry, forgave the needy, withheld revenge from the enemy, loved the doubtful, raised the dead. If we proclaim the good news of God in that Christ, the Word of God, then we are called, too, to provide examples from our own prophetic actions, demonstrating mercy, illustrating grace, promising redemption, not shying away from the cross. We are called to live prophetic lives, exemplars of repentance and redemption.
If that sounds hard, trust me, I know it. But we are called the Body of Christ. We have inherited the Incarnation of the Word of God; and God’s word does not return empty, but accomplishes that which God has purposed, and prospers in that for which God sent it. Like Jeremiah, we are called to invest and enact the promises of God that we have understood: that nothing is too hard for God; that no one is beyond the reach of God; that God’s mercy endures forever.
As the Body of Christ, we embody the gospel that we have received. With God’s help, may we act like it.