Download or listen to the Second Sunday after Pentecost: “The Prophet of Peace”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
594 BC. You’re standing in the Jerusalem Temple with other residents of Jerusalem, and with the priests of the House of Yahweh, and you’re listening to two prophets. Nebuchadnezzar is besieging Jerusalem because Johoiakim, king of Judah, decided not to pay tribute to Babylon. Now Jehoiakim is dead, and Nebuchadnezzar has taken Jehoiachin, the king’s son, and the best and the brightest of Judah into exile in Babylon. The one prophet, Hananiah, tells the people not to worry, that things are not nearly so bad as they seem. Yes, Babylon is big and bad; yes, their leaders are in exile. But it will only be for two years; then Yahweh will return the exiles and the sacred vessels to the Temple where they will worship again. Jeremiah, the other prophet, is not so optimistic. He says that it will not be two years of exile, but seventy. He says that not only will Jehoiachin and the exiles not come back, but the current king Zedekiah and the rest of the people will go, too. He says that Jerusalem will not be spared, but the whole city will be destroyed and the Temple will be burned. As a symbol of the burden of Babylon, Jeremiah has been wearing a wooden yoke around his neck. It is the symbol of Nebuchadnezzar’s foot on the neck of Jerusalem. But that symbol doesn’t fit Hananiah’s prophecy, so Hananiah takes the wooden yoke from Jeremiah’s neck and breaks it. This, he says, is how Yahweh will break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon. Jeremiah says to Hananiah, “I hope your word is correct. I hope that Yahweh returns the exiles and the sacred vessels in two years. But hear this: the prophets who came before you and me, Hananiah, they did not prophesy peace. They prophesied war, and evil, and pestilence, and famine against many cities and great kingdoms. It is the prophet of peace who must be proven correct by what actually happens.” And then God tells Jeremiah that, instead of the wooden yoke, he was supposed to wear an iron yoke, which no false prophet could break, and which the people could not escape or get out from under. It was God behind the burden of Babylon, and only He could remove it.
To which prophet are you going to listen? Which prophet are you going to believe? Hananiah, who says that everything is basically okay; who says that God is not really very angry with the people; that, sure, He doesn’t like sin, but He’s certainly not going to use a pagan king as an instrument of His judgment; that it’s not so important that the people are worshiping idols and sinning, and still come to the Temple as if it were no big deal. Hananiah is the prophet of shalom, of peace and wholeness and good. Are you going to listen to Hananiah or to Jeremiah, who tells the people not of peace, but of destruction? Jeremiah says that things are not okay; that God actually does care whether people keep His Law, and that He actually does hate sin, and that His intention is to bring peace by destroying sin.
It’s sort of a non-question, because we have a book of the Bible named after Jeremiah, but we don’t have one named after Hananiah. We know who the true prophet is and who is the false prophet. We know that Hananiah’s prophecy did not come true. In fact, not only did his “two-year” prophecy not come true, he didn’t even make it that far. He died in that same year as a judgment not only for his false prophecy, but because he led the people astray. He made them trust their own works, their own hands, their own goodness. He told the people who despised the Word of Yahweh, “It will be well with you,’ and to those who followed their own stubborn hearts, he said, “No disaster will come upon you” (23:16-17). He proclaimed “Peace, peace,” when there was no peace, so he healed the wound of God’s people lightly, like putting a band-aid on cancer (6:14; 8:11). He said what all false prophets say, going back to the original false prophet in the Garden: “You will not surely die.” Jeremiah, on the other hand, did not heal the wound lightly; he exposed it for everyone to see, opening it up to the light, showing just how deep that disease went. He said that their sin was not just superficial, that it was not just a flesh-wound, but that they were rotten to the core. For twenty-three years, Jeremiah proclaimed Yahweh’s judgment on the people, so that they would turn to Him for mercy.
We know that Jeremiah’s word—rather, Yahweh’s word through him—was the true word, but wouldn’t we much rather hear Hananiah? We do not want to hear all that doom and gloom, fire and brimstone of Jeremiah. We don’t want to hear that need to be new people, not just make a few corrections to our current behavior. We don’t want to hear about all the idols we make in our hearts, all the false gods in which we put our trust. We don’t want to have our specific sins exposed. We want to hear that it’s not all that bad, that things will soon get better. We want to believe that God doesn’t take sin all that seriously, so we can go on with our lives, following our own stubborn hearts, under a thin veneer of religion and spirituality, believing that God has put His divine stamp of approval on our lives, so everything’s good. We don’t want to hear the word of Jesus, that His Word does not bring peace on earth, as some sort of universal brotherhood of humankind, but rather a sword that divides, even between family members. We don’t like division and disagreement and difficulty, but Jesus is as much a true prophet as Jeremiah, and more. The truth is that sin is not okay. God does not overlook or excuse your sins, even the littlest ones. The fact that God is love does not mean that you’re okay just the way you are. The wages of sin are not a little bit of trouble, as Hananiah seemed to think. No, Paul is clear: the wages of sin is death. When you were born, you signed a contract with sin, and the wages you have earned under that contract are exactly what you deserve. Death is the wages of sin, and death is a perfect accountant, and infallible. Death pays out exactly what is earned, no more and no less. There are no innocent victims.
But Jeremiah’s prophecy, as hard as it may have been for the people of Judah to hear, was not simply the thunder of judgment. The exile would last seventy years, rather than two; things would get far worse before they ever got better; but there was a promise attached to Jeremiah’s prophecy: that the iron yoke of Babylon was not forever. That there would be a deliverance from exile; that God had already chosen the deliverer of His people, as Isaiah had prophesied: Cyrus, a pagan, Persian king, would be God’s instrument of restoring the exiles to the land of Promise. God even calls Cyrus His “anointed one,” His messiah. We, too, bear the iron yoke, not of exile in Babylon for our sin, but of eternal exile in death for our sin. We have an iron yoke that we cannot remove or escape or get out from under. Only God can remove it. And He sent His Son to do exactly that: to take the iron burden, the payment we earned for our sin, upon Himself. Jesus garnished your wages, and in the place of what you’ve earned, He gives the free gift of eternal life. He entered our exile in order to bring us out of Babylon, our Messiah.
And He has indeed freed you from the chains of Babylon. A day is coming, which the Lord has set in His own wisdom, when Babylon will be destroyed and your Messiah will lead you out, and back to the Land of Promise. But that day is not yet. Though we are not of Babylon, we are still in Babylon. And so the word that Jeremiah sent to the exiles is for us also. Jeremiah said to the exiles: you are here for a set time, but do not rebel against Babylon. Yahweh Himself will take His vengeance in His own time. But you, build houses in Babylon and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce. Get married and have children. Seek the welfare of Babylon and pray for her, because her welfare is your welfare. Not because this world, this Babylon, is good, but because the Lord is still working in the midst of her. He has set His people in the midst of Babylon for the sake of any who will hear and believe His Word and come out of her. The end is not yet, but it is coming. Your life is not here in Babylon; to believe that this is home, even as we live here, is to deny the promise of God that we are waiting for a better country. To find our real life here is to find a doomed life. But to give up our life here is to give up a doomed life for real life in the promise of our Messiah, who has promised to lead us out of exile and back to the land He promises us. His Word is the Word of truth, and because He is the true prophet of peace, it will happen and His Word will be revealed before all the world as the truth.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 6/24/11