Proper 15 • Jeremiah 23:16–29 • August 15, 2010
By Travis J. Scholl
The crux of this text is the ongoing conflict in Jeremiah between true and false prophets and Jeremiah’s own ongoing conflict with those whom he perceived to be false prophets in Israel’s midst. “They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord” (v. 16). Their word is peace when there is no peace.
Into the middle of this conflict comes the storm theophany of God, the same theophany that rang in the ears of Job (38) and the Psalms (29): “Look, the storm of the Lord! Wrath has gone forth, a whirling tempest; it will burst upon the head of the wicked” (v. 19). It is this storm of God that stops us all dead in our tracks. We dare not move “until he has executed and accomplished the intents of his mind” (v. 20). We pray that God’s intent does not include our destruction.
God will later ask, “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off?” (v. 23). Of course, the truth is that he is both near by and far off, both immanent and transcendent. It is this truth about God that often causes us to struggle. We want God near by when he is far off, and we want God far off when he is nearby. This is, perhaps, why we never fail to listen to prophets who fill our ears with dreams, and lies, and the “deceit of their own heart” (v. 26). False prophets prey upon what we hope God doesn’t see, while true prophets see reality for what it truly is.
“In many and various ways God spoke to his people of old by the prophets. But now in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” The words of the liturgy, echoing Hebrews, echo Jeremiah 23:20. The prophet who was God himself was yet to come, and he too would contend with false dreams and deceit, with oppression and lies. There is no question that Jesus in his role as prophet identified himself with Jeremiah. Today’s gospel brings this into the fore. “I came to bring fire to the earth,” Jesus will thunder, “and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Lk 17:49).
Of course, the storm theophany of the Gospel of Luke will happen on Calvary, where Christ himself will be the lightning rod of the wrath of God. Only then, will we indeed “understand it clearly” (v. 20).
Or rather, the clarity comes three days later, in the stillness of the morning after the storm, when we find the tomb empty. Then disciples come running back from Emmaus. Then he himself stands among us: “Peace be with you,” true peace. Then the Spirit descends to make of all of us true prophets.
Discerning the true prophets from the false is an ongoing dilemma. But for the Christian, the sign of the true prophet is always one and the same: faith. “By faith . . .” the writer to the Hebrews so eloquently writes. By faith, surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses,” we “run with perseverance” and we look to “Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:1–2).