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January 30 – Sorting Through the Prophets

Sunday School Activities

Jeremiah 1: 4-10
(4th Sunday after Epiphany)

If you’re tired of Winter, you might be paying attention to the furry, buck-toothed prophet of Wiarton
next week. Next Tuesday February 2nd is Groundhog Day. Willie of Wiarton fame will, based on the
existence or non-existence of his shadow, prophesy the length of the winter season. I call Willie a
prophet with tongue in cheek only because that’s what we’ve been conditioned to think of as the role
of the prophet; someone who can see into the future. Certainly, that’s an aspect of biblical prophecy
but only a small aspect.
In scripture, Prophets are people who see the world as the arena of God’s activity and have the vision
to spot where God’s work is being thwarted.1
They point those places out to us. It’s not always that
easy though sorting out the true from the false prophets. So much damage has been done by those
who claim to be prophets of God from any number of faiths. Yet, we’ve also benefited from the
prophetic lives of people Martin Luther King Junior, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop
Desmond Tutu, Thomas Berry and more recently the Indigenous voices of Cindy Blackstock and
Murray Sinclair. There are also secular prophets, people who aren’t grounded in a faith tradition but
nonetheless through their integrity and courage point us to visions of a just society and where we are
falling short of our human potential to live lives of love, Greta Thunberg, David Suzuki, Harvey Milk,
Amanda Gorman. The question is how do we sort the true ones from the false ones?
The story of Jeremiah’s call gives us some clues. It begins with the phrase, “Now the word of the Lord
came to me…” Here is the first clue that a prophet is legitimate; the call to become a prophet is always
disruptive to the life of the one being called. Becoming a prophet does not involve a clear
meticulously planned career path. You are going along doing what you do and, something happens,
or a dawning realization of injustice takes hold that speaks to the deepest part of you and causes you
to change direction, to respond to a call to speak God’s truth. Gandhi was on his way to becoming a
lawyer, Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior had a comfortable life as a Baptist Pastor, Malala
Yousufzai just wanted to go to school, Jeremiah was on his way to following in his family footsteps
and becoming a temple priest.
The call of Jeremiah is one of the most beautiful and poetic in the bible. This notion of God knowing
us even before we were placed in our mother’s womb is a beautifully intimate one. When it comes to
true and false prophets that first word, ‘before’, in the phrase–“Before I formed you in the womb…” is
an important one. The call to prophecy isn’t a matter of choice; rather it is something that is thrust
upon the person. It isn’t a matter of grandiose pre-destination but rather a lack of choice. Think of
Jesus’ word in Gethsemane asking God to take the cup away from him. The true prophet enters the
work reluctantly. Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior describes himself as being “catapulted”
into leadership2
, which is an apt image. The true prophet does the work because it needs to be done to
1Walter Brueggemann, Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes, pp. 158 & 161.
2Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963.
be able to live with integrity in their community and their world. The true prophet doesn’t stand out to
be a celebrity. In fact, the true prophet would prefer to be doing something else completely with their
lives because it is often done at great personal, social, and financial risk. The examples are numerous,
King, Gandhi, Milk were all assassinated.
What is common to just about all call stories in the bible is some expression by the one being called of
their own inadequacy in the face of the task before them. Jeremiah is no different: “Ah, Lord God!
Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” The true prophet enters and performs the
work with a sense of humility, so they constantly work at setting their ego aside, listening, and
watching for the leading of the Spirit. True prophets tend to build communities, movements and
coalitions that draw on the gifts and energies of others. I think of the Rev. William Barber from North
Carolina and his Poor People’s Campaign and Moral Mondays movement. The true prophet is
humble; they know that others have a part to play as well.
There is an inner strength to true prophets, a spiritual strength. In verse eight God continues the
assurance to Jeremiah: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you…” True prophets
rely on a reservoir of deep faith to sustain them, a faith that they are but one expression of God’s work
and it will continue even if they are destroyed. True prophets have a long view of history, of their
place in the universe, of both their significance and insignificance. Dorothy Day, the late Roman
Catholic champion of the poor and social activist put it this way; Our Faith is stronger than death… and
the spread of the Kingdom of God upon the earth is more inspiring and more compelling.”3
Now we get to a tough one—verse ten says that the prophet’s job is to “pluck up and to pull down, to
destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” Like you, I am well aware of the plucking up and
tearing down, of the destroying and overthrowing that has been done by those believing themselves
to be prophets. Just think of anything done by ISIS. Think of the damage done to our First Nations
peoples by the Church. But on the other hand, true prophets of God’s ways aren’t always nice either;
they are disruptive, they upset people, they expose the divisions that lie beneath the veneer of calm,
they seek to destroy unjust institutions and overthrow oppressive powers. Think of the words
attributed to Jesus; “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring
peace, but a sword.”4

A true prophet values order as well, but not at the cost of justice.5
A true prophet knows that order can be deceiving, a way of hiding from reality. A true prophet breaks the
calm surface to allow suppressed tensions to be named and seen, so that they can be dealt with
constructively. A false prophet incites chaos to create fear and gain power. False prophets that are
grounded in religion have a static understanding of God, a God who is locked into a scripture, who at
one time laid down some rules that must be followed for all time by all people. False prophets use
God for their own ends. A true prophet has a dynamic understanding of God, a God who is active and
working in the world, a flowing river of love that will nourish everything in its path if allowed to flow.
False prophets have God as their mascot. True prophets have God as their Lord.
3 Dorothy Day,
4Matthew 10: 34, NRSV.
5 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963.
This business of sorting the true and the false prophets is not an easy one; it requires discernment on
our part. The grace or the gift in the discernment is to be lead away from the many things that distract
us from God’s call and presence in our world. The gift will be to be led into right relationship with the
world, relationships of justice, mutuality, and reciprocity. Another way of saying it is that the gift in
discerning the true prophet is to be led to wholeness, to that place of integrity where there is no
separation between God and God’s creation, where we are recognized and recognize ourselves to be
part of a greater, beautiful whole. The gift is to be led to that place of unity where we were known
even before we entered our mother’s womb. May God bless our discernment. I invite you to consider
who you see as prophets in our time, other than Wiarton Willie, I invite you to share some names in
the chat if you like.
Rev. Joe Gaspar