Being a Prophet Is a Thankless Job
The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Old Testament: Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalter: Psalm 71:1-6
Epistle: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Gospel: Luke 4:21-30
O God of all the prophets, you knew us and chose us before you formed us in the womb. Fill us with faith that speaks your word, hope that does not disappoint, and love that bears all things for your sake, until that day when we shall know you fully, even as we are known by you. Amen.
Most prophets are not popular during their lifetime. Prophets are called to speak the truth, truth that is uncomfortable and direct. Usually we are fine with hard-to-hear truth as long as the difficult word is proclaimed to others. We like to hear our enemies, our opponents, raked over the coals over their indiscretions and injustices; but when our lives come under the prophetic gaze, that's something entirely different. It is so difficult to recognize prophets in our lifetime because we tend to judge prophets by the truth they proclaim to others. Those who speak the truth to us are not so much prophetic as they are false teachers.
So being called to be a prophet is a thankless job. The people who like your words tend to like them only because they are not directed at them, and the ones who despise your words will too often be your friends and God's people whom you love, which is why you are speaking the truth in the first place. In his book, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, Reinhold Niebuhr notes that too many pastors avoid speaking the difficult word not out of concern for job security as much as the pain of speaking the truth to people they have come to love. Is it any wonder that in his call, Jeremiah like Moses centuries before, attempted to convince God otherwise?
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, 'Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.' Then I said, 'Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.' But the Lord said to me, 'Do not say, "I am only a boy"; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you (1:4-6).
The kingdom of Judah was facing serious troubles in Jeremiah's day. Only the direct word of truth with no sugar-coating would suffice. Mary Lautensleger writes,
The task before Jeremiah is frightful. As a youth, Jeremiah is charged to "forth-tell" the devastation of Israel, as well as to preach hope for a new way of life. His own words are to be as powerful and effective as fire, or as a pounding hammer. While his message will separate the prophet from family and friends, God will never leave him alone. In God’s service Jeremiah can be assured of God’s continuing presence.
Jeremiah is called to be a prophet against his will, given a message he does not want to deliver, and is sent to a people who are not going to take his advice seriously. He will be punished and persecuted, risky business indeed. In spite of the odds, he becomes a courageous and passionate proclaimer of God’s message.
We still need prophets today because the truth must still be told, but just as in Jeremiah's day speaking the prophetic word remains a thankless job.
But ultimately, it's not about the kudos one receives, but that the Word of the Lord that must be spoken.
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