Prophets Part 1 – Speaking of Now and Then
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations
The prophets are often approached as disembodied catalogues of predictions. But the prophets were flesh and blood characters from all walks of life, and their personalities shine through their writings.
The prophets were called to speak on God’s behalf into the now: into pastoral situations and crises both local, national, and international.
- They were pastors and teachers of their people.
- They held nations and rulers to account.
- They spoke into the crises of their day from the local to the international.
- They articulated dreams of a better future and gave their people hope.
- And they most often did these things through song and poetry.
This week and next, we’re looking at the Major Prophets (major because of their size, not their importance). We start with Isaiah – the biggest book (66 chapters) which falls into three sections.
Isaiah Part I (chapters 1–39)
Isaiah works in Jerusalem, and chapter 6 describes his call, probably in the temple, where he sees the Lord, mighty on a throne, and hears angels all around singing, “Holy, holy holy” (this is why in the middle of the Eucharistic prayer we sing that part called The Sanctus – joining in with the heavenly worship that Isaiah witnessed).
People often hear their own call, their own sense of vocation when in situation of worshipping God – it’s when we seek him and open ourselves to him that he will often reveal what his purposes are for us.
All through Isaiah part I, there’s a sense of threat, and warning, because it addresses the time when Assyria was conquering the middle east. Remember they invaded the Northern Tribes (Israel), and were also a threat to Jerusalem (much overlap with 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles here).
Isaiah also confronts Judah with its own sin, which has led them into danger. In chapter 5, Judah is depicted as a rotten, unfruitful vineyard – language that Jesus would use in many of his parables 500 years later to describe the situation in his own day.
But Isaiah offers glimpses of a day when a new and righteous King like David will come (e.g. 9:6): ‘A child is born, a son is given, he shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, everlasting father, Prince of peace.’
Isaiah Part II (chapters 40–55)
This part of Isaiah addresses the exiles who were carried off to Babylon after Jerusalem was destroyed (587 BC). Isaiah’s message is that the exile will come to an end, that they will return home, and that Babylon will be humbled, because the God of the Exodus, who rescued his people from Egypt, is coming to them again.
“Comfort my people”, says God (40:1), for there’s a voice crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” It would be John the baptist who would later give breath to that voice.
From a Christian perspective, here is some of the most important material in the Old Testament.
- In the New Testament, Isaiah is the most quoted Old Testament book, and the majority of those quotations come from Isaiah chapters 40–55.
- Luke’s Gospel is shot through with it;
- But more importantly, it’s these chapters that seem to have most informed Jesus’ own sense of identity and mission.
In this section of Isaiah we find what are known as the four ‘Servant Songs’ (42; 49; 50; 52:13–53).
This mysterious Servant is gentle, holy, anointed by the Holy Spirit; his mission is to speak the words of the Lord, and to bring justice, but who will face great opposition and suffering death at the hands of his own people, led like a lamb to the slaughter.
But people would realise that he carried their sins and by his wounds they are forgiven and healed. The fourth song (52:13–53), of the ‘suffering servant’ is a big part of our liturgy on Good Friday.
Who was Isaiah talking about? Himself? his nation as a whole? or some Saviour to appear in the future?
Jesus saw it as his vocation to be that servant.
He, like Isaiah, grasped something dangerously new and profound about God and his world – that sometimes, it is in what look like the greatest moments of weakness and vulnerability, that God is most perfectly revealed and in which the greatest power is witnessed.
Isaiah Part III (chapters 56–66)
Briefly: the third section of Isaiah deals with issues of justice, integrity, and looking to the needs of the poor, and how that’s just as much about worshipping God as singing, fasting, and sacrifice. The book ends with visions of the new heavens and new earth that will be taken up again right at the end of the Bible in Revelation.
Jeremiah was also based near in Jerusalem. His ministry took place in those final years just before Babylon destroyed the Jerusalem and carried off the exiles, and he had the tough calling of preparing his people for disaster.
His task was to be honest about where his nation was headed – a proclaimer of bad news, in a context where all the other false prophets were trying to pretend everything would be all right.
Jeremiah knew he wasn’t going to be popular, and the sadness of his message was a great burden. He’s known as the ‘weeping prophet’, and the book of Lamentations, which follows Jeremiah (and probably written by him), is five chapters of the saddest songs, lamenting Jerusalem’s destruction.
Jeremiah demonstrates that an important dimension of our spirituality is to openly lament the troubles of our world – the injustices and suffering we see around us.
Another interesting thing about Jeremiah is the way God often speaks to him through things he sees around him: almond trees, boiling pots, damaged loincloths, wine jars. “Look Jeremiah – you see that thing, that’s what going to happen to your people”, or “that’s what I’m going to do.”
- Chapter 18: Jeremiah sees a potter with a lump of clay. A jar had gone wrong, but the potter was able to rework it and make something much better. God says to Jeremiah that he can do the same with his people.
- Jeremiah teaches us that God is often ready to speak to us through the most mundane things around us, if our hearts are alert to his voice.
Although we know the Old Testament prophets through their words, they weren’t afraid to use dramatic or outrageous actions to make their points symbolically. Jeremiah was a master at this.
- Chapter 19: he smashes a jug in front of the elders (i.e. the management!) and says, “That’s what’s going to happen to Jerusalem, because of the evil you’ve been doing here.”
- Chapter 27: wearing a big wooden (ploughing) yoke around his neck, he wanders into the royal palace, into a meeting of five world leaders, to make a point about them submitting to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.
- Chapter 7: one of the most provocative gestures is chapter 7, when Jeremiah preaches on the very steps of the temple and says, “You think you’re invincible because you think you’ve got God stored up in this big old building! But if you don’t start acting justly with one another, if you don’t start caring for the foreigners, widows, orphans and the poor around you, then all this counts for nothing––it will be smashed down!” A potent message indeed for today, in a town with a religious building like this and our current political climate.
With gestures like these, it’s no wonder Jeremiah was slapped, beaten, and thrown into a cistern. But despite all the gloom, Jeremiah speaks some of the most hopeful words in the Old Testament about the exile coming to its end:
“It will soon be over… I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord…plans for your welfare, not for your harm, plans for hopeful future. You will search for me and find me, if you search for me with all your heart.” (29:11-13).
No disaster, no suffering lasts forever. There is something beyond it that God has prepared, and he promises to be found by us when we truly seek him.
And chapter 31 speaks for the first time of a New Covenant that God will make with his people. “And it won’t be like the last one…this time the law won’t be written on stone, but in their hearts; it will be a new start, a new friendship, and they will all know me.” (31:31ff).
And at the last supper, Jesus holds up the cup, and says, “This is the cup of the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke.22:20) His love and self-sacrifice brings about this New Covenant, of which we––gathered around this table––are a part.
Sermon by Rev. James Pettit on 2nd August 2015