For as long as I can remember, I have been afraid of tornados.
When I was a little girl, my family lived in Terre Haute, Indiana, which is on the western edge of the state, not far from the Illinois border. I must have been about 5 or 6 when that part of the country was hit by a slew of tornadoes. Night after night, my parents would hurry the three of us little girls down into the basement, where they would try to lure us into going to sleep until the all-clear sounded. If we heard what sounded like a big train coming, they’d told us, they’d wake us up, and we would all huddle together next to the southwest wall of the basement, where we’d be safe.
Trauma affects children in different ways, but in my family, it made us all vigilant about one thing or another. For me it’s been the weather. When my husband and I lived in Florida, I watched the tropics from May to the end of November—hurricane season. I watched the storm track predictions as they came in, to see where the worst part of the storm was likely to hit. No matter what the forecasters said, no one knew for sure where the storm would make landfall until the storm made landfall.
In the Bible, disaster prediction was the purview of the prophets. A true prophet was the one who got it right. A true prophet was called by God to deliver warnings no one wanted to hear, warnings few would heed.
Last week we heard what it was like for Jeremiah to be called by God. He’d been made into a laughing stock because the Lord had told him to tell the people of the “violence and destruction” heading their way. He’s weary and he’s wearing down, but every time he’s tempted to just hang it up, and stop speaking “in the Lord’s name,” he gets this burning in his bones, and he knows that he can’t stop.
A false prophet on the other hand, tells people what they want to hear even if it is wrong. In the Bible, a false prophet is always more popular than the true prophet.
False prophets often taunt and humiliate true prophets. They make them look stupid or “out of step” with reality. False prophets sometimes say that the Lord has told them what to say, so people should listen to them. Before people disputed the findings of science, they disputed who was speaking for God. That’s exactly what is happening just before we get to today’s story from the Book of Jeremiah.
A false prophet who goes by the name of Hananiah is claiming that God has spoken to him, and that things were going to get better, not worse!
Now, you have to understand that God’s people were in the middle of a disaster. Their enemies, the Babylonians, had stolen their sacred vessels and kidnapped the son of their king. In the midst of this calamity, Hananiah says that he’s going to bring the Babylonians down himself. And he’s going to do it in just two years.
To prove his point, Hananiah takes the wooden yoke that Jeremiah is wearing as a symbol of his obedience to God, and he throws it on the ground. That’s what I am going to do to the King of Babylon, he says. I am going to smash him and his kingdom to pieces!
In today’s reading, Jeremiah issues one of the mildest rebukes of a false prophet you will find in the Bible. Instead of debating Hananiah, instead of pulling out the charts and showing him what the odds were that the Babylonians were going to come back and take what was left of their land and destroy the temple (which was a 100% probability), instead of telling Hananiah it was going to take 70 years, not 2, before the Babylonians were defeated, Jeremiah simply says, “would that you be right.”
There’s a small detail in our brief reading that provides a clue about why Jeremiah responded to Hananiah like this. Jeremiah is speaking to ALL the people.
So he’s not going to waste his breath repeating what everyone has already heard him say. He isn’t going to divide the people of God any more than they are already divided. When you are in the middle of a disaster, that’s the last thing you want to have—people fighting over who is right and who isn’t. He isn’t going to weary the people any more than they are already. When you’re weary, you start losing your faith in God and in people.
So Jeremiah doesn’t take Hananiah’s bait. He doesn’t get sucked into the drama. He looks down at his shattered yoke, lying there on the ground, and he says, Hananiah, if you’re right, everyone will know you are the true prophet. We’ll all know, if what you are saying about the Babylonians being defeated in 2 years—and not 70—comes true.
It’s hard not to see ourselves in this story today. We are in the middle—some say just the start—of an unfolding disaster. Our country is divided over whether to wear masks or not. Our officials are weighing the risks of re-starting the economy against what we now can see was an inevitable surge in cases. Those of us who have been “staying home and staying safe” are chomping at the bit to get out again, but it’s even less safe for us to go out now than it was back in March and April.
And there’s the weariness, too: weariness from the endless insults and provocations, and the forecasts that keep extending the pandemic further and further out in time.
Today’s reading from Jeremiah asks us, how do we want to live these days? There is a part of me that wants to see the true prophets of coronavirus vindicated, the ones who warned against re-opening too soon. And yet I find no comfort, no peace, in seeing cases surging where they are surging.
But there is more to life than sitting on the sidelines and judging who is right and who is wrong about a virus we can’t control or defeat with words alone.
This past week, I put myself in Jeremiah’s audience, and I thought, maybe I have been getting too caught up in the drama of who’s right and who’s wrong. Maybe there are fights not to fight right now. I already know the course I am going to follow, the course I hope most of us are following: to stay safe, as safe as we can.
Maybe it’s time we look for and cultivate what we, and the people we disagree with, have in common. Our differences do not have to separate us from one another and from God. We don’t have to go along with those who want to make everything “political”—or divisive.
If Jeremiah can turn aside Hananiah with a shrug and a wish for the welfare of all God’s people, I can stop being upset with my neighbors who don’t wear masks and don’t keep social distance. I can use that energy for other things: life-giving things, like planting a garden, checking in with people—at a distance!—and helping plan alternative ways of building community when we can’t meet in person. And I can take all of this to prayer.
God has not abandoned us. When we are most broken, when we suffer unspeakable loss, when we are lonely and our lives are full of doubt and despair, that’s when God is closest to us; that’s when we can lean on those everlasting arms. That’s when we are given the grace to carry on, and the love to see it through.