A Prophet's Resolution
Text: Jeremiah 31:7-14
If John the Baptist is the unlikely poster prophet for Advent, Jeremiah is the even more unlikely poster prophet for Christmas. This surly prophet does not bother putting up a tree for the season because he sees exile on the horizon. Why decorate the house for the holidays when not just the decorations, but the house itself is coming down? While his contemporaries preach, “Believe in God and all will be well,” Jeremiah preaches, “Time to pack whatever you can carry on your back because God does not protect those who abuse the poor, neglect the widow, extort the innocent.”
As a result of his less than peppy prophecies, Jeremiah gets tossed down wells and thrown in prison. The book of Jeremiah covers a long span of time, from when he announces the fall of Jerusalem, to when the Babylonians torch the city, to a long period of exile. Much of his book is starkly sober, but the verses from today are a part of small sliver of his prophesy known as his “Book of Consolation” or “Book of Comfort.” Ingrid Lilly suggests that Jeremiah’s “Book of Consolation” could also be called his “Letter from a Jerusalem Jail.”
Jeremiah’s willingness to be honest about the present gave him the power to see an unclouded future, a time when “. . . the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry” (verse 13). Ultimately, in a letter to his kin already in exile, he writes,
“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; takes wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:5-7). Only after a long period of living in exile, far, far from home, Jeremiah says, “God will turn their mourning into joy, God will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.”
Jeremiah and John the Baptist were two prophets with the courage not to say what people wanted to hear but to say what God wanted the people to hear. I was born long, long after either of the biblical prophets of Advent and Christmas. I am fortunate, though, to have lived in the time of a contemporary prophet who died the day after Christmas. Some years ago, I even shared a meal with this prophet when he was in Alexandria visiting one of his daughters.
As you and I enter a new calendar year, we have listened to John the Baptist point to the One who will put the fire of God’s truth in our bellies and we have listened to Jeremiah promise a coming day when even the most broken will find wholeness. Today, I invite us to listen to how God spoke and might speak to us in this new year through the words of this modern prophet who has now joined the great company of saints.
Archbishop Desmund Tutu was a South African Nobel Peace Prize-winning prophet, a voice crying against the horrors of racial apartheid and the persecution of the L,G,B,T,Q community. Nelson Mandela appointed Tutu to chair the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which would go on to uncover an astounding number of horrific abuses during the time of apartheid. With a smile that charmed the world, Tutu preached that there can be no reconciliation without truth-telling and so the Truth and Reconciliation Commission worked hard to expose some of the most horrendous human rights violations in the world since the Holocaust.
Like John and Jeremiah, Tutu was a truth seeker and a truth teller. If he were living in the U.S. today, I suspect he would be leading the charge to expose the truth behind the horrors that happened on January 6, 2021 at the U.S. Capitol. Tutu had no problem speaking the truth even about the church when the church had lost its way. About a hard church truth in the history of his native land, he spoke, “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said 'Let us pray’. We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.”
Like Jeremiah, Tutu argued that oppressed people always understand Scripture better than their oppressors and oppressed people never underestimate the power of the Bible. He spoke, “If you want to keep people subjugated, the last thing you place in their hands is a Bible. There’s nothing more radical, nothing more revolutionary, nothing more subversive against injustice and oppression than the Bible.”
A fundamental theme of Tutu’s preaching was that “there is no future without forgiveness.” In the ecumenical version of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Tutu liked this version of the Jesus prayer because this version is no longer transactional, “debts and debtors” or simply a matter of breaking boundaries, “trespass and those who trespass against us.” This version of the Jesus prayer makes forgiveness deeply personal.
Of the countless words that the Archbishop spoke about forgiveness, the ones that challenged me more than any other this past year and continue to challenge me are these: “Forgiveness is taking seriously the awfulness of what has happened when you are treated unfairly. Forgiveness is not pretending that things are other than the way they are.” Tutu knew that truth better than I. As a victim of the evils of apartheid, he never sugar-coated sin or downplayed how badly he had been treated under this evil system, but at the same time he insisted that without forgiveness we have no future. He taught this because Jesus taught it and lived it and asked us to pray it every day.
While Tutu spoke frequently about forgiveness, he spoke continuously about reconciliation. Whenever the Archbishop traveled in the U.S., he traveled not only to places that shared his religious and political views, but to places and to people who held fiercely opposing views. He spoke, “If you want peace, you don't talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.” If you and I were to push back and argue with Tutu saying that there is no point in talking with those who are so dramatically opposite us, he would answer that we have no real choice for, “In the sentiment of Mahatma Gandhi, when we practice the law of an eye for an eye, we all end up blind.”
As chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, Tutu listened to hours of testimony from those who had carried out horrible acts of violence in the name of apartheid, testimony that surely made his blood boil and his stomach sick at points. And, yet, with the courage to mine the truth, practice forgiveness, and work toward reconciliation, he gained this wisdom: “Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.” I have turned to these words more over the past six months than any others.
Like Jeremiah, Tutu was a tireless crusader for God’s justice and he refused to confuse justice with sweet acts of charity. In one of his most compelling images, he spoke, “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” Like all prophets in the Judeo-Christian tradition, Tutu insisted that you and I are called to the hard work of listening to others rather than just deciding what they need and then slapping band-aids on their problems and thinking ourselves faithful.
Unlike the surly Jeremiah we meet in Scripture, Tutu had a disarming wit. He could light up a room with his smile and then say something that is really quite controversial, such as, “We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven. God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are quite low.” He would follow that disarming statement with words like these: “In the end what matters is not how good we are but how good God is. Not how much we love God but how much God loves us. And God loves us whoever we are, whatever we’ve done or failed to do, whatever we believe or can’t.”
Like the prophets Jeremiah and John before him, Tutu spent his life pointing out what God has already done to bring about forgiveness and reconciliation. With words of truth-filled and life-giving grace, Tutu reminds us, “Your ordinary acts of love and hope point to the extraordinary promise that every human life is of inestimable value.” He goes on to speak not about our dream but God’s dream as he says, “God's dream is that you and I and all of us will realize that we are family, that we are made for togetherness, for goodness, and for compassion.”
If you happen to be a person who makes resolutions for the New Year, I invite you today to adopt this prophet’s resolution and in so doing to embrace God dream and realize that no matter how different we are and how often we argue with one another that you and I are family. We are made for togetherness, for goodness, for compassion, for forgiveness. Resolve to embrace God’s dream and just watch how God’s goodness and compassion makes our own possible.
As we begin the New Year, pause and give thanks for prophets like Jeremiah and John the Baptist and Archbishop Desmund Tutu whose lives and whose words are a light to guide each day.
Happy New Years, my friends!