Context is key!!

This is the text of my sermon from July 2, preached at Trinity Episcopal Church in Arlington. The text is Jeremiah 28:5-9. Take a look!! It was my first time preaching at Trinity, & they are truly a wonderful & welcoming congregation. 
    Good morning!

    I must tell you, I’m very excited to be with you today, and for the next few weeks! And I thought for today it might be a good idea to try and give you an idea of what you can expect from me over the next few weeks, at least when it comes to preaching. 

    I can summarize what you should expect from my sermons as this: context matters.

    From the depths of my being, I believe it to be true that you can’t fully understand something if you take it out of context. The Diary of Anne Frank loses so much of its power without the context of the Holocaust. The Chicago Cubs World Series victory last year loses its intrigue without knowing it ended a 108 year drought. Harry Potter is just a slightly awkward British youth unless you know he is locked in a classic and ongoing struggle of good versus evil.

    And this reading from Jeremiah is just kind of awkward unless you know a bit about what’s going on.

    Jeremiah is responding to Hananiah in what I envision in my head as a standoff similar to Hamilton verses Jefferson in the musical Hamilton, but with vastly different outfits.

    On one side is Hananiah, a traditional prophet, making a traditional style prophesy. On the other side, stands Jeremiah. The prophet who was not afraid to embrace his emotional side and use it in his work. However, in this section of his Book, Jeremiah is taking a different approach; embracing the peace that can follow a genuine God moment. 

    I think honestly it’s the influence of the minor prophets of the Hebrew Scripture who have lead to people thinking its effective evangelism to stand on a street corner and scream “Repent! Or else!” But it’s prophets like Jeremiah, who took different approaches to make their points, those are the prophets we have memorialized in the Bible. And not the prophets like Hananiah.

    In the four verses before, Hananiah has said that the Babylonians would have their yokes broken and everything and everyone would be returned to Judah. It’s important to note here that the Babylonians had a really effective program of occupying. They would remove all but the mostly lowly inhabitants of a land, and replace them with the inhabitants of another conquered land. The most important members of a conquered society were taken to Babylon itself. In the case of the Judeans, this means the royalty, and the religious leaders.

    Hananiah is standing in front of the Jewish religious elites, including Jeremiah, and saying the Babylonians would get theirs.

    Then Jeremiah says something that speaks directly to my heart today, but was utterly radical in the 7th century, BCE. Jeremiah says it would be really nice to be returned from Babylon. But instead of with a sword, this will be peaceful. And it is in that peace, that all will know that the Lord has spoken through the prophet Jeremiah. 

        God will be in the peace, not on a side in battle. 

    Two things you should know here, first, in the ancient Arab world, an eye-for-an-eye was an absolute way of life. Wrongs were made right with violence, and the Babylonians were widely regarded within the Israeli world as having wrongly occupied them.

    Second, Jeremiah and Hananiah were absolutely opposed to each other in this. It was common for men to claim to be prophets, and the two of them were standing against each other saying they each had the word of God – one foretelling violence and the other peace. The standoff between Jeremiah and Hananiah got violent, and resulted in Hananiah reiterating that Judah would be restored through the Babylonians getting what they deserved.

    And Jeremiah responding that God would strike Hananiah down for pretending to have the Word of the Lord. Two months later, Hananiah did in fact, die.

    Now that I have filled your mind with all of the context and history I can muster for these five lines of Scripture, let me tell you why this matters. At least, why I think this matters.

    And that is, quite simply, because God was radically changing things. This was a time when conquering nations was undertaken to provide economic viability. It was a different world than what we know today. It was pre-modern. There were no industries. It was before commercial farming. It was a time when retribution was not just common, it was expected. The cultural expectation of the time was that it was with a sword, either their own or that of another nation, which would release the Judeans from exile. And God would send that sword to save God’s people.

    To stand up and say that the return would be peaceful, and that God will be in the peace, this was totally counter cultural.

    And it was not well received.

    Funny thing, it wasn’t well received when Jesus said it either. This portion of the Gospel comes in the context of Jesus’ pep talk to the Disciples as He sends them out. Jesus is both warning about how the disciples will be treated, and offering incentive for why people should receive them.

    It’s a retelling of what Jeremiah dealt with. The message that Jesus gave was totally counter cultural, and not always well received, just like Jeremiah. What they said wasn’t what people wanted to hear. The messages certainly weren’t what the religious elite wanted to hear.

    It was expected that the messiah would come in and bring about a revolution. It wasn’t expected that the revolution would come from a man preaching a message of peace. Often using unexpected and sometimes violent means, but preaching a radical way of loving everyone.

    Through my Christian lens, it appears as though Jeremiah laid the groundwork for the message of Christ. At the very least, Jeremiah created a blueprint that Jesus would have in mind when he decided how to deliver his message.

    The message of Christ is what would ultimately lead us all to be together today. 

    It’s a message of radical love.

    I started this message by saying that I want to give you an idea of what to expect from me. I won’t always give you such a full contextualization of a story. But there is one thing you can frequently expect: a message of love. The radical, unwavering, unexpected, and often misunderstood love of Christ. It’s a love that is not limited to those who look and think like us. It’s a love that I will admit I sometimes struggle with. I struggle because it would just be so much easier if everyone just thought like me!

    But Jesus tells me to love everyone anyway. And so I do my absolute best.

    My hope is that in our few weeks together, we can all become a bit better at loving our neighbors, those who look and think like us, and those who don’t.


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