I am a rules guy. As a kid, I was obsessed with ‘right’ versus ‘wrong,’ and saw the world in stark black and white. The older I get, the more I recognize the spectrum of colors ranging from white to black with various shades of grey in-between. (I also recognize that there is only really one white space in the form of God and that I can’t quite comprehend the shades of black in the form of human depravity. But that’s for another day.) But the truth is, that when it comes to sports, I tend to be very… by the book.
The rules of a sport determine the way that the game should be played. It’s obvious that my beloved sports of football and basketball would be quite different if Mixed Martial Arts moves were allowed or even encouraged. Swimming would be significantly different (better?) if Roller Derby skills were applied. Baseball would take on a different tone if the pitcher actually tried to hit the batter and the batter actually tried to hit the ball instead of preparing for a walk. Golf would take longer if you were credited for taking more strokes to get to the ball in the hole (instead of being the one sport on record to encourage the ‘least’ of anything). And, of course, bowling would be more exciting if the bowlers were heckled instead of being treated like visiting dignitaries.
But the rules are the rules for a reason, and when applied correctly, they level the playing field so that everyone has a chance to succeed (even if they can’t all win). And in most sports, because human nature requires it, there are those poor people who are paid, chosen, or obligated to serve as referees, umpires, judges, etc. to enforce the rules. [The NFL even has a grand poobah of this, called the Commissioner, but he currently stinks at his job.] These officials are instructed to make sure that the rules, and to a greater degree, the spirit of the law, is enforced to keep the sanctity of the game and its players safe, fair, healthy, etc.
Still, we, the fans, don’t always like how these officials interpret the rules, or make their calls about how the competitions are played. I’ve been told by several friends who are officials (who will remain nameless, but a few of whom are actually pastors, too) that I won’t really understand until I serve as an official myself. That my understanding of the rules won’t be complete, and I won’t understand what it’s like to be a ref/judge/umpire until I’ve actually done it myself. Because they don’t make the rules, they just enforce them.
Which brings us to our various texts today, a whirlwind through some of the prophets of the Old Testament. Prophets were the people who spoke for God, on his behalf, bringing words of criticism, comfort, judgment, and hope to God’s people and those who ruled them. The prophets were merely human, but they spoke on God’s behalf, unlike those who speak on street corners bringing judgment and seem to have lost all sight of God’s love.
These prophets were motivated by the love of God and by God’s own direction, and told God’s people harsh things from time to time. But they weren’t God. They weren’t the maker of the rules by which God’s people were to articulate their lives. They were merely the ones delivering the news, enforcing the rules, reminding the people of the covenant between God and humanity.
In Jeremiah 1, we read the prophet’s call story, including his reticence based on his age, and God’s rejoinder that Jeremiah will speak God’s words, setting him “over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” We could get caught up in the “thou shall not” of Jeremiah’s mission, until we dig a little deeper.
For as long as I can remember, Jeremiah 29:11-14 has been “my Bible verse” (I know it’s three verses!) “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.‘”
God wants his people to know that he has a plan and that it’s for their good, but it comes in the midst of their banishment, their occupation, by an enemy country. They’ve been banished because they worshipped idols, because they turned away from the one true God and God let them reap the wind of their decisions. Still, God reminds them through Jeremiah that when they seek him and pray to him with their whole heart that he will hear them and bring them back.
But in addition to the crime and punishment, in addition to the correction the prophets handed down, there are message after message of hope, like the one found in Micah 4:
In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and peoples will stream to it.
Many nations will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between many peoples
and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
Everyone will sit under their own vine
and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
for the Lord Almighty has spoken.
All the nations may walk
in the name of their gods,
but we will walk in the name of the Lord
our God for ever and ever.
“In that day,” declares the Lord,
“I will gather the lame;
I will assemble the exiles
and those I have brought to grief.
I will make the lame my remnant,
those driven away a strong nation.
Whoa! That’s an Old Testament prophecy about what the end times will look like, and it doesn’t sound at all like crashing planes and Nic Cage or Kirk Cameron. It sounds pretty awesome to me!
There will be no more weapons because no one will fight.
Everyone will have enough, their own space, their own place.
Fear won’t exist anymore.
Everyone will know God’s love and love God in return.
The left out, forgotten about, grieving and lame will be comforted.
Friends, I don’t know if that’s heaven, but it sounds amazing. And we can hang our hat on it coming true because God’s words keep being proved true, because the God who promises these things already promised other truths in our lives and in history. It’s just one more thing we can see in the culmination of God’s plan for us in the person of Jesus Christ.
Jesus came to Earth as a baby and lived a life like ours, taught, healed, and forgave sins, and died on the cross. And then rose again. But all of that was prophesied by these Old Testament prophets years before.
In Isaiah 53, the prophet tells Israel that the Messiah, who we know was Jesus, would:
-be despised and rejected by men, and would suffer (Isaiah 53:3)
-be pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our sins, punished for what we’ve done- and by his wounds we’re healed. (53:5)
-be oppressed and punished but he would not fight back (53:7)
-be treated like a criminal and bear our sins (53:12)
If you want a more detailed prediction, check out Zechariah, where Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem, and the way he’s received is foretold:
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey (Zechariah 9:9).
The prophets didn’t always get to see it happen, didn’t get to see the payoff. Like officials, they don’t get to celebrate the win but they make sure the game is played the way it’s supposed to. So along with the hope they deliver from God, the prophets’ messages about who we’re supposed to be still hold truth.
Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Jeremiah 7:5-7: “If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever.”
Hosea 6:6: “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”
These prophets of the Old Testament condemned selfish behavior, condemned proud and unthankful hearts. They promoted humility and mercy and justice in a time when those qualities were few and far between. And they warned of the consequences for God’s people when they failed to be both obedient and compassionate.
As we approach Thanksgiving for another year, I pray that we will reflect on how we are richly blessed. We still hunger and thirst, we still struggle with sickness and tragedy. But we have been put here for the purpose of loving God and loving our neighbor. We have been blessed with the knowledge that Jesus died on the cross for our sins and we are freed by that knowledge and faith to move forward, in hope, toward the kingdom of God which the prophets foretold.
This Thanksgiving, I hope you will reflect on the words God has spoken into your heart, about truth, about love, about compassion. May your heart be full of gratefulness and praise, and in the words of Amos, “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” We live in an ever-changing world but the words of God, the encouragement of the prophets still hold true.
So what are we supposed to do about it?
I realize that I have more than most of the rest of the world. In fact, the poorest person here today falls inside the top ten percent of the world’s population. Think about that for a minute: no matter what you think you don’t have, you have more than ninety percent of the rest of the world. [If you're reading this online, then statistically, that puts you in the top five percent.]
Readers of my blog already know from Monday’s post that I’ve issued a cry for help, a prayer, a Hail Mary to everyone who will get involved with a campaign I’m calling (loosely) “Coats for Christmas.” From now through December 10, we’re going to accept coats (new ones, gently used ones), toys (new ones, gently used ones), and financial contributions toward Christmas dinner for families in need.
We have fifty-one children between one and fourteen who we’ve submitted for help through Toys for Tots. We’ve received donations from people in Rhode Island, Tennessee, Indiana, Richmond, and Florida of coats and financial help. But this is our church, and if we’re to be the church, if justice and mercy will roll down like rivers because God is moving in us…
Then it’s up to us to live out the words of the prophets.
Be thankful. Give back. Be the church!