A Sprig Held High

Ezekiel 17:22-24 (NRSV)

Thus says the Lord God:

I myself will take a sprig
   from the lofty top of a cedar;
   I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one
   from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
   on a high and lofty mountain.
On the mountain height of Israel
   I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
   and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
   in the shade of its branches will nest
   winged creatures of every kind.
All the trees of the field shall know
   that I am the Lord.
I bring low the high tree,
   I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
   and make the dry tree flourish.
I the Lord have spoken;
   I will accomplish it.

As you may have noticed reading the Bible, prophets can be strange folk. Ezekiel is one of the strangest, but he also reveals to us some of the most beautiful truths about God.

Born a little over six centuries before the birth of Christ, Ezekiel spent much of his time helping the people of Israel understand why their world had fallen apart. In short, they had turned on God, falling into idolatry, and God had given them up to their enemies. Ezekiel eventually was dragged off to captivity in Babylon, along with most of the brightest of God’s people.

Here are some of the odder things Ezekiel did to communicate God’s wrath to a very stubborn people:

  • He lay on his left side for 390 days, one day for each year God said the kingdom of Israel had existed in sin. He then lay on his right side for 40 days, one day for each year the kingdom of Judah had sinned.
  • During this time on one side or the other, he ate bread cooked over cow dung, to show how the people of Israel would be forced to eat in an unclean way as captives. He also ate very sparingly, to show how the people of Jerusalem would suffer from famine during the occupation.
  • Later, whenever he ate he had to tremble and shake with fear to show the people what they would feel when their towns were attacked and stripped of possessions.
  • He was not allowed by God to publicly mourn the death of his wife, as a sign of how the people would lose all they treasured with no recourse or way to complain.

It’s depressing stuff. But again, there is this powerful message of hope in the midst of so much suffering. We see that hope in the prophecy we have read as our Scripture today, the prophecy of the sprig.

For the people of Israel, the prophecy is about the restoration of the line of David, the great king of their history. A cedar tree was the sign of royalty.

Clearly, the tree had become twisted and corrupt, having moved its roots away from God as the source of life, but God was promising the people through Ezekiel that he still planned to fulfill the great promises he had made. God was in control; God is in control.

We have this image of a tiny sprig at the top of the tree, new life being plucked from the old and being moved to a high and lofty place. A new king would come, one who would fulfill the promise from God that all the world would be blessed by the people of Israel, the line descended from Abraham.

This fulfillment has already happened. As Christians, we come here each Sunday to celebrate the great event. Jesus is the sprig broken off Israel, establishing a new kingdom as he was held high on the cross.

In his resurrection we see new life shared with the world. We see escape from our captivity to what is unholy.

And as we understand the story, we see the powerful change God offers each of us. Sadly, we are part of this broken world, but if God is transforming the world through Christ—if he is making all things new, as we know he is—then we can be plucked off and transplanted, too.

Perhaps our habits are not what God would have them be; like the ancient Israelites, we can find ourselves living in defiance of God.

Perhaps our families are corrupted in some way, suffering under the influence of the world rather than seeking God’s will, and we find ourselves pulled down.

Perhaps our relationships are not what they should be, and our ability to thrive is hampered by them.

Know this: Through belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior, we allow God to pluck off what is fresh and good in us and replant us in fertile soil. I’m talking about a life rooted in God’s holy word and refreshed daily by God’s Holy Spirit.

The first step is to offer ourselves, branches held high.

Take me, Lord, take what still has life and holiness in it, and grow me into what you would have me be.


A Strange Work

Fourth in the Advent/Christmas series, “What Has God Wrought?”

Isaiah 7:10-16 (ESV)

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz: “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.”

People who want to show how the Old Testament predicts the coming of Jesus Christ often cite this prophecy, but without some background, it can be a little confusing.

In short, Ahaz, king of Judah, was being threatened with invasion by two other kingdoms, and being relatively weak and faithless, he was afraid. God had told the prophet Isaiah to go and reassure the king, and also told the prophet to take along his son, Shear-jashub. Through Isaiah, God went so far as to graciously offer Ahaz a clear sign he had nothing to fear.

Most of us would love to have a clear sign from God. Ahaz, however, rudely declined the offer in words masked in false politeness. Most likely, the king was concerned he would look too aligned with the God of his people as he tried to curry favor with surrounding kingdoms, particularly the powerful Assyrian empire.

In response, God did a surprising thing. He offered a sign pertinent not just to the immediate situation, but to all situations, to all problems in time.

A virgin shall conceive. The child shall be called Immanuel, an allusion to the fact that the child literally would be “God among us,” the meaning of the name. And despite the child’s glorious, divine status, he would eat not the food of angels, as Matthew Henry so eloquently put it, but the same milk products and honey on which the children around him would rely.

The last part of the prophecy, with its “before the boy” reference, can seem particularly confusing. We have to understand that God had moved back to the immediate situation, and was referencing not the messiah, but Isaiah’s boy, present in the room with the king of Judah. The land of the two kings who seemed so threatening would be deserted in just a few years, the short time it would take for the boy to begin to think and act like a man.

But back to that big-picture intervention, that strange prophecy of a virgin birth and God walking among us. It is as if God, having been insulted by the king, for just a moment caused the prophet to ecstatically anticipate the great power and control God would demonstrate one day. The prophecy was in some ways a most magnificent pearl cast before a most ignorant swine, but it was recorded in a way so that it has lasted to our very day.

In hearing this prophecy one week before Christmas Day, we as Christians are reminded just how strange our religion is.

We believe, we really believe, that the God who made all things—the one who stands outside space and time, the being who is infinitely larger than the universe we cannot even see in fulll—chose to come among us and live first inside a woman’s womb? God decided to reduce himself to a tiny fetus, then grow to the size of an infant, so he could be born to mewl and suckle and have his diaper changed?


And when God came among us, we believe he decided to do it as ingloriously as possible, arriving not in a royal household, but in one of the lowest, poorest places on earth? To a poor, unmarried mother, one more a girl than a woman?

The story only gets stranger. It appears this God in flesh, Jesus, started out working with his hands. And when he did finally go to preaching, he relied neither on royalty nor educated clergy to absorb and carry his message, but instead the working people of his day, many of them diseased or disreputable.

Really? That was God’s plan? To get down in the dirt?

We might as well look forward in the story even further. The child is born, becomes a man, and yes, he dies, suffering a most horrible public death. Do we recognize how strange it is to say that a holy, perfect God can not only die, but be humiliated in the process? Beaten, cursed, spat upon? That somehow in doing so, he took on all the punishment for sins we committed?

All that considered, resurrection of the messiah, as strange as it sounds, was the only logical occurrence in this chain of odd events. How could shame or even death expect to hold God? The badly unbalanced scales of the universe had to right themselves.

All of that strangeness results in blessings, of course. The Really Good News: Death can no longer expect to hold us now that we are reconciled with our holy maker.

Clearly, we believe in a special, strange kind of love, the remarkable unmerited grace poured out on us from God. I wonder if the vision puzzled Isaiah as he prophesied.

Never get used to the wonderful strangeness of what we believe. Let’s celebrate it today and in the coming weeks of Christmas with new eyes and a deep appreciation for the work God is doing through Jesus Christ.

The featured image is of a 17th-century Russian Orthodox icon, “Christ-Immanuel.”

An Ancient Work

Second in the Advent/Christmas series, “What Has God Wrought?”

Isaiah 11:1-10 (NRSV)

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
   and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
   the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
   the spirit of counsel and might,
   the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
   or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
   and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
   and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
   and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
   the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
   and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
   their young shall lie down together;
   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
   as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

These words from Isaiah reflect the same theme we heard last week: All of God’s creation will be restored to what God intended. What is right and holy will live in God’s presence, and what is wicked will be destroyed.

As we look at the 11th chapter, however, we see how Isaiah focused on the actual person who would bring about this redemptive act. This Messiah’s behavior—perhaps we should say his piety—not only somehow saves us, it also continues to instruct us as we flock to him.

For those of you unfamiliar with the phrase “the stump of Jesse,” it is a reference to the house and lineage of King David, whose father was Jesse. By Isaiah’s day, the fabulous kingdom David had established was little more than a dead remnant, split and decaying, subject to the overgrowth of other, less-godly kingdoms.

Something would spring forth from this stump, however, something that would change the world.

Christians see this promise of new growth as one of the more profound prophecies of the Christ to come, the man we call Jesus. The first chapter of Matthew—a genealogy many readers skim in order to reach what they think is the real story—makes clear Christ is to be seen as coming from David’s badly broken lineage. Read backward, the genealogy traces to Abraham, who represents the visible beginning of God’s plan to rescue humanity from sin through the people known as the Jews.

The ancient nature of God’s plan for redemption can be hard for us to accept. We can feel lost or unimportant in it all, especially if we have a strong desire to see righteousness and justice win out.

I am currently in the midst of leading a confirmation class, and the same question that always arises has arisen again. Year to year It is phrased in different ways, but it is along these lines: Why doesn’t God fix things now?

It is a desire for an immediate response from God to evil, a wish often rooted in a pain recently experienced. I think it’s a question we all ask from time to time, if only in the secret places in our hearts.

The Apostle Peter dealt with this question in what we label his second letter:

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. (2 Peter 3:8-10)

At the time Peter wrote those words, he was dealing with the impatience of a generation containing Christians who had seen Jesus in the flesh. His imagery also is more fiery, focused on the need to destroy and remake all things. Almost 2,000 years later Peter’s key point remains, however. When Christ returns and becomes the focal point for all the world, we will quickly move from, “When is he coming?” to “Didn’t see that coming!” Despite God’s desire that none should perish without accepting Christ, there likely will be many people who will wish there had been more time.

Peter went on to tell us how to live in this time of waiting, and in many ways his words illuminate what the Prophet Isaiah said about the Messiah.

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. (2 Peter 8:11-13)

Isaiah was more subtle, describing characteristics of the Messiah and then noting how the people of the world would come to him for instruction. “His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord,” Isaiah wrote. But both Isaiah and Peter’s writings encourage the same thing: dependency on God. We are called to open ourselves to God, listen to God and allow ourselves to be shaped by God, trusting God’s understanding of truth over ours.

Certainly, Jesus Christ was God among us, divinity wrapped in flesh. But even with his divine status, he modeled the need to seek God’s guidance and God’s will in all things.

The classic image, so classic it is depicted in Luminary’s stained glass, is Christ on his knees, the Son asking the Father to sustain him and make clear what role Jesus was to play in the great plan of redemption. Jesus received his answer and obeyed, a truth we should give thanks for every day. The answer took him to the cross, where we were relieved of punishment for our sins. The cross and subsequent resurrection were huge steps forward in God’s plan.

As we wait for God to set all things right, let’s look to the root of Jesse and follow his example. Let’s complain and worry less and pray and study God’s word more. Perhaps as we open ourselves to God’s will, the experience we have will be enough to sustain us until God’s ancient work is complete, and we stand before him forever.

The featured image is a detail from stained glass in the sanctuary at Luminary UMC, Ten Mile, Tennessee.

With Us in the Last Days

Acts 2:1-21

The most immediate and personal expression of God usually is the most difficult for us to comprehend.

For many Christians, the first story that comes to mind regarding the Holy Spirit is the one we celebrate at Pentecost, the falling of the Holy Spirit on Jesus’ followers. While the Pentecost story found in Acts 2 is powerful, I have wondered if its mysterious tone contributes to the confusion even longtime Christians sometimes experience.

The Spirit rushed in like wind and danced like fire on about 120 of Jesus’ followers. They began to speak loudly in languages they did not previously know, attracting a crowd, some of whom accused them of being drunk.

In other words, the Spirit caused them to behave in a way that made people stare.

That can make people who don’t like to be stared at a little uncomfortable with the idea of encountering the Holy Spirit directly. Open yourself to the Spirit, and hey, the next thing you know, you might be speaking in tongues. (Speaking in tongues is biblical, by the way, although the gift should be used with limitations; see 1 Corinthians 14.)

It helps me to spend time studying what Jesus said about the Holy Spirit’s purpose in John’s gospel, specifically, in chapters 15 and 16. It is a purpose designed for the last days, the era between the Spirit’s arrival and the return of Christ, the era we live in now.

Working through us, the Holy Spirit accomplishes three particular tasks, laid out in John 16:8-11.

Task no. 1 is to provide a clear definition of sin. In this new era, all sin is rooted in the failure to fully declare in our hearts and with our mouths that Jesus is our savior. When we do this—when we humble ourselves enough to say we are dependent on God and cannot save ourselves through strength, intellect, wealth or power—we open ourselves to discerning what is and is not God’s will.

For most Christians, even devoted ones, it remains an imperfect understanding, of course. So many aspects of our broken humanity, in particular our emotions, still get in the way. That is why Scripture remains so important to us, even with the Spirit at work in us. We know God is unchanging, and that thoughts and feelings we experience cannot be from God if they conflict with clear scriptural teachings. We are blessed in the last days with dual revelations co-witnessing to Christ, one written for our eyes and one whispered to our spirits.

Task no. 2 is to declare to the world that Jesus is right in what he taught and continues to teach through the Holy Spirit. Now, it is not politically correct these days to declare anyone right. “Tolerant” has replaced “righteous” as the secular description of an upstanding member of the community. But guided by the Holy Spirit, we are to share with the world the definition for righteousness, as provided by God. Jesus, as revealed in the Bible, is the shining example of righteousness.

This is not as harsh a task as it might sound. The word “righteous” can have such negative connotations. But remember, from a Christian perspective, righteousness is best defined as loving God completely while at the same time loving other people as we want to be loved. We obey God, but a big part of that obedience is loving and forgiving people who are difficult to love, even when their sin touches us negatively in some way.

Task no. 3 is to declare that judgment already has come and remains under way. When Jesus said “It is finished” on the cross, he meant that his work to break the power of evil in this world is complete. As terrible and messy as it can be at times, our fight with evil is now a mop-up operation. The evil spiritual forces opposing God know they have been defeated because God’s Spirit is visible to them in the world.

Note that all of this involves our active participation. God wants us to play a part, in the process growing into the beings he intended us to be. Trusting the Holy Spirit, we are a people who are working to expand Christ’s kingdom and waiting for Christ’s return.

We may have other work we do to get by, along the lines of Paul continuing to make tents while in Corinth, but service to God’s kingdom is our primary reason to exist. Anything we put ahead of that responsibility likely is an idol.

Let me add something important: It is glorious work. If you seek meaning in life, know that the moments you walk hand-in-hand with the Holy Spirit to serve God’s kingdom will be your best moments. We can even make what should have been otherwise mundane moments shine with the glory of God, if only we learn to constantly look for opportunities to let the Holy Spirit work through us.

Hear again the mystery in Peter’s words as he speaks of people working in conjunction with the Holy Spirit in these last days:

“Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”

If you want a life that is more than what you feel you have now—if you want a life that transcends a normal life—engage fully with God’s Spirit. He is available to you always through prayer and meditation, in the sacraments, through Scripture, and in all those other places God has promised to meet you.

Letting Go of the Locust Years

If you’re going to hear from prophets past or present, there are three overarching messages they’ll use repeatedly. Understand these broad concepts, and you’ll understand how prophecy remains relevant and life-changing even today.

I’ll work from the book of Joel today, including our reading, Joel 2:23-32. It’s a concise little book of prophecy, just three chapters, and it illustrates these three messages well. I would encourage you to read the whole book start to finish to get a feel for it.

Message no. 1: Life actually is full of trouble.

Joel had a particular form of trouble that was the context for his prophecies. Locusts had overwhelmed the land of Judah, destroying everything in sight, and then a drought ensued. The livestock longed for food; we can assume people were starving to death. Joel prophesied during a particularly bad time, but it was the kind of bad time the world has seen repeatedly.

Trouble as an ongoing event is an underlying theme of the Bible. The Bible as a whole doesn’t pull any punches about that particular truth. If you know your Book of Genesis, you know the root of that trouble, sin. God made things right and holy, but he also gave his creation free will. When that free will was exercised wrongly, sin occurred.

It was like tapping a perfect porcelain vase with a hammer. Cracks ran everywhere, and the brokenness impacts every aspect of our lives.

Fortunately, the prophets never just leave us with our troubles.

Message no. 2: God gives us tremendous promises and signs assuring us of his love. Despite our unholiness, God relents in regard to the punishment we deserve.

Much of the Old Testament contains promises that God will provide us a way out of trouble. That promise largely has been fulfilled through Jesus Christ, whom Christians acknowledge as the promised Jewish Messiah. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, sin has been overcome, extending God’s grace to all the world. The resurrection of Christ is a sign this work has begun.

Pentecost, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the early church, is another sign of God at work in the world. Look at Peter’s Pentecost sermon. He spent a lot of time quoting Joel, placing Christ and the church in the context of Joel’s promises.

Message no. 3: Full, permanent restoration of creation is coming. God’s work will be complete; creation will be re-made as holy and unbroken.

It’s a fulfillment we await today. Faithful Christians know they move toward this time each day, regardless of what trouble we may face now.

As we hear from Joel or any other prophet, the question before us becomes simple: Where in the prophetic pattern are we going to live? Do we stay mired in misery, letting the locust years of our lives consume us? At a minimum, I would prefer to live in a state of expectant watchfulness, excited by glimpses of God at work now and trusting the signs that there is more to come.

Occasionally, we even run across people who seem to be able to live at least some of their lives as if the promises already have been kept in full. Call them what you want—kingdom people, the perfected ones, saints. I call them “forward thinkers.” At the end of his life, Paul was one of these people, facing trouble after trouble yet clinging joyously to what was already his, eternal life with God.

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith,” a battered Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:7-8. “From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

I also feel I’ve known such people. In particular, I think of a woman prayer warrior I once knew who could take any situation and make you see it in the light of the resurrection and a fully restored relationship with God.

Spiritually, these forward-thinking people already are what we hope to be when Christ returns and completes his work in the resurrection of creation. I look at them and wonder what the world would be like if more of us were to bear such holiness now.

Next Generation

2 Kings 2:1-14

Christians pray for Christ’s return. But assuming such a return happens later rather than sooner, what do we seek for our next generation of Christians?

The pre-Christian story of Elijah and his tag-along successor, Elisha, helps us answer such a question.

Both men spent much of their ministries drawing the people of Israel away from false gods and back to the one true God. For awhile, their work overlapped, with Elisha serving as Elijah’s disciple, learning what we might call the way of the prophet.

A time came, however, when Elijah had to go to God and Elisha had to remain behind. Elisha knew what was coming, as did other prophets in the area; in the second chapter of 2 Kings, it is easy to see that Elisha was upset by the coming loss of his master.

Elijah just wanted to be with the Lord, it seems. He tried to leave his disciple behind as he moved toward his rendezvous with God, feebly telling Elisha to stay, sounding like an old man trying to discourage a loyal puppy.

Elisha followed, however, until they finally reached the river Jordan, the place where Elijah knew God would come for him. Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up, and smacked the water, causing it to part. Elijah and Elisha reached the other side with dry feet.

It was here that Elijah’s love for his disciple became evident. “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you,” he said to Elisha. It is a precious question, one any generation should ask of the generation coming along.

Elisha responded, “Please let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” referring to the spirit of prophecy that had been on Elijah. In this request, Elisha honored what Elijah had been doing, and made it clear he wanted to continue a life rooted in God’s will. Elijah described fulfilment of the request as a “hard thing,” but said if Elisha saw him taken, his request had been granted.

Elisha received this gift from God, seeing his master ascend to heaven in a chariot of fire drawn by horses of fire. Picking up Elijah’s fallen cloak, Elisha rolled it up and parted the Jordan the same way his master had, a sign God had granted that double portion.

And that, I think, is what we want for the next generation: A power greater than our own. We want to do great things for God ourselves, of course, as great as possible. But we also want each generation to grow in grace, to build on what has been done.

We pray that in the process, the next generation receives that double portion, better communicating the truth about God’s nature and God’s love, understood most clearly now through Jesus Christ.

There is the discipling of one generation by another—the importance of faithful teaching cannot be overemphasized. We also prayerfully seek greater portions of other gifts from the Holy Spirit for those who will follow in our footsteps toward the full establishment of the kingdom of God. Greater gifts of discernment and evangelism immediately come to mind.

Generational transitions brought on by old age and death sadden us, of course. All disciples love their godly teachers. Our consolation is that such transitions also bring us closer to the day when Christ appears, his power over all things made complete.

Budding Prophecies

Jeremiah 1:4-10

I’ve always been intrigued by preachers who use the title “prophet.” A prophet’s prospects for long-term popularity seem dim, at best.

Prophets may be well-known in their time, perhaps even gathering astonished crowds with miraculous signs. The actual act of prophecy, however, is unlikely to make the prophets many friends. And the more prophets prophesy, the less their audiences seem to like them.

And yet, what higher human calling can there be? Yes, prophets sometimes speak of the future. But more importantly, to prophesy is to be so directly connected to the mind of God that you can speak God’s will directly into the everyday world.

Young Prophet

Jeremiah was a prophet, called at a very young age to speak God’s will to God’s chosen people—a people divided politically, anemic in their faith and on the verge of a terrible downfall. He was so young, in fact, that he protested his calling, citing his youthfulness.

The ability to prophesy is not rooted in human concepts like age or education level, however. It is not even rooted in a particular prophet’s immediate existence, in his or her conception and birth. Judging from Jeremiah, God’s placement of prophets through history is strategic and part of the plan of creation.

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you,” God said in his opening revelation to Jeremiah. “I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

It is as if God wired creation with a broadcasting system, and the prophets are the woofers, mids, tweeters and subs resounding according to the Creator’s will.

When God speaks, change usually is demanded, particularly when the situation has become as unholy as the one in which Jeremiah found himself. And therein lies the problem for the prophet. People are naturally resistant to change. In fact, I would argue that the further people are from God, the more resistant they are to holy change. It certainly seems to have been the case in Jeremiah’s day.

Loud Complaints, Heavy Burdens

Jeremiah’s pronouncements were so strong, in fact, that we now call lengthy complaints “jeremiads.” God complained loudly that his chosen people had turned away, looking to other gods. Through Jeremiah, God warned the people they were headed for disaster. The disaster—the siege and conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire—happened during Jeremiah’s prophetic tenure.

The burden of all this prophesying took its toll on Jeremiah, as it does on prophets throughout the Bible. Consider what Jeremiah was called from the start to do among his own people, to “pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow.” Only later would his prophecies contribute to building and planting.

During one particularly trying time, Jeremiah resounded bitterness: “O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you  have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’ For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.”

His only comfort lay in his understanding that those who would persecute him would face God and eternal dishonor. And yet, he still wished that he had never been born. The Bible is silent on Jeremiah’s end; stories outside the Bible indicate he was stoned to death by his own exasperated people.

A Fire Within

So why prophesy? Why suffer so? Jeremiah answered that question in his discourse of complaint, recorded in Jeremiah 20:7-18. “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”

Prophets prophesy because they are made down to the marrow to do so.

Now, there can be joy in prophecy; there are times when the prophets glimpsed how God’s plan to save unholy humanity would unfold. For the Old Testament prophets, it must have seemed a vague, distant joy, like a clear sky on a deeply cold night about an hour before sunrise. There are at least nine places in Jeremiah where the prophet saw the Christ to come.

Think how blessed we are, knowing the story of Jesus Christ in full. Through prayer and study, we can so much more easily understand the radical truth of what God is doing in the world to save us.

Prophets for Today

And yet, we still need prophets, or at a minimum, prophetic moments implanted in us by the Holy Spirit. It remains a difficult world. Just as it happened in Jeremiah’s day, people turn away from God now, trading a potentially eternal relationship for what is immediate and worldly.

We are called to examine ourselves and change our ways. We are called to find ways to convince others to practice a vital, ruddy faith, one rooted in the bloody cross and the dawning resurrection.

If we take such steps and speak what we hear from God, there are plenty of people out there who will want to stone us, certainly figuratively and perhaps literally. But with the Holy Spirit burning deep in our bones, how can we not prophesy? After all, we have been remade down to the marrow.