Hespeler, 28 June 2020 © Scott McAndless
Jeremiah 28:1-17, Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10:40-42

I wonder, what sort of prophecy would Hananiah son of Azzur, from Gibeon offer today? Hananiah is the prophet who shows up in our Old Testament reading this morning and who makes this stunning prophecy: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house, which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.”

Lovely prophecy, isn’t it? And the prophecy is all the more lovely when you realize that Hananiah pronounced it just a few years before Babylon, far from disappearing from the political scene, returned to Jerusalem and laid it under a deadly siege. This prophecy was uttered about five years before Babylon essentially wiped the city of Jerusalem entirely off of the map. But that is a Hananiah prophesy for you – basically you point to the biggest legitimate threat that that people are worried about and you promise them that that threat will just disappear.

Have you ever heard a Hananiah prophesy? I have. I’ve heard a few lately. I’ve heard prophecies where someone stood up and declared that covid-19 would just disappear – that the warm weather would come and it would just be gone. I’ve heard prophecies stating that the virus was mutating and becoming less deadly. Or, to turn to other hot topics, there have been prophets who declared that all that needed to happen was for somebody to get tough with protesters or send in the armed forces and all racial unrest would be fixed and everything would be peaceful again. Are those not Hananiah prophecies?

Now, to be clear, those kinds of prophecies do promise things that we would all like. We would like covid-19 to be gone. We would like for there to be a miracle cure and we would certainly like for there to be peace and restfulness on our streets. So a Hananiah prophet can be very popular and his or her pronouncements can be celebrated. But, as our reading this morning makes clear, there is a very clear downside when Hananiah is the prophet.

Opposed to Hananiah in our reading this morning is the prophet Jeremiah. And Jeremiah is anything but a popular prophet. In fact, just about everything the man does or says seems calculated to make everyone hate him. His message to the people of Jerusalem is basically this: “You know the very worst things you can possibly imagine happening? Well, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. Babylon is going to come and destroy us all and anyone who even thinks of resisting this will only make things worse.”

Jeremiah was also a bit of a performance artist and, in my experience, nobody really likes performance artists. Jeremiah’s latest performance art piece had been to construct a wooden yoke of the sort that you might put on an ox or a slave when you set them to do hard labour. Jeremiah had locked this yoke around his own neck and he wore it everywhere. Can you imagine how annoying that must have been? Everywhere he went, this big wooden yoke would bump into every person he passed, he couldn’t get through doors and everyone would have been laughing and pointing. But, of course, the worst part of the performance art was what it meant. Jeremiah was warning that Babylon was about to turn them all into slaves.

In this clash between Jeremiah and Hananiah I find lots of connections with the kinds of things that we are dealing with in the world right now. We have Hananiahs and we have Jeremiahs speaking to us from every side. But there is one key difference between reading this in an ancient book and living it today. We know how it all ended for them. We know that the prophet who promised all rainbows and sunshine was disastrously wrong and we know that the prophet of doom was right.

But the people who were living through that time didn’t know that. Both prophets came to them and spoke to them on the same terms. Both spoke in the name of Yahweh, the God of Israel. They both had clever comebacks and both did their own little pieces of performance art. Jeremiah wore his wooden yoke and Hananiah broke Jeremiah’s yoke into pieces. So, if you had been there and living through those troubled times, how would you know which prophet to listen to? Surely it can’t just be that the one who tells you the bad news is the one who is always right!

This is all a very important question, of course, given the times that we’re living in. In many ways, I’ve got to admit, we seem to be living in a society that is increasingly divided over which prophets we listen to. There are those who stubbornly insist that the dangers of the pandemic are overblown. There are those who swear that they will never wear a mask in public and seem to have no concern for how that might affect others. And, yes, there are also those who seem to latch on to any prophecy of doom and who are constantly looking for the worst in the latest covid-19 statistics. And our disagreement about these two approaches is becoming severe. We’re starting to look like Jeremiah and Hananiah going at each other and ripping yokes off of each other’s necks. So how do we sort it out? How do we know which prophets to listen to?

Jeremiah does actually give us a way of sorting that out in our passage. This is the rule that he suggests: “The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”

Now, you could interpret what Jeremiah says there in a couple of ways. I mean you could cynically suggest that Jeremiah is saying that you should just believe the prophets like him who prophecy bad things while you need to put the prophecies of those who disagree with him (and promise good things) to the test. But I actually think that there is a deeper analysis that we can make here – one that could be quite helpful in our challenging times.

There is a powerful force at work in our society today that is shaping so much of our debate. It is called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is i. Confirmation bias is what makes you likely to write off an article that you see that says something negative about a politician or celebrity that you like while it makes you uncritically latch onto a negative report about somebody that you don’t like. This is something that is built into the way we function in society; human beings have never been particularly good at assimilating unfamiliar information.

But in many ways, it has gotten much more pronounced in recent years especially with the growth of social media. What happens in social media like Facebook or Twitter or Reddit is that various algorithms are used to tailor the information that is sent to you through the social media to make sure it fits what you already believe.

You see, Facebook’s number one goal is for you to like and share articles and so it will send you ones that it knows you are likely going to appreciate and agree with, even if the articles are poorly sourced or dubious. It is more important for the social media network to get your clicks than it is for them that you know the difference between what is true and what is fantasy.

The result of all of this is that we are increasingly living in a world where people rarely have to deal with any information that challenges what they have already decided is true and real. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but it seems to be causing us some troubles.

When we find ourselves living in a world where half the people seem to be only consuming Q-anon like conspiracy theories that paint anyone who is vaguely left of centre as a paedophile who is out to destroy the whole civilization and the other half can only see anyone slightly right of center as a full-blown Nazi, we are going to have some serious problems entering into any sort of meaningful debate about how we can build a future together.

I think that that problem existed in Jeremiah’s world too, even if it wasn’t as severe, even if they didn’t have to deal with Facebook and Twitter. And I suspect that what Jeremiah was really trying to do was address the problem that we all have with confirmation bias.

What if we were to read his advice this way. If you hear a prophecy or a piece of information or an opinion (all of those various kinds of media were spoken by prophets in that world) – if you hear a prophecy that you welcome, either because it is good news or because it confirms what you already believe, Jeremiah is saying, be careful of that. Be inclined to question it and look for something to back it up. If, on the other hand, you hear a prophecy that you don’t like or that makes you squirm, don’t dismiss it. Sit with it a little while and consider the possibility that there might be truth in it.

Jeremiah is saying, in other words, act in exactly the opposite way that we are inclined to act in receiving prophecy and information. I think we’re in a place right now where we actually need to learn a little bit of that. Otherwise, I begin to fear we won’t even be able to speak to each other.

Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.” The idea of welcoming is obviously central to the message of the kingdom of God that Jesus spoke.

But what does it really mean to welcome someone? Does it mean that I welcome you but I’m not in the least interested and will give no consideration to any of your thoughts, ideas or opinions? Is that really what it means to welcome someone? I do not think that is the kind of welcoming that Jesus had in mind.

Yes, we may not agree about certain things. And yes, sometimes there are opinions that are just plain wrong and information that is just plain incorrect. But you cannot welcome people while entirely writing off every thought they bring with them.

That is why Jesus spoke of welcoming prophets in the name of a prophet. One thing that is certain about prophets is that the things they say will challenge you to rethink how you see the world. If the messages you are receiving from someone never makes you do that, it may be time to open up your mind to welcome and at least consider a more challenging message.

If I have a final word of comfort, it is this. These are challenging times. The clash of ideas, the controversy over opinion is about as divisive as I have ever seen. I think that Jeremiah would be blown away by the rhetoric we have to deal with.

Navigating such times is difficult, but I would encourage you to hold onto the essentials. Jesus starts by inviting us to welcome himself. Trust in Jesus, hold onto him, he won’t let you down. And I would also hold onto his final words in the  passage we read this morning: “and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” Because, remember this, no matter what ideas and opinions are raging out there in this world, whatever arguments are simmering, we can always act with kindness and care. It will always make the best possible difference.