Prophetic Truth

Biblical Text: Isaiah 29:9-19

The prophets were the institution in Israel that were supposed to be dedicated to the truth. What happens when they became corrupted? How could they be restored when the truth is lost? I think this has more than a little to instruct us today. This sermon is an attempt to work through the text and keep its truth. It’s a tough one.

A Humble Parson’s Response to Alan Jacobs

I tend not to preach on them because in the fifteen minutes a week I get for proclamation of Jesus I start with the gospels. But in my personal study I spend an inordinate amount of time in the twelve minor prophets. I feel drawn to them in a deep way because of the end of the age society they see. They are sent to prophesy, but their conviction is like Amos. “I was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman. But the Lord took me from following the flock.” They prophesy because the Lord told them to, and they do so with a passionate intensity, but what they do not prophesy with is an expectation that they will be heard. When a herdsman approaches a King, he knows that a seat at the table is probably not on offer. Joel cries, “who knows whether he will not turn and relent and leave a blessing behind…”, but when the Lord has pity it is tied to the pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh. Hosea is told to marry a prostitute as a sign of Israel’s unfaithfulness, and his two kids receive the worst unique names in history. Habakkuk, tired of his prophesy, takes his complaint to the Lord. “How Lorg shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry ‘violence’ and you will not save…the law is paralyzed and justice never goes forth.” These prophets have words that cut my heart, and promises that I claim in Christ, but they stand to me as an awful warning for my brothers of the flesh.

I am thinking about the twelve after reading Alan Jacobs’ article in Harper’s Magazine. A strain in that article is a lament that Christian Intellectuals abandoned the liberal public square. His rebuke in these regards is not a heavy one. Mr. Jacobs understands that it was partly a two-way street. Richard John Neuhaus developed his own vehicle because when he talked about abortion he was no longer welcome at the liberal table as he had been over the Vietnam War. Likewise Mr. Jacobs does take Christians such as Marilynne Robinson to task for a witness to the liberal table that in my more harsh twelve inspired thoughts would be “peace, peace”. She is the house prophet saying all is well while Jeremiah is in rags. Another strain that Mr. Jacobs picks up but then abandons is Stanley Fish’s thoughts in First Things about just this desire to be a Christian Intellectual at the liberal table. “The religious person should not seek an accommodation with liberalism; he should seek to rout it from the field, to extirpate it, root and branch.” It is this strain that I wish he would have developed more for his audience in Harpers.

Being a Lutheran, we think in terms of Law and Gospel. The law is simply the demands of God. It can be summarized as the 10 commandments or probably better Jesus’ summary, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart…and your neighbor as yourself.” The bitter truth of the law is that we can’t keep it. It is good and wise, but beyond our fallen ability to actually live. That causes all sorts of strategies. You can restrict the demands of the law. “Who is my neighbor?” or “Am I my brother’s keeper?” are classic attempts to limit it. You can also replace it. Arguably this was the Pharisee strategy in tithing mint and cumin. They substituted certain holy looking ceremonial practices for the demands of the law. Likewise, this is start of Luther’s reformation calling out indulgences, pilgrimages, relics and other pious acts that were replacing the actual law and gospel. Our modern liberal society also has gutted and replaced the law. It does not have ears to hear even the basics of natural law such as marriage and children let alone the tougher strains of the temptations of the devil, this world and the flesh. In Lutheran parlance not only will it not look in the mirror of the law to recognize its sins, it has also jumped the curb of the natural law meant to be shared and keep us all safe in God’s providence.

In Lutheran Law and Gospel thinking, one cannot be raised by the gospel – the message of God’s grace in Jesus Christ – until we have been killed by the law. When ears are closed and hearts are hard, that is the time of the prophets, of the twelve. What that looks like is confrontation. What that looks like is crazy, right up until the moment everyone is carried away. Into oblivion for the 10 Northern tribes, into exile for Judah. That is the wrong message for my congregation. For them the message is more eschatological – “comfort, comfort my people, says the Lord”. Today we might be like the grass of the field, but we are forever safe in the Lord’s hands. But for those outside Christ I can only hint at that. Tease like the parables into contemplation. There are two choices for those outside. There is the kinder and gentler law proclamation, like Corinthians 13 on love. It is heard at every wedding, and it is a ridiculous call. I can’t do that sacrificial love on my own. That takes the indwelling of the Spirit. One can be temporally kind and hope that in the moment of the first fight or the first night he’s home way late, the newlyweds will contemplate how they have trespassed that love they said they wanted. Then there is the proclamation of the twelve. “I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” That is about as effective as you might think. But as Mr. Jacobs quotes Rorty, “of course the theists can talk, but we don’t have to listen.” Such prophecy as the twelve is nor really prophecy for listening, but prophecy for witness. It is the Lord putting down a marker for future generations.

Mr. Jacobs ends with the lament that the liberal table lost the ability to hear religious responses “at least in part because we Christian Intellectuals ceased to play it for them.” That might be true, but as a humble preacher I would have to add a caveat. We ceased to play it for them because the Word God was sending us wasn’t peace, but repent. As much as Cornel West and a steady stream of mainline preachers liked to claim being a prophetic Christian witness, the dreams they dreamed very often did not line up with the Word. We have had a plague of prophets, but an absence of the Word.

Daily Lectionary Podcast – Jeremiah 23:1-40 and Matthew 25:31-46

Jeremiah 23:1-40
Matthew 25:31-46
False Shepherds vs. The Good Shepherd
The true source of good works – in us vs. in Christ (by grace & faith & Spirit)

Daily Lectionary Podcast – Jeremiah 8:18-9:12 and Matthew 23:13-39

Jeremiah 8:18-9:12
Matthew 23:13-39
Hypocrisy, fancy exteriors and the role of prophets

Daily Lectionary Podcast – 2 Chronicles 34:1-4, 8-11, 14-33 and Colossians 2:8-23

2 Chronicles 34:1-4, 8-11, 14-33
Colossians 2:8-23
Women Prophets & what that might signal, The lack of threat from what Paul would call Judaizers

Daily Lectionary Podcast – Numbers 22:1-20 and Luke 22:1-23

Numbers 22:1-20
Luke 22:1-23
The Sovereignty of God, God’s dominion over all peoples, An indication of how to take/interpret other religions

A Prophetic Confluence

I’ve been really haunted by a few things since I read the morning papers. Today is Annunciation Day. For those who might not know, what that means is this is the Christian Holiday when Gabriel announced God’s favor in the incarnation to Mary. (Luke 1:26-38) Was it literally the day? Probably not, but it is set 9 months prior Christmas. (See, the ancient could count). Then there are two stories in the news. First the oral arguments before the Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case against the contraception mandate took place today. Second, and there is no kind way to say this, but the revelation that Hospitals in Great Britain have been incinerating abortion products as part of the recycling plan to generate electricity.

That last one, if you have any biblical history, should cause a deep shudder as offering children as burnt offerings is what Molech demanded. I’m going to quote the King James because it uses the most literal words here. It doesn’t hide the raw fact behind euphemisms of sacrifice and offering.

And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD. (Lev 18:21 KJV)

Again, thou shalt say to the children of Israel, Whosoever he be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, that giveth any of his seed unto Molech; he shall surely be put to death: the people of the land shall stone him with stones. And I will set my face against that man, and will cut him off from among his people; because he hath given of his seed unto Molech, to defile my sanctuary, and to profane my holy name. And if the people of the land do any ways hide their eyes from the man, when he giveth of his seed unto Molech, and kill him not: Then I will set my face against that man, and against his family, and will cut him off, and all that go a whoring after him, to commit whoredom with Molech, from among their people. (Lev 20:2-5 KJV)

And he (Josiah during his reformation) defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the children of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter to pass through the fire to Molech. (2Ki 23:10 KJV)

And go forth unto the valley of the son of Hinnom, which is by the entry of the east gate, and proclaim there the words that I shall tell thee, And say, Hear ye the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah, and inhabitants of Jerusalem; Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will bring evil upon this place, the which whosoever heareth, his ears shall tingle. Because they have forsaken me, and have estranged this place, and have burned incense in it unto other gods, whom neither they nor their fathers have known, nor the kings of Judah, and have filled this place with the blood of innocents; They have built also the high places of Baal, to burn their sons with fire for burnt offerings unto Baal, which I commanded not, nor spake it, neither came it into my mind: Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that this place shall no more be called Tophet, nor The valley of the son of Hinnom, but The valley of slaughter. (Jer 19:2-6 KJV)

And they built the high places of Baal, which are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire unto Molech; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin. (Jer 32:35 KJV)

I can’t help but feel like God is getting less subtle. This is the type of idolatry and gross immorality that should call for sack-cloth and ashes and full on prophetic rants. On the day that the church remembers the conception of Christ, we are reading about ways to prevent and eliminate the products of a conception. I know that this makes me sound nuts, but the confluence gives me pause. And what really gives me pause is that nothing will change. Lord have mercy.

Debtors Prison: What did the prophets mean when they talked justice

When the prophets talked justice it was often in economic terms. Take a look at these: Amos 2:6-7,Amos 5:11, Amos 8:4-7, Zech 7:9-12, Micah 3:1-3, Micah 6:10-13, Ezekiel 22:12, Ezekiel 22:29, Ezekiel 45:9, Habakkuk 1:4, Isaiah 10:1-2, Jer 22:13. You can find a bunch more. The complaint of the prophets wasn’t that economic outcomes should be equalized, but that the powerful were using unfair weights, cheating the system and using their authority to extract rents that were not due to them. The charge was to apply the law fairly to all people regardless of social rank and to apply mercy to the poor. The main message was to avoid things like…this.

Three years ago, Gina Ray, who is now 31 and unemployed, was fined $179 for speeding. She failed to show up at court (she says the ticket bore the wrong date), so her license was revoked.

When she was next pulled over, she was, of course, driving without a license. By then her fees added up to more than $1,500. Unable to pay, she was handed over to a private probation company and jailed — charged an additional fee for each day behind bars.

For that driving offense, Ms. Ray has been locked up three times for a total of 40 days and owes $3,170, much of it to the probation company.

Yes, I’m sure there was some stupidity. Yes, speeding is against the law. But I’m pretty sure that even if she had shown up, she just couldn’t have paid and she would have been in the same spot. In our society driving may be a privilege, but lets be real, if you don’t drive, you probably aren’t going to work. Lots of people are hanging on by the smallest of threads day to day. Things that seem perfectly reasonable to a state senator with a stable family life to balance the budget are completely unreasonable to the people who actually get caught in the “roving taxes”. Being poor (even if your poverty is the direct result of poor decisions) does not give society the right to extract blood. According to the prophets it is society’s burden to show mercy.

Update: A second source of another story, same theme.

Outside Support (“A Game of Musical Chairs”)

In the post yesterday I made a comment to the effect that “we as a country seem to be playing a never-ending game of musical chairs deciding who takes the loss.” That has been my gut financial feeling for a long time. My guess is that is the core of the anger over things like TARP and just anything that shares the word “bailout”. That is because someone with authority decided that “those folks” will not take the loss. And of course those folks were the already rich and powerful. The powerful politicians stuck the bill with the taxpayers and paid out their buddies. They will get theirs when their political career winds down or they will get it back-door when their wife gets a cream-puff director job or a hot tip on some land. That has been my thought for a long time, but I never saw that expressed by anyone else. Until now. Here is David Wessel – WSJ columnist on “why crises persist”.

It’s been five years since the U.S. housing bubble burst. Housing remains among the biggest reasons the U.S. economy is doing so poorly.

On both continents, there is no longer any doubt about the severity of the threat or the urgent need for better policies. Yet the players seem spectacularly unable to act.

What’s taking so long?

Deciding who will get stuck with the tab.

This is exactly why “stimulus” might seem to be compassionate, but it leads to more problems, and why this guy, Andrew Mellon, has long been an interesting figure to me (I was a financial geek for a long time). Mellon famously said “work the rot out”. Part of work the rot out was liquidating harshly any bad banks. By that he meant prices need to fall and the faster the better, and the best things a government can do in a downturn is uphold the law and liquidate failed stuff as fast as possible. What you can take that as instead of prolonging the game of musical chairs as a political problem, play the game as hot potato. Politics is a game of fairness defined by the mob. A political solution usually is found where just over 50% decide “this is fair”. (Of course that means just under 50% could be getting whacked). To move it to the political realm is to ignore the law or re-write the winners and losers. To Mellon, finance is completely a game of law. The mob is never really fair. The rich and powerful win it, or the whole place is turned to ruins…every time. The law is or should be impartial. Andrew Mellon would have bankrupted and liquidated his mother. And that is to be praised. That is the impartiality of the law. Under fair laws we are all equal, even if those laws aren’t perfect we know what they are. That is a first use or civil use of the law. The Hebrew prophets weigh in on that civil use. Micah 6:11 is an example, rhetorically – “Shall I acquit the man with wicked scales and a bag of deceitful weights?” Also check out Lev 19:36, Deut 25:13, Prov 16:11, Prov 20:10, and Prov 20:23. I could list more. And we think God doesn’t say anything about this, heh. Our problem is that bad weights have already been used.

That first use or civil use can point to a second use of the law. It should dawn on us looking at the effects that we all will be caught with a hot potato sometime. We all will have a debt that we can’t pay. Quoting another economist – in the long run we are all dead. Governments are institutions of the law. But with God we hear the Gospel. The law would liquidate us. In Christ we find a new law…a law of grace. A king who can forgive 10,000 talents.

Update: Here is my favorite financial journalist, Megan McArdle on the folly of fairness. I guess what you could say is that she wishes we would apply grace now instead of the law. But to apply grace means you trust the person with the scepter or that you apply grace abundantly. Jubilee. The Lord who knows hearts. Think anyone would go for a wholesale debt forgiveness? Trust the US government to judiciously forgive? Didn’t think so. Even Israel never applied a jubilee year. Institutions of the law apply that law. That is why they have the sword – a terrible swift sword.

Putting concerned parents in jail…

Therefore because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. – Amos 5:11

School districts hiring private detectives and agencies to track kids and verify they reside in the school district. WSJ article. Parents stealing a good education sent to jail.