Imagine the scene. About five hundred and eighty-eight years before Jesus was born, Israel had been divided into a Northern Kingdom and a Southern Kingdom. Now the Southern Kingdom, Judah, was under attack. The Assyrians were invading from the north; the Egyptians poured in from the southwest. The LORD our God hid his face from the people of Judah (as the story goes) because the people had broken their promise.
The city of Jerusalem was under siege. Imagine the buildings burned to the ground, the scorch marks on the earth. Imagine the dust, the splotchy stains on the stones from spilled blood. Imagine the smell! As each day passed, the city was growing more and more silent. Jerusalem is a desolate waste without humans, or animals, or any sign of God.
Sometime during these days, the prophet Jeremiah got arrested. It wasn’t his fault. He made the mistake of trying to leave the city when he got picked up and accused of deserting to the enemy. The city is under attack, but somehow the officials in the palace found time to have Jeremiah beaten and thrown into prison. Now the prophet is inside a dungeon, inside the palace, inside a city on fire. If Jeremiah screamed, who could hear him? If the palace got engulfed in flames, who would ever find him?
And so it was that the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah. God said to him, I know. I see what is happening. For thus, says the LORD the God of Israel… they are coming to fight and to fill them with the dead bodies of those whom I shall strike down in my wrath, for I have hidden my face from this city because of their wickedness. But that’s not all, said the LORD.
If you think it’s a miracle that God could find Jeremiah in the dungeon and shatter the silence of hell with a prophesy, that’s because you’re right. It is a miracle. And that’s not all.
The days are surely coming, says the LORD to Jeremiah. The days are surely coming when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
In the scripture Nancy just read, we learn two things about this promise. First, it will restore the lineage of David. In the decimated forest there’s still a stump, up out of the stump there’s a shoot, and from the lineage of David, there will be a king one day.
The second thing we learn about God’s promise to Jerusalem is that justice will be restored. Whenever the prophets invoke the words “justice” or “righteousness” this is code for God’s concern for those who are vulnerable. God remembers the promise she made to widows and orphans, to immigrants and children, to those who are ill, and incarcerated, and rejected. I’m coming to rescue you and bring you home! The days are surely coming, says the LORD.
Again and again, the prophets in the Bible look at their own reality with an unflinching gaze, then they name what is happening even when the truth will turn your stomach. In their next breath, they issue the promise of the day when the city will be restored and the people will come home. If you think it’s a miracle that they can do both at the same time, it is. It absolutely is.
What I want to know is how can someone in prison believe in a promise of justice one day? What does it cost them to believe this? What if they are delusional and clinging to a fantasy? What if they are flat out mistaken? Or… What if they’re right?
It’s not just in the Bible. All through history, we tell the stories of people like Jeremiah —prophets and heroes who have lived through the worst day only to speak up and insist on the promise of coming home. We hear Anne Frank confess to her diary while hiding from the Nazis, “In spite of everything,” she wrote, “I still believe people are really good at heart.” We echo the words of Reverend Martin Luther King Junior who warned that the arc of the universe is long, but still. It bends toward justice.
The world is waiting for the prophets. We need people who will tell us the truth when it’s awful and when its possibility will delight your soul. The prophets are the ones who have to do both. Their own vision is connected to the vision of God. If you think it’s a miracle they can do this, you’re right, it is.
I recently saw the movie Harriet, and I recommend it to you. It tells the story of Harriet Tubman, a woman who was born into slavery in Maryland. When she learned that the people who had enslaved her were planning to sell her, Harriet escaped. Eventually, she traveled one hundred miles north to Philadelphia, where she became free. For a minute.
Harriet couldn’t stand staying in Philly while the people she loved were still in bondage, so she went back and got them! She made trip after trip bringing dozens and dozens of people to freedom along the Underground Railroad. The people called her Moses, and they were right. Anybody could see, she was a prophet.
One of Harriet’s powers is that she had visions of events that would happen in the future. Some say this is because she survived a traumatic brain injury as a teenager. Some, like me, say this is because she’s a mystic. However you explain it, Harriet Tubman could see exactly what was happening to the people she loved. And. She could see something of what God dreams for the world.
In one scene, Harriet confronts the man who had enslaved her. She looks right at him and tells him that she has seen a vision of the day when black people will be free in this land. I have to tell you, when I heard her say this, my heart sank. Look at the crisis of homelessness in our cities, look at the prison system which codified the same practices of slavery. Officially slavery may have ended, but look at our nation. Black people are not free. Maybe nobody is.
Maybe Harriet Tubman is delusional and clinging to a false fantasy. Maybe she’s simply mistaken. Or maybe when she looked at the man who thought he owned her, and she told him there will be a day when slavery is obliterated, maybe she’s right. We’re still working for this day. The world is still waiting for the prophets.
You and I know. We live in a world where people really do die in prison. People really do get delivered and deported into situations of violence, and they don’t always come home alive. It’s no wonder, we prepare ourselves for the worst possible outcome. Then whatever happens, at least we won’t get blindsided. At least we won’t get seduced by a false hope. And come on, you can’t make yourself feel hope when you don’t. Nobody can make themselves believe in God’s dream for the world.
It’s just that every now and again, we do, so please, don’t miss this miracle.
Sometimes you and I can see both at the same time. Something is wrong with our world when a family is unable to find housing because a landlord won’t rent to tenants with children. You can see this is wrong, at the same time, you can see God’s dream for a world where everyone is welcomed home. Sometimes we can see both the problem and the possibility, and all I’m saying is when this happens to you, it’s a miracle.
Jeremiah announced, one day this city will be called “The LORD is Our Righteousness” and he said that while the city was being plundered. He saw this vision from inside his cell! Of course it’s a miracle that Jeremiah could sit in prison and summon these words of hope, but it’s the same miracle when our pen pals do this too. And they do.
Every time a word is spoken into silence, it changes the quiet. Every time a candle is lit, it changes the light. Every car repair so a person can get to her job, every casserole so a person can feed his family, every card with a word of encouragement, every act of kindness makes it all the more possible to believe the day is surely coming says the LORD. Every person who gets liberated from slavery is proving that Harriet Tubman was right.
The world is going to say, what if the prophets are delusional? What if they’re wrong…
But what if the prophets are right? What if the prophets are us…
Around five hundred and eighty-eight years after Jeremiah prophesied, an angel from the LORD confronted a teenage girl in a back alley. Mary was filled with the Holy Spirit. She went to see her cousin, and Elizabeth blessed her, and that’s what did it. Mary burst into singing: It is God who scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. God will send the rich away empty, but God will fill the hungry with good things. And you and I know, Mary was not delusional or mistaken. Mary was right.
She was right when she announced the promise God is dreaming for our world, and she was right when the angel told her she will have a son, and her son will be holy because nothing shall be impossible with God. Mary took all this in and said, Okay. I’ll do it. Here I am. And Mary was right. And when you hear yourself saying the same thing to God, you’re right too.
The world is waiting for the prophets to speak up, and it could be that we are the prophets. When the angels find you, you could hear yourself say the words that change the world. Okay, I’ll do it. Here I am.
This is the miracle.