In a lot of Christian preaching, and it doesn’t matter if it’s conservative or liberal or evangelical or progressive or anything other kind of preaching we can come up with, calls to repent are too often directed to “them.” The assumption is we, the other Christians who preach like we do, are the “good guys.” And everyone else are the “bad guys.” Unbelievers, different Christian groups, other political parties—those are the people who need to hear the word of the Lord and repent! And you know what? I’m not saying there aren’t times when this isn’t the case. There are times when “those people” need to take a step back and look at themselves and repent.
But what I wouldn’t give for more and more Christian pastors to hold up the mirror to themselves and to their congregations and direct the message of repentance toward “Us.” I need to do a whole lot more looking in the mirror, because that is the message of repentance we see the most in Scripture. Yes, there are times when the prophets shine the light of God’s word on the other other nations and say, “Woe to you!” But they are minuscule to the prophetic words directed at God’s people, precisely at the times when they thought things were going a-OK. In the Hebrew Bible “The Prophets” actually starts with the book of Joshua—and the purpose of those books is to act as a covenant prosecution, showing why the people had been carted off into exile and the Temple was destroyed. The ancient Israelites didn’t look in the metaphorical mirror, so when the words of the Prophets came to them they shut their ears.
This is what the prophet Jeremiah was trying to convey in Jeremiah 6. The LORD is infuriated because the message of repentance, a call to return to faithfulness, was going out—but no one wanted to pay attention. Listen to verses 10 and 11,
“To whom can I speak and give warning?
Who will listen to me?
Their ears are closed
so they cannot hear.
The word of the Lord is offensive to them;
they find no pleasure in it.
But I am full of the wrath of the Lord,
and I cannot hold it in.
“Pour it out on the children in the street
and on the young men gathered together;
both husband and wife will be caught in it,
and the old, those weighed down with years 1.”
Instead of listening to the actual prophetic voice, the people paid attention to the “prophets” who were proclaiming “Peace! Peace!” When there wasn’t any peace 2.
And this failure to listen doesn’t magically disappear when we hit the New Testament. Jesus’ adversaries were the “good religious folk” of the day, and they sought to kill him because of his message. Jesus tried to teach these people, he tried to communicate how folks were missing the point and undermining God, but folks didn’t want to hear it. They had their system, it worked for them and kept a form of “order” so their structures could continue. Which is why, when Jesus goes up to Jerusalem to die he laments.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing 3!”
No one wanted to listen.
And the calls to pay attention don’t end after Pentecost when the Spirit comes and inhabits the church to form Jesus’ new people. Have you ever sat down and read the New Testament Epistles, the letters written to the churches which the early missionaries planted? They are mostly discourses on how everyone was screwing it up! But they aren’t letters of hatred. They’re letters of correction, of guidance, so this new community could continue to convey the message of a kingdom not of this world. And, folks seemed to listen—which is why the faith lasted long enough to come to our ears. And we have to keep listening.
And this is why James’ words in James chapter 5 are so important for us to hear. When wealth is gained at the expense of the vulnerable God is not pleased. When people lay up treasures for themselves, so they have an extravagant abundance, and give no care for the lack other people have, our Bible says, “You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter 4.” You can almost see Jeremiah nodding toward this New Testament book, because it sounds very much like the condemnation, “Peace! Peace! When there is no peace.”
I haven’t seen us together since March. It has been difficult to being apart, and I wish we could just sing songs of happiness today and relax in each other’s company. But we can’t, because we have to listen. We have to listen to the prophetic voices calling on all people to be better, to live up to the promises we have made to one another. We have to listen to the cries of the disenfranchised for relief and understanding. We have to listen to the pleas of our neighbors of color who are crying out to be treated as human—as the image of God. And they are this image by right of their existence.
And as we listen we need to be willing to give up comfort, to shred our illusions, and give whatever what privilege we enjoy away for the benefit of others. And this is not a new call, it’s as old as the Church! Paul used his privilege as a Roman Citizen to provide cover for the disciples in Philippi. St. Francis used the privilege he had as the son of a wealthy man to find the wiggle room he needed to create a religious order devoted to simplicity, peace, and compassion. William Wilberforce used the hard-won privilege his parents had earned as up and coming members of the new merchant class and worked to weaken the very system his family had fought to be part of. In the name of Jesus Wilberforce championed public education, fought to end animal cruelty, and relentlessly pursued the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.
None of these people were perfect, nor were countless unnamed others who followed after Christ’s Kingdom in their own ways, but they tried to be faithful anyway. And this is what I’m asking us to be—listeners who strive to be faithful to the call of the Lord of Heaven and Earth and the conqueror of sin and death, Jesus Christ. Will we heal wounds? Will we work for peace, and not just for quiet? It’s times like this when the world sees who we are, rather than the image we want it to see.
And in this time, because for far too long this has not been affirmed by our culture, Black Lives Matter. This not a statement that is anti-police, nor does it deny that all lives matter. It is a call to collective repentance for having said, even unconsciously, “Peace! Peace!” When there hasn’t been peace. In the name of Jesus Christ, our risen savior and glorified Lord, let’s listen to the cries for relief that God heard long ago and add our own prophetic voices to theirs. Amen.