On the Implications of Prophecy
July 9, 2023
Zechariah 9: 9-12
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.
Matthew 11: 16-21
[Jesus said,] “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you.”
Today’s sermon is titled On the Implications of Prophecy.
It was still very much like summer in August of 2018 when, instead of going back to school with her classmates, Greta Thunberg sat outside of the parliament building in Sweden holding a sign that said, “School Strike for Climate.” Greta Thunberg had no idea that, at age 15, she would jumpstart a global initiative to address the effects of a warming world. In fact, there was a time when Greta’s family was not sure she would survive to the age of 15. When she was 11, Greta saw a film in school about the island of plastic in the South Pacific and she suddenly began to barely eat and barely speak. What she had seen distressed her to such an extent that, as her mother describes, “She disappeared into some kind of darkness and appeared to stop functioning.”* Medical and mental health intervention helped to stabilize her, but it was really her activism that cured her. Then came the backlash, the death threats, the excrement sent in the mail, and the relentless harassment of her family, including her younger sister, younger by two years.
There is that saying, “Don’t kill the messenger” that is older than one might think; it stems from the 5th century B.C. playwright named Sophocles. Ancient warfare used messengers to deliver terms of surrender and if one side thought the terms unacceptable, they were likely to send the corpse of the messenger back as an indisputable reply. Such is the cost of delivering a message no one wants to hear.
Jesus knew all about this. Several times he narrowly escapes being stoned to death or driven off a cliff by those he angered. To say the crowd was “unreceptive” would be an understatement. But isn’t that what we do all the time? When someone tells us something we don’t want to hear, when someone contradicts us, or when someone does something that challenges us or unsettles us, especially if it is something that challenges us to change. Psychologists have recently studied the human tendency to deny the validity of even scientifically proven data when the data conflicts with existing beliefs.
Right around the same time Greta Thunberg was going on a hunger strike, researchers at Duke University concluded “people will evaluate scientific evidence based on whether they view its policy implications as politically desirable. If they don’t, then they tend to deny the problem even exists.”** We certainly saw this with the pandemic response and we are seeing it with climate change. It even has a name: solution aversion. If the solution is unpalatable, then our tendency is to diminish the problem and, if we are really threatened, we will deny the science. Researchers found this happens across the political divide, right, left, and center.
Prophets, today and down through the ages, have been repeatedly silenced because of what we now know as “solution aversion.” We heard from the prophet Zechariah this morning. This particular prophecy was one of hope and full of promises of freedom and restoration for the Jewish people who had just returned from exile and had begun to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. These words of the prophet Zechariah, foretelling of a new king that would “command peace to all the nations,” would have been encouraging for the people on the bottom, but threatening to the current king on top. The current king could not tolerate this prophesying; it was threatening his authority. He ordered the prophet Zechariah to be stoned to death right there in the temple courtyard.
I wonder if Jesus expected that he, too, would be silenced. Perhaps that is why he is so passionate in the scriptures today. Jesus was raised with stories of the many prophets who had come before, to call the hearts of the Hebrew people to worship one God, Yahweh, instead of the many gods of other cultures, cultures who, time and again, overpowered and displaced the Hebrew people. Jesus knew that nearly all prophets were eventually killed. People did not want to hear what they had to say because the prophets were calling for them to change their ways. Prophets were difficult to ignore. Prophets did not publish their opinions, they preached them, sometimes loudly, at the city gates, in the market, and at the temple.
Jesus’s cousin, John the Baptist, was a prophet who preached in the wilderness and preached in the most radical fashion, accusing, insulting, and berating, the scriptures say. He made his own clothes of camel hair and leather, he subsisted on locusts and honey. At the time that Jesus speaks from our scriptures today, John is in prison and Jesus is deep into his ministry already. Over and over again Jesus has healed the sick, cured the lepers, the crippled, and the blind, yet he is clearly frustrated that these miraculous works are not turning the minds and hearts of the people. Jesus accuses his generation of being like complaining children, quick to find reasons to discredit John and Jesus, John because he ate and drank too little and Jesus because he ate and drank too much. Jesus laments, saying, “John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”
Jesus then redirects the people’s attention back to all the acts of healing he has offered with the following statement: “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” In other words, Jesus’s deeds, his actions, and his sharing of God’s healing power, not just to those who society deems as “deserving” but to all who are in need, these deeds speak for themselves. These deeds should be convincing enough but the people are resistant to change.
We are not unlike them, in my opinion. When we are called out of our comfortable complacency we do not like it. When our traditions and belief systems are challenged to change we tend to lash out and try to find any way possible to discredit those who are calling us to change. There were many who tried to silence Greta Thunberg through criticism and intimidation, including big oil companies and at least one ex president. She was not unlike the prophets of old who put their lives on the line to deliver their messages of warning.
“Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds,” Jesus said. It is so much more than just the message. Jesus, like Zechariah and so many prophets before and since, did not stop speaking their truth and living their truth, even when their lives were demanded of them. There are many possible implications of prophecy, just ask Greta Thunberg.
In closing, I urge us to be aware of the human tendency towards solution avoidance. Jesus warned his community about it two thousand years ago, long before there was a name for it. If we are rooted and grounded in faith and hope and love, as our teacher guides us to be, then we can be flexible enough in our thinking to welcome the messengers and prophets among us and discern truth from untruth. And we can also more deeply understand those who cling to untruths because the truth is perceived as a threat. We still have more than enough in common, Friends, to bind us together as humankind. May we be both human and kind, to one another, and to our planet. So be it. Amen.
Gracious God, source of balance, draw us in by your Spirit of peace, your Spirit of love and your unconditional acceptance. For when we feel accepted, loved, and at peace, our fullness can overflow into the lives of others and we can function as your body, hands that can spread your goodness through a hand-written note, or a gift of money or goods for a charity. In our fullness, our words are not self-serving and self-aggrandizing, in our fullness, our words become messages of encouragement and edification as you speak through us. In our fullness, our minds can think beyond ourselves and offer mental energy to the plethora of issues that plague our larger world family. Help us, Lord, to care for ourselves in healthy ways that fill us, whatever those ways may be. We thank you for the gift of our bodies, our minds, and our spirits. In ways we are suffering, guide us to access strength greater than our own. This I pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
Before I leave you with these words from Second Thessalonians, chapter 3, I want to tell you five things we can all do this summer to reduce our carbon footprint and help the planet.
1) Take reusable bags to the grocery store
2) Hang some or all items of laundry out (or in) to dry instead of using the dryer
3) Make use of the longer daylight and conserve electricity
4) Donate used clothes and goods you no longer need
5) Shop for second hand instead of buying new: reduce, reuse and recycle.
“May the Lord of Peace himself give you everlasting peace in every place.” Amen.