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United Church of Jaffrey
I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void…
Thus says the prophet Jeremiah in the 4th chapter of the prophetic book that bears his name.
I looked to the heavens, he says, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro.
These words sound like the words of someone who is describing a nightmare…
Or a vision.
And indeed, these words from Jeremiah are not describing the physical world – Jeremiah, in this passage, is describing a prophetic vision – a divine expression that fills us – the hearers – with fear.
I looked, Jeremiah says, and lo, there was no one at all,
and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins
before the Lord, before his fierce anger.
But just what, exactly, is a prophetic vision?
I suppose that depends on what is meant by the word “Prophecy.”
Since many Biblical scholars think that Jeremiah’s active prophetic life began in and around 620 BCE, the logical inference is that his visions foretold the Babylonian invasion of Judah that was to take place in 587 BCE. In this calamity, Jerusalem was besieged, its walls were ruined and Solomon’s great temple was destroyed.
When this happened, it was natural for people to recall Jeremiah’s words:
I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void…
This is the “prophetic-vision-as-a-clue-to-history” way of interpreting Jeremiah.
In this way of thinking, the meaning of “prophecy” is kind of like “prediction.”
It’s like Jeremiah somehow saw the BIG STORY laid out in front of him, and he was able to see what was going to happen.
Jeremiah is a bit like that very enthusiastic 9-year-old boy who has already seen the movie – he is the boy who can’t help telling you (and the rest of the people in the quiet theater) that the scene coming up is really great.
Jeremiah has already seen the movie.
He has access to the BIG STORY…
Access, of course, that is given by God.
This is valuable, and it is impressive… but is this ability to predict – is this a the be-all-and-end-all of what it means to be “prophetic?”
Before I leap into my speculation about prophecy I have to admit that there is an immense body of literature about the Hebrew prophets – and I have barely skimmed the surface of it.
I suppose I don’t have to admit that.
Most of the time I don’t.
Most of the time, I just leap into speculations about things, and the only credibility I call upon to do so, is the credibility of the human soul.
I have a soul, after all — just like you. The fact that you and I have souls is the only excuse we need to do all the speculating we want about the human soul.
We are experts – each in our own unique way.
This is another way, I suppose, of saying that while I may not, have access to the BIG STORY, but I do have access to the small story.
My story, is a small story.
And your story too, is small.
By which, I do not mean to put your story down.
It may be a very good story – but it’s yours and so it’s small.
It’s not God’s story.
It’s not the Whole story.
But it is part of God’s story
And for this reason, we – you and I – have every right to at least try to speculate about the things that captivate our souls – whether or not we have read the literature on the subject.
This kind of logic might not serve me well if I was trying to get a Ph.D. in the study of the Hebrew Bible.
But if you don’t mind my saying, I think Jesus would be OK with it.
Jesus himself, had a tendency to lean toward the small story.
Even when he was talking about BIG STORY stuff – like the kingdom of God, or human salvation, Divine grace – he would do so in parables.
Parables, I think, are small story.
They are particular to the nature of our souls.
They appeal to emotions that we can recognize as our own.
Take today’s parable for example.
The Pharisees and the scribes, are right on script, grumbling about Jesus for consorting with tax collectors and sinners.
Unable to resist a teachable moment, Jesus, responds by telling a parable about a sheep that goes astray.
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’
When we hear this story, we are not called upon to consider the sweep of human history.
Jesus is not making any predictions about the geopolitical movements of great armies moving across the landscape.
The drama of this story is a personal one for the shepherd – the drama of loss, of concern, and of the joy of reunion.
The drama of this story is the personal drama, also, from the point of view of the sheep – the fear of being alone in the wilderness, the real danger, the relief of being rescued, and the profound sense of security being held in the arms of one who genuinely cares for you.
These are small story dramas, but in a profound way, these small story dramas have BIG STORY resonances.
This is why parables work.
They work because they are small stories that become BIG STORIES.
This principle of Small stories becoming BIG STORIES is the principle that allows all literature to work.
The particular is the universal, and the universal is the particular.
The mother in Jaffrey can understand the mother in Timbuktu, because each recognizes the other’s common motherhood.
The man on death row, and the man sitting in the oval office, are alike in being shaken by the frailties of their essential mortality.
Each of us knows the feeling of rain on your face.
Everyone of us has seen surprised by the sad light at day’s end.
We know these things with our souls, we understand them, not with our intellects, but with our hearts.
This principle is also, I would argue, at the heart of prophecy… more so, certainly ability to predict things.
Prediction is for gypsies and weathermen.
Prophecy concerns the eternal in the human heart.
The prophetic is the stirring of God in every soul.