Believing in Happy Endings without Quick Fixes

Pent2 / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 6-26-11

Jeremiah 28:5-9
5Then the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the Lord; 6and the prophet Jeremiah said, “Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles. 7But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. 8The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. 9As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”

Children’s Time: Do you know the story of the little Mermaid? Who gives up her voice to gain her legs – who leaves her family forever to gain the prince – who bets it all on love to find her soul… (because everyone knows that mermaids don’t have a soul – they live for 300 years and then turn into sea foam on the shore). So what happens? In the Disney version, they defeat Ursula, the witch, the little mermaid gets her voice back, and she and the prince are married and live happily ever after. But in the original version penned by Hans Christian Anderson in 1836, the little mermiad dies! The prince falls for someone else and on their wedding night, the little mermaid turns into sea foam, adrift on the waters. She had the chance to kill the prince before the marriage was final, thus breaking the spell, but she couldn’t bring herself to destroy the one she so loved. Because of her selfless sacrifice the little sea maid was granted that which she so longed for – perhaps even moreso than the prince: a soul, and entry into that heavenly home, as a “daughter of the air.” Did I mention that the little sea maid is the youngest of 6 daughters? Yes, this little one is given eternal life with God. That’s something we can all long for!

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

I love a good story – one with suspense and intrigue – one that begins with the underdog up against all odds, and ends with me cheering them on to overcome adversity.

I know just what it feels like to be little. I remember the fear of begin stuck on the median on Hwy. 65, between two-way traffic, at the age of 6. I had snuck across the highway to buy some Bazooka bubblegum at the grocery store, only to get stuck on the way back in busy traffic. Thankfully, I was rescued by my Uncle Clint, who swiftly trotted out to take the hand of that trembling little boy and help him cross safely to the other side.

It’s one reason I like the story in our lesson today. Jesus remembers “the little guy.” He sends his disciples out to give a cold cup of water to the little ones they meet in their daily lives. These stories can be found throughout scripture. Stories where God pays attention to the lowly Abraham or a peasant girl, Mary, giving birth to Jesus in a barn! Who’d have thought he would save the world! These are all unlikely characters pitted against great odds! But that’s where all the action is – with the little ones!

We don’t pay much attention to the little people in our social circles (whether that be children or people who are vertically challenged, so to speak). It’s easy to overlook them or look down on them. The tall, dark and handsome are the ones we pay more attention to. It was this way in the Bible, too. It was Esau’s younger brother, Jacob, who stole his birthright and inheritance. And in 1Samuel 16, when God sent Samuel to anoint a king over Israel, he couldn’t help but look on the tall stature of Isaac’s older son, Eliab, “Surely this must be the one.” But the Lord said, “Do not look on the outward appearance, or his height of stature, for I have rejected him.”

No, it all came down to David – scrawny, little, ruddy-looking David – who wasn’t even there in the lineup. They had sent him out to tend the sheep because, apparently he wasn’t kingly material. It plays out later, as he fights and defeats Goliath, with a slingshot and 5 smooth stones. Another biblical little guy is Zacchaeus, who we meet in Luke 19. Remember the guy who was too short to see Jesus so he climbed a sycamore tree? And Jesus goes to his house and brings salvation. There’s a special place for “the little ones” in Jesus’ teaching – right there, alongside the priests and disciples – he puts a child in their midst.

Take, for example, this little gem of a story from Jeremiah 28. (Jeremiah was more than a bullfrog, by the way). He was a great prophet, sent by God to turn the people back to faith, before their entire city was ransacked and they would be taken prisoner into Babylon. But when God first called Jeremiah he turned him down. Why? Little guy-syndrome: “I am only a youth! What can I say that they would listen to me?” And God sent him to tear down and to build up nations, during a difficult time.

In this scene, Jeremiah has tied a wooden yoke around his neck and is parading himself around town telling everyone to submit to the will of the King of Babylon. “You might as well get used to living under his yoke, everybody, ‘cause it’s going to be awhile once we are taken prisoner and are living in exile. In Jer 27:17 he says, “Serve the king of Babylon and live!”

No one wanted to hear it. They couldn’t accept this as their “happily ever after.” Instead, there was another prophet (Hananiah) who told them that it wasn’t going to be so bad. In two years, we’ll be back, and there’ll be peace! (“Mission Accomplished!”|) “Oh yes,” they cried, “we like that scenario much better.” And that’s where our reading picks up.

“Amen!” Jeremiah agrees with him, “I hope it comes to pass – this bed of roses prophecy you have just fed the masses. But this isn’t the way God worked through the prophets of old. Our ancient prophets preached war and famine and pestilence on the nations.” And I love how Professor Jim Limburg (from Luther Seminary) sums up what Jeremiah thinks of Hananiah’s words: “But as for your prophecy… I’ll believe it when I see it.”

And Hananiah was furious to be mocked in front of everyone, including the priests – and in a fit of rage, he rips the wooden yoke from Jeremiah’s shoulders and breaks it in half! To which Jeremiah replies, “You have broken the wooden yoke and replaced it with an iron one – for feeding this quick fix lie to the people.”

How long would they be in exile? Two years, as Hananiah predicted? Try 2 generations! For 80 years, the Hebrews would live in a strange land, never living to see the green, green grass of home. That would be up to their children and grandchildren.

But, getting back to the little guy – what does Jeremiah do, the day the Babylonian army is at their doorstep – ready to take them away in chains? He goes to see a realtor and buys a piece of land. So confident is Jeremiah in God’s promise to restore the fortunes of Israel, that he bets the farm on buying a farm for his grandchildren to inherit …when they get back. (Hey, it had to have been a buyer’s market!)

Isn’t that a great story? Well, sure, all except for that 80 years of hardship in between!
I mean, who would have believed, 10 years ago, that our nation would be knee deep in debt for having fought two wars in the middle east – as a result of the 9-11 attacks? Or was it to get rid of Saddam Hussein or to find cheap oil to bolster our already dwindling natural resources? Even our own historians can’t agree on what’s going on!

But one thing’s for sure: the little guy has been squeezed into a place of hardship, burdened by debt and shackled to an American lifestyle that isn’t sustainable. Good news is coming… but it won’t be a quick fix.

Jesus doesn’t mince words, as he sends his disciples out… and it would be good for us to pay attention to what he says here: “I send you out like sheep among wolves, and whoever loves mother or father more than me is not worthy of me… whoever does not take up their cross and follow me, is not worthy of me. Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

In other words, if you’re going to go follow Jesus – go all out! Practice hospitality – particularly to the little ones, the most vulnerable among us.

Last month I got a call that my uncle was in the hospital. It was the same uncle who took me by the hand 40 years ago, in the middle of that busy street. But now it was my turn to take his hand – he had become ill with no one to turn to. A bachelor his whole life, uncle Clint never had kids and he outlived his whole family. And so he was very appreciative for his next-of-kin nephew’s hand in crossing safely from illness back to living in his apartment in Albert Lea.

It’s at times like that that I hear Jesus’ pep talk, and take comfort in it. Everything depends on “the little ones” reaching out for that cup of cold water. It’s not about how eloquent your witness will be – It’s not about how persuasive you will have to be in convincing others. There’s a long, hard road ahead – and you’ll be asked to put the mission before even family loyalty. “Take up your cross,” says Jesus. “If they receive you, great! If not, well then, shake the dust from your feet. The message is beyond your control. Lose yourself to it. It’s all the credentials you’ll need.” And you can bet the farm on that. Amen.

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