Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage (Jeremiah 21) transports me to the civil war era, when generals on both sides of the great divide routinely called on the men of the cloth to invoke God’s aid and succor to protect the boys from every hurt, harm, and danger. In Lincoln’s inaugural of 1865, he acknowledged that both sides read the same Bible and pray to the same God. It may seem strange, he said, that any should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces. . . The prayers of both could not be answered.
Jeremiah, the weepy prophet, was hardly shedding tears when envoys came to him with a request from the King. The enemy was fast approaching, and they were in a tight spot, in need of divine intervention. That the King sent a priest to ask this of the prophet is instructive. The King knew that the court priests would tell him whatever he wanted to hear. Not so the prophet. If the prophet bestowed a blessing on the troops, victory would be secure. The temple priests were no doubt like the preacher of another war story, this one told by Mark Twain. In “War Prayer,” he describes the scene of a Sunday morning service before the boys were to go marching into battle. The invocation was simple but clear, God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest, thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword! And then came a longer prayer, for the ever-merciful Father to watch over the noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work.
But then, mid-prayer, an aged stranger comes into the sanctuary, and unbeknownst to the preacher, stands by his side until the final appeal, Bless our arms, and grant us victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag! The stranger then announces that he has come from the Throne, bearing a message from God. He explains that God has heard not only the prayer that was spoken, but the implied and silent prayer as well. He goes on to explain what God hears when people pray for their troops’ safety and success: O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with hurricanes of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst. . . It goes on and on; you get the idea. The implied prayer concludes, We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.
Twain’s story ends this way: It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said. No doubt the good patriots who came to Jeremiah to seek a protective blessing from God left thinking he was a lunatic as well. He was nuts, as were most of the prophets. Not because of their crazy visions full of mysterious symbols, but because they refused to play the game and announce God’s blessing on their country’s war on terror. But the prophet here went further than refusing to give God’s stamp of approval on the defense department’s efforts. Jeremiah virtually pulled a Jeremiah Wright on the King’s envoys. No, he didn’t repeatedly shout a gd curse on his nation, but he might as well have. He told them that not only was God not going to protect them, but God was joining forces with the enemy and was going to shock and awe the capital to the extent that not a living thing would survive. Their only shot at survival was to immediately surrender and trust their chances in the POW camps.
The vision of God’s outstretched arm destroying all living things in a city is not one I gravitate toward; this is a troubling passage for sure. But what I do lean into is the sheer hutzpah of the Hebrew prophet. Here is a person with the intestinal fortitude to speak unpopular truth to power, and suffer the consequences. He has the guts to publicly decline the request to pray for the troops, and instead calls the covenant people back into a faithful relationship with God, a relationship that required rescuing the oppressed morning by morning. Jeremiah has the courage of his convictions that the Life Force of the universe does indeed conspire against every surge toward worldly power and will surely sabotage every effort of the faith community to utilize worldly power. Jeremiah’s bumper sticker for folks moving in that direction could be “if God be against us, who could be for us?” Passages like this should make us examine the implications of many of our prayers, and think twice before praying some of them.