Sunday, June 28, 2020

Sermon: “Make a Joyful Noise: Be Thou My Vision”, Jeremiah 28:1-9 (June 28, 2020)


We all know that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, right? This is a fact of life, especially today. If you’ve ever bought anything online, you’ve undoubtedly learned that some sellers will say anything to make a sale, regardless of their claim’s veracity. And in this age of so called “fake news” and unfettered social media sharing, we all know to be on our guard for assertions that agree just a little bit too perfectly with our perspective. Anyone living in the modern world knows that you can’t necessarily accept information, especially from a stranger, at face value.

But let’s be honest: even though we know about unscrupulous eBay merchants, even though we know about the proliferation of fake memes and biased news, even though we know that persuasion and truth-telling have a very loose relationship to one another these days…we’ve all fallen prey to the idea that if a piece of information agrees with us, makes us feel good, or gives us hope, it must be true. I know I have, and I try REALLY hard to fact-check any information that comes across my Facebook feed. But you know what? I find that I tend to fact-check information that doesn’t agree with my point of view a little bit more consistently than information that does. It’s something I’m working on.

I KNOW I’m not alone, though. This is a very human tendency. In fact, it’s so common that it has a name: confirmation bias. It’s the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information that supports one’s personal beliefs or values.[1] Confirmation bias has been a recognized phenomenon since at least as far back as the ancient Greeks,[2] but it’s existed in human beings for much longer than that. And as long as it’s existed, people have been manipulating the confirmation bias of others for their own purposes.

That’s essentially what Hananiah is doing in our scripture reading today. A few years prior to this prophetic showdown, the Babylonians had invaded the kingdom of Judah. The Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, had Zedekiah installed as king of Judah: his own personal pawn. So things were pretty bad for the southern Jewish nation. Then, along comes Hananiah, proclaiming good news and saying exactly what he knew the people were longing to hear. He tells them that God is already undermining Nebuchadnezzar and that within two short years, God would restore Judah and make it a great nation again (in reality, Judah hadn’t been “great” for many years; the invasion of Babylon only happened after years of prophetic warnings to repent, but try telling THAT to its people). He promised unconditional victory over their enemies, and he promised it SOON.

Hananiah was no dummy. He made all of these assertions in the temple, in front of all the people AND the priests. He bolstered his questionable claim both by surrounding himself with symbols of God and making sure he had a sizeable audience. He did everything he could to sell the “good news” that he was peddling. And it sure sounded both convincing and enticing to the downtrodden people. But Jeremiah couldn’t be fooled. He knew that no matter how good a message sounds, it’s worthless if it’s not true. “I sure hope that comes to pass,” says the prophet, “but, uh, that doesn’t really sound consistent with the message God’s been giving us for years. As nice as it sounds, I won’t believe that this so-called ‘prophecy’ is from God unless and until it’s fulfilled.”

As is the human tendency when confronted about a personal conviction (confirmation bias again), Hananiah doubles down on his message. So Jeremiah basically says, “Look, man, you and I both know that God didn’t send you, and you’re lying to the people. The true message is that this occupation is going to get worse before it gets better.” And, of course, it did; the exile continued and the Jewish people all but entirely lost their way of life until a new invading force—the Persians—allowed them to return almost 60 years later. Of course, there’s no reason to believe that things would have gone any differently had the people rejected Hananiah’s false prophesy, but at least they could have been better prepared for what was to come.

Hananiah’s message (and those like it) remind me of those drug commercials on TV. The (potential) benefits are announced clearly and enthusiastically, and bolstered with pleasant images that have little to do with the drug itself, but make you feel good: a young, attractive woman enjoying a vacation in the Bahamas tells you, “Cefrazan changed my life! Now, papercuts don’t hurt and I never stub my toes anymore!” Meanwhile, the side effects are listed quietly and so fast you can barely hear them (and you KNOW they wouldn’t be included if it weren’t required by law): “Cefrazan may cause dizziness, laziness, a desire to square-dance, pain in the earlobe, an aversion to sunlight, and in some cases, death.” On the surface, it sounds promising, but in reality, it’s too good to be true.

How easily are we today swayed by hopeful statements that feed our confirmation bias? How readily do we accept information that supports our personal vision, regardless of how questionable the information is? Good news isn’t always true news, even when it comes from seemingly reliable sources. Just because a pastor says it doesn’t mean that God will protect you from COVID-19. Just because a politician says it doesn’t mean that the pandemic is under control. Just because your best friend says it doesn’t mean that we can achieve herd immunity easily without a vaccine.

So does this mean that we should only believe bad news? That we can’t trust anyone or anything? That skepticism and cynicism is the only way forward? Of course not. It just means that we need to be careful about what we unquestioningly accept as truth. And, importantly, we need to place less emphasis on what we want to be true, and rely wholly on God’s vision. In the words of Proverbs 3, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge God, and God shall direct your paths.”[3] Don’t let your confirmation bias obfuscate your perception of God’s will. Scripture insists that we must be of one mind, the same mind that was in Jesus Christ.[4] This doesn’t mean that we should be in lock-step about every single issue, nor does it mean that it’s okay for us to follow false prophets as long as we agree on it. What it means is that we need to join our will to God’s, so that we can be certain that we’re pursuing the truth at all times—no matter how difficult the truth may be to hear.

That’s what one of my favorite hymns, “Be Thou My Vision”, is all about. Its lyrics come from an old Irish prayer for protection from one’s enemies, reflecting the violent clan warfare dividing the country at the time of its composition.[5] But in 1912, when Eleanor Hull translated it into the hymn we know today, it transformed into a prayer for atonement, literally “at-one-ment” with God. Read the words of this hymn and really hear its petition: “Be my vision, God; may nothing else be more important to me that you”… “Be my wisdom, God; may we be with one another at all times”… “Help me reject false words and praise, God, in favor of the treasure that you offer”… “No matter what happens to me, God, may my heart reflect your own”… This hymn is pleading for a mind, body, and spirit that conforms at all times and in all ways to God’s will. It recognizes the temptation of the riches, praise, and other false offerings of the world and prays fervently to be able to share God’s divine vision.

My favorite line is the last one: “Heart of my own heart, whatever befall/still be my vision, O Ruler of all.” The original author of these words would NOT have been taken in by Hananiah’s siren song. He would have recognized that if it’s aligned with God’s will, even complete exile is better than false hope. Even when the message is hard to accept, we know that God’s very being is goodness, love, and faithfulness. We know that God wouldn’t ask difficult things of us without remaining by our side and leading us always towards a better future—a future where God’s kindom exists on earth as it is in heaven. So it’s our responsibility to reject messages that offer false hope and trust in the messages that are consistent with what we know about God. Messages that may be challenging, but that promise justice, transformation, and eternal life for all of humanity.

It’s tempting to embrace messages that promise personal benefit and comfort. But if these words don’t come from God, this is idolatry. Unintentional idolatry, to be sure, but idolatry nonetheless. “Be Thou My Vision” is a prayer that we might cleave completely to God, that we might see the world through God’s eyes, and that we might follow God’s vision “whatever befall”. When we do, it becomes much more difficult for us to be fooled by false prophets. It becomes much easier for us to reject counterfeit gospels and pursue those that are genuine.

If a false prophesy is like a drug commercial, a prophesy from God is like advice from the family doctor. You won’t always like what they have to say (like when they tell you for the billionth time that you need to lower your cholesterol) but you can trust that it’s true and in your best interest. No matter how promising the claims of the commercial are, they should never supersede the wisdom, the experience, the care, and the expertise of a doctor that knows you and your body’s needs. And what is God if not the Great Physician? Let us heed not the vain, empty praise of those whose only desire is for power, accolades, or authority. Let us unite our vision with God’s, so that God’s victory shall be our victory, and we might work for God’s kindom alone, whatever it takes. Amen.


[3] Proverbs 3:5-6, NKJV (edited for inclusive language).
[4] Philippians 2, Romans 15, 1 Corinthians 1, etc.

No comments:

Post a Comment