A Prophet’s Reward

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2nd Sunday after Pentecost  Deer4

June 26, 2011

Jeremiah 28:5-9
Matthew 10:40-42

Peder Stenslie

The prophet’s reward is like this. It is knowing that the presence of God gives life… life that is rich and strong… life that can endure hard times… life that finds joy amid sorrow and loss… life that cannot be destroyed by sin or death.

Perhaps it’s because of what others, in the past, have told me about this text… or maybe  it’s simply a result of my own sinful heart… I don’t know. But whenever I hear Jesus’ words from today’s gospel lesson, my first inclination is to think that Jesus is delivering a threat here.

He speaks about how those who welcome him… who welcome a prophet… who welcome a righteous man… who welcome his disciples… will be rewarded. What I always manage to hear in these words is the silent threat that those who fail to welcome Jesus… a prophet… or any of the others mentioned… will be punished. “Be afraid,” I hear, “because if you fail to welcome anyone sent by God, you’re in trouble.”

But when I take a closer look at this passage, what I find is really going on is completely different. These words come from a long passage in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus is having a serious, private talk with his disciples. He is talking to them about being out in the world without him, living and serving as his disciples. He speaks to them about what they are to do when they are out there, what hardships they will face, what can hurt them and what cannot. He ends his talk with the words that are our gospel lesson for today.

It is important to understand that these words are not spoken to those who will receive the disciples, but to the disciples who are being sent. Therefore, they’re not meant to be a threat, but a promise. The promise given to the disciples is that even though the flesh and blood Jesus will not be at their side, the power of God will always be with them. The power of God will be with them, delivering blessing to those who welcome… those who receive the Kingdom of God as it comes into their midst.

That is the nature and way of the Kingdom of God. It comes to us, from without, and it invites us to open our hearts… and our minds… so that the spirit and power of God might move in us, work in us… bless us.

To better understand the beautiful promise of this text, it helps to consider some of the strange phrases it contains. For example: “Whoever welcomes a prophet… will receive prophet’s reward.”

What does that refer to… “a prophet’s reward”? What would a prophet’s reward be? Would it be a special place of honor in heaven? Would it be riches and good fortune in this life?

Our Old Testament lesson today comes from a prophet… Jeremiah. Let’s consider his life in order to better understand what is meant by “a prophet’s reward.”

Jeremiah was a prophet for a period of about 40 years… pretty much his entire adult life. From the beginning of his call to the end, God gave him this promise: “I am with you to save you and deliver you. “ (Jeremiah 1:8 & 15:20)

Simply put… this is the “prophet’s reward…” the presence of God. This is also what is indicated by Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel. Jesus tells the disciples that he is sending them into the world to bear the Gospel and to reveal the Kingdom of God. Like the prophets, they will know the presence of God. God will be with them, both to sustain them and to deliver blessing to those they encounter.

But one could ask if the presence of God really is such a great thing? Jeremiah didn’t want to be a prophet, but God called him anyway. His reluctance was proven to have solid grounds. His life was hard because of his call. His call brought him humiliation and isolation… throughout his entire life.

He was called to speak out and stand against the corruption and abuses of his people… which he did. God promised to be with him, yet because of his stand he was mocked and plotted against.

He felt the burden of his call was too great. He frequently cried out to God about how unfair his life was. He accused God of misleading him. “O Lord, you deceived me… and I was deceived,” he cried. Jeremiah thought the presence of God would somehow make his life flow smoothly. It would make him awesome and victorious in life.

He thought, “If God is with me, then when I speak, people will be amazed and they will obey my words.” But that’s not what happened. He complained bitterly to God about his continual hardships.

The presence of God is not always easy to bear. There is a dramatic scene described in the bible when the disciple Peter realized for the first time that being in the presence of Jesus was the same as being in the presence of God. It was right after Jesus worked his first miracle before the eyes of Peter… filling Peter’s fishnets with more fish than could be held or counted, right after a whole night of catching nothing.

As Peter grasped what just happened, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, and cried: ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8)

The presence of God was more than Peter could handle. It was more than he felt he deserved. It was more than he wanted; but Jesus did not leave Peter… he stayed with him… throughout his life.

The cry of Peter and the complaints of Jeremiah suggest that the presence of God is not always such a great thing. So how is that a reward?

The answer to that is seen when we examine closely the life of Jeremiah. After a lifetime of speaking out against the corruption of his people, and all the abuse that brought upon him, Jeremiah’s warnings of impending disaster were finally fulfilled. The nation of Judah was conquered and the people were sent to Babylonia in painful exile. Even though, in his youth, he had longed to see this vindication of his preaching; it gave him no joy when it finally happened. His place was with his people. Their suffering in exile would be his suffering. His reward was not an escape from hardship or suffering. His reward was the presence of God… and something else… something more.

Jeremiah’s complaints to God about his suffering — which are frequent and always very powerfully expressed — all belong to the young Jeremiah. In the latter part of his life, his complaining ceases… as his faith increases. In the latter part of his life, he came to find that the presence of God was enough to strengthen and sustain him through painful times. He came to know that he needed nothing else. If God was with him, he could face whatever hardship befell him.

The prophet’s reward is not just the presence of God, but the life-transforming knowledge that God’s presence is what need. It is the incredible change in our hearts and in our lives that allows us to no longer fear, resist or resent the power of God, but frees us to build our lives and our hope upon it.

Johan told the story about the twin fawns that were born in Holden Village while we were there. We learned that this was a frequent occurrence at Holden. Does often give birth to their fawns somewhere within the village. They do this because the presence of human beings makes it a safe place for their fawns to come into the world. There are bears and other dangers in the woods surrounding the village that threaten the vulnerable fawns.

The presence of humans isn’t always comfortable for the deer. You can see that they are wary of the people. Human activity is often startles the deer. Our world must seem strange and often frightening to them; but they have come to know that the presence of humans brings life to their newborn fawns. It means protection from the mortal dangers of the woods… and so they seek out the village. They endure the discomfort that the presence of humans brings… in order to give birth within its protective circle. Eventually, many of them simply come to accept the village as home.

The prophet’s reward is like this. It is knowing that the presence of God gives life… life that is rich and strong… life that can endure hard times… life that finds joy amid sorrow and loss… life that cannot be destroyed by sin or death.

That is a
prophet’s reward… and it’s the reward of the righteous man, and the reward of Jesus’ disciples…. the reward of all who make themselves vulnerable by following God’s call to serve, with their lives, his Kingdom.

All those servants of God will, over time, come to know that the presence of God is all they need. To be able to live in that freedom and hope is a great gift indeed… a gift I pray we may all be blessed with.