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The Cracked Crystal Ball / Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Jeremiah 28:5-9

9As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes to pass, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”

Prayer: Lord, we know that Your ways are often not our ways, and that our ways are often not Your ways. Because You are wiser than we are, give us the grace to admit that we don‘t know all the answers.

When you think of a crystal ball, you probably think of a fortuneteller. But today, crystal balls are not limited to fortunetellers.

Economists have them.

Meteorologists are said to have them.

Poll takers are suspected of borrowing them.

Some politicians wish they had one.

The faithful at the racetrack would pay a premium for one.

The only problem is that most of the crystal balls available today are cracked. They just don’t work right. The one constant we can be sure of is, that way too often when it comes to forecasting, is that it will change tomorrow. Banks have something like a hymn board, on which you can change the numbers each week, to keep up with fluctuating interest rates. It’s always risky to predict or to try to guarantee anything in the future, except matbe those reports issued by the highway department before each holiday weekend.

The art of prediction has always been associated with the people we call prophets. The prophets of the Scriptures, however, never needed crystal balls. They had something much more reliable. Their prophecy was based on the Word of God. You would think that the people of God should be able to distinguish a legitimate prophet from a false one; but it’s difficult, especially when the false ones look and sound so much like the real ones.

The matter of false prophecy confronts us in today’s text. Now you may not get terribly excited about a debate between two men with odd-sounding names, who both claimed to be speaking the Word of God in their little corner of the world, so many years ago. But the matter of their claim is something quite contemporary. This should concern every Christian. Who speaks for God today? Whom can we believe? Who is speaking the truth? Are there voices that may be leading us astray?

Here’s a warning about modern-day false prophets: I don’t think a false prophet will display a sign telling us a new heresy and flaunt it before the people. He’ll most often, speak the words of righteousness and truth and will appear as a minister of light, declaring the Word.

Seeing that, I have to admit that it makes sense. The best of the false prophets are those who appear most authentic. Some wolves have learned how to tailor and to wear sheep’s clothing so well that we may not be able to tell the difference.

Jesus gave His classic advice in the Sermon on the Mount. “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15-16) The problem in our instant oriented and mobile society, is that we don’t have the time to wait around for the fruits, nor do we want to wait for them. By the time we find time to examine the fruits, the prophet is “long gone.”

There may be an easier way to detect a false prophet in our time. The false prophet is one who will: Tell us what we like to hear. Tell us what we want to hear. Tell us everything is going to be all right, even when it’s not.

These two prophets from the past are named Hananiah and Jeremiah. By just hearing the names, your opinion may be prejudiced on the side of Jeremiah, for we already know that he was a man of God. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a book named after him in the Bible. Christians have no reason to question Jeremiah’s authenticity. His prophecy was not popularly accepted, and because he said some things that sounded frightening, he’s sometimes called the weeping prophet.

Hananiah, on the other hand, looked into the future and announced that God’s people would be back from exile in two years. The yoke of the king of Babylon would be broken, and the holy vessels which had been taken from the temple would be returned. Everything would be as it should be. This was news that they would have welcomed. It was prophecy of a positive nature, implying victory and restoration. The only thing wrong was, according to Jeremiah, it was not to be so.

In the previous chapter (Jeremiah 27), Jeremiah, God told him to make an ox yoke, and wear it before the ambassadors who had come to Jerusalem. He gave them a message to take back to their respective kings. The yoke was Nebuchadnezzar’s yoke which the Lord placed on their necks. They were to wear it or face destruction. Jeremiah was saying that they must wear the yoke of the king of Babylon. Hananiah was saying that that yoke would be broken, and everything brought back to normal in two years. One of them was telling the people what they liked to hear, and the other wasn’t.

No one likes to hear a prophecy of subjection or servitude. Yet Jeremiah saw this as God’s will. That view goes a long way toward explaining Jeremiah’s seemingly unpatriotic and defeatist attitude in the years that followed.

There is a remarkable short story, called A Mother’s Tale. In the story, the issues of credibility and destiny. It’s a story written from the viewpoint of beef cattle.

A mother cow, out on the range, is asked by her young ones, Why have men come to drive away some of the cattle? Where are they going? The young are excited and curious, wanting to go along, not wanting to be left out. In response to their repeated questions, she tells them what she has heard passed down from her great grandmother. She tells them about the train, the iron bars of the railroad, the long trip of the cattle squeezed into box cars, the unloading at the stock yards, and about the final destination, the slaughterhouse.

One of the cattle which had been to the slaughterhouse, had miraculously escaped, even after being struck on the head and assumed to be dead. This one returned walking back the many miles, following the railroad back to the range. Showing the severe scars of his ordeal, he tried to convince the others of what he had seen and been through. He urged them to rebel or to try to escape from the men who would take them away. Some believed him, others thought he was crazy, some wanted to see for themselves.

Her son was one who couldn’t quite believe all this. He wanted to see for himself. He thought if it was true, then he would be prepared. He said to himself, “… the one I will charge is The Man With The Hammer. I’ll put Him and His Hammer out of the way forever, and that will make me an even better hero than The One Who Came Back. His ideas were impressive but destined to fail. He heard only what he wanted to hear. The story ends on a sad note when one of her little calves asks his mother, What’s a train?

What we hear and what we want to hear are not always the same. Paul, writing to Timothy, says, For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. (2 Timothy 4:3-4)

Jeremiah responds to Hananiah’s rosy prophecy, by saying, “I wish it were so! All of us like to hear someone say everything is going to be all right! But that wish and that word of Hananiah was destined to come true yet. The Lord had decreed a time of exile.

Jeremiah then gave his interpretation of what is involved in true prophecy. He said, “As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes to pass, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.” (Jeremiah 28:9) Many prophets foretell destruction. But the real test of a prophet is whether he can see the Lord bringing about peace down the road. Peace is much more difficult to achieve than war.

Neither you nor I need a crystal ball to tell us what is coming. We have the Word of God and that’s enough for us. In His wisdom, the Lord has chosen not to reveal the future to satisfy our curiosity. He does, however, assure us that we don’t have to face the future alone, for He is beside us.

Gerhard Frost has written the following words as a simple reflection of his faith.

I Will Remember
Morning has broken,
long shadows are receding;
time for today’s resolution:
With the Spirit’s help
I will remember that the toughest,
most resilient and tenacious,
most stubborn and unyielding
fact that I’ll encounter this day
is the eternal and all-embracing
love of God.


With a God like this, and His caring love, you’ll never need a crystal ball.