The prophet Jeremiah was one of the most dramatic an eloquent of all of the Old Testament prophets, but he is also one of the hardest to take.
He spoke the Lord’s Word of Truth during a cataclysmic time in Israel’s history. The kingdom of David was in the midst of its decline and fall and Jeremiah would witness with his own eyes its total destruction.
In the year 587 BC the armies of Babylon would invade, overcoming the last defenses of the city of Jerusalem, and destroy the city to its foundations. The great temple would be desecrated and demolished. The magnificent citadel of the king would be brought to utter ruin. And the last king of the Israelites would watch as his family were brought before him and slaughtered, then his captors would put his eyes out, so that the last thing he saw was the death of his family and the end of David’s royal dynasty.
The Israelites would be scattered, losing their homeland, many being taken as slaves to serve their Babylonian overlords.
It just couldn’t get any worse for the Israelites. And Jeremiah knew this was coming, warned the Israelites who wouldn’t listen to him, saw it all happen with his own eyes, and once the truth of his prophecies were confirmed, the Israelites turned on him.
This is the context for understanding the Church’s first scripture for today, an excerpt from the Book of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah.
Jeremiah ruminates that his mission as prophet has brought him nothing but misery. He spoke the Lord’s Word of Truth and the people refused to hear it. he preached repentance and the people said “no thanks!”.
He warned the people about where their idolatry, their worship of wealth, pleasure, power and honors was taking them, and they scoffed. He insisted that their self pre-occupation, self indulgence, and fixation with self gratification had made them vulnerable to their enemies and they told him to lighten up.
He did what the Lord asked of him and his sufferings multiplied.
This is Jeremiah’s lament. Of all the prophets of Israel, he considered himself the worst of failures.
And yet, Jeremiah insists, the Word of God burns in him like a great fire that he cannot contain or even control- he must speak! He remained convicted by the Word of Lord and compelled to speak the Lord’s truth- even if this word was not heeded, even if this truth was not believed.
That’s a true prophet!
The lesson for us?
Our culture is success driven. The pinnacle of cultural achievement is success, which usually means how much wealth we have accumulated, pleasure we have experienced, power we have leveraged to our own advantage, and honors that we have received. All this is what we so often desire and we hold up as the realization of our desires the celebrity, the politician, the financier, as the models which judge and measure our very lives.
These are false gods. But we are content to worship them if they give us what we desire- even if the fulfillment of this desire dehumanizes others.
The Gospel, which Jeremiah foresaw in visions and dreams, sets a different standard- not success, but fidelity- fidelity to Christ, which means loving what he loves and serving what he serves.
This fidelity is the fire that burns in the heart of a disciple, and worldly success with its false gods be damned, because a true disciple is so convicted by the holy fire of their fidelity of Christ, that despite difficulty, apparent failure, persecution, opposition, or distress, they will work tirelessly to enkindle that holy fire in the world.
Keep your celebrities, politicians and financiers. Banish the false gods which promise success but bring ruin into our lives. What the Church needs most are disciples and what this world needs now are saints.
Fidelity to Christ, not success, is what measures and judges the life of a Christian.
This is the Word of the Lord, spoken in ages past by Jeremiah and the prophets. It is the Lord’s Word of Truth and that word speaks to all of us today.
The Apostle Paul speaks this Word of Truth to us, insisting in our second scripture, an excerpt from his Letter to the Romans, that our lives are to become a sacrifice.
What does this mean?
It means that our lives are not our own, to turn the phrase of a great spiritual master, your life is not about you! Your life comes from God, belongs to God, and returns to God.
Who you are, what you are, belongs to Christ, and in offering your life to Christ, who you are and what you are is perfected and fulfilled. You give him your human life and he gives you, as his sacrifice, as his offering, his divine life.
One of the great dynamics of authentic Christian spirituality is that all Christians are priests. In baptism, you are anointed as a priest. What kind of priest? A kind of priest who offers his or her life to Jesus Christ. You are a priest because you make your life an offering to God- that’s what a sacrifice is- an offering dedicated to God.
So, look now at your life, what kind of offering to God are you making? What kind of life are you presenting to God as a sacrifice? Is it worthy? Is it true? Is there any substance to your gift?
There is a great moment in our worship when the faithful are asked to bring forward bread and wine to the priest, so that, through the words of the Lord Jesus himself, these gifts that are offered can be sanctified, redeemed and transformed into the divine life and presence of the Lord Jesus himself.
This offering that is made when the faithful come forward is actually not just the bread and wine, but that action of the faithful walking up that aisle to the priest with those gifts is signifying that with that bread and wine, each and every person here, every man, woman and child, intends to offer their very lives to Christ.
In that moment you make yourself the sacrifice that St. Paul speaks of today!
And when that bread and wine has been sanctified, redeemed and transformed into the divine life and presence of the Lord Jesus and is then offered to you in Holy Communion- when you come forward to receive him, you are, in that Holy Communion, making a promise, taking a solemn oath that says- you give me your divine life and presence Lord Jesus, and now I give my life over to you. You, Jesus, make yourself a sacrifice for me and I now give you my life and make my life a sacrifice for you.
What I just described to you is what Holy Communion is all about.
He gives his life for you. You give your life to him.
Is that what you intend to do when you come forward to receive him? Is your reception of Holy Communion ratifying a reality that is true? Are you giving your life over to the Lord Jesus? And if you are, are you prepared for what that means, ready to serve him, ready, to accept the invitation of St. Paul, and to make your life a sacrifice pleasing and acceptable to him?
Lastly, and most importantly, the holy Gospel- an excerpt from the great account of Christ’s revelation written by the evangelist, Matthew.
Today’s Gospel continues the magnificent scene from last week, where at Caesarea Philippi, the Lord Jesus begged this question of us- “who do you say that I am?”
The question has a right answer and has many wrong answers as well.
Today’s excerpt is about what happens to us when we have to wrong answer or when having the right answer, we refuse to accept the implications.
The lesson here is this: the Lord Jesus is NOT whomever or whatever we might prefer him to be. He is God, and as God, is always boldly and distinctively himself.
Jesus Christ is not a projection of our will, he is always himself. We don’t make him who he really and truly is.
But so many of us do!
Cardinal George once shared that in so many of the complaints that come to him that an appeal is made, and this appeal is that whatever it is that he or the Church is doing or saying (or not doing or not saying), this doesn’t correspond to “my Jesus.” “My Jesus” the Cardinal is told, wouldn’t “do this, say this, or believe this.”
And the Cardinal’s reply is that he doesn’t know “my Jesus”, he only knows the Lord Jesus whom the testimony of the Apostles has revealed to the Church.
In other words, the Lord Jesus, who is, as our Apostolic Creed professes “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God” is not just whoever we want him to be. He doesn’t belong to us as a tool or a device. We don’t make him who he is. There is no “my Jesus”. There is only the Lord Jesus, who is who he reveals himself to be.
This Lord Jesus, true God and true man, is the only real Jesus. All others are frauds and pretenders.
The real Lord Jesus challenges us, doesn’t tell us what we want to hear, insists we make sacrifices and take risks and takes us where we would rather not go.
I guess that’s why so many of us come to prefer a fake to the real thing.