What do you need in your backpack for the journey of life?
Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
My mother had a little collection of things she used to say from time to time when I was growing up: Life isn’t fair, for example. I don’t care who started it. If you’re bored, go read a book.
And she would say, I suppose we all have our crosses to bear.
Sometimes she meant that one sarcastically, as in, You kids are being really annoying today. More often she was taking about those burdens in life that we didn’t ask for and we can’t change, so we just have to put up with them, no matter how difficult they are.
It might sound similar, but I don’t think that’s exactly what Jesus meant when he told his disciples to take up their cross and follow him.
This morning’s first reading, from Isaiah, comes out of the time when the exile to Babylon had ended and the exiles were returning to Jerusalem.
Their city was in ruins. They faced tremendous challenges. Coming home again didn’t solve everything by a long shot.
In addition to the enormous task of rebuilding the city, they had to rebuild their culture, too. Their community had been fractured. They had to rethink their identity, refocus on what it meant to be a Jew.
One big question they faced was how to deal with foreigners who had mixed with – and married into – their society. And in the Hebrew Scriptures, we find several different answers.
When I try to imagine the showdown between prophets that’s described in this morning’s Old Testament reading, the scene I picture looks a little like a pro wrestling match. Certainly Jeremiah is dressed for spectacle, wearing the wooden yoke – that’s the thing that goes over an animal’s neck so it can pull a cart or a plow – because God told him to wear a yoke to symbolize God’s command to submit to the conquerors from Babylon.
And now entering the ring, Jeremiah’s opponent, the prophet Hananiah!
And if the name Hananiah isn’t familiar to you, don’t worry – you’re not alone. Hananiah’s entire story takes up one short chapter in the book of Jeremiah – just 17 verses – and the chapter heading in my Bible is Hananiah Opposes Jeremiah and Dies. He stood before the king and the people and told them what they wanted to hear – but he was wrong, and that was the end of him.
And I want to talk about this story because – as short as it is – I think it raises some important questions for us. How do we recognize the false prophets of our time? How do we decide what to believe when we hear conflicting messages from people who all claim to be speaking truth? Those are important questions, but before we consider them in the light of this reading, we need to go back and take a closer look at the story of Jeremiah and Hananiah, because the five verses we just heard read aren’t nearly enough to understand what’s going on here.