Jeremiah & Confirmation Bias
Sermon #191 St. James the Less #98 6/28/20
The prophet Jeremiah spoke to the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the Lord; and the prophet Jeremiah said, “Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles. But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”
The Situation: Captivity
Well this morning I wouldn’t blame you if you slept through our reading from the prophet Jeremiah. If it sounds like we happened upon a conversation that started long before we got there, you’d be right.
I had a professor in seminary who would start his lecture, and within two minutes I was already lost. It was as if he started the lecture when he left his house, kept talking to himself on the way over, and we all just happened to be in the classroom when he walked in finishing up his first two points.
The same is true for the five verses we get from Jeremiah 28. We get no context about where Jeremiah is, and we can vaguely gather from the first sentence that Jeremiah is responding to something that the prophet Hananiah has already said.
As much as I love the lectionary, cutting up this passage the way they did makes no sense, and it sure doesn’t inspire anyone to go and read this amazing book of the Bible. And it is an amazing book about a quirky but persistent prophet.
Jeremiah was a prophet during some of the most critical and troubling years in the Old Testament. The Kingdom of Judah was quickly going downhill, the glory days of King David and Solomon were long gone, and Jeremiah saw firsthand how the last few kings of Judah drove the nation into utter ruin.
Though Jeremiah was sent by God he was not a popular prophet. He preached for forty years, but it seems that only two people responded favorably to his message. Forty long years of preaching, and only two converts.
Think about the amount of people who went to see Billy Graham around the world, the thousands of people around the Lincoln Memorial to hear Martin Luther King Jr., or the masses who flock when the pope makes a visit. From the world’s standard (even the church’s) Jeremiah wasn’t very successful.
Part of that lack of success may have something to do with his quirkiness—I did warn you he could be a little strange. Unlike other prophets who would proclaim, “Thus says the Lord…” and then eloquently tell God’s message, Jeremiah went a step further; many times, he would physically enact the prophecy he was telling.
At one point he wore a loincloth around to show how it clings to a person’s body, and in the same manner the people of Judah should cling to God (Ch. 13).
Jeremiah spent his whole life telling people to shape up and start following God. If not, then God would allow an outside army to come take their Promised Land away from them as judgement for their unfaithfulness.
And that’s exactly what happened. Because of the nation’s political, moral, and spiritual corruption Jeremiah witnessed the mighty empire of Babylon take over his beloved homeland in 597 B.C.
“After conquering Jerusalem the Babylonians selected the leading people of the city for deportation. The tactic was to remove all persons of influence and leadership—artisans, merchants, pollical leaders—so that the general populace would be dependent on and submissive to the invaders. Without leaders the people, like sheep, would submit to the puppet king and the occupying army with minimum hassle. Jeremiah, interestingly, was left behind. He had been ignored for so long as a leader by his own people that the Babylonians did not consider him important enough to exile” (Peterson 146).
Not a glowing review of Jeremiah to say the least…
Jeremiah vs. Hananiah
Our reading from this morning is a debate between Jeremiah and a self-proclaimed prophet named Hananiah, and it’s now been three years since the Babylonians conquered their land.
The great debate of the time was: how long would God allow Babylon to rule the land? These were uncertain times, and those exiled in Babylon and those left in Jerusalem were trying to understand the significance of Jerusalem’s capture by a pagan nation.
The Holy City and the nation were not utterly destroyed, and so what was God up to?
There were some who said that Judah had been punished by God through defeat and exile, and now God would restore the nation within two years. In essence they were saying they had gotten whipped, learned their lesson, and God now would bring the exiles back home. Hananiah seems to be one of the representatives of this faction.
Jeremiah says that it’s quite the opposite, and he makes his point clear by showing up to this debate wearing yoke-bars around his neck, the kind you’d put on cattle as they worked in the field.
He said that the people of Judah should expect to be under the yoke of Babylon for a long time. In fact, that God was using the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar to teach his people a lesson about repentance.
This was not the time to think about things getting back to normal in the near future, but that there was a hard road ahead; that they needed to reflect on everything that had happened over the past few generations and repent.
If they were unwilling to do this hard work, then more destruction would come. The next time Babylon would come, they would destroy everything.
This great debate between these two prophets was as much a foreign policy debate as it was a spiritual one. Hananiah was an aggressive nationalist who called for independence, even if that meant Judah aligned with Babylon’s military rival: Egypt.
Jeremiah’s words were so unpopular because his message was pro-Babylon and he said that it was God’s will that they submit to their captures. This was not the time for war, but for deep repentance as a collective people who had forsaken God. They needed to settle in because Babylon was going to be over them for a long time.
In our passage we hear Jeremiah say, “Amen! I wish it were so Hananiah. I wish God would restore our nation in two short years and bring back the exiles from Babylon. But you’re only telling the people what they want to hear instead of what God is actually saying.”
The Hard Thing to Hear
With all that in mind, it’s not surprising that Jeremiah only had two converts over 40 years, is it?
He said the unpopular thing, the news that that no one wanted to hear. What he had to say was not going to sell any bestselling books, he wasn’t going to get rich, or become famous. He was actually going to scorned by his neighbors, called a traitor, and seen as a dangerous radical who sided with the enemy.
And all this happened because Jeremiah said something that the people did not want to hear. They only wanted to hear what seemed to work in their favor rather than what God was actually up to.
There’s a psychological term you may know, called confirmation bias. It’s the tendency to search for facts that we already agree with. Or if we are presented with facts then we’ll interpret them in a way that supports our established personal beliefs and values. Even the information we later recall will be shaped by our underlying biases.
Think about the news sources we usually look at. We typically get our information from people we trust, and we usually trust them because we agree with them.
Or think about an argument you’ve been in recently with a spouse or friend. I always have a more favorable interpretation of my words and actions than my wife. I only recall the good things I’ve done rather than seeing the whole picture, and then Megan graciously fills me in with the details I left out.
Confirmation bias actually helps us function in the world. We can’t read every newspaper, and we can’t remember everything we’ve done as well as what others have done. We only have so much time and attention, and this bias streamlines all this information into a manageable size that we can work with.
But unfortunately, it can also blind us to reality. The deeper we’ve gotten into searching for only things that we want to hear, the harder it is for us to hear what we don’t want to reconcile with our perception of reality.
This was the fatal sin of the people of Judah during Jeremiah’s day, and sadly not much has changed.
What Jeremiah’s unpopular and yet prophetic witness shows us is that what’s easy for us to hear may not be what we need to hear. What we want to happen may not match what God is actually doing in our lives and in the world.
The people of Judah preferred Hananiah’s words of peace and restoration in two years. They wanted the quick fix but they didn’t get it. Hananiah didn’t even live to see if his prophesy came true.
Babylon would come back into the land in 586 to quell a rebellion, and as punishment they destroyed the Temple Solomon built and took even more people into exile. It would be 70 long years before the first exiles would return to what was left of Jerusalem.
My prayer is that you and I can listen to one another and those who differ from us. We unconsciously shape the world we see, and it’s human nature to seek what is easiest for us to hear.
But Jeremiah reminds us that we don’t have it all figured out; that we must be willing to admit that we are wrong, and to accept that we don’t have all the answers. And that is a vulnerable place to be.
It’s a place of perceived weakness, it can even feel humiliating to not have it all figured out, but my friends, I believe that state of vulnerability is exactly where God does his most transformative work on each of us.
It is there that he forms and shapes us into his image.
4th Sunday after Pentecost. Year A. Jeremiah 28:5-9. Run with the Horses, Eugene Peterson. Pic here.