False Prophets Among Us, Jeremiah 23:16-29, Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15), August 18, 2019
The Old Testament Reading from the book of Jeremiah is a stern warning to false prophets who speak a fashionable message, while their hearers are walking in the stubbornness of their hearts. Even in the Gospel lesson from Saint Luke shows that true words of peace still bring division. Jesus’ work wasn’t easy; likewise, Christians’ lives will not be easy. Yet, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). And our Epistle lesson from Hebrews gives crucial encouragement to persevere by keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus.
Jeremiah lived in an era not too unlike our own; there was an immense amount of pressure to speak nothing but pleasing things, in order to foster peace and goodwill toward all. Too many prophets of Jeremiah’s day had completely driven God’s people down the wrong path with nothing but words of comfort and prosperity. To bring His people to repentance, Jeremiah faithfully proclaimed the harsh Law of a future exile in Babylon.
Let me give an example by telling about two very different preachers. The first was a guy who told a moving story about he and his two year old son going on a walk in the woods together and it began to rain. The rain turned into a storm and the little boy was scared to death. The dad was hurrying home as quickly as he could, but the little boy was frantic and screaming. The dad was carrying his son on his back and they are both soaked to the bone. Finally, as the little boy keeps screaming his dad takes him in his arms and holds him really close and repeats over and over: It’s okay, I’m here and I’m going to take care of you. We’re going to be home soon. It’s okay.
Then the preacher made an application. He said that God loves us, and when life comes down hard on us, God is with us and He carries us. God will never let us go. He loves us and He wants us to know that we are safe with Him. That was the sermon. That was this preacher’s typical type of message, Sunday after Sunday.
They were really encouraging messages. Very moving and very easy to identify with, it made everyone want to be able to communicate the message of God’s love as clearly. Sounds innocent, and true enough, but there was just one thing missing: God’s Word.
The next guy preached from 1st Timothy chapter 1. The preacher read the passage and explored what it said with really good skill. He showed how Paul repeated the word faith over and over in the first few verses, and then how he warned about some who had departed from the faith. He explained who Paul was, and who Timothy was. and who the church was in Ephesus where Timothy was preaching. He really made the text come to life.
Then he made an application. He said that one of the things Jesus Christ came to build in us is saving faith. That faithfulness to Jesus is foundational to our life in Christ. He reflected on the faithfulness of God, and how God’s love was shown so clearly in Jesus. By faith we receive God’s victory, and to depart from the faith is to walk away from the Lord Himself.
That was typical of his messages. They were really great messages. There was both emotion and information. It was both moving and encouraging to walk closer to God and trust Him more. It made everyone want to communicate God’s Word to others with that kind of clarity.
Many churches today are filled with preachers who tell stories and impress everyone with emotional man-made chicken soup for the soul, and do not preach the Word of God. Now, I’m not against a good story. What I’m saying is that touching stories are not a replacement for the Word of God. Muslims and Buddhists have touching stories. What people really need to hear and know is God’s Word.
Sometimes God says things that comfort us and make us feel good, but sometimes God says things that can, and should, awaken us with fear and trembling. Anyone that hides the rebukes of God is a false teacher. And any Christian who only wants to hear that which tickles his or her ears, is rebellious against God and walking in darkness.
Now Jeremiah was written over 2500 years ago, but not much has changed. The best thing a church can do is hear, and obey, the Word of God. The very best thing I can do for you is to strive to preach and teach the truth of the Word of God to you, and strive to live it as I pray for you. The best thing you can do for yourself, and your family, is open the Bible together and share the Word of God with each other as you pray and fellowship together. Practice the love of God by devoting yourself to His Holy Word.
In Jeremiah we hear the voice of God calling, warning, sometimes exasperated, sometimes furious, sometimes pleading, sometimes deeply sad, sometimes hopeful, sometimes promising a remnant will return, sometimes guaranteeing destruction and doom, but always a voice of truth. God speaks a timeless message of truth that we need desperately to hear and heed today.
When we’re struggling and need reassurance, when we feel God is far away, we might well yearn for a miraculous rescue, or some new and dramatic sign that God really is near us. But how did Christ, our Lord, promise to be with us to the very end of time? He promised to be with us and speak to us in the very Word of God.
Through the proclamation and hearing of God’s Holy Word, God draws near to us even when we’ve strayed far away. God still calls out to us through His comforting Word. He promised He would still speak to His people in their distant exile through His faithful prophets. He is always calling out to us, despite our wandering, with His saving Word of truth, the message of Christ’s cross and resurrection. And that comforting Word brings us near to our God again and again.
Contrary to what some might try to tell you, you can’t really know about Jesus without any sense of your own sinfulness. You just cannot understand what it is that God has done, and what He gives to you in Christ Jesus. Your sins have been punished on the cross. Jesus died, even though you should have died, even though I should have been tortured and put to death, but it was Jesus instead. He paid the price of our sins, and He pours out forgiveness for us freely and richly.
If you think that you are not such a bad person, then Jesus is probably just a ‘nice guy’, and you probably just want to hear something to make you feel good and to cheer you up. When Jesus is just a ‘polite Savior’ who did nice things, then the truth is not that important, and salvation is cheap and easy. But if you see what a deadly and evil thing your sins are, then Jesus has done something remarkable. He took your guilt and sin, and gave you eternal life and resurrection from the grave!
All three of our readings from God’s Word are very straightforward and to the point; there’s no mincing words; there’s no sugar-coating or dancing around the subject. It doesn’t take a doctorate in advanced theological studies to figure out what our Lord is teaching us today.
Even though we live in a day and age filled with false prophets who preach to the people what their itching ears want to hear. Even though the time of false prophets is here, and has been since the time of Jeremiah and before, God’s Word is important or powerful. By hearing our faith begins, by studying and reading God’s Word our faith grows and is strengthened.
God gives faith by grace. God’s Word is the only truth. This is what the people of Jeremiah’s day needed to hear. This is what you need to hear as well.
In our lifetime we can read many different books, and they have different effects on our lives. Whether it is fiction, romance, science fiction or westerns, they transport us into a different world. For a time we are not where we are physically. God’s Word does so much more than that. It is living and active, alive in our hearts, and our lives, and in this world. It has the power to overcome Satan and sin and even death itself.
The truth is not just in part of God’s Word, not just some of it, and then we can forget or dismiss the rest. The power of all of God’s Word is here for us today. It is here for our children and grandchildren for generations to come until the very end of time.
One last illustration: an Illinois state trooper was patrolling on the interstate and tried to pull someone over for speeding or some other violation. But instead of pulling over, the driver decided to try outrunning the trooper. The chase went on for some time, and then the driver took an exit. He drove for a while on the connecting highway and then, inexplicably, pulled his car over to the side and got out just past a sign announcing that he’d entered the city limits of town. When the trooper got out of his car, the man, who was apparently enjoying himself immensely, said something like, “Ha, ha! You can’t do anything to me I’m inside the city limits now!” The driver believed that the trooper’s authority was limited to the state highways. He was, of course, very wrong. The state police had authority everywhere in the state, and so the man was also very much in trouble, and very much under arrest.
Lots of people today have the same kind of foolish ideas about God’s Word, they think it has limits. They may not know exactly where those limits are, but that’s just the way they like it, gray and unclear. They don’t want to have to think about anyone, especially an almighty God always, in every situation, having power over them.
God’s Word requires us to put our trust entirely in Christ for our salvation and for the forgiveness of all our sins. And that same gospel strengthens and feeds us, comforts us, grows us, and equips us for anything and everything the world, Satan, and our sinful flesh might throw at us.
In His Word God tells us He is near to us. In His Word He tells us that He’s bigger than all our problems. In His Word He tell us no matter the lies of this world that are told, and no matter how attractive they might be to us, God has the power to smash and forgive them, to reveal them for what they are, and give His grace in Jesus Christ. Amen.