The Truth of the Matter, Jeremiah 28:5–9, Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8), June 28, 2020
On May 13, 1940, Winston Churchill addressed the British parliament as he was about to become prime minister. Hitler’s troops had already invaded Poland, and they had just begun their Blitzkrieg advance into France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. War was crashing upon the world as Churchill stepped into leadership. And unlike so many politicians, Churchill did not promise a bright, optimistic future; he held out no hope of speedy victory or early peace. Instead, he electrified the parliament and unified his country with famous but difficult words: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” No politician today would dare to campaign on a slogan like that!
The teachings of the prophet Jeremiah are similarly shocking in their stark boldness and harsh warnings. No one wants to be reminded that the prophets have “prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms” (Jer. 28:8). And Jesus Himself speaks truths that are unwelcome when He confronts the false hopes of the unfaithful: “Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:38).
This is from Jesus’ instruction when He sends out the apostles. It indicates that the Gospel does not bring peace in the manner that the world defines peace. Yet, this should not trouble followers of Jesus. We are to put Jesus first, take up our cross, and follow Him. God’s Word is not always what the world wants to hear, and it may prove challenging to us as well.
That is the difficult message that the prophet Jeremiah had to deliver. God’s righteous judgment was manifesting itself in the rising power of Judah’s enemy, Babylon. The victory of Babylon was inescapable, captivity, and long exile loomed. These were not only political realities, but as Jeremiah proclaimed, God Himself was at work to judge His people and call them to repentance.
This morning we hear about the difference between false and true prophets, but it’s a little hard to understand without the surrounding context. Let’s be perfectly clear, the confrontation between false and true prophets is ultimately between human lies and God’s truth. Earlier, (Ch. 27) God instructs Jeremiah to make and wear a yoke as an object lesson that God is giving Nebuchadnezzar the power to dominate all peoples. The accompanying message made it clear that Babylon would conquer, that such conquest was God’s will, and that any would-be prophet who predicted otherwise was simply lying.
Then, (28:1–4), Jeremiah is confronted by Hananiah with precisely such a prophecy of false comfort. Hananiah directly contradicts Jeremiah. Hananiah says the temple vessels will be returned, and the captive leaders of Judah will be released. In other words, according to him, God will break the king of Babylon’s yoke of power. Later, (28:10–11) Hananiah presents his message with an object lesson of his own. He breaks the yoke that Jeremiah was wearing.
Jeremiah’s message was completely different. God was on Babylon’s side, using Nebuchadnezzar as an instrument of wrath and judgment. So the stage is set for our text this morning. Remember this is “in the presence of the priests and all the people;” (5) a showdown between prophet and prophet.
It is obvious which prophetic message would have been more attractive to the audience in Jerusalem. Hananiah was promising, in the name of God, that the calamity of Babylon’s power was going to pass away quickly, and that the stolen temple vessels and the captive leaders of Judah would be coming home very soon, “within two years” (3).
Who wouldn’t prefer a quick and easy peace? How much more comforting would it be, to be told that God was on your side, and that the difficulties would soon be overcome. Hananiah proclaimed God’s grace without repentance, victory without suffering, in effect, resurrection without the cross.
Jeremiah wishes what Hananiah said were true. He says, “Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord make the words you have prophesied come true.” (6) Yet he also reminds Hananiah, and you and me, that God’s prophets are usually bearers of bad news: “war, famine, and pestilence” (8). But, in the final analysis, we recognize a true prophet by the test of whether or not what he says actually happens. “When the word of that prophet comes to pass, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet” (9).
Our text today leaves the story rather open-ended. But Jeremiah knows that peace and victory are not just around the corner. God did not send or speak through Hananiah. The false prophecy will not come true, and the false prophet will die.
Just as Jeremiah could not agree with the lying prophet’s false comfort, Jesus gives a similar startling warning against shallow hopes of superficial peace, when He says: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (34).
Jeremiah is compelled to announce God’s judgment, while Jesus is the One who ultimately brings the sword, forces a choice of loyalty and love, and finally bears God’s wrath Himself. The sword of judgment fell on Him. It was His blood, His toil, His tears, and His sweat that satisfied God’s judgment and brought us peace. That’s not cheap grace, but the rich, costly freedom of God’s saving love.
Jeremiah’s word about true and false prophets helps us listen to that greater Prophet. How do we know if a prophet speaks the truth? We know by seeing whether what He said actually happens. The judgment of God really did fall on Christ on the cross. And God’s grace and victory for us really did dawn with His resurrection.
The false prophet tells the people what they want to hear. He says the exile will soon be over, the people will come home soon, the holy items from the temple will be returned. It is the opposite of what Jeremiah has been saying. No one wanted to hear Jeremiah’s message, they would all rather have heard the more cheerful news which Hananiah had to share.
Today, over 2500 years later, things have not changed that much. There are many who will tell you what you want to hear and lead you to comfort, but finally to death. God’s faithful people listen to all which God has to say, even when what He says makes them uncomfortable about their sins, their values, and their success. Indeed, as Jeremiah suggests, God’s Word usually does make people very uncomfortable.
It can be difficult to hear that God’s idea of the perfect Christian life does not necessarily conform to the comfortable, middle-class; American lives so many of us lead. The COVID pandemic, the ensuing economic turmoil, the recent racial unrest have given us occasion to expose and re-examine many of the things which we likely never thought about before. We just assumed that is the way things are. Now we find ourselves asking if these things are necessary. Do we really need them? Does it have to be this way? Listen to what God says. Be prepared to be uncomfortable. God forgives sins; He does not excuse them.
And this is what Satan is aware of better than we are aware. He hates it when people listen to God and then put that word into practice in their lives. And so he seeks to disrupt this in any way he can. He will tell us that the word is boring, it is irrelevant, it is suspect, it is baseless superstition, it is but one of many paths to know God, so be sure to sample a few others.
Then, when he cannot keep us from the Word, he works on the connection between the word and life, because if he can just keep us listening but not doing, that is almost better than a person who does not listen at all. The Christian who solemnly nods an assent to what the preacher says but never actually forgives another person must simply taste better when the Devil devours them.
But he also realizes that they are helpful to his plan. Now he can use them as an illustration to others, that the Word of God really is worthless, so why bother listening to it.
And if he cannot keep us from trying to put this word into practice in our lives, then he will turn our very strength into our downfall. We will become proud of what we have done and the good work will become the biggest sin of all. The devil will portray us as smug hypocrites, and for his purposes, so much the better if the portrayal is honest.
Jesus is the prophet of a peace, no, not the peace of human understanding. But this is the peace that surpasses human understanding, which keeps us in Christ Jesus. This peace is not located in the family, in the security, or the things of humanly understood peace. This is the peace which is the life transformed by Christ, for a life in Christ.
Hananiah was urging a worldly peace, not the peace that Jesus brings us. Jeremiah is actually offering that real peace to the folks in Jerusalem. It does not tickle their ears; it comes through a cross of exile and suffering. But Jeremiah himself will proclaim a real peace to the exiles. His prophecy of peace gets fulfilled in Christ who is our peace.
The truth of the matter is in your baptism and in your faith that peace from God has come to you. Jeremiah’s rule has been applied, and the peace of God has come to you in Jesus.
Jesus is the Messiah who established a new covenant and has given you true peace. Jesus’ death on the cross, and resurrection from the dead have defeated sin, death, and the devil and brought that true peace. You are, in fact, at peace with God because the sin that made us His enemies has been removed.
You are at peace with other people because they, too, are forgiven sinners, exactly as you are. You don’t need the other kinds of false peace when God is for you and with you, giving you everything you really need!
Jesus assures you that you already now enjoy the peace He brings. Jesus will bring the final peace on the Last Day when He raises the dead and restores creation. In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Jeremiah’s words have found their ultimate fulfillment. You can now enjoy the peace He gives, and you can rejoice in the consummation of that peace. Amen