Joel Osteen is pastor of America's largest Protestant church. On one occasion he was speaking on the Oprah show about his 'I am' sermon. Oprah invites him to lead the audience in a chant of positive declarations. He gets them to stand and repeat after him: 'I am strong', 'I am secure', 'I am victorious', 'I am disciplined', 'I am beautiful' and 'I am looking forward to my future'. No admission there of the reality of sin or the desperate need of God's forgiveness. What a contrast to the honest, God-given and plain-speaking words of Jeremiah.
This morning we will get a picture of how ugly our hearts are without Christ and are reminded of the beauty God wants to create in us.
Base your assurance on transformation (7:1-8:3)
At the beginning of chapter seven Jeremiah is told to go to the gates of the temple and preach. Notice that he is speaking to people who believe they were worshiping God. People like us!
But these people had separated worshipping God from obedience to God. Their religion was superstition and their assurance was false. They chanted 'this is the temple of The Lord, the temple of The Lord, the temple of the Lord' (7:4). They believed that because the temple was in their city God would never let disaster come to that place. Such assurance was false assurance.
What's your assurance based on? Is it based on the fact that you prayed a prayer of commitment many years ago at a religious meeting? Is it based on the fact that you attend church? These are not reliable guides as to whether you are a Christian or not.
Being a Christian is about being forgiven and transformed. God punishes his Son for our guilt and gives us the righteousness of Christ. God gives us the Holy Spirit so that we have new desires and power to reflect his character. It is this fruit of his presence in our lives that demonstrates we are born again. It is his beauty in our lives that shows we belong to him. So in his first letter John warns that those who make a habit of sinning have not been born of God (3:9); that if we aren't willing to share our wealth with fellow Christians then God's love does not abide in us (3:17); and that if we won't listen to God then we don't know him (4:7).
Have a teachable spirit (8:4-17)
The problem with Judah was that they rejected God's instruction. Their prophets and priests were like an incompetent doctor telling a terminally ill patient that they in the fullness of health. The people themselves would admit to no wrongdoing. 'None of them repent of their wickedness, saying, "What have I done?"' (8:6b). Judah doesn't know how to find God. 'Even the stork in the sky knows her appointed seasons, and the dove, the swift and the thrush observe the time of their migration. But my people do not know the requirements of the Lord' (8:7).
They chose to listen to false teachers who told them what they wanted to hear. False teachers who 'dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. "Peace, peace," they say, when there is no peace' (8:11). Judgement was coming but the false teachers told them all was well. We need to warn people that apart from Christ they are enemies of God who are awaiting his judgement. Yet in Christ we can have true peace with God.
They did not understand what God required of them and they chose to listen to false teaching. One of the most important things we need in the Christian life is the discernment to recognise teaching that reflects Biblical truth and teachable spirit that is willing to be conformed to what the Bible says. Do we look for God to shed his light on our lives? Many people sit in church hoping that other people will be convicted by the sermon. They are aware of other people's failings but don't want to face their own. But all of us are on a journey towards increased Christ-likeness. All of us need to look to the Bible for guidance.
Be influenced by the Spirit of truth (8:18-9:9)
Jeremiah is deeply upset by the spiritual state of Judah. However he doesn't simply sit in smug judgement over them. He weeps for them. 'Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! I would weep day and night for the slain of my people' (9:1). He weeps for them but he also pleads with them.
One of the things that upsets him is their dishonesty. 'They make ready their tongue like a bow, to shoot lies' (9:3a). 'For every one of them is a deceiver, and every friend a slanderer' (9:4b). '... They have taught their tongues to lie ...' (9:5). '... in their deceit they refuse to acknowledge me,’ declares The Lord (9:6).
It doesn't matter whether you are lying to the state or to a friend. It doesn't matter whether you are lying for financial gain or to make yourself look good. It doesn't matter whether it is exaggeration or deceit. It is all lies. Remember that the Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of truth and the devil is called the father of lies. Who do we please when we act with integrity? Who do we please when we act deceitfully?
In Romans the apostle Paul cites deceit amongst the evidence of universal human sinfulness. When we witness the tug of our hearts towards dishonesty we are to be awoken to our need of the forgiveness Christ offers. A day of judgement awaits and we need to take hold of the free gift of grace offered to us in living relationship with Jesus.
We need to experience a change of heart (9:10-26)
I don't know how a preacher like Joel Osteen handles a text like this. Jeremiah did not go to the people of Judah and get them to chant 'I am successful', 'I am beautiful' and 'I am looking forward to my future'. I can't see Oprah applauding a Jeremiah sermon. He said to the people 'you are wicked', 'you are corrupt', 'you are unloving', and 'you are doomed'.
On our own all of us are spiritually repugnant but God offers to make us beautiful. Jeremiah pointed out that while their foreskins were circumcised their hearts were not. They needed forgiveness and they needed to experience God-given inner change. 'What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus!' In him we become beautiful. In him we are made clean. God even gives us new desires so we become more like him.
‘Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me; that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the Lord (9:23-24). We have a beautiful God and we should want to experience the beauty of godliness.
Anything minus God equals nothing (10:1-25)
Finally, in chapter ten we are reminded that the chief sin that God will judge is idolatry. Idols are empty and God alone is the creator and Lord. 'Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk' (5a). 'But the Lord is the true God; he is the living God, the eternal King' (10a).
The problem with idols is that they cut us off from the only source of salvation. An idol, by definition, is anything that gets in our way of having a full-hearted relationship with God. For the rich young ruler his wealth was an idol because he would not let Jesus be more valuable to him. For some their idol is revealed in the fact that they will not let Jesus tell them what is sexually permissible. For others bitterness is an idol that keeps them out of the kingdom - they will not forgive and so they will not be forgiven.
God wants to make you beautiful. He wants to wash away the ugliness that you sin has created. He wants you to experience forgiveness and change. He wants to begin a process of making your character more like that of Jesus. But the people of Judah did not want to be made beautiful. So Jeremiah told them that the Babylonians would come, conquer them and take them into exile. 'Listen! The report is coming – a great commotion from the land of the north! It will make the towns of Judah desolate, a haunt of jackals' (10:22).
If Jeremiah was to speak to us he would address our idols, our lies and our greed. He would remind us that all the unrepentant face a judgement far worse than exile. But he would also point to a gracious God who calls people to repent; a loving God who punished his Son so that we could escape punishment; and a God who wants to make us beautiful by making us like him.