Saturday, 26 July 2014

Jeremiah 11-20 'Faithfulness is painful'

Over the summer I read a brilliant little book, entitled ‘The Call to Joy and Pain.’  This book encourages Christians to embrace the suffering that is essential to being a faithful follower of Christ.  The writer claims that, ‘the happiest people in the world are not those who don’t have problems—they are those who are not afraid of their problems.
Amazingly, there are popular preachers today who claim that it is never God’s will for the Christian to suffer.  Yet Jesus warned his disciples that in this world we will have many troubles.  James, the half-brother of Jesus, tells us to consider it pure joy whenever we face trials of many kinds.  The life of the apostle Paul was marked by constant hardship.  Jesus was called a man of sorrows who was familiar with grief.  Jeremiah is testimony to how hard it is to faithfully share the word of Lord.
So, are we willing to suffer the consequences of faithfully following God?
  1.  Faithful people speak the truth (11-12)
Jeremiah was a prophet who was called to tell people things that they did not want to hear.  He reminded them of the Covenant made at Mount Sinai; which warned them that they would be kicked out of the Promised Land if they stubbornly rebelled against God.  The people preferred to listen to prophets who told them that God would never judge them.  They refused to repent and demonstrate true faith.  Indeed, it was as if they had conspired together to forsake God and worship the so-called gods of the surrounding nations.  Jeremiah tells them that, because of their unbelief and sin, judgement was on its way.
What is in store for this faithful prophet as he tells people what they don’t want to hear?  What will it cost him to stand firm in an age of unbelief?  It will be as if he is a gentle lamb being led to the slaughter (11:19). 
Does that remind you of anyone?  Isaiah pictures the suffering of Jesus as being that of a lamb being led to the slaughter (53:7).  When being faithful to God causes us to suffer, we have the joy of knowing that in that suffering we are identifying with our loving Saviour!
Jeremiah complains.  How come those who ignore God prosper?  How come it is so easy for faithless people?  (See 12:1b).  If our lives reflect the values of an unbelieving world, if we never mention that the God of love is also the one who will judge the unrepentant and if we keep what we believe to ourselves then no-one will ever have a problem with us.  But if we live by a different set of values people will assume that we are judging them and if tell them of their need for God’s mercy they will ask us to keep our religion to ourselves.    
Many people say that their families and close friends are the hardest people to share their faith with.  Understandably they fear that those they love the most will not respond well to what they believe.  So we can see how difficult God’s words to Jeremiah are, at the beginning of chapter twelve, when he says the prophet’s family and friends are going to desert him.  Again, his experiences will later be mirrored in a more dramatic way by Jesus.  ‘When other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless, O abide with me.’  Take comfort, he will never leave you nor forsake you!
2.  Faithful people remember their mission in the world (13-15)
In chapter thirteen, we have the first of several dramatic acts that Jeremiah is called to perform.  ‘This is what the Lord said to me: "Go and buy a linen belt and put it round your waist, but do not let it touch water"' (13:1).  He is then to go to the Euphrates are leave the belt in the cleft of a rock.  When he returns, many days later, he will find the belt spoiled and useless.
This is what God thinks of the kingdom of Judah.  They were meant to display the glory of God.  Yet when they went into a foreign land they chased after foreign gods.  Now they resemble a dirty garment that is not fit to be worn.  Bible commentator Chris Wright applies this picture, writing, 'if there is fundamentally nothing in the least admirable about the lives of Christians individually, or the collective witness of the church, then there is small hope of the world finding anything to admire in the God we represent.'  What do our live, individually and together, say about the God we claim to represent?
This gesture is followed by a message of impending doom.  Jeremiah complains again.  'Alas, my mother, that you gave me birth, a man with whom the whole land strives and contends!  I have neither lent nor borrowed, yet everyone curses me ' (15:10).  It is hard to speak the truth, when it results in people despising you.
How does God respond to the prophet’s complaint?  With a gentle rebuke!  '... If you repent, I will restore you that you may serve me' (15:19a).
The many Psalms of lament show us that we can be honest to God about our feelings and that God is big enough to take our questions.  But God will not allow us wallow in self-pity.  A negative spirit can disqualify us from effective service.  Remember the privilege it is that God has prepared works in advance for each of us to do.  No one’s ministry was more difficult than that of Jesus, but look at the satisfaction he derived from serving his Father: “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34).  Again, our comfort and joy is reinforced by the fact that God goes with us.  God assures Jeremiah '... they will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you to rescue and save you ... I will save you from the hands of the wicked and deliver you from the grasp of the cruel' (15:20-21).
3. Faithful people are sorrowful yet rejoicing (16-17)
The life of Jeremiah contradicts the false promises of the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’.  The so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ says faithfulness leads to wealth and happiness.  Jeremiah's faithfulness resulted in suffering and sorrow.  In chapter sixteen, we see that Jeremiah is called to experience the loneliness that can accompany singleness and social isolation.  Yet despite such pain he speaks of God being, 'my strength and my fortress, my refuge in time of distress ...' (16:19).  The apostle Paul wrote of being 'sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything' (2 Corinthians 6:10).
This book has a lot to say about the heart.  'The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.  Who can understand it?’ (See 17:9).  Yet Jeremiah trusts God to heal his heart (17:14).  As we listen to the challenge of embracing suffering for the cause of Christ, we ask God to give us a heart for the task.  Listen to the beautiful words in the Anglican Service of Holy Communion.  'Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord.  Amen.'
4.  Faithful people are prepared to be persecuted (18-20)
In chapter eighteen Jeremiah is directed by God to go to a potter's house.  He watches the potter work with a piece of clay.  The potter shapes the clay but he also responds to imperfections within the clay.  ‘Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?’ declares the Lord. ‘Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.  If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.  And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it' (18:6-10).
Again, at the beginning of chapter nineteen, Jeremiah is told to go to a potter's house.  He is to purchase a clay jar and to get some of the civic and religious leaders of the community to accompany him to the Valley of the Son of Hinnom.  The Valley of Hinnom was used a dumping place.  There Jeremiah pronounced a terrible message of doom.  Jeremiah will smash the jar as a picture of the fact that the Lord will smash Judah.  The people will not repent.  Their hearts are resistant to God and now judgement is inevitable.
What is the response to Jeremiah’s faithful words?  Pashur, the priest, has him beaten and put in the stocks (20:2).  Self-righteous, religious people hate those who speak of the reality of human sin.
Again, Jeremiah complains.  But, despite the pain of his ministry, there is an inner compulsion.  'But if I say, "I will not mention his word or speak any more in his name," his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot' (20:9).  There is something within every true believer that knows that we are being compelled to serve and speak.
Conclusion - Jesus is the faithful one
As I prepared this sermon, I was struck by some words in the ESV Study Bible:  'Jeremiah's ministry causes him hard work, sorrow, and shame.  He accepts his role, but has no illusions of fame, approval, or appreciation.'
Are we willing to suffer the consequences of faithfully following God?  Are we willing to live lives that reflect the beauty of godliness?  Are we willing to speak the truth in love, even when the truth is an unwelcome message in a godless society?  Will we keep going when no-one encourages us?  Will we stand firm when the world is against us?  Despite the pain, will we rejoice to be God’s servants?
Jeremiah sets us an example of the pain involved in ministry.  His is an example that anticipates the more perfect example of Christ.  But there can be joy in the pain.  We have a heavenly friend who is greater than all opposition.  Even the complaining Jeremiah bursts into song in the face of the goodness of God whom he serves.  'Sing to the Lord!  Give praise to the Lord!  He rescues the life of the needy from the hands of the wicked' (20:13).

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