Friday, 1 August 2014

Jeremiah 21-30 'Be careful who you listen to'

I once posted a blog on the topic 'Will all people be saved?'  I concluded that the Bible is very clear that all people will not be saved.  A minister friend of mine took issue with me over this.  His reply to my post included the fact that Jesus mentions hell directly only eleven times whereas he mentions money and poverty twenty-four times each, and love fifty-one times.
I am not sure I get his point.  If he is saying that the church does not speak enough about issues like social justice I am in total agreement.  But if he thinks that we spend too much time on God's final judgement I think he is wrong.  And if he thinks that we have to choose between preaching that emphasises social compassion over preaching that addresses God's moral outrage against personal sin then I think he is missing the mark.
You see Jeremiah is a book filled with calls to help the most vulnerable people in society.  It is also a book that warns of a judgement without mercy that will befall the finally unrepentant.  If Jeremiah was preaching the gospel today, he would not choose between speaking about hell or issues of poverty.  He would speak about both.
1.  God is compassionate towards the needy (21:1-23:8)
'The word came to Jeremiah when King Zedekiah sent to him Pashhur the priest son of Malkijah and the priest Zephaniah son of Maaseiah ... (21:1).
Where are we in the story of Judah?  At this stage ten thousand of the leading citizens of Judah have been taken into exile by the Babylonians.  The Babylonians are now encroaching upon the nation again.  Zedekiah was the last king of Judah, and this is the last year of his reign.
Zedekiah hopes that Jeremiah will tell his messengers that God is about to deliver them.  Instead Jeremiah says that God stands against him and is using the Babylonians as his instrument to punish them.  God declares, 'I myself will fight against you with an outstretched hand and a mighty arm in furious anger and in great wrath' (21:5).
But notice the offer of mercy!  'Furthermore, tell the people, “This is what the Lord says: see, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death.  Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague. But whoever goes out and surrenders to the Babylonians who are besieging you will live; they will escape with their lives' (21:8-9).  The advice may have seemed odd to them, but he is offering them a way of life rather than death.  Similarly Jesus offers us a way of life rather than the way that leads to eternal death.
Jeremiah speaks of coming judgement and calls them to accept God's way of salvation.  He also intertwines this gospel with God's heart of compassion towards the poor.  'Do what is just and right.  Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed.  Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place' (22:3).  God is passionate about social justice.  Compassion is a part of the fruit in-keeping with repentance.  The great king Josiah had 'defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well.  Is that not what it means to know me?’ (22:16). If we are not compassionate towards the most vulnerable in our society then it shows that we simply don't know God.
Judah had been badly served by its leaders.  But the days are coming, declares the Lord, ‘when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land.  In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteous Saviour' (23:5-6).  Who is this?  This is Jesus!  He is our compassionate king who cares for the needy and inspires his people to be concerned for the vulnerable.
2.  God provides the remedy for our guilt (23:9-40)
One theologian despaired of the theology being taught in his day saying that it taught a god without wrath who brings people without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministry of a Christ without a cross.  That’s a bit like the false-prophets of Jeremiah's day. 
'They keep saying to those who despise me, “The Lord says: you will have peace.”  And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts they say, “No harm will come to you"' (23:17).  They wouldn't address the depravity of the human heart, the dire need to be forgiven our sin, and the dreadful fate that awaits those who reject God's means of salvation.  But God does provide a remedy for human guilt.
I was watching the program ‘Spirit Level’, on RTE.  They were taking about ‘sin’.  Joe Duffy asked a lovely man, called Philip Jacob, if the concept of sin exists in Quakerism.  The old man replied, 'Well, vaguely.  We don't specialise in trying to deal with sin, because it can often lead to guilt, and we don't think much of guilt.'  He admitted that this is not true of all Quakers.  We warn people about sin and judgement because we don’t want people to stay on a path that leads to hell.
3.  God chooses to save an undeserving people (24-25)
Jeremiah is given a picture showing how God will save many undeserving people.  This picture centres on two baskets of figs.  One basket represented those who had been taken into exile and the other those left behind in Judah.  “Like these good figs, I regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I sent away from this place to the land of the Babylonians'.  My eyes will watch over them for their good, and I will bring them back to this land.  I will build them up and not tear them down; I will plant them and not uproot them' (24:4-6).
This is absolutely amazing!  Why does God consider those sent into exile as good?  Was it because they were actually good?  Was it because they were better than those left behind in Jerusalem?  Not at all!  These people were among the wicked leadership of a wicked nation.  God, in his unfashionable wisdom, simply chooses to show undeserved mercy to these people. 
He does so as he changes their wicked hearts and causes them to repent.  'I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord.  They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart' (24:7).
In the book of Jeremiah God genuinely desires the salvation of all people.  He repeatedly has called them to repentance.  He is the God who takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but he would rather they repent and live.  But in our wicked, sinful stubborn hearts all people break God's heart by refusing his offer of grace.  Yet God does not stop there.  He chooses to change the hearts of many sinful people so that they willingly come to love and obey him.  In other words if you are born again it is because God has chosen to transform your heart but if you die in your sin it is because persistently refused his offer of mercy.  Salvation is all of God and final condemnation is all of man.
Before we move on to our final point notice that Jeremiah warns all the nations of God's cup of God's wrath.  'Take from my hand this cup filled with the wine of my wrath and make the nations to whom I send you drink it.  When they drink it, they will stagger and go mad because of the sword I will send among them' (25:15-16).  As Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane before he endured the cross he spoke to his Father about the cup he was about to drink.  He experienced the full weight of God's righteous anger so that people like us, gathered from all nations, would not have to experience God's anger for ourselves.
4. God has an unfolding plan that is for his people's good (26-29)
In chapter twenty-six Jeremiah is speaking in the temple.  The people of Judah thought God would rescue their city because the temple was there.  In doing so they were exposing a superstitious religion that was disconnected from God's call to repent and act justly.  One of my greatest fears it that some of you think that you can have Christianity without repentance.  The apostle Paul warned those who would not take the demands of the gospel seriously that they would not inherit the gospel.  Jesus said that there will be those who say ‘Lord, Lord,’ but don’t actually know him because they refused to do the will of the Father in heaven.

In chapter twenty-seven Jeremiah gate-crashes an gathering of international leaders who were meeting in Jerusalem.  They were deciding what to do about the threat from the Babylonians.  He tells them what they don't want to hear.  He puts a yoke around his neck and tells them to submit to the yoke of the Babylonians.  Again, God is being merciful, he is offering them life rather than death.  Serve the king of Babylon and you will live (27:17).
But there were popular preachers than Jeremiah.  In chapter twenty-eight the prophet Hananiah claimed broke the yoke around Jeremiah's neck claiming that the power of the Babylonians would soon end and the people would quickly return from exile.  That was a blatant contradiction of what God had told Jeremiah.  The exile would last around seventy-years before they would return.  God took Hananiah's life for preaching a gospel of false hope.
Chapter twenty-nine contains a letter to the exiles in Babylon.  They are to settle down in that place and seek to be a blessing to the wicked city in which they live. 
This is so important for us.  We are to live lives that bless the communities where we are stationed.  The exile community is told, 'for I know the plans I have for you ... Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future' (29:11).  This is a favourite promise that you will find in posters.  But these words aren’t primarily about us as individuals.  These are words to God's chosen people that speak of God's great unfolding plan.  A community would return from exile.  From that community would come the promised king of David, the Lord our righteous Saviour.  He will bring his people home, not to an earthly Jerusalem, but to a heavenly Jerusalem.
All these chapters involve Jeremiah confronting different groups of people about their false-beliefs and wicked lifestyles.  People have to choose who they are going to listen to.  There are many false-gospels out there.  There are those who will avoid any talk of final judgement, lulling people into a false-sense of security.  There are those who affirm the permissive values of our culture and so call no one to genuine repentance.  There are narrow groups who only speak of the need to become Christians but never call people to acts of compassion.
Choose wisely who you listen to.  For there will come a day when God will be revealed to all the peoples of the earth as both a consuming fire and one of immeasurable love.  On that day we will each be held accountable for how we responded to his invitation the mercy made available in the cross of Christ and whether we produced the fruit of compassion in-keeping with repentance.

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