The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes to pass, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet (Jeremiah 25:8-9).
The great kingdom of Assyria had fallen. Josiah had been king of Israel. He was one of the last good kings of Israel before their fall in 586 B.C. After Israel had freed itself from Assyrian oppression, it began to flex its muscle in the region, and began to get a little of the power back that it had under David… a very tiny bit of the power. It was under Josiah’s reign that the Book of the Law was recovered. So many sweeping reforms were being made in order that Israel would once again begin living like God’s people. It seemed as though Israel’s state of affairs were looking up. However, the power vacancy left in the area by Assyria’s epic fall from power left many other countries to squabble over the scraps. Egypt and Babylon began flexing their long atrophied muscles as well, and they were bigger than Israel.
So when Josiah’s son, Jehoiakim took over the throne, even though Israel was more stable than before, things were tenuous at best. Not to mention Jehoiakim was not the man that his father was. He neither trusted in the Lord nor held to the reforms put in place by his father. He began to make deals with Egypt and Babylon, pitting one against the other, hoping to be on the right side when one of them wiped the other out. Very rarely does straddling a fence end up in a pleasant situation. And it didn’t work out for Israel either. With Babylon bearing down from the north and Egypt coming up from the south, Israel was, once again, in dire straights. And so the people of Israel did the only sensible thing they could think of, they turned away from the Lord in their time of need, and sought to find solace in the power of men. In the history of Israel, we find the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Throughout their whole history, turning their back on God would ALWAYS lead to slavery, exile, war, pain, death, and devastation… but maybe this time would be different.
It was into this situation that Jeremiah was placed. From the time he was about twelve, he was called to be a prophet of God. It was not easy being Jeremiah. There is a reason that many Biblical scholars call him “The Wailing Prophet”. The great majority of the book that bears his name involves Jeremiah railing against the people of Israel because they had once again forsaken their covenant with Yahweh their God. They did not trust in His words of promise. They did not trust in His power to save. They willingly chose to go their own way. So Jeremiah was privileged to tell them things like:
Therefore thus says the Lord: Ask among the nations, Who has heard the like of this? The virgin Israel has done a very horrible thing. Does the snow of Lebanon leave the crags of Sirion? Do the mountain waters run dry, the cold flowing streams? But my people have forgotten me; they make offerings to false gods; they made them stumble in their ways, in the ancient roads, and to walk into side roads, not the highway, making their land a horror, a thing to be hissed at forever.
Everyone who passes by it is horrified and shakes his head. Like the east wind I will scatter them before the enemy. I will show them my back, not my face, in the day of their calamity.
Or my personal favorite:
For thus says the Lord of hosts: “Cut down her trees; cast up a siege mound against Jerusalem. This is the city that must be punished; there is nothing but oppression within her. As a well keeps its water fresh, so she keeps fresh her evil; violence and destruction are heard within her; sickness and wounds are ever before me. Be warned, O Jerusalem, lest I turn from you in disgust, lest I make you a desolation, an uninhabited land.
Who wouldn’t love to preach those things all the time? What’s even worse? There were other false prophets who were preaching the exact opposite. They were telling Israel, “Don’t worry! Things are going to get better! The Lord still loves you! You are His people! Surely, He wont disown His own people! Surely, God didn’t say you would die. You won’t die. The day of victory awaits!” Needless to say, the people would much rather listen to the good news than the bad… even if the bad news was the truth. Just a couple chapters before this, the people had grown so tired of listening to Jeremiah’s prophecies of impending punishment that they actually threatened to kill him… for the second time… in 3 chapters. Today’s text has Jeremiah confronting one such false prophet, named Hananiah.
Jeremiah even wishes that He could proclaim what Hananiah says to be the truth. He wishes that God would bring back the exiles and stay His judgment on Israel. However, that is not the true Word of the Lord. The Lord does not say thus, if you will. The Word of the Lord is not always easy to hear. It is not always fun. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it kills. However, that does not mean that we cease to heed the Word of the Lord. Jeremiah knew that it is always far better to proclaim the words of God. So he did. And within a year later, Hananiah was dead, and the truth of Jeremiah’s prophecies were born out.
I wish I could tell you that Jeremiah’s life got easier. I wish I could tell you that he was somehow spared of earthly suffering. I wish I could tell you that the people of God repented and Jeremiah saw Israel return to greatness through faithfulness and dedication to the Lord. But that was not the case. It is likely that Jeremiah died in Egypt in exile. The kingdom of Israel fell to the Babylonians in 586 B.C. The truth of Jeremiah’s prophecies were seen after it was too late to do anything about them. This is the problem with false prophets. Their promises sound soooooo good. However, there is no hope in their promises. There is no hope because they do not come from God Himself. When we start pitting the words of man against the words of God, we find nothing but despair, disillusionment, and destruction.
How often we have been a carbon copy of the people of Israel? How often do we listen to the prophets and sages of this world rather than letting the Word of God be our source of strength and truth? We allow the world to define terms. We allow the world to teach us and our children about money, sex, love, marriage, devotion, obedience, honor, and the list goes on. But the world works with vastly different definitions than the Word of God does. The world defines love as that which gives us what we need instead of acts of service to one another and self-denial. The world wants to define marriage as that commitment between two individuals that might last or might not, instead of a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman that mirrors the relationship that God has with His church. The world has a way of turning things inward and making them about us, when, in reality everything we have… everything we do is supposed to be about or in service to our Creator. Yet, we find ourselves balking at the fact that a worship service might go more than an hour, willfully neglecting His Word in order to make room for ball games, time with nature, or even just sleep.
And we see the consequences of our actions. We see the punishments for our sins today. Every time we look forward and see the cross on the altar. Every time we see the processional cross or the cross that we wear around our necks, we see the punishments for our sins. Yes, there are earthly consequences to our sins also. Our children will grow up not knowing the Lord. It only takes one generation to lose God’s Word in our midst. We incur turmoil and hurt because of our selfishness and the selfishness of others. Our pride and arrogance escalates conflict and tears apart relationships. But the true terror of our sins, the true eternal punishment of our ill-fated plans is seen in the cross of Christ. The punishment that was ours due to our honoring of false prophets is carried out on Christ… and His blessings are given to us.
Throughout the entire life of Israel, God was never far from their groaning. While they turned their back on God, God was never far from them. Throughout the life of Jeremiah and all of His people, He always promised to keep a remnant. He always promised that His Word would endure through His people. That remnant is realized in Jesus. He was the perfect Israel who obeyed God’s commands, lived the perfect life, and died as the perfect sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins and the sins of the world.
Today, we, once again, see the blessings of Christ given to us. We hear the Lord speak through His Word. We hear His promises and grace through the font and the altar. We see the blessings of Christ poured on and out to us. We receive the strength and the necessary faith to be part of God’s holy elect… His Israel. We receive the power to live as His people in faith and love toward God and one another. We live in service to our neighbors. We hear the Word of God and learn it gladly. We honor our parents. We lead sexually pure and decent lives. We explain everything in the kindest way and put the best construction on everything. We don’t covet. We don’t steal. Why? That’s not what God’s people do. When we sin, we often suffer earthly consequences. But the eternal weight of our sins were born by Christ. There is no need to fear for our salvation because it is complete in Christ. Thus says the Lord: “Come to me you who are weary and I will give you rest. Surely, I am with you always to the very end of the age. I am the way the truth and the life. I am the light of the world. I am your Good Shepherd. It is by grace you have been saved. You are My workmanship. You are a holy people and a royal priesthood. A people belonging to Me.” The Lord speaks with grace and favor, and we listen.