Have you ever wondered where “don’t shoot the messenger” comes from? There are references in the writing of Plutarch and Shakespeare that show the habit of rulers killing off those who bring bad news from their enemies, or from the battlefront. But it seems like there are plenty of examples from the Old Testament where a ruler or the people attempted to kill one of the prophets of God when God’s message wasn’t to the people’s liking.
As we continue our journey through the Old Testament Scripture today, God tells Jeremiah to proclaim judgment on the people of Judah, that they should “reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place… If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever.”
The primary purpose of the prophetic voice is to call God’s people to repent. To turn. To change. My biological teacher father likes to scare an unsuspecting group of students that when it comes to evolution that “you’re going to change or you’re gonna die!” (Quite loudly, I might add.)
That’s what the prophets have always challenged the people of God with: that if they don’t change, that they are going to spiritually die. That they may literally die.
Jeremiah’s message proceeds to challenge their spiritual dichotomy, where they steal, murder, commit adultery, lie, and even worship other gods but then come to the Temple and act like that’s enough, “we are safe.” It’s the same Scriptural passage that Jesus will quote when he clears the Temple… We might not burn incense to other gods, but what have we put in the place of real worship, and beyond that, really longing after what God longs after?
Do we go about the other six days of the week however we want, every which way but loose, and then show up and go through the Temple, and assume everything’s “cool” with God? Are our hearts right or are we just fooling ourselves? Are we assuming that because we’ve convinced ourselves, that God is convinced, too?
I think that would be a mistake of colossal proportions!
When we mistreat our neighbors, our families, our friends, knowing full well what God expects, and then show up in church as if everything is smooth sailing, God is not fooled.
When we lust in our hearts after people and stuff that isn’t ours, and are so angry in our hearts that we could kill someone, God is not fooled.
When we elevate our jobs, our possessions, our relationships, and our comfort above worshipping God, and ministering to those in need, God is not fooled.
And as Jeremiah saw firsthand, God’s displeasure can make people pretty uncomfortable.
For his trouble, Jeremiah was thrown in a well, beaten, hung up in the stocks, and put on death row. All because he was called by God to speak the truth, God’s word for the people of God.
Is it still a prophetic voice if the prophet speaks and no one listens? Is that like a tree falling in the forrest, does it make a sound?
Telemachus, a fifth century monk, was a solitary, praying type but he felt called by God to Rome. He followed the crowd of people into the Coliseum for a gladiator battle, and found himself shuddering at the bloodthirstiness of the crowd. He was horrified by the bloodshed, and jumped onto the perimeter wall.
“In the name of Christ, stop!” He yelled, but no one paid any attention, so he jumped into the arena and called it out again. The crowd laughed and the gladiators shoved him to the ground, but he kept coming, pleading with them to stop.
Different retellings of the story say that the crowd stoned him in anger for stopping their entertainment, while others say that a gladiator ran him through with the sword. All of the versions say that the emperor ended the games because the monk-turned-prophet put himself in harms way to end what was wrong with the community.
People don’t like being told that they’re wrong. People don’t like being told that they need to change: none of us do! No one wants to hear that the way that seems good and pleasant to them is not the way of the disciple. It’s easier to whitewash the problem, hope that it’ll go away, and throw the prophet in a well!
People don’t like being told that the way things have always been done (or quite frankly, the way they’ve been done twice in a row), are not the only way to do it. It’s easier to think that church is about us and for us, then to recognize that it’s for God, by God, and through God.
But I John 1:8-9 says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.”
It’s easier to hold onto the fuzzy headed baby in the manger than it is to grasp the bloodstained feet of Jesus, isn’t it? It’s far easier to chuckle along with Rickie Bobbie in Talledega Nights than to look at Jim Cavieziel in The Passion of the Christ.
But even while God is not pleased and there was hell to pay, God also promised that when the people came back to where they were supposed to be, that God would forgive them.
God even went so far as to tell Jeremiah to buy land even while he was condemning the people for their evil behavior, that he would bring them back to the land he had promised them. God was promising a day when repentance would happen because the hearts of people would draw near to God.
God understands Paul’s cry in Romans 7:15-17: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.” God gets us, and knows us, and wants what is best for us.
God didn’t tell Jeremiah to buy land because he was giving up on his people; God told Jeremiah to buy land because God knows we can get ourselves turned around through his grace. God knows what we could be if we saw ourselves from a different perspective.
James Moore tells a parable about a locksmith, who broke into a prison. He found a group of slaves who’d been in prison so long that they thought they were free, and those outside were the ones suffering. The locksmith broke the locks on the doors and pushed the doors open, and the slaves could hear the pain from outside of the walls. A few slaves believed the locksmith but most of them figured that true happiness was right where they were. They declared him a troublemaker, held a trial and accused him of disturbing the peace. He was declared guilty and executed, and those who’d fought him thought they’d handled the situation.
But the locksmiths followers, who’d been quiet during the trial, saw that the broken locks could never be locked again and began spreading the news. Many were killed, but the living kept working and serving and preaching. Some believed while more kept dreaming they were free. They didn’t want to hear this news, they were afraid they might be challenged by the pain they saw outside the walls. They couldn’t understand why the locksmith would break the locks.
These slaves couldn’t see the genius in the locksmith’s boldness.
Some time ago, I came across Jeremiah 29:11-14. And honestly, it’s probably my favorite passage of Scripture that’s not John 3:16-17 or the Parable of the Prodigal Son: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
Let’s consider this four-part message from God.
First, God knows what’s going to happen to his people before it happens. God’s mighty providence is over all, even the things we can’t see, understand, control, or appreciate. We pray to God but do we recognize that God knows what’s going to happen?
Second, God plans, ultimately, for there to be good in his people’s lives. The good, the bad, the indifferent, God is using everything to bring us what we need and where we need to be.
Third, there is a time God already knows when people will seek him and pray to him with all their heart, and he will listen to them. If the second is true, that God is using everything for good, then it would make sense that there was a time when we would get over ourselves and turn to God! And that when we get it, that we will be all in, not half-baked, not going through the motions, but devoted to God.
Fourth, at this time, when they have sought him with their whole heart, God will restore them to where they belong, that he will return them from exile. Even more than that, it says that God will free his people from what holds them captive. In Jeremiah it referred to the foreign nations, but today it could mean the addictions, the impulses, the love of money, the status quo, our apathy, all of which we can’t seem to free ourselves by ourselves.
I don’t know where you, dear reader/listener, are right now, but know these truths:
-God knows you, your wants, desires, and dreams, and he wants what’s best for you. He knows what you’ll do, and what the results are.
-God has a plan to optimize life in the best way possible for you, but he will allow you to make your own decisions so that whether you win or lose, he is with you.
-God knows that when you recognize you’re at ground zero, when you’ve hit rock bottom, and you turn to him, HE WILL HEAR YOU.
-And finally, God will give you everything you need, when you need it– in fact, God sent Jesus so that you could have an eternal relationship with him FOREVER. God wanted you to be free from all the things that hold you back.
I pray today that we would repent as individuals, as a church, as a country, for the way that we have oppressed the poor, ostracized the alien, idolized the unimportant, disenfranchised Jesus, and focused on everything but loving God and our neighbor. I pray that we would turn aside from all of these things that keep us from being who God intends us to be, even if they are the things we think we’re doing right for God, and turn back to the one true God, the maker of the universe, the inspiring force in everything that is good.
God says in II Chronicles 7:4 that “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
I pray that we will turn to God and find that he is embracing us already. So, as I close, I ask you to examine your heart, and pray to God that he would examine you, finding all that is out of place and unclean, and remove it.
So that the words of the prophet would be true today: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you, and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
This sermon is for the 11 a.m. worship service at Blandford UMC on South Crater Road on November 10. Hope you’ll stop by if you’re in the area!