Wednesday, April 7, 2010
hanging in there (Jeremiah - OMEGA)
jeremiah (hanging in there)
In Jesus’ day the Pharisees told people that being rich and comfortable meant that you were at the center of God’s will – that God would reward the faithful with money and a comfortable, painless existence. Of course, the Pharisees also taught that the opposite was true – that pain and poverty were signs that you were not at the center of God’s will. The Pharisee’s message was simple. If your life is hard, God is not with you. Pain and persecution mean the absence of God.
Pharisees have not gone extinct. Sadly, they’re not even an endangered species. Has anyone ever heard the term “prosperity preacher?” A prosperity preacher’s message is simple. The greater your faith, the more money you’ll give (to them, of course), and the more money you give, the more money God is going to give back to you. It’s like a heavenly ponzi scheme. To quote one prosperity preacher, “God knows where the money is, and he knows how to get you that money.” Modern day Pharisees may have a different name – prosperity preachers – but their message hasn’t changed. “If your life is hard or if you don’t have money or if you’re feeling overwhelmed, God isn’t with you. Pain and persecution mean the absence of God.” That’s their message.
Now, a little career advice in case you’re thinking about becoming a prosperity preacher. Whatever you do, do not preach on Jeremiah. And try not to open the Bible either. I’m just saying – it’d be career suicide. You will not find one ounce of support in the book of Jeremiah to suggest that obedience to God will lead to safe, painless life or that when you follow God things will typically go your way. The book of Jeremiah actually suggests the opposite.
Jeremiah was chosen for a hard assignment. The year was 620 BC. Historically speaking, Assyria has already destroyed the Northern Kingdom and now the Southern Kingdom of Israel is on the verge of being destroyed by the Babylonians. The people had broken the covenant and Jeremiah’s job was to call the people of Israel to repent so that the consequences of their disobedience might be averted. “You have two choices. Repent or be conquered.” That’s the Word that God gives Jeremiah to preach.
Now, I’m sure you know this, but there’s no formal discernment process to become a prophet. Jeremiah didn’t make an appointment with the bishop or meet with the Commission on Ministry or go to seminary. In fact, he didn’t even go to college. In fact Jeremiah, if living today in America, would have been a freshman in high school when God called him to be a prophet, and this is what God tells him:
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.’ … [Therefore] gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you. Do not break down before them, or I will break you before them. And I for my part have made you today a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall, against the whole land—against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the Lord, to deliver you.
Last Omega we talked about being chosen, and I gave us four C’s to guide our discussion. Does anyone remember the four C’s of being chosen? Context, confrontation, conversion and call. This week, to talk about Jeremiah and what it means to be chosen for difficult Kingdom of God work, I want to give us three F’s – fervor, frustration and fortitude.
Fervor is defined as a feeling of great warmth and intensity. Think about being infatuated with another person. There can be a million reasons why you shouldn’t date them, but the fervor is so strong – your feelings are so intense – that you cannot see the difficulty that lies in your future. God tells Jeremiah that he’s being sent to speak “against the kings of Judah, it’s princes, its priests, and the people of the land.” That’s a difficult job. But Jeremiah is excited! He begins his mission with passion and intensity. To steal a phrase from Rick Warren, Jeremiah is living a “purpose driven life.” And if you read the first few chapters of the book, you get this sense that Jeremiah is pumped up. After all, God chose him before he was born and has promised to never forsake him. We can almost imagine Jeremiah saying to himself, “I’m going to speak the words of God to anyone He tells me to. I don’t care how powerful they are or how unpopular I’ll become. I don’t care what it costs me.”
I imagine that most of us have had a Jeremiah moment, a moment of life changing regeneration. Spiritual writers call this “the first fervor.” The first fervor is a time in our life where we’re infatuated with God. For a lot of us it happened at camp. We felt God’s warmth and love and we made a vow – “I will follow you wherever you lead. I don’t care what it costs me.” Maybe it happened in church, or in a quiet moment of personal prayer, or when we accepted Jesus as our Savior, or perhaps when a friend shared their faith with us. It sounds cheesy but I still remember the day I fell in love with God – September 10, 1998. I read this crappy book called “The Journey” and for reasons unbeknownst to me my life was changed forever.
Now, I honestly believe that this fervor, this infatuation, is a wonderful thing. It’s where the vast majority of romantic relationships begin, and it’s usually where our relationship with God begins. There are no doubt exceptions to this rule, but for the most part, fervor or infatuation is where relationship begins. Fervor is good. Infatuation is good. But there’s only one problem. Fervor dies. Man cannot live by zeal alone. Feelings of great warmth and intensity are not enough to sustain mature relationships, and this includes our relationship with God. Eventually, we experience the second F.
Jeremiah is sent to kings, princes, priests, and the people to speak words of judgment. Now, try and imagine being sent by God, shortly after your 8th grade graduation, to speak words of judgment against the president, both the federal and the state government, your priests and your bishops, your parents, your parent’s friends, and anyone else you can think of. Picture yourself marching up the steps of the Lincoln memorial, being handed a microphone and having the attention of every major news network in America, and then speaking these words: “Listen up America. Thus saith the Lord. Stop drilling for oil, even if that means losing electricity. Start giving your janitors the same privileges you give your CEO’s. Throw away your passports, for the nations belong to the Lord and you have no right to put up walls. If you do these things, then you will live. But woe unto you if you don’t do them, for the Canadians will invade our land!”
Do you think people would listen? What do you think they’d say? I’ll tell you exactly what they’d say. “Shut up you snotty nosed punk. You have no idea how the real world works.” And that’s basically what the people told Jeremiah. There was a lot of laughing and mocking and jeering and ignoring. People did not respond well to his warnings. Like any prophet, Jeremiah wants his people to feel what God feels but his words fall on deaf ears and on hard hearts. Now, this is very frustrating – both for God and for Jeremiah – and so after a couple of years of failed sermons, God and Jeremiah decide to up the ante a bit.
God said to me, "Go, buy a clay pot. Then get a few leaders from the people and a few of the leading priests … and preach there what I tell you. "Say, 'Listen to God's Word, you kings of Judah and people of Jerusalem! I'm about to bring doom crashing down on this place. … "Say all this, and then smash the pot in front of the men who have come with you. Then say, 'This is what God says: I'll smash this people and this city like a man who smashes a clay pot into so many pieces it can never be put together again. (Excerpt from The Message, Jeremiah 19)
Fast forward. You’re not in 8th grade anymore. You’re 20 years old and a member of the Episcopal Student Center and you come to see that the ways of your missioner are corrupt. You set up a meeting with the bishop. I’m there. The bishop is there. You’re there. But, instead of bringing some talking points, you bring this glass, and when the bishop tries to shake your hand and ask you how he can help, you do the following (hold up the glass)! “Thus saith the Lord, remove John Newton from his post or the Canadians will trample the land. And while you’re at it, bishop, repent of your own sins, too or else this will happen.” (smash the glass) If that happened, do you think you’d be welcome back at the student center again?
But that’s exactly what Jeremiah did. And do you know how his priest responded? He had Jeremiah beaten and put in stocks right outside the temple. As a side note, let that be a lesson to you. You don’t want to mess with your priest.
Here’s my point. For Jeremiah, the glamorous veneer of prophetic ministry is gone. Jeremiah’s infatuation with God is gone. His fervor is gone. And in its place is a big, fat dose of frustration. You see not in a million years did Jeremiah envision this happening to him. After all, God promised him, “I will protect you and rescue you and never abandon you.” But here’s Jeremiah in the stocks and he feels abandoned. Can you imagine the frustration? One day God’s telling him “I love you Jeremiah. I’ve chosen you Jeremiah. I’m with you Jeremiah.” But the next day he’s in the stocks with wounds bleeding, body aching, and people taunting.
Like Jeremiah, we’re all going have to come to terms with frustration. For some of us, our commitment to Jesus will only bring a few days of pain, sorrow and rejection. But for others, rejection and sorrow will be par for the course. Either way, I honestly believe that the frustration we experience is a testament to God’s grace. In fact, frustration is inevitable if we want to be mature disciples of Jesus.
For example, the apostle Paul had a friend named Timothy, and ole’ Timmy was also a preacher. Like Jeremiah, Timothy started out strong, but his infatuation turned to frustration. Timothy was frustrated because his people weren’t responding and I imagine that Timothy thought that he was a failure. Well, Paul knew this and so he wrote Timothy a letter and in that letter Paul said the following – “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim 3:12) In other words, I know you’re frustrated Timothy. But here’s what I’d like to say to you about that – “congratulations.” Because it you’re frustrated, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re on the right track.
Frustration is just a part of mature discipleship. Knowing that, we can move on to F3 – fortitude.
You don’t really hear much about fortitude anymore, which is a shame, because it’s actually one of the four cardinal virtues. Fortitude, by definition, is what enables us to act rightly and to persevere in the face of frustration. Fortitude is about not quitting; it’s about hanging in there. I know this sounds weird, but sometimes God just calls us to just “hang in there.”
After spending that first night in the stocks Jeremiah’s life actually gets harder. A few things happen. First, he gets thrown into a dungeon and later on into a pit, where he’s left for dead. He receives beating after beating for speaking God’s word to the people. But that’s not the worst part. The worst part is that this goes on for forty years – forty years! – and the people never repent. The Babylonians invade and the Israelites lose their freedom.
Now, I want you to imagine this from Jeremiah’s perspective. Jeremiah has spent the last forty years of his life trying to avert what just happened. He was sent to preach repentance, the people never did it, and because they didn’t listen to him Jerusalem fell to Her enemies. Can you imagine what Jeremiah must have thought? “For the last forty years, I was humiliated, beaten, intimidated, disrespected, and I spent half my life in a dungeon. What was the point? They never listened. All of my preaching and all of my praying - was it all for nothing?”
I think we also can get discouraged when we try and do something for God and it doesn’t “work.” We too can feel as if our devotion and our faithfulness have yielded nothing. Think about praying and pleading for an alcoholic that never changes, or a friend who after years of your continual prayer still has contempt for your faith. After a while, we start asking ourselves – “what was the point? They never listened. Was it all for nothing?”
Fortitude is that virtue that gives us the courage to say, “no. The praying and the pleading is meaningful because God told me to do it. I may not know what the point was, but God does, and I trust God. He formed me in the womb, He called me, and I trust Him.”
Fortitude is about hanging in there. You see Jeremiah learned something important throughout his life. God doesn’t measure success the same way that we do. It matters very little to God if we’re successful. What matters to God is that we’re faithful. Jeremiah learned that God’s ways are not our ways. And so there are going to be times in our life when we pray for things and work for things that we know are pleasing to God and they just don’t happen. And when seen through a worldly lens, we will fail. It happened to Jeremiah. It happened to Jesus. It’ll happen to us. We’ll all end up on the cross eventually – one way or another.
Fortunately, God doesn’t view our life through a worldly lens but through a heavenly one. And so the question isn’t whether or not we’ll get frustrated. The question is whether or not we’ll exercise fortitude. The question is whether or not we’ll have the courage to just hang in there. Because sometimes, believe it or not, hanging in there is all that God wants from us.
My favorite Bible verse is Jeremiah 29:11, which says “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Plans “to prosper you.” I guess I was wrong. Jeremiah was a prosperity preacher after all. But what that tells me is that maybe – just maybe – we need to rethink prosperity. When our life is the hardest, maybe that means that God is the closest He’s ever been. Maybe pain and persecution mean the presence of God.
Jeremiah’s life was messy and he didn’t die knowing how valuable his ministry would be. And I’m not going to sugarcoat it – we too may die not knowing the impact that our life will have.
But God does. He’s the One who formed us in the womb. He’s the One that promised never to leave us. He’s worth trusting.
And so hang in there.