Who Are We Listening To? (Jeremiah 23:9-22)

My head is reeling,
    my limbs are limp,
I’m staggering like a drunk,
    seeing double from too much wine—
And all because of God,
    because of his holy words.

Now for what God says regarding the lying prophets:

“Can you believe it? A country teeming with adulterers!
    faithless, promiscuous idolater-adulterers!
They’re a curse on the land.
    The land’s a wasteland.
Their unfaithfulness
    is turning the country into a cesspool,
Prophets and priests devoted to desecration.
    They have nothing to do with me as their God.
My very own Temple, mind you—
    mud-spattered with their crimes.” God’s Decree.
“But they won’t get by with it.
    They’ll find themselves on a slippery slope,
Careening into the darkness,
    somersaulting into the pitch-black dark.
I’ll make them pay for their crimes.
    It will be the Year of Doom.” God’s Decree.

“Over in Samaria I saw prophets
    acting like silly fools—shocking!
They preached using that no-god Baal for a text,
    messing with the minds of my people.
And the Jerusalem prophets are even worse—horrible!—
    sex-driven, living a lie,
Subsidizing a culture of wickedness,
    and never giving it a second thought.
They’re as bad as those wretches in old Sodom,
    the degenerates of old Gomorrah.”

So, here’s the Message to the prophets from God-of-the-Angel-Armies:

“I’ll cook them a supper of maggoty meat
    with after-dinner drinks of strychnine.
The Jerusalem prophets are behind all this.
    They’re the cause of the godlessness polluting this country.”

A Message from God-of-the-Angel-Armies:

“Don’t listen to the sermons of the prophets.
    It’s all hot air. Lies, lies, and more lies.
They make it all up.
    Not a word they speak comes from me.
They preach their ‘Everything Will Turn Out Fine’ sermon
    to congregations with no taste for God,
Their ‘Nothing Bad Will Ever Happen to You’ sermon
    to people who are set in their own ways.

“Have any of these prophets bothered to meet with me, the true God?
    bothered to take in what I have to say?
    listened to and then lived out my Word?
Look out! God’s hurricane will be let loose—
    my hurricane blast,
Spinning the heads of the wicked like tops!
    God’s raging anger won’t let up
Until I’ve made a clean sweep,
    completing the job I began.
When the job’s done,
    you’ll see that it’s been well done.

“I never sent these prophets,
    but they ran anyway.
I never spoke to them,
    but they preached away.
If they’d have bothered to sit down and meet with me,
    they’d have preached my Message to my people.
They’d have gotten them back on the right track,
    gotten them out of their evil ruts. (The Message)

Jeremiah had a hard gig as a prophet of the Lord. And what made it especially difficult was the continual stream of false prophets, preaching their “everything will turn out just fine” sermons in the face of economic injustice, social unrighteousness, emotional denial, and spiritual adultery.

Methinks that Martin Luther King, Jr. must have felt a kinship with the prophet Jeremiah. After all, he was much like a modern-day prophet. In word and deed, he kept asking people to close the distance between the values they espoused and their actual behavior. 

The terrible treatment King and his allies received during the civil rights movement through non-violent marches and demonstrations, brought-out the awful gap between espoused American values of freedom, fairness, and tolerance, and the reality that Blacks really did not possess these in any manner close to the white population. 

Every prophetic ministry compels people to come face-to-face with the disparity between beliefs and behaviors.

Jeremiah knew all about the gulf between expressed values and actual conduct. And he faced a very large chasm between the two. 

Like Reverend King, Jeremiah was imprisoned, had rocks thrown at him, and was jeered for his message of calling people to live up to God’s agenda for humanity. 

White supremacy, or at least white privilege, was taken for granted in much of America before King. In the same way, Israelite privilege was taken for granted in Jerusalem, in Jeremiah’s day. Unfaithful prophets kept proclaiming Jewish supremacy and insisted that the Lord would be on their side of things. 

But the Lord insisted that these supposed prophets have neither attended a meeting of any divine council in heaven nor ever heard God speak to them.

I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who create dissensions and hindrances, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them. For such people do not serve our Lord Christ but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded. (Romans 16:17-18, NRSV)

The spirit of the age simply accepted power, privilege, and pedigree as the norm that ought to always endure. But God thinks differently about it. And so, the Lord sends prophets to call people back to justice, righteousness, and peace for the benefit of all persons.  

The zeitgeist of our own age is one of turmoil, uncertainty – and even chaos, violence, and death. We have our own contemporary self-appointed prophets who proclaim peace where there is no peace; safety, at the expense of others’ protection; militant forms of xenophobia; and an American exceptionalism which places a thin veneer of respectability over the graves of dead people’s bones.

The Lord will not contend with this forever.

An exercise in healthy introspection would be to consider these questions:

  • What are our most cherished values?
  • Where did we get them? Who are we listening to?
  • Are they God’s values? 
  • Who is really in control as the arbiter of values?
  • How might godly values of justice, righteousness, and peace be expressed in our everyday actions and behaviors?
  • Will we seek to engraft such values into our organizations, systems, faith communities, neighborhoods, and governments?
  • Can we work together in humility?
  • Do we have the courage to change, to share power, and to seek the common good of all persons?

Lord, have mercy, and grant us your peace.

All-Seeing God, you know the true state of every heart and every people group. Do your work of making me holy in all I do and say so that your values, and the words and ways of Jesus, might be expressed through me in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Matthew 10:34-42 – The Trouble with Jesus

Jesus teaching the disciples, from the Catacombs of Domitilla, Rome

Jesus said, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn

‘a man against his father,
    a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
    a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’

Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” (New International Version)

Jesus is the sort of guy that gets up in our grill and confronts us with this: All of life centers in him. That may sound incredibly narcissistic. For Christians, it isn’t, because we discern and confess along with the Apostle Paul:

“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:15-20, NIV)

The Christian’s confession of centrality in Christ means that we believe Jesus is the most important person there is. That confession often makes us troublemakers, as we follow in the footsteps of the Lord who was himself a troublemaker.

That may also sound like something that happens when a narcissist is in control. Again, for Christians, it isn’t, because we realize that trouble is central to Christian mission; the way of the resurrection comes through the cross; the way to succeed is to fail; and whoever loses their life will find it.

We Should Expect Opposition

We should not be obstinate, pigheaded, short-sighted, legalistic, or use the Bible as a brick to throw at people who disagree with us. That will certainly bring opposition and trouble. But this is not the kind of opposition we’re talking about. Being a jerk is antithetical to the gospel. Don’t be a jerk.

The opposition Jesus experienced came through being humble, meek, just, merciful, pure, and peace-loving. According to Christ’s Beatitudes, embracing these values will smack against their opposites. Pride, criticism, judgmentalism, and selfishness are ensconced everywhere throughout this fallen world.

The virtues of Jesus are counter-cultural; they’re different than how the world typically operates. 

As people who must live in this world, we need to avoid the extremes of simple assimilation into the culture, or an outright rejection of the culture. Blending into culture, and separating from it, are both ways of avoiding opposition and trouble. 

Instead, there is a third way that encompasses both shrewdness and innocence. And it is faithful to the way of Jesus. We need to interact with and engage the culture as salt and light. 

Assimilation means that we lose our saltiness. Isolation means that we hide our light.

But interaction means that we are discerning and seek to apply understanding and truth in the concrete situations of life in the world.

It means that we learn critical thinking skills. It involves listening to others and discovering their values. It requires speaking into another’s life with grace and truth. It is a matter of following the words and ways of Jesus, the center of all things.

Any fool can stand against something and complain about it – shouting from afar about what they don’t like. It’s also foolish to accept everything without question. As followers of Jesus, opposition and trouble is going to come when you rub shoulders with the world. If we never experience opposition, it’s probably because we have either succumbed to the culture or have removed ourselves from it.

We Will Inevitably Upset Our Family

Trouble will likely come from family. In many countries of this world, a family member who becomes a Christian has brought shame upon the entire family and, so, is in jeopardy of being shunned, rejected, or worse. That sort of trouble may be foreign to many, but family separations certainly occur in our own culture because of faith commitments to Jesus. 

Jesus stated that anyone who takes the easy way of loving family more than him is not worthy of him. Anyone who does not take up their cross and follow Jesus, even if it means trouble, is not worthy of following him. 

Each one must die to self. Let… it… go….

Die to the old life; take up a new life – a life dedicated wholeheartedly to Christ.

The old life involves holding onto a spirit of unforgiveness and bitterness; avoiding certain people; refusing to make things right with others. The new life entails keeping steadfast love, caring for others, embracing humility, being self-less, thinking the best of others, forgiving others, taking pleasure in truth, remaining patient, and always trusting God, no matter what.

We Are Going to Feel Afraid

Fear has to do with the unknown. If we expect opposition and trouble, then we won’t live in dread of what might happen. The early Christians even rejoiced in their suffering because they considered it a privilege to be walking in the way of Jesus. (Acts 5:41)

God has generously granted you the privilege, not only of believing in Christ but also of suffering for Christ’s sake. (Philippians 1:29, CEB)

We will receive special help in times of trouble and fear. We have the Holy Spirit, given to us to be our Helper for such a time as this. God is with us.

When you go through deep waters,
    I will be with you.
When you go through rivers of difficulty,
    you will not drown.
When you walk through the fire of oppression,
    you will not be burned up;
    the flames will not consume you. (Isaiah 43:2, NLT)

God sees everything and isn’t taken by surprise by your hardship; the Lord will eventually deal with all that is wrong in this world.

Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, NIV)

It is a privilege to follow Jesus into trouble. This is “upside-down” theology. In giving my life away to Jesus, I find it. In getting into trouble, I find peace. In taking up my cross, I find purpose and joy. 

The flooding of thousands of square kilometers of rain forest in Brazil has given birth to an unusual industry – the extraction of underwater wood. Millions of tree trunks, below the waters of a lake formed by the 1980 construction of a hydro-electric dam, captured the entrepreneurial vision of Juarez Cristiano Gomes.

He invented an electric saw that works underwater and set up a company to extract this wood. Lumberjacks equipped with air tanks go down as far as 164 feet but are never in danger of being smashed by trees they cut since they “fall” upward to the surface.

The kingdom of God is upside-down. Facing trouble and opposition doesn’t make us fall; it actually lifts us up.

So, count the cost. Give your life away. In doing so, you will certainly not lose your reward from God.

Psalm 74 – A Devastating Loss

Our God, why have you
    completely rejected us?
Why are you so angry
    with the ones you care for?
Remember the people
    you rescued long ago,
the tribe you chose
    for your very own.

Think of Mount Zion,
    your home;
walk over to the temple
left in ruins forever
    by those who hate us.

Your enemies roared like lions
    in your holy temple,
and they have placed
    their banners there.
It looks like a forest
    chopped to pieces.
They used axes and hatchets
    to smash the carvings.
They burned down your temple
    and badly disgraced it.
They said to themselves,
    “We’ll crush them!”
Then they burned each one
of your meeting places
    all over the country.
There are no more miracles
    and no more prophets.
Who knows how long
    it will be like this?

Our God, how much longer
    will our enemies sneer?
Won’t they ever stop
    insulting you?
Why don’t you punish them?
    Why are you holding back?

Our God and King,
you have ruled
    since ancient times;
you have won victories
    everywhere on this earth.
By your power you made a path
    through the sea,
and you smashed the heads
    of sea monsters.
You crushed the heads
    of the monster Leviathan,
then fed him to wild creatures
    in the desert.
You opened the ground
for streams and springs
    and dried up mighty rivers.
You rule the day and the night,
and you put the moon
    and the sun in place.
You made summer and winter
    and gave them to the earth.

Remember your enemies, Lord!
They foolishly sneer
    and won’t respect you.
You treat us like pet doves,
    but they mistreat us.
Don’t keep forgetting us
and letting us be fed
    to those wild animals.
Remember the agreement
    you made with us.
Violent enemies are hiding
in every dark corner
    of the earth.
Don’t disappoint those in need
    or make them turn from you,
but help the poor and homeless
    to shout your praises.
Do something, God!
    Defend yourself.
Remember how those fools
    sneer at you all day long.
Don’t forget the loud shouts
    of your enemies. (Contemporary English Version)

God’s temple was violated. The center and symbol of Jewish worship, culture, and life was gone.

Although we know that nothing lasts forever, that doesn’t mean we are always okay with it.

Asaph, the psalmist, was definitely not okay with the temple’s destruction. It was more than the loss of a building. For Asaph and his people, Jerusalem and the temple were the glue which held the world together.

They lost their center of being. And it was devastating to them.

Everyone and every society has their center, those values and practices which makes them a people. We all need a public center that defines who we are and what we are about. There must be a gravity that holds us to our place and doesn’t allow us to stray into oblivion and nothingness.

The central core of the people was eviscerated. So, today’s psalm is a lament for Jerusalem. It is a painful emotional and spiritual cry which goes well beyond bricks and mortar and the mere physical.

The ruin of the temple, Asaph complains, is the ruin of their God. Yes, it was the Babylonians who came and did the destroying and the de-centering. But it was God’s temple. God is the One responsible. It was God’s action. So, Asaph contends with God and comes at him with full challenge.

Asaph appealed to the Lord much like we do today. “Hey, God, remember how things were back there. It was good, right!? Now look at everything. It’s a mess.” The language is all meant to persuade God that things are so bad, that they are completely intolerable; thus, the Lord should do something about it.

God is bigger than the temple. So, therefore, God can and should restore the temple and make things right again, Asaph reasons. He sounds much like a person in the throes of grief, desperately trying to bargain with God to get things back to the way they were.

Point by point, the psalmist gives a sort of play-by-play to God about the awful situation and what happened. These guys who came and did their dirty work are ultimately your enemies, God, not just ours. So, take notice and act!

Remember the good old days, God, when you performed mighty acts of power against formidable foes, Asaph insisted. Against all odds, the Lord came through for the people… But now… there’s nothing. No divine action. The Babylonians came to Jerusalem, destroyed the city and temple, and got away with it.

Like a person experiencing extreme dizziness, Asaph and the people had a terrible spiritual vertigo which left them unable to get their balance and find their center.

Along with Asaph, in our horrible grief, we not only appeal to God, but we also insist, even tell God exactly what he must do, as if we were the Creator and Yahweh the creature. “Listen, Mr. Almighty God, you made a covenant with us and now you’re reneging on it with all this ridiculous silence and inaction.”

Yet, Asaph really knows better. He knows that, although the temple and the city are important as visible structures, the invisible God transcends all the tangible things we hold so tightly to.

We live in a day and age when all our religious structures are being dismantled, destroyed, done away with. Few persons now look to an institutional and visible building or system for their spirituality and worship.

And, although many believers may lament the changes and the disappearance of churches and religion, there still remains an invisible God to whom we can address – the very same God whom Asaph addressed all those millennia ago.

We are not, therefore, reduced to despair. In the end, it isn’t about buildings, ministries, programs, budgets, or church attendance – it’s about the source of life and hope in the absence of past knowable structures. It is a naked faith in the God who is there.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you hallowed earthly pain and gave us the example of obedience to your Father’s will: Be near me in my time of weakness and pain; sustain me by your grace so that my strength and courage may not fail; heal me according to you will; and help me always to believe that what happens to me here is of little account if you hold me in eternal life, my Lord and my God. Ame

Matthew 6:19-24 – Where Is Your Loyalty Placed?

Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (New International Version)

Nobody can pursue two diametrically opposed commitments. 

Trying to live in both worlds of pursuing earthly treasure and heavenly treasure is not possible. 

Jesus has no place for any of his followers to ride the fence between those two worlds.

We cannot practice God’s will, and at the same time have a moonlighting job with the world.

As followers of God, we must have a single-minded loyalty to kingdom values. 

We are to do the will of God, from a right and sincere heart, and follow Christ’s teaching alone. 

We may give of ourselves, and give of our money, with sincerity, but if we walk away from that and believe the rest of my money, time, talents, and resources are mine to use as I want (since I fulfilled my duty) then we have a divided loyalty between the kingdom of God and the domain of darkness.

Jesus, as he typically does in the Gospels, used metaphors to communicate that we must have an unswerving loyalty to God’s kingdom values.

The Treasure Metaphor

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth. So, what are earthly treasures? 

Stuff, money, possessions, control, power, position, and recognition from others. 

You may rightly ask in response, “Is any of that really, in and of itself, wrong?” 

No. However, that’s not the real issue. The real question is this:

Do we use our earthly treasure to build heavenly treasure, or do we hoard earthly treasure for our own purposes apart from Christ’s kingdom values?

A man in a crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to give me my share of what our father left us when he died.”

Jesus answered, “Who gave me the right to settle arguments between you and your brother?”

Then he said to the crowd, “Don’t be greedy! Owning a lot of things won’t make your life safe.”

So, Jesus told them this story:

A rich man’s farm produced a big crop, and he said to himself, “What can I do? I don’t have a place large enough to store everything.”

Later, he said, “Now I know what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones, where I can store all my grain and other goods. Then I’ll say to myself, ‘You have stored up enough good things to last for years to come. Live it up! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.’ ”

But God said to him, “You fool! Tonight, you will die. Then who will get what you have stored up?”

“This is what happens to people who store up everything for themselves but are poor in the sight of God.” (Luke 12:13-21, CEV)

Earthly possessions are tools to be used. Jesus warns that we must not accumulate personal wealth, esteem, and success for the sake of placing ultimate security in money, but for advancing God’s kingdom values. 

Why do that? 

Because earthly treasure is temporary, and heavenly treasure is permanent. 

Heavenly treasure is righteousness; it’s right and just relationships. Humility, peace, grace, mercy, purity, and forgiveness are all relational values. The only thing that we will take with us when we die is relationships; it’s the only thing that’s permanent.

If I am genuinely committed to God’s kingdom, my most cherished values will be established by God. 

Whatever it is that we value, those values consume our thoughts and our efforts. In other words, what’s truly in our hearts directs our work.

And what we value derives from how we perceive our identity. For many Americans, we are defined primarily not as citizens or workers, but consumers. Jesus is neither advocating that we take vows of poverty, nor that we ought not to enjoy the good things in life. Rather, Jesus wants us to define where our loyalties truly lie.

The Light Metaphor

In the ancient world, the eye represented what you fixed your gaze on, or what your focus was. In our culture, we could replace the word “eye” with the word “goal.” The word “body” represents the entirety of one’s life.  So, we may interpret Christ’s words in this way: 

A goal is the focus of a life. If your goals are good, your whole life will be full of proper focus. But if your goals are bad, your whole life will be full of blindness. If then, the focus within you is only really blindness, how great is that darkness!

If the goals and dreams of life are toward earthly treasure, you will blindly move in that direction and your life will end up in disordered love and misplaced values. At death, you will have nothing to take with you because all the eggs have been put in the temporal basket.

The Slavery Metaphor

Jesus flatly stated that we cannot simultaneously serve God and money. Pick and choose. You must go one way or the other; there is no middle ground. 

The question Jesus is posing is: “Who’s your Master?” 

  • When deciding between two jobs, or two homes, or how to spend your time or your money, what set of values comes into play?… values that define me as a follower of Jesus?… or values that define me as an American consumer? 
  • Will I be a bondservant of Jesus, or a slave to credit card debt? 
  • Will I serve God, or serve the lifestyle that I believe I deserve?

Conclusion

None of us are immune from the temptations of all the world’s shiny things, of ambling into misdirected goals.  If you find that you are slave to the wrong god, then there is good news: There is an infinite storehouse of grace that flows from the very heart of God through Jesus Christ. 

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong. (1 John 1:9, CEB)

Choose this day whom you will serve.

Our Father in heaven,
may your name always be kept holy.
May your kingdom come
and what you want, be done,
    here on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us the food we need for each day.
Forgive us for our sins,
    just as we have forgiven those who sinned against us.
And do not cause us to be tempted,
but save us from the Evil One.

The kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours forever. Amen. (Matthew 6:9-13, NCV)