Listen to this little scenario, taken from the main reading book our Catechism students are using right now:
Imagine that it is Christmas morning and you are in church. You’ve had a good Christmas Eve and received many presents. The church is beautifully decorated and everyone seems…happy…Suddenly, in the middle of the sermon, a stranger that you have never seen before gets up and starts yelling at the pastor. He runs down the center aisle to the front of the church… The stranger begins to preach. But it is not sweet talk about the baby Jesus. Rather, he points his finger and says we ought to be ashamed of ourselves for spending so much money on Christmas presents when there are people starving to death in our community. He says that God is angry with us because we are concerned only about ourselves. We are phonies and God will not listen to our prayers or songs until we take care of those who are lonely or poor or jobless. His message is, "Repent and return to God.”This, folks, is what life with the prophets of Old Testament times was like for God’s people, the Jews!
By the time God sent the great prophets whose names give titles to some of the Bible’s most important books, God’s people had settled into life in the promised land. The mortgage was paid on the temple dedicated to worshiping and offering sacrifices to God and, for the most part, things were going well. God’s people were on cruise control.
But the prophets reminded them that even if they sang pretty songs and did everything exactly as the hymnbooks told them when they worshiped, yet still treated others unjustly, things were not going well.
If they celebrated religious holidays, but still ignored the revealed will of God for their relationships, their finances, their possessions, their business dealings, their bodies, or their sex lives, things were not going well.
In the original Hebrew in which most of the Old Testament is written, the root word for prophet means called (by God). Prophets were called by God to remind Israel of uncomfortable truths, truths that people on cruise control would rather not hear.
Most especially, they were to remind God’s people of a truth put well by a contemporary Christian composer, Randy Stonehill. He sings:
You'll be tempted, tried and testedTo flout or ignore the will of God, as we are prone to do even in the contemporary Church, where we often treat God less as our Lord than as our buddy, is dangerous. We Christians, as Martin Luther reminds us in The Small Catechism, are to drown our sinful selves in daily repentance in Jesus’ Name.
There'll be wars the devil wins
But God's love is not a license to lie there in your sins
He understands the human heart
His mercy is complete
But His grace was not intended
As a place to wipe your feet.
When we fail to repent regularly, we give sin and the devil toeholds in our lives, we turn Christ into a doormat, and we risk spending eternity in hell.
Centuries after the Old Testament prophets preached and taught, after God had entered the world in the person of Jesus Christ, the apostle Paul would act on the prophetic impulse when he wrote,
Don't be misled: No one makes a fool of God. What a person plants, he will harvest. The person who plants selfishness, ignoring the needs of others—ignoring God!—harvests a crop of weeds. All he'll have to show for his life is weeds! But the one who plants in response to God, letting God's Spirit do the growth work in him, harvests a crop of real life, eternal life. So let's not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don't give up, or quit. (Galatians 6:7-9, The Message)The ancient prophets were sent to present God's message to His people, “Don’t quit! Don’t quit turning to me for life. Don’t quit loving God and loving neighbor. Don’t quit living in the truth that only comes from Me.”
We North American Christians could spend some time in this new year paying special heed to the words of the prophets.
Like ancient Israel, we can be materialistic and selfish.
We too can think the world should revolve around us.
We too can take God for granted.
We too can look, act, and sound more like the world than like people of God.
We too, fall into error, justifying sexual behaviors God calls sin.
Maybe the most challenging of the Old Testament prophets was Jeremiah, the writer of our first lesson. Jeremiah lived about 600 years before the birth of Jesus and had a ministry that lasted some forty years. He told his countrymen that unless they repented, turning away from their injustices to others, their religious hypocrisy, and their unethical behavior, God would cause their Babylonian neighbors to the north to sweep down on them. Babylon would conquer them, destroy their armies and their temple, and turn the citizens into vassals.
God's people refused to heed Jeremiah’s warnings. When Babylon conquered Judah in 587BC, many of God's people were taken prisoner and sent back to Babylon as slaves. The eyes of the king were gouged out and he was sent in utter humiliation to Babylon. Through Babylon, God punished His people for their continued defiance of His will. In the years before these events unfolded, this was precisely what Jeremiah had warned would happen.
You can imagine how welcome Jeremiah’s sermons were! When you’re on cruise control, you don’t want God getting in the way.
But why would God let people who worshiped Him and claimed to be believers be subjected to slavery and exile?
The answer is simple: While you and I are interested in lives of comfort and ease; God is more interested in shaping our characters.
While we’re interested in getting advantages in this fleeting life, God is concerned with righting us for eternal life.
When the pursuit of happiness becomes believers’ primary end, our characters are destroyed and we slog comfortably toward hell, away from God.
But when our lives are turned God-ward, comfort, pleasure, and happiness, along with things like purpose, hope, self-discipline, and joy, are byproducts, even when life in this imperfect world is difficult, challenging, or even, tragic.
Psalm 111 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.” Would that you and I would build our lives on the wisdom of a fearful respect of God!
Yet in the midst of Jeremiah’s stern prophetic oracles, we find a section of his book called the book of consolation or book of comfort. Our first lesson is drawn from this section of Jeremiah. In it, God reminds His people of His ultimate purpose for them, the reason behind His chastening, behind His orchestration of their humiliation at the hands of the Babylonians. Punishment would not be the end of their story!
Pull out the Celebrate inserts, please, and look at our lesson, Jeremiah 31:7-14. Scholars tell us that the text can be divided into three sections:
- Verses 7-9 are addressed to the Israelites who have been scattered by their conquerors. God promises that He will bring them back to the promised land, including the blind, the lame, and pregnant women, those often overlooked by a hurried world. There is nowhere that God’s love, forgiveness, and help cannot reach us! Listen: When we place ourselves in the hands of God, no adversity is too great, no mountain is too steep. God’s love is bigger than anything you and I will confront in this life or the next!
- Verses 10 to 12 are addressed to the nations of the world. The power of God’s Word stretches to the farthest reaches of the universe, from the Pakistani woman imprisoned for her faith in Christ to any member of this congregation confronting illness or uncertainty. God bears favor for those who trust in Him, wherever they may be!
- Verses 13 to 14 describe the rejoicing that will happen when God restores the fallen. For we Christians, it’s a preview of what heaven will be like, when all who have repented and believed in Christ, enduring in faith, as God welcomes us home!
Let me assure you that you can believe in God’s good will for you today!
True story: Amalia was a woman who had been through hell and back, from growing up in a violent home in which her father molested her to drug addiction, from alcoholism and poverty to being a negligent parent herself.
Yet God found Amalia! She heard the good news of the Savior Jesus, Who died and rose to set sinners right with God. She repented for her sins and trusted in Christ for His forgiveness and, despite all the temptations and old habits that dogged her, got off to a great start on her Christian life. Then, one Sunday, Amalia didn’t show up for worship. Her pastor, Jim Cymbala, was concerned. He silently prayed, “O God, watch over Amalia.”
The next Sunday, Amalia was back in worship. After the service, Cymbala asked where she had been the previous week. She’d had something to take care of, she said. She had to go to the man who had set her life down its hellish path, her father.
She had found him living in upstate New York. What did she say to this man? Amalia explained that she forced her father to put down his beer and speak seriously with her. She said she’d been thinking about those years when he abused her. “Oh, don’t worry about that,” he tried butting in. “That was a long time ago. We don’t need to talk about that now.” Amalia insisted that they did need to talk about it.
“It really hurt me," she told him, "and I wanted to kill you many times. But I came here this weekend to tell you that I’m a Christian now. I gave my heart to the Lord, and he changed my life…what you did was wrong. But I forgive you! God can change your life and forgive you, too…"
Amalia’s father squirmed in his chair and quickly changed the subject to superficial things. He didn’t want God to make him feel uncomfortable. But for Amalia, the weekend had been a triumph. She had let go of past hurts she didn’t earn or deserve and she was liberated to live!
God wants to liberate you to live, too!
Elsewhere in Jeremiah’s book, God says, “I know the plans I have for you..plans for your welfare and not your harm, to give you a future with hope.” In 2011, take God up on that promise for you!
Live each day in repentance and trust in Jesus Christ and watch how God turns your mourning into joy, your gladness into sorrow, and your doubts into unshakeable faith in the One Who died and rose to make you new and to give you an eternal future with God! Amen!