Sermon Text: Jeremiah 38:1-13
Date: September 15 & 16, 2018
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
Jeremiah 38:1-13 (EHV)
Shephatiah son of Mattah, Gedaliah son of Pashhur, Jehucal son of Shelemiah, and Pashhur son of Malkijah heard what Jeremiah had told the people when he said, “This is what the Lord says. Whoever remains in this city will die by sword, famine, and plague, but whoever goes over to the Chaldeans will live. He will escape with his life, and he will live. This is what the Lord says. This city will surely be handed over to the army of the king of Babylon, and he will capture it.”
Then the officials said to the king, “This man should be put to death because he is demoralizing the soldiers who are left in the city. He is demoralizing all the people by saying these things to them. This man is not seeking the welfare of the people. He wants to hurt them.”
King Zedekiah answered, “Very well. He is in your hands. The king cannot do anything to stop you.”
So they took Jeremiah and threw him into the cistern of Malkijah, the king’s son, which was in the courtyard of the guard. They let Jeremiah down by ropes. There was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank down into the mud.
Ebed Melek the Cushite, an official in the king’s house, heard that they had put Jeremiah in the cistern. While the king was sitting in the Benjamin Gate, Ebed Melek left the palace and said to the king, “My lord the king, everything that these men have done to Jeremiah the prophet is evil. They have thrown him into a cistern, where he is likely to die because of the famine, for there is no more bread in the city.”
Then the king gave orders to Ebed Melek the Cushite: “Take thirty men from here under your command and lift Jeremiah the prophet up out of the cistern before he dies.”
So Ebed Melek took command of the men and entered a room under the treasury in the palace. He took some old rags and worn-out clothing from there, and he lowered them with ropes to Jeremiah in the cistern. Ebed Melek the Cushite said to Jeremiah, “Put these rags and worn-out clothes under your arms to pad the ropes.” After Jeremiah did that, they lifted him up with the ropes and pulled him out of the cistern. After this Jeremiah remained in the courtyard of the guard.
God’s Word is What We Need to Hear, Not What We Want to Hear
You’ve probably been there. A person dear to you, perhaps a spouse or a parent or child or dear friend says that they need to talk to you about something. You can tell by the look in their eyes that it’s serious, it’s a conversation that needs to happen, but it’s not going to pleasant.
Giving or receiving bad news is never fun. A doctor who has to tell her patient about a life-threatening diagnosis can be brutal on both doctor and patient. But it’s a conversation that needs to happen. No matter how unpleasant the subject matter, it can’t just be ignored. In that case, the illness isn’t likely to go away because of our ignorance, but through this difficult knowledge a plan can be made to make the best of it or meet the problem head-on.
In our First Lesson for this morning, we meet up with Jeremiah in one of the lowest points of his ministry. Jeremiah lived and worked in the 500’s B.C. To understand what’s going on here with Jeremiah and the leaders in Jerusalem, we need to understand some the broader history of God’s people.
When God rescued his people from their slavery in Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land, he was very clear with them that the earthly blessings he was giving to them here would be a two-way street. In stark contract to the one-sided covenant God had already made to forgive their sins and bring them to be with him, this two-sided covenant went like this: “Obey me, and I will bless you physically. Ignore me and I will take this land away from you.”
Well, we know how that went, don’t we? Israel’s history almost from the moment they arrived in the Promised Land was an ongoing saga of dabbling with and embracing the false gods of the people living around them. Baal and Asherah seem to have as much if not more of the people’s attention throughout this time than the True God did.
God is not one to make idle threats. In the 720’s B.C., God sent the then-world-super-power Assyria to wipe out the northern part of his people. They were carried off into captivity, never to be heard from again. The southern part of God’s people, including the city of Jerusalem, was spared in one of the most amazing miracles recorded in Scripture when an angel put to death 185,000 Assyrian soldiers over night as they prepared to siege Jerusalem.
Fast forward about 150 years. Babylon has replaced Assyria as the supreme empire in that area of the world. And despite the powerful lesson in Assyria’s exile of the Northern Kingdom, God’s people still didn’t learn their lesson. They continued to be largely unfaithful to God to the point that God said enough is enough. The Southern Kingdom, too, would go into captivity. God promised that Jerusalem would fall, that things would go from bad to worse very quickly. And he sent Jeremiah to go deliver the bad news, “Whoever remains in this city will die by sword, famine, and plague, but whoever goes over to the Chaldeans will live. He will escape with his life, and he will live. This is what the LORD says. This city will surely be handed over to the army of the king of Babylon, and he will capture it.”
As you might expect, this message was not well received. People were convinced that anyone who wan’t speaking about the greatness of Israel and how prosperous and wonderful things were and would continue to be, if anyone would not admit and say those things, they were an enemy of the nation. And so Jeremiah’s directive from God saying that Babylon was going to come and lay waste to the nation and carry it into captivity, that they would be much better off surrendering to the Babylonians rather than trying to fight them, made the prophet persona no grata. Jeremiah was labeled as an enemy of the nation and, ironically, by extension, an enemy of the God who had given them the land they were living in.
But this message wasn’t Jeremiah being against his people, his rulers, or his nation. This was Jeremiah delivering tough news from God himself. God’s Word wasn’t pleasant to hear, but it was also true and unchangeable. God said these things were going to happen and was clear about why.
There’s a lot of parts about God’s Word that we probably don’t much care for. After all, how do you respond to God’s direction to give him your firstfruit offerings in everything, especially of your time? Do you recoil a bit when you note that God says we cannot even be angry with another person without it being sin? Does the fact that overindulging in alcohol is a sin make you upset? Is it irritating to have to obey your parents or teachers or government leaders? Is it frustrating to have to parent with patience or lead by positive examples?
Don’t our sinful natures hate all of these things? Isn’t there so much we’d rather do to just cut loose and live the life we want to live? Aren’t there pleasures and freedoms in this life that we’d like to pursue, but then God drags us down by saying they’re sin? Why doesn’t God just leave us alone and let us do what we want to do?
Why did God prohibit his people from serving other gods? Because he knew the disastrous results that would come about if they made that choice. Why did God send Jeremiah to tell the people about what would happen at the hands of Babylon? Because ignoring it wouldn’t change anything and he needed them to know the truth, so that they might turn from their sinful ways that landed them in this mess, so that they would be safe eternally even if they were in trouble in their physical lives.
And that’s the reason God addresses our sin so much with us as well. If our sinful nature was left unchecked, that would be the end of us. If we lived our lives in constant rebellion against God and rejection of anything he had done for us, we would be lost in hell for our sins. God doesn’t want that, which means he has to have tough conversations with us. He doesn’t want to sugar coat our sins or make it seem like they’re not that bad. He wants us to see that they really are that bad. In fact, they’re far worse than you and I can even imagine on our own. So he uses his Word to make reality of our desperate situation clear.
Our response to the doctor’s painful diagnosis should not be to walk out of the office without hearing what she has to say. Our response to a sermon that hits us hard is not to throw your pastor into a cistern. Our response to the difficult parts of God’s Word is to listen to what God has to say—and then hear what the solution is.
As the person diagnosed with cancer listens to the doctor’s explanation, it’s probably going to be troubling in a lot of ways. Even if there’s a way to combat the cancer, it’s probably not going to be pleasant. Radiation, chemotherapy, surgery, all of them are troubling options. But there is a potential solution, and the person with that disease does well to understand everything that would be available moving forward.
God’s solution to sin is not a possibility; it’s a certainty. But it, too, is troubling in its own way. We saw Peter’s response in our Gospel for this morning. Peter didn’t want to hear anything about Jesus’ upcoming suffering and death, yet it was something Jesus knew his disciples needed to hear about. And even more than that, it was eternally important for them and for all of us that it happen. After all, if Jesus had listened to Peter and not gone to the cross, not following the “bad news” his Father had for him, you and I would all be in hell for our sins. Jesus’ suffering and death wasn’t pleasant to talk about, it certainly wasn’t fun to see, but it was absolutely necessary for all people to be rescued from their sins.
So Jesus’ troubling, innocent death is the certain rescue from our eternal struggles. Jesus did not shy away from the directive his Father had given to him. He embraced that plan even as it meant sacrificing his life. He did that for you and for me. Because of his life and death, we are set free from sin and have been given eternal life.
And that’s the thing that makes the tough parts of God’s Word so much better than other difficult things in our life. When you sit down with that friend or family member for that tough conversation, there may be no real fix to the problems. They just be things that now you have to deal with. But with God’s bad news? He provides the certain solution. The law that condemns us is overwhelmed by the gospel, the good news that Jesus has saved us.
So don’t rebel against what God says to you, painful as it might be. Listen to it. Listen to all of it. It might not be what you want to hear, but it is what you need to hear, because in that message of sin and forgiveness of that sin is comfort of your eternal life! Amen.