Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Plead my cause, and redeem me! Revive me according to your promise.
I am trying to make healthier choices about food. I know there are things I should avoid and I commit myself to avoiding those things. For a time. Then I begin to crave the things that I know I should avoid. The more I convince myself to be true to my commitment, the more I desire those things. The worst of all, of course, is chocolate. I was at the grocery store the other day and had a craving for chocolate. I have to admit that I wandered past the chocolate cake very, very slowly. I lingered near the chocolate ice cream. I barely got through the check-out lane without a pile of chocolate bars in my cart. I made it through the store without buying it this time, but I have to admit that I’ve failed more often than I succeeded. The more I tell myself to avoid these things, the more they are temptations for me.
I’m sure we can all give similar examples of things we want desperately when we cannot have them. Movies and television shows tell stories of unrequited love that cause people to do crazy things. Workers who feel they deserve a promotion that seems to be going to another will do everything they can to make the other person look bad. Our desire for the things we cannot have often leads us to sin. We know these things are wrong. Unfortunately, the more we are aware of the sin, the more we are tempted by it. The more we are tempted, the more likely we are to fall.
In today’s epistle lesson, Paul clearly differentiates between the Law and sin. The law is not sin, but with the law we become aware of the sinful behaviors that harm others and ourselves. When we hear the commandment, “Thou shalt not lie,” we realize that anytime we tell an untruth, a partial truth or keep the truth hidden, then we are sinning. Paul uses the law of covetousness in this passage. He tell us that before the law we did not know what it meant to covet something, but when we heard the law, we learned that it is wrong to desire something which is not ours. The law about coveting is not sin, but it opens our eyes to the way our flesh desires go against God’s intention for our lives.
As Paul describes it, sin took advantage of the law, causing the one who heard the law to covet all the more. He writes, “For apart from the law, sin is dead.” He goes on to tell us, “I was alive apart from the law once, but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. The commandment, which was for life, this I found to be for death; for sin, finding occasion through the commandment, deceived me, and through it killed me.”
The Law is not deadly. The Law is given to us so that we will live as God intended us to live. “Therefore the law indeed is holy, and the commandment holy, and righteous, and good.” The commandments, as we hear in the psalm for today, deliver us from the wicked ones and preserve our lives. But once we hear the law, we become slaves to sin. The law then shows us through death that we are sinners, and thus separated from God our Father. It turns us to Him, so that we might be saved.
I know as I wander and linger near chocolate at the grocery store that I’m not very good at avoiding the things I should not eat, but in humbling me, the “law” I’ve given to myself helps me see the temptations around me. If I hadn’t made that “law” for myself, I would buy all the chocolate cake and ice cream I wanted without realizing how harmful it is to my body. But now that I have that “law” is am tempted by it everywhere I go. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail. The same is true of God’s commandments. Knowing the Law makes us see when we are being tempted and we struggle; sometimes we succeed in being obedient to God’s rules, but sometimes we fail. If we had never heard the Law, we would never know we failed.
If we didn’t know we failed, we’d never know we needed Christ.
The Law is not deadly. The Law is given to us so that we will live as God intended us to live. “Therefore the law indeed is holy, and the commandment holy, and righteous, and good.” The commandments, as we hear in the psalm for today, deliver us from the wicked ones and preserve our lives. But once we hear the law, we become slaves to sin. The law shows us through death that we are sinners, and thus separated from God our Father. It turns us to Him, so that we might be saved.
The psalmist is dealing with some sort of affliction and is seeking God’s mercy. The psalmist knows God’s divine word, His promises, and knows that God is faithful. He compares himself to those who do not know God’s promises. Despite their persecution, the psalmist has not turned away from God. The psalmist is seeking new life and trusts that God will be true to His Word. Our greatest enemy is our own inability to be true to God, but we can trust that He will save according to His promise. When we see our failure through the Law, we see most clearly that our only hope is in God’s mercy.
We’d rather not see sin for what it is. We don’t want to think that we are sinners; this is why so many Christians ignore the reality of our sinful nature. We want to hear God’s promises, but refuse to believe in God’s wrath. We want to experience God’s grace, but reject any thought that God might use the consequences of our sin to turn us to Himself. We’d rather hear fluff and stuff; the word “sin” has been removed from too many Christian voices. God is love, which is true, but He is also holy and just. He demands obedience.
Will obedience save us? No. Christ has saved us. He died and when we die through faith and baptism, we are raised to new life in Him. We are set free from the law and made captive to the Word, Christ. We are not capable of being perfect on our own; our flesh is weak and perishable. Christ saves us and calls us to a new life, a life of new obedience, not to the law, but to Him. He is the fulfillment of God’s law; we dwell in Him and we live for Him.
This life is never easy. We live in a time and culture where pursuing our desires is not only acceptable, but expected. Our friends tell us to ‘follow our hearts,’ even if following our hearts will hurt someone. Society tells us that little white lies won’t hurt anyone, that it is ok to want something so badly that you’ll do anything necessary to get it. We have been given permission to take care of ourselves even if God’s law commands against it, after all, those rules were made for another time and place. Certainly a God of love would want me to be happy, right? We’ve made ourselves gods, but in doing so have become slaves to sin and rejected the God who has our best interests in His heart and in His plan.
However, we would rather hear words that fit our desires. When I’m struggling over that piece of chocolate cake or candy bar, I want someone to say, “Go for it, it won’t kill you!” They are probably right, it won’t kill my flesh. We want our fellow Christians to stand beside us as we celebrate our decisions, no matter how unfaithful they are to God’s Word. We want to hear that God is love and that He loves everything about us. We want to hear the cry of peace.
People in Jeremiah’s day knew what they wanted. They wanted to be free from Nebuchadnezzar, not so that they could live according to God’s Word, but so that they could do what they wanted. They were willing to hear anything that made them feel good. Hananiah gave them what they wanted: words of peace. He was tickling their ears with talk of hope, claiming to be speaking on God’s behalf. Who doesn’t want to hear words of peace and hope? We do, of course. Even Jeremiah said, “Amen: Yahweh do so; Yahweh perform your words which you have prophesied, to bring again the vessels of Yahweh’s house, and all them of the captivity, from Babylon to this place.” The prophecy sounded good to their ears, and so they ignored the bad news and embraced Hananiah’s good news.
Who wouldn’t prefer Hananiah’s prophecy? Peace means that the people would no longer be oppressed and held as slaves. They would be restored to their homeland and the king would rule again. This is a message filled with hope because it promises peace. It is not surprising that Jeremiah would be rejected when faced with a message that contradicts his own warnings. The people think that Hananiah is surely God’s prophet because he spoke the message that they longed to hear.
The story of Hananiah and Jeremiah goes beyond today’s text. Jeremiah was standing there wearing an oxen yoke which was a symbol of political submission. He was wearing because God commanded him to do so. Jeremiah told the people that they should submit themselves to the Babylonians and he stood as an example to them with the yoke around his neck. Hananiah was preaching a different message, a message that promised that the yoke of the Babylonians would be broken and they would be free. So, Hananiah took Jeremiah’s yoke and broke it, not only showing the power of his message against the Babylonians, but also showing that Jeremiah’s power over the people was also broken.
Jeremiah did not fight the prophet. He agreed with the prophet’s words, saying “Amen, I hope this will be.” But then he reminded the people that a prophet’s words must come true for the prophet to be speaking from God’s mouth. When peace comes, Hananiah will be proven to be a prophet from God. Unfortunately, we learn quickly in chapter 28 that Hananiah is a false prophet. “Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you have made this people trust in a lie.”
He might have broken a yoke of wood, but God responded to the grand gesture by making the yoke of Israel a yoke of iron, unbreakable. While a yoke of wood was a yoke of submission, the yoke of iron was symbolic of servitude. The people could have lived in quiet submission to the Babylonians for a season, but because of Hananiah’s arrogance and their rejection of the truth, they would live as slaves to Babylon. Hananiah prophesied restoration within two years, but he died just two months later.
Today’s false prophets continue to make the people believe lies; they make grand gestures, but their word is not truly from God. God responds as He did to Hananiah. Though the people may not be made slaves to an oppressing nation, they are made slaves to the sin they refuse to let go. They are made slaves to their desires and suffer the consequences of the lives they have chosen to live.
If you read the whole tenth chapter of Matthew, you will see Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel lesson in context. What was He doing? What was He teaching? What was He saying to the disciples? He was about to send them out on their first missionary journey. He divided them two by two; He probably chose the pairs carefully so that they would complement each other. He sent them only to the Israelites, giving them the opportunity to learn how to tell people about the Kingdom of God among those with similar heritage, language and expectations. He told them not to take anything with them, to rely on the graciousness and mercy of those to whom they are sent. They were to find a home in each town that welcomed them and to share God’s peace in that place. Jesus warned them it wouldn’t be easy. Last week He told them to be on their guard. Their own people will reject them; even brothers will betray brothers. He told them that they should expect to be persecuted because the world will persecute Him. They will be rejected, just as He will be rejected.
Jesus continues these warnings in today’s Gospel lesson. Life in Christ will not be all peace. He was speaking to the disciples, but also to us today, warning that our faith will separate us from even those we love. It makes us wonder, “What will I do if someone I love rejects my faith?” I suppose some of my readers already know. Can we stand for Christ when faced with the expectations of those we love? Jesus is very clear in this passage: “Deny me and I will deny you.” That’s what God did to the people in Jeremiah’s day. They rejected the true prophet and they suffered the consequences. They chased after the fluff and stuff and ended up suffering an even greater punishment for their disobedience. They ignored God’s word and became bound to something far worse.
We’d rather ignore the Law because it shows us the truth of our sinfulness. Yet, without the Law, we’ll never know our need for Christ. Without it we’ll never look to God for salvation. Sometimes God has something else in mind: a lesson learned, a call for repentance, a chance for transformation and change. We want the warm fuzzies now, the message that promises good things ahead. We might just need a season of something we don’t want to bring us to the place God intends us to be.
The priceless gift of eternal life takes so little to achieve. Jesus tells us that we need only give a glass of cold water to a child in the name of God’s servants to keep that which God has promised. And yet, even this is too hard for us to do without God’s help. We cannot give a glass of cold water to a child in the name of a disciple without faith. We cannot serve God in this way without believing in the promise that is already assured through the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. To receive a prophet or a righteous man takes faith, and that faith comes from God by the power of the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.
The reality of slavery is very painful for so many in our world, not only from the stories of the past but also in the present. Children are kidnapped from schools and sold as sex slaves. There are those who do not realize they are slaves, like those who are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Many are slaves to jobs and leisure. We are slaves to our opinions, to politics, to government and even to our churches. We don’t have to be yoked to any of that, because Christ has set us free. He has called us to set aside everything in this world, including those we love the most, to put God first. He has called us to live as God intends us to live, obedient to His Word and according to His law. He has called us to trust that even when things don’t seem to be going as we think they should, that He is still in control. He knows what we do not know. He knows what He has to do. It won’t be fluff and stuff; it will be hard, piercing, dividing. It may include rejection and persecution, suffering and pain. It might even mean physical death.
But it won’t mean the grave. Christ has saved us for eternal life and we are yoked to Him forever. We won’t lose what God has promised because He is faithful.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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