Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Don’t think that I came to send peace on the earth. I didn’t come to send peace, but a sword.
Jeremiah was wearing a yoke like an oxen would wear; it was a symbol of political submission. 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 a prophet preaching a much different message, a message that promised that the yoke of the Babylonians would be broken and they would be free. To make his point, 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 broken.
At first sight, today’s Old Testament passage seems very hopeful. Jeremiah seems excited about the idea of peace for Israel. In the verses just prior to today’s text, Hananiah prophesied good news. Peace. “Amen!” Jeremiah answered Hananiah. Then he followed with a warning. Jeremiah reminded the people that the prophets of the past had prophesied about war, evil and pestilence. Hananiah’s prophecy is certainly one we all would like to hear. Peace is our cry. Peace means that the people would no longer be oppressed and held as slaves. They would be restored to their homeland and a king of Israel would rule again. This is a message filled with hope. Surely Hananiah is the prophet of God because he is speaking the message that the people long to hear. It is no wonder that they rejected Jeremiah. Jeremiah walked away.
There are many people who claim to be prophets of God, saying “Thus says the Lord” with self-imposed authority. They speak a message that the people want to hear and reap the rewards of their pleasure. If anyone doubts their authority, they make some grand gesture to prove their authority and gain the trust of the people who want to hear a good word. The one who contradicts these so-called prophets are condemned and rejected, just like Jeremiah.
Jeremiah did not fight. He agreed with the prophet’s words, saying “Amen! May Yahweh do so.” But then he reminded the people that a prophet’s words must come true for the prophet to be speaking from God’s mouth. Hananiah would be proven to be a prophet from God when the peace comes.
We learn quickly in the story, however, that Hananiah was a false prophet. “Listen, Hananiah! Yahweh has not sent you, but you make this people trust in a lie.” He might have broken a yoke of wood, but God responded to the grand gesture by making Israel wear a yoke of unbreakable iron. While a yoke of wood represented 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 that they would be restored in two years, but he was dead in just two months.
A message of peace is not necessarily a false message and a prophet who preaches peace is not always speaking against God’s will. We are reminded by this story that sometimes the thing that sounds most hopeful is not always the way to peace. 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, but we might just need a season of something we don’t want to bring us to the place God intends us to be.
Jesus makes it clear in today’s Gospel text, “Don’t think that I came to send peace on the earth.” He gives us peace, but it is never what we expect.
As is true of many of the Psalms, Psalm 119 was written by a poet who was suffering. There are indications through the one hundred and seventy-six verses that he had some sort of disease that threatened his life and that he was oppressed by enemies. The crescendo of his cries to God comes in the final stanzas, including the one for this week. The psalmist begged God to see his suffering and to save him. It is clear from the beginning of the psalm that the poet loved God’s law and was as obedient as possible, and he used his obedience as the basis for his cries for help. This is not to say that he thought he deserved God’s help because he kept the law perfectly, but his obedience was the manifestation of his faith and trust in God. God promised His help to those who believe, and the psalmist is reminding God of His promises.
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.
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!” The prophecy sounded good to their ears, and so they ignored the bad news and embraced Hananiah’s good news.
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 sending 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 continued 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 opposing expectations from 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.
Jesus comforted the disciples with this word: “He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. He who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward.”
I’m not quite sure what reward a prophet will receive. In most cases, the true prophets in the Bible received little more than rejection and persecution from their people. And yet, they followed their calling with the assurance that they would receive the blessing of God. The reward is not necessarily found in this life or this world, it is found in the promise of what will be. Those who receive a prophet may not receive a reward of gold or silver, but they will have the assurance of the promise which is given to the prophet.
I’m not quite sure what reward a righteous man will receive. As a matter of fact, the righteous ones often suffer the same rejection and persecution that the prophets receive. The righteous ones are the ones who refuse to take advantage of others for their personal benefit. The righteous ones are those who end up as door mats and ladder rungs for the people willing to do anything to get ahead. The righteous ones do not boast of their greatness but quietly live as God has called them to live, in a relationship with Him. Those who receive the righteous will not gain anything but a deeper and stronger relationship with God.
To receive a prophet and a righteous man means receiving a reward, but not a trophy or medal. It means gaining a stronger and more personal relationship with the God to whom they are bound. This is more valuable than any gold or silver, it is an eternal gift, one that will last forever. Receiving the prophet and righteous man is a manifestation of the faith which God gives, the faith which saves. The reward, the assurance of true faith, is priceless.
Isn’t it amazing that 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.
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 we are sinning everytime we tell an untruth, a partial truth or keep the truth hidden. 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 truth that our 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 wrote, “For apart from the law, sin is dead.” He went on to say, “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 am trying to eat healthier these days, making better choices in my diet. But, 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. By 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.
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.
The world has expectations and it is easy for us to follow the voices that say what we want to hear. But those answers yoke in ways we would never expect. We are yoked 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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