Third Sunday after Pentecost
Nevertheless hear thou now this word that I speak in thine ears, and in the ears of all the people.
Psalm 119 is the longest book of the bible with 176 verses. It is divided into twenty-two sections, each one representing a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The psalm speaks of the law over and over again in many and various ways. What we do not see in our English (and perhaps other language) translations is that it is an elaborate acrostic poem, with the verses of each stanza beginning with the same letter. It is devotional in character, perhaps used as a learning tool for instruction on godliness. The writer may have been a priest who was passionately devoted to the Word of God; he also humbly acknowledges his own failure to live up to it.
To many, including those who put less focus on the Law, the 176 verses seem very repetitious. Each stanza uses many synonyms for the word Law. If you compare the texts from different translations, you will find that there are dozens of different words used like, “statutes,” “ordinances,” “testimonies,” “precepts,” “commandments,” “decrees,” “laws,” and “word.” While this psalm might seem unduly focused on obedience, we see within the stanzas repeated reminders of God’s promises. The one who lives according to God’s Word will be blessed with life, salvation, protection and provision.
A cursory reading of today’s Epistle lesson might lead us to believe that Paul is also unduly focused on obedience to the Law. He reminds us that without the Law, we would not even now we are sinners. I suppose that’s why so many wish to set aside the Law and focus on grace, rejecting the reality that the Law continues to humble us before God even while we are saved.
Paul uses the example of a marriage to establish his point. A woman’s marriage is binding until her husband is deceased, but if he is still alive when she remarries, then she is an adulteress. He does not make this point to condemn women who have been cast off by their husbands (a practice that was unfortunately regularly practiced, and was as unjust as it sounds. The men often cast them off for selfish and trivial reasons, leaving them alone, outcast and impoverished.) In this example he shows us that death sets us free. Our death in Christ sets us free from the Law, having been captive to the Law’s power. Through faith and baptism, we are made captive to Christ and His promise.
Now, 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, “And I was alive apart from the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died; and the commandment, which was unto life, this I found to be unto death: for sin, finding occasion, through the commandment beguiled me, and through it slew me.”
The Law is not deadly. The Law is given to us so that we will live as God intended us to live. “So that the law 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.
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.
Quite frankly, it is much easier to live as we want to live, which to us seems like true freedom. 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.
The 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: Jehovah do so; Jehovah perform thy words which thou hast prophesied, to bring again the vessels of Jehovah's house, and all them of the captivity, from Babylon unto 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.
We don’t read the spectacular scene that comes after our Old Testament text for today. In it, Hananiah proves his point with a dramatic gesture. “Then Hananiah the prophet took the bar from off the prophet Jeremiah’s neck, and brake it.” The yoke Jeremiah was wearing was an oxen yoke and 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 preaching a different message, a message that promised that the yoke of the Babylonians would be broken and they would be free. 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 walked away.
Jeremiah did not fight. We learn quickly that Hananiah is a false prophet. “Hear now, Hananiah: Jehovah hath not sent thee; but thou makest this people to 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’s promise of restoration was proven wrong when he died just two months later.
We are reminded by this message that something that sounds hopeful is not always the way to peace. Sometimes God has something else in mind—a lesson to learn, a call for repentance, a chance for transformation and change. We want the fluff and stuff now and we are willing to embrace the message that promises good things ahead. We are willing to ignore the reality of sin and accept only words of peace, but we might just need a season of something we don’t want to bring us to the place God intends us to be.
We are blessed when we are bound to God, living according to His Word, embracing His law as the guide for our lives. Some might saw that we are slaves because we live under the yoke of some divine being. We are, but it isn’t the same as being enslaved to a harsh and difficult master. Jeremiah was bound to God. Those who obeyed his word to be yoked to God would be free, but those who believed the false prophet that gave them what they wanted to hear would be bound by the lies that tickle the ears by offer no truth or promise.
We heard part of chapter ten in last week’s lectionary. During Sunday School this week, we read the whole chapter (which I encourage you to do.) We wanted to see Jesus’ words in context. What was He doing? What was He teaching? What was He saying to the disciples? He is 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 is 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.
That’s what happens to us when we continue to reject the reality of sin in our lives. We think we are free because we are doing what we want, how we want it. But we are slaves. This slavery is caused by our decision making. We are burdened by debt because we covet that bigger house or that brand new car. We choose to buy things beyond our means. We set unrealistic goals and become slaves to the wrong priorities and expectations. When we are God’s slaves, we experience the freedom that comes with good choices and right priorities. To put God in front of everything is freedom. To put everything ahead of God is sin.
We have been set free, no longer a slave to sin but given the power to willingly serve the Lord. We are still slaves, but we are welcomed by a Master that will treat us well. As slaves to sin, we are bound to suffer the consequences; as slaves to righteousness, we will receive the fruit of His grace. As we live in His household, we grow closer to our Master and are transformed—sanctified—into the kind of servant He has ordained us to be.
Jesus says in today’s passage, “He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward: and he that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward.” I’m not quite sure what reward a prophet will receive, especially when you look at the cases of the biblical prophets. They weren’t given any great rewards; most of them were rejected and persecuted. Many were beaten and killed. No wonder we don’t want to count ourselves among the prophets. And yet, they followed their calling with the assurance that they were blessed by God. The reward is not necessarily found in this life or this world, it is found in the promise of what will be.
It isn’t much better for a righteous man. As a matter of fact, the righteous ones often suffer the same rejection and persecution as the prophets. 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.
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 even realize they are slaves, like those who are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Many are even 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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