Summary: A sermon of the need and time of the prophets

Warning, Consolation and An Invitation

Jeremiah 1:4-10 and 17-19

Last week, we looked at the opening of the Temple when Solomon called the Israelites to covenant faithfulness, obedience and regular worship of God. And God gave this warning, “But if you or your descendants turn away from me and do not observe the commands and decrees I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land I have given them and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my Name.” After Solomon died, the 10 northern tribes of Israel revolted against Solomon’s son Rehoboam who refused their demand to lower His father’s taxes. Civil war ensued and Israel, which had been united under David, now became two nations, Northern Israel and Judah in the south, which retained the city of Jerusalem and the Temple. During this time, most of Northern Israel’s kings who were to shepherd the people on behalf of God instead led them away from God. Many of the kings of Judah served idols; few served the Lord faithfully. Some were a mixed bag. But what we see is that the cycle of turning from God (sin), repentance, deliverance and restoration was repeated again and again.

It was these years between 760 BC and 460 BC that were characterized by three things. First is unprecedented political, military, economic and social upheaval. For example, Northern Israel had a series of six kings in 20 years, four of them assassinated by opponents who either favored rebellion against Assyria or complete submission. Second were growing threats on the international scene all around Israel first from the Assyrians, then the Babylonians and finally, the Persians. In response, smaller nations banded together to fight off the Assyrians, including Northern Israel, violating God’s command to the Israelites as they entered the Promised Land to not associate with pagan kings and peoples. Third is religious unfaithfulness and disregard for the covenant and law. There is evidence that many turned to the worship of pagan gods as a result of these alliances with pagan nation. In these circumstances, God’s Word was needed anew and so God raised up prophets to speak on His behalf. Thus, the prophetic writings contain a vast array of messages from God from different prophets addressing both domestic and international issues.

A prophet is a messenger of God raised up to speak God’s word to His people. The Hebrew word for prophet ‘nabi’ means one who is entrusted with a message. Thus, a prophet’s message is not their own but God’s and it is delivered with the authority of God. They have a responsibility and burden to speak this word. What exactly is prophecy? A foretelling of immediate events. Most people define prophecy as a foretelling or prediction of what is to come for this age. While the prophets did announce the future, it was the immediate future of Israel, Judah and other nations rather than our own. So when we read the prophetic writings, we must see them as prophecies that have been fulfilled in the lives of the original audience because usually, the prophecies came to pass within decades of the time they were spoken. There are exceptions to this, of course, but it is important to keep this in mind. The prophecies were also a call to action. The message of the prophets contain both predictions and warnings and were intended to be catalysts for the people to repent and be obedient to God’s Law. To see the prophets as primarily predictors of the future is to miss their primary function. None of the prophecies were written in stone. They were based on whether Israel repented. Thus, the prophets message was a call to repentance. In fact, this message was so prevalent that Zechariah (one of the last prophets) summed up all the prophets: “Thus says the Lord of Hosts, turn from your evil ways and doings,” Zechariah 1:4 The prophets called the people back to obedience to the Mosaic covenant and its Law. Thus, the content of their message was not new but age old.

The prophets also announced repercussions that were either blessings or curses. These were the positive and negative enforcements of God’s law so the people would clearly understand what it means to be in relationship to God and the repercussions of sin and rebellion but also the blessing that come with obedience. One aspect of the words of warning is that there is an opportunity to repent and change your ways to avoid the punishments and curses. But That opportunity is like a closing door. When it shuts, the opportunity to repent closes as well. It’s like in the movies when a person is trying to escape a disaster or bad person chasing them and there is a closing door or gate they have to get through it before it closes. That creates stress as you watch whether they are going to escape or not. That is what the prophets wanted to create in the hearts and minds of the Israelites with their warnings and call to repent to turn from their ways.

The prophets are saying the people are focusing on the wrong things in life. Instead of focusing on God’s law and will, they are focusing on their own. What you focus on in life makes all the difference. While crossing the US-Mexican border on his bicycle, Pedro Gonzalez was stopped by a border guard who pointed to two sacks Pedro had on his shoulders. "What’s in the bags?", asked the guard. "Sand," said Pedro." Get them off - we’ll take a look," said the guard. Pedro did as he was told. He put down the two sacks and poured out the contents. Sure enough, they contained nothing more than sand. The border guard stood there scratching his head for a while then he told Pedro to empty his pockets. Pedro complied by pulling his pockets inside out revealing that there was nothing in them. The Border guard was sure he was a smuggler. Even so, he told Pedro that he was free to go. So Pedro carefully scooped up the sand in his hands and reloaded the two sacks. Putting them back on his shoulders, Pedro continued across the border. A week later, the same thing happened. Again the border guard stopped Pedro and demanded to see what was in the two sacks. Once again, they contained nothing but sand. As Pedro was leaving, the border guard committed to keep searching Pedro. This went on every week for 6 months. Each time, the border guard found nothing but sand in Pedro’s sacks. A few days later, the guard happened to meet Pedro in El Paso. "Say friend, you sure drive me crazy. I knew you were smuggling something across the border. I won’t say a word - but what were you smuggling across the border?" A big grin spread across Pedro’s face and he replied, "Bicycles!" The border guard had his eyes on the wrong things. His eyes were focused on the sacks Pedro was carrying! If he had focused on what Pedro was riding, he could have seen that it was a different bike each time! His eyes were on the wrong thing! This is the message of the prophets to the people. You’re focusing on the wrong thing in life. As the hymn says, “Keep your eyes upon Jesus!”

The prophet’s message changed with the exile from predictions and warnings to comfort and consolation. The majority of prophetic sayings in the, 6th-8th century BC are curses because of Israel’s repeated disobedience to God’s law. But when Judah was defeated, Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed and Israel’s leaders were exiled in Babylon, the prophets were more moved to speak words of blessings and comfort rather than curses. For the first time, the people were separated from family, home and God. They were questioning their identity, their faith and even God. And slowly but surely they came to the realization of their own sin and that they were responsible for the exile. It’s under these circumstances that God changes his message. Thus, we see and hear God’s love and compassion even for his sinful, rebellious children as he seeks to speak words of comfort and consolation. We see this in the message of Daniel 6 that despite the challenges or trials you are facing, hold steadfast to your faith and God will deliver you, maybe not from but at least through the trials. For God is always faithful!

How did the early church read and understand prophecy? The simple answer is they did so in light Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. And why shouldn’t they because that event changed everything. As F.F. Bruce writes in his book, The Cannon of Scripture, “the Old Testament became a new book. Every story and Scripture was read in light of the Gospel story. And thus, they (Christians) were drawn to 100’s of Scriptures that seemed in the eyes of the early church to foreshadow the life and ministry of Jesus.” Many Christians believe that the prophetic books only refer to the coming of Jesus or the age to come. In fact, less than 2% of prophecy is messianic, less than 5% describes the coming age and less than 1% concerns events to come.

But more than any other prophetic Scriptures, the early church gravitated to the Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah 40:1–53:12. What is described is here the ideal Sufferer, the Suffering Servant. The Israelites in Exile understood the Servant to represent themselves helping to explain their own suffering. And subsequent Jewish generations understood the suffering servant to be the nation of Israel. Isaiah himself does not identify the servant and that may mean it can have multiple meanings over time. For Christians, the suffering of Jesus is nowhere more poignantly displayed than in these passages and their complete fullfillment came in Christ’s suffering on the cross. For us, this is the primary meaning of the text. But there is also a message for all who suffer for others. Indeed, as Peter says, Jesus suffered, that Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example that we follow in His steps. 1 Peter 2:19-23 These passages remind us that following Jesus (and Daniel testifies that those following God faithfully) involves suffering because the world always resists the redemptive work of God. Indeed, Paul saw the level of his suffering as a direct measure of his faithfulness to the work of Jesus. What we find is suffering is redemptive. In fact, Jesus learned obedience through the things that He suffered; if that is true of the Son of God, how much more is it true of us? Suffering is used by God for the development of our faith and our character. Thus, we can give thanks, even in times of suffering. The second thing that happens when we suffer for our faith is that and God is glorified or lifted up so that all may come to see and know him. Thus, when we are persecuted, betrayed or hurt by others because of our faith, it’s our opportunity to give witness to God and to our faith in our response to our suffering.

The call to participate in God’s plan of redemption. In reading the prophets, we learn very little about the prophet themselves. That’s because the focus of prophecy was not the prophet but instead the message the prophet had to proclaim. But in our reading from Jeremiah, we learn much about his struggle with the call to become a prophet. And who could blame him! It was hard, demanding work and nobody wanted to be the bearer of bad news calling people out for their sin. So Jeremiah came up with a list of excuses: he thought he couldn’t speak eloquently enough (anybody have a fear of public speaking?) and he thought he was too young. He’s not alone. In the call to follow Jesus, we can often hear similar excuses: "It's not my gift." "I've already served, let someone else do it!" or "I'm too busy, too tired, too old or too young." Have you been there? What we find is that Jeremiah’s excuses are often our excuses for not heeding God's voice when he calls. But when we look more closely, God countered each excuse with a promise, promises we need to cling to in our faith.

There are five promises for us today. First, we have the promise of God's purpose. Jer. 1:5 God has a purpose for our lives and that allows us to let go of our own plans and to receive God's plan without fear. Second, though our talent may appear inadequate, God always equips those he calls. Jer. 1:9 God uses the most unlikely persons, the smallest, the weakest, the least influential, people just like you and me. But never underestimate the power of God’s touch because God always equips with power and gifting those he calls. Third, you will not be alone in this task or calling. For God said, “Do not be afraid of anyone, for I will be with you to deliver you.” Someone once said that when God calls us to a task, he does not give us a road map to follow and then leave us to our resources. God walks with us and he even brings people along side of us to help as well. Elijah had Elisha. Jesus had the disciples. Paul had Timothy. Fourth, God gives us the strength to endure. "Today, I am the One who has made you a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls against the whole land - against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the population. They will fight against you but never prevail over you, since I am with you to rescue you" (Jer. 1:18-19) Notice the architectural terms: a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls. They are solid and unshakeable like the God who conceived them, and the prophet whom they would come to characterize. God reassured Jeremiah: Attack you they will; overcome you they can't. And he reassures us as well. I will give you the strength to endure.

Fifth, God’s timing is always perfect. Jeremiah said to God, "I am only a youth" (Jer. 1:6). The word youth - unfortunately rendered child in some versions of the Bible - ordinarily denotes a young, unmarried man in his teens or early 20’s. His reply is not so much revealing his age as much as a deep sense of immaturity. He felt inferior, inexperienced, and intimidated by the size of the task to which God was summoning him. No matter how wrong the timing may appear, God’s timing is always perfect. Tom Mercer writes, “Years ago, I heard an incredible story about a guy who, while walking through an intersection in a large city, noticed a police officer directing traffic in the middle of the street. As he walked by, the man sensed the Holy Spirit prompting him to go up to the officer and tell him that God loved him. The man dismissed the impulse and kept walking. Haunted by the continued sense that he had been disobedient to the Spirit, he finally walked back to that intersection, up to the officer, and said, “Excuse me, Officer, but God just told me to tell you that He loves you.” Tears began to trickle down from under the cop’s mirrored sunglasses. Traffic stopped. With a broken voice, the officer said, “I prayed to God for the first time in a long time last night and told Him that, if He was real, the least He could do was to send someone to tell me that He was there for me.” Within a matter of minutes, the officer called for backup and then prayed to receive Christ right there on that street corner. And then he writes, “When I heard that story, I was mesmerized, to say the least. It was one of the most amazing and powerful conversion stories I had ever heard. The speaker closed his message to our group that evening, he said, ‘Now go out and witness to people!’ So we were all looking for cops all week!” May you fulfill the promises of God this week. Amen