Summary: The world and our sinful flesh are happy when false teachers tell us God’s Word is unclear or can be ignored. God will have none of that - his Word is clear.

August 29, 2004 — 13th Sunday after Pentecost

Christ Lutheran Church, Columbia, MD

Pastor Jeff Samelson

Jeremiah 23:23-29

Adjust Your Vision:

Seeing Black and White Where the World Wants Gray

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Word of God for our study this Sunday is our first lesson, Jeremiah 23:23-29, as printed in your bulletin and already read:

"Am I only a God nearby," declares the LORD, "and not a God far away? Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?" declares the LORD. "Do not I fill heaven and earth?" declares the LORD.

"I have heard what the prophets say who prophesy lies in my name. They say, `I had a dream! I had a dream!’ How long will this continue in the hearts of these lying prophets, who prophesy the delusions of their own minds? They think the dreams they tell one another will make my people forget my name, just as their fathers forgot my name through Baal worship. Let the prophet who has a dream tell his dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain?" declares the LORD. "Is not my word like fire," declares the LORD, "and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? (NIV)

This is the Word of our Lord.

Dear Friends in Christ:

If you look in your bulletin where we have our first lesson printed out, you should find it pretty easy to read. The print is clear, in black letters on white. God’s Word stands out clearly against its background.

Compare that to this (show other sheet). These are the same verses of Jeremiah 23, but they have been printed in gray on gray. God’s Word is hardly distinguishable from what surrounds it.

And that’s what the world around us wants. It’s especially what the lying prophets the Lord condemns here want, and it’s what the sinful nature that lives inside every Christian also wants — that the clear Word of God not be clear, not be considered, and not be seen as any different from the words of men or any other “god”. They do not want the Lord to be understood, obeyed, or believed, and so they don’t want him to be heard, either. It’s this reality that these verses from Jeremiah are addressing — they apply as directly to our situation today as they did to Jeremiah’s 2600 or so years ago.

I. Now God begins these verses with some rather pointed rhetorical questions:

"Am I only a God nearby," declares the LORD, "and not a God far away? Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?" declares the LORD. "Do not I fill heaven and earth?" declares the LORD.

To a believer, it may be almost strange that this needed to be asked. After all, God was talking to his own people — the people of Judah, a nation he had brought out of Egypt and made a covenant with, a country that would not exist were it not for his power and love, a community supposedly centered around the temple bearing his name. But still God reminded them that he was no “local deity” whose power and presence was limited to the temple, or Jerusalem, or the land of Judah — the Lord is the One Almighty God everywhere. And anywhere anyone might go, there God will find him — there’s no hiding from the Lord — he is everywhere.

Now why would it have been necessary to remind the people of these things? It wasn’t just that many, if not most, of his people had forgotten the answers to these questions, or at least no longer thought about them. It was also, and undoubtedly, that the false prophets the Lord was exposing here were suggesting — probably indirectly — that God could be ignored. Jeremiah had been calling the people to repentance — but why worry about the punishments of a powerless God? The Word of God from Moses and the Prophets condemned much of what the people were doing — but why worry? What the Lord didn’t know couldn’t hurt them — his law was only words, just like theirs, and they liked their words better.

I’m reminded of a story an Illinois state trooper told when I was in high school. He was patrolling on the interstate and tried to pull someone over for speeding or some other violation. But instead of pulling over, the driver decided to try outrunning the trooper. The chase went on for some time, and then the driver took an exit. He drove for a while on the connecting highway and then, inexplicably, pulled his car over to the side and got out just past a sign announcing that he’d entered the city limits of some town. When the trooper got out of his car, the man — who was apparently enjoying himself immensely — said something like, “Ha, ha! You can’t do anything to me — I’m inside the city limits now!” The driver believed that the trooper’s authority was limited to the state highways. He was, of course, very wrong — the state police had authority everywhere in the state — and so the man was also very much in trouble, and very much under arrest.

Lots of people today have the same kind of foolish ideas about God’s power and authority — they think it has limits. They may not know exactly where those limits are, but that’s just the way they like it — gray and unclear. They don’t want to have to think about anyone — especially an almighty God — having the power to say “no” to them. Previous generations of Christians in our society had to deal with modernists who tried to “redefine” who God was; today the gospel is perhaps more in danger from relativists who want to “undefine” God into irrelevance. If everyone’s different ideas about God are equally valid, then no idea of God is particularly right and none particularly wrong. It’s all gray — and a very convenient lie.

II. But that’s exactly what it is — anything said about God that isn’t true, or anything said in God’s name that God hasn’t said, is a lie. And it’s a big mistake when someone believes his own lie and thinks that God is too small or too weak to care about his name being misused.

Hollywood and politics both are full of stories of people who believed their own publicity and then got into trouble when they tried following up on it — tough-guy actors like Steven Seagal, who a few years ago ended up way out of his depth when he started palling around with the mob, and politicians who present themselves as intellectuals and are found to be unoriginal bores whose grades were worse than their supposedly simple-minded opponents. The lying prophets the Lord condemns here made a similar but much bigger mistake — they actually got themselves believing that they had the authority to put words in God’s mouth.

But what kinds of things are we talking about? It’s pretty easy to understand from the Lord’s words here and numerous other places in Scripture how he feels about lying prophets and the lies they tell — but what are some specifics? At the time these words were first written, these false prophets were directly contradicting the Word of the Lord — both that given in the already written Scriptures from Moses on down and that of the spoken and the contemporary preaching of Jeremiah. They were saying the things that the people wanted to hear — that God was pleased with them and their good works; that there was no need to change their lives, or behaviors, or beliefs; and that there was no coming punishment to fear — and they were claiming God himself as their source, pitting their dreams and visions against Jeremiah’s revelations and the written words of the Scriptures. In a relative world, their words were at least as authoritative as Jeremiah’s, and as long as they repeated their lies longer and louder, the truth would not be believed.

We see the same things today — even some of the same lies — in ways both subtle and outrageous. Mix the black and white and you get conveniently indistinct shades of gray. The world and our sinful natures will gladly accept all sorts of lies if they’re skillfully or attractively told, or simply told long enough and loud enough — the evidence of history, science, or human psychology can be ignored, and the Word of God easily set aside. Perhaps one of the most outrageous examples of this today is how the idea that homosexuality is a perfectly natural, neutral, and inborn human trait, like skin color, that no one should judge, has taken root in our society in less than two generations – the lie was repeated loud and long, and the truth was shouted down. And there have even been plenty of wolves in sheep’s clothing — actual ministers of the church who have abused their positions and falsely proclaimed God’s approval of relationships and behaviors that his Word condemns in no uncertain terms. That’s an outrageous example

But for you and me the more attractive and dangerous lies are generally more subtle — things that draw less attention when we accept them because they seem so right and reasonable, or because they fit in so easily with the society we live in. A good place to see this at work if you frequent the internet is the question and answer section of the WELS web site. I read that pretty regularly, and it’s revealing how the same issues keep coming up — things like infant baptism, the roles of men and women, sexual morality, and so on. Frequently what the questioners are really looking for is not what God clearly says in his Word on a subject, but for an acceptable way around what God clearly says in his Word.

Still, no matter what it is or how attractive a lie is to us, what it comes down to is accepting the false idea that certain truths of God’s Word are negotiable or can be ignored when we think we have good enough reasons. Take the Christian who decides to sleep with someone he or she is not married to — is it because he or she never heard that the Sixth Commandment condemns such things? Not likely. Or consider believers who knowingly leave a church where the truth of God’s Word is purely and unashamedly taught for a church that mixes truth with error — they have their reasons, of course, but the end result is still that they have willingly submitted themselves to lies told in God’s name and told themselves that the Lord won’t mind. But he does mind. He says, “Let the one who has my word speak it faithfully.” No one has the right to add, subtract, or change God’s Word. No one, no matter his or her reasons, has any business calling “gray” what the Lord has laid forth in black and white.

III. In fact, it’s quite foolish to do so, isn’t it? No one wants to be on the receiving end of “a hammer that breaks a rock into pieces.” Now sure, we grant that there’s a lot of false doctrine out there that is believed and even taught with the best of intentions — people just don’t know the truth — but innocent motives still can’t make human lies into the Word of God.

Because there is a fundamental difference between God’s Word and man’s ideas, not just in content, but also in quality. Let the false prophets share what they think or imagine God has said and compare their words to what he has actually said. There’s no real comparison — their words are like straw, chaff, cornhusks, banana peels — things of no real value — and God’s Word is the grain, the kernel, the fruit — nourishing, healthy stuff that we need for life.

In God’s Word we find the true account of his law — we read not only what he really wants us to do and not to do, we also discover that all his commands are rooted — not in some kind of kill-joy spirit — but in his love for us and his desire to bless us. We also find the terrible pronouncements of what happens to those who do not obey his law every day and in every way — death and an eternity separated from God’s love in hell. But even those words of justice and damnation are backed by God’s love, because he warns us only so that we will turn from every sort of sin and turn to him for forgiveness and salvation.

And it is only in God’s Word that we will find that forgiveness and salvation, because it is only there that we can find the true and pure gospel of Jesus Christ. No one else but the Lord himself can assure us that he, the almighty and holy God, loved and still loves us sinners with a love we don’t at all deserve — that’s what’s called grace — and no one but he can tell us how he loved us so much he sent his Son, Jesus, to be our Savior — to stand in our place under his law, both to obey it and to suffer its punishments, in our place. And nowhere but the gospel can we find the amazing truth that our salvation was won for us in the humiliation of Christ’s crucifixion and the wonderful victory of his resurrection.

No lie a man can tell, and no lie the world or our sinful flesh wants to believe, can compare to the truth of the gospel. Nor can any lie truly survive the judgment of the Scriptures. They are like fire, burning up all falsehood, like a hammer breaking even the biggest lies to pieces, and like a sword that penetrates the hearts of believers and unbelievers alike, exposing sin for what it is, and opening up those hearts for the good news of God’s grace to come in.

That gospel invites the unbelieving to put their trust entirely in Christ for their salvation and for the forgiveness of all their sins, and that same gospel strengthens and feeds the faith of believers, comforts them, grows them, and equips them for anything and everything the world, Satan, and our sinful flesh might throw at us. In his Word, the Bible, God tells us he is near to us wherever we are. He tells us that he’s bigger than all our problems and errors, and no matter the lies that are told, and no matter how attractive they might be to us, God’s Word has the power to smash and forgive them — to reveal them for what they are and give us the good news of God’s grace in Christ instead.

But, of course, we have to be in and using God’s Word to see it smashing the world’s lies to little bits. We need the focus that the Scriptures give us as well as their power. The testimony of faithful believers that Hebrews talks about helps us to “fix our eyes on Jesus”, so that we will “not grow weary and lose heart.” The wisdom of Proverbs and Psalms helps guide us in the choices we make, the instructions of the law throughout the Bible turn our world’s moral and ethical grays into black and white, the teaching of the apostles makes doctrinal truth stand out clearly over error and helps us identify false teachers and their lies, and the gospel always inspires and drives us, not just to doctrinal purity, not just to personal holy living, but also to lives of willing and deliberate Christian service, thanking Jesus every day and in every way for his love and salvation by giving back to him, his church, and our communities.

How many of you remember what it was like back in the “old day” when color computer monitors were outrageously expensive and therefore rare — when pretty much everyone used simple black and white displays? If someone wanted to play a trick on someone — and I think this happened to me once (either that, or someone just made an error) — he could mess with the controls on the monitor and turn the contrast all the way down, so that when you turned the computer on, it looked like it wasn’t working, because everything was grey. I recall at least once, maybe twice, spending a long time trying to figure out what was wrong with my computer, because I had turned it on, yet I couldn’t see anything on the screen. Finally, I turned that contrast knob, and suddenly everything became clear — the grey turned into clear black and white.

Think of God’s Word as that contrast knob. It adjusts what you see. It brings those shades of gray back into distinct black and white. God’s Word does that for us — it takes those shades of gray that the world, and our sinful flesh, like so much, and turns them back into the clear black and white we need and want to see.

So choose carefully whom you listen to and what you read and watch. Stay away from the grays and leave the lies to the liars. Stick with the black and white, living and active, fiery and hammer-like Word of God. May God in his grace lead us to always speak, hear, and use it faithfully. Amen.

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.