Posted by: Johnold Strey | September 26, 2015

Sermon on Jeremiah 38:1-13

WHEN YOU SPEAK THE TRUTH IN A WORLD FULL OF LIES, REMEMBER…

  1. Expect opposition from the world
  2. Expect apathy from the world
  3. Expect deliverance from the Lord

 Text: Jeremiah 38:1-13

Introduction

Why were so many mothers and infants dying? That’s the question that nineteenth century Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis wanted to know after he began work as a doctor in the maternity clinic at a hospital in Vienna. The disease commonly called “childbed fever” was taking the lives of far too many mothers and babies. Semmelweis began to study and rule out possible causes. He finally came to the conclusion—a conclusion that seems like a no-brainer to us today—that doctors needed to wash their hands and their medical instruments not just with soap but with a chorine solution. And when the doctors in the hospital did this, guess what happened with the mortality rate. It dropped significantly!

You would think that a discovery like this would have been openly received and adopted by the medical community. Think again. Some doctors felt that Semmelweis’s discovery suggested that doctors were responsible for causing these deaths. Semmelweis stood his ground, not always in a tactful way, and made a few enemies along the way. His advice was by and large ignored, and he was so frustrated at the response from the medical community across nineteenth century Europe that he was eventually committed to a mental asylum.

There are many examples through the centuries of people who proclaimed the truth only to be ignored by their contemporaries, while a later generation would come to realize the truth of their words. What was said about Semmelweis the doctor could also be said about Galileo the astronomer or Luther the theologian. You might be speaking the truth, but if the world is comfortable with the misinformation it has come to know, the truth won’t be well received.

Today’s First Lesson takes us to another similar situation where a truth-teller was not received kindly in a world full of lies. The truth-proclaimer in this case was the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, and the message he proclaimed from God went over the land of Judah about as well as a lead balloon. But the lessons we can learn from this account are important as we strive to proclaim the truth in our twenty-first century world. As we focus on the First Lesson for today, God’s Word will remind us that when you speak the truth in a world full of lies, you need to remember to [1] expect rejection from the world, [2] expect apathy from the world, but [3] expect deliverance from the Lord. 

Exposition I

The situation was bleak. The city of Jerusalem had been threatened by the enemy army of Babylon. The armies of Egypt came in and scared off the Babylonians for a time, but it was only a time before they returned. The situation was even worse for Jeremiah. He warned the King of Judah that Babylon would eventually come in and destroy the city. God had revealed this bleak future to Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s “reward” for revealing God’s message to the king was that he was accused of treason by an official, arrested, and put in prison. Finally he was released by the king but confined to the courtyard of the king’s guard.

Jeremiah had warned ancient Judah for some time that God’s judgment was coming upon them through the Babylonians. Although he was mistreated for proclaiming this in the past, he didn’t back down from repeating God’s message once he had regained some level of freedom. “Jeremiah…said, ‘This is what the LORD says: “Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague, but whoever goes over to the Babylonians will live. He will escape with his life; he will live.” And this is what the LORD says: “This city will certainly be handed over to the army of the king of Babylon, who will capture it.”’”

You would think that people would be glad to find out how to preserve their lives. But that’s not how Jeremiah’s message was received. Like a doctor or a scientist or a theologian who speaks the truth but is ignored by his peers because the truth is unpopular, Jeremiah was both ignored and persecuted for speaking the truth! “Then the officials said to the king, ‘This man should be put to death. He is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city, as well as all the people, by the things he is saying to them. This man is not seeking the good of these people but their ruin.’” Their claim was that Jeremiah was averting the peace of the nation; the word translated “good” here is actually the Hebrew word shalom, peace. This was a very unfair charge against Jeremiah; if these officials just listened to God’s Word through Jeremiah there would be a lot more peace than if they continued to resist. Jeremiah proclaimed the truth, but he was met with a world that opposed him because they preferred lies over truth.

Exposition II

The late psychologist Rollo May said, “Hate is not the opposite of love; apathy is.” If the opposition Jeremiah experienced from the world wasn’t bad enough, the apathy he experienced from the King of Judah was!

We can understand why the King of Judah was under such distress at this time. The threat of an enemy army showing up again at his doorstep as the nation’s political situation crumbled was no laughing matter. King Zedekiah had called Jeremiah for a private meeting once before to find out what God had to say about the nation’s future, and he would do the same thing again later, but his response to Jeremiah’s situation at this point was very apathetic. “The officials said to the king, ‘This man should be put to death. … This man is not seeking the good of these people but their ruin.’ ‘He is in your hands,’ King Zedekiah answered. ‘The king can do nothing to oppose you.’” He had as much strength in his spine as a strung-together set of Jell-O jigglers!

Dealing with opposition is bad. Dealing with apathy is bad. Dealing with the combination of both is worse. “[The officials] took Jeremiah and put him into the cistern of Malkijah, the king’s son, which was in the courtyard of the guard. They lowered Jeremiah by ropes into the cistern; it had no water in it, only mud, and Jeremiah sank down into the mud.” The king’s passive aggressive apathy was about to allow an innocent man of God to die by slow starvation and dehydration. Jeremiah’s enemies were content to toss him into an old muddy cistern, where he was literally stuck in the mud, without food or water. He would die there whether Babylon came in and destroyed the city or not. And his enemies probably thought that he could die there without his blood technically being on their hands, since they weren’t actively bringing about his demise, only passively.

Applications I & II

Jeremiah was accused of treason for telling people exactly what God had told him. And the person who should have taken him seriously shrugged off his message in apathy and allowed Jeremiahs’ enemies to have their way with him.

Have you faced opposition from the world for your faith? I know a successful businessman in one of our congregations who had climbed very high on his former company’s corporate ladder. But then he was fired by the CEO when it became clear that his Christian values were not in line with the behind the scenes tactics and immorality taking place by the company’s leadership. That’s real, modern opposition for your faith.

Have you faced apathy from the world for your faith? I know a now-retired pastor who served in another Lutheran denomination; this pastor stood up for the biblical practice of close communion in his congregation, but several members opposed him for standing his ground. When he looked for help from his church body’s leadership, they offered little to no support. Eventually he was driven out of his call, all for doing the right thing. That’s real, modern apathy for your faith and for God’s Word.

The apostle Peter said that we should expect this kind of treatment as Christians. In todays’ Second Lesson, he wrote, “Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” And Jesus said in today’s Gospel that if we follow him, we should expect the “cross” of suffering: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

Cartoon on 2 sermon seriesJeremiah had to have known that opposition and apathy were likely—even potentially deadly—reactions to his divine message. And you and I know that we live in a world where we’re not likely to be received with open arms when we say that homosexuality is sinful in God’s eyes, or that faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven, or that ending the life of an unborn child in the womb is murder. We may even properly expand our statements to proclaim the grace of God that gives forgiveness to every repentant sinner, but proclaiming a divine absolute will either draw yawns of apathy or yells of intolerance from a world that likes to believe its own lies.

And so what do we do? All too often the threat of opposition or the embarrassment of apathy lead us to silence our witness. But when our witness is silent, are we not leaving the lost to die of spiritual starvation and dehydration—not in a cistern of mud but in an eternal cistern of fire? And shouldn’t our own silence confine us in that same exact place forever?

Exposition III

King Zedekiah responded with apathy. Many of the king’s officials responded with opposition. But not everyone rejected Jeremiah. “Ebed-Melech, a Cushite, an official in the royal palace, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the cistern. While the king was sitting in the Benjamin Gate, Ebed-Melech went out of the palace and said to him, ‘My lord the king, these men have acted wickedly in all they have done to Jeremiah the prophet. They have thrown him into a cistern, where he will starve to death when there is no longer any bread in the city.’”

An unlikely supporter, a man named Ebed-Melech in our translation, came to Jeremiah’s aid. That probably wasn’t his actual name; the phrase itself simply means “servant of the king.” He was a foreigner in Judah, probably from Ethiopia. And he risked his own position and well-being by going against the king’s officials and going to the king to say that what had been done to Jeremiah was wicked and wrong.

What surprises us is that the previously apathetic king responded positively. “The king commanded Ebed-Melech the Cushite, ‘Take thirty men from here with you and lift Jeremiah the prophet out of the cistern before he dies.’ So Ebed-Melech took the men with him and went to a room under the treasury in the palace. He took some old rags and worn-out clothes from there and let them down with ropes to Jeremiah in the cistern. Ebed-Melech the Cushite said to Jeremiah, ‘Put these old rags and worn-out clothes under your arms to pad the ropes.’ Jeremiah did so, and they pulled him up with the ropes and lifted him out of the cistern. And Jeremiah remained in the courtyard of the guard.” The fact that the king provided thirty men to accompany Ebed-Melech on this deliverance mission suggests that he realized that some would still oppose Jeremiah’s freedom. But that his freedom shouldn’t have been thwarted by the opposition of others. So with old ropes and worn out rags, Jeremiah was carefully pulled out of his muddy prison and released back into the king’s courtyard.

Application III

Proclaiming God’s perfect standards or his gracious salvation to a world that naturally opposes God is no easy task. And realizing our failings to be a “Jeremiah” in our world today is no comfortable realization. But it is just for those difficult and uncomfortable moments that God proclaims to you and to me how he has delivered us from a far worse fate than a long time in a muddy pit. Jesus Christ descended from heaven’s palace into the stinky cistern of this world to be our Savior. Jesus, the Son of God, performed history’s greatest rescue act when he delivered us from hell, not with ropes and rags, but by his holy life sacrificed into death as he experienced our hell on his cross. Jesus finished his rescue work when he defeated death for us, and by his Spirit’s work in our hearts, we not only believe in him now but we already hold in our hearts the permanent rescue from hell and the future resurrection from the grave that he won for us. In Jesus and through faith in Jesus, we will be delivered from a world of lies into eternal paradise.

This knowledge helps us right now to be bold confessors of his truth. The world may buy into every spiritual lie and myth and theory that comes down the pike, but the knowledge that Jesus has rescued us from sin’s prison gives us the confidence and desire to be a modern Jeremiah—to boldly proclaim the eternal truths that God has given us in his Word. We proclaim the uncomfortable truth about sin and its effects, but we also proclaim the ever-comforting truth about the deliverance we receive from the Lord through faith in Jesus Christ. And so we trust that God will deliver us when we proclaim his gospel to a less-than-welcoming audience–either by giving us the strength and determination to stand firm in those difficult situations, or, even in some situations around the world today, by delivering his faithful but persecuted people out of this world and to himself in heaven.

Conclusion

The world’s opposition, apathy, and even persecution cannot undo the deliverance that God has provided for us in his Son. Jesus, the Son of God and the truth incarnate, was right when he said, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” Let your confidence come from God’s promise to stand by you and preserve you eternally through Jesus, who is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. Amen.

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