Discerning the upside down

As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, Discerning the upside down, was given at The Salvation Army Devonport on Sunday 29 June, 2014. The Reading was Jeremiah 28:1-9

Have you ever had an argument with someone, where the only possibility to determine who is right is to wait and see how things play out? Liesl and I have these almost every week. Not big arguments, mind you, but I’ll tip the Bulldogs, and tell her that she’s silly for tipping Melbourne. The only way that we’ll know for sure is to wait and see how the game plays out.

Or maybe I’ll tell her that she’ll really enjoy Star Wars Episode VII, and she’ll say that she can’t stand Star Wars. The only way we’ll ever find out is if she sits down and watches it with me when it comes out.

Contrasting voices

There are lots of contrasting voices in our society. There’s lots of contrasting voices in Christianity. There’s even contrasting voices within The Salvation Army. Some of them are very convincing. Some are easy to dismiss.

For example, The Westboro Baptist Church is a supposedly Christian Church in America who has taken to picketing funerals of American Soldiers, celebrities, and even picketing rock concerts, and other churches, because of their belief that God hates. God hates homosexuals, God hates America, God hates the way in which the world is living their lives.

On the other hand, just recently the Presbyterian Church (USA), the largest Presbyterian body in the US, has just recently changed its definition of marriage to allow pastors to officiate same-sex ceremonies where it is legal. Clearly, the church is divided on this issue, with a whole heap of varying stances between these two, and we may not know the correct outcome on this issue until Jesus comes again.

Similarly, a church in upstate New York is advertising a raffle with the main prize being an AR-15 Assault Rifle. This seems quite at odds with the pacifist teachings of the Religious Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers.

In today’s reading, we hear two contrasting voices. Both seem to come from prophets of standing, and use the form that we have come to known from the history of the prophets.

The Israelite people were in exile. The Babylonians had taken Jerusalem and took all the Israelite people into their kingdom. The Israelites, struggling with being taken away from their promised land, have been given the prophet Jeremiah, who has been presenting a message that they need to submit to their authorities, because this exile was God’s will.

Then Hananiah comes along. His message is quite different to Jeremiah’s. He says, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel” – which is following the form of Prophetic oracles. “I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon.” – This is referencing the previous chapter, where Jeremiah is instructed to make a yoke out of straps and bars, and to wear it on his neck, as a message to the people of Israel to live under the yoke of the Babylonians. “Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the LORD’s house, which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the LORD, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.”

So basically, Hananiah is saying that within two years, the people will be free, and everything will be back as it was, with Jeconiah, son of Jehoiakim on the throne. Now, for those that aren’t so crash hot on their History, Jeconiah is the same person as Jehoiachin – which was his throne name. In 2 Kings 24, we read “Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he began to reign; he reined three months in Jerusamem… He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, just as his father had done.” Similarly, we read in 2 Chronicles 36, “Jehoiachin was eight years old when he began to reignl he reigned three months and tend days in Jerusalme. He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD.” So we’ve got two accounts – written from both the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom’s perspective, that this guy did evil in the sight of the LORD.

So what does Jeremiah say in response? “Amen!” Let it be so! “May the LORD do so; may the LORD fulfill the words that you have prophesied.” Jeremiah would love for this to happen. He would love for his prophesy to be wrong. Then he continues, “But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the LORD has truly sent the prophet.”

So Jeremiah says to all those who are there, “Look, there were guys in the past who prophesied these things, and they happened. But the one who prophesies peace, that will only be shown to be God’s will when it happens.” The thing is that yes, sometimes God has used prophets to prophesy war, famine and pestilence. And God was with Joshua as he went about, effectively causing a genocide of the Canaanites. But at the same time, these are things that man can cause to make happen. A false prophet can prophesy war, and man can make it happen. It is only through God that peace can happen, so that it is only through God’s will that Jeremiah’s prophecy can come true.

We can turn to God’s word to discern

Now, we know that Jeremiah’s prophesy did eventually come true. We know that, because he ended having a whole book named after him, where as the only place Hananiah is mentioned is in this chapter. We also read in this chapter that only two months after this encounter, Hananiah dies.

But how can we determine which path to follow in our lives today? Everything is easy with Hindsight – some say that it’s only with Hindsight that we get true 20/20 vision, but when we’re in the situation, it’s a bit tricky to work out. So how do we do it? We turn to God’s word, to speak into our lives and our situation.

Where this makes it tricky for us is that God’s word often speaks at odds to the world. Here, Jeremiah was telling the people to submit to their exile in Babylon, quite against the thinking of the day. In a culture that promoted fighting, promoted war, the message of peace was quite against their thinking. But similarly, Jesus preached a message that was quite against the thinking of the day.

In Matthew 5, we read the beatitudes. Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peace makers, the persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. This is all opposite to the thinking of the day – and probably still the thinking of today.

Poor in spirit not only relates to the spiritual side, but also refers to the physically poor as well. Certainly not an aspired situation in today’s society. Similarly those who mourn, when we’re told to “don’t worry, be happy”. Blessed are the meek – the quiet, gentle, submissive. Certainly something that people want to aspire to there. Blessed are the pure in heart – when our world is surrounded by impurity. I’ve stopped listening to commercial radio because of all the impure lyrics that we hear in what seems like every popular song of today. Blessed are the peacemakers – when the world wants to move to war so easily.

Jesus also gives us a guide as to how to balance the differing messages. In Matthew 22, Jesus answers a question about the greatest commandment with “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Jesus is saying that all the law, and all the words of the prophets basically are grounded in these two things: Love God, Love others. So for me, when I’m considering something, if it doesn’t allow me to Love God, or to love others, as I would love myself, then I must start to question whether it is truly the will of God.

When we’re faced with contrasting choices, we must turn to the word of God. It is only through study of the scriptures that we can truly discern God’s will. And while we may not know whether our discernment is the will of God until Jesus returns, we must at least make the effort to search out his voice in our lives.

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