The Fourth Sunday of Advent December 21, 2003


Are You Working Against Yourself?

Jeremiah 20:7-13

Scripture Readings

1 Peter 4:3-7
Luke 1:56-66


69, 70, 420, 652

May the faith that has been created in your heart by God the Holy Spirit never know doubt or uncertainty, and may you never find yourself in opposition to that Holy Spirit, who labors on your behalf for your eternal salvation. Amen.

Dear Fellow Christians:

I doubt there has ever been a true Christian who did not very much desire to share his faith with those he loves on this earth. When a human being truly believes that no one can enter heaven without faith in Jesus Christ, it is natural and right to want to share that truth with others. Remember that unbelievers are all awash in a torrent of perversion and confusion. So much that is false and perverse is fed to them on a daily basis that they are quite literally without hope unless someone (like you) takes the time and effort to share the good news of Jesus Christ with them. That message is not complicated. God our Father has forgiven the sins of every man, woman, and child ever born. He has placed all of those sins on his Son, Jesus Christ. Because of this, whoever believes in Jesus Christ will, without question, be saved and will spend eternity in the untold bliss of heaven. Only the one who refuses Jesus Christ and His salvation will be condemned eternally.

This is the message we want to share. The age-old problem is how to accomplish what we want to do.

In many cases the solution is simple planning. Now, what in the world does that mean? It means that something as important as sharing the key to eternal life is certainly worthy of at least as much planning as we devote to other far less important things in our lives. For example, most of you have (or should have) some kind of winter survival kit in your car. You’ve thought ahead to what might happen, and you’ve prepared by carrying an extra quilt or blankets, candles, flares, first aid kit, etc. Or when you take a trip, don’t you consider what you will be doing and pack the appropriate clothes? Sports teams make plans to counter the strengths of their opponents. The military trains our soldiers to handle the unexpected and lawyers prepare their witnesses for every conceivable question.

Yet, how do we apply what we know to be true about planning to our Lord’s Great Commission—the sharing of our faith? It is rather startling how little planning we do for something so important, so life-and-death urgent. This planning can be as simple as identifying common forms of interaction with our neighbors. That done, consider how best to respond to turn the conversation into an opportunity to witness. It’s pretty much the same thing we do when we plan the emergency kit for our vehicles. We think of what might happen and we decide how we will deal with it. What would we wish we had, for example, if we happened to get snowbound in a blizzard? That, within reason, is what we include in the kit.

Thus, witness planning is a matter of recognizing what happens to us all the time, and then turning that to the Lord’s advantage. Some examples might help to clarify. Suppose someone asks, “How are you doing?” or “How’s your day going?” What is your standard, canned answer? “Can’t complain?” “Pretty good. How ’bout you?”? Why not think of a different stock answer, like, “Great! One day closer to meeting my Savior.” It is entirely possible that nothing may come of this, but then again something great just might.

Our Lord encouraged us to be wise. Would it not be wise for us to identify such opportunities in our own lives and to prepare for them? If someone asks where I work or what I do for a living, why not answer, “Physically or spiritually?” If someone asks how many children you have, why not answer, “The Lord has given us ____” or something similar?

The need to witness should be a powerful, compelling force within each one of us. Our text speaks not only of this inner need to speak God’s Word, but it also raises some interesting questions, chief of which is “Are You Working Against Yourself?” Our text is found in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, the 20th Chapter:

O LORD, You induced me, and I was persuaded; You are stronger than I, and have prevailed. I am in derision daily; everyone mocks me. For when I spoke, I cried out; I shouted, “Violence and plunder!” because the word of the LORD was made to me a reproach and a derision daily. Then I said, “I will not make mention of Him, nor speak anymore in His name.” But His word was in my heart like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I was weary of holding it back, and I could not. For I heard many mocking: “Fear on every side!” “Report,” they say, “and we will report it!” All my acquaintances watched for my stumbling, saying, “Perhaps he can be induced; then we will prevail against him, and we will take our revenge on him.” But the LORD is with me as a mighty, awesome One. Therefore, my persecutors will stumble, and will not prevail. They will be greatly ashamed, for they will not prosper. Their everlasting confusion will never be forgotten. But, O LORD of hosts, You who test the righteous, and see the mind and heart, let me see Your vengeance on them; for I have pleaded my cause before You. Sing to the LORD! Praise the LORD! For He has delivered the life of the poor from the hand of evildoers.

These are the inspired words of our God. May that same God give us the spirit to read them with humility and reverence and to apply them to our own lives with honesty, courage, and wisdom. So we pray, “Sanctify us through Your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth!” Amen.

What exactly does it mean to “work against yourself”? Have you ever seen one of those cartoons where someone cuts off the branch on which he is sitting, or cuts a hole in the part of the floor on which he is standing? That’s the kind of thing we are talking about—struggling toward what you think will benefit you, only to find that you have been working against yourself. That is the question that we are going to examine this morning. The question is: Have we in the past, or are we still today, working against ourselves?

Most significant in answering this question is the fact, made clear by our text, that the single most lethal and diabolical method that mankind has ever discovered for working against himself is to work against his God. For the Christian, the two cannot be separated. The child of God knows that he is nothing at all apart from God.

More examples will clarify the issue. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark both include the account of how Peter, in his misguided enthusiasm, was actually working against both himself and his Lord. Listen again to the account:

From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!” But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men(Matthew 16:21-23).

Note well several aspects of this account. Note first of all just how sure Peter was of his actions. He was so certain that he knew what was best that he even presumed to rebuke Jesus, the very One he had just moments earlier identified as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter found that his good intentions neither justified nor rectified his actions. He found himself working against his God, against himself, and against the eternal good of the whole human race. Peter was trying to prevent Jesus from going to Jerusalem, where he intended to reconcile our fallen race to God the Father. He was going to offer his life on the cross as payment for our sins. Jesus had determined to do this because He loved you and me with a love beyond compare on this earth. Peter was actually trying to prevent this from happening. In the worst possible way, Peter was working against himself.

This was not the only time Peter managed to do this. Remember when Jesus came to wash the disciples’ feet on Maundy Thursday, and Peter’s reaction? “After that, Jesus poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. Then He came to Simon Peter. And Peter said to Him, “Lord, are You washing my feet?” Jesus answered and said to him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this.” Peter said to Him, “You shall never wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!”(John 13:5-9). Again Peter was sure. Again Peter was unknowingly working against himself.

Nor was the problem restricted to Peter. Remember how Paul, when he was still Saul, dedicated himself to the destruction of God’s Church. During those days of persecution, he was certain in his heart that he was doing the will of his God. What was God’s position on Paul’s actions? Then (Saul) fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 9:4-5). Paul (Saul) thought he had been working for his God when, in fact, he had been working against him.

Remember how the other Saul (the first king of Israel) also struggled so pathetically against himself, against his God, and against the Lord’s anointed replacement, David. Remember how Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish until he stopped struggling against his God.

So too, we turn to our text and find a man who seems to be in turmoil with both himself and with his God. Was his turmoil understandable? In human terms, “Yes.” Jeremiah was a special prophet of doom, sent to preach words of condemnation to the inhabitants of Jerusalem just prior to the Babylonian Captivity. No one wanted to hear the words he had been sent to speak, and they hated him for those words. The result was that he was sorely mistreated and agonizingly tortured by the rulers in Jerusalem, even to the point of death. His solution, at least for a time, was to remain silent. You can imagine the powerful motivation for withholding God’s Word from them! Not only would life be much easier for Jeremiah, he would also be withholding the one thing capable of helping the unbelieving remnant in Jerusalem who tormented him so—the ultimate revenge!

Yet God told Jeremiah to speak. What then was the result when Jeremiah tried to remain silent? Listen to Jeremiah’s own description: “Then I said, ‘I will not make mention of Him, nor speak anymore in His name.’ But His word was in my heart like a burning fire shut up in my bones. I was weary of holding it back, and I could not.

Despite the fact that “he was in derision daily,” Jeremiah found he could not struggle against his God and prevail: “O LORD, You induced me, and I was persuaded; You are stronger than I, and have prevailed.[v.7] There was nothing left for Jeremiah but to walk and speak as his Lord had instructed and to leave all vengeance to that same Lord: “O LORD of hosts, You who test the righteous, and see the mind and heart, let me see Your vengeance on them; for I have pleaded my cause before You.[v.12] Jeremiah stopped working against his God and in the process he stopped working against himself.

What, we now ask, does this text teach us today? It is a most interesting question, isn’t it: “Am I working against myself and my God in any aspect of my life?” We begin to answer the question by examining the various frustrations in our lives, but that is when problem—the question—becomes even more complex. Frustration in my life is the place to start, but frustration of itself is not a clear indicator. The Devil and his whole evil cadre work tirelessly to frustrate the efforts of the child of God. How then can I learn to recognize when and where frustration in my life is a symptom of the Devil trying to prevent my good works, and when it is an indication that I am working against my God?

Again, we may offer a few examples: In the 1990’s, we discovered that there was untold wealth to be made in the Stock Market. Since the turn of the century, we have discovered that there is untold wealth to be lost in that same market. Is that a source of frustration in your life today? Is it a symptom of working against God’s will? The question certainly needs to be explored, doesn’t it? Are you perfectly content to see others lose money so that you can make it? Are you looking for “something for nothing” (even at the expense of another) or are you simply putting your money to good use by supporting a company that brings a necessary product to our society, all the while hoping that its value appreciates? Are you motivated by greed or by a desire to practice good stewardship?

There are many such areas that need exploration. Are you frustrated because no matter how much or how hard you work, you never seem to get ahead? Ask yourself if you are working against yourself and your God by abandoning your God-given duties in a futile effort to gain what will harm you. Perhaps it is God himself who is preventing the “success” that he knows you cannot handle.

How do we find answers to these kinds of questions? Through God’s Word, certainly; but also through Christian friends. It is amazing how clearly God speaks to these questions in his Word if we would but open our hearts to that Word. Here is where Christian friends can also help, but only those who have wisdom based on God’s Word and who are not afraid to tell you what you might not want to hear. One thing is certain. You will never stand in opposition to your God or to yourself when you dedicate your life to God’s service, and to sharing with others the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. You will never err by sharing the truth that “he that believes and is baptized shall be saved(Mark 16:16) You will never work against yourself when you “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness(Matthew 6:33).

God grant to each of us the wisdom to recognize when and where the frustrations in our lives are a result of our own foolish rebellion against the Word and will of our Savior. Grant us also, dear Lord, the humility and wisdom to understand ever more fully, and bow without reservation to, your holy will. Amen.

—Pastor Michael J. Roehl

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