6th Sunday after Epiphany February 12, 2017
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
24, 351, 411, 179
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Grace, mercy, and peace be yours from the God who, in connection with Jesus Christ, fixed what we broke. Amen.
Dear Fellow Christians:
It’s hard to envision a scenario where anyone would purposely break something, just so they could turn right around and repair what they just broke. As a rule, people just don’t purposely create such problems and expenses for themselves. Some might argue that the United States military is the exception to that rule. A well-known political commentator is credited with first saying, “The purpose of the military is to kill people and break things.” While this has arguably been true of every military force in history, our military has a history of rebuilding what they destroy. Yet, even they don’t break things so that they can fix them. They break things in the course of war, and then compassionately rebuild what they broke so that civilian populations are not made to suffer for the transgressions of their leaders.
So we ask again, “Who in their right mind would break something, just so they could fix it?” The answer might surprise you.
This morning we are going to talk about breaking things and fixing things—and of the need to actually do both. The text that will guide and instruct us this morning is found in the first chapter of the book of Jeremiah the prophet, beginning there with the fourth verse:
Now the word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the LORD.” Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the LORD said to me, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
So far the very words of God. May God the Holy Spirit give each of us a wise and receptive heart so that we accept these as the words of God alone, and utilize and treasure them accordingly. To this end we pray, “Sanctify us by Your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth!” Amen.
Before we dive into this morning’s theme, we need to recognize a simple statement in our text that supplies the clearest possible answer to what is arguably the single most important discussion in our country today. Did you catch it when you read through this text the first time? Back up a step and ask yourself what you consider to be the most important issue in our society today. It isn’t jobs. It isn’t immigration. It isn’t national defense, medical insurance, or the terror threat. It is the question of when human life begins. Our text gives God’s clear answer: All life comes from God, and it is therefore God alone who owns the right to end any life that he creates.
Understand that this right isn’t limited to just human beings. God is the source of all life, including plants and animals. Man has the right to end the life of plants and animals because God has clearly given us that right. He gave us this right, in large part, because there are no eternal consequences in connection with the ending of life forms that have no eternal soul. Those life forms were created to serve man, and therefore man was given absolute authority over those life forms.
That’s not the case when it comes to human life. There God reserved the right to himself, and to those ruling authorities who, by God’s authority, are commanded to exercise the right that remains God’s alone. No such authority has been given to individual mothers. The life they carry does not come from them or belong to them. The life a mother carries in her womb is created by God. It belongs to him alone.
God himself addressed this question in our text with these words: Now the word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Though we have adopted the phrase “Life begins at conception,” the words of our God in this morning’s text carry the question even farther by giving a more complete answer. While human life certainly does begin at conception, we would be better served by thinking and speaking in terms of God’s timeless regard for human life, both according to its creation and according to its purpose. Before Jeremiah was even conceived in the womb of his mother, God not only knew him, he had also already determined the work or service that Jeremiah would be called upon to carry out during his time of grace. This understanding not only definitively answers the question of exactly when human life begins, it instructs us as to the even more profound sin of destroying both the life created by God, as well as any and every blessing or service that God himself had planned for that human being. Consider the ramifications in connection with Jeremiah if his mother chosen to murder her unborn baby. She would not only have taken a human life, she would have prevented the invaluable work that God later performed through that great Prophet.
Here then we see the depths of evil and depravity of which any society is capable, when God is excluded and when the existence of God is not a factor in the plans of man. We should not be surprised, therefore, that the same Godless society that condemns the killing of an animal nonetheless condones the murder of an unborn child. God grant to us, and to all citizens of our world, a universal respect not only for all human life, but for the God who alone creates that life.
With that, we return to the theme of our text for this morning: “Break It to Fix It.”
Again, all human beings break things—intentionally or unintentionally—but who in their right mind breaks things just so they can fix them? The answer is Christians—or at least the answer is supposed to be Christians.
Take another look at our text. God had plans for Jeremiah even before he was born. What were those plans? He was to serve as God’s prophet, God’s spokesman. God had a message for the people. As was his custom, God determined that he would convey that message through a human spokesman—through Jeremiah. That’s what a true prophet is, by the way, a spokesman for God. That’s also what a prophet does—he speaks the message God tells him to speak. But the message wasn’t just for the people of Jeremiah’s day, was it? The message had application for all the generations that would follow. From our text: But the LORD said to (Jeremiah), “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Since Jeremiah’s words were recorded in the Scriptures, we also know that God’s message was intended to have wider application than to just those who originally heard it. God’s intended audience for Jeremiah’s message included also you and me.
In our text God went into more detail as to just what he expected of Jeremiah, didn’t he? It’s in those details that we find our specific guidance this morning. In those details we find God’s plan to break the devil, together with Satan’s power over fallen mankind. In our text God said this to Jeremiah: “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
These are actually profoundly fascinating and instructive words if we will but take the time to examine them carefully. Though we live in a ridiculously critical society, it is nonetheless fashionable to advocate only positive thoughts and words. It’s only stylish to condemn or criticize if you are condemning or criticizing condemnation and criticism. In other words, our society condones the criticism of those who themselves criticize others. Christians are, therefore, fair game, since the words of God that we are supposed to share include both positive and negative, good news and bad news, condemnation and praise. It is intended to break down and to build up.
Nothing new here. Jesus encountered the same resistance. The people absolutely adored him as long as he voiced only positive messages—or when he limited his criticism to a sort of unwritten list approved by his audience. The moment Jesus’ condemnation hit home, the people were ready to toss his off the nearest cliff.
You get that, don’t you? You’ve experienced this temptation for yourself, haven’t you—the temptation to “go along to get along?” You know exactly how real it is and how powerful it is. You’ve felt that tug toward the path of least resistance, together with the realization that you would be breaking the unwritten rules of our zombie society by actually condemning what needs to be condemned, condemning what God condemns.
Truth, however, is seldom communicated, and clarity is almost never achieved, by speaking only the positive. It’s the negative that most often illuminates or defines the positive. It is the negative that identifies what has to be torn down or destroyed before the new can be built. The negative shows what must be uprooted so that the new can be planted. The negative must remove the bad so that the good can follow. So also God’s preview to Jeremiah of the message he would be called to share wasn’t just to “build and plant;” it began with “pluck up, break down, destroy, and overthrow.”
We tend to get the concept of tearing down to build new. The old stadium in Minneapolis had to be torn down, for example, before the new stadium could be built. We also tend to get the concept of uprooting old plants to make room for the new. The concept we have a bit more trouble with, is the need to break something before we can fix it.
Our Catechism can help us here. In the explanation to the Third Petition (“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”) we read: “God’s will is done when He breaks and stops every evil will and plan of those who do not want us to hallow His name or let His kingdom come, such as the will of the devil, of the world, and of our own flesh.” The point here is that our own natural, human will is not just “off” a bit. It doesn’t just need some minor tweaking. It needs to be broken, crushed, beaten into submission. Our natural human will cannot coexist with God’s will. Only when that natural will is broken can God the Holy Spirit make that new man dominant within us.
God, therefore, not only creates all physical life, he is also the only one who can and does create spiritual life. Just as God did not create physical life by gathering raw materials, but by creating from nothing that which had no previous existence, so also he does not create spiritual life in us by altering what is already there, but by creating in us something new and different.
This fact also helps us to understand the gospel itself, which is not the story of how man must clean up his act if he hopes to earn his way into heaven. It is rather the account of how God’s own Son had to be broken if mankind was to be fixed. God placed the sins of mankind on Jesus, and then credited mankind with the perfection of his Son. Our relationship with God the Father was fixed only because his relationship with his Son was first broken.
In our text, Jeremiah was told that his immediate target audience would be the Jews—a profoundly stubborn and rebellious people who would reject his message and make his life miserable—if he actually spoke the words that God sent him to speak. He did, and they did.
You and I have been sent to a very similar target audience: one that absolutely needs to be broken by the message of God’s law, but only so that they can be “fixed” by our Savior’s gospel. We can also therefore expect that their reaction will be every bit as negative and hostile as were the Jews of Jeremiah’s day. IF, like Jeremiah, we actually share with them the whole message of God’s Word. God grant us then, first of all, an acceptance of the fact that the grip that sin and Satan have on our society must first be broken, and that such breaking can only be accomplished through our sharing of his divine, immutable law. Having then accepted that fact, God grant us also the courage to share—lovingly and humbly—that most difficult part of the words that we are to speak: God’s holy Law. Then—when the sinner lies broken, terrified, helpless and hopeless—may God the Holy Spirit use us to share, simply and accurately, the message of love and forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
This is God’s plan—break man to fix man. Since the plan comes from God himself, we shouldn’t be surprised that it works. Nor should we then be surprised when we get to witness the miracle of the creation of eternal life performed right before our very eyes. So help us God. Amen.
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