The Third Sunday After Epiphany January 22, 2006
2 Thessalonians 1:5-10
437, 528 (1-4), 381 [WS 2000 alt. 775], 283
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Praise be to God the Father for making known to us his Word and will. Praise be to God the Son for making that Word a message of hope, and praise be to God the Holy Spirit for creating in our hearts the faith to believe that Holy Word, and to trust in Jesus Christ as the full payment for all of our sins. Amen.
Dear fellow Christians:
As the aircraft in which you are seated skids to a halt on the runway, smoke and flames begin to fill the cabin. There is panic all around you and within you as terrified passengers scratch and claw their way toward the exits. There is one obvious and glaring problem—no one, including you, can figure out how to open the emergency doors. The panic rises until the captain’s calm voice comes over the intercom explaining to everyone who is at an exit just how to operate the doors. The procedure is not that complicated, but there are several steps. He talks you through them. Now, ask yourself, which of these steps would you skip? Which of his words would you ignore? If he told you to lift up on a certain handle, would you push down? If he told you to push outward on the door, would you pull inward? Wouldn’t you instead treat every single word as pure gold and follow his instructions to the letter? And why would you follow them so meticulously? Because you want to live.
Now imagine yourself in a country where crime is punished most severely. If you deal in drugs, you spend the rest of your life in a dungeon. If you are caught stealing, you lose a hand. If you commit a more serious crime you lose your head. Of which laws in such a system, would you care to be ignorant? In a place where every infraction is punished in near barbaric fashion, wouldn’t you want to know exactly what was and what was not permitted? Why? Obviously because you treasure life and limb.
We tend to pay attention when our physical wellbeing is at stake. This is why it is all the more puzzling when mankind plays fast and loose with the Word and will of God. We listen with rapt attention whenever someone tells us how to escape pain, make money, get ahead, and so on. When God speaks, however, man has trouble staying awake. When mankind does hear the Word, he immediately becomes the judge as to what he will and will not accept as true and valuable, what he will and will not believe and follow.
More disturbing still, pastors and teachers are standing as judges over which messages from God they will pass along to the congregation (those who have called them to bring the whole counsel of God’s Word), and which they will neglect. Such spiritual “leaders” imagine that it is their choice as to which messages will be repeated word for word and which will be altered or omitted altogether. Could you imagine the captain of an aircraft purposely leaving out certain steps or altering instructions on how to open an escape door in an emergency? A pastor or teacher who brings only part of the Word of God is infinitely worse. Mistakes on this earth can end in death. Spiritual mistakes have eternal consequences.
Today’s text drives home this truth with unmistakable clarity. We find these words of God the Holy Spirit recorded through the Prophet Jeremiah in the 26th chapter of his book:
In the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, this word came from the LORD, saying, “Thus says the LORD: ‘Stand in the court of the LORD’s house, and speak to all the cities of Judah, which come to worship in the LORD’s house, all the words that I command you to speak to them. Do not diminish a word. Perhaps everyone will listen and turn from his evil way, that I may relent concerning the calamity which I purpose to bring on them because of the evil of their doings.’ And you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the LORD: “If you will not listen to Me, to walk in My law which I have set before you, to heed the words of My servants the prophets whom I sent to you, both rising up early and sending them (but you have not heeded), then I will make this house like Shiloh, and will make this city a curse to all the nations of the earth.”’”
These are the Words of God. In these words are Life and peace. That we too might share in these blessings so we pray, “Sanctify us through Your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth!” Amen.
True courage takes many different shapes and forms, many of which are not widely recognized or acknowledged in our society. When citizens of our country think of courage, they think of such things as braving enemy gunfire or rushing into a burning building to save another human being. There is another kind of bravery that, though really much more relevant to our lives today, is almost never acknowledged by the world around us. It is the courage not so much of body, but of soul. It is courage needed, not so much because of physical harm, but of emotional and mental anguish. It is the courage to walk and talk in the ways of our God without sidestepping the difficult situations as they confront us. It is the courage to live and speak all the counsel of God’s Word in an increasingly godless society—a world that despises so much of God’s Word.
The prophet, Jeremiah, actually exhibited both kinds of courage. It is easy to forget that the apostles and prophets of old were also human beings like you and me, and that they battled the same fears and uncertainties that afflict us. Jeremiah was sent by God to bring bad news to the Children of Israel. There is little doubt that he, like us, would much rather have softened the blows he was told to lay upon the rebellious nation of Judah. Not many human beings enjoy confrontation or relish the thought of speaking unpopular truths—especially when faced with the real possibility of physical retribution. Rare is the man who enjoys speaking words that make others hate and despise him unjustly. Jeremiah was probably no different. He also knew full well that prophets who spoke against Jerusalem and her inhabitants had a rather short life expectancy. We begin to see the true and rare courage Jeremiah exhibited.
Evidence of this man’s courage is readily seen in the verses following our text. We read there that after he finished speaking the words of the text, a mob of priests, prophets, and laymen flew into a rage and surrounded Jeremiah in the temple, demanding his death. This would not have been the first time a prophet was killed for speaking the truth as God had commanded. Beginning in verse 20 we are told of a prophet named Uriah who fled for his life to Egypt after repeating the Lord’s message to this same king—Jehoiakim. Jehoiakim sent men all the way to Egypt to hunt Uriah down and bring him back to Jerusalem. The man was then cut to death with a sword and his body unceremoniously dumped into a common grave.
The danger was, therefore, well-known to Jeremiah. The courage he showed was truly a gift from God. In fact it may well have been the physical danger that served to demonstrate to Jeremiah the importance of his spiritual message, together with the importance of the precision of that message. The life and death physical danger very likely gave credence in his mind to the life and death spiritual danger that made his message so important, so critical. It made the necessity of bringing God’s Word to the hearts of man much more real.
Since we face no such physical danger today, it is easy to dismiss the necessity of bringing the whole counsel of God’s Word to bear in our lives and in the lives of our neighbor. Certainly history bears this out, for the Christian Church has never done well during the good times. The Church has, conversely, flourished in times of greatest persecution. A wise old seminary professor was well known among his students for his maxim: “The greatest danger to the Church is prosperity.” Hear these words with your heart as well as with your ears and mind, for we indeed live in times of great prosperity.
Knowing full well that as a frail human being Jeremiah might be tempted to tone down the harsh message of condemnation (while enhancing the loving message of hope he had been instructed to bring to Judah), God gave Jeremiah the words that ought also to ring in our ears and hearts: “Thus says the LORD: ‘Stand in the court of the LORD’s house, and speak to all the cities of Judah, which come to worship in the LORD’s house, all the words that I command you to speak to them. Do not diminish a word.’” [v.2] There was both love and justice in this command to Jeremiah. God told Jeremiah not to diminish a word because the power to turn and save was carried by that Word of God. When mankind tries to improve the Word of God by tinkering with it, he diminishes it; he makes it something less than it was before. God knows full well the most effective means to save souls. He knows that His words alone are pure, true, and powerful. His words alone are able to turn a man from death to life. That is the love we see in God’s command to “not diminish a word.” That means don’t add anything. It means don’t leave anything out. He is giving us the absolute best tool to call his children back from unbelief and eternal death. His words of love in our text bear this out: “Perhaps everyone will listen and turn from his evil way, that I may relent concerning the calamity which I purpose to bring on them because of the evil of their doings.” [v.3] That is what God wanted for the Children of Israel. That is what God wants for all mankind—then and now. God wants all men to turn and be saved. God, therefore, demonstrates his deep love for mankind when he says: “Bring them my words, all of my words, and nothing but my words.”
So far so good, but why then do so many things today seem to be going so badly? Why are the nations not turning in repentance, as did the citizens of ancient Nineveh when they heard the words of the prophet, Jonah? One of the biggest problems is that people today are not hearing the words of Jonah. They are not hearing God’s Law because God’s messengers have changed the message. Today, it seems that almost everyone believes that God’s Word is just not good enough the way it came from God. Man is intent upon modifying it—adding and subtracting to somehow make it better, or at least more suited to today’s ideas and opinions. This is in spite of the fact that God specifically repeated to each one of us the command given to Jeremiah long before in the Old Testament. To the New Testament Church, just before He left us for the glory of heaven, Jesus said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20).
This is God’s message to you and me. Unfortunately, our natural inclination is to diminish both parts of the message God has commanded us to speak—His Law and his Gospel. Our society does not tolerate the Law in its full severity, and therefore sees no need for the Gospel in its full, unconditional sweetness. Most folks today believe in mixing the two, and in the process they destroy both. The world’s philosophy is that everyone should try to be good and to do good, and good will certainly be your reward. If you at least try to be good, God will accept you. What a damning lie this truly is. Mankind would dearly love to believe that good guys go to heaven (and to define “good” as whatever they themselves happen to be like at that particular moment). That is not the message God told us to bring to the world. The fact is Hell will be full of “good guys.” The key is faith in Jesus Christ. “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Note that there is nothing in this passage about “being good.” Faith in Jesus saves. Unbelief (denying that Jesus died to pay for your sins) damns.
The world will never understand the love involved in crushing a sinner with God’s holy Law. It will never be able to understand how the human heart must first be made to acknowledge sin and then to utterly despair of ever being able to fix its own sin problem. Only then can eternal death give way to eternal life. Only then can a soul be rescued from the eternal terror of Hell and be carried to the waiting arms of our loving Savior. This is what God wanted for His chosen people in Jeremiah’s day. This is what He wants today for you and me. Think of it! Contemplate in your mind and heart the love that God has for you. He does not desire your death, He yearns for your eternal life. He does want you to be happy here on this earth, but never at the expense of the eternal joys of heaven. He wants your joy—both now and later—to be true, real, and genuine. The joy of those who have not acknowledged and repented of their sin are shallow and fading. The comfort of those who do not believe in Jesus Christ as their one and only Savior from sin is a myth, a wisp. It is a hollow and deceptive sentence of death on all who accept the lie. God our Savior wants more for you—so much more! Hear the love in God’s words in our text when he says, “Perhaps everyone will listen and turn from his evil way, that I may relent concerning the calamity which I purpose to bring on them because of the evil of their doings.” [v.3] That is the bottom line, isn’t it? Hear in these words your loving God calling you away from sin and death, and to eternal life in His Son, Jesus Christ. Hear in them His ultimate goal and desire for you and for every sinner.
What a joy to realize that we have not only been brought to spiritual life through the perfect Word of God, but we have been given the rare and wonderful opportunity to serve as the spokesmen for the Maker of heaven and earth. He has given us the very words we are to speak to dying men everywhere. We have been led to know that salvation comes only as a free, unearned gift from God. Everyone who believes that Jesus Christ paid for our sins when he offered His sinless life on the cross will be saved. We have been led to know the will of our God. We have been fully briefed as to what our God has determined is right, and what He has determined is wrong. In love He has instructed us to speak that same perfect, powerful Word to the nations, one neighbor at a time. He has told us to speak all of that Word, in love, to every created soul.
Be lion-hearted, Christian messengers. Bring that powerful, effective Word to bear on your own heart, and upon the hearts of your family, friends, and neighbors. Do not dilute God’s Word. Serve it as God prepared it. Bring absolutely the full counsel of God’s Word. Know that great courage is required, for against this pure, uncut Word the Devil and the sinful world will always rage. Great courage, however, is offered by our God, free for the asking. God grant that each of us might so bring to bear the full counsel of God’s Word, to the eternal good of dying souls. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.