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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Do Not Be Deceived (Jeremiah 29.4-9)

June 27, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell
(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Sometimes the spoken version varies more, sometimes less, from the written (early) draft. Typically, I'll encourage listening to the audio over the written version.  In this case, the two are just different - same point, but different.  I'd commend the written version below as well as the audio, as the manuscript goes into more detail and includes some content omitted in the spoken sermon.

Last week we looked at the beginning of a letter from Jeremiah to the Jewish people exiled in Babylon in the 6th century B.C. We considered all that those displaced people had lost – homes, family, health, jobs, status, and seemingly even the nearness of God – and we talked about their greatest need being shalom. Shalom is the Hebrew word for peace, wholeness, healing, well-being, being complete, and being blessed. And we read God’s Word to them, a challenge to look not behind them at what they had lost, but to make a home where they were, grounded in the old values and imperatives God had given their ancestors. Build homes, have families, and teach the Scriptures.

And God challenged them to seek the shalom of the city – of their captors. God challenged them to pray for the people who had defeated them, carried them away, and who were the power against them. And God said, as Jesus would later echo, that as they loved these new and strange neighbors as themselves, His people would find the blessing and peace they sought.

That was a hefty challenge to apply in our own lives. It is so easy to live with an eye cast in the rear-view mirror, when things were better (or so we remember). It is so easy to live life with our eyes focused way off into the future, when things will be better (or so we hope). But Jeremiah’s message challenges us to live life fully where we are, with eyes and ears focused on God and our hands and hearts focused on the neighbors all around us. God’s promise and challenge to His people from ancient times through the New Testament to today is that He has blessed us to be a blessing. As we love God whole-heartedly, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jeremiah was as much on-topic with this ancient directive as Jesus was when he would preach it 600 years later.

So last week we dug in a bit to what it might look like for us, as a church and as individuals, to seek the shalom of our city and our neighborhoods, to be the people God wants us to be here and now. I noted that only a few verses later in the letter, in verse 11, God does mention a future – a good one, rooted in His shalom. But the path from here to there is living obediently in the here and now, attentive to where God leads.

Between the challenge in verses 4-7 to live obediently in the here and now and the future mentioned in verses 10 and following, there are two verses of warning and caution that I want to focus on today. God’s call is neither easy nor safe, but if we are obedient in listening and seeking God, there is no better place we could be.

Do Not Be Deceived

Here’s what the Lord warns through Jeremiah: “Do not let your prophets who are in your midst and your diviners deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams which they dream.” Interestingly, I was going to focus on the ways that the Babylonian culture might have deceived the Jewish Exiles, but it sounds more like the false teaching was coming from within the ranks of the Exiles! I’m sure there was plenty enough to be careful of in the Babylonian culture, but Jeremiah seems to be singling out those who would speak with spiritual authority. What dreams might they dream? Perhaps it was of what lay behind or ahead – precisely where God had said not to focus.

The Lord goes on to add one more sentence describing these deceivers: “They will prophesy falsely to you in My name; I have not sent them.” So, this is perhaps the most tricky deception with which a person of faith struggles. There were blatant traps within the Babylonian culture, to be sure. But far more gray and hazy were people who claimed to speak for God, but who were seeking to lead people away from the Lord’s path.

Indeed, if you had been one of these Jewish Exiles, how would you know whether to listen to the prophet among you or to Jeremiah’s letter?

We aren’t given that information in the text – we just know as readers that Jeremiah is the Lord’s man. All I know to say is what I would say today: if someone purports to speak for God, consider their message and measure it against the Word of the Lord. And pray for discernment. I do know, based on what we heard last week, Jeremiah’s letter resonates with the deepest truths of the Hebrew Scriptures. Had I received it as one of the Jewish Exiles, I may have found the command to make a home in a foreign land challenging emotionally, but I would have heard loud and clear the many connections to God’s commands to Adam, His covenant with Abraham, the Shema of Israel, and the deep concept of shalom. Jeremiah’s message is tough to chew on, but it resonates with the truth of God’s Word. So much easier, of course, for a holy man to tell you of a dream he dreamed that promises health and wealth and what you want… but that’s just tickling your years.

Let’s consider this caution about false teaching and a deceiving influence in more specific terms.

The Appealing, the Alluring, and the Challenging

Retreat is So Appealing

The options the Jewish Exiles faced were not so different from those we face today. When faced with a new challenge, particularly one that involves discomfort, loss, and change (not to mention spiritual darkness!), retreat seems so appealing.

For modern Christians this has been one of the most tempting and seemingly Biblical ways of dealing with the sins of the world. We speak out against sin and evil, but our net strategy is to withdraw into enclaves of what we believe to be holiness, drawing more and more narrow boundaries of who is in and who is out.

This can sound so spiritual and right because it reflects an aspect of holiness, which is commanded and commended in Scripture. We are to be holy because God is holy. And holy means “set apart.” In the Old Testament, there were examples of this holiness-by-withdrawal: God’s presence within the Tabernacle; the Jewish people not marrying outside their race or religion; the food and other laws that so emphasized keeping things separate. However, even with that approach to holiness, God was clear to describe the purpose in terms of blessing the nations. With the coming of Jesus, and even in significant portions of the Old Testament narrative (like this one in Jeremiah), God seems more interested in being holy-in-the-midst or set-apart-while-mingling-among.

This has been one of the growing edges in our own church in recent years as we stretch to understand how to be faithful and obedient, but not keep it to ourselves. It has been a conscious decision to stretch beyond our walls, to offer programs and ministries not just to our members, but to our neighbors. It has been with purpose that we keep asking “what about our neighbors?” even as we strive to be a holy people.

I believe that for people who are serious about the first part of the Great Commandment – loving God – it is easy to start to withdraw into ourselves, to deceive ourselves, and forget about our neighbors. And I believe that is what Jeremiah was writing against in verses 8-9.

Accommodation is So Alluring

The other great danger to making a home where we are is that of cultural accommodation. I was going to say that this is the great danger for those who focus on the second part of the Great Commandment – loving neighbor – and lose sight of the primacy of loving God. But I have observed that even those most hunkered down into the Christian sub-culture face the danger of importing the trappings of culture into their bubble. So whether you spend so much time in bars that you worship beer and rock ‘n’ roll or whether you spend so much time in the Christian sub-culture that you worship coffee and 91.9, both have missed the mark.

Two of the chief sins to which humanity is prone are idolatry and selfishness. We will look to culture (that which we’ve made) rather than to the Creator to find our fulfillment. I don’t know whether the false prophets in Jeremiah were focused more on the “let’s get back to Jerusalem” or were selling out to Babylonian culture, but passages like Ephesians 5 in the New Testament make it clear that accommodating to the culture around us is a real danger as well.

Culture, as the creation of fallen humanity, is shrouded in darkness. Like Jeremiah, the verses you heard read from Ephesians also warn against deception. And we are cautioned not to “partake” of the darkness. Ephesians 5:8 reads, “you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light.” And later in verse 15, “…be careful how you walk, not as unwise… but as wise.” That’s Jeremiah’s point as well. Be wise and thoughtful and live in godly and obedient ways where you are. Don’t withdraw, but don’t partake and give in. Be distinct in the midst; be light in the darkness; live in your culture as those who belong to the Light of the World.

In-and-not-of-the-World is So Challenging

And that’s the bottom line of Jeremiah 29, of Ephesians 5, and Jesus’ own teaching about being “in the world, but not of the world.” We are challenged to love God with all we are and have, and we do that by loving our neighbor out in the world where God has planted us. We must not abandon our calling to our city and our neighbors in the name of holiness. Nor should we lose ourselves in the culture in which we serve. The great challenge – but the one for which God has equipped and empowered us – is to love the world that God loves.

More Practically

So, let me be even more practical and specific. Closest on my own radar and calendar is the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. I leave for that next Friday and will be there for ten days. To be blunt, there are many official actions and pronouncements of the Presbyterian denomination that I disagree with. Our elders have struggled for years feeling out of step with what’s going on at the national level. Particularly after the last General Assembly in 2008, we had a “come to Jesus meeting” and included the congregation. Is this where we should be? Should we withdraw into a more conservative denomination of churches? Should we hunker down and do our own thing? After wrestling with many of the same dynamics the Jewish Exiles surely did, the Session and congregation and I came to some peace (shalom?) – not peace like we aren’t concerned, but peace that God is challenging me and us to be faithfully engaged in this Presbyterian context in which He has planted us. And there is a peace that comes with doing what God calls us to do. So I’m going to the national meeting to speak up, discern truth amidst many, many competing claims for truth, and see how the Lord would use me at that national level beyond the walls of our church.

Closer to home, I know that many of you have experienced this past year as one of unprecedented stretching as we’ve reached even further into our neighborhoods to be faithful witnesses to the Good News of Jesus Christ. We’ve stretched outside our physical walls. We’ve been stretched financially. We’ve stretched beyond traditional approaches of “attractional church” and “they will come to us” programs. We’ve been stretched outside our comfort zones as we’ve met and interacted with people who look different, talk different, dress different, and relate differently from us. We’ve had to learn to be more cautious, as vandalism has increased. I am confident that the vandalism and the engagement with our neighbors are related. Six years ago, rarely venturing into the neighborhood and surrounded with thick trees and a berm, I think nobody really knew we were here to mess with us. Do I regret having to lock up and get cameras and hire a police officer? I do not, any more than I regret the statue being stolen and seeing how the Lord used that to bear witness to the city, help us experience a Good Samaritan’s generosity, and bring two families into contact with the ministry of the church. If you long for the good old days when children sat silently, everyone dressed nicely, and church was quiet – I understand!! I grew up that way. But we no longer live in Jerusalem; we are Exiles in Babylon and I believe we are listening to the Lord! Remember that question I keep asking? - What is God doing around me and how can I be a part of it? That’s the Exiles’ question, the Jeremiah question, the question that we need to keep asking to be God’s people in the here and now.

Finally, there is always the danger of coming unmoored, of hearing the wrong voices and the wrong visions – even from me. So, with the warning in Jeremiah, I would remind you that even with a strong call to get up and get out, to seek the shalom of our city, we need to keep gathering to study God’s Word and worship in Spirit and Truth. That rootedness in God’s Word and Spirit is what will help us discern truth when I or any other leader speaks. Does the message ring true with God’s Word? Is God speaking and leading and stirring me by His Spirit as confirmed in that Word?

We have a mission before us, together at Good Shepherd as well as in our personal lives. The past is behind us, to remind us of God’s faithfulness. God holds our future and His plans for us are good because they are His. God has challenged us to make our home and be His people in this place at this time and in this city. I am thankful to be called together with you in this. Let’s do it! Amen.

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