The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
Listening to the Scripture lessons today, there is no mistaking how God feels about false prophets and the false doctrines and practices they promote. All this talk of ravenous wolves and diseased trees and God’s fiery anger no doubt conjures up some very terrifying images. In fact, I would venture to guess that you’ve already filled in the blank, probably many times over. We all know false prophets who fit the bill presented to us in these three lessons, don’t we? The world is filled with them. Guys like David Koresh and the Branch Davidians immediately spring to mind. Jim Jones, Muslims, Mormons, and any other whack-job cult waiting to drink the Kool-Aid and catch the next space ship or comet ride home to their weird version of heaven all come to mind.
Of course, any discussion of false prophets, scratching itching ears and preaching lies in pursuit of personal gain, must also include the snake-oil salesmen (and women) who promise us that if we just have more faith…and send our money and buy their newest book (or whatever else they may be peddling), then we too can begin to know God’s purpose for our lives; we can finally know peace—financial and spiritual; we can finally learn how to be just like God in our own daily lives—masters of our own little universe. If we follow their tried-and-true methods, then we too can learn to feel and experience Jesus in everything and everywhere. It’ll be so awesome and peaceful that we won’t even need “organized religion” anymore. Imagine the autonomous freedom that awaits us! We’ll be liberated! No more hypocrites. No more judging. No more rules, telling me what I can and can’t do. Who do those people think they are anyway?! Nope. No more. It will be just me and Jesus; my buddy, my boyfriend, my soul-mate. People like Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, Jim and Tammy Faye Baker come to mind. Rick Warren, Beth Moore, Sarah Young, TD Jakes, Creflo Dollar, Joyce Meyers…these would all be the folks God is referring to in these lessons—false prophets out for personal gain and glory.
Now, I know that some of you are upset because I just did something absolutely verboten in our day and age—I actually named names. “Pastor, it’s okay to speak in vague, general terms that don’t really apply to anyone or anything in particular, but as soon as you start assigning names and faces, then you’ve gone too far.” So…actually identifying sin calling out sin offends you? (I know it does.) Are you worried that we might offend somebody else? Are you worried what they might think or say? Does a bad review on Facebook post scare you that much?! Might it be a case of hitting a little too close to home? Might these be the names of people who produce works that you read and enjoy and incorporate into your daily “faith journey”? Is naming the names “wrong” because these are the names of the wolves who have a reserved spot of honor at your table or at the table of someone close to you?
Of course, on the flip-side of all this is the fact that others of you are upset with me because in your mind I haven’t gone far enough in naming the names of false prophets and calling out false doctrine and practice. You can think of a BUNCH more names that need to be added to that list. Okay…it’s true, but if we’re going to do that, we need to start by putting your name at top of that list. My name too.
I know that just got everyone’s attention. It’s true. I confess my sinful reality. You see, I know I’ve given false comfort before…just like every one of you have. We don’t always proclaim the Truth, and least not when it means that people we care about might become upset with us. We don’t mind dropping the hammer on certain people, but those close to us; those whom we like/love, do tend to get a different version of the truth; a kindler, gentler, watered-down version of truth that’s really not the truth at all. This is especially true when we’re preaching to the reflection in the mirror.
Guys: That’s what God is so angry about here in Jeremiah. That’s what is so often missed in this lesson. As I said, we hear all this talk of ravenous wolves and diseased trees and fiery wrath and anger, and we immediately think of all the weirdos and charlatans mentioned a few minutes ago. Yes, all those folks are false prophets, and they are certainly guilty, and they need to repent and stop spreading such damnable lies. But those aren’t the false prophets God is referring to here in this text [Jeremiah]. The false prophets that God is really taking umbrage with in this particular text are guilty of giving false comfort and assurance.
Think about what that means. It’s not that these false prophets were preaching space ships and Baal worshipping and human sacrifice. It’s not that they were promoting the lies of get-rich-quick prosperity gospel. That really wasn’t the problem. The problem was wrongly preaching God’s comfort to a situation that called for the preaching of repentance. Remember: Israel was quite unfaithful, stiff-necked and set in their proud, sinful ways. Jeremiah was sent to preach repentance. The people didn’t want to hear repentance though. They didn’t have a problem with what they were doing, believing, and practicing. They were very comfortable in their sin, and they were rather offended when they were told to repent. This is where the false prophets thrived. Rather than preaching the Truth of God’s Word and Law, the false prophets were, on their own, wrongly preaching God’s approval. They preached what the people wanted to hear. We do that too. We do that all the time.
For example: Normally such-and-such behavior would be a sin, but it’s different in this particular case. God’s angry at this sin when “rank sinners and pagans” commit it, but God’s okay with it in our case. God’s okay with it when our loved one does it. Pick your poison. Fill in the blank. Blowing off church? Despising God’s Word and Sacraments because the fish are biting or the lawn absolutely needs mowing this morning? Shacking up without marriage? Pre-marital/extra-marital sex? Pornography? Coveting? Denying Christ’s real presence in His means of grace? Choosing a church, not because the Word is rightly taught and the sacraments rightly administered in accordance with God’s Word and Will, but choosing a church simply because of their awesome coffee and scone bar or because they give away free groceries every week or free toys at Christmas? Sure, they don’t give Christ’s true body and blood, as He commanded, but at least everyone is having fun. Isn’t that all that matters? “At least they’re in church somewhere, right?” Any of that sound familiar, O false prophet?
Again, the problem here is preaching false comfort, which we’re all guilty of from time to time. Rather than preaching the Truth of God’s Law and Gospel, the false gospel of works-righteousness was being proclaimed, giving people the false comfort that they could right their wrongs and achieve atonement (at-one-ment) with God. With enough hard work and dedication, they could make themselves right with God. They could win God over with enough money and/or enough good intentions and good deeds and sacrifices.
Don’t tell me this false comfort still isn’t a problem! This is what passes for your average funeral sermon today, regardless of what denomination you claim as your own. The message, time and time again, is a message of works. “Be at peace. Be comforted. The person in the box/urn was a good person, who did this, that, and the other thing.” I’ve heard with my own ears a pastor give the false comfort from the pulpit that “heaven is now a better place” because the deceased was now there. That’s how good of person he was! He actually made heaven better! No mention of Christ or His sacrifice. No mention of salvation through faith alone in God’s grace alone, which God shows to us poor, miserable, undeserving sinners only because of the all-redeeming work and person of Christ alone. Nope. It was all about the guy in the box and how good of guy he was.
That, my friends, is false comfort. Such false comfort robs Christ of His cross, His glory, and His perfect all-redeeming sacrifice. Such false comfort essentially calls Jesus a liar. He declares victoriously, “It is finished, once and for all,” and the works-righteous corpse arrogantly comes along and says, “Yeah…not so fast. I still need to do this, that, and the other thing, and THEN it will be finished. You see, it’s not really finished yet, Jesus. Just your part is finished.” I understand why God is so angry at such false comfort! Salvation through faith alone in God’s grace alone because of Christ alone, like Scripture teaches, OR salvation through good works and good intentions with a side-helping of Jesus’ blood and God’s grace? “It doesn’t matter, does it? Six one way, half-a-dozen another. Hey…at least we’re in church somewhere, right?” Folks: That’s comfort that only a wolf (or a serpent) would give. That’s NOT the comfort that Lamb of God gives.
Truth matters. Doctrine matters. Practice matters. Here’s the truth: You are a sinner who deserves nothing but present and eternal punishment. So am I. Sin put Jesus on that cross…the sin of the world, the sin of the people you don’t like, my sin, and—yes—even your sin. That’s how great and damnable your sins are—God had to die for them! He died for them precisely because there is NOTHING you could possibly do to make atonement for even one of them, let alone an eternity’s worth of them.
But there, my friends, is the comfort and peace that surpasses all understanding. The Gospel Truth is that your sins have been paid for in full with the blood of Christ Jesus. The Gospel Truth is that this same victorious Christ is still keeping His Word and Promise to be with us always, holding out to us this same victorious Body and Blood for our peace, our comfort, and our blessed assurance. You have been baptized into this Tree of Life. You have been baptized into Christ. You bear His name upon your head and your heart. You are forgiven.
May this full counsel of God—His Law/Gospel Truth—take root in your heart and spring up to bear abundant, God-pleasing fruits of repentant joy in all that you say, think, and do; in good times and in bad, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until that blessed time when death unites us in the heavenly paradise that’s already been prepared for us in Christ and because of Christ.
Sanctify us in this Truth, O Lord, for Your Word is Truth…and life.
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