The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, "Stand in the gate of the LORD'S house and proclaim there this word, and say, 'Hear the word of the LORD, all you of Judah, who enter by these gates to worship the LORD!'" Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, "Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words, saying, 'This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.' For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly practice justice between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, nor walk after other gods to your own ruin, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever."
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
In Acts 19, Luke relates the account of some Jewish exorcists who were jealous of the blessings which God had bestowed on Paul. Paul was working wonderful miracles, even people who were touched by handkerchiefs Paul had handled were being healed of their illnesses. Those who were not Christians, but thought that they had the right to God's power and blessings were trying to take advantage of Paul and what He was doing - not understanding that the power was not some sort of magic that they could control by correct incantations, but was real and that the power was not in Paul, but in God. Let me read you a couple of verses:
But also some of the Jewish exorcists, who went from place to place, attempted to name over those who had the evil spirits the name of the Lord Jesus, saying, "I adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preaches." And seven sons of one Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. And the evil spirit answered and said to them, "I recognize Jesus, and I know about Paul, but who are you?" And the man, in whom was the evil spirit, leaped on them and subdued all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.
I share this account with you as an example of what our text is speaking about, this morning. Jeremiah is speaking the word of God to the people of God, telling them that God can tell the difference between the truth and a lie, between sincerity and hypocrisy. God warns those who would be His people not to indulge in self deception and place their trust in anything but Him alone. The priests in our account from Acts did not know God, and did not believe in Jesus, but they tried to claim something there anyhow, and when they spoke in their unbelief, the words which they spoke were without any real authority or power. They spoke 'empty words'. Our theme, this morning, is "Empty Words".
Let me begin by reading the verses just following our text. It will save a lot explaining. "Behold, you are trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and offer sacrifices to Baal, and walk after other gods that you have not known, then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and cry, 'Deliver us!'-- that you may do all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of robbers in your sight? Behold, I, even I, have seen it," declares the LORD.
The people of Israel in the time of Jeremiah were used to calling on God when it suited them to do so and when they had a need, and ignoring God when things were good. They used His house - the Temple built by Solomon - for whatever purpose struck their fancy -- even when it was a purpose for which God had expressly forbidden the use of His house. They ignored Him in their daily lives, and even in their worship, and did the very things He had commanded them not to do. They acted as if He did not exist, as if He were not real, even though they knew He was, or that He could not see them or what they were doing. Then, when they got in over their heads, and real trouble came a-calling, then they were all pious and religious called on God. When the prophets warned them of the dangers of what they were doing, they would hide behind who they imagined they were - or who they were supposed to be - and they regarded the fact that they had the temple of God among them as somehow a claim on God - or His claim on them - that they did not acknowledge in any other part of their lives.
God's message to them was simple and abrupt: "Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words, saying, 'This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.'"
The words of those who would claim to be the people of God and yet who did not live as the people of God, nor honor His covenant, words they used intending to identify themselves as God's people and expressing their claim to some sort of divine protection, were empty words. They were empty because there was nothing behind them. Oh, God was real. His love for them was real. His power was real, and His house was real. It was His people and their faith in Him that was not real. They were leaning on a covenant with God which they freely ignored. It was, in fact, a covenant that required God to ignore them because of who they were and how they lived.
To be certain, they were Jews, the "chosen people of God". They claimed the status of being God's people. But they did not live it out. They openly worshiped other Gods. They freely did evil. They treated one another and foreigners in ways expressly forbidden by their covenant with God. They did not live as the people of the covenant. They refused to be holy, and yet they assumed that they had God all tied up and that He was going to have to take care of them and rescue them. They were trusting in deceptive words, empty words, because they were merely pretending to be God's people and were, in reality, something quite different.
The Word of God, here, underscores the truth that what you believe determines what you do, and, on the other hand, that what you do and how you behave, reveals what is actually in your heart. Holy people do holy things. God's people walk in the light of His will. Those who refuse to do so, demonstrate that they are not God's people. And anything they might say to the contrary is just empty words.
The application of this word to our lives would seem pretty clear. We don't want to be the sort of people who rest their comfort and hopes on empty words. There are a lot of those sorts of people around today. They talk about being Christian, but they do not let God's Word change their lives or how they live them. They lie to one another and cheat one another, and then go to church on Sunday and claim that they are God's people. They gossip about others, gamble, take advantage of others, manipulate people and then call themselves God's Children. But those are empty words.
Then there are those who want to call themselves Christians without even coming to church. They miss weeks at a time, sometimes months at a time for no particular reason - some of them just about never make it to church, and yet, heaven help you if you criticize them or suggest that they are less than faithful. They want to believe that they deserve to receive every blessing of being the child of God without actually being the child of God.
My point is not about behavior, or church attendance, or religion, for that matter, it is about reality, and about faith, and about what is in you and is a priority for you. Too often, people get caught up in debates about religion, and about what they can or cannot do and still be a Christian. But that is not the point. The real point is Jesus.
The real focus of our faith is not on what we do, or how we behave. The real focus is on Jesus, and what He has done. He has carried our sins to the cross. He has died an ugly death on an instrument of torture in our place. He has borne the wrath of God against our sins, so that we might be forgiven. He has done what needed to be done, and now He pours out forgiveness of sins and life and salvation upon us. Those riches are received by grace through faith. So, he that believes and is baptized shall be saved.
The question is, what do you actually believe? The children of Israel of Jeremiah's day knew about God. They knew His name, and they knew His promises. They had an understanding that God rescued and that God saved. They even had some sort of expectation about God and the temple and their security in this world being connected to God and the Temple. But they did not believe. They did not have trust in God in them, or a relationship with God. They simply knew about Him, and according to legend, God would do such-and-so for them.
They didn't ask who God was. They thought they knew, and didn't really think much past that simple point. They did not ask what it meant to be the people of God or what God might expect from them or want from them. They knew what they expected from Him and they felt a sense of entitlement. It was like God owed something to them, no matter what.
How does your life reflect your faith? Do you stop to consider who God is and what He expects from you? Or, do you just figure that God owe something to you because you call yourself a Lutheran, and count your blessings as entitlements? Have you stopped to consider the seriousness of sin? Look at the price God paid to set you free! So, do you then casually wander back into sin, as though it really means nothing? God has to take you any way He finds you, right? Just like it doesn't matter which church you belong to, or how often you worship, or whether you have any respect or regard for those God sets among you for your teaching and encouragement.
What is it that your life says about God and His place in your life? Does it say that you know the rich grace of God, and how little you deserve His forgiveness and salvation? Or, does your life say that you haven't really thought about it? Are you a Christian, or a pretender? Are you a Lutheran, or a spiritual epicurean at a smorgasbord of theological traditions? Are you a member of Shaped by the Cross, or are you merely a spectator? "Member" means "body part." You are part of it and it is part of you. We are part of you!
A lot of people call themselves "Christians", but for many it is just an empty word. It doesn't shape their life. It is just another band-name label in their wardrobe. True Christians live in connection with Christ. It means that they cannot live or make decisions without taking Jesus Christ into account. Truth is what He tells us it is, and right and wrong are not determined by public opinion but by God's clearly revealed will. If these commitments are yours, they show themselves in how you live.
"Lutheran" means many things - it means forgiveness from God first, and from us to others second. It means clear doctrine, not taken for granted, but insisted upon. It means the true body and blood of our Lord in the Sacrament. It means the historic liturgy, and life of the congregation as fundamental to the life of faith of the individual members. If you are a Lutheran, these truths are precious and vital for you - and it colors how you deal with faith and church and church fellowship with others. If your faith-life is not shaped by these truths and values, then calling yourself a "Lutheran" is just "empty words".
Ours is an age of sound bites and "image". Our culture is lost in how things appear, and what people say, sometimes not even in what they say but just how they say it, without actually looking to see what the truth is or what is real. Many people allow themselves to get caught up in deceptive words, empty words that suggest something is real, or that they value something when, in fact, they haven't stopped to even think about it, or what it means. We modern Americans have many times become accustomed to doing things without examining what the things we do say about us. Jeremiah reminds us by the Word of God, that what we do reveals who we are and what we believe. As John wrote in his first epistle, "Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth."
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
These sermons are for the Church. If you find it useful, go ahead and use it -- but give credit where credit is due.
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