Sunday, July 15, 2018

“Like a Fire In My Bones.”

A sermon based upon Jeremiah 20: 7-13
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
15th Sunday in Ordinary Time,  July 15th, 2018 
(7-12) Sermon Series: Jeremiah: Prophet to the Nations

I grew up during the heart of the Cold War.  It was a war, perceived to be a struggle between freedom and tyranny, between faith and atheism, between democracy and dictatorship, and of course, between communism and capitalism.  One of my favorite stories out of that era tells how a KBG agent enters a Russian apartment where a Christian Bible Study was taking place.  He told the group he would give them one last chance to admit their illegal activities, abandon their secret meetings and disband, or they would be reported, which would result in very serious consequences.  A few of the group accepted his threat and leave.  Closing the door, the KBG agent says, “Now that I know who are real Christians, I’m a Christian too. I couldn’t take a chance to join your group until I knew whose faith was real.”

I love that story because it raises an increasingly important question: What would you do if you were being persecuted for your faith?  Would you be able to stand firm and be a witness to your faith?   In out text, the prophet Jeremiah is being persecuted, not so much because of his faith, but because his faith demands that he tell the truth.  

FOR THE WORD…HAS BECOME A REPROACH (8)
Sometimes, the most difficult thing to speak is the truth.   We know that, don’t we?  Your friend comes up to you and has bad breath.  Do you tell them truth?  “Don’t you like my new dress, honey?”   Do you dare tell her the truth?   Or your child can’t throw a ball, but they try.  Do you tell them they don’t have any athletic skills?   Of course not,  but you say,  ‘that was good, honey!’   You encourage them.  You complement them, but you don’t tell them the truth.  Then, you are in the hospital visiting your colleague.  “I just know I’m not going to get better.”  You look around at the tubes, the IV’s and the machines.   You know what is going to happen.  Do you agree with them?  Do you tell them the truth?   I recall the most wonderful thing the Emergency responder said to me, when, after my accident, I was laying there in my wrecked car, with my left leg nearly amputated.   “How does it look,” I asked.   “Is it bad?”  “Oh, it’s not that bad, we see this kind of thing all the time.”   I knew that he didn’t, and he knew he didn’t, but it was a comforting thought.

Any kind of truth, especially the moral truth can be hard to speak and hard to hear too.  When the ‘truth’ about Olympic Dr. Larry Nasser was discovered, as young girls started to tell Michigan State authorities about his abusive behavior, school and Olympic officials did not want to hear or believe it was true.  I heard one of the girls, who dropped out early say, that Dr. Nasser was their ‘golden boy’.   The Olympic gymnastics program at Michigan State was their ‘claim to fame’.  When the truth was told by the young girls, no one wanted to hear or believe it.  Sometimes even the parents had a hard time believing it, at first.   That is how hard the truth can be.  It often sets us into denial and defensiveness.   Even when we know it is true in our hearts, our minds can tell us that must be otherwise.

The difficult-to-swallow truth Jeremiah told in today’s Scripture passage, was also something the people of Judah and Jerusalem did not want to hear.  Jeremiah was sent by God to tell God’s people about their spiritual faults and failures, and to warn them of the soon-coming consequences of that failure, if, that is, they didn’t change their ways.  

This “truth-telling” by Jeremiah was most graphically expressed back in chapter 7, in Jeremiah’s infamous ‘temple sermon’.  In that sermon Jeremiah told Judah that if the people did not change their ways, the ‘Lord would do to them the same as he did to Shiloh’ (7:14).  He specifically warned them not to come to church to pray and think everything was OK: “Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (4).  In other words: “Don’t think you are safe or saved because you are here in this sanctuary.”   He urged: “For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever” (5-7).  Jeremiah pointed to the failure of the religious establishment in way that later inspired Jesus, when Jeremiah has God asking his people:  “Has this temple, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers….?   I am watching, says the Lord (7:11).  God says, he sees and knows, what is really going on.

If you think this is direct, an even more powerful, truth-telling sermon, was acted out in a parable and was even more direct. This happens in chapter 19, just before today’s text.  Jeremiah takes a piece of pottery, perhaps the one from the potters house, goes outside the city gate and deliberately breaks it into pieces in front of a big crowd, announcing to Jerusalem that “the God of Israel” will bring on this ‘city and upon all its towns’ the great ‘disaster’ God has promised because (19:10), as a people, ‘they have stiffened their neck’  and would not listen to God’s words” (19:15). 

As you can imagine, this very direct kind preaching got Jeremiah in a lot of ‘hot water’ with the religious and political leadership.  In the beginning of chapter 20, we read how one of the leading priests, Pashhur, ‘struck him in the face’ (20: 2) and put Jeremiah into stocks, humiliating him in the public square (20: 1-6).  Having to endure such treatment, especially when Jeremiah telling the truth God gave to him, is why Jeremiah says in our text that the ‘word of the Lord became a reproach’ to him (8) making him a ‘laughingstock all day long (7).  This was the price Jeremiah had to pay saying and doing what was right, which was, in his case as a prophet of the Lord, to tell the truth, because the truth was what no one wanted to hear. 

Jeremiah knew from the beginning that his job would be difficult, but he still never imagined it would be like this.  That’s why today’s text today begins with some of the strongest words of complaint found in all of Scripture: ‘O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed (20:7).  It’s definitely not a good way to begin a sermon.  You come to church thinking you’d be inspired and encouraged, but you have to start with a preacher beginning his message with words no one wants to hear.   “Lord, you deceived me! (20:7, NIV).  ‘Lord, you have enticed me!’ (NRSV), that is ‘YOU have lead me into a trap.’  Who wants to hear the truth Jeremiah speaks:  God you are a deceiver!  God, you are responsible for this.  God, this is not what I signed up for.   Jeremiah is saying some difficult things, but for him, in this ‘terrible’ moment, it felt like, and it was the truth.

While it may not be as extreme, all of us have been in situations when the truth hurts; it hurts to both to tell it, hurts to hear it, or it hurts to live it.  Especially in these days of ‘political correctness’ and ‘fake news’ it’s getting harder to tell the truth, to listen to the truth, let alone to share or live the truth of our faith.  How are you going to hold up under these difficult times?  How are you going to withstand the pressures to living and sharing the truth no one else lives or believes?   

Do you recall that 7O’s song, Rose Garden, sung by Lynn Anderson, that went: “I beg your pardon; I never promised you a rose garden. Along with the sunshine, there’s got to be a little rain, sometime?”  The lyrics continue with the husband telling his sweetheart that he could promise her things like big diamond rings, the moon, or the world on a silver platter; but the only thing he can give is himself.  He cannot promise "a rose garden," because life is unpredictable and there are certain to be difficult times.  No one can promise you that your life will be pleasant, comfortable, free from stress and from aches and pains all the way through.  No one can guarantee that your life will be happy, successful or that it will fulfill your dreams. There is an inherent risk in being born and living. Every day’s news underscores the hazards that come with being alive and having
An esteemed professor in a seminary was lecturing to his church history class. He had just described some of the martyrs of the early church; people who lost their lives because of their faithfulness to the truth of the gospel. He closed his book and looked the students in the eye, and said, "You know, things haven’t changed a whole lot in many parts of the world. Some of you may be called on to defend the faith, and to lay your reputation on the line. It is not beyond the realm of imagination that some of you may one day be in the position to suffer or die for your faith."  (As told in a sermon by Brett Blair at esermons.com).
God certainly never promised that it would, be easy.  All that Jesus could promise his disciples was a cross; a cross that he had to bear and a cross that his disciples would have to bear too.   This is one of the core messages of the Christian life, which is also about real life.  God  has promised to be with us, but God never promised us that it’s always going to be pleasant and sweet.   And this is not just a religious reality we are speaking about.  In Nicholas Sparks breakout novel, “The Notebook”, there is this incredible quote.  Do you remember it?  My Secretary in Greensboro introduced me to Sparks.  I haven’t seen many of his movies or read his books, but I did see this one.  In it, young Noah says to his girlfriend:  “So it's not gonna be easy. It's going to be really hard; we're gonna have to work at this everyday, but I want to do that because I want you. I want all of you, forever, everyday. You and me... everyday.” (https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/5402-so-it-s-not-gonna-be-easy-it-s-going-to-be).
Now, of course this isn’t the Bible, but it is true to life, isn’t it?  Nothing that is worth anything is easy, and this was certainly Jeremiah’s experience too.   Jeremiah lived the truth and told the people the truth and what did it get him?  He was ridiculed, made a laughingstock, put into stocks where the public could mock him, and thrown into a pit to die.  He was even called a traitor to his country by the political leaders.  Jeremiah was probably the most unpopular, hated man, in Jerusalem.   This was the personal pain he bore for doing what was right and for telling the truth.   What even made it worst, is that he felt God had ‘deceived’ him too.   
Such a difficult situation, if we were in it, might make us wonder too: Why be good or do good, put yourself out for others, or champion an unpopular righteous cause when you get nothing for it but abuse, ridicule, suffering, or even death for your pains?  Who would want to be a Christian, a whistleblower, an advocate, or activist for just cause, if it means that you would expect rejection, ridicule, rebuke and maybe feel regret too? 
SOMETHING LIKE A BURNING FIRE (9)
If there is no reward, not even a thank-you, for speaking the truth, for doing the right thing, or for championing God’s justice and righteousness in this world, then, why do it? If you do, what drives you to be, to live, and to talk like a Christian?
In our text, Jeremiah tells us what drove him to tell the truth. He said, in verse 9 of our text: "If I say, ‘I will not mention him or speak anymore in his name, there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot.’ "  For some unexplainable reason, there remained within Jeremiah, an inner necessity to speak and serve God and God’s truth, regardless of the cost to oneself.  Where does a ‘fire’ like this come from?  Is it real?  Is it spiritual?  Is it moral?  Is it God?
Paul had the same feeling when he wrote, "Woe is me if I preach not the gospel (1 Cor. 9:16)." Paul understood, like Jeremiah, that there is a "must" we must obey.   Some time ago, I was introduced to Milada Horakova, the Czech lawyer, politician, and woman of faith, who stood up to tell the truth, both when the Nazi’s and when the Communists invaded her country (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4554212/).  She was imprisoned by the Nazis in a consecration camp, but liberated by the US Army.  Then, when the communists came, she spoke out again.   She suffered opposition, threats and persecution again.   
In the Czech film made about her life, she apologized to her husband and daughter for what she was putting their through, but she could not stop telling the truth.  When Milada finally realized that communist where not going to listen, and that all hope was lost, she decided to take her family and leave the country.  But on the very day she was to leave, they came after and arrested her, took her to prison, tortured her, and finally hung her.  But in spite of all this, and that she knew it could happen,  Milada Horakova never stopped telling the truth, even if it killed her, and it did.  What made it all the more tragic, is that when she was preparing to be executed, they would not even let her hug her daughter one last time.  It was terrible, awful and appalling, but she stayed resolved.
As I watched that film about Milada Horakova, it reminded me of one of my favorite hymns from my childhood,  “I am Resolved.”  I used to love to hear the choir at my childhood church when they say that song with so much volume and harmony.  The bass line was electric.  Perhaps you remember how it goes, “I am resolved, no longer to linger, charmed by the worlds delight; things that are higher, things that are nobler, these have allured my sight.  I will hasten to him, hasten so glad and free, (this is where the bass line came in).  Then the song ends: “Jesus, greatest, highest, I come to thee.”  (Words by Palmer Hartsough, in The Baptist Hymnal, 1975, p. 177).
Do you recall that automobile slogan serval years ago, which said: "We are driven!"  I think is was foreign car, but there is truth in it.  As an auto is driven, so are we.   We are all ‘driven’ by something.  What drives a person to be a "pinch-penny" - fear?  What drives a person to drugs or alcohol - insecurity? What drives a multi-millionaire senior citizen to seek the presidency – power, ego?   What drives a workaholic – the thrill of success?   What drives a person to jump out of an airplane at 20 or 90?  What makes people tick? Why do we do the things we do? Ever ask yourself that?  Why do people put themselves at risk, when they already have so much?
When it comes to doing good, as God’s people, we too are driven.  The Bible says we are ‘driven’ from within by God’s Spirit, God’s fire, and God’s wind.  So, why be good or do good, put ourselves out for others, or champion an unpopular righteous cause when you get nothing for it but abuse, ridicule, suffering, or even death for your pains?  
This was Jeremiah’s experience as a prophet, wasn’t it?   He told the people the truth God revealed to him: no peace for the nation, only destruction, death, and captivity. It broke his heart to say it, but he had to say it to be true to his calling as a preacher. And what did it get him? He was ridiculed, made a laughingstock, put into stocks where the public could mock him, and thrown into a pit to die. What hurt him most was to be called a traitor to his country by his countrymen. Jeremiah was the most unpopular man of his day.  What made him do this?
Again, we may not suffer to that extreme, but for a Christian, the one who follows Jesus in this world, the expectation of opposition is ‘par for the course’ of life.  We have no right to expect anything else. Jesus said in the gospel that “a disciple is not above his master” (Matt. 10:24).   If the Master is persecuted, why wouldn’t the same happen to a disciple? Jesus also told his followers that they should “not fear those who can kill the body, but to fear only him who could kill both body and soul.”(Matt. 10:28).  Knowing this, it takes a brave person to be a true Christian! Have you ever thought of yourself as a brave person?  
If you truly follow Jesus and go against the grain of this world, you are considered brave. If there is no reward in this world and not even a thank-you for speaking the truth, doing the right thing, and championing the cause of God in the world, then why do it?  Jeremiah told us what drove him to do it: "If I say, ‘I will not mention him or speak anymore in his name, there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot”(v.9).  What he means is that there is within him, an inner necessity to speak the truth and to serve God, regardless of the cost to oneself.  There is a "must" to obey. We cannot help ourselves. The truth of God must come out. We cannot hide our convictions, and our joy must be released or we will burst! There is a fire in our bones that drives us to be, to do, and to speak the truth of God.   
The late Lutheran preacher, John Brokhoff said “it is like an old-fashioned tea kettle with a whistle on the spout. When the fire is hot and the water boils, the whistle goes off like crazy. There is no stopping it until the kettle is removed from the fire.”   He continued to explain why it seemed foolish and vain to think that we can get church members to witness or churches to grow by putting on a churchwide campaigns with all sorts of meetings, programs, and gimmicks. If the fire of faith were burning in our souls, our witnessing would be automatic, the fire would be an eternal flame, and people out in the cold of the world want to have their hearts warmed. (From His sermon, “We Are Driven”,  CSS Publishing,  “Old Truths for New Times”,.).
O LORD, YOU TEST THE RIGHTEOUS... (12)
Knowing what Jeremiah did, and knowing what others who have suffered for the truth, have done,  how do we keep living and telling the truth, no matter what.   How do we get this flame, this burning, and this ‘fire shut up in (our) bones’?   
Well, what Jeremiah finally says, is that it’s not what you’re going through, but who is going through it with you.  The ‘fire’ in Jeremiah’s bones; his ‘spirit’ or his ‘heart’ found its strength in his faith that “The LORD” was ‘with him’ like a ‘dread’ or ‘mighty warrior (20:11).   Even when everything was going against him, Jeremiah understood all his suffering as a ‘test’, because he understood that the LORD Almighty ‘examines’, ‘tests’, ‘probes’ to prove the human ‘heart and mind’ (20:12).  In other words, when Jeremiah was suffering, even when he was suffering for telling the truth, he was affirmed that he was not alone.  Even when he called God a ‘deceiver’ (KJV), he was still talking to, believing in, and trusting the God ‘with him’.
I know that this is a ‘stretch’ for many people to accept or believe.  Most people want easier answers, or they want to trust in a God who keeps them out of trouble.  But the way of faith that kept the fires of faith burning in Jeremiah’s heart, was the knowledge that if you trust God anyway, and you do right anyway, and when you live and tell the truth in love anyway, that no matter what happens, or doesn’t happen, exactly because you keep trusting in this God who is ‘with us,’ you continue to spark and rekindle the ‘fire’ that fuels the heart and spirit.   For when we give ourselves to him, and are willing to suffer and die for what is true, right, and just, we come to know more intimately the heart of the God who is suffering love.
When William Booth began his work with the charity that became the Salvation Army, his wife, Catherine, was reluctant to accompany him on the great adventure of faith. Upon having to face the decision to go or not to go, she encountered Christ.  She wrote: "He did not smile at me, nor did he chide, but raised his hand, and I saw the nailprints on it." "That is your way," he said, "and there is no other." And she said, "So be it, Lord. Will you go with me?"  The LORD answered in her heart: "I will be with you, to the very end(Also from Brokhoff, ibid).
When the ‘fire’ of faith burns in our bones, we should be bold in our witnessing and work for the LORD.  One of the things that astounded the city officials of Jerusalem at the time of the Apostles was how bold they were when they were an uneducated, untrained bunch of common peasants.  When the Apostles defied them with those remarkable words: "We must obey God rather than men," (Acts 4: 19, 5:29),the biblical account remarks that it was exactly then, when they were willing to suffer for the truth, that people “took knowledge of them that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). To have God in Christ Jesus with you makes you courageous against the fear of people or even death.  Only faith can give us courage and conviction and certainty against all odds.  God and his Christ are worth the risk of our lives, for even when you suffer with Jesus, you still suffer for something, rather than ending up suffering for nothing, which is where most people end up.   
Not everyone agrees the logic of suffering for the truth of God in Christ.   Back in 1982, three years after I began my work as a pastor, a Gallup poll indicated that 43% of the American people said there is nothing worth risking their lives for, while only 13% would risk their lives for religious reasons.   If that’s how it was back in 1982, I’m sure it’s much less now.   Apparently, many people, even people in the churches, don’t see faith in God or truth, or in what is right, to be truth worth living, sacrificing, suffering, or worth dying for.   And though most see this is strictly a problem for the churches, it’s also a problem for everyone, because when the fire of faith is gone, so goes the fire of love, and the fire of hope too.
Like Jeremiah telling the truth to the religious in Jerusalem, when Martin Luther once stood up against the wayward wrongly directed powers of Catholic Rome,  a Cardinal thundered at Luther, demanding to know who he was to defy Rome. "The Pope’s little finger is stronger than all Germany. Do you expect the princes to defend you, a wretched worm like you? I tell you, NO! And where will you be then?" "Then, as now," answered Luther, "I will be in the hands of the Almighty God."
In the crucial issues of our day, God asks us only to be faithful to him and his cause, because our cause is God’s cause, and God’s cause is our cause.  For this reason, because God is our ‘mighty warrior’ (20:11, NIV) and we don’t struggle and suffer for the truth of faith, hope, and love alone, we rest in knowing that God does not expect win the battle for him, but God expects us to entrust the battle to him. Jeremiah certainly wasn’t successful.  He was preaching on a sinking ship.   Jerusalem was his Titanic.  So, whatever success Jeremiah had, it was up to God, not Jeremiah.  What Jeremiah had was to be willing to suffering and to stay faithful to the truth.  
A woman in the hospital, facing several weeks of chemotherapy treatments, was in good spirits. She said, "I’ve decided that I can’t carry this load all by myself. It’s in the Lord’s hands. Whatever his will is, is mine also."  Even in suffering and dying there can be a relief, and a peace that defies understanding, when you put something in the Lord’s hands. Jeremiah said, "for to you I have committed my cause (12)." One version of the Bible translates it, "I’ve laid my case before you (CEB)."  Jesus himself said much the same, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." (Luke 23:46).   Even with the whole world against him, Jesus committed his way to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, saying "Your will, not mine be done."  The Lord has not promised you or me a rose garden, but he has given us a LORD who prayed his way through a very difficult and dark garden.  (From William Kilby)  
Sometime in life, and in faith, we too will have face a world stands against us, and is not for us,  but like Jeremiah, and of course, like Jesus, our hope lies in what the Lord has promised, not in what the world or this life can never promise.  God has promised to be with each one of us, no matter what: "I will never leave or forsake you (Heb. 13: 5), God has said in his word.  Even in a dying nation, or on a sinking ship, and even when God’s truth turns against us,  our God is able to ‘give perfect peace to those who keep their minds on Him in trust (Isa. 26:3, my translation).  If we will ‘commit our cause’ to him, he will give himself to us.  Have you ‘committed’ your cause’ to him?   In Christ, he has already given himself to you.  Amen.






Sunday, July 1, 2018

“Those Who Trust In the LORD.”

A sermon based upon Jeremiah 17: 5-10
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
13th Sunday in Ordinary Time,  July 1st, 2018 
(5-12) Sermon Series: Jeremiah: Prophet to the Nations

Robert Fulghum tells about meeting a young American traveler in the airport in Hong Kong. She was tensely occupying a chair next to his. Her backpack bore the scars and dirt of some hard traveling. It bulged with mysterious souvenirs of seeing the world.

When the tears began to drip from her chin, he imagined some lost love or the sorrow of giving up adventure for college classes. But then she began to sob ” a veritable flood of tears.

She was not quite ready to go home, she said. She had run out of money. She had spent two days waiting in the airport standby with little to eat and too much pride to beg. Her plane was about to go and she had lost her ticket. "She had been sitting in this one spot for three hours, sinking into the cold sea of despair like some torpedoed freighter."

Fulghum and a nice older couple from Chicago, dried her tears. They offered to take her to lunch and to talk to the powers that be at the airlines about some remedy. She stood up to go with them, turned around to pick up her belongings. And SCREAMED. They thought something terrible had happened to her but no...it was her ticket. She found her ticket. She had been sitting on it for three hours.

"Like a sinner saved from the very jaws of hell," writes Fulghum, "she laughed and cried and hugged us all and was suddenly gone. Off to catch a plane for home and what next. Leaving most of the passenger lounge deliriously limp from being part of her drama."  She had been sitting on her ticket the whole time.

THOSE WHO TRUST….  (5)
In our text today, Jeremiah reminds the people of God that their ‘ticket’ to the promises and possibilities of God is ‘trust’.   “Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him” (17:7).    Here, Jeremiah understands that nothing is more foundational to the human person than trust.   We first learn to trust the world around us because our parents love and care for us when we were dependent children.  If children are not cared for properly, trust is difficult for them for the rest of their lives.  Trust is at the core of what it means to believe, and to believe and have faith is at the core of what it means to trust.

When Jeremiah speaks of trust, we need to understand that trust is not only a religious concept.  Trust is a religious concept because trust is the very stuff of life and hope.  This week we are commemorating America’s 242nd Birthday as a nation.  We are a nation that was born out of the shared ‘trust’ and belief that freedom was a better way of being a people than what was known before.  Recently, I came to appreciate the struggle for liberty even more as I was introduced to Alexander Rose’s novel about the American Revolution and the American revolutionary spy ring commonly known as “Washington’s Spies”.  The AMC TV network made a movie on that book, focusing on the life of one of those patriot spies, Abe Woodhull who lived on Long Island.   It was Abe Woodhull and that spy ring who kept the continental army led by General George Washington informed of British movements near New York.  Washington relied on a cabbage farmer to give him some of the most important intelligence gained during the Revolution.

Rose’s account is an incredible retelling of how our American forbearers wagered their own lives and livelihood in the faith and trust that liberty was worth the risk.  They did not know how England would respond to their opposition.  They also did not know who would win the war.  They did not know whether they would live or die in that struggle for liberty.  Remember Patrick Henry’s words, “Give me liberty, or give me death.”  Most specifically, those ‘spies’ who served George Washington and the American Colonies, risked everything they had because they believed that freedom was worth more than anything else in life.  Independence, liberty and freedom was their greatest ‘trust’.

Jeremiah reminds God’s people, that while trust is foundational to human life and prosperity, they need to take care about who and what they put trust in.   He told them that the LORD would bring a ‘curse’ upon “those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD” (Jer. 17:5 NRS).  Those are very strong words, which could make the LORD look like an evil tyrant as bad as the king of England must have looked to the American colonist. 

But Jeremiah does not mean that God is against anyone.  If “God is love” as the New Testament attests, how could this be?   What we need to understand is that when Jeremiah used the idea of being cursed by God, he did so within the ancient Jewish perceptions that God, the LORD, was responsible for both the good and bad of life.  You can especially see this in the story of how God allows Satan to ‘test’ Job with heartbreak and heartache.   In that world, where there were not yet enough resources to understand how there could be any randomness, chance, or unpredictability in the world or universe, people reasoned that since all things were ‘created’ by the LORD, all things had to be ‘caused’ by the LORD too.  Today, we would understand much differently, that while the LORD has created the potential and possibility of life, God has also given us, and has given life and nature its own freedom, own ‘mind’, choices, and creative powers.  In other words, our God is not the kind of God who keeps all the powers of life only for himself, but he makes humans ‘co-creators’ and responsible care-takers, who work with God to become ‘masters of our own fate and captains of our own souls.’   
My point in explaining all this is to help us understand better what Jeremiah means when he speaks of people being ‘cursed’ when they lose trust in God.  Jeremiah means that when people only ‘trust in mere mortals and make their flesh their strength’ and leave God out of the equation of their lives, when we put our trust in lesser things, life turns against us, rather than works for us. It was not an accident, that the United States government voted to put the phrase “In God We Trust” on the American dollar.   This statement first appeared on American currency during the civil war, but was not made the official American motto until 1957.  It became a reminder to a growing, prosperous and affluent nation that if we are not careful, our greatest trust and our greatest need to trust in God,  can be displaced by lesser things.

This is exactly what happened to the people of God in Jeremiah’s day.  They had exchanged their trust in the LORD for trusting in themselves and what they believed they could accomplish on their own without God’s help.   But instead of increasing in prosperity and success, Jeremiah points to how they had become a people hopelessly struggling like a unfortunate ‘shrub’ planted in a parched wilderness (v. 6).   People who misplace their ‘trust’ are a people who end up starving for the bare essentials for life, faith, and hope.

Frank Campbell, who was once pastor of First Baptist Church in Statesville, gave a powerful illustration of misplaced trust way back in the 1980s, when he quoted American financial expert David Harrop who once lamented how many people wrongly measure their own worth based on how much money they have.   As a pastor of a well-to-do church, Dr. Campbell also noted how many people had sat across from him in counseling sessions who had more money than they ever needed, but they were miserable and struggling in their emotional and spiritual lives (From ‘God’s Message In Troubled Times’ Broadman Press, 1981, p. 66)

 When we put our ‘trust’ in lesser things, we will find it hard to get through troubled times, and no matter how well we have it, hard times will come.   This is exactly what Dr. Campbell observed when a very successful young couple started having serious martial problems.  He had been counseling with them, but one evening he received a phone call from the wife who informed him that she taking the young children and was leaving town and leaving her husband.   It wasn’t long after that, that a very irate husband called, demanding to know where his wife had gone.  Campbell observed, here was a couple who had everything one could possibly want; they were wealthy, well-educated, and very successful in their careers.  They carried real clout in the church and community too and where shakers and movers in various civic organizations.  They had everything you could imagine, he noted, except that they had lost trust in each other and they had also lost their trust in God.  When that trust was lost, their lives became a barren, parched wilderness having little to sustain them as a couple or as a family (Campbell, p. 69).


I THE LORD TEST THE MIND…SEARCH THE HEART (10)
If we lose ‘trust’ in each other, or we lose our trust in the LORD, what do we really have?   There are many things people go after in life, but what do we have really have left when we lose trust?  We’ve all seen it happen.  Some of you have tragically lived through the loss of trust in others.  Most of us have been hurt by someone you once trusted.  There is no pain greater and no hurt any worse than the loss of trust.  Humans can survive most anything, if we know people really care for us and about us.   The apostle Paul suffered much too, but he also said: “If God is for us, who can be against us.”  When we have ultimate trust from those we love and the God who loves us, we have what we need to get through life, but what do we have if we lose that trust, especially our trust in the LORD?

Isn’t this what Jeremiah means when he asserts that when people ‘turn away from the LORD’ life will become like a desert, that is barren and cursed.   When we lose trust, we may try to cover up that barrenness, or we may pretend that everything is going fine, or like that young wife in Frank Campbell’s account, we might get away, take the children, and try to start over.   But it is not until we come to address to the core of the hurt, the emptiness, and the barrenness in our lives, that we will can find renewal of hope and faith.

“I the LORD test the mind and heart”, Jeremiah reminds the people (v 10).  What Jeremiah means is that God knows the heart, so that we get out of our lives what we put into it.  If life becomes empty and barren, there is a good chance we have misplaced or displaced our trust.   What we need to do is to come clean with ourselves and examine exactly what we are putting our trust in.   We need to take the barrenness as a ‘test’ revealing that we have put our ‘trust’ in the wrong things.   As one pastor rightly named it, life is, just like faith is, finally “A Token of Trust.”  The ‘test’ of life is that everything boils down to who do we, should we, and must we trust.  

Interestingly, this is where Pastor Campbell’s story finally lands.  He says that after the husband realized that the wife left town with the children, the pastor agreed to meet with him in the pastor’s study.  After discussing some of the things that had gone wrong in his life,  pastor Campbell told him that until he got his relationship with Jesus right, there wasn’t much of a chance that anything else would go right either.   Before the session was over, the man and pastor Campbell got down on their knees and the man asked Jesus to be Savior and Lord of his life.  The husband was a changed man and got back together with his wife, and they both made Jesus the lord of their lives together.   They were a changed couple because they when they got their most basic ‘trust’ in God right, they were able to rebuild trust in their marriage and in their lives.



THOSE WHO TRUST IN THE LORD (7)
So now, as we come again to the core question of today’s text, let me ask you how do you ‘trust’ in the LORD?  Is it the kind of whole hearted trust that makes a whole life worth of difference?   Jeremiah says that ‘those who trust in the LORD… shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit (Jer. 17:8 NRS).  The image Jeremiah uses is not that of just any tree.  This is a tree that thrives, even in a barren, dry, thirsty desert because the tree is planted near constant and consistent flow of the water of life.   When your trust is sure, it is secure that you will have promise of life, no matter the conditions around you.

Several years ago, there was an article in the Greensboro News And Record by assistant district attorney Susan Bray.  She wrote about recently meeting her ‘role model’.   This role model was not a movie actress, sports star, or wealthy rock star.  She was an 5’ 3’’ 86 year old lady who then lived in east Greensboro.  She was a very independent woman who had worked and lived in New York City for many years, working as a hair-stylist and makeup artist, even working for some notable people like Lucille Ball, and others on Broadway.  

When the honorable Mrs. Bray got to know this Sunday School teacher, she unfortunately had to handled her sexual abuse case.   Late one evening, after watching “Murder She Wrote”, she noticed that her lights went out.  When she got up to check the circuit breaker, the 86 year old was hit on the head with a coffee mug by a young man who had broken into her.  When she came to her senses, she heard him ordering her to disrobe and to move down the hall toward her bedroom.  She continued to resist him, rolling back and forth on the bed, even moving her bloody head side to side on the pillow to make sure to leave evidence. 

Finally, the fellow gave up his assault plans, and demanded she give him her money.   She gave him the 3 dollars she had in an envelop on the dresser, but he wanted more.  She said he would have to wait until the bank opened.  He insisted on more, so she gave him some cash she had saved for charities in her cabinet.  He hit her with the telephone, and demanded her car keys.  He said he’d bring the car back the next day.  She gave him the keys, then watched the direction he drove when he left.   She called the police and they caught the man within 6 minutes from her home.   He was arrested and was put away in prison serving a 20-year prison sentence.

They 86 year old lady took stiches in her forehead, and she lost some of her hearing, but when lawyer Bray met her, she was back to life as normal, walking 45 minutes every morning,  cleaning her house and yard, and ‘driving the older ladies in her Sunday School class to their doctor’s appointments.   She still goes to church on Sunday’s and Wednesdays, which I could attest to, because I was her pastor.   Mrs Marie Latta was one of the most remarkable, faithful, trust filled people I’ve ever known.  She was that way even when she was 95 years of age, when she broke her hip, pneumonia sit in, but she was still able to recover.   No one thought she would.  When we had to move from Greensboro, she kept up with us, and even set us a note saying that she’d seen our picture with our daughter in the Baptist Children’s Home newspaper, “Charity and Children”.  Marie was just that kind of person, always caring, always faithful, always trusting, even trusting the Lord through the best of times and the worst of times.  She was like a ‘tree planted by the rivers of water’ who ‘leaves stayed green’ even when the heat was on.

When your trust is in God, you will be able to plant deep roots that will yield a garden in the most extreme circumstances.  You will be able to stand the test and find a trust that will never let you down.   Unfortunately, God’s people had lost their trust in the LORD in Jeremiah’s day.  They had known the LORD, but somehow they had put their trust in other things that were nothing but junk and now they had lost their trust in what mattered most.  At one time the LORD was first on their heart when they got up in the morning, but now they did not know how to think about him anytime of day.   All trust had been lost and now, their lives were as barren as the desert where they lived.   Do you think anything like this could happen to us?

Some years ago a radio station invited people to call in and tell them the first thing they had said that morning when they awoke. The third caller would win a cash prize. It was funny.  One guy said, “Do I smell coffee burning?” Another one said, “Oh no, I’m late for work.” A woman confessed that her first words were, “Honey, did I remember to put the dog out last night?” and you could hear a muffled curse in the background and a man growling, “No, you didn’t.”  One morning, the station phone rang and the perky DJ said, “Good morning, this is FM 106. You’re on the air. What was the first thing you said when you rolled out of bed this morning?”  A voice with a Bronx accent replied, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The caller was reciting the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4), so prized by our Jewish friends. 

The radio host did not know how to handle it. He was looking for junk and instead encountered a jewel. There was a moment of embarrassed silence, then the announcer said, “Sorry, wrong number,” and cut to a commercial. 


How do you start your day?  Is God the first and last thought of your day?   Listen, most all of us have to deal with junk both around us and some even on the inside of us too. But ‘junk’ of life doesn’t have the power to give us what matters most in life.   We need to ask God to remove that junk from us.  We must put our trust in the only one who can give us our life back, even when we mess it up and lose our way.   He is the only one who give us a life that never ‘ceases to bear fruit’.   Amen.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

“…And We Are Not Saved.”

A sermon based on Jeremiah 8: 18-9:1
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, June 24th, 2018 
(4-12) Sermon Series: Jeremiah: Prophet to the Nations

At the end of last year, a Thai soccer player attempted to win a tie-game with a final kick.   The ball struck the top of the goal post and went straight up into the air.  The goalie on the opposing team began to celebrate by running out onto the field.  His celebration was premature, however.  While he left the goal unattended, the ball came down bouncing with a back spin until it bounced right in to the goal.  This meant the opposing team broke the tie and won the game.  The moral of the story: It’s not over, until it’s over.
In a similar situation at McGill University in Canada, the engineering and medical faculties had an intramural basketball game.  The score was 33 to 34.  With about a minute left, the engineers stole the ball, and then froze it with excellent passing and ball handling until the clock ran out.   It was kind of like a 4 corners strategy invented by the late Dean Smith.  Unfortunately this did not work, because when the final whistle blew, they then realized that they were the ones behind.  They were so wrapped up in freezing the ball, and keeping things like they were, they had lost track of the score.
I’m afraid that we in the church can do the same thing.  We can go into a 4 corners kind of strategy, trying to keep our buildings, our budgets, our programs, and even our baptisms like they are or were.  But by freezing the ‘ball’, when we ought to be in a full court press, life goes on, but leaves us behind.    We mistakenly think we can keep things like they were, but we can’t.   As Jeremiah told his people in today’s text, “The harvest is past, the summer has ended, and we are not saved?”   The spiritual point here is that you can’t freeze the way things are:  Times change.  Season’s change.  The world continues to be on the move.  As the Insurance commercial says,  “Life keeps coming at you, and fast.”    
IS THE LORD NOT IN ZION?  (19)
Jeremiah’s sobering point to his people is that you can’t take the salvation you have established in the past and make it your salvation for the future.   Faith doesn’t work that way.  It’s much like it is with food, or anything else in life.  If you eat a good meal today, you can live on it a little while, but it will not keep you alive for long, unless you keep eating.   It’s the same for exercise, and for most everything else we do to keep ourselves alive.  We can’t do something one day, and keep it.  We either ‘use it’ or we ‘loose it’.  
Of course, we don’t like to talk about our ‘salvation’ this way, but in the New Testament Jesus does.  When Jesus was warning his disciples about the ‘things to come’, he warned that only those who ‘endure to the end will be saved’ (Matt 10:22, 24:13, Mark 13:13).  These kinds of texts are enough to shake us out of our spiritual comfort zones, aren’t they?   Even the Apostle Paul echoed that salvation is not ‘worked out’ in a moment or instant, but salvation most continue to be ‘worked out’ in our lives with ‘fear and trembling’ (Phil. 2:12).   What Jeremiah, Jesus, and Paul are all saying is that we can’t simply carry the relationship we had with God in the past into the future, without living it out day by day.
This is exactly what did not happen in Jerusalem, in Jeremiah’s day.  This is why our text today begins with questions, rather than answers:  “Is the LORD not in Zion?  Is her King not in her?”  The point Jeremiah was making is that things have change?  The LORD is not with at Zion with his people, because God’s people are not with God.  Things have changed.  It isn’t God that changed, but the people have.  They had exchanged the truth of God for all other kinds of ‘images’ and ‘idols’ (19b).   The spiritual situation in Jerusalem was much like the relationship between a wife and husband driving down the road in their old ‘bench seat’ car.  The woman used slide over and sit close to him while he put his arm around her.   The wife complained: “You don’t put your arm around me like you used to.“ The man, who was driving, looked at his wife who was now sitting next to the window.  He answered.  “Yes, honey you’re right. Who moved?”   This is exactly how the spiritual situation was in Jerusalem.  It wasn’t that God had taken his salvation away from them, but that God’s people had moved away from their God and their salvation.
If you want to think about how much our society has moved in its values and ways of thinking, let me ask you a question to think about.  The answer might astound you.   This question is: Who is the best known person in the world today?  If you said some preacher like Billy Graham, you would be wrong.  If you said a great politician, or even a sports figure, you would be wrong. If you said the Pope, you would also be wrong.  Even if you said some celebrity or entertainer, like Lady GaGa, you would be wrong.  And if you said Jesus of Nazareth, you would be wrong too.  The answer to who is the best known person in the world is Mickey Mouse!  Think about it.  Here is a cartoon figure of a person who does not, and has never really existed, but he is better known that the Christ who died for the sins of this world.  That’s the kind of world we live in.
Now we can understand that the world might know more about Mickey Mouse better than the true Son of God, or more about Disney World, that it does about the Church,  but what how much does the church know these days?   We can say that the church still knows who Jesus was, but how much do we know about who Jesus still is?   In other words, how much do we know about how to ‘be’ and ‘become’ a disciple living for Jesus in today’s world?   Can’t we, like Jerusalem did in Jeremiah’s day, also get lost in our ‘images’ and ‘idols’ too?  Can’t we come to church questioning whether or not ‘the LORD is in Zion’ or at work in us?   And if God is ‘at work’ in us,  how do we know, what does it mean, what should it mean, that is not just another ‘idol’ or self-prescribed ‘image’ of the kind of ‘faith we want, instead of the kind of ‘faith’ that we really need?   What does it mean for us to say that the “LORD “ is “IN ZION?”

THE HARVEST IS PAST (20)
Someone has said that they have no fear whether or not the church will succeed, but that it will succeed in those things that do not matter.  No matter how many barns are built, how much cattle is bought, how much seed is sown, or how much land is cultivated, the farmer is a still a failure if he does not bring in the harvest.    

The failure of the ‘harvest’ is the tragic event that Jeremiah alludes to in this text.  Here we have one of the most haunting statements in the Bible.   Jeremiah explained to his people that in this moment there is nothing more they can do.  It’s too late for them.  The season for harvest has come and gone: "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved" (Jere. 8:20).   This is so negative.  It’s so depressing.  How could a preacher or a prophet say something like this?   The answer is that he wouldn’t, unless it was true. 

This was the political and religious situation of God’s people in Judah and Jerusalem at the beginning of the 6th century, right before their nation was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE.    Jeremiah had been warning of doom and disaster because of their rebellion against God.  In this very chapter God declared that their ‘fields would be given to conquerors’ (v.10), and that the people would ‘perish’ even in their ‘fortified cities’ (v14) and that they would ‘look for peace’ but ‘find no good’ and ‘terror’ instead (v.15).  The sounds of war horses were already being heard in the north, and soon they would ‘devour’both the ‘land’, the ‘cities’ and the people who ‘live in’ them (v.16).  It was not a pretty picture.  The political situation was already at the point of no return.  The people were still saying, ‘peace, peace,’ when there was in reality, ‘no peace’ at all (v11).
Jeremiah had preached that only God could deliver Judah them from the armies of Babylon that were marching toward the city (7:23). But they did not listen. Instead they formed an alliance with Egypt to fight the Babylonians (2:18, 42:14ff.). But Babylon defeated Egypt and then turned and marched on Jerusalem (46:25-26).  They surrounded the city and laid siege to the people.  Back in those days people lived within the walls of the city, and the crops were outside the walls. The Babylonian army simply waited for the people to run out of food.  All the people could do was watch the crops spoil, the harvest wither, the summer end, and then say, "We are not saved."  They learned the bitter lesson that there is no loss, like the loss of the harvest.  Eventually, because they left God, they ended up losing it all.
How does a tragic story like this speak to us, still today?  Of course, we don’t want it too.  None of us want to hear, look, think, or reflect upon what is happening right before our own eyes.  We want to ‘freeze’ our churches or try to make them ‘the way we were’ or even try to make them what we would like for them to be, even though it really does look as if the ‘harvest is past’.  This is not something we would ever want to believe.  This is something we would like to think we can still turn around.  Maybe we could just start a new program in the church.  We might try to build up our youth or children’s ministry.  Maybe we could try to go back to something we did in the ‘good ole’ days, thinking we might make church like it used to be?  If something like this doesn’t work, we can resort to blaming somebody. We could blame the teachers, the leaders, the deacons, the members, or maybe even the pastor.  It’s got to be somebody’s fault, doesn’t it?  Somebody has to be able to ‘fix’ this, or ‘make it happen’ like it used to happen, don’t they?  Who would dare say we’ve already reached the ‘point of no return’?  Who would dare preach a sermon like this?  Jeremiah did.  
If the truth be told, according to Jeremiah it was, for his people, too late: “The harvest (was) past, the summer (had) ended, and (they were) not saved” (v.20).   The plug had to be pulled.  The respirator had to be removed.  Israel was gone.  Judah was breathing her last breathe.  It was time to call the undertaker, make the funeral arrangements, and for the people who remained to pay their final respects.  As God told Jeremiah in 8:13, comparing Judah to a unproductive vine: “When I wanted to gather them, says the LORD, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them?”  Sad.  Tragic.  Makes you want to cry.  Jeremiah did.  Again, this is why we call him ‘the weeping prophet’.  As Jeremiah says in the very next verse: “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me (21).”

FOR THE HURT OF MY PEOPLE I AM HURT (21)
In the church today, and in our world, most of us are feeling a some ‘hurt’ and a little ‘dismay’ too.  Church simply doesn’t ‘work’ like it used to.  Most everything I learned in Seminary to prepare me for ministry doesn’t fit today.  Most every way we built our churches back in the 1950’s, seems to work against what we need to be doing today.

In fact, those few churches that appear to be growing are nothing like what church ‘used to be’.  As one pastor of a large, growing church told me, “We have a lot more unchurched people attending than we have members, than we have disciples or than we have Christians.  And we see that as a good problem,” he said.   Perhaps it is a ‘good problem’, when you have a lot of people coming to church who change what church once looked like, if the people going there actually ‘grow’ and ‘go’ back into their communities and make a difference.  But I’m still not sure that ‘growing’ spiritually or ‘going’ back into their communities is really what these young, new, contemporary style churches have learned to be about.  I hope they will get there.  I’m pulling for them.  I’m certainly not against “God” working in ‘new’ ways, with new ‘ideas’, but I’m also not sure how good going to a church fits what “I” want, does for the good of the church and for the needs of the world.  That’s what still concerns me.

Perhaps my greatest concern, however, is what happens when so many communities no longer have people to witnesses to the good news of Jesus right where they live.  As Jeremiah rightly saw it, the concern is not just that there no harvest this year, or that fall is coming, but that there is no more harvest, no more summer or growing season, that that there will be no more ‘salvation’ for anyone at all.   My concern is not what is changing, but what will be no more: no more witness, no more love, no more community, and no more place for children, elderly and lost souls to find their way home.  As Jeremiah says, ‘the harvest is past, the summer has ended, and we are NOT SAVED”.  This is the kind of ‘impossible’, ‘never again’ situation that makes Jeremiah’s heart ‘hurt’.

The writer of Ecclesiastes once wrote: "Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come…, and the years draw near when you will say you have no more pleasure in them" (Eccl. 12:1).   Doesn’t a text like this make your heart ‘hurt’ for the increasing amount of young people who say that the church means nothing to them.  What will this mean for them, in the years to come?  How will they have faith?  Who will believe in anything, if you don’t find ‘hope’ when you are also young?

Several years ago a famous evangelist, unscientifically, but wisely concluded, after many years of surveying the crowds that came to his crusades, that if a person isn't saved by the time he is 21, the chances are 5,000 to 1 that he will ever be saved.  If he isn't saved by the time he is 30, the chances are 15,000 to 1 that he will ever be saved. If he isn't saved by the time he is 40, the chances are 30,000 to 1 he will ever be saved. If he isn't saved by the time he is 50, the chances are 150,000 to 1 that he will ever trust Christ as Lord and Savior.   When our youth leave this church, much of our harvest is passing, and we don't even realize it.   When people get older, their heart is hardening, and they don’t even realize it.  You think about it:  how many do we baptize over 60? How many over 70?  How many over 80?  It’s practically none.

Dwight L. Moody, the great evangelist, told a story of how one time he was preaching a crusade in a large city, and he was preaching on this text, Jeremiah 8:20. When he gave the invitation, the man's wife who was sitting next to him, who loved the Lord Jesus, begged him with tears to go forward and give his heart to Christ. But he adamantly refused to do it.

Many years later Moody was back in that same city preaching a crusade.  There was an older man who had contracted a terminal illness, and he asked to see the great evangelist. Well, Moody and his song leader, Ira Sankey, went to see this man whose hair was now gray, whose face was now wrinkled, whose body was now withered with age and disease. When Moody walked into his bedroom, his sweet godly wife was kneeling beside his bed pleading with her husband.   The man was mumbling something. Moody leaned down to hear what this man was mumbling. He was repeating over and over: "The harvest is past, summer is ended, and we are not saved."  

Moody asked this wife why he was repeating that verse. She said, "You preached on that text the last night of your crusade here many years ago. My husband heard that sermon and adamantly refused to be saved. That's why he is repeating it now." Rev Moody got on his knees and began to plead with that man to come to Christ. But the man just kept shaking his head and repeating over and over, "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved." Dwight L. Moody said that man died about sundown with gritted teeth and clinched fist, saying, as he went out into eternity, with these last words, "The harvest is past."   Doesn’t that ‘hurt’ your heart to hear something like that?

IS THERE NO BALM IN GILEAD? (22)
Jeremiah’s heart does not stop hurting all the way to the end of today’s text.  The text ends with one of the most ‘memorable’ questions in all the Bible, “Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there?  Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored (v.22).  The heartbreak Jeremiah feels goes right into the next chapter and the verse that gave Jeremiah his nickname, ‘the weeping prophet’, where he cries out:  “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!”

Last year, right before Christmas, we had two funerals back to back, one for our beloved DeEtte Renegar, and the other for the feisty, energetic Lenette Murphy.  Then, on Christmas Day, I got the news that one of my colleagues in ministry, Ed Bettingfield, lost his wife in a house fire on Christmas Eve.  It was believed to be started by their Christmas Tree.  Teresa and I have had an artificial tree for 10 or so years, but this year, because the tree was worn out, we decided to get a real tree again.  After I heard about the fire, the day after Christmas, I was so shook up, I couldn’t burn the light again, even though the tree seemed to be in good shape.

What an event like this teaches us, is that are things in life that bring us to the point of no return, like an illness, an accident, a natural disaster, or a house fire.  Just like that, it can all be over, or we can lose someone precious to us.  Of course, we don’t want to think about it, but it can and it does happen.  There are still things that can hurt us that we can’t be healed from, can turn around, or can’t change, and must learn to face, to deal with and finally, to accept.  

Interestingly, what Jeremiah meant when he asked, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” is not one of these ‘unchangeable’ things.  God’s people did come to the ‘point of no return’, but it didn’t have to be that way.  They could have learned.  They could have changed.  They could have avoided the great disaster that came, but they would not face their rebellion and the reality before them and find the healing they needed.  The doctor was in in Gilead, right across the Jordan river, but no one wanted to go and fetch him.  The people’s health could have been ‘restored’, but Judah decided they knew more than the doctor.  They decided they could live by their own diagnosis, and make up their own concoctions.  That’s why the healing did not come—no because there was no doctor or healing ‘balm’, but because they wouldn’t admit they needed it.   Then, it was too late.

Several years ago, when we lived in Greensboro, Teresa and I were returning from a Halloween “Trunk of Treats” event at church.  There were still “Trick or Treaters” in our development at Forest Oaks, but there was a bit more commotion than normal.  Children and adults were wandering, looking around, calling out a child’s name.  When we stopped to asked what was happening, they said a Three year old child in our neighborhood had wandered away from home.  We decided to drive around a bit too.  The Firemen came.  The whole community, it seemed were going up and down the streets calling out his name.

When we arrived at the home, where they child was last seen, we discovered it was his grandparents house.   The child had come to visit, and was in a different, more unfamiliar place.  Right behind the grandparents home was a lake.  The grandparents didn’t think he would come down that far.  They had thought about putting up a fence.  They had thought about making a gate on the pier, but they never did.  If you guessed what happened, you’re right.  Later on that evening, after hours of searching, the underwater rescue found the child.  He was discovered only in 8 feet of water, only about 5 feet away from the pier.   One moment, the child was with their grandmother, but when she turned away just a moment, he was gone.  Can you imagine how heartbroken that grandmother must have been?  Can you imagine how many times those grandparents wished they had not built on that lake?  Can you imagine how many times they wondered why they didn’t put up a fence or a gate?

There is a poem that haunts, but it’s true:
When the choir has sung its last anthem, and the preacher has prayed his last prayer,
When the people have heard their last sermon, and the sound has died out in the air.
When the Bible lies closed on the altar, and the pews are all emptied of men,
And each one stands facing his record, and the great Book is open, what then?

When the actor has played his last drama, and the mimic has made his last fun,
When the film has flashed its last picture, and the billboard displayed its last run,
When the crowd seeking pleasure have vanished, and gone out in the darkness again,
And the trumpet of ages has sounded, and we stand before Him, what then?

When the bugle's call sinks into silence, and the long, marching columns stand still,
When the captain repeats his last orders, and they've captured the last fort and hill.
When the flag is hauled down from the masthead, and the wounded afield checked in,
And a world that rejected its Savior, is asked for a reason, what then?


"The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved." The time between when the harvest is ripe, and when the harvest is rotten, is so very short. The harvest is great, the need is for laborers. Will you understand the help and the healing that is offered right now?  And if not now, then when?   If we wait too late to find the healing, what then? Amen.