Sermon for Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Aug. 18, 2013
St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas
Sermon Text: Jeremiah 23:23-29
Sermon Theme: “The Fire and the Hammer”
(Sources: Emphasis online Illustrations; Brokhof, Series C, Workbook; original ideas; “His Powerful Word” – Hammer and Fire by Edward Frey.)
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
Many years ago, a little friend of one of my daughters was standing in the middle of the living room, holding his hands over his eyes. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m hiding,” he told me with great conviction.
“But I can see you,” I said firmly.
“You can?” he asked with a cry of disappointment.
You’ve probably experienced that, too, when you’ve watched little kids play hide and seek, and, you thought it was cute or typically childlike, and you couldn’t resist chuckling over it. Yet, you know adults do something very similar, but when we do it, it’s not childlike, it’s childish.
Haven’t you been in a bar or a restaurant when you’ve seen the owner turn the lights down? That used to really annoy my father-in-law, and, once in a restaurant, he even grumbled to the waiter, “Turn the lights up, I can’t read the menu.” That used to vex both of us every time we ate out somewhere.
I finally asked a waiter one evening, “Why does the management turn down the lights so dim?” To which he replied, “So people can’t see what they are doing.” I don’t think he was joking.
Once at a convention, at his invitation, I went with a colleague to a bar. I haven’t been to too many bars in my life, but that was the darkest one I had ever been in, and I kept bumping into the chairs and tables. I was so annoyed, I finally snapped at my colleague, “Why do you like such dark bars?”
To which he replied, “So people will not see me in here!”
That’s not that different from the little kid who hid by putting his hands over his eyes, is it? As a pastor, if I make the moral/ethical decision to go to a bar, I don’t care who sees me. If I didn’t want to be seen in such a place, I would make the decision not to go.
You see, God cannot be made to disappear just because we close Him out of our lives, turn off our hearing aids, close our eyes, or even bomb our world. God will not disappear!
That’s one of the messages of our sermon text for today. God says through Jeremiah, “Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him?”
The other prophets of the day were proclaiming false things about God; they were making God too small, but God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and present in all places at all times. “Am I a God at hand,” declares the Lord in the text, “and not a God afar off? . . . Do I not fill heaven and earth?”
God goes on to condemn the false prophets for proclaiming lies, and then He commands all who proclaim or prophesy, ”Let him who has my Word speak my Word faithfully.”
You see words are powerful. A careless, harsh word can cut a person like a knife, and oh how deliberately cruel people can be! It’s also true that wise words spoken at the right time can prevent tragedy. A kind word can also provide comfort and consolation to someone who is hurting. The old saying that the pen is mightier than the sword is true. Words are powerful, and this is especially true of the greatest words of all, — God’s Word.
God’s Word is like no other. It is infallible and all-sufficient. And God’s Word affects people in unimaginable ways. God asks in our text, “Is not my word like fire, . . . and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” Hammer and fire! It tears down and rebuilds, and it consumes and refines!
One of the first things we’d use a hammer for would be pounding, or even breaking. That’s the picture God paints concerning his holy Word. It functions like a sledge hammer, that is, if it is used rightly, — shattering and breaking down. That’s exactly how Jeremiah understood God’s Word to be used. The situation in Jeremiah’s day was not unlike our own day. In Chapter 23, God gives one of the most scathing indictments against false prophets who were scattering His sheep.
There had been a controversy between Jeremiah and the false prophets over the simple question, ‘Will God punish sin, yes or no?’ There was a war being waged in Judah against the faithfulness of God’s Word. These false proclaimers were placing false hopes in their own imaginations. “I have dreamed!” they cried. They thought they could make all the others lose sight of God. That’s why I have always objected to anyone saying something like this: “The Holy Spirit has put it upon my heart to say to you today.”
There are people today who think they can contradict God’s Word, in order to find freedom and happiness, — it’s an attempt to avoid admitting and confessing sin. Years ago, I had an acquaintance who said she left the LCMS church because she thought it terrible we were supposed to confess before absolution, “I, a poor miserable sinner, confess unto Thee all my sins and iniquities . . . .” But not to be truly sorry for your sins is contrary to God’s Word. She wanted to go to a church that would tip toe around sin and ignore its existence.
The Lord smashes down our defenses, breaking our strong lies and crushing our self-reliant hearts. At the same time He uses His powerful Word to build up hearts. He reveals all weakness and frailty, so that He can replace them with what is good and right.
Imagine termites infested in your house. What do you do? After getting the house sprayed, you tear out the sheet rock, pull up the trim, and pull out the rotten, infested wood and replace it with good material. That’s how God deals with our hearts, and why we sing in the liturgy, “Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God.” The Holy Spirit smashes down our stubborn hearts, rips out all that is rotten and replaces it with good. The powerful Word reminds us that God hammered His own Son in our place. He hammered Him to the cross.
Christ Jesus suffered for our stubbornness, doubt and worry. He was nailed to the cross for our hard hearts that are so slow to trust. God left our sins nailed to the cross, so that we have forgiveness and hope.
Without the fire, the hammer, and the assurance of God’s Word, we are like hamsters in a cage, running endlessly on wheels that go nowhere. Whether we are teenagers or senior citizens, or somewhere in between, we cannot run the race alone.
William Faulkner expresses that thought so poignantly in the novel, Light in August : “Yes, I would say, ‘Here I am.’ I am tired. I am tired or running, of having to carry my life like it was a basket of eggs.” We all come to the point in the rat race of our existence where we are tired of carrying our own lives and we need someone to carry us. At some point, we all get tired of trying to carry our own false, useless gods (whether money or hedonism or whatever), and we need one true God to carry us.
God is both near and far, says our text. We hunger for His presence.
Throughout my 25 years of parish ministry, I have often been amazed by the all encompassing presence of God. During those years, I have frequently been taught about God by people who have met God in places I could not even imagine. It wasn’t surprising to encounter a woman who saw God at work in her life when she gave birth to a child she had yearned for so many years.
But it did surprise me to see a woman who saw God in the death of her father. He had died suddenly after being diagnosed with an illness which could have been expected to cause a painful and lingering death. She rejoiced that he had been spared the pain and the indignities of such a death, and saw God at work even in his dying.
It was never surprising to me to find the presence of God in a person whose serious illness was cured. But I have been surprised to experience the presence of God in the strength which came to a person who had an illness which could not be cured. Over the years, I have been constantly grateful for those precious parishioners who have reminded me that God is most often found where we least expect Him. But where we least expect is often the one place in our life where God most needs to be. Thanks be to God for that. Amen.