Good morning! I feel like it’s been a long time since Pastor Krey and I have been in the same room on a Sunday! So, today is one of those Sundays where I am going to focus not on the Gospel (Pastor Krey did a good job with the children’s sermon). Instead, I would like to focus our attention on the lessons from Jeremiah and Romans.
During this episode in Jeremiah from chapter 28, the king had a huge problem. A bigger, stronger nation named Babylon was coming to take over. And the word that the prophet Jeremiah heard from God was that the kingdom of Judah was in big trouble.
Jeremiah put a wooden yoke around his neck, and waltzed into the palace of king Zedekiah, and said, “See this yoke, it’s God’s sign that it’s all over. All your prophets are liars and imposters. Unless we submit to the coming Babylonians we will lose everything.” This is exactly the opposite of what the king wanted to hear, of course. So another prophet, named Hananiah, a pet prophet of the king, grabs Jeremiah’s yoke off his shoulders and breaks it, and says, “Ah ha! Just like that, we are going to win against our enemies.”
And then Jeremiah says something very sad and profound which we heard in chapter 28.
He says for years and years, prophets have been predicting war and famine and bloodshed to get our people’s attention—to try and get them to change their sinful ways. And you, Hananiah, you are predicting peace. If you predict peace, and peace comes true, then surely you are a great prophet indeed. But, as you might expect there was no peace and Hananiah died. The king’s family was killed, and he and all the rest were led away into exile in Babylon.
Now, I know for some of you the Old Testament is just, like, meaningless, violent stories of a vengeful God. And while on the surface this might be true, we must read the Old Testament with spiritual eyes. The lesson from Jeremiah this morning is this: prophets who always predict peace are not actually loyal and faithful prophets. In fact, when prophets or preachers or proclaimers of God’s Word sugar-coat things they do serious harm.
So, that being said, it gives me absolutely no pleasure to tell you: just like Jeremiah said to the king: as a people we are in big trouble. This is not a Left-Right thing, or a finger-pointing thing. The time of national emergency that we have been in for months now has done a wonderful job of getting rid of pleasantries and filters. It’s all on the table now. Leaders tear-gas crowds. Protesters topple statues.
On the Right, well, we worry you are more loyal to bronze statues and your own hard work than God’s laws or human suffering. On the Left, we worry you only really pretend to care, making a show of “signaling your virtue,” and blaming the rest on your conservative neighbors.
There’s no escape from the metaphor of the “coming Babylonians…” I will be the first to admit it: I am a sinner—given over to frustration, anger, despair. You, by the way, are all sinners too. Up here in the “quiet” suburbs we all do our best to hide it, but we are all in deep trouble. We don’t get to fast forward to grace and forgiveness. You are not going to make it there on your own.
Paul’s letter to the Roman’s today does exactly what I am doing now. It starts by diagnosing the problem. The apostle Paul is another great example of a teller of unvarnished truths. Writing to a group of fresh Christians, both Jews and Greek converts in Rome, Paul has a bone to pick.
In Chapter 1 he says, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.” The truth about Jesus, of course.
Paul goes on and makes this long list of behaviors and emotions. The kind of things that Paul knows the fresh Christians he’s writing to hate, and hate to see, and blame on all their pagan neighbors (in Rome of course). You know, these “awful people,” Paul writes—“They did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.” These people are “filled with…envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent… boastful, rebellious toward parents… heartless…”
“They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die,” Paul writes, “yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.” And here, in our context Democrats will imagine he’s talking about Republicans, and Republicans, Democrats of course. Now, Paul’s got his audience all riled up and feeling very much in-the-right about those around them. And then he slams them with this: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” Red-hot words from Paul.
“Do you imagine,” Paul goes on, “whoever you are, that… you will escape the judgment of God?” Paul says, like Jeremiah: we are in trouble.
That is why there is a cross behind me. That is why we pray in the name of Jesus. That is what baptism is for! That is what the whole point of Holy Communion is too! We are in trouble and we need help! Paul writes again in Chapter 3: “There is no one who is righteous, not even one.” While yet we were oppressive and divided and partisan dead-locked fools: Jesus died.
Christ became flesh to show us God, to embrace us, to bring us to new heights of loyalty and service and union with God. And we killed him. If Jesus came again, we would kill him again, because his presence would make us all just as uncomfortable as it did in the first century.
Again and again we prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it is not what we do that saves us, it is what God has done for us. We are always in deep trouble—the Babylonians are always coming—which is why God’s gift of forgiveness, God’s gift of presence and welcome in Holy Communion is always such a shocker!
No, you don’t deserve it. I don’t deserve it. And yet, there it is. Over and over and over God forgives us, pleading with us to turn around. We could never obey the laws and rules, we break them day after day!
So, Paul writes further in chapter 3: What becomes of boasting? Do we brag about how righteous we are? Never. “We hold,” says Paul, “that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed in the law.” Faith in what? Trust in what? Trust that when God looks into our defiled hearts, God only feels the love of a parent for a helpless child… that is what “grace” means.
But Paul in Romans has a lot more to say. That is what we have today from chapter 6. Believing that the power of sin is broken, trusting that forgiveness and grace and mercy are yours through Jesus, Paul asks: will you still be obedient to all the stupidity around you?
The metaphor of slaves and enslavers is ugly and wrong, even Paul says about it: “I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations.” But the point is this: a slave must do what they are told. They are owned, like objects, which is why slavery is a repugnant disgrace. But Paul is using a clunky metaphor to say: if you continue on the path of idolatry and lies and cruelty, then who owns you, who commands you?
We are God’s own, called by name in baptism. This, alone, is the truth we are called to be loyal to: God’s own flesh and blood died and rose and comes again in bread and wine to bring you forgiveness and freedom you didn’t earn.
However hungry or tired or sinful we are on the road we travel, Jesus welcomes us, Jesus has claimed us. Our enslavement to sin is over, its power is gone. And belonging to God, from the heart, we seek to do God’s will, to share God’s abundant and eternal life, here, now, with our flesh-and-blood neighbors.