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Pentecost 4A Sermon
Jeremiah 28: 5-9,
Romans 6: 12-23
28, 2020


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Jeremiah 28:5-9

Then the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the LORD; and the prophet Jeremiah said, ‘Amen! May the LORD do so; may the LORD fulfil the words that you have prophesied and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the LORD, and all the exiles. But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the LORD has truly sent the prophet.’

Romans 6:12-23

Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.
When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

The prophet Jeremiah is probably one of the most intriguing figures in the Old Testament. Four books are attributed to him – First and Second Kings, Jeremiah and Lamentations – and he openly struggles with God over his call to be a prophet, to speak God’s word to people. His pain comes because the message God gave him to speak was not a happy, upbeat, or hopeful one. It was one that foretold the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and their exile for approximately 50 years. God allows these things because the people had deviated far from the covenant that Yahweh had established with them. They were worshiping Baal, the god of the Canaanites and sacrificing their children to this idol. As a result, Yahweh put the prophecy into Jeremiah’s mouth that famine would soon fall upon them, and then they would be plundered by another kingdom. This did not sit well with many prophets working in the King’s court who were speaking a word of peace. Jeremiah is sometimes called The Weeping Prophet, since he was threatened with death, beaten, and placed into stocks, and generally treated with disdain by those who opposed his message. He shouted at God, because when he failed to speak God’s words, he felt like a fire was lit in his heart. He was in a situation where no matter what he did, he suffered in some way.

One chapter earlier, Jeremiah had placed a yoke over his neck, symbolic of the message that God’s people were about to become subject to the King of Babylon for a long time. Babylon had already invaded Judea in 597 BC, set up occupying forces, and took away much of the riches of the southern kingdom. They had also carted off a number of people into exile. The prophet Hananiah broke Jeremiah’s yoke and pronounced that this would not last long, only a couple of years if the people would just keep up the fight against the Babylonians. Contrary to Jeremiah’s message to give in and allow “Yahweh’s servant” to rule over them for a time, Hananiah issued a call to arms, encouraging resistance to this occupying force. Unfortunately, the people headed Hananiah’s words instead of Jeremiah’s, the Babylonians were incited, and they utterly destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple in 587 BC. Many Judeans were either killed or carted off to exile, and it would be 50 years until God would raise up another servant, Cyrus the Persian, to overthrow Babylon and allow Israel to return home. Interesting how God calls these two foreign Kings – Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus – his servants. God uses these two powers to punish and to save his chosen people.

When is it time to give in and simply let things unfold around us, trusting that God is using people or events that we would not immediately recognize as God’s servants? And when is it the right time to resist and to become active agents of change in the face of forces that oppose God’s saving presence in the world? These are good questions in light of this passage and the general quandary of true and false prophets in Biblical times and today. How do we know we are doing right by believing one person or another who each claim to speak for God but are saying totally different things? If we were there we certainly would have gone along with Jeremiah, right? Just like if we were alive in Jesus’ day, we would have stood with him and even died with him. No, I would venture to say that some of us would have believed Jeremiah’s call, but most of us would have been emboldened by Hananiah’s encouragement to fight back against our enemies, just like most of the people were. And we would have been shouting “Crucify Him!” as loudly as our neighbors in the crowds at Jesus’ trial.

In the excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Romans that we heard today, we are reminded that sin is not primarily defined as immoral behavior or activities. Sin is primarily the human condition, a slavery that we have to ourselves and to the one who encourages us to oppose God whenever we act or speak or think. Fighting against that condition makes us even more enslaved. We are to recognize that we all are slaves to someone or something, and Paul is calling us to surrender to a slavery of righteousness and God.

It reminds me of the Bob Dylan song, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” off his 1979 Grammy winning album Slow Train Coming. Written and released during Dylan’s Evangelical Christian period in his life, it did not sit well with many of his non-Christian fans. John Lennon even mocked him by releasing a song called, “Serve Yourself” in response. I think Dylan’s message is well put. In the seven verses, he lists all sorts of people in all sorts of status of life – ambassador, gambler, heavy weight champion, socialite, rock and roll addict, businessman, doctor, chief, state trooper, rich, poor, blind lame, the list goes on and on. And with each part comes the chorus, “But you’re gonna have to serve somebody; yes indeed, you’re gonna have to serve somebody. Well it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody!” Paul’s answer to that is – yes, you’re gonna have to serve somebody, so you should serve the Lord!

But we can’t just leave it there. We must come back and wonder how it is that we surrender – how is it that we serve the Lord in all that we say, do and don’t do? Maybe instead of asking what is it that God would want me to do, we should ask how can I most effectively show love for my neighbor in this struggle? The two big issues facing our nation today are the presence of the Covid19 virus, and the presence of systemic racism within our nation and world. How are we to respond to each of these? Should we be quiet, passive, and let things run their course trusting that God is using servants around us to accomplish the salvation of the world? Or should we fight, get out there and effect change in the face of intense opposition? One might say that each of these situations requires a little of both.

In the case of the virus, I think we are to take a more passive stance, allowing science to lead the way in how we get through this together. Science and faith have not always been allies, sometime seeming at odds with each other in the truth. But leaving the scientific defense of this virus to science and staying home when we can, distancing, using PPE, etc. as science is encouraging us, well maybe that is the call reminiscent of Jeremiah here.

And in the case of the systemic racism, maybe as people of faith we have a foundation of love for enemy and a desire for justice that calls us to be more active leaders in this struggle. To raise voices to loudly proclaim that God loves all people regardless of skin color, age, gender, religion, orientation, or whatever – and then to live out the commandment that we love all of our neighbors just as God loves us and them equally and unequivocally.
Whatever we do, we will be vilified by someone in society. Whenever we don’t do anything, we will be vilified. We will not agree one hundred percent on these issues within our own congregation, but when you feel called by the Holy Spirit to act or to be passive, do it boldly, knowing that, “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Once in a seminary class on Lutheran Heritage, we were to meet with the professor to talk about our papers and our theology. Dr. Donald Luck proposed a case study. Remember, this was 1987, and the memories of the struggles of the Viet Nam War were still quite fresh. It was a situation that could and probably did happen in many congregations in our land: two faithful families in the church, each having a son reach the age of 18. One becomes a conscientious objector to the war and flees to Canada to avoid the draft. One enlists before he can be drafted, seeing this as his patriotic duty. How do you reconcile these two responses by faithful Christian people in your pastoral relationship with them? I stammered, unable to really think of a way to resolve the situation. Finally, Dr. Luck simply and lovingly reminded me, “don’t forget about grace!” There it is, that foundational of all Lutheran teachings. Paul’s word, “free gift” – charisma - literally means “flowing from grace” in Greek. In a situation where two faithful Christians follow different paths in a difficult situation, we respond with grace.

We do what we are called to do faithfully, sometimes allowing others to be God’s servants, and sometimes stepping up to be servants ourselves. It might involve some struggle and pain, even death and grief, but in it all, we know that grace is our lasting promise, and that we have that free gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.