[Initial draft - Jeremiah 23:16-29 / Acts 20:27-38 / Matthew 7:15-23]
If there is one thing that God condemns through Jeremiah in today’s Old Testament reading it is the notion that one can be at peace with the God of Israel and at the same time be at peace with the sin and wickedness of our lives. Now, do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that there is ever a time that we are free from the struggle against the sinful passions for so long as we live in the body. The very essence of faith entails a struggle against these. But the false prophets were going around telling the people: “It shall be well with you” and they were promising this to people who “despise the Word of the Lord” and “stubbornly follow their own hearts.” No struggle against sin whatsoever! But this is most definitely a case where you CANNOT have your cake and eat it too. You cannot cozy up to sin and cozy up to God. You cannot coddle the rebellions of your heart and still retain saving faith and a living relationship with the living God.
The antidote to this foolish dreaming of the prophets by which they lulled the people into a spiritual slumber and robbed them of their spiritual inheritance is very clear: “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my Word speak my Word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? Declares the Lord. Is not my Word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?”
A fire of cleansing from sin – that is the Word of God! A hammer that can smash and break to pieces human hearts as hardened as rock! Nothing can stand up to that Word when it is spoken faithfully. Oh, a person may rebel against it, may say “Phooey on you, God! I want nothing to do with you!” But that does not make the Word one bit less effective. The judgment it pronounces will still fall. The fire will still burn.
So don’t for one second imagine that it is possible to live in peace with both God and sin. If anyone suggests such a thing to you, I tell you they are a false prophet just like the ones who lied to Israel – and Israel found out the hard way that these preachers of “peace, peace” were only belly-servers and deceivers.
Nor is it the case that this is just a problem for the Old Testament people of God. The problem runs right on through the New Testament. We heard in our Gospel today the Lord Jesus say as plainly as He could that we are to beware of false prophets who come to us in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. And He tells us how to spot them: “You will recognize them by their fruits.”
Now, some people think that means you’ll realize who is a false prophet by looking at how they live. I don’t dispute that sometimes that is true. But I think our Lord is making a different point. The fruit of a prophet is what results from believing his teaching. What happens if you take the prophet at his word? What fruits result in your life? If you listen to the false prophets that Jeremiah encountered and you took to heart what they said to you, you would think: So I can do whatever my wayward heart desires and trust that God will forgive me and all will be well in the end. In other words, the fruit of their teaching was that it left people unrepentant for their sins, left their hearts in a state of rebellion against the Holy God of Israel. THAT’S how you tell if you have a false prophet!
Jesus could not be more blunt: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” He tells us flat out that some will say to Him on the day of judgment: “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And to them will come the sad reply: “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”
Lawlessness. You who thought you could serve sin and rejoice in it and still enjoy my presence. Do you not understand, I am the Destruction of sin. I came to free you from its chains, not to strengthen its hold on you. I went to my Cross bearing the full load of you sin so that it could be forgiven before the presence of my Father. I blotted out at the cost of my own blood the handwriting that was against you. I have set you free from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for you. All this I did for you to set you free from sin’s power! Indeed, I have obtained you as my own flock with my blood, the very blood of God.
In harmony with both Jeremiah and our Lord, we also heard the Apostle Paul in the second reading warning the Ephesian pastors to pay careful attention to themselves and to the flock over which the Holy Spirit had made them bishops because, after Paul leaves, he foretells that fierce wolves will come in among the flock, and even will arise from their number, speaking twisted things to draw away the disciples after them, to separate them from the Good Shepherd. And what is more twisted and certain to separate from the Shepherd than telling people: God forgives you so that you can continue in your rebellion?
Instead, Paul does what every good pastor must do. He commends them to God in prayer and he commends them to the Word of God’s grace, a Word that is able to built them up and to give them an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
If you’ve been playing with sin...if you’ve been toying with it, serving it, living in rebellion against God...if you’ve been holding a grudge, slandering, committing sexual sin, being disobedient to the authorities God has established...if you’ve a slave to food or drink..if you’ve been thinking that you can indulge your sinful passions and still somehow enjoy the forgiveness and grace of God, then hear the Word of grace spoken to you today!
You cannot have both, but the incredible good news is that God still wants you. No matter how defiled. No matter how rebellious and sinful. He calls you to Himself, the Crucified One, that He might wash you from your sins and begin to set you free. He comes to you today anew at this holy Table, the One who is the destruction of sin and the death of death. He calls you to come to Him and let Him give you His forgiveness, to speak over you an absolution that can begin breaking the chains of sin, covering you with His righteousness and uniting you to Himself, pouring out into you His good Spirit.
Beware of false prophets. Beware of anyone who suggests to you that you can cheerfully stay in your sin and yet enjoy God's grace. Beware, and flee to Your Jesus, let Him forgive you and thus begin to destroy the sin and save you, you whom He has purchased at the price of His blood to be His own. To Him be the glory forever! Amen.