This was the last of the summer series I did for the Kansas East Conference in 1995. The Scriptures for this 13th Sunday after Pentecost, 27 August 1995, were Jeremiah 28: 1 – 9, Hebrews 12: 18 – 29, and Luke 13: 22 – 30.
We are fast approaching the next century. And it is being done with a certain degree of fear. Last year, U. S. News and World Report reported that only 26% of Americans feel that the world will be a better place in the coming century. Forty-two percent (42%) felt that the world would be worse than it is today. (11 July 1994)
There are always unknowns to tomorrow but with the new century, these unknowns seem to have a greater impact. But the fear only comes because we do not know what the future holds. It is our lack of knowledge about the future that brings this fear.
The opening verses of the passage from Hebrews describe the initial contact between the people of Israel and God:
You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that another word be spoken to them.
To the Israelites, God was someone to fear. Their fear came from their lack of knowledge about God.
Should we fear what comes with the new century? Historians tell us that people back in the year 999 truly feared the coming of the year 1000. In the area of computer technology, there is a certain fear about what will happen to all of our computer files when the year 2000 because the numbers 00 are associated with 1900, not 2000.
Now that may seem like a trivial reason but it does indicate that there are unknowns to this coming time. It does lead to some simple questions. Who do we turn to; which direction do we take?
I entitled this sermon "How Do I Get to Twin Valley?" because I needed to know the directions for getting here today. But what happens when the map falls apart or when our destination is a time and not a place? For us to accomplish all we want to do in life; to know where we are going and to do so with confidence and without fear, requires more than directions on a map. (When I gave the sermon I showed the map of Kansas that I had been using that summer; it was almost totally in shreds from all the folding and unfolding.)
To meet the challenges of the coming years, to face the unknown we must acknowledge that God must be a major part of our life.
The passage from Jeremiah illustrates that very point. This particular passage is the beginning of a narrative between two prophets claiming to speak for God.
Hananiah utters an oracle of salvation: the yoke of Babylon has been broken and within two years God will bring back to Jerusalem King Jehoiakim, the exiles of 597 BCE, and the sacred vessels stolen from the temple. Jeremiah, wearing a yoke to symbolize submission to Babylon, opposes Hananiah and his hopeful word. Indeed, he announces an oracle of judgment against Hananiah, a prophecy that comes to pass in his death that same year.
Can you imagine how the people of the court felt and what they said when Jeremiah issued his prophecy? "How dare Jeremiah! The good life is coming back, the exile will soon be over and we can return to Jerusalem with our king and our possessions and he has the audacity to say that Hananiah is going to die." But Jeremiah looked at the past and who was involved in this prophecy.
King Jeconiah was the king responsible for getting Israel taken over by Babylon in the first place. Jeconiah, as some of the kings before him, turned away from God. How could anyone expect things to get better if those responsible for the troubles in the first place were still running the kingdom? Still, Jeremiah did not abandon hope for the future. In the last verse of today’s passage,
As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of the prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.
Just as we worry about the coming century, the people gathered around Jesus as he is walking towards Jerusalem were worrying about their future. But their concern was more self-centered; they worried about who was going to be saved. Had they done all the "right" things? To some extent these people were still trapped in the old view, that eternal salvation could be gained by following a set of established rules. Yet, it was those rules that had made salvation impossible. Society at that time was so riddled with legalistic and unbearable regulations that it was impossible to have a loving relationship with God. If you view God with fear and try to follow rules in order to keep God from getting angry, you quickly find yourselves lost and confused.
The problem that one gets into by simply following the law is that you start limiting your actions and abilities. It would be the same as going through life with your fists clenched, unwilling to grab new opportunities as they pass by.
The people of Jesus’ time no longer heard a message of a Loving Father who cared for His children. The rules and regulations of the church at that time made it impossible for them to do so. Many people at that time probably didn’t even know that their God cared for them. It wasn’t that they had left their religion but that their religion had left them. No longer did they hear a message of hope or promise. The people with Jesus that day knew that He offered something special and different but they were not ready to open their hearts and mind as He was asking.
Jesus taught his disciples to pray, addressing God as "Father." In doing so Jesus turned our relationship with our Father from one of fear to one of grace. When Jesus was crucified, the veil in the Temple was torn open, showing that there was now open access to the Father through Christ. No longer would it be necessary to follow the law in order for salvation to be gained.
"Yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law."
The message Jesus offered to the people of Israel, the message that He offers to us today is one of hope and promise. It is a message that removes the fear from our hearts. Turn to hymn #58 in your hymnal. These are the words to the hymn written by Charles Wesley in celebration of his coming to Christ in 1739. As you read these words, you can begin to understand what the acceptance of Jesus Christ into one’s own heart can do. When we put our faith in Jesus Christ, we take ourselves away from the earthly rules that hinder and bind us.
From my prayer devotion guide comes the following:
When we turn over our lives to Jesus, we are certain about the outcome of life. "Lord Jesus, I believe that thou art able and willing to deliver me from all the care and unrest and bondage of my Christian life. I believe thou didst die to set me free, not only in the future, but now and here. I believe thou art stronger than sin, and that thou canst keep me, even me, in my extreme of weakness, from falling into its snares or yielding obedience to its commands. And, Lord, I am going to trust thee to keep me. I have tried keeping myself, and have failed, and failed, most grievously. I am absolutely helpless. So now I will trust thee. I give myself to thee. I keep back no reserves. Body, soul, and spirit, I present myself to thee as a piece of clay, to be fashioned into anything thy love and thy wisdom shall choose. And now I am thine. I believe thou dost accept that which present to thee; I believe that this poor, weak, foolish heart has been taken possession of by thee, and that thou hast even at this very moment begun to work in me to will and to do of thy good pleasure. I trust thee utterly, and I trust thee now. (The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life by Hannah Whitall Smith).
Faith simply means trust. It begins with the knowledge that our own righteous does not God’s standard and we cannot ever get God to lower that standard. Faith is also not blind. It is based on fact, not mere speculation. We stake our lives on the outcome. We trust in Christ to prove His promise.
There are many things to fear as we come closer to the beginning of the next century. In the closing verse from today’s reading from Hebrews we gain a certainty about our future that no one on earth can offer.
See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven! At that time his voice shook the earth; but now he has promised, "Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven."
This phrase, "Yet once more," indicates the removal of what is shaken — that is, created things — so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12: 25 – 29)
The future can be frightening; it can cause us to be afraid. But the
One thing we owe to Our Lord is never to be afraid. To be afraid is doubly an injury to him. Firstly, it means that we forget him; we forget he is with us and is all powerful; secondly, it means that we are not conformed to his will; for since all that happens is willed or permitted by him, we ought to rejoice in all that happens to us and feel neither anxiety nor fear. Let us then have the faith that banishes fear. Our Lord is at our side, with us, upholding us." (Meditations of a Hermit by Charles de Foucauld)
With nothing to fear, we can see the directions to the Promised Land. We know the direction we need to take. As Jesus once commanded the fisherman so many years ago, so to today does he tell us "Follow me."