This message was presented at Martindale Christian Fellowship Church in Canton, Ohio on May 5, 2013.
I’d like to thank Pastor Steve for his gracious invitation to share with you again today. It’s in incredible privilege to teach from God’s word in God’s house. It’s also a joy to be back together with all of you. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I can follow the ways in which God is using this church to serve the city where I lived during my last two years of medical school.
The last time I was here…two years ago…was a special time for me because my lovely wife and girls were able to come. A couple weeks after that visit, I celebrated one of those really bad birthdays that end in “0” and my wife presented me with a hardback book of my life in pictures…this is one of the pictures that made the cut!
I hope you appreciate how much time and effort your pastor puts into learning everything he can to be the best possible teacher and leader he can be for you. Whenever I see him, the first question he usually asks me is…”What are you reading these days?” He’s always looking for new ideas and new resources to better serve all of you.
When he called a couple of months ago to invite me here today, he asked his usual question…”What are you reading?” I told him I hadn’t been reading any new Christian books lately, but had been spending time in the Bible rereading the Book of Jeremiah.
My guess is that Jeremiah wouldn’t be one of the first books you’d turn to if you felt led to study the Bible. Allow me to share what I was looking for when I turned to Jeremiah looking for a little wisdom…
I came across another passage in preparing for this morning in 2 Corinthians 3…we’ll come to it later, but this question jumped out at me…If our lives are a letter (or a Facebook wall), what do we want other people to read?
My biggest spiritual struggle over this past year has involved figuring out how to represent Jesus well while the world we live in appears to be falling apart. I’ve found it incredibly difficult to reflect both God’s grace and God’s truth while…to be totally honest, I’ve vacillated between rage at the things I read in the news and see on the TV every night and overwhelming fear from the changes taking place in the world around us.
One of the greatest challenges has been reconciling two very different roles I play publicly…and the differences in the expectations other people have for me in the way I conduct myself at the crossroads of our culture wars.
The role for which I’m best known is that of a physician specializing in child and adolescent psychiatry.
I’m in a very unique position to influence others about issues in my field…I also bear a somewhat unique responsibility as the only openly Christian physician in my specialty in the U.S. with the ability to communicate my ideas widely. The controversies swirling in our culture…how marriage is defined, how kids are taught, how healthcare is delivered…have enormous impact upon the kids and families I serve.
I’m also Board Chairman of Key Ministry- We’ve been given an incredible mission to help churches here in the U.S. and beyond to reach out to and welcome kids with disabilities and their families.
In my physician role, it’s my duty to advocate vigorously for the best interests of my patients, and on a larger scale, for children and families in general. There are some who would say that avoiding divisiveness is critical for ministry leaders…or at least to avoid unnecessary divisiveness around disputable issues. I personally don’t see how it’s possible to truly live out the Gospel without some divisiveness in light of what Jesus said in Luke 12:51-53 (NIV).
Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.
I’ve experienced a lot of grief because of my unwillingness to relinquish my prerogative to speak out on matters that profoundly impact the kids and families I serve in my day job. Disagreements about the freedom of our ministry staff and volunteers to publicly comment about potentially controversial political or moral issues on personal blogs and social media has been a huge distraction for our team this past year.
I’m convinced the enemy is using the fear of offending others as a weapon in spiritual warfare. He wants to silence the followers of Christ. He wants to create division within the church. I hate seeing the bullies win. It seems that Christ-followers are increasingly targets of the bullies. And it appears the bullies have been winning a lot as of late.
I don’t know about you, but I recognize I often add fuel to the fire because of the way that I struggle in controlling my words. I’ll admit…at times, I’ve spouted off online because it’s helped me feel as if I have some control over events. When I’m really tired or really scared I find I don’t have the best filter between my brain and my mouth (or my keypad). I struggle with insensitivity.
But I’m also fearful. Not fear from a lack of faith but fear because of faith. I’m afraid that Jesus’ words are about to come true and we may have to pay a price for our faith. If I speak up for what I think is right based upon a Christian worldview, I’ll lose friends. I’ll lose money. I’m worried that the career I’ve pursued for two thirds of my life may come to a premature end because I can’t or won’t make the compromises required to work in the environment to come. I spoke to a colleague just last week who fears a time is coming when her personal beliefs will be irreconcilable with the code of ethics she must adhere to in order to practice in Ohio.
The reality for most of us is that we grew up in a country in which the majority of people openly acknowledged the existence of God and a common standard of right and wrong, even if they didn’t personally adhere to God’s standards. It seems that words have lost their meaning…wrong is right, and right is wrong. I’m reminded of the last words of the Book of Judges…”Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” Christians are increasingly viewed as “intolerant.” But tolerance appears to be a one-way street.
I’m angry…but not always for the right reasons. I’m angry because peer pressure will effectively keep many people from investigating the claims of Christ. I’m angry for the world that my kids and grandkids will have to live in. But I’m also angry for totally self-centered reasons. I don’t like being on the losing side…and it feels like those of us who find comfort and hope in Christianity are getting our heads handed to us of late. God certainly needs no one to fight His battles. But I want to fight mine…and want others to fight with me.
I bet that a lot of you are probably struggling with these issues as well.
- What do you say (or should you say anything) when people who know you are Christian ask you about hot-button issues at work?
- When your niece is bringing her “partner” to Mother’s Day dinner next Sunday?
- When you’re a small business owner and have to choose between providing health insurance to your employees and paying for medical procedures that violate your conscience?
- What do you say when your Facebook friends are changing their profile picture to a symbol used by same-sex marriage advocates? Or change their profile picture to a symbol supporting traditional marriage?
- Or your teacher/professor openly ridicules people who hold dearly to foundational Christian beliefs?
When Pastor Steve called me a couple of months ago, those were the issues that led me to look for wisdom in the life of Jeremiah…I was looking for an example of someone who sought to honor God during a time when the people had little regard for the Word of God or the ways of God…a prophet who served in a culture of 2,600 years ago with eerie similarities to the one we live in today. Let’s start with a brief history lesson…
God’s purpose in many of the laws and commands He gave to Israel was to maintain a separation between His people and the cultures surrounding them in the ancient Near East. God intended Israel to serve as “a light to the nations.” (Deuteronomy 4) He knew the idolatrous religious practices of the pagans would invariably poison Israel and the nation would lose its’ distinctiveness as a holy people, if the people grew close to (and intermarried with) the surrounding culture.
Shortly after the construction of the temple in Jerusalem, the train truly jumped the tracks when King Solomon married women from the pagan cultures surrounding Israel. Solomon built “high places” for the gods of his foreign wives and worshiped there himself (1 Kings 11:1-8). The seriousness of this sin led God to divide the nation into Northern and Southern kingdoms by removing ten tribes from the kingdom of Solomon’s son Rehoboam (1 Kings 11:9-13, 1 Kings 11:29-38).
Both kingdoms entered into a generally downward spiral of pagan worship over the ensuing three to four centuries. The Judeans looked down upon their marginally more pagan northern neighbors (Israel). Every once in a while, a king would make a half-hearted effort to remove the places of pagan worship. Only Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:3-4) and Josiah (2 Kings 23:4-15) had the courage to destroy the high places in the land of Judah.
Eventually God permitted the Assyrian Empire to conquer the Northern Kingdom to discipline the people for their sin around 722 BC. Hezekiah’s repentance for the nation of Judah bought them some more time, but Hezekiah’s son (and successor) Manasseh reversed some of the religious reforms of his father, restored worship of pagan gods in the Temple, (2 Kings 21) and built altars to pagan gods.
Getting to know Jeremiah
Jeremiah was probably born sometime near the end of Manasseh’s reign, into a family of priests living about three miles outside the walls of Jerusalem. We don’t know Jeremiah’s exact age at the time he was called, but we do know that Jeremiah argued to God that he wasn’t up to the task because of his relative youth (Jeremiah 1:6).
He was called to be a prophet during the reign of Josiah…the last “good” king of Judah…sometime around 627 BC.
Josiah led the last brief spiritual revival in Jerusalem. That revival peaked around 622 BC. Jeremiah’s ministry began at a time when his message had some degree of cultural sanction and support. After King Josiah’s death, Jeremiah’s message was very countercultural. His prophetic ministry continued through the reigns of the last five kings of Judah, through the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 BC. The Babylonians showed Jeremiah great kindness, but he was forced to flee with a remnant of Judah to Egypt after the Babylonian governor was assassinated. Some evidence from rabbinic notes suggests Jeremiah may have taken captive to Babylon after Egypt fell to the Babylonians (around 568 BC), while other scholars believe he may have died in Egypt.
Jeremiah was called to proclaim God’s judgment upon Judah and plead for their repentance. There were two main issues that led to God bringing His judgment upon Judah…
First, the people (and their leaders) put their trust in other things beside God. They depended on gods they had created and trusted military alliances with Assyria and Egypt for their safety as opposed to God’s protection.
There’s some evidence to suggest that Manasseh’s motivations were economic in nature when he reestablished worship in high places and child sacrifice in Judah. Judah was subservient in its’ relationship with the Assyrians, and Manasseh was possibly seeking to curry favor in order to promote trade. Scripture informs us that Manasseh “sacrificed his own son to the fire” in a pagan ritual (2 Kings 21:6). More on that in a minute…
The second reason for God’s judgment was the unfaithfulness of the people of Judah. The marriage imagery throughout Jeremiah is striking, and a reminder to us that God instituted marriage not only to provide a foundation and a structure to society but as a human representation of the relationship between God and His people.
The primary pagan gods receiving official sanction in Judah were Baal (God of nature), Asherah (fertility goddess), Chemosh (Moabite god) and Molech (Ammonite god). This worship often took place in “high places”…on the top of hills or under tall trees.
Typical Baal worship included the burning of incense, animal sacrifice, male and female cultic prostitutes and (sometimes) child sacrifice. Manasseh reestablished this worship INSIDE THE TEMPLE in Jerusalem.
Worship of Molech probably represented rock bottom for the culture
Molech worship occurred in the Valley of Hinnom…this was located at the South end of Jerusalem, just outside the walls of the city. Jesus references the place in Matthew 5:22 during the Sermon on the Mount of the destination of people who harbor anger against their brothers.
The ancients would heat this brass idol up with fire (like a pot-bellied stove with a head) until it was glowing, then the priest would put the infant child on the arms of the idol. A child sacrifice laid on the hands, would roll into the fire in the belly cavity. The whole area before the statue was filled with a loud noise of flutes and drums so that the cries of the children being sacrificed should not reach the ears of the people.
This is the world into which God placed Jeremiah. And while Jeremiah had a unique prophetic call, God has placed each of us in our culture at this time with the charge of representing Jesus, building His Kingdom and making disciples. And while God had to speak directly to Jeremiah, we have the benefit of the entirety of God’s Word in the Bible. So what can we learn about how to carry ourselves from Scriptural accounts of this very real and authentic prophet who was given a difficult message to communicate to his culture?
1. Jeremiah was obedient in fulfilling the purpose for which he’d been created…
Jeremiah 1:5 is a verse you’re probably familiar with because of the way in which it has been quoted by the pro-life movement.
Before I shaped you in the womb, I knew all about you. Before you saw the light of day, I had holy plans for you: A prophet to the nations— that’s what I had in mind for you.” (MSG)
Jeremiah had a very unique call and purpose…but don’t we all have a unique call and purpose? That’s what the New Testament teaches in Ephesians 4:7
But that doesn’t mean you should all look and speak and act the same. Out of the generosity of Christ, each of us is given his own gift.
What does this mean for us? It means that we look for ways to demonstrate the love of Christ wherever we’ve been placed. It involves “looking for God in your circumstances.” Seeking ways to those others around us rethink their image of Christianity. I get lots of opportunities to do this in my line of work. There are very few Christians in the mental health and social service field. When a network of churches comes together to offer free, high-quality respite care to parents of kids with special needs, it makes quite an impression!
I’ll share a great example of someone who demonstrated this concept at the conclusion of our message.
Our background and life experiences are part of how God prepares us to represent Him wherever career you’ve been placed. Jeremiah was a priest by upbringing… His call led him to challenge a prevailing view among the religious establishment referred to as the Royal Temple Ideology of Jerusalem. The thinking went like this…
The Royal Temple ideology was embodied in temple liturgy and royal claims of legitimacy, and asserted that the Kings and priests were an indispensible vehicle for God’s blessing in the world. The elites (the religious and political leaders) assumed that they were immune to any sanctions prescribed by God’s covenants and God’s judgment. Essentially, they thought they were free to do whatever they wanted to do with their power and position while God was obligated through promises He made to David. As a priest, Jeremiah was positioned to speak credibly into the issue. It wasn’t necessary for Jeremiah to have been a priest because of his appointment from God, but his understanding of the people he was called to confront gave him additional credibility.
2. Jeremiah was humble…he recognized his inadequacy for the task God called him to accomplish
Let’s look at the very next verse…Jeremiah 1:6 (MSG)
One way in which we can be assured that we’re pursuing a mission in response to a God’s call is that we’ll be unable to accomplish the task at hand without God’s unmistakable help! Jeremiah immediately pointed out that he wasn’t adequately qualified for the mission God offered. This ensures God will get the credit due for the success of the mission.
Jeremiah was humble! Humility goes a long way in smoothing over rough spots in relationships. Humility demonstrates the heart of a servant and the character of Christ.
3. Jeremiah depended upon God for the right words in difficult circumstances
Continuing in Jeremiah 1, let’s move on to the next verses. Jeremiah 1:7-9 (NIV)
How many problems might we avoid if we took just a moment to ask God for the right words before we speak, or hit the “send” button. We all have our “hot buttons.” I know it would often be helpful if Facebook and Twitter developed a little pop-up box asking the question…What would God think of this? before you’re allowed to post a comment. They won’t…but we can still ask the question ourselves and self-impose a “pause” button to allow God to give us the right words.
I can’t tell you what the right or wrong answer is as to what you should say or where you should say it. But God can. He did for Jeremiah…and watched over him throughout the process!
4. Jeremiah demonstrated great compassion over the plight of his people…the “weeping prophet”
When you hear about people who are caught up in chronic patterns of destructive behavior that we Christians refer to as sin, what thought pops into your mind or what words pop out of your mouth? I find myself becoming very angry for the ways in which the leaders of our culture are trying to influence our kids to pursue very destructive paths, but I’m certainly guilty of not having much sympathy for the very visible people in our culture who don’t appear to have come to faith in Christ. Does it grieve you when you see other people who don’t appear to know Jesus? More importantly, do we have compassion for the people within our sphere of influence who are hurting and engaged in patterns of futile, maladaptive behavior…the people with whom we might share the love of Christ? What are you going to do about it?
5. Jeremiah had a remarkably authentic relationship with God
Jeremiah was absolutely free to speak from his heart to God. Let’s look at this remarkable interaction in Jeremiah 15:15-21
Jeremiah had this remarkable relationship in which he would pour his heart to God. He spoke freely of his anger and frustration with his people who ignored his messages from God for forty years and refused to turn from their wicked ways. He spoke freely of his sadness and despair, and on one occasion, of his desire to have never been born. How often are you as authentic as Jeremiah was in your prayer life with God? Totally honest…warts and all!
What does it mean to use words “truly and well?” What does it mean to “not change your words to suit them?” We can’t compromise the Truth…and have to be willing to stand up for the Truth when the situation arises…but we need to do so out of a sense of compassion and genuine respect for the people with whom we’re communicating.
I’ve been blessed this year to have my former senior pastor (Hu Auburn) serving as our interim Executive Director at Key Ministry. We were discussing the issue of speaking into sensitive topics a couple of months ago when he shared the challenges he faced in talking about hot button issues such as abortion. In a church the size of ours, it was a near statistical certainty on any Sunday morning that there were women attending worship with firsthand experience of abortion. He didn’t want his words to become an impediment to them in coming to know and grow in Christ.
6. Jeremiah pointed people to an ultimate hope…Jesus
Jeremiah’s words were undoubtedly a source of comfort to God’s people during their captivity in Babylon. Most Christians are familiar with this passage from Jeremiah 29:11-14 (NIV)
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
But Jeremiah’s words were also directed to us and meant to reflect the reality of a larger story…From Jeremiah 31:33-34 (MSG)
When I reached this point of the message, I recognized a big flaw in my approach to using the Bible for self-improvement…Can you recognize it?
I realized when I got to the end of my study that I could no more emulate Jeremiah than my dog could emulate Jeremiah…and my dog has significant limitations in her capacity for self-discipline!
7. Jeremiah was guided by the Holy Spirit
The issue isn’t what Jeremiah did…the issue is who was at work within Jeremiah who guided his words and his steps…the Holy Spirit. Was it the Holy Spirit within Jeremiah who made his example possible? Let’s look at 1 Peter 1:10-11 (MSG)
The prophets who told us this was coming asked a lot of questions about this gift of life God was preparing. The Messiah’s Spirit let them in on some of it—that the Messiah would experience suffering, followed by glory.
Or how about 2 Peter 1:19-21?
We couldn’t be more sure of what we saw and heard—God’s glory, God’s voice. The prophetic Word was confirmed to us. You’ll do well to keep focusing on it. It’s the one light you have in a dark time as you wait for daybreak and the rising of the Morning Star in your hearts. The main thing to keep in mind here is that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of private opinion. And why? Because it’s not something concocted in the human heart. Prophecy resulted when the Holy Spirit prompted men and women to speak God’s Word.
Through the working of the Holy Spirit, we have the ability to manifest the same power within us during a time of trouble that Jeremiah displayed…a power that sustained him through loneliness, despair, great physical discomfort, persecution and the experience of watching his country descend to unimaginable levels of moral deprivation, culminated by the opportunity to witness his people cannibalize each other prior to their slaughter by the Babylonians.
The Spirit is what enables us to represent Christ well in our highly polarized culture…in a culture where we’re encountering a hostility to God’s Word that’s unlike anything most of us have ever experienced. From 2 Corinthians 3:2-3 (MSG):
Does it sound like we’re patting ourselves on the back, insisting on our credentials, asserting our authority? Well, we’re not. Neither do we need letters of endorsement, either to you or from you. You yourselves are all the endorsement we need. Your very lives are a letter that anyone can read by just looking at you. Christ himself wrote it—not with ink, but with God’s living Spirit; not chiseled into stone, but carved into human lives—and we publish it.
I’m not sure that I got answers to all the questions I was looking for when I launched into my self-directed study of Jeremiah. I continue to sense a personal obligation to speak publicly into matters where I have expertise to shape opinion filtered through the perspective of a Christian worldview. As Christians are obligated to advocate for justice and mercy, although we’re free to respectfully disagree on the most effective strategy for meeting the needs of the most vulnerable in society. Sometimes I struggle with the “respectfully disagree” part. I’m not going to abandon my responsibility to try to influence my piece of the culture, nor do I believe Scripture demands that of us. At the same time, I need to avoid unnecessary divisiveness. Rants on Facebook probably aren’t productive.
I do know I want to demonstrate in myself what I see when the presence of the Holy Spirit is visible in other Christ followers. I also know, like Jeremiah, I can’t do this without God’s help. Here’s an example of what it looks like when the Holy Spirit is at work within a Christ follower in a culturally contentious situation…
How many of you recognize the two guys with sideline passes in this picture? The guy on the right is Dan Cathy, the President of Chick-Fil-A. The guy on the left is Shane Windmeyer…Founder and Executive Director of Campus Pride, the gay rights organization that launched a nationwide boycott last summer against Chick-Fil-A for donating money to organizations viewed as hostile to the LGBT agenda. The picture was taken last New Year’s Eve at the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl. Here’s the link to an article Shane wrote for the Huffington Post describing his relationship with Dan. Allow me to share a few excerpts…
On Aug. 10, 2012, in the heat of the controversy, I got a surprise call from Dan Cathy. He had gotten my cell phone number from a mutual business contact serving campus groups…
Throughout the conversations Dan expressed a sincere interest in my life, wanting to get to know me on a personal level. He wanted to know about where I grew up, my faith, my family, even my husband, Tommy. In return, I learned about his wife and kids and gained an appreciation for his devout belief in Jesus Christ and his commitment to being “a follower of Christ” more than a “Christian.” Dan expressed regret and genuine sadness when he heard of people being treated unkindly in the name of Chick-fil-a — but he offered no apologies for his genuine beliefs about marriage.
In many ways, getting to know Dan better has reminded me of my relationship with my uncle, who is a pastor at a Pentecostal church. When I came out as openly gay in college, I was aware that his religious views were not supportive of homosexuality. But my personal relationship with my uncle reassured me of his love for me — and that love extends to my husband. My uncle would never want to see any harm come to me or Tommy. His beliefs prevented him from fully reconciling what he understood as the immorality of homosexuality with the morality of loving and supporting me and my life. It was, and remains, an unsolvable riddle for him, hating the sin and loving the sinner.
My relationship with Dan is the same, though he is not my family. Dan, in his heart, is driven by his desire to minister to others and had to choose to continue our relationship throughout this controversy. He had to both hold to his beliefs and welcome me into them. He had to face the issue of respecting my viewpoints and life even while not being able to reconcile them with his belief system. He defined this to me as “the blessing of growth.”
As Dan and I grew through mutual dialogue and respect, he invited me to be his personal guest on New Year’s Eve at the Chick-fil-A Bowl. This was an event that Campus Pride and others had planned to protest. Had I been played? Seduced into his billionaire’s life? No. It was Dan who took a great risk in inviting me: He stood to face the ire of his conservative base (and a potential boycott) by being seen or photographed with an LGBT activist. He could have been portrayed as “caving to the gay agenda” by welcoming me.
Instead, he stood next to me most of the night, putting respect ahead of fear. There we were on the sidelines, Dan, his wife, his family and friends and I, all enjoying the game. And that is why building a relationship with someone I thought I would never understand mattered…The millions of college football fans watching the game never could have imagined what was playing out right in front of them.
How can we live in a way that will turn heads in a culture becoming increasingly hostile to Christ and his message? That’s how. What would Jeremiah do? He’d pray to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit would do the rest.
If, as Paul said in Second Corinthians our lives (or our Facebook walls) are a letter, what do you want other people to read?
Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet?” Is that an indication his prophesy was born more from grief than from anger?
God describes the Jewish nation as an unfaithful spouse throughout Jeremiah. In the New Testament, the church is described as the “bride of Christ.” What are the similarities and differences between the Jewish nation it OT times and the church in NT times?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” What are the “line in the sand” issues in our culture that compel Christians to speak out?
Dan and Me: My Coming Out as a Friend of Dan Cathy and Chick-fil-A:
Article: Being Gay at Jerry Falwell’s University
“It”…a book by Craig Groeschel
This book tells how any believer can obtain “It”, get “It” back, and guard “It”, “It” being the presence of the Holy Spirit
Key Ministry Website: http://www.keyministry.org
Church4EveryChild…Steve’s Key Ministry Blog: https://drgrcevich.wordpress.com