A sermon preached by Prof. John T. Pless on 24 October 2012, in Kramer Chapel, Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Text: Jeremiah 23:16–17; 23–32
In an essay entitled Union and Confession written just prior to WWII in 1938, Hermann Sasse penned these words: “Where man can no longer bear the truth, he cannot live without the lie” (Union and Confession, 1). In this wonderfully lucid little booklet, Sasse goes on to contrast the truth with the lie. He notes that from the beginning the lie and the truth have done battle within the church. So it was in the days of the apostles as Paul said to the congregation at Corinth: “For there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (I Cor 11:17). The lie, Sasse said, takes on various forms. There is the pious lie, that hypocrisy with which man lies to himself, to others, and even to God. The pious lie easily becomes the edifying lie. This is the lie that takes comfort in untruth. Sasse sees an example of the edifying lie embraced by medieval Christians when they trusted in the power of the saints, relying on the excess of their merit to further them in the struggle toward righteousness. The edifying lie was the lie unmasked and expelled by the Reformation. Then there is the dogmatic lie, the assertion that we have come to greater doctrinal maturity and old teachings are to be changed for a more contemporary, relevant theology. Finally there is, Sasse warned, the institutional lie when the churches embody the lie in their own life, instituting false teaching as normative.
Jeremiah has the lie, in all of the forms Sasse described: pious, edifying, dogmatic, and institutional lie in the crosshairs as he takes aim at Jerusalem’s prophets. With inflated visions of peace and prosperity, they have lulled the people of Israel into a state of spiritual drowsiness. Instead of proclaiming the certainty of the promise, they have peddled the sweet security of the flesh. Thinking themselves to be pastoral they say: “It shall be well with you; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’” (Jer 23:17). It is a soothing homiletic to be sure; but it is devoid of consolation for it is not true. It is not a message that God has authorized. It is a lie that edifies only by building up a hardened resistance to repentance. No talk here of God’s wrath and judgment on unbelief; no mention at all of a God who both kills and makes alive. Just sweet spiritual nothings whispered into ears plugged to the voice of God.
Instead Jeremiah harangues against prophets whose lips God did not open, whose mouths give exposition to dreams woven out the deceit of their own rogue hearts. With their reckless sermons they lead the Lord’s people astray, so that the Lord is not remembered as the God that He is. Rather than awakening faith which is bold to call upon the name of the Lord, these preachers lull their hearers into complacency with unauthorized promises of well-being: No disaster will come upon you. They cannot preach the invasive God, this wild God of the Old Testament, the Lord who is jealous to have a people exclusively for Himself, so they advertise a domesticated deity who will put his benediction on the desires, the plans, and the programs of the heart whatever they might be.
Jeremiah denounces this as idolatry, no different in substance from the way that Israel’s fathers had been seduced into the worship of Baal. God’s ears are not closed to these lying words. From his sight nothing is concealed and no utterance is so quietly or softly spoken so as to be beyond his ears. Truth and falsehood have no more in common than wheat does with straw. God comes, and his coming is in judgment. The fire of his Word ignites the stubble of unbelief. The hammer of his law pulverizes hearts that have become granite monuments of unrighteousness. The Lord sets his face against these lying prophets. That’s about as far as today’s text takes us. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place! Not a very good place for teachers and students at a seminary to be! There is plenty of dire warning in Jeremiah for us who are preachers or aspire to the preaching office lest we be numbered with those lying prophets who preach peace when there is no peace, who proclaim that all is well when disaster is imminent. There is much here to remind us that we are to “afflict the comfortable if we are ever to comfort the afflicted.” But there is not much in our text to give opportunity for the comfort and consolation of the Gospel to predominate. Not much, but something. Listen again to verse 28: “let him who has my word speak my word faithfully.”
We have the promise of the Righteous Branch proclaimed by Jeremiah, the One who for all time will be known as “The Lord is our Righteousness.” We have Jesus’ word and his “words are spirit and life” (John 6:63). His word is truth–the truth of God’s attitude toward sinners for the sake of his Son. The truth that when we confess our sins God “is faithful and just and will cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We have the word of the cross, the certain truth that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself through the blood of the cross. We can live without the lie, because we have the truth in Jesus Christ. It is him that we proclaim. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting. Amen.
Prof. John T. Pless
Prof. John T. Pless is associate professor of Pastoral Ministry and Missions at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana.