Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? Says the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? Says the Lord. I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy in my name, saying, “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!” How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back – those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart? They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal. Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? Says the Lord. Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?
A young preacher stands in the pulpit after a long week of parish ministry. The visits have all been made. A new budget for the coming year is finished and ready for approval. Plans for the Community Cook-Out came to fruition as people from all over the community gathered together.
The young preacher stands in the pulpit and looks out at the congregation. He sees couples that he has counseled; children that he has baptized; families that are struggling; individuals whose husbands or wives he has buried; and he even sees people he has never seen before. He looks over the bulletin one last time just to make sure that everything is listed the way it is supposed to be, and then he begins by saying, “This morning the sermon will be short and sweet”
“Hallelujah!” Someone shouts out from a pew.
“Is that for the short, or for the sweet?” says the preacher.
The congregation laughs.
The preacher sighs.
The art of preaching is a strange thing, but an even stranger thing when we consider that what we want from a sermon is something short and sweet. Some of you have been quick to say that you want a sermon that leaves you feeling good on your way out from the sanctuary. Others have said that you want a sermon that gives you something to think about during the week, or one that helps to remind you that God is love, or that Jesus wants the world to be a better place, etc.
I would classify myself as a short and sweet preacher. I fundamentally believe that if you cannot say what you’re trying to say in 15 minutes then you’re never going to say it. Additionally, I love pleasing all of you. I live for those moments in the receiving line following worship when some of you offer praise for what you heard through the sermon. I know I’m supposed to be humble, but it feels pretty good to be congratulated and praised for preaching.
In the last few years we’ve had an abundance of sweet sermons; times when I wanted all of you to leave with just one thought: “God loves you.” I’ve done my best to make you laugh and smile when thinking about the abundant glory of God’s grace. I’ve tried to cheer you up during times of domestic and international strife. I’ve worked to make this place as appealing as possible for as many people as possible.
And that is why you should not listen to preachers, including me.
“Am I close to you?” says the Lord. “Or am I far away? Who thinks they can hide in secret places so I cannot see them? I am the Lord! Do I not fill up heaven and earth? I have heard what those prophets have said who prophesy in my name saying ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed! How long will they continue like this?”
The prophet Jeremiah lived during a time filled with false prophets, people who would ascend to places like this in front of a gathered people and make claims on behalf of the Lord. They would spout off about their visions of what the Lord was doing, and the more they said, the further they moved away from God.
God warns us against listening to false prophets, about succumbing to their visions, and about what happens when we trust them more than the Word.
It would be easy today to make this whole sermon about the false prophets of our contemporary experience. We’ve got plenty of false prophets who use their skill to sell us on what they believe the future should hold. In fact this whole sermon could just be a warning against listening to the likes of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
What kind of dreams are they selling?
“I have dreamed of a future where everyone can, and should go to college for free. Where healthcare will be free for everyone. We need to remember what made us great and start taking from the wealthy and giving it to the poor. It’s not about progress; it’s about fairness. We need to make America fair again.”
“I have dreamed of a wall unlike any other wall. This wall will fix all of our problems. It will bring wealth back to our country. We need to bomb the Middle East into oblivion to assert ourselves as the top of the world. We need to make America great again.”
Politicians have always been false prophets making promises that cannot be kept; selling a vision of the future that rarely comes to fruition. And we know this is true. That’s why we’ve grown so jaded by our political seasons and apathetic about whatever will happen.
But there are more false prophets out there than just politicians, and one of them is talking to you right now.
Through the prophet Jeremiah, God warns us against listening to people like me, people who march up to the front of the gathered church and strive to proclaim God’s faithful word. For whenever we hear a preacher go on and on about the beauty and majesty of God’s Word, whenever the Lord is watered down to a spirit of love, whenever we hear more about the preacher’s dreams than God’s will, we need to be reminded that the Word of the Lord is like fire, and like a hammer that breaks a rock into pieces.
Since we’ve been together in this strange thing called church, I’ve preached over 150 sermons. I’ve preached from Genesis to Revelation. I’ve mentioned the patriarchs and the prophets. I’ve proclaimed the possibilities of the psalms. I’ve proudly preached on the power of parables. I’ve done different series on “Why We Do What We Do” and “The Basics” and “New Beginnings” and “Strange Stories from Scripture.” I’ve even dressed up and preached not one, but TWO sermons from the perspective of a donkey.
And for what?
Has the preaching in this place challenged you to be a better disciple? And maybe not just from me, but have you ever left this church really feeling convicted by what you heard and wanted to live differently? Or has your experience been like most, and you leave feeling pretty good on Sunday afternoon?
We preachers are tempted by the practices of false prophecy. We like to be liked. We want to fill pews with people to boost our egos. We need to hear praise from lay people on their way out the door. We yearn for success. We, after years of sermon preparation and proclamation, fall prey to hearing our own voice so deeply that we no longer hear others, nor do we hear the Lord.
For the last three years I’ve had a dream about the future of this church. I have dreamed of Sunday mornings where so many people fill the pews of this sanctuary that I cannot know everyone’s names. I have imagined crowds gathered around the baptismal font in anticipation of bringing a new person into the life of our church. I have pictured people having to park on the front lawn because there are not enough spaces left in our parking lot.
And because I had this dream, I preached and worked toward things like our Community Cook-Out. I implored our Church Council to use enough money to give away the food and the games and the fellowship all for free. I sent out hundreds and hundreds of post-cards to all of our neighbors so that they might join us on the front lawn.
I have dreamed, and I want the dream to become real. So I work week after week on ideas and programs and sermons that will draw people into this sanctuary on Sunday mornings until that dream becomes reality.
A couple weeks ago I was standing in our narthex right before our opening hymn. Most of you were sitting in the pews; our liturgist had gone through the pertinent announcements and necessary welcome. Rick was playing something melodic on the organ as we prepared our hearts and minds for worship when I stepped onto the carpet with our acolyte.
Without thinking much about it, I started to count the back of all your heads. I started with the front left and made my way toward the back, then my eyes moved to the front right and all the way toward the back. My lips must have been moving because our acolyte looked at me and said, “What are you doing?”
“I’m counting…” I said while trying to not lose track of the number.
And then he asked, “Why?”
In his question, in the simple raise of an eyebrow at my action, my heart caught on fire, it burned like a blaze, and I felt it crumble into ashes.
For how long have I deceived my own heart? For how long have I been so consumed by the number of people in our pews that I have forgotten the call to share the Good News? For how long have I proclaimed a God of love who is so loving that he does not expect us to live changed and transformed lives? For how long have all of us listened to false prophets who preached their own dream instead of speaking the Word of the Lord faithfully?
In his question I heard the Lord convict my heart because I have been caught up in church growth not for the sake of the kingdom, but for my own affirmation. I have wanted the front lawn to be packed with people from the community not for the sake of the kingdom, but for the pews to be filled in worship. I have preached sermons to make us feel better not for the sake of the kingdom, but for all of you to come back the next Sunday.
Sermons are a good and strange thing. After all they are the means by which the Word of the Lord is interpreted for our lives on a weekly basis. But they cannot be blindly accepted without challenge. For to only ever hear about God’s grace does a disservice to the Lord who is always calling us to live more like Christ. And, on the other hand, to only ever hear about how sinful we are neglects to reveal the light of Christ that shines in the darkness.
God cares more about spreading the Good News than about filling up the pews.
And sometimes that Good News is that we need to be better than we were when we arrived, that we are called to a life of discipleship that pins us against the world, that the Lord expects great things from us. The Good News is that God has not abandoned us to our sinful desires and devices, that God believes we can be better even if we don’t, and that we can transform the world but we first must transform ourselves.
We need good preachers, men and women who are willing to lay down their egos at the altar and faithfully proclaim God’s Word. And we need good lay people who are willing to crucify their fears and speak the truth in love toward the preachers who have fallen into the trap of false prophecy.
So, may the Word of the Lord be like a hammer that breaks our lives into pieces! Let it shatter our false identities and insecurities, let it break down all our preconceived notions and assumptions, and let it burn and blaze forever and ever. Amen.