TEXT: Jeremiah 29:7-9; 2 Timothy 4:1-5
True or false? That’s one of the big questions that we’ve had to ask hundreds of times in the past year. And it’s not even a matter of discerning real news from fake news, we’ve also had people appealing to scripture for this view or that view: “This is God’s own truth.” How do you know; how can you tell? That’s what we are going to take up in today’s text.
We’ve talked about the setting for Jeremiah. With some parallels to 2020, the people of Israel had their world turned upside down. They were defeated by a foreign enemy, they lost homes, jobs, families, their holy city, and their place and way of worship. They were taken to a foreign land and made Exiles. And it felt like God had abandoned them. Then Jeremiah delivers a message from the Lord. God had not abandoned them. Everything had changed, but nothing had changed. They were still God’s people, with a God-given purpose. They were to live life, not give up. They were to build homes in this new land, plant crops, get married, have families, and pass on the faith. And not only that, they still had a mission to be a blessing-people. They weren’t just passive recipients of God’s blessing, but were to pray for and seek the blessing of their captors, their opponents, their enemies. As Jesus would later teach, God was instructing them to love their neighbors and love their enemies!
And that brings us to today’s text in Jeremiah 29:8-9. Jeremiah was not the only one delivering messages from God. There were other prophets and other messengers. And they were declaring a very different message. If you were one of the Exiles, how would you know who to listen to? How would you know what was true and what was not?
In verses 8-9 God warns His people about false prophets and ‘diviners’. On first pass you might think this referred to Babylonian fortune-tellers – I did years ago when I first looked at this. But no, these are “your prophets in your midst.” These are Jewish prophets and spiritual leaders! And God says they speak falsely; God has not sent them!
We have the record of what they were saying. One example is in the previous chapter, Jeremiah 28. One Hananiah, the son of a prophet, was saying that the stay in Babylon would be brief and that God would quickly restore them to Jerusalem and the Temple. Jeremiah says that it is not so and that the Lord is not speaking through Hananiah.
Consider that message: God will deliver you soon and restore what was lost!
And consider Jeremiah’s message in chapter 29: God brought you here, wants you to stay a while, and has work for you to do.
How do you know? How do you ‘weigh’ two sets of competing truth claims especially when discerning the truth is complicated by each claiming to be a word from the Lord as well as both speaking to the great loss and longing of all the people.
Though our New Testament reading from 2 Timothy 4 is set in a different context altogether, it does speak to the challenge of discerning what is true and from God. Paul is writing to his student and fellow pastor, Timothy, and warns that the time will come (and when has it not been that time?!) when people will not endure sound doctrine, but will accumulate teachers in accordance with their own desires. They will turn from the truth and turn to myths. I think of all the outlandish claims and stories you can run into daily now. It’s so easy to stop discerning and start listening to voices that will lead us astray.
As protection against that Paul charges Timothy to root himself in God’s Word – to preach it, use it for reproof, rebuke, exhortation, and with patience and instruction. Paul warns him to be sober in all things, to endure hardship, and to fulfill the calling and work God has for him. It sounds a lot like Jeremiah to me… Exiles, this is going to be hard work, but it is the work and worship God desires from you at this time.
How Do You Know? (God’s Word)
If you had been one of these Jewish Exiles, how would you know whether to listen to the prophet among you or to Jeremiah’s letter?
We aren’t given that information in the text – we just know as readers that Jeremiah is the Lord’s man. All I know to say is what I would say today, what Paul wrote to Timothy: if someone purports to speak for God, consider their message and measure it against the Word of the Lord. And pray for discernment.
I do know that Jeremiah’s letter resonates with the deepest truths of the Hebrew Scriptures. Had I received it as one of the Jewish Exiles, I may have found the command to make a home in a foreign land challenging emotionally, but I would have heard loud and clear the many connections to God’s commands to Adam, His covenant with Abraham, the Shema of Israel, and the deep concept of shalom. Jeremiah’s message is tough to chew on, but it resonates with the truth of God’s Word. So much easier, of course, for a holy man to tell you of a dream he dreamed about getting back home quickly… but that’s just tickling your ears.
In fact, many years later, when this traveling Rabbi from Nazareth started teaching things that didn’t sound like the Scribes and Pharisees of the day, how would one know who to listen to? Jesus taught with authority, rooting everything he taught in Hebrew scripture, accompanied by acts of compassion and power to demonstrate his authority was from God. Love of neighbor and love of enemies was not new with Jesus… we looked last week at how it was present in Jeremiah’s message and went all the way back to the covenant with Abraham.
How do we know what is true and what is of God? We also must measure truth by all of scripture. That’s one reason I alternate between close detailed teaching on passages like Jeremiah 29 and broad surveys of major biblical themes like we did last summer. All of that is necessary to ground us in God’s Word. There’s a perfect example of this in Jeremiah 29 in just a few verses from where we are today. You’ve probably seen it on a coffee mug or a t-shirt or on a graduation print for a student. You may have given it as a gift – and that’s okay. It’s this: “For I know the plans I have for you… plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Awesome, awesome verse! So positive; so hopeful! And so needful of context! We are going to look at it in detail next week, but it serves to illustrate what we are talking about today. Is this verse promising your graduate that God is planning for their prosperous future? That’s sure what we want for our precious children, grandchildren, and friends. Let’s measure that verse against all of scripture… does God really promise what we think of as ‘prosperity’ to all people? Or to people we love? No; that doesn’t fit with what I read in the broad scope of scripture. It pushes me to keep digging at Jeremiah 29:11 until I figure out what IS being said there. We’ve also been digging into the context of this verse for the past several weeks. That “prosper you” is one translation of shalom and God’s first intent for His people is that they seek and pray for shalom/well-being/peace/blessing for those around them. (That, incidentally, would be an excellent Jeremiah 29:11 charge for a graduate: Go where you are going and live out your faith in service to God, blessing those in your new community!)
For sure, it’s not easy. It’s work to do that kind of disciplined reading and study of scripture. And it’s especially hard if we’ve convinced ourselves of something we want to hear. But that’s where God says we will learn wisdom. And pray for God’s help!
When we submit ourselves to God’s Word and are willing to be directed and re-directed by it, God says we will grow in wisdom. If we pray for God’s truth and wisdom and seek it diligently, God says He will give it to us. I’d like to conclude by re-reading our Call to Worship from Proverbs 2, which makes these promises explicit. I invite you to make them your prayer and your goal as we try to walk a faithful path through all the voices clamoring for our attention and allegiance.
1 …If you will receive my words And treasure my commandments within you,
2 Make your ear attentive to wisdom, Incline your heart to understanding;
3 For if you cry for discernment, Lift your voice for understanding;
4 If you seek her as silver And search for her as for hidden treasures;
5 Then you will discern the fear of the Lord And discover the knowledge of God.
6 For the Lord gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding.
7 He stores up sound wisdom for the upright; He is a shield to those who walk in integrity,
8 Guarding the paths of justice, And He preserves the way of His godly ones.
9 Then you will discern righteousness and justice And equity and every good course.
10 For wisdom will enter your heart And knowledge will be pleasant to your soul;
11 Discretion will guard you, Understanding will watch over you…
Some Music Used
- Ancient Words
- Wonderful Words of Life
- Speak, O Lord
- Closer Walk (Rick Bean, jazz piano)
- Every Promise of Your Word (Getty/Townend)
- I Will Offer Up My Life (Redman)