Sermon

Jeremiah 20:7-13

Asking for Trouble

 

Richard Niell Donovan

Donald Woods was the editor of the Daily Dispatch, a South African newspaper. He had been raised in a middle class family, had attended the right schools, and had defended apartheid, the system of racial segregation and discrimination that reigned for so long in South Africa.

Then something changed his life. It was such a small thing, but it made such a big difference. He read these words by Abraham Lincoln:

“What is morally wrong
can never be politically right.”

He then had the opportunity to interview Prime Minister Vorster, who claimed to be a Christian. Woods asked Vorster how he could reconcile apartheid with his Christian faith. He says, “I then saw the first real flash of anger.” He knew he was asking for trouble, but knew also that he must continue.

Woods exposed in his newspaper the evils of jailing or banning opponents of apartheid. He found himself being shadowed by security police. His phones were bugged. He then threatened to reveal the truth about the black leader, Steve Biko, who was beaten to death in his jail cell.

This time he had gone too far. He was banned to his home. Realizing that his life was in danger, he and his family made a daring escape to England on New Year’s Day, 1978. He wrote a book entitled Asking for Trouble, an account of his struggle against apartheid and the high price he paid.

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Telling the truth often exacts a high price. The prophets were called by God to tell the truth; Jeremiah complained bitterly about his assignment. Hear his pain in the prayer:

“I am become a laughing-stock all the day,
every one mocks me
For as often as I speak, I cry out;
I cry, Violence and destruction!
because the word of Yahweh is made a reproach to me,
and a derision, all the day.

If I say, I will not make mention of him,
nor speak any more in his name,
then there is in my heart
as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones,
and I am weary with forbearing, and I can’t” (20:7-9).

So the prophet Jeremiah was caught between a rock and a hard place. When he spoke the word that God had given him, the people mocked him—but when he refrained from speaking, God’s word became a burning fire inside him—a burning fire locked up inside his bones—a burning fire that threatened to consume him. And so he said, “I am weary with forbearing”—I am weary with keeping silent—”and I can’t.”

Jesus warned that, if we would be his disciples, we are likely to experience trouble. He closed the Beatitudes by saying:

“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:10).

The apostle Paul was persecuted for speaking the truth. He preached the gospel. His listeners responded by shouting him down, beating him up, running him out of town, and trying to kill him. Nevertheless he concluded:

“Necessity is laid upon me…
Woe is to me if I don’t preach the Good News”
(1 Corinthians 9:16).

Of course, Jesus is the classic case of a good man in trouble for telling the truth. We often read Biblical stories to our four year old boy. Many of them make good sense to him. But he still asks, “Why did they kill Jesus?” The answer, of course, is that he told the truth to people who didn’t want to hear the truth.

What about us? Does God call us to speak an unpopular message? As long as evil exists, we Christian people have a responsibility to stand against it. That means that we often stand in an uncomfortable place. That begins when we are young. How I hope our son is able to stand against the crowd when he is a teenager. I cannot imagine a tougher challenge.

Martin Luther King once talked about young people and peer pressure. He said:

“Numerous, decent, wholesome youth
permit themselves to become involved in unwholesome pursuits,
which they do not personally condone or even personally enjoy
because they are ashamed to say no when the gang says yes.

How few have the audacity to express publicly their convictions,
and how many have allowed themselves to be intimidated?

One of the joys of being an adult is being past these crises of youth.
My mother used to say that she would prefer almost anything
to being a teenager again.”

But does that mean that we adults need not stand against the crowd? No! Jeremiah suffered as an adult for speaking out. Paul was persecuted as an adult for preaching the gospel. Martin Luther King was assassinated as an adult for confronting old prejudices. Jesus was crucified as an adult for afflicting the comfortable.

The problem with speaking out as an adult is that the price is so much higher. Young people have to worry about offending friends. Adults have to worry about losing jobs. Of course, both old and young have to face the possibility of violence if they are dealing with really serious issues.

What are the serious issues? We might ask the question another way. What are the great evils that threaten our world? We might discover evil in our day to day lives. It might involve corruption or waste. It might involve an immoral decision to maintain an inspected, sanctioned house of prostitution. It might involve a decision to waste a village. It might involve a decision to be unnecessarily harsh on a young soldier. Who wants to challenge authority in these situations? Doing so can be very risky. But God has not called us to a comfortable life.

And we will find larger issues. The genocide in Cambodia a few years ago was as horrible as the Holocaust in Germany, but it came and went with little comment. We were tired and had no more stomach for Southeast Asia. But that doesn’t excuse silence and inaction as Christians.

Our faith will challenge us to take action to feed the starving millions in Africa and other parts of the world. I am proud that the church was there–and had been there long and faithfully–before the rock stars ever got involved.

Our faith will challenge us to speak out for the preservation of natural resources–to preserve resources and to avoid pollution. The world is sucking oil out of the earth at an alarming rate–I expect in my lifetime to hear the slurping noise when the pumps start pulling up air. But the people of our nation resist any energy discipline unless it is forced on them.

The day is already here when we can watch on television as people die by the millions because of poor stewardship of natural resources. Doesn’t that sound like an issue on which Christ might call us to speak out?

Our faith will challenge us to speak out about the danger of nuclear wastes and nuclear weapons. The accident at Chernobyl serves as a warning about the potential for disaster. If you watched NBC Nightly News this week, you saw Russian ghost towns. The disaster emptied more than 400 square miles of 135,000 people, killed 31 people and deformed the lives of thousands of others. As Christians, we might find ourselves called by God to speak an unpopular word about the dangers of nuclear power.

And then there are nuclear weapons. If a nuclear accident ruined 400 square miles of city and countryside, imagine the effects of wave after wave of nuclear warheads exchanged across a hostile border.

I am not advocating unilateral disarmament. The nuclear standoff has kept an uneasy peace in Europe for over forty years. We have only to visit the border at Fulda or Berlin to see the threat posed by our enemies. If we laid down our nuclear weapons, we would soon be kneeling before our captors.

But the truth is that we cannot win a nuclear war–nor can anyone else. The human race is like a group of people, some aggressive and dangerous–all armed with grenades, afloat in a lifeboat. We can pull the pin if attacked, but we can’t call that a reasonable long-term defense.

While we use weapons to deter aggression, we need to be working toward brotherhood and understanding. Jesus called on us to love our enemies. That might seem naive and foolish, but Jesus didn’t speak nonsense. Jesus spoke truth, and he said that the truth would make us free.

God calls us to speak a hard word about nuclear weapons. We occasionally meet people who speak glibly about using nuclear weapons. “Nuke them into the stone age,” is their easy answer to every problem.

God calls us to challenge such people. That can be dangerous, but it is important. When a person tells lies, he listens to hear whether he is challenged. If not, he begins to believe that he has told the truth. We need to be there to tell him that it isn’t so.

God called Jeremiah to speak out against the evils of his day. Jeremiah was faithful to that call, and was arrested. He asked for trouble, and he got it. He complained to God:

“I am become a laughing-stock all the day,
every one mocks me….

The word of Yahweh is made a reproach to me,
and a derision, all the day” (20:7-8).

But that isn’t the end of his story. Note, please, that it isn’t the end of his story. Those whom God calls, he also justifies. Jeremiah went on to say:

But Yahweh is with me as an awesome mighty one:
therefore my persecutors shall stumble,
and they shall not prevail” (20:11).

God always has the last word. It is the empty tomb rather than the cross that closes the chapter. God calls us to a risky faithfulness, but his faithfulness always surpasses our own. Let us serve him confidently.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan