Here is the sermon of Dr. Karl Böhmer on words from the prophet Jeremiah 23:16-29 as preached during morning prayer on the first day of the 3rd Quarter 2016 in the chapel of St. Timothy at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Tshwane (Pretoria, South Africa)
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ(Eph 1,2). Amen.
Every Christian wants a good preacher. Every congregation wants a good preacher. But how do you recognize a good preacher? Through the media and our transport possibilities, we encounter many preachers. We can go to any one of the numerous churches that dot this city and province, we have free religion channels on TV, we have politicians who’ve turned into pastors and pastors who’ve turned into politicians, we have Radio Pulpit and we have magazines and we have the internet, not to mention the variety of different pastors and theologians who fill this pulpit on a regular basis. We come across many preachers. So how do you recognize a good one? Is it he who tells the best stories? Is it he who prepares the most? Is it he who prepares the least? Is it he who speaks with the most authority, he who tells the most jokes, is it he who has the most experience?
Allow me to share with you some of the temptations every preacher faces in preparing his sermon. The temptation to tell the people what they want to hear, to rouse them, to impress them. The temptation to dodge the uncomfortable things, the sore points, the touchy subjects about which God has something to say to His people. The temptation for the pastor to put himself in the spotlight or the hearers in the spotlight and not Christ. The temptation for the pastor to speak his own ideas, his own thoughts, his own agenda. The temptation for one pastor to rely on his preparation and for another to rely on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the last minute. These are the weekly temptations for preachers. How hard it is to resist them! How easy to tell the people what they want to hear. It makes for great popularity.
What people want hasn’t changed much over the centuries. It’s the same today as it was in the time of Jeremiah. The people at the time lived with a sword hanging over their heads. They found themselves sandwiched in between the big superpower nations of their time who were glaring at each other; it was a time of mounting tension, a time of threats of terror and increasing crime and threats of war. And who were the popular preachers of the day? They were those preachers who stood up and said: ‘Do not be afraid! There will be no war. The Lord says: You will have peace.’ They were those preachers who stood up and said to the powerful and influential people of the day: ‘Do not be afraid! You’re doing fine. Keep it up. God loves successful politicians. That Breitling watch is proof of God’s favor. That presidential residence is proof that God loves you and will keep you in power until Jesus comes back.’ They were those preachers who stood up and said to everyone who was doing his own thing: ‘Relax. The Lord is tolerant. Go ahead. Try out different options. No harm will come to you.’ They were the popular preachers of the day. They were considered good preachers.
And Jeremiah? Do you think Jeremiah was a popular preacher? Listen how he complains: O Lord, you deceived me, and I was deceived…I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long. But if I say, “I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. (20,7f) No popular preacher this. As much as Jeremiah resisted the Lord, shutting up was ever worse; he had to go and preach. But Jeremiah hated his calling, and the people hated his preaching. Because the Lord made Jeremiah pray for thankless people. Because Jeremiah had to preach uncomfortable things. Because Jeremiah had to preach on unpopular subjects and tell the people the last thing they wanted to hear, which was this: ‘There will be no peace. You will come to harm. There will be war, and this nation will be flattened. You did not want to listen to the Lord, you did not want to turn back to Him, you act in wickedness and refuse to give it up; you have brought it on yourselves, as God promised: You will be destroyed.’ Why was Jeremiah such an unpopular preacher, why did he even try to resist preaching God’s Word, why did the people hate what he had to say? Simply because of this: Because God’s Word goes against our grain. Because God’s Word does not tell us what we want to hear. Because God’s Word goes into our ear like a moth that cannot get out: It makes a racket, it is uncomfortable, and it rubs us up the wrong way.
How do you recognize a good preacher? Well, who are the popular preachers today? They are those preachers who stand up and say, ‘God has a message for you. Let me tell you what it is. God wants you to be happy and successful, rich and secure. If you aren’t, you’re doing it wrong. Think positive; forget all this talk about sin.’ They are those preachers who stand up and say, ‘God is a God of love and tolerance. Many ways lead to him. Let the Jew worship Him as a Jew, the Muslim as a Muslim, the Hindu as a Hindu, the ancestor-venerating animist the way he’s always done it. Let us unite with those who believe different – it’s all good.’ They are those preachers who stand up and say, ‘You have freedom of choice. Make a good choice. As long as you do more good than bad, you’ll be fine.’ They are the popular preachers of the day. They are considered good preachers.
But which of them has stood in the council of the Lord to see or to hear his word? Who has listened and heard his word? … I did not send these prophets, yet they have run with their message; I did not speak to them, yet they have prophesied. But if they had stood in my council, they would have proclaimed my words to my people and would have turned them from their evil ways and from their evil deeds. Instead, the false prophets encouraged people to carry on, they proclaimed their own dreams and sought popularity by deceiving the people with smooth preaching that went down like sugar and honey. The Lord’s punishment for those who deceive and for those who are deceived is the deception itself. How do you recognize a good prophet? The best answer is the one the Lord gave:You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?” If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lordhas not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously (Dt 18,21f). And the next best answer is: Whom does the prophet honor? When people come home, do they talk about Jesus or about prophet Bushiri? Jeremiah has to tell the people that what God had long told His people would come if they broke the covenant was about to strike them: See, the storm of the Lord will burst out in wrath, a whirlwind swirling down on the heads of the wicked. The anger of the Lord will not turn back until he fully accomplishes the purposes of his heart. In days to come you will understand it clearly. What the false prophets said was not in keeping with God’s Word, and it did not happen; what Jeremiah said came to pass exactly as prophesied, and so it is that we know he was a prophet from God.
And so it is that we see something about true preaching. God does not contradict His Word. He is not sometimes a God of war, a God of the OT, and then sometimes a God of love, a God of the NT; no, He is one and the same. And His Word is always first Law, then Gospel. To sinners who are secure in their sin and hardened in their hearts, God always announces Law. And His Law says: ‘Repent! Turn back from your sinfulness! You are not ok, you are not doing fine, there is reason to be afraid.’ As unpopular and as sobering as that is, it is the Word of God. But to sinners who are repentant in their hearts, who are sorry for their sin and turn to Him, God always announces Gospel. And His Gospel says: ‘There is a way out. Trust in my promises. I have provided the one way out: It is my son, Jesus Christ. He is the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through him (Jn 14,6) – through Christ, because he paid your bill and signed it with his blood, and through him you do come to the Father. God breaks down falsehood and deception, so that He can build you up Himself, through His Word, His grace, through Christ alone. And to those who repent and believe in Christ, God gives eternal life, forgiveness of sins, and blessing.
How do you recognize a good preacher? It is simply he who preaches God’s Word in truth and purity. Who honors the crucified Christ, not himself. He who is nothing while God’s Word is everything. He who preaches the Word in season and out of season – when it is popular, and when it is not; when people gladly hear it, and when they do not; when people like what he says, and when they do not. The preacher who corrects, rebukes, encourages and does not give in to the temptation to preach what itching ears want to hear, even if it brings him hardship. At the end of the day, it is not just the preacher whom you discern and evaluate, but his preaching. And here’s the good news: Those who are rooted in the Word of God can distinguish what is God’s Word from what is empty fluff and puffed-up flattery. “For what has straw to do with grain?” declares the Lord. “Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” It is God’s Word that sears the proud heart like a raging fire, it is God’s Word that smashes it to pieces like a hammer on the anvil, it is God’s Word that builds up and establishes the Christian on the path of righteousness. It is God’s Word that makes the preacher, it is God’s Word and nothing else that makes his preaching good. That is how you recognize a preacher: By the Word of God that goes against the grain, that directs you to a sobering realization of your natural sinful state, that leads you to repentance, faith and everlasting life in Christ, so that you love your neighbor in Christ-like love – because in Christ the Word was made flesh and came among us. To preach Christ is the struggle of every faithful preacher; to recognize that and allow for it and pray for it and live it is the duty of every faithful hearer. God grant us all the mind of Christ. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
Pastor Karl Böhmer