When reading through the entire Bible, the place I always get bogged down is in Isaiah and Jeremiah, and never really get to the rest of the prophets. Recently, when it was getting hard to keep up with all the reading through transitioning jobs and buying a home, I decided to put off the “tougher” section of the prophets and finish the other portions of my reading plan first.
Now that I only have the prophets left and I have “more time,” My goal is to make it all the way through. So, this morning I picked back up in Jeremiah 12. (I had already made it through Isaiah, praise the Lord!)
While I am not technically a pastor (yet) I have functioned as one who leads and watched over people in the context of campus ministry and now within our church. I teach and disciple young men who aspire to pastor and lead people in the Church. So, what I read this morning was like a splash of cold water.
Waking Up to Words of Warning:
In chapter 12, Jeremiah is complaining to God about how hard ministry is for him. Rightfully, so, as people were seeking his life for speaking the truth that God had given him to speak! But, in his complaint, he seemed to act as if God did not understand what it was like to suffer and that it didn’t seem fair that the wicked would prosper. He says this in verse 2-3:
“You plant them, and they take root; they grow and produce fruit; you are near in their mouth and far from their heart. But you, O LORD, know me; you see me and my heart toward you, Pull them out like sheep for the slaughter, and set them apart for the day of slaughter.”
That shook me awake for two reasons:
1) In ministry, how often I have struggled with (and seen others struggle with) having the name of Jesus near on my lips, and yet He is far from my heart. I teach and and proclaim Jesus and the Bible, but almost as if a commodity or a market that I need to know well so that I can prosper as a minister. There is a tension between actually caring and then doing a “job.” It is an ugly thing to see in yourself. When I read about Jeremiah holding these people up to God as examples of hypocrites who use the prosperity God gives them for personal gain (through reputation, etc.), I find it helpful to see “if there be any hurtful way in me” like this.
2) After holding that up to God, Jeremiah rightly wonders how long God will allow this because it causes Jeremiah suffering. He then tells God of his own righteousness. He seems to be saying, “These people are terrible hypocrites but you know me and I am not like them, so why won’t you do anything about this yet!?”
Once again, there is truth here. The desire for God to justly deal with people who profane His name and His people is a good desire, but Jeremiah seems impatient and seems to think he knows a better way and plan that God Himself. That comes out in the desire to compare and contrast himself with those other people. From what we read in Jeremiah, we know that Jeremiah was not one who had God “near in his mouth but far from his heart.” So, while he is right, it still gives me pause. It brings to mind how Job questions God and how he and Jeremiah act as if their better position before God gives them the right to question God’s timing of justice.
Anyone see themselves in that?
What Scared Me and Broke My Heart:
I kept reading further and what I read, broke my heart in a way that my heart had not been broken before. I actually felt God’s pain over his people. God responds to Jeremiah something essentially like, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” He is angry at His people’s idolatry and uses words like hate, forsake, and abandon. Hard words that don’t get much airplay on the radio or pulpit.
Then in verse 10, I read what broke my heart:
“Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard; they have trampled down my portion; they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness.”
The very people that should know better and know the LORD the best, the leaders and spiritual shepherds of the nation, have instead “destroyed” His people by leading them astray!
This SCARED me. As I mentioned above, as one who serves and has served a shepherd-like function in ministry, and as one who aspires to that leadership role, the thought of leading God’s people astray, and so breaking His heart, sobered me up. As in verse 2 above, how easy it is to play the ministry game and talk a bunch of Jesus but not from my heart. Those type of people are hypocrites, break God’s heart, hurt His people and (keep reading in Jeremiah) incur God’s rightful and just judgment. He says in verse 13:
“They have sown wheat and reaped thorns; they have tired themselves out but profit nothing. They shall be ashamed of their harvests because of the fierce anger of the LORD.”
Two more things stood out to me:
1) “They tire themselves out but profit nothing.”
Whether this in context of agricultural harvesting of the land, or the moral and spiritual harvest, the truth remains the same. If you sow the wrong things, you will tire yourself out and profit nothing. Jesus put it like this, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” Those of you who have labored in ministry for any length of time will know that there are seasons where this seems to happen. There is a temptation to be the best teacher, or discipler, or blogger, or become famous, or write the best book, or have the biggest impact, or have the most conversions or best stories, or have your little corner of the world singing your praises rather than the praises of God.
2) “They shall be ashamed of their harvests..”
Will I look back at my years in ministry and be ashamed? Will I see true fruit in my life and the life of those I have led and shepherded? Will I see a bunch of activity “for Jesus” and hear a bunch of praises that really are hollow? Will I look back and say, “Look what I did” and so try to steal glory from God? Will I build the church or a person but on the pillar of me and not Jesus? I hope not.
Resting on Words of Warning:
These words of warning were meant for a specific people in a specific place in a specific time, but the lesson behind them is timeless:
God is gracious and right in his timing and patience to deal justice. His words of warning serve as the slap in the face we need to examine our hearts, see the twisted, evil things in them and so turn away from them back to God. The hard words in the prophets are not to be avoided, but instead pursued and cherished. There will come a time where there is no more warning. May we all learn the lesson of Jeremiah, but particularly those of us who think ourselves leaders in ministry, lest we hear the LORD say “You trampled me people. All of your labor was in vain and profits nothing.”
May we listen to the rebuke of God and find rest in His grace to relentlessly change us from ones who would trample his temple to ones who serve with gladness and joy.