“Then the prophet Jeremiah spoke to Hananiah the prophet in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the Lord, 6 and the prophet Jeremiah said, “Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord make the words that you have prophesied come true, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles. 7 Yet hear now this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. 8 The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. 9 As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes to pass, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”
Probably for our own good, God has made us inclined to a certain degree of gullibility. When a human being is roughing it out in nature, like most people have had to do for most of history, it’s good to take your thoughts and concerns seriously. If the bushes are rustling, it might just be the wind, or it might be a tiger. If you run away from the wind, you’ve wasted a little bit of energy but you’re no worse for wear. But if in that one chance in a thousand it is the tiger and you don’t run away, you’ll be lunch. If you are afraid of the thunder and run indoors because you don’t like the loud crashing, that also protects you from the lightning which really might be dangerous if it zaps you.
This penchant to believe our own thoughts and even our hopes has persisted with us and gets applied in funny ways now. Now we worry that our wrinkles or our balding is making us look old. We want to believe that this cream or that oil will restore our youth. If we have pimples, our ears perk up hearing the commercial for the ointment which promises to take them away. If we worry about having enough money for retirement, we might find ourselves fleeced by some con artist who sets us up in a Ponzi scheme which gives us regular high returns for a little while – and then it collapses. Charlatans and Scheisters of all ages have counted on people believing in their dreams, hoping for the best and then putting their trust in those who promise to make good on those hopes. On the other hand, studies have shown that successful entrepreneurs have an inordinately high trust in their own hopes and ideas. They take risks that others don’t – and sometimes find success that alludes others – because they believe in what’s possible and sometimes they believe in things which, objectively, aren’t really that likely. That’s how companies like Apple get started in a garage and then take over the world.
Last week we mentioned how people in Jeremiah’s time had convinced themselves that the Temple of God worked like a talisman or a good luck charm in their midst. They had been threatened by the Assyrians in times past. Though Samaria and Israel in the north had been overcome, Judah and Jerusalem in the south had been spared. Now the Babylonians were threatening. Well, it was worse than threatening. The Babylonians had already come in once and had deported the king and the upper classes. They set up another man from the line of David as their own chosen king and they demanded tribute be paid. Insult to injury! No one likes taxes! This was as a bad as things had ever gotten, yet people didn’t want to believe that it would get any worse. They were God’s chosen people. They had His temple, His presence and His promises. God would protect them, wouldn’t He?
And there were good signs that things were turning their way. King Nebuchadnezzar’s reign over Babylon looked vulnerable. The subjugated rulers of the territories around Judah also wanted to break free and they thought this was the time to revolt. They sent emissaries to Judah asking if they would join in. Imagine that, an apparently week government in the Middle East and regions rising up in revolt – that sounds like something you just read about in the morning paper or heard on the evening news last night! I guess there’s no news that isn’t old news.
If you remember the sermon from last week, you recall that amid all this wishful thinking, there was Jeremiah, the lone prophetic voice of doom. Last week, we heard about how he had smashed a pot at the city gate to show that the Lord would smash the city because of their sins of idolatry and immorality. You cannot presume to trust God’s promises you refuse to repent. Those who harbor sins in their hearts in opposition to God will not find God on their side. In this week’s reading, Jeremiah was not smashing pottery. This time, he had been walking around with a wooden yolk around his neck as a visible illustration that God had given the whole Middle East into Nebuchadnezzar’s hand. Judah had better not revolt. That would mean rebellion against God. They were to receive their new overloads as the just punishment for their sins and accept their presence as God’s discipline calling them to repentance. Jeremiah’s message seemed offensively unpatriotic. He was telling them that it was not time to fight for their freedom; it was time to turn to God.
That message was hard for people to hear. It was even harder to accept because other prophets were telling people what they did want to hear: that Babylon’s time was up, it was time to break free, God was going to bring back the good old days. Hananiah was such a prophet. Appropriately, his name means “God is gracious,” but he presumed on God’s grace even when God was about to bring judgment. Hananiah came up to Jeremiah while he was wearing his wooden yoke and he broke it up, saying that the servitude to Babylon was coming to an end. Days of peace and happiness were on their way.
Jeremiah’s response is what we have in our lesson today. He doesn’t get angry. He just says, “Amen, Brother! God grant that all the good things you’re saying may come true.” You see, Jeremiah really does want blessing for the people. But he notes that the true message will have to be proven as events unfold. If peace comes, then everyone will know that Hananiah was right. If not, then it was Jeremiah who was truly sent by God. And by the way, he says, the prophets of times past spoke of coming destruction, not coming peace. In a way, Jeremiah is referring to the Bible to show which message was true. They didn’t have a full Bible in those days, but they had the Word of God, some of written, some of it just remembered. Jeremiah puts Hananiah’s message up to the revealed Word of God and finds that it’s strange. It doesn’t quite fit; in fact, it’s the exact opposite of everything that was said before. The people may want to believe Hananiah’s message of hope is the Word of God, but there is no other Word of God to confirm it.
This is what we must do, too, when we hear different preachers or teachers. We shouldn’t just believe what we hope is right. We must compare them against God’s Holy Word. That requires us to know the Word of God for ourselves. Every Sunday from pulpits across the country, every day on the radio and over the television and now through the internet, people are speaking in the name of God. And just as Hananiah was called a prophet as much as Jeremiah, these other speakers are also called pastor, missionary, seminary professor, expert in early Christianity and doctor of theology. We’ll find ourselves quickly confused if we simply follow whatever anyone says in the name of God. We must follow the Word for ourselves. Others may help us in that, but teachers and pastors can never replace following the Word for ourselves. The Word alone has the right to judge all teaching and preaching for us.
But Jeremiah adds one more point to test the authenticity of a supposed word from God. He says: “As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes to pass, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet” (Jer. 28:9). Now, why would that be true? Well, first it’s easy for anyone to preach a positive message of peace and gather happy crowds to themselves. Their message will be popular; they’ll be giving people what they want to hear. Entire media empires of popular preachers have been built upon this principle. No one has to hear about sin. No one is challenged with the standard of righteousness. Repentance need not be mentioned. It’s all just happy talk of God wanting your best life for you now and you just daring to believe that everything will be wonderful once you believe it strongly enough.
The other reason why the prophet who proclaims peace is proved by events is that only God can bring true and lasting peace. If peace is proclaimed and peace comes then that is the work of God and God alone. Without God, there will be no true peace. With God, peace which passes all understanding can persist even amid difficulties and trials.
There is a prophet, or more accurately, a Savior, who really did come to preach real peace. When the sinful woman was washing Jesus’ feet with her repentant tears and drying them with her hair, Jesus told her, “Your sins are forgiven…go in peace” (Lk 7:49-50). When the woman with a discharge of blood received her healing by touching Jesus’ robes, He told her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace” (Luke 8:48). The first word of the risen Lord to His fearful disciples was “peace be with you.” Jesus can predict peace because Jesus gives peace. He makes peace by His cross. He doesn’t give us peace without repentance like Hananiah had imagined, but when we turn from our sins we find our peace in Him. Ours is now the peace of sins forgiven and reconciliation with God the Father. The Scriptures themselves foretold Him – the coming Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). Now when Satan accuses us of our sins, we can silence him in the name of Jesus. We have peace in Him. Even if the way of discipleship is fraught with conflicts in this world, as the Gospel lesson foretold, peace can be ours in the presence of our Savior. Even as death comes knocking, Christians can depart in peace, knowing that they are just passing through a portal into the loving embrace of their Savior. Even on that dread day when the Lord returns as judge with all His angels and fire will consume the earth and all the nations will be arrayed before Him to give an accounting of their deeds, we will have peace. The Lord has foretold it. He has bought it with His blood. He has sealed it with His resurrection. He has guaranteed it with the gift of His Spirit. The Lord Jesus has been sent from God for this very purpose: to establish and deliver on the message of eternal peace. And so the words of our worship dare to speak of peace. Because of Jesus, I say, “Peace be with you” and you answer, “And also with you.” We can speak of peace because Jesus, our Peacemaker, has come and stands among us, our crucified and risen Lord. In the end, under His rule and according to His Word, “The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:7-9). And that is Jesus’ message of peace—a message we can, and should, believe in.