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Not to put too fine a point on things, but the job of the pastor is essentially this, he is 'to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.' We pastors need to be reminded of that from time to time because we are prone to lose sight of what we're supposed to be doing. It's much more snazzy and rewarding to be 'Motivator in chief,' 'program coordinator,' 'business manager,' and 'visionary leader' than preacher of law and gospel.
Of the two essential tasks of the pastoral office, I prefer "comforting the afflicted." I like to preach sermons that are predominately gospel, if not entirely. It makes people feel good about themselves. Whenever anyone asks if they may meet to talk about a problem afflicting them, I'm always ready to be of service. Granted, sometimes the comfort that I have to offer isn't the kind of comfort someone is looking for. But usually, folks know what to expect from a pastor, unless of course the pastor is confused about what it means to be a pastor and thinks he's a psychiatrist or social worker or fix-it man.
'Afflicting the comfortable' may be a part of the job, but frankly, it afflicts me. And so I find myself playing pastor to myself and comforting my affliction by treading lightly. I've convinced myself that my congregation is an unusually holy bunch of people, quite unlike those other tax collectors and sinners. They obviously need to be afflicted. My people just need to be comforted.
And besides, I've never once had a parishioner come to me and ask if I would meet with them for the purpose of afflicting them because they're just too comfortable with their life.
People who are comfortable don't like to be afflicted. We've invested too much to get where we are and be whom we have become to hear that we need to change. We've made too many commitments and come to too many conclusions to risk discovering that the basic assumptions behind them may be all wrong. Who wants to be told that the house, which they are perfectly comfortable in, is built on sand and will inevitably fall, you better move out before it's too late?
As we follow the prophet Jonah through this season of Lent, we see a pastor who is called by God to go to Nineveh, "that great nation and call out against it." Jonah was to go to a FAR AWAY NATION and "afflict the comfortable" because their evil had come up to God. Jonah was to speak against them, SO THAT, they would repent, turn from their evil, and then in their affliction, be comforted with the grace of God by the forgiveness of their sins. As we'll see, Jonah didn't want to "afflict the comfortable." But not for the reasons you mighty think. But you'll have to come on Wednesday night or Thursday morning to find out why Jonah fled from the presence of the Lord.
This morning, our attention is directed to another prophet, the prophet Jeremiah. He is called by God to "afflict the comfortable." But not some far away, pagan nation. Jeremiah was called to speak against God's own people right in Jerusalem, where Jeremiah lived.
I've always felt that it's probably a lot easier to "afflicting the comfortable" in someone else's congregation than your own. A guest preacher from out of town can come into a congregation and really lay it on about tithing, adultery, greed, you name it, and then leave town. But Jeremiah was called to "afflict the comfortable" whom he lived with.
The situation was this. The people of Israel were very comfortable living in their sin and felt no need to repent and turn from their evil. And the reason that they were so comfortable living in their sin was because the clergy refused to "afflict the comfortable." Jeremiah accuses the priests and the prophets in Jerusalem of sugarcoating the truth with these famous words, "They have cured the wound of my people lightly saying, 'Peace, peace,' where there is no peace." (Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11). They were 'comforting the comfortable.' They were using their religion to make them comfortable in their sin.
So, God sent Jeremiah, saying, "Stand in the court of the Lord's house and speak to all the cities of Judah that come to worship in the house of the Lord ALL THE WORDS that I command you to speak to them; DO NOT HOLD BACK A WORD." How tempting it is to hold back that word that people don't want to hear, that word that will surely disturb them, that word that will make them angry with you for speaking it.
But that word must be spoken. Why? So that they may repent, turn from their sin and be saved. "It may be that I may relent of the disaster that I intend to do to them because of their evil deeds." The purpose of the Law is to bring us to the Gospel. The reason that God tells His servants to afflict us in our sin is so that we will repent and turn from our evil ways, and hear the Gospel, the good news that God is dying to relent of the disaster through His grace and mercy by the forgiveness of our sins.
But know this, "Thus says the Lord: If you will not listen to me, to walk in my law that I have set before you, and to listen to the words of my servants the prophets whom I send to you urgently… then I will make this house like Shiloh." (Jer.26:2-6).
A little background here might be helpful. After Israel's 40-year journey through the desert, Joshua led the nation of Israel across the Jordan River into the Promised Land and began to divide Palestine up into parcels for each of the tribes of Israel. As he does so, he established the city of Shiloh as the place where the Tabernacle would be erected in the Promised Land. In other words, Shiloh was the 'holy city' of Israel. The Tabernacle housed the Ark of the Covenant where God was present and all of Israel gathered in Shiloh for the four annual festivals and to make their sacrifices to God.
Skipping over all of the history that follows, what we find by the time we get to 1 Samuel, is that the Philistines, that dreaded arch-enemy of Israel, have invaded and destroyed the city of Shiloh, torn down the Tabernacle and stolen the Ark of the Covenant. In other words, the 'holy city' was destroyed and God was no longer present with His people.
After much time passes, a new king of Israel who's name is David, decided to make Jerusalem the capital of Israel. David recovered the Ark of the Covenant and set it up in the Tabernacle. His son Solomon builds the Temple in Jerusalem and Jerusalem becomes the established 'holy city' of Israel, where God is present with His people. For a while, Israel had faithful pastors like Nathan who were willing to afflict the comfortable – even king David, so that they might repent and be saved.
But by the time we get to the time of Jeremiah, the priests and the prophets were preaching what the people wanted to hear, "Peace, peace, where there is no peace. Curing their wound lightly." And God's people used their religion to remain comfortable in their sin, doing evil in the sight of the Lord.
So Jeremiah is called by God to warn them that if they do not repent and turn from their evil ways, "I will make this house like Shiloh."
"And when Jeremiah had finished speaking ALL that the Lord had commanded him to speak to all the people…" So, how will the congregation respond to Jeremiah's faithful preaching? "Then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying, 'You shall die!' Why have you prophesied in the name of the Lord, saying, 'This house shall be like Shiloh, and this city shall be desolate, without inhabitant?" And the people gathered around Jeremiah in the house of the Lord."
This is why I don't like to 'afflict the comfortable?' The comfortable don't like it when they're afflicted. In the U.S. it's much more civilized. Here, the board of elders have a meeting with the pastor and say something like, 'pastor, things just aren't working out. We think it'd be best if you were to take a call to go someplace else.' But in some countries, Sweden and Canada, if a pastor speaks all the words of the Lord about homosexuality from the pulpit, he can be removed from the clergy roster and put into prison.
So how does Jeremiah respond to this hostility from the congregation? He does what every faithful pastor who has spoken ALL THE WORDS of the Lord should do. He says, "I'm just the messenger. Don't shoot the messenger." "The Lord sent me to prophesy against this house and this city all the words you have heard. Now therefore mend your ways and your deeds, and obey the voice of the Lord your God, and the Lord will relent of the disaster that he has pronounced against you."
If there's one thing that the Lord loves to do it is to "relent from disaster." Some think that God can't relent from disaster because that would mean that God would have to change His mind, and that really challenges their ideas about God. But the truth is, God doesn't change His mind at all when He relents from the disaster He has pronounced against us. That is His will and desire all along. That is why He has given His Word to His prophet to speak to us, especially those words that afflict us.
So the question is, how will Jerusalem respond to the prophet who speaks every Word of God? Will they hear the truth and repent and turn from their evil ways and live? Or will they kill the prophet sent to them?
The final answer to this most critical question is given by Jesus Christ. "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not."
The sad story of our fallen human nature is that we would prefer to remain comfortable in our sin and live the lie rather than be afflicted by the truth, turn from our sin and be saved. The bondage of our sinful nature is such that we are so set in our ways and we reject the word that tells us that our ways are not God's ways.
The prophet Jeremiah spoke every word given to him to speak, "This house shall be like Shiloh." The prophet greater than Jeremiah, Jesus Christ, speaks every word His Father has given Him to speak, "Behold, your house is forsaken."
Jeremiah was not killed for 'afflicting the comfortable.' But Jesus was. The disaster that God promised He would bring against you if you will not repent and turn from your sin – has been brought against Jesus. He was crucified on the cross because "you would not."
The city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70A.D. and the Temple was burned to the ground, not one stone left upon another. It was Shiloh all over again.
But on the 3rd day, God raised up a new Temple. And even the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Jesus Christ is the Temple not built with human hands. He is where God is present with us, and we have His Word that comforts us in our affliction, "I will never leave you nor forsake you."
Jesus is the 'holy city,' where the afflicted are gathered together under His grace as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.
God the Father has cured your wounded by wounding His Son deeply. And so I, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, say, "Peace, peace," where there is real peace for our afflicted soul.