Jeremiah 26:8-15, Philippians 3:17-4:1, and Luke 13:31-35
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Jeremiah prophesies against a city that doesn’t care to hear him, a city that would sooner kill him than listen. Paul cries tears when he warns the Philippians not fill their bellies but to set their minds on what’s above. Jesus laments over a Jerusalem that kills prophets and stones messengers.
In all three readings, these faithful kinds of people all have to speak hard words to the people of God, and frankly, after the readings are read, it is difficult to respond with “Thanks be to God.”
I’d invite you to keep in your mind a person or two that you are in conflict with, someone to whom you have to speak hard words, or someone that you’ve let down.
Because the question for today is, how does the Christian speak hard words when they need to be spoken? How do you avoid, on the one hand, being a marshmallow that never deals with conflict and, on the other hand, being a hard-nose that always burns your bridges? How do you speak truth, but speak it in love? Three parts today, from the three readings, with three don’ts and three dos.
First don’t: speaking hard truths, it doesn’t come from a place of satisfaction. It’s not about sticking the knife in further and watching them squirm. That’s why the officials of Judah charged Jeremiah. They assumed his motives. They thought he was speaking from a place of satisfaction. They thought his personal agenda was getting in the way of his judgment, and they respond accordingly.
And that’s pretty easy to do. I was thinking just the other day: After a long day at work, with my bouncing baby boy Benjamin Button a little bit fussy, and Laura came home a little bit later than I expected, and the whole day had put me out of sorts. Now, instead of putting on my big boy pants and admitting that I was out of sorts, my first inclination was instead to make her pay, to ignore her, to let her stew and guess at what I was mad at. To just make her feel bad before I tell her what’s wrong. Who does that? Now, when I eventually came around and asked for her forgiveness, but the point is....
That’s not the way to speak a hard truth. Instead, notice Jeremiah’s response: “The Lord sent me to prophesy. Turn from your deeds, mend your ways, obey the voice of the Lord. Turn and the Lord will relent.” Now, notice what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, “Turn and maybe the Lord will string you along for a while and then forgive you.” He doesn’t say, “Turn and guess what I’m mad at.”
The intention when the Lord speaks hard words is repentance, and when that end was achieved, immediately the Lord comes with goodness and mercy. Immediately his wrath is ended and his love shows. Luther calls this “the over-burning love of God,” that he would love us enough to tell us when we stray, and love us enough that when we repent he is there with forgiveness.
More often than not, married couples going through hard times have great difficulty with this. They have been at conflict for so long that the expectation of repentance is that it’s total and incredible. You have to be perfect in absolutely every way before I will begin to think about forgiveness. You have no room to make mistakes. You’ve got to prove yourself each and every day until I decide you’re ok. Thank God that he doesn’t work that way. He is absolutely quick to let forgiveness flow. The angels in heaven rejoice to see another sinner stumble his way through confession and hear what God has already done.
Second don’t: speaking hard truths, it doesn’t come from a place of retribution. It isn’t an eye for an eye. It isn’t about taking what’s owed and then just leaving you alone, right?
I mean, could you see Paul doing that in our text from Philippians? Saying, just stop setting your mind on earthly things, remember your citizenship is heaven, and then I’ll leave you well enough alone. Do that and you can go your way and I can go mine.
He doesn’t say that. He says, “Join in! Imitate me and walk with me and gather around with others and stand firm, because you are my brothers, and you are beloved.” The Christian does himself a disservice when he fails to recognize all the kinds of people that walk with him on the path of life. The Christian does himself a disservice when he doesn’t see the great depth and width of different stories contained in even our little church, even here in our little town. The Christian does himself a disservice when he assumes that conflict is just about giving back what’s owed, because conflict is first about restoring relationships.
And here’s the point: Paul sorrows over their sin. With tears in his eyes he writes about how they walked as enemies of the cross of Christ. With tears in his eyes he sorrows and suffers over their sin, even if they wouldn’t sorrow or suffer with him. With tears in his eyes, he would face their shame, their destruction, even if they wouldn’t for themselves. Are you willing to suffer for someone, so that you can do what’s right for them?
Third, speaking hard truths: It doesn’t come from a place of self-righteousness. It’s not about saying, “I’m better than you, and you should come crawling back.” Out of all of us, Jesus would have the most reason to say this. As perfect Son of God, he could say you better come to me. But he doesn’t. You see it in what Jesus say, O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets. Nevertheless, I will go to you. I will gather you. I will finish my course.
No, when the righteous one comes among us, you can see how he acts. Christ looks your sin full on in the face, and he doesn't flinch. Righteousness incarnate runs after all kinds of people that don’t deserve him to run after them. Righteousness Incarnate longs to gather together under his wings those who would scream “Crucify him, Crucify him!”
And here’s the point: Jesus Christ looks to do what a person needs, even if we would fight him on it. His love is absolutely relentless and his grace is overwhelming. His path for you led to the cross, and it led through the grave, so that he could bring to you what you were too dead in your own trespasses to long for – salvation. And all who would follow after him look to do what a person needs, not what they want, not what you want them to want, but what a person needs.
It isn’t the Christian’s calling to avoid conflict or eschew sin. It is our calling to see the places where sin wreaks havoc, and then do all that we can to bring the healing power of the Gospel to bear. That’s our aim, our every hope, in every situation, with every person, that we would see Christ gather all of us sinners like a hen gathers her chicks, that we would love and long for the reconciliation of our brethren, and that whether or not God calls us to speak like Jeremiah, we would know the power that the Gospel brings to bear.
In conclusion, we see three questions to ask in our texts, three questions that shed light on how Christians deal with conflict. First, “Am I eager to forgive as Christ has forgiven me?” Second, “Am I willing to suffer with them for what they need, just as Christ suffered on my behalf?” Third, “Am I seeking this person’s good as Christ has sought mine?”
Christians follow after Christ, and we stand in a long line of faithful men and women who spoke truth in love, no matter what the consequences, because we know the end of the story. Amen and Amen.
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