- 2 Timothy 3:10-17
- Jeremiah 23:23-40
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Long before God called Abraham, people worshipped other gods. Although they had names, none ever met them; yet, all worshipped them. They bowed to images of them. Those in charge had the privilege to the secrets regarding these gods. The worshippers took whatever the preachers told them about the god they knew nothing about. Some times the temples were filled with people practising what closely resembles mass orgies. They were filled with wine and were very boisterous.
Was this a church? No, it is a temple of an unknown god.
Then, something extraordinary occurred. A nation conquered that land. They arrived in the Name of the living God who did not tolerate any other god. His people worshipped Him with reverence and awe. His prophets clearly proclaimed his will to the people, and his priests saw to it that the people brought offerings at ordained times and for set festivals. They were joyous occasions. The people came from all over the land with their families, and trumpets would announce certain activities. The people sacrificed the best they had from the ground God provided for them, and for days on end, they would fellowship with joy around the temple. When they returned home, they would sing the praises of the God who revealed Himself in his loving covenant of grace to them.
Was this God’s church? You bet!
But over the years, something strange happened. The people still had their festivals; their offerings at the temple continued, the priests performed their duties, but the holy scrolls which contained the will of this marvellous God were lost. Of the prophets we read:
“Both prophet and priest are godless; even in my temple I find their wickedness,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 23:11, NIV)
The land suffered:
because of the curse the land lies parched and the pastures in the wilderness are withered. (Jeremiah 23:10, NIV)
The people of this unique and magnificent God turned to the surrounding peoples and started to worship according to their practices.
They prophesied by Baal and led my people Israel astray. (Jeremiah 23:13, NIV)
It, of course, helped a lot with the trade with the peoples, and they were accepted by all. On the surface, all seemed to go quite well. Then, these people were violently taken into captivity, and their land was laid bare.
Was this the church of God? No! Yet, it only bore that Name.
True worship revealed
Then, something extraordinary happened: one night, the heavens opened and angels proclaimed the birth of the Messiah. Some people worshipped Him, and others hated Him. Twice, He cleaned the temple. He announced the Word of God with authority and freshness. The sick were healed, demons fell before Him, the blind received sight—but most importantly, He announced the grace of God who forgives and restored sinners. Still, they crucified Him. Then He rose again and appeared to many, teaching them about the Kingdom of God. He commanded those who followed Him to go into all the world to proclaim the Good News of God who calls sinners to him and receive eternal life.
Was this the church of God? You bet!
Worship obscured and powerless
Let’s jump ahead in time—quite a few centuries actually. Worship continued as usual. About every local town had a church building and a priest. The doors were open and the buildings were available every day for prayer—for the sacraments, and for a homily. People were buried from those places, and some got married in them. The places of worship were now filled with statues of people who passed away long ago, and rose windows depicted scenes from Christ, the One who died on Calvary, before which people bowed. There was smokes, bells and whistles and officials dressed in purple and other elegant vestments. Worshippers kneeled, performed some ritual with their hands, mumbled phrases, and received something to eat and drink from the person in charge. At certain times of the day a bell rang, the place had the smell of frankincense, and the worshippers flocked in for the wine and the bread but returned home only to go through the drill next week again. The people were in the dark as to how the One they worship, or his Word, would have an impact on their daily lives. What they were told was that their offerings will contribute to getting their loved ones out of purgatory. The priests hardly had any theological training, some could not read, and the Bible was locked up in the church; it was written in an ancient language no one really could understand it, and members were prohibited from having a copy in their homes.
Was this the church Jesus Christ died for? No!
Then, several centuries later, God wakened the heart of some who were awe-struck by the power of the Word of God. They once again began to proclaim the Word with vigour. It was what God said about His Word:
“Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? (Jeremiah 23:29, NIV)
They were not of the mainline church and some of them indeed ended up in prisons for translating and proclaiming the Good News of Christ. But this movement spread like wildfire. Millions of people turned to Christ, while millions were tortured and hundreds burned at stakes for this faith.
In worship services folk could hear the Bible expounded in their mother tongues, they sang new songs to the glory of God. This true Gospel had a profound effect on governments, schools, universities, aged care, hospitals, missionary organisations, trade, development, discovery, and political and personal freedom. Musicians composed music, choruses sang, it provided artists inspirations to form sculptures, paint paintings and write books. The church of Christ was alive and had a massive influence over culture. The Christian work ethic overshadowed the workplace, fair wages were established, and slavery was abolished.
Was this the church of Christ? Yes!
The truth in decline is the Church in decline
Sadly, this is changing. But before we start pointing fingers at godless governments and secular institutions, we have to put our hands on our chests and have a good look at the church of Christ of which we are part.
On the surface, things are still looking more or less attractive. There are still a lot of cars parked in the parking lots of congregations on Sundays. People even put their money in the plate, they are still buried and they yet get married when they asked for it. People still sing and on average, they still pray.
However, their love for the Lord has waned, they hardly read and study the Bible, they almost fall for every wave of teaching. Churches, where the Bible is faithfully preached and where God is worshipped in reverence and fear, are now almost empty. However, where there is a new revelation, and where people are not called to heartfelt repentance, those congregations bursts their seems. The hordes go to churches where preachers promise their hearers financial and other success. Therapeutic sermons, filled with pop psychology of feel-better talks and promises of self-fulfilment and personal development, are popular.
When the preacher gets up and says, “I had a dream!”, people gather in significant numbers. On the other hand, congregations where ministers are still preaching from the Word only, are looked down upon as traditional and dead. If the music is not loud and filled with cheap, meaningless lyrics, people are not interested. They are drawn to program-driven churches where the leadership has become an enterprise team to introduce new ideas. Elders and deacons are replaced by entrepreneurs and inventive staff. Success is measured in financial prowess, and spiritual growth is measured the number of people who speak in a foreign tongue. One can only weep like a Jeremiah when he saw the spiritual degradation of his day led by blind and ungodly leaders.
My heart within me is broken because of the prophets; all my bones shake. I am like a drunken man, and like a man whom wine has overcome, because of the Lord, and because of His holy words. (Jeremiah 23:9, NKJV)
What happens when a preacher waters down the true teaching of the Bible? First of all, one condones sin.
Also, I have seen a horrible thing in the prophets of Jerusalem: They commit adultery and walk in lies; they also strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns back from his wickedness. (Jeremiah 23:14, NKJV)
For the best part of it, TV-evangelists, with no accountability to any form of oversight, men and women who attract millions of people, have become like the prophets in the time of Jeremiah. Following hotly in their footsteps are the so-called prophets of the New Apostolic Reformation who assigned to themselves the right to serve the church with new visions and revelations. And the Word warns:
Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you. They make you worthless; they speak a vision of their own heart, not from the mouth of the Lord.
Others reject the truth of the Word of God when it comes to matters of sexuality, abortion and euthanasia. Their message is poisonous:
They continually say to those who despise Me, ‘The Lord has said, “You shall have peace” ’; and to everyone who walks according to the dictates of his own heart, they say, ‘No evil shall come upon you.’ ” (Jeremiah 23:16–17, NKJV)
On the other hand, a true prophet of the Lord is the one who bows down to the authority of the Word of God themselves first, and then only dares to enter the pulpit:
But if they had stood in My counsel, and had caused My people to hear My words, then they would have turned them from their evil way and from the evil of their doings. (Jeremiah 23:22, NKJV)
The prophet who has a dream, let him tell a dream; but he who has My word, let him speak My word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat?” says the Lord. (Jeremiah 23:28, NKJV)
Behold, I am against those who prophesy false dreams, says the Lord, and tell them, and cause My people to err by their lies and by their recklessness. Yet I did not send them or command them; therefore they shall not profit these people at all,” says the Lord. (Jeremiah 23:32, NKJV)
It seems our day is not much different from the days of Jeremiah. Instead of Christians reading and studying the Bible to hear the revealed will of God, they go to popular preachers who had a dream and a vision and ask:
‘What is the Lord’s answer?’ or ‘What has the Lord spoken?’ (Jeremiah 23:35, NIV)
And God warns:
Although you claim, ‘This is a message from the Lord,’ this is what the Lord says: You used the words, ‘This is a message from the Lord,’ even though I told you that you must not claim, ‘This is a message from the Lord.’ (Jeremiah 23:38, NIV)
The Old Testament church paid a bitter price for submitting to the false teaching of their false prophets: they lost their temple in spite of the prophets who said it would never happen. They were also taken as slaves into a foreign land, away from the land God gave to them as their Promised Land.
The message is equally essential for us to today: If we don’t take care to adhere to the Word of God only as our only rule for life and faith, our lampstand might be snuffed out. We will lose our voice and the world will trample upon us like salt that has lost its saltiness.
Surely, we live in times, as Paul puts it to Timothy,
People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people. (2 Timothy 3:2–5, NIV)
For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. (2 Timothy 4:3–4, NIV)
The antidote and remedy?
… the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:15–17, NIV)
May God keep us faithful to his Word. May we be able to discern its counterfeit, and may we bow before the authority of the Word only.
Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 20 October 2019