Sermon series: The Person God Uses
Walter Payton played thirteen years as a running for the Chicago Bears back. During his career he rushed for 16,726 yards. That's more than nine miles. What makes that figure even more spectacular? He achieved it with someone knocking him down every 4.6 yards.
I. A man who persevered
Jeremiah, too, kept getting knocked down.
Jeremiah had faithfully proclaimed God's message of coming destruction to Judah for forty years. Now all his warnings and predictions were coming true. Babylon had laid siege to Jerusalem. The fall of the city was imminent. You would think after proclaiming a message that was being fulfilled before their very eyes the people would start to believe Jeremiah. But Jeremiah's message only hardened the hearts of the people. They kept taking shots at him, knocking him down, beating him, leaving him for dead. But Jeremiah kept getting back up. He prevailed despite suffering to be faithful to God's orders. Jeremiah persevered in obedience.
A. Jeremiah was arrested for deserting to the enemy
First, we find Jeremiah leaving Jerusalem during a withdrawal of Babylonian forces. He was going "to the land of Benjamin to claim his portion there among the people" (Jer. 37:12). The meaning of that statement is uncertain. It may relate to the field he had purchased (32:1-15). Nevertheless, a guard saw him leaving, arrested him, and charged him as a traitor defecting to the enemy. Such an accusation angered Jeremiah. He had been loyal to his country. He had stood strong and voiced truth. He longed for his countrymen to turn to God. They refused, preferring the darkness to light.
They brought him to the city officials where they beat and imprisoned him. He stayed there for several days. King Zedekiah sent for him to see if God had a word for Israel. The emaciated servant of God confronted the weak, vacillating king: "There is. You will be handed over to the king of Babylon" (Jer. 37:17).
Considering his circumstances, it would have been easy for Jeremiah to give in and give up, to just stay down. Jeremiah would not. He got back up, boldly proclaiming the truth.
B. Jeremiah was accused of demoralizing the army
Next, we find Jeremiah accused of demoralizing the army. After all, he proclaimed defeat, destruction, and devastation - not really the words of a pep talk before the big game. His words discouraged the soldiers who were left to defend the city. The officials wanted the king to kill Jeremiah. The king, weak and cowardly, refused to do anything to Jeremiah or the officials making the charge. "So they [the officials] took Jeremiah and dropped him into the cistern of Malchiah . . . There was no water in the cistern, only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud" (Jer. 38:6).
Jeremiah's message was not popular, and neither was he. The people wanted a sermon of mercy and not of justice. They wanted a God who would wink at their sin, not a God who would punish their sin. Jeremiah spoke the truth.
The truth is painful to deliver and painful to receive. It causes people to want to pounce on the truth-bearer. It angered the officials so that they wanted Jeremiah put to death. The king refused to kill Jeremiah, so the officials did the next best thing. They lowered Jeremiah into an empty cistern - another imprisonment, another knockdown. Cisterns were dug out of rock, had a small opening, and spread out at the bottom in a pear shape. They were used to collect precious water during the rainy season to be used during the dry season. Escape from a cistern was virtually impossible. Here was Jeremiah sinking in the mud - a slow, filthy way to die, especially for someone who had been faithful and obedient in proclaiming the truth.
C. Jeremiah was asked to deliver the message to the king
After Jeremiah's rescue from the cistern, the king sent for him. The king wanted to hear from the prophet again. He asked Jeremiah to be honest, not withholding any information. He was hoping against hope that Jeremiah's prophecy would be more favorable, that Jerusalem would be spared. Jeremiah replied: "If I tell you, you will kill me, won't you? Besides, if I give you advice, you won't listen to me anyway" (Jer. 38:15). The king promised his protection. Jeremiah told the king that if he surrendered to the Babylonian king, he, the city, and his family would be spared. But if he did not surrender, the city will be burned down and they all would perish.
Jeremiah hid nothing from the king. He ran his race with integrity. He carried the ball without fumbling. And, look at what he got in return: beatings, imprisonment, a polluted cistern, and death threats. He got knocked down again and again. The truth costs. It hurts.
Jeremiah's story reminds us of Jesus' story. He, too, was a prophet. He once said, "I assure you: No prophet is accepted in his hometown" (Luke 4:24). Though popular at first, he saw the tide of public opinion turn against him. He proclaimed a message of grace and justice. He was not accepted by all. He encountered death threats. He was misunderstood. He was called names. He was knocked down again and again. He, too, walked the way of the cross, though He did not desire the horrors associated with it.
Obedience, however, drove him to subject himself to the will of the Father, to bear the truth. His obedience was put to the ultimate test and he perfectly met it. He, too, ran for glory and won.
II. The means to persevere
What does it mean to persevere in obedience?
A. Stand by your convictions
Throughout Jeremiah's ordeal, he stood by his convictions, speaking the truth of God's will. He was "an iron pillar, and bronze walls" (Jer. 1:18). He was a man of unfaltering conviction. Jesus, likewise, would not be distracted from his mission "to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10).
A person with convictions knows what he believes, where he is going, and why. Convictions are not forced on an individual. They are beliefs and actions of choice. They are the truth, the mission, and the calling given by God that is not altered by time, people, opinions, or circumstances.
Francis Kelley wrote, "Convictions are the mainsprings of action, the driving powers of life. What a man lives are his convictions." Martin Luther King, Jr. often told his children, "If a man has nothing that is worth dying for, he is not fit to live."
"Chariots of Fire" is the inspiring story of Eric Liddell. During the 1924 Olympics where Liddell was planned to compete, his event was schedule on Sunday, which violated his conviction: "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" (Exodus 20:8). He had trained for this event, but his Olympic hopes crumbled.
He held to his conviction, not competing in that race, but he entered another event. He had not prepared for it, but was allowed to run in it. Victory looked impossible. Then, just before the race, one of his opponents put a note in Eric's hand: "He who honors Me, I will honor." Eric ran in faith. His convictions were unbroken. He honored God, and God blessed him. Eric Liddell won the gold medal.
Each day will challenge our convictions. The person who perseveres in obedience lives by those convictions each day.
B. Make the right choices
People who persevere chose not to stay down. They get up. The choices we made yesterday affect our today. The decisions we make today will determine our tomorrow. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, "We are our choices."
Obedience is always a choice. No one forces us to obey God, his Word, or his will. It boils down to a choice we make each day - a choice to be faithful or not, to be loving or not, to be available or not, to be willing or not.
The choices that determine our obedience are the ones regarding honesty, integrity, and sincerity: The husband who remains faithful and loyal to his wife; the athlete who refuses to take stimulants or drugs to improve performance; the student who "cracks the books" rather than opting for the easy road of "crib sheets" or paying someone to write a term paper; the salesman who does not pad his expense account to defray an unexpected cost.
Doug Sherman and William Hendricks in their book, How To Succeed Where It Really Counts, tell about two friends who owned an extremely profitable business. They put it up for sale, and gave their word that, pending a few details, they would sell to a particular buyer. They made their decision on a Friday. However, over the weekend they received another offer that would have netted them an enormously higher profit.
Unsure of what they should do, they spent the rest of the weekend praying with their wives. By Sunday night they all agreed that their word must be their bond. On Monday morning, they called the second buyer and turned down his better offer. They made their decision, not based on dollars, but on obedience to right living.
C. Maintain personal character
Jeremiah maintained his character, standing on the truth of God's Word in the midst of people preaching a different message. His character remained intact.
The most pressing need in our world today is Christ-like character. Unfortunately this trait is in short supply and diminishing every day. Gail Sheehy in her book, Character: America's Search for Leadership, writes, "The root of the word character is the Greek word for engraving. As applied to human beings, it refers to the enduring marks left by life that set one apart as an individual." In other words, character is that encompassing ingredient in life that makes us different.
D. Refuse to compromise
Granted, there are circumstances that call for compromise to maintain peace and harmony. But one should not compromise the truth. Jeremiah did not compromise with Irijah, the sentry who arrested him, charging him with desertion. Nor with the officials who wanted Jeremiah to soften his message to one of peace and prosperity. Nor with King Zedekiah, who longed for Jeremiah to agree with his hired prophets who said that Judah would prevail.
Christian history is filled with inspiring stories featuring people of principle - those who are immortalized for refusing to compromise their beliefs. In 1660, England's experiment as a Republic came to an abrupt end with the return to monarchist rule under Charles II. With this change, religious freedom also ended and Anglicanism was once again designated as the official state religion. It became illegal to conduct church services outside of the Church of England. Unlicensed individuals were forbidden from addressing a religious gathering.
Under these new laws, John Bunyan was arrested for preaching without a license. His growing popularity, though, prompted the judge to seek some sort of a compromise. Promising Bunyan immediate release if he only promised not to preach again, the judge's leniency was met with the reply, "If you release me today, I shall preach tomorrow!"
Three times in his life Bunyan was arrested, convicted, and jailed for preaching the gospel without a license. In the end, he spent over twelve years in prison. At any time during those years he could have secured his freedom by simply promising not to preach. But Bunyan knew God's calling on his life, and so he adamantly refused to compromise his convictions.
Those prison years were certainly not wasted. It was during this time that Bunyan wrote the book Pilgrim's Progress. Its immediate success and ongoing popularity has made it a Christian classic, the second most read book in English literature next to the Bible.
Today Christians around the world still languish in prison because they will not compromise their faith and give in to government suggestions for release. Christians in Laos are accused of following an "American" religion and would be released from prison and left in peace if they would sign a document recanting their commitment to Christ. Most refuse. Christians in "shipping container" prisons in Eritrea would be released if they also signed such a document but prefer to suffer indefinitely for the cause of Christ than deny Him.
Compromise is not always bad, but when it comes to issues of faith, we are expected to stand for Christ and his kingdom principles.
In the end, after you have been knocked down repeatedly, what will you do? After you have run your race, what will be your legacy? What will your epitaph say?