Peace Where There is None
Passage: Jeremiah 8:18– 9:11
One of the most famous legends in history is the story of the Trojan horse. The giant wooden horse statue left at the gates of Troy by the Greek army, designed to look like a peace offering to the goddess Athena. Athena had a temple in Troy that the Greeks had desecrated at one point during the war, and the horse they left had an inscription on it indicating it was intended to atone for their prior sins so that Athena would give them a peaceful journey home. The Trojans wanted peace so badly they assumed it was true and didn't bother to inspect the horse. Of course the statue was filled with Greek soldiers who waited until the Trojans had drunk themselves silly celebrating the supposed peace treatise, at which point they got out and killed them all and captured the city.
One of the most famous lies ever told was when the Greeks told the Trojans there was peace where there was none. This was the same lie told to Israel by false prophets leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Israelite exile in 587. The same lie, with the same result of a city destroyed while they foolishly thought they were at peace. Both our passage today and the book of Lamentations were written by the Prophet Jeremiah to grieve over the destruction of Jerusalem. There are numerous parallels between the book and this chapter, to the point where this chapter could almost be seen as a summary of Lamentations. Lamentations says this about the false prophets: 14 aYour prophets have seen for you false and deceptive visions; bthey have not exposed your iniquity to crestore your fortunes, dbut have seen for you eoracles that are false and misleading. And at the beginning of chapter 8 in Jeremiah, God says this, “from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. 11 They have healed mthe wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”
God says they dress the wound of his people as if it were not serious. So Israel’s sin has become like this fatal open wound, and the prophets and priests that God gave to them to deal with wounds like this are telling them, “it’s fine. You’re fine. Just go lie down for a bit and you’ll feel better.” But let me give a little more context to why this was so grievous to God. A few years prior, In the book of Hosea, God spoke about Israel, using another name for them, Ephraim, but it’s the same people. And here God is issuing one of many warnings about Israel’s sin through a prophet he had sent to warn them of the destruction that Jeremiah would later lament over in our passage. In Hosea God says, When Israel was a child, vI loved him, and out of Egypt I wcalled xmy son. yThe more they were called, the more they went away; zthey kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols. Yet it was aI who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms, but they did not know that bI healed them.cI led them with cords of kindness,1with the bands of love. Do you see? Moms and dads who have taught your children to walk, holding them by their arms as they take their first steps, do you see? Can you imagine leaving your child with someone, and they hurt themselves badly, as children are prone to do. And the accident leaves them with a horrific open wound. And the person you left to care for them doesn’t clean it out, doesn’t bandage it. They just put them in bed, load them up on tylenol and candy, and say “don’t worry, you’re fine. Just rest.” What would you do to the babysitter when you got home?
But to be clear, Israel wasn’t destroyed just because she had been deceived. She was destroyed because her obstinate unrepentance made her quick to believe false prophets who said the Law of God was nothing to worry about. In other words, “deceived” might be a bit of a strong word in one sense, because she had chosen to believe the prophets she wanted to hear and chosen to kill the prophets she didn’t want to hear. This was all in service to her ongoing pursuit of idolatry and horrific injustice over the course of hundreds of years. God is so angry with the prophets and the priests in Israel because their job was to remind her of her need for repentance, to expose her sin for what it was and teach her to seek healing from the Lord, rather than to allow her to continue in unrepentance. True prophets call God’s people to return to him in repentance. False prophets preach peace where there is none.
But I think this really gets at the heart of the issue in this passage. In fact, I think it gets at the heart of why Jerusalem was destroyed. The real problem wasn’t that the people sinned. It’s that they refused to repent. Destruction doesn’t come from mere sin. It comes from unrepentant sin. And as you read through this text some very clear commonalities begin to emerge that shed light on what unrepentance is and, by extent, what repentance looks like. So here’s what I see when I read this: unrepentance means dying away from the presence of God. Prophetic Ministry Means Living Out Repentance Among the Unrepentant. And repentance means returning to God to be healed. So that’s going to be the message for today. Point 1, Unrepentance means dying away from the presence of God. Point 2, Prophetic Ministry Means Living in Repentance Among the Unrepentant. Point 3: Repentance means returning to God to be healed.
Point 1: Unrepentance Means Dying Away From the Presence of God
Jeremiah’s choice of the wound metaphor for sin is interesting because it highlights that the focus of the grief in this text isn’t that they sinned, but that they did not come to the Lord to be healed of their sin. And this explains God’s particular anger at the priests and the prophets, because Priests and Prophets were literally offices given to address sin in God’s people. He knew they were going to sin. So he gave them laws for what to do when you sin, and people whose jobs it was to know those laws and help the people carry them out when they sinned.
Look at verse 22, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my people not been restored?” This is a rhetorical question. There is balm in Gilead. Gilead was known for producing balms and ointments with remarkable effectiveness. It would be like Jeremiah writing a letter to us at OGC because of our unrepentance and saying, “The Lord asks, ‘is there no medicine at Advent Health? Did all the doctors quit? No? Then why has the health of this church not been restored?” And of course the rhetorical question implies an answer. We would say, “well there are doctors and there is medicine… but they don’t deal with sin..” That’s the genius of mixing the metaphor with the rhetorical question. Because of course there are doctors at Advent Health and of course there is balm in Gilead… but they can’t cure this type of wound. So the real question being asked is, “If you know to go to Gilead when you get physically hurt, why aren’t you coming to me when you get spiritually hurt?” The use of the wound metaphor is so clarifying. Because even if it’s a problem that you got it, and even if you did it to yourself, that’s not the main problem in view. The main problem, the real question isn’t “Why did you get hurt?” It’s “Why aren’t you coming to me for healing?” Listen. God is a Father before he’s a judge. Those aren’t in contradiction, but there is a priority. His Name is Father, it isn’t judge. Both Father and Judge are titles, but only one of them is His Name. And you see that when he looks at his children in their sin. Even more than he sees defendants on trial, he sees his children, whose arms he held while they took their first steps.
People read the minor prophets and they think that the problem is God kept giving Israel a chance to be perfect and they kept slipping from perfection. Like it was a workplace with a “It’s been 0 days since we sinned board” and God eventually got so fed up that they couldn’t string together more than a few years of not sinning. Wrong. That’s dangerously, disturbingly wrong. It’s so wrong because it lies about the heart of God. It misses the whole point. God knew Israel would sin. He even knew they would sin badly. He gave them over two whole books with instructions on what to do when you sin. Most of Leviticus, Exodus, and Deuteronomy are taken up with instructions on what to do when, not if, you sin. Because you will. Ok, you sinned. Now what? Glad you asked. Here’s the process. Get a bull or a lamb, bring it to the temple, kill it. Then once a year, there’s a whole thing with a goat too because you probably sinned and didn’t realize it a few times. So expected is sin, that there are even instructions for performing offerings for sin that happens when you didn’t expect it to. That means the bible expects your sin even more than you do.
No, Jeremiah is not about sin in the simplistic sense. It’s about not repenting. Why. Don’t. You. Repent? Why don’t you come back to me? When people fall down they get back up, why don’t you? When people realize they have taken a wrong turn, they turn around. Why don’t you? Birds know when it’s time to come and go without being told. But you don’t know how to return to me even though I wrote it down for you. Why do you refuse to return and know me? You can see how God has become angry with his people, because he has given them every chance to repent and be with him, but rather they choose to die apart from His grace. Unrepentance means dying away from the presence of the Father who wants to heal you. “It was I who taught Ephraim to walk. I took them up by their arms. But they did not see that I healed them.” Unrepentance means dying away from the Father who could heal you.
Point 2: Prophetic Ministry Means Living in Repentance Among the Unrepentant
At many points in the passage, you can see Jeremiah’s own grief over this as he empathizes with God’s grief over the people’s hearts. But what’s interesting is he never stands apart from his people even as he expresses profound grief over their unrepentance. This brings us to the second point, Prophetic Ministry means living in repentance among the unrepentant. Jeremiah writes, “Since my people are crushed, I am crushed.” This goes beyond “mourn with those who mourn.” There is a legitimate vocation for faithful people living in the midst of a country under judgment. Notice that even the calling of the prophetic voice that stands against and critiques culture is not one of distancing oneself from the people you come from. It’s not an attitude of separation, or of dissociation. Rather, it’s one of identification and participation. Even participation in a punishment you didn’t deserve, as Jeremiah had to suffer through the siege and destruction of Jerusalem along with everyone else. The prophetic calling is often misunderstood as an excuse to stand aloof from and outside of the sufferings of a people you don’t identify with while you condemn them for sins you don’t claim responsibility for. But that is not what we see Jeremiah doing. In fact, that is just not the biblical vocation of a prophet by any account. Otherwise, Jesus would not be a very good ultimate prophet. He identified with the suffering and sin of his people than any other prophet before him, so if prophetic ministry means distance from suffering and alienation from your people then he wasn’t the best prophet, he was the worst.
Prophetic ministry means proclaiming the Word of God to a people you are a part of. If it’s blessing, you both proclaim and receive the blessing. If it’s judgment, you both proclaim and receive the judgment. The modern twitter prophet who stands at digital arm’s length and hurls condemnation at people he doesn’t know or identify with is quite far afield from the biblical example. There’s an interesting expression in verse 21 where the city of Jerusalem is referred to as, “the daughter of my people,” what’s happening here is that Jeremiah is empathizing with both the Divine and the human perspective and grieving from both. God sees them as a child, so Jeremiah empathizes with that perspective by calling her a daughter of a people he belongs to, thereby saying she is in one sense partly his daughter. But Jeremiah also sees them as his own people as he calls them, “my people.” So the suffering is his both because they are like a daughter to him and because he is one of them, so he grieves on both levels. That’s what prophetic ministry looks like. It’s revealing God’s perspective to a people whose own perspective you can share. And part of what that entails is grieving over the sin of a people as a part of that community.
I remember a time when I saw this play out personally. I had a former coworker who was Russian and living in Russia during the initial invasion of Ukraine. And in one zoom meeting he asked for prayer for him and his people because the economic sanctions placed on their country had made life very difficult. But in the same breath he addressed our Ukrainian coworkers who were living in the Ukraine and he said, “I am so sorry for what my country has done. It is inexcusable.” And of course the Ukrainians were very gracious and everyone assured him that we knew he wasn’t personally responsible for any of it. But that was the spirit of biblical prophetic ministry. Asking for prayer for his country because they were suffering, but also choosing to identify with them to the point of expressing repentance on their behalf for something he wasn’t even personally guilty of.
Prophetic ministry is not pretending like there isn’t something horrifically wrong with the people you are a part of. That’s what false prophets do. But neither is it standing apart from them to distance yourself from the problem, to stand in cold indifference while your people are judged.
Jeremiah in particular is known as the weeping prophet, but he isn’t unique in that. The role of the prophet, when judgment comes, is not to gloat, but to weep. That’s so central to prophetic ministry that God even made it the concluding theme of an entire prophetic book; Jonah. It’s all about how God never brings judgment without grieving over it, and neither should his prophets announce it without weeping when it comes. This is because Prophets are sent to reveal God to His people. Not only His Word, but also His heart. Because the motivation for true repentance is seeing the heart of God, choosing him over your idols, and returning to him to be healed.
Point 3: Repentance Means Returning To God To Be Healed
All throughout Jeremiah and the prophets, there are extended reminders of who God is. God doesn’t just punish sin because it’s bad. It’s bad because it isn’t like him. His people are to stay away from it because it isn’t like him. Sin is to be done away with because it’s not like God and must therefore be condemned. God commands his prophets to condemn sin, but also to remind his people of who he is in contrast to sin and their misconceptions of Him. Later in chapter 9 he writes, “Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, 24 but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.” Allow me to boast for a moment by proving to you that God is abounding in steadfast love, and that he stands ready to forgive you when you sin.
You might say, “Who’s questioning that?” Well, you are every time you sin and don’t rush back to him in repentance. And so am I. Every time we think, “I should probably put a little distance between me and that sin before I go and talk to God.” “I should probably string together a few days of good behavior before I ask him for something.” Or, “who am I to be praying after what I’ve done.” Or “I promised I wouldn’t do that again and I did… so that was probably my last last-chance.” Or it’s even something as subtle as feeling proud that you haven’t had to seriously repent in a while so God must be pretty happy with you. When you believe those things you are not believing that God is who he says he is. So I will remind you of it and prove it to you and you can do the same for me next time and we can help each other in that way.
When God introduced himself to the people of Israel and to Moses back in Exodus 6, this is what he said: “God spoke to Moses and said to him, g“I am the Lord. 3 I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as hGod Almighty,1 but by my name, the iLord, I did not make myself known to them… “I am the Lord, and nI will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and oI will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. 7 I pwill take you to be my people, and qI will be your God, and you shall know that mI am the Lord your God, who has brought you out nfrom under the burdens of the Egyptians. 8 I will bring you into rthe land that I sswore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. mI am the Lord.’”
God says, “My name is I will deliver you, I will redeem you, and I will be faithful to you.” But the people are predictably sinful, so they sinned again and turned away from this gracious God and made a golden calf to worship instead of YHWH. So God has to again remind them of who he is. In Exodus 34, The Lord bdescended in the cloud and stood with [Moses] there, and cproclaimed the name of the Lord. 6 The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, d“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and egracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast flove and faithfulness, 7 gkeeping steadfast love to a thousand generations,1 hforgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but iwho will by no means clear the guilty, jvisiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” So the people commit one of the most famous acts of idolatry and God’s response is to remind them of who he is. He’s not like the idols who love sin. He is the Lord. The Lord. Abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity and sin. That is his Name. But the people do not believe he is like that. They do not believe he is present or that he is able to save, so they do not return to him for healing. And how easily can we sympathize? How often do we rename Him, “The Lord, The Lord, far off and eager to condemn?” “The Lord the Lord, quick to anger, with a limited supply of love.” We forget His Name.
So because his people continually forget and doubt who he is, this loving God then gave the ultimate revelation of His character in the form of the true Prophet, the faithful Priest, and the righteous King, who is the exact imprint of the Father’s nature, the man who can say, “if you have seen me you have seen the Father.” And look, he has the same heart towards his people’s unrepentance. In Matthew 23, shortly before he is taken to be crucified, he looks out over Jerusalem and weeps for her. He says, “O Jerusalem, the city that lkills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have mgathered nyour children together oas a hen gathers her brood punder her wings, and qyou were not willing!” I can imagine the angels looking down and seeing this, remembering how God had spoken during the exile, and saying, “wow… He’s just like his Father.” And this ultimate revelation of the Father’s character came not to give punishment, but to receive it on our behalf. That’s what God is like. That’s what his heart looks like. How could you not return to this God? Moms, I know you know what it’s like to want to gather your unwilling children to yourself. The irony in this is that, often, the more your kids stray, the more your heart goes out to them... But do you ever think of God as feeling less persistent love for you than you feel for them? Because that’s not His Name.
Of all the things Jesus taught us about the Father during his earthly ministry, one particular parable of his stands out as being especially clear about the Father’s heart towards His sinful children when they repent; the parable of the prodigal son. You probably know how it goes. This son asks his Father for his inheritance before the Father even dies, and he takes it all to a foreign country and spends it on booze and prostitutes. And after many months he runs out of money and begins to starve. And finally after running out of all other options, desperate for even a meal, he comes back home to his Father hoping to just work as a servant so he can eat. And while he is a long way off, the Father sees him, drops everything, and runs to embrace him. And he refuses to make him a servant, but restores him as a son and lavishly celebrates his return.
Sarah Groves wrote a song related to this parable that the band is going to play during communion in just a moment. Her grandfather grew up in a church that taught you could lose your salvation, and that the goal of the Christian life was to stop sinning. And one night while the family was all at dinner he said, “I need to tell you all something. For the longest time, at night, when the lights are all out, and the house is quiet, and I'm alone, I’ve been beset with doubts. Everything I’ve done wrong comes back to haunt me. Everything I haven’t repented of piles up in my mind. And I lie there, unable to sleep, and I feel like surely I am lost. But every night for the past year, I’ve had this mental image of sort of a modern day version of the parable of the prodigal son. And I see myself, walking down the street towards my home… and the Father is standing in the driveway and he sees me, and even though I’m still a long way off, I can tell by the way that he moves that… he’s not angry. And every night for the past year, that mental image is how I’ve been able to fall asleep.”
I don’t know what you are going through or what you have done or what has happened to you that may have convinced you that you can’t go home because God will be angry when you get there. But it’s a lie. That’s not your Father’s Name. If you are refusing to go back to him because you think he’ll be angry, or because you want so badly to believe everything is fine like it is, then don’t you see the kindest thing he could possibly do is destroy everything that is allowing you to remain exiled from him? Don’t you see that it’s his mercy that causes him to pursue you to the ends of the earth, burning down your false idols and breaking down your walls until all you can do is return because there’s nothing left? Don’t you see that he’s not chasing you away, he’s chasing after you? The only thing more relentless than your sin is your Father’s mercy.
False prophets say there’s peace where there is none. Prodigals seek peace where there is none. But those who repent find peace where no one else has any. We often think of repentance as being a disturbance to our peace and the reality is nothing could be farther from the truth. God gives peace to those who love him in a way that nothing else can give peace. Repentant people sleep well at night - Psalm 127 says God gives sleep to those he loves. The whole city could be falling around you and you can still find peace where there otherwise is none. Because you can have peace with God. Not begrudging acceptance. Not condemnation. Peace. Peace that he will run out to give to you as soon as he sees you come home. Even while you are still a long way off. Peace is so near to you that it’s in this very room, at this table right here. All you have to do is come home to the Father.
Now may bthe God of peace himself csanctify you completely, and may your dwhole espirit and soul and body be kept blameless at fthe coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 gHe who calls you is faithful; hhe will surely do it.