Truth in Strength and Weakness
by Jack Wald | October 28th, 2001

Jeremiah 20:1-18

No one likes to give bad news. Coming home to say that you’ve been given a promotion and a raise is a lot more fun than coming home to say that you’ve been fired from your job.

A doctor finds it a lot more pleasant to come to the waiting room and say, “It’s a girl!” than to say the patient died on the operating table.

Would you rather come home with a report card of As and Bs or one with Cs and Ds?

When someone preaches, would you rather hear that everything is going to happen as you want or hear that your plans will end up in ruin?

In I Kings 22 when Ahab was King of Israel. Jehoshaphat, King of Judah came to visit him. What do kings talk about when they get together? Apparently they talk about who they can conquer. In this case they discussed joining together to take back some land now in the possession of the king of Aram. Jehoshaphat agreed to join Ahab but suggested:
“First seek the counsel of the LORD.”

So Ahab brought four hundred prophets and asked them if they should go to war and they responded as one person:
“Go,” they answered, “for the Lord will give it into the king’s hand.”
One of them, Zedekiah, had made iron horns and he declared,
“This is what the LORD says: ‘With these you will gore the Arameans until they are destroyed.’”
12 All the other prophets were prophesying the same thing. “Attack Ramoth Gilead and be victorious,” they said, “for the LORD will give it into the king’s hand.”

That’s good news that we like to hear. But Jehoshaphat had a sense that God had not spoken to them and asked Ahab,
“Is there not a prophet of the LORD here whom we can inquire of?”
8 The king of Israel [Ahab] answered Jehoshaphat, “There is still one man through whom we can inquire of the LORD, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad. He is Micaiah son of Imlah.”
Ahab was right. Micaiah prophesied the defeat of Israel and was thrown into prison with a diet of bread and water for his efforts. Does this remind you of anyone?

Ahab wanted confirmation of his plans. He wanted to hear that what he was planning would be successful. What Ahab did not want was to hear the truth. “I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad.”

Today’s lesson from Jeremiah is a lesson about truth and we will see Jeremiah speak the truth in strength and then again in weakness. The truth most often makes someone uncomfortable but there is no substitute for it. The truth, no matter how uncomfortable it is, is always preferable to the alternatives.

During Jeremiah’s forty years as a prophet, he worked against a number of other prophets who kept contradicting what Jeremiah said. One of these was Pashur, a priest and chief officer of the Temple in Jerusalem who functioned as overseer of the temple It was Pashur’s job to keep order in the Temple and its courts.

We don’t know much about this man, but it is easy to picture him as a silver-haired Presbyterian, very distinguished, eloquent, always giving positive news, building up self-esteem, preaching about love and forgiveness but never preaching about sin. I want to make a disclaimer here that any resemblance to any actual living person is intentional.

From today’s account in Jeremiah 20, it is apparent that Pashur was upset with Jeremiah’s preaching because it was in contradiction to what he and the other prophets in the temple were preaching. We pick this up from verse 6
“And you, Pashur, and all who live in your house will go into exile to Babylon. There you will die and be buried, you and all your friends to whom you have prophesied lies.”

What lies were they prophesying? Jeremiah 14:14-16 tells us this
14 Then the LORD said to me, “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I have not sent them or appointed them or spoken to them. They are prophesying to you false visions, divinations, idolatries and the delusions of their own minds.  15 Therefore, this is what the LORD says about the prophets who are prophesying in my name: I did not send them, yet they are saying, ‘No sword or famine will touch this land.’ Those same prophets will perish by sword and famine.  16 And the people they are prophesying to will be thrown out into the streets of Jerusalem because of the famine and sword. There will be no one to bury them or their wives, their sons or their daughters. I will pour out on them the calamity they deserve.

Pashur worked hard to keep the Temple in order and when Jeremiah came to preach his castigating sermon, disorder was created. I can see some of the more prominent Jews coming to Pashur complaining, “You won’t believe what terrible things that nut Jeremiah said this time. You’ve got to do something about him. We run a respectable temple here, not someplace where any fool can come and speak his peace.”

So Pashur had him beaten and put in stocks. These were not the stocks of Europe and New England in the US that are found at tourist sites so we can take pictures of each other in them. These stocks were designed to put the prisoner in a crooked, uncomfortable position that caused cramping and some measure of pain. The beating was the same forty lashes that were given to Paul in the New Testament. Beaten with a whip, imprisoned in the stocks, put on public, humiliating display – what went through Jeremiah’s mind that day and night?

In an act of pity, Pashur came the next day to release him. But if he thought he would be blessed for this, he was mistaken. Jeremiah let loose with a fierce denunciation of Pashur:
“God has a new name for you: not Pashur but Danger-Everywhere, because God says, ‘You’re a danger to yourself and everyone around you. All your friends are going to get killed in battle while you stand there and watch. What’s more, I’m turning all of Judah over to the king of Babylon to do whatever he likes with them – haul them off into exile, kill them at whim. Everything worth anything in this city, property and possessions along with everything in the royal treasury – I’m handing it all over to the enemy. They’ll rummage through it and take what they want back to Babylon.
And you, Pashur, you and everyone in your family will be taken prisoner into exile – that’s right, exile in Babylon. You’ll die and be buried there, you and all your cronies to whom you preached your lies.’”

When I hear what Jeremiah said to Pashur, I ask myself how much of what Jeremiah said to Pashur was from the Lord and how much from his own hurt and anger? His reaction makes me think of a story from a friend of mine who lived for 22 years in North Africa and the Middle East.

When he was living in Bethlehem, he wrote of a time when he had to discipline his young son, Marc Emile, only two or three years old at the time. They had recently read the story of Jesus and how King Herod had done terrible things to children. After disciplining his son, Marc Emile said to his father, “Youwa King Hewad!” It was the worst thing he could think to say.

When Jeremiah spoke to Pashur, was what he said an expression of his anger? I think it was fortunate for Jeremiah that the word God gave him (which was a true word because not long after this, Pashur was deported to Babylon in the first deportation) coincided with what he was feeling. Regardless of the human motivation of what Jeremiah said to Pashur, it was God’s word he spoke.

This first part of today’s lesson is truth in strength. If Pashur expected Jeremiah to be like a whipped dog, slinking up on his belly with his tail between his legs, he got a surprise. Jeremiah stood tall, figuratively if he was not able to do so physically and gave it to Pashur.

Jeremiah boldly spoke at the Temple and then after being beaten and put in the stocks, continued to boldly speak a message from the Lord.

And now we move to truth in weakness.

Jeremiah had just had a very bold, powerful encounter. He stood and preached a scathing and unpopular message at the temple that stirred up the religious community and resulted in him being beaten and put in the stocks. After his physical and emotional suffering, he stood up, literally and figuratively, and gave a scathing prophecy of denunciation to Pashur. And then what happened?

He collapsed into a mass of quivering jello (or jelly as non-Americans call it). In public he was strong and powerful. Now listen to him:
You pushed me into this, God, and I let you do it.
You were too much for me. And now I’m a public joke.
They all poke fun at me. Every time I open my mouth I’m shouting, “Murder!” or “Rape!” And all I get for my God-warnings are insults and contempt.
But if I say, “Forget it! No more God-messages from me!” The words are fire in my belly, a burning in my bones. I’m worn out trying to hold it in. I can’t do it any longer!
Then I hear whispering behind my back: “There goes old ‘Danger-Everywhere.’ Shut him up! Report him!”
Old friends watch, hoping I’ll fall flat on my face: “One misstep and we’ll have him. We’ll get rid of him for good!”

From public strength Jeremiah moved quickly to private weakness. You wouldn’t know it was the same man if Scripture didn’t tell us so. It is obvious Jeremiah is not enjoying his ministry. In fact, if it were not for the fact that he had an inner compulsion, a fire in his belly, a burning in his bones, he wouldn’t have preached that sermon in the first place.

There is a brief interlude in Jeremiah’s complaint in which he acknowledges that God is at his side fighting for him. He puts his trust in God and says:
Sing to God! All praise to God! He saves the weak from the grip of the wicked.
And in the next moment he slips back into a complaint reminiscent of Job.
Curse the day I was born! The day my mother bore me – a curse on it, I say!
He goes on to curse the man who brought news of his birth to his father and concludes with:
Why, oh why, did I ever leave that womb? Life’s been nothing but trouble and tears, and what’s coming is more of the same.

This is not an isolated incident in the life of Jeremiah. Read through Jeremiah and you will see this inner struggle repeatedly. Strong in public and shaking in private.

Does this mean Jeremiah was unqualified for what God appointed him to do? Does this mean Jeremiah was in some way hypocritical, putting on a show of strength when in fact he was anything but strong?

I want to suggest that this is not unique to Jeremiah but is our human condition. Look at the prophet Elijah. In I Kings 18 & 19. He took on the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel in what people today call a power encounter – 450 prophets of Baal against 1 prophet of God. He took on the prophets and the king of Israel and his wife, Ahab and Jezebel. You remember the scene. The prophets of Baal and Elijah both build altars and sacrifice a bull but don’t set fire to the altar. The prophets of Baal call on Baal but no fire results. Then Elijah calls on God and fire comes from the sky and the fire consumes the bull, the wood, the stones and the soil under it.

In the strength of the moment, Elijah kills the 450 prophets of Baal. A tremendous victory. And what does Elijah do? Jezebel was told by Ahab what had happened and:
So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.”
Elijah has just faced off with 450 prophets of Baal. This is just one woman, but:
3 Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there,  4 while he himself went a day’s journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”  5 Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep.

Public strength and private weakness..

How about the apostle Peter who spoke up so boldly to protect and stand by Jesus on the night he was arrested and then denied knowing him three times when crunch time came?

And even Jesus. Certainly no one can argue with his strength in confronting the religious leaders in Jerusalem. And then in private, in the Garden of Gethsemene, he agonizes in prayer, praying that if it were possible, he would not have to endure the pain and suffering of the cross.

It is still true today. When I worked with Richard Lovelace in 1985, I met in the hallway of a hotel a woman who had a national ministry and spoke at conference after conference. She had just spoken and given a powerful message and now in the hallway outside her room, she was a woman in pain and suffering emotionally.

This is how we are made. Strength and boldness is followed by weakness and despair and doubt.

Well what does this have to do with us?

First of all, it is good to pray for boldness and to be bold. It is good to be strong in doing what God has appointed you to do. Speak the truth when God appoints you to do so. Don’t be afraid of the consequences. You may suffer for speaking the truth, but that is no reason for not doing so. Micaiah was put in prison on a diet of bread and water for speaking the truth. Jeremiah was beaten and put in the stocks for speaking the truth. Do you think they would have been better off if they had watered down the truth or kept it to themselves?

Remember the words of Jesus:
4 “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.  5 But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.

Pray for boldness. Be bold. Speak the truth.

But the second lesson to be learned from this passage is don’t be dismayed if after speaking the truth in public in a powerful act of boldness, you find yourself in weakness in private.

This is not a conclusion I like. I was surprised to discover this when I began looking at Scripture. I’d prefer to see us move from strength to strength. But this is the experience of the saints. I’m not saying this is the ideal, but this is what happens. It happened to Elijah. It happened to Jeremiah. It happened to Peter and in some measure, it happened to Jesus. Elijah who met with Jesus along with Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration. Jeremiah, the greatest of the prophets. Peter, the leader of the disciples. This is an impressive list of people. Certainly these are among the greatest of the saints. This was their experience. Why do you suppose it will not happen to you?

I met with some Christians this weekend and we sang a chorus that goes like this
He is our fortress, we will never be shaken.
He is our fortress, we will never be shaken.
We will put our trust in God.
We will put our trust in God.
The problem with this chorus is that we will be shaken. And when we are shaken, because we have built up in our mind that good Christians will never be shaken, we think of ourselves as bad Christians who lack faith when we are shaken.

If you pray for boldness and speak the truth in public, you will likely be shaken afterwards. In this time, it is as important to speak the truth privately as it was for you to speak the truth publicly.

Don’t try to hide what you feel and pretend that you are strong. Follow the example of Jeremiah who was honest, brutally honest. In Jeremiah 15 in one of his moments of weakness he spoke the truth to God:
But why, why this chronic pain, this ever worsening wound and no healing in sight? You’re nothing, God, but a mirage, a lovely oasis in the distance – and then nothing!

The truth was not that God was nothing but a mirage, a lovely oasis in the distance – and then nothing! The truth was that this is what Jeremiah was feeling and when you speak the truth in private, it is the truth of your feelings that you need to express.

Don’t be afraid to speak the truth in public and don’t be afraid to speak the truth in private in moments of weakness.

There are some Christians who need a kick in the butt to get them moving. They are lazy and unmotivated and follow the path of least resistance. But here in Morocco in RPF, I don’t find many of these kinds of Christians. What I find are Christians who earnestly seek God and who want to please God with the way they live their lives. In my experience, Christians in Morocco are ones who are highly motivated to be God’s servants. These Christians don’t need a kick in the butt to get them motivated. What they need, what you need is to learn to be more gentle with yourselves.

When God sees you being bold in public, speaking the truth even when there is some risk for doing so, he is delighted with you. He is proud of you. Like a parent at a school play watching their child doing a great job on the stage. God delights in you.

When God sees you in private, in weakness and despair, overwhelmed by the forces around you, God is full of compassion for you. He longs for you to know that his arms are around you, holding you, comforting you. He does not reject you because you are overwhelmed.

Read again the story of Elijah in I Kings and see how God nurtured Elijah, feeding him, giving him rest until Elijah was able to go back into his public ministry.

This is how God cares for you when you have been shaken.

Speak the truth in public and in private, in strength and in weakness and know that your loving father is delighted in you and will care for you.