Our world is consumed by the idea of justice and equality – the idea that everyone deserves the exact same treatment, benefits, outcomes etc. in every area of life. Whether it’s wage equality, gender equality, marriage equality, or equality in employment and housing and opportunity – our world believes that life ought to be absolutely fair, that people should get what they deserve. And when someone thinks they’ve been treated unfairly, they aren’t afraid to let you know – this weekend’s riots in St. Louis serve once again serve as sad proof. Fairness also plays a huge role in how people relate to God. Whether it’s the Hindu concept of karma, the secular superstition of “paying it forward” or “what goes around comes around”, or even a misapplication of the Christian concept that a man ought to reap what he sows (Galatians 6:7) – it’s human nature to believe that we should get what we deserve: good people get rewarded and bad people get punished. Is that true? Should we get what we deserve? Through the prophet Jeremiah, God answers that question for us, telling us that he doesn’t give us what we deserve; a reason to repent and a reason to rejoice.
The prophet Jeremiah clearly thought he deserved better for his service as God’s spokesman to the people of Israel. Given the circumstances, we might be tempted to agree with him. The 10 northern tribes of Israel had already been defeated and carried away by the Assyrians (as punishment for their rebellion and idolatry) – and the southern kingdom, Judah, was quickly following suit. The message God had given Jeremiah to proclaim, then, was not the kind you see emblazoned on posters at Christian book stores. He was called to tell the remaining Israelites that God had run out of patience with their unbelief and punishment was on the horizon: Even if Moses and Samuel were to stand before me, my heart would not go out to this people. Send them away from my presence! Let them go! And if they ask you, ‘Where shall we go?’ tell them, ‘This is what the LORD says: “‘Those destined for death, to death; those for the sword, to the sword; those for starvation, to starvation; those for captivity, to captivity.’” (Jeremiah 15:1-2)
Is it any surprise that no one wanted to hear that sermon? Is it any surprise that everyone in Israel – from the lowly slave to the king –ridiculed Jeremiah, blamed him for their troubles, refused to associate with him, and even threatened his life? And yet, in spite of the persecution and the threats, Jeremiah remained faithful. He continued to preach a difficult message to an even more difficult people. It’s easy to understand why Jeremiah thought he deserved better, why he thought it wasn’t fair that he was being blamed for steadfastly preaching God’s message. And, Jeremiah sets an example we can all imitate by knowing where to take his pain and sorrow: you understand, O LORD; remember me and care for me. Avenge me on my persecutors. You are long-suffering – do not take me away; think of how I suffer reproach for your sake.
If Jeremiah had stopped there, we could say “Amen.” But Jeremiah didn’t stop. He went on: When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight, for I bear your name, O LORD God Almighty. Notice that, at least at first, Jeremiah found joy in preaching God’s message. That may seem strange: he really found joy in being a minister of doom and gloom? Yes. Not because it was easy or because it brought Jeremiah fame and glory, but because it was God’s Word which brings sinners to repentance. I never sat in the company of revelers, never made merry with them; I sat alone because your hand was on me and you had filled me with indignation. Jeremiah had isolated himself from his society because he hated the rebellion, immorality, and idolatry that contaminated Israel. He was angry at Israel’s faithlessness. Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable? Will you be to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails? Did you notice the two problems with Jeremiah’s complaint? Where does he base his demand for justice? In his faithfulness; his commitment to the Word, his refusal to join Israel’s pagan partying – in short, Jeremiah based his demand for justice in all the good things he had done for God. And then, who does he blame for his hardship? Not himself, for being lazy or apathetic in his ministry. He doesn’t blame the rebellious people to whom he was called to minister, a people who had betrayed the one true God and turned to idols. No, Jeremiah blames God, accusing him of a bait and switch, of promising an easy and pleasant ministry and then failing to follow through.
Jeremiah had fallen into the trap of delusional self-righteousness. Unfortunately, it’s a trap any believer can fall into. “I’ve been a good Christian, a faithful spouse, parent, employee, I’ve been a generous giver and a willing volunteer, Lord; I deserve better!” That kind of complaint, that kind of demand for justice from God is so easy, isn’t it? And that’s because while we are often slow to recognize our ungodly attitudes, our selfish behaviors, our pet sins – we are often blind to our failures; we are quick to come up with a list of all the good things we do for God: attending worship even when the weather is nice and I could be doing something else, cleaning the church, cutting the grass, bringing snacks and flowers, bringing my child to Sunday school and coming to Bible Class, maybe even serving as an elected leader, not to mention my daily devotions, my commitment to my spouse and family, my diligent work ethic, my better than average behavior and clean language, and we could easily go on. And Satan is always right there with his pom-poms cheering us on – “Yeah, you’re one of the good ones, you’ve done a lot for God, he owes you big-time.”
But it doesn’t always seem that God gets the memo. People we love suffer tragedy, get sick, and die. Financial peace and security always seem just out of reach. Rather than honor and respect from coworkers and family and even fellow members, we feel like our faithfulness and hard work either go unnoticed or receive only criticism. Living a quiet, moral, Godly life doesn’t get us lots of friends and fans – just as often it gets us “unfriended” and ridiculed. Christian marriages are not perfect because neither spouse is perfect. Christian parents can do all they can to raise their children in the fear and knowledge of the Lord – and grieve when those same children wander away from their Savior. And, let’s be honest, even the church is not some utopian dream – with a pastor and members who are confessed and convicted sinners – there’s bound to be conflict and trouble. And sometimes we feel like we’ve reached the end of our rope; we’re ready to give up; the cross is heavy and we want nothing more than to set it down and give up the fight. We turn to God with outstretched hands and say: “what gives, God? I’m doing my best for you and all you give me back is pain and hardship? I deserve better!”
Jeremiah wasn’t the first believer to think that way, and he wasn’t the last. We’ve all felt that way at one time or another. Do you want to know the truth? Do you want to hear what we really deserve? Isaiah tells us: All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags. (Isaiah 64:6) Paul adds: there is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one (Romans 3:10-12); and the wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23) The truth is that none of us has lived a life that meets, much less surpasses God’s expectations; we don’t deserve a reward from God for what we’ve done. The only thing we truly deserve to hear is: depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matthew 25:41) Beware of demanding that God give you what you deserve – because he will give it to those who demand it.
Whenever a believer is stuck in the rut of deluded self-righteousness and self-pity – they need to be shocked back to reality. And in a calm but firm way, that’s what God did for Jeremiah: If you repent, I will restore you that you may serve me; if you utter worthy, not worthless, words, you will be my spokesman. Let this people turn to you, but you must not turn to them. How did God respond to Jeremiah’s woe-is-me attitude? He didn’t even dignify Jeremiah’s complaint with a direct response. He didn’t say, “You’re right, Jeremiah, you do deserve better, I apologize.” He didn’t promise to take all of the trouble out of Jeremiah’s life nor did he lift the curtain of divine providence to show Jeremiah why all this hardship was happening to him. No, God slaps Jeremiah in the face with the word “repent.” “Stop questioning my wisdom, stop inflating your own goodness, turn to me, listen to my voice, serve me, grab hold of my promises, and forget about yourself.” With all of his complaining and self-pity, Jeremiah had become just like the rebellious and idolatrous Israelites he was supposed to be ministering to. But in his grace, God turned (“repented” him) Jeremiah from his sin and restored him. He cleansed Jeremiah’s lips of his worthless complaints and gave him worthy words. In that final verse, with the word redeem, God was pointing Jeremiah ahead 700 years to Jesus, who would pay the price for his sins of doubt and complaining, who would buy him back from the punishment in hell he deserved. In his call to repentance, God promised to give Jeremiah the opposite of what he deserved: forgiveness of sins, peace, and eternal life.
We too have received what we don’t deserve. When we stray, we don’t deserve to have God send his representatives into our lives to shock us back to reality – but God does it because he loves us too much to let us wander all the way to hell. When we complain about God’s justice, he would be absolutely justified in sending a bolt of lightning to vaporize us. And yet, God doesn’t. Paul explained why: he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Timothy 3:9) Most importantly, we don’t deserve to be forgiven, cleansed, and restored – but that’s what makes God’s grace, grace – we don’t deserve it. As Paul wrote in Romans: God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8) (If we want to talk about inequality and unfairness – the place to start and end – is with the cross of Christ.) We don’t deserve to look forward to eternal life – but because Jesus wore a crown of thorns on the throne of the cross, we can be certain that we will wear the crown of life. We don’t even deserve to serve God, to take up our cross and suffer for the sake of following Jesus. We don’t deserve to receive the criticism, ridicule, pain and hardship that come from bearing the name of Christ, but God in his mercy gives us this privilege.
All of which means that the lesson Jeremiah learned 2700 years ago still applies to today: God never promises that following Jesus in this world of sin will be easy and pain free – in fact, Jesus tells us just the opposite, he says that following him will mean carrying a cross, not lounging in a La-Z Boy. (Matthew 16:24) But as we struggle, he does promise to fortify us, he promises to make us bronze walls – he promises to stand behind his Word – both law and gospel – and through it he will give us the strength to stand firm against everything Satan and the world can throw at us. And, even when we aren’t firm, even when we fall, Jesus promises to come to us in his Word and in his body and blood in His Supper to pick us up and put us back on our feet. He promises that even our greatest enemies can’t hurt us because He has defeated them once and for all. And, in the end, God promises that the struggle of this life is only temporary – it will end. And even though we may be bruised and broken, even though every one of us will have to admit that nothing we have done meets God’s perfect standard, God will cover us with his Son’s perfect life, he will leave our sins buried and forgotten in Jesus’ tomb, he will welcome us into paradise with open arms and say well done, good and faithful servant! Come and share your master’s happiness! (Matthew 25:21) The promise God made to Jeremiah still stands for repentant believers: I will save you from the hands of the wicked and redeem you from the grasp of the cruel. When the going gets tough, when the cross gets heavy, find relief and a reason to rejoice in the fact that God doesn’t give us what we deserve – he gives us so much more!
In a world that doesn’t really know what it is asking for when it demands absolute justice – we give thanks today that God doesn’t give us what we deserve. When delusional self-righteousness tempts you to believe that you deserve better for your service to Christ, give it what it deserves – put it to death through repentance – and because of Jesus, rejoice that the Lord gives us so much more than we deserve. The Christian life isn’t fair. Thank God! Amen.