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Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Jeremiah Generation, Part 2 Listening

This is what the Lord Almighty says: "Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes.  They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord.
They keep saying to those who despise me, 'The Lord says: You will have peace.'  And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts they say, 'No harm will come to you.' 
But which of them has stood in the council of the Lord to see or to hear his word?  Who has listened and heard his word?--Jeremiah 23: 16-18 NIV

Last time I spoke at length about the zeal I have seen in earlier generations, a quality that seems to be greatly lacking in this present generation.  I want to see that change.  I can't tell you how much I want that.  I can tell you, however, that over the past decade I've had a hard time locating people who would agree with me.

Many churches today all across the U.S. are rich, powerful (especially politically), well-equipped with state-of-the-art technology, full of people who regularly fill the pews, socially and ecologically active, and affirmed by the general populous.  Things have come a long way from earlier generations, who met secretly in crypts and sewers, or later, didn't even have air conditioning in the auditorium or heated water in the baptismal pool.  It seems we have it better than the previous generations, but I would be chasing a red herring if I wrote about how modern technology or social trends are hurting today's church.

So what is wrong with the modern church?

The short answer: our hearts.  The longer answer: Many in the modern church have stopped hearing from God, and have instead started listening to alternative "messages" often ascribed to God.

The Problem that Destroyed Jeremiah's Generation

In Jeremiah's day, Israel had turned to leaders and self-proclaimed prophets to seek God on their behalf, and they got false comfort in those leaders' reassurance that everything was going to be okay and their present prosperity would last forever.  Obviously, their prophet's words were false, because that whole generation soon marched in chains to a distant land.  How did this happen?  Jeremiah chapter 23 seems to outline a threefold cause: (1) People had forgotten their history with God, and had sought counsel in other places; (2) The prophets and teachers were not seeking God either, but rather had chosen to seek power and acclaim for themselves; and (3) the people were following the prophets and teachers without questioning their words or checking up on them in any way.

In the end, Jeremiah's generation could have easily remedied their problem before it was too late.  All they had to do was actually seek the Lord as individuals and as a nation--not trusting in the words of their prophets and leaders, or in the cruel teachings of Baal (a pagan idol whose name meant "Lord" or "master").  Instead, they chose the heavy requirements of idols, which filled their lives with problems and brought God's wrath, and they chased after the words of leaders whose paths were not clear and changed on a whim (see especially Jeremiah 23 verses 25-29).  They weren't listening.  In fact, they didn't want to hear.  In the end, the only way God could regain their attention was to jerk the rug from under their feet.

The Problem that Could Destroy This Generation

Not too long ago I had the chance to sit in on a "Bible study" with a large group of my peers.  We read a passage about the Holy Spirit from Paul's writings (I can't remember what book or chapter) in about a dozen different English-language translations of varying accuracy.  After that, the informal discussion leader asked us to take turns sharing with the group what the Holy Spirit was.  I will never forget hearing what one of the guys shared.  I think it was one of the most upsetting moments in my life.  He referred to the Holy Spirit as an "it" which he described as that warm, comforting feeling you get sometimes when you sing along to a really good song.  Then everyone else in the room--close to a hundred people--said "amen."

I walked out of that meeting feeling devastated.  The Holy Spirit is God, one of the three persons of God.  Do we even know how to recognize the voice of God any longer (John 10: 2-5)?  Where are all the people who are listening to God?  Well, I think I can answer that one--they're being blocked out and ignored (Jeremiah 7: 27-29).

A Solution for This Generation

If I'm understanding Jeremiah's generation and this present generation correctly, God to them is a sort of "grand chum" who does things for us and never gets angry about this subservient office, no matter what we do while we're using Him.  His voice is vague, mostly just echoing what we want to do, and never stridently contradicting it.  In essence, God is a servant to our respective nations and individual lives, not the One we must all answer to in the end.

What can we do about it?  Well, there's not much we can do for a person who doesn't want to listen.  The only ones we can ever help are those who are willing to listen.  Then, when we have their attention, we have to use the opportunity to speak the truth without shame and without holding back any information.  As God told Jeremiah, "Let the prophet who has a dream tell his dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully" (Jeremiah 23: 28 NIV).  The only way God can change hearts in this generation is for a few people to speak the truth, and a few listeners to listen.  It really is that simple.

So how do we know we have heard the voice of God?  Jeremiah offers a good description of the power of God's word--shall we say, a quality of God's voice?--that we ought to note.  In Jeremiah 23 verses 28 and 29, it is written, "'For what has straw to do with grain?' declares the Lord.  'Is not my word like fire,' declares the Lord, 'and like a hammer that breaks a rock to pieces?"  Like fire and like a hammer, God does not give way to anyone, and He is not weak or vague.  God is straightforward (see also John 10: 2-5), not sneaking around and trying to trick us into believing His words.  His words are of a different quality and a different purpose altogether than messages from other sources.  They are truth that we can recognize.

If something you hear about God, or supposedly from God, strikes you as tricky, vague, or confusing, consider that as a good reason to suspect what you have heard as a false message.  Then, run to consult your Bible.  If the message contradicts what is clearly taught in the Bible, you should run away.  If it agrees with the whole body of Scripture (not with just a few verses taken out of context, mind you), then you should spend some more time with your Shepherd, getting to know His voice.

I leave you now with a parting question, and I'm anxious to read your comments.
Has someone in a high position ever told you "a word from the Lord" that you knew was not from God?  How did you figure that out? Share Scripture references where possible.