Preaching the "Big Books," like Jeremiah
Last Sunday witnessed my 73rd and final sermon on Jeremiah. As the series began coming to a close the last few weeks, I experienced that familiar “preacher’s sorrow” of saying goodbye to a close companion. Jeremiah has never been far from my heart and mind the last two years. I wanted to preach through his book over five years ago, but like a moth dancing with a flame, I found myself simultaenously drawn and repelled by its 52 chapters. The closer I came to making a final decision to put it into the preaching schedule the more intensely I felt the heat of entering into a world of a prophet whose deep suffering over a wayward people continued with little respite for the forty years of his ministry. His basic message of coming judgment on unrepentant sinners never changed. Neither did those who heard it.
By modern measurements of success in the ministry Jeremiah was a miserable failure. He was out of step with most of his contemporaries. Among the prophets and priests in Jerusalem he was a pariah. They preached “peace, peace” while he warned of looming judgment and pled for repentance. Even his friends and family opposed him and plotted to take his life. When grief overwhelmed him and he would have escaped to the quietness of the countryside, the Lord commanded him to keep preaching in the city (chapter 9). He experienced deep, dark depression, wishing he had never been born (chapter 20). He lived with unanswered prayers and unfulfilled desires and even accused God of deceiving him (chapter 15). By the end of his ministry he had very few converts to whom he could point as visible fruit from his long, faithful labors. In fact, some who had given lip service to the message that he preached later revealed that inwardly, their hearts had never turned from the idols he had condemned (chapter 44).
Yet, in the midst of all the failure, brokenness, rebellion and obstinacy of that fateful generation of Judah, God gave to Jeremiah the clearest message of the new covenant to be found anywhere in the old covenant Scriptures (chapter 31). The hope of this new day when God would undertake everything necessary to guarantee covenant blessings for His people sustained Jeremiah and enabled him to finish his course without failing. His message lives on today as an integral part of God’s revelation of redemption in history.
This morning I came across an essay by Derek Thomas, Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary and Editorial Director of Reformation21, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is entitled, “Preaching from Lengthy Books in the Old Testament.” I wish I had read it three years ago. It is full of pastoral and theological wisdom for preachers. The “big books” of the Bible must not be avoided in our preaching agendas. But neither should they be taken up unwisely, without due consideration what the Larger Catechism calls the “necessities and capacities” of our hearers (Question 158). Failure to think carefully and plan intentionally about this can result in either congregational abuse or neglect. “All Scripture is profitable,” but all Scripture should not always be preached in the same way or at the same pace.
As I reflect on this extended series of messages I can’t help but wonder if it would have been more useful had I shortened it significantly. One thing is certain. As Thomas points out, it is only after preaching through a book of the Bible that a preacher feels really prepared to do so! But I doubt that I will ever have the opportunity to do so again. Jeremiah is incredibly relevant for our day. Francis Shaeffer realized this nearly 40 years ago when he relied heavily on the prophet in his book, Death in the City. Contemporary Christianity in America bears a striking resemblance to late 7th and early 6th century BC Judaism. Rituals remain, but substance is scarce. God’s Name is still invoked, but His Law is largely neglected. As in Jeremiah’s day, God through His Word is calling us to return to Him.
Thus says the LORD:
“Stand in the ways and see,
And ask for the old paths, where the good way is,
And walk in it;
Then you will find rest for your souls.”
But too often today we–like those ancient Jews–respond to the Lord’s calls with a steadfast refusal and say,
“‘We will not walk in it.'” (Jer 6:16)
May the Lord be merciful to us and by His grace grant that we might live in repentance and faith.
Here are some books (in addition to Schaeffer) that I found particularly helpful during this study.
Calvin’s lectures on Jeremiah and Lamentations in 5 volumes (Banner)
Palmer Robertson’s The Christ of the Prophets (P and R)
J.A. Thompson’s The Book of Jeremiah, (NICOT, Eerdmans)
Theo Laetsch’s Jeremiah (Concordia)
Philip Ryken’s Jeremiah and Lamentations: From Sorrow to Hope (Crossway)
R.K. Harrison’s Jeremiah and Lamentations (TOTC, InterVarsity)
Derek Kidner’s The Message of Jeremiah, (Intervarsity)
John Bright’s Jeremiah (Anchor Bible, Doubleday)