The Measure of Success – Sermon for July 26/27, 2015

The Measure of Success

Jeremiah 23:16-29

Eighth Sunday After Trinity

July 26th/27th, 2015

Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

How do you measure success? I remember my uncle one time told me that there are two ways to shoot bogey golf. One way is to shank every drive, hit every bunker, find your ball behind every tree, and yet somehow manage to save your round from total disaster by sprinkling in a few amazing rescue shots and somehow salvaging a bogey on each hole. The other is to hit every fairway, get on the green in regulation, and 3 putt all day long. Was either round successful? Probably not to a professional golfer but one round leaves the average joe like me feeling completely frustrated and wondering what could have been if I had made some putts, the other offers a few more pleasant memories for the drive home.

successHow do you measure success? How do you measure the success of a student? Do you measure it in grades? Is a student only successful if he or she gets As? Or Bs? Or do you measure the success of a student by how much that student has learned, even if the grade doesn’t reflect it? Every teacher has had students that struggle with the material in a given class but still work hard, turn their work in on time, and know more at the end of the class than they knew at the beginning. Are those students successful? I guess that depends on what standard you are using.

But that’s true for just about anything, isn’t it. The measure of success is based on your standard of judgment. Is this Tigers’ season a success? Not by a long shot. But after the team lost 119 games in 2003, most people would be satisfied with a .500 season. I’m sure if you’re on Facebook you’ve seen the post floating around that having the best player on the team doesn’t make you a successful parent, but having a respectful, hard-working, and coachable athlete does. Whether or not you consider an election a success depends on your politics. Many of the movies that have earned the most money all time have never caught a whiff of an Oscar. Are those movies successful? That depends on your standard of judgment. They might not be successful when it comes to the Academy Awards, but they sure brought in a big pay day for the studio. The measure of success depends on your standard of judgment.

How do you measure success? How do we measure success as children of God? What standard are we to judge by? How do we measure our success as a church?  How do you measure your success living in God’s Kingdom?

Jeremiah2011960x360Before tackling those questions, maybe it would be helpful to evaluate the success of the Prophet Jeremiah. What made him successful? Is it the fact that we know his name over 2500 years later? No, that’s not what made him successful. Is it that his oracles have been recorded and preserved in the pages of Holy Scripture? Even though only about 40 people can claim that honor, it’s still not what made Jeremiah a successful prophet. Was it the way that his message changed the lives of his audience? No, for unlike Jonah who experienced such results from the pagan city of Nineveh, Jeremiah was ignored, persecuted, and relentlessly harassed by the Judeans for his words. In fact, when God called Jeremiah he told him that the people of Judah would fight against him and reject his message.[1] At one point in his ministry the King of Judah set one of Jeremiah’s scrolls on fire and burned it.[2] Far from being well received and esteemed as a prophet, Jeremiah was consistently persecuted as his enemies tried to silence him. But therein lies Jeremiah’s success as a prophet. His enemies tried to silence him. Despite ample opportunities to run for cover, to hide from his calling, to throw in the towel, Jeremiah continued to preach the Word. He continued to be a faithful messenger of the true God, not worried with results so much as with delivering the message he had be given, regardless of the cost.

Why is this the measure of success? Because unlike the other public speakers of the time, Jeremiah spoke the truth. Unlike the pseudo-prophets running around Jerusalem, Jeremiah has actually stood in the Council of the Lord to see and hear his Word.[3] While other pseudo-prophets were filling Jerusalem with vain hopes drawn from the visions of their own minds, Jeremiah spoke the Word he had heard in the Council of the Lord himself.[4] “I did not send them, yet they ran,” says the Lord. “I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied.”[5] What foolishness! As if God could not see what these false prophets were doing! Is he a God so far away that he cannot see what is happening in his creation? Is there a place so dark and secret that God himself is not granted access?[6] Can the false words of these lying prophets stand up to the scrutiny of the truth? Is not God’s Word like fire that burns away anything impure? Is it not like a hammer that breaks even rocks into pieces?[7] The truth of God’s Word will always win in the end. It will always be shown true. Jeremiah might not have lived to see every one of his prophecies fulfilled, but because he spoke the Word he had heard in the Council of the Lord, because he faithfully delivered the message he had received, even when that message was almost universally rejected as foolish and out-of-date, Jeremiah was a success. Jeremiah stood firmly on the solid foundation of God’s Word and let the cultural winds around him swirl away. They could not knock him down, for God himself was supporting him and holding him up.

Jeremiah’s faithfulness to the message is what made him a successful prophet. Not the number of conversions he instigated, for we know of none. Not the national change of heart he initiated, for there was none. It is faithfulness to the Word of God alone that is the measure of Jeremiah’s success as a prophet. And it is the same for us.

How do we measure success as children of God? What standard are we to judge by? How do we measure our success as a church?  We measure according to the Word of God.

As a child of God, measure yourself according to the Lord’s Word of Law & Gospel. Don’t try to measure whether or not your faith is stronger today than it was when you first believed. Don’t try to measure whether your life today is holier today than it was when you first believed. Don’t try to measure your life compared to the people around you. Rather, set yourself against the standard of God’s holy Law. Stop making excuses for sin, and confess it for what it is. It doesn’t matter if you were “born that way,” if you had a traumatic Law-Gospel2experience in childhood, or if everyone else says its ok. Measure yourself against God’s standard of perfection, and see you sin for what it is. Confess that sin. Let God’s Word be God’s Word.

Then find comfort in the forgiveness that is yours. Let reality be reality. Let God’s Word be God’s Word. Don’t let the wolf in sheep’s clothing steal your forgiveness.[8] Don’t let the false prophet point you back to yourself or your life to find your comfort. Bear fruit in keeping with repentance – trust the gift that is yours. Don’t make it harder than it is. Confess that there is nothing you can do, but that Jesus has already done it all. Your sin is covered. You are right with God; there is nothing left to be done. You don’t need to hide from your sin. You don’t need to make excuses for it. You don’t need to explain it away or pretend like it’s not really sin. You need none of that, for Jesus has already paid the price. You are forgiven. You are made new. You are right with God. The successful Christian life is the one that drops all thoughts of success at the foot of the cross and trusts God’s Word of forgiveness. Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.[9] Like Jeremiah, faithfulness to the truth of God’s Word is the measure of our life in Christ. And in Christ, the Word of God is a Word of forgiveness and reconciliation.

The same is true for us as a church. As a church we measure ourselves not according to the number of members we have or the amount of money we bring in, but according to our public confession of God’s Word. The LCMS got some bad national press last week when it removed a rather prominent pastor for teaching contrary to Scripture. The world cannot understand how a church body in the 21st Century can cling to the Scriptural teaching of Creation or the role of women in the pastoral office. Much of the world considers itself too enlightened and too civilized to hold such supposedly archaic notions. But we do not allow the world to set the measure for us. We remain faithful to the Word of the Lord. So where the world looks on in confusion, those within our Synod are encouraged to see that we still take our confession seriously. That we still stand for something. That we are still willing to take our stand on the Word of God. Faithfulness to that Word is what matters, far more than the world’s approval.

But this is not just a national or synodical challenge. Given the current culture in which we live, each one of us individually will be tested in a similar manner. The world hates the the truth. Like the people of Jerusalem in the days of Jeremiah, people don’t want to hear the truth of God’s Word. Though they continually despise the Word of the Lord, they want us to say that it will be well with them. Though they stubbornly follow their own hearts, they want us to say that no disaster will come upon them.[10] But we continue to speak the truth. We take our stand on the Word of the Lord, the one spoken from his holy Council, for that Word alone is true.

But we must also measure ourselves according to how we put that Word into action, being doers of the Word, and not only hearers.[11] With Jeremiah we must remember that the people in the world around us, though they may hate our message and try to silence us, yet they are not our enemies. They are lost souls for whom Jesus died. They may be sinners, but so am I. So is each person in this room today. We have to be careful not to cultivate an “us vs. them” mentality, but rather speak the truth in love. The goal is never to prove someone else wrong, but to speak the forgiving words of the Gospel.

My-Hope-is-BuiltSo when Jesus speaks words about loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us,[12] we are faithful to those words. We pray for our enemies, both those we face in the so-called “culture war,” as well as those who actively seek to martyr Christ’s followers, like the people of ISIS. When Jesus speaks words of rejoicing even in persecution,[13] we are faithful to those words. No matter what happens in the government or culture around us, be it a more active persecution or simply the public shaming and social ridicule that has become common, we remain faithful to the Word of the Lord, rejoicing in the gift of forgiveness that is ours, and living in that forgiveness each and every day of our lives so that through us others might see the love of Christ.

How do we measure success? The Word is all that matters. So we cling to that Word. When that Word shows us our own sin, we don’t get defensive, we humbly confess that it is true. When that Word speaks of the forgiveness, life, and salvation that is ours through Christ Jesus, we speak a hearty, “Amen!” When that Word is at odds with the culture around us, we take our place in the long history of God’s people who experienced similar rejection at the hands of the culture around them. We stand humbly but firmly on His Word, trusting that no matter what happens this side of heaven, our salvation is secure. For Jesus himself won it, and his is the only success that matters. His life. His death. His resurrection. His Word.

So with the Apostle Paul, let us commend ourselves to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build us up and to give us the inheritance among all who are sanctified.[14]

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[1] Jeremiah 1:19

[2] Jeremiah 36

[3] Jeremiah 23:18

[4] Jeremiah 23:16-18

[5] Jeremiah 23:21

[6] Jeremiah 23:23-24

[7] Jeremiah 23:29

[8] Matthew 7:15

[9] 2 Corinthians 10:17

[10] Jeremiah 23:17

[11] James1:22

[12] Matthew 5:44

[13] Matthew 5:11-13

[14] Acts 20:32

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