The Sermon for Sunday, July 25th, the Festival of St. James the Great
The Lessons: Psalm 7:1-11; Jeremiah 45:1-5; Acts 11:27 – 12:3
The Text: Jeremiah 45:1-5
The Topic: Gratitude for God’s gift of life
When Charles Haddon Spurgeon was eighteen years old and seeking God’s will for his life, he felt the need for theological training. Both his friends and his father advised him to attend college. So he made application to Regent’s Park College, and an interview was set between the head of the college and young Spurgeon. The meeting was to be in Cambridge at the home of Mr. Macmillan, the publisher. Spurgeon rose early that morning and had special prayer, seeking God’s guidance in the matter.
At just the appointed time, he showed up at Macmillan’s house. He rang the bell, and a servant showed him into the parlor. There he sat for two hours until at last his patience could stand it no longer. He called for the servant and was horrified to discover that she had forgotten to announce his arrival, had not let anyone know he was there, had forgotten all about him.
Meanwhile the head of the college had sat waiting in an adjoining room until his patience, too, had been exhausted, and he had left Cambridge for London by train without the interview ever having taken place.
Spurgeon was deeply disturbed, and his first impulse was to run after the man, to chase him to London, to explain what had happened. But he took a long walk out in the country to calm down, and by-and-by a verse of Scripture came to his mind so forcibly that he almost seemed to hear it audibly – Jeremiah 45:5a: “Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not!”
The Lord seemed to be telling him not to worry about the misunderstanding, not to make extraordinary efforts to clear it up, but to take it as the Lord’s will and serve the Lord humbly where he was. As a result, Spurgeon never did make it to college, but it didn’t matter. He became the most powerful, successful, and fruitful minister in the history of Victorian England, and he later said that he “a thousand times thanked the Lord very heartily for the strange providence which forced his steps into another and far better path.”
(p.18, Robert J. Morgan: Preacher’s Sourcebook of Creative Sermon Illustrations. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007.)
The general principle of not being ambitious for great things was a truth that Spurgeon learnt well before God gave him greatness through his preaching. But it was not this truth only that Baruch learnt through this oracle.
The year of this oracle in Jeremiah 45 was the fourth year of King Jehoiakim, the son of Josiah, king of Judah, which was 605 B.C., soon after or just before the first of three deportations of the people of Jerusalem and Judah to Babylon. Baruch was the prophet Jeremiah’s secretary, whom he later (604 B.C. – Jeremiah 36:9-10) commanded to read his prophecies to all the people in the Temple. Now in this oracle, the Lord repeats Baruch’s complaint. We are not sure what the reason for Baruch’s complaint was, but it could have been the feeling that his prospects were bound up with Jeremiah’s and that he had no hope for the future. What may have been particularly distressing for Baruch was no hope of greatness either in civil service or as a prophet following in Jeremiah’s footsteps.
The Lord sets the context for Baruch by proclaiming that he will break down what he has built, and pluck up what he has planted, including the whole land (Jeremiah 45:4). The context is destruction of the Promised Land and deportation of its finest people, and in this context, the Lord asks Baruch, should he be seeking great things for himself? In verse five, the Lord then tells Baruch not to seek important things for himself, in other words, not to be ambitious for high office, or wealth, or material possessions, or fame, for He, the Lord, will bring disaster on all human beings. In view of all this, the Lord’s promise to Baruch is that he will give him his life as “a prize of war” (NRSV) wherever he goes (Jeremiah 45:5b). The Hebrew word for “prize of war” is shalal, which can also be translated as “plunder” or “spoils.” Now this is an ironic use of the word since spoils or plunder were the wealth and treasured weapons or possessions that a soldier took from his defeated enemy. To receive one’s life as a prize of war is ironic because spoils and plunder are usually the opposite of one’s life, being the treasure of the enemy. But in a situation where a foreign conqueror was killing and capturing so many of his compatriots, Baruch was given the assurance that God would preserve his life wherever he went.
ST. JAMES THE GREAT
Baruch reminds us of another of God’s messengers, St. James the Great, the brother of St. John and son of Zebedee. We remember that Ss. James and John asked the Lord Jesus if they could sit one on his left and the other on his right in God’s kingdom (Mark 10:35-40). Jesus answers with the questions whether they can drink the cup that he is to drink and be baptized with the baptism he will be baptized with (referring to his passion and death). When they reply in the affirmative, he prophesies that they will indeed drink his cup and be baptized with his baptism, but that he cannot grant positions in God’s kingdom, but those positions are for those whom God has prepared for them. Now our Second Lesson records the martyr’s death that St. James suffered at the hands of King Herod. Church tradition is uncertain whether St. John also suffered martyrdom, but he might well have died as a martyr after a long life. In a sense, St. James and all the martyrs have received their lives as prizes of war, since, though they gave up their lives for the Lord Jesus Christ on earth, they live eternally in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Today, as life around the world has been both threatened and changed by Covid-19, we must maintain a sober estimate of our lives in God’s hands. God has given each one of us his life. Our lives are prizes in this great spiritual battle that is going on, and Satan is fighting to hold on to the souls in his kingdom, and God is holding firmly all who are his own, as the Lord Jesus declares in the Gospel according to St. John:
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand.
(John 10:27-29, KJV)
Give thanks then to God that he has redeemed your life through his Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ, and that the Lord has given you your life as a prize of war, snatched from Christ’s defeated enemy, and created and sanctified for the glory of God!