Sixth Sunday After The Epiphany February 12-13, 2022
“Black and White” Jeremiah 17:5-8
Rev. John R. Larson Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
God sees things as black or white, good or evil, right or wrong. There are only two places where people will spend their eternity – in the joy of heaven or in the misery of hell. There is no gray to all of this. What do you think about that? It seems so harsh. But I think I’m right on this. Black or white. Good or evil. Right or wrong. Nothing in the middle.
In Matthew 7 Jesus talks about this contrast of eternity, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Verses 13-14)
Jeremiah, the book in the Bible that has more words than any other, gives his word of black and white. We find it in the words, “Cursed” and “Blessed”. “This is what the Lord says: ‘Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for strength and whose heart turns away from the Lord. He will be like a bush in the wastelands; he will not see prosperity when it comes. He will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives.’ ‘But blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, who confidence is in him. He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.’” (Jeremiah 17:5-8)
Cursed or Blessed. Black or White. Good or Evil. Right or Wrong. What Jeremiah was talking about was not new. Moses, in his final words to God’s people, many years before this, laid out the choices. “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life.” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20b)
Psalm 1, the one that leads the other 149 makes the contrast between the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, “For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” (Psalm 1:6)
There you have it, right? “Do this and you shall live.” But just when you think you have everything all planned out, everything is in order, you find out that you don’t. Life isn’t always so clear.
I thought I knew how all the surgeries and the treatments for Frank Aguilar would turn out. (Frank died three years ago on February 5.) I saw him on a Thursday at his home in Englewood. He had been through two surgeries and months of treatment for pancreatic cancer, and when I left him that day I knew I’d see him again in church, or at his home. Though the road was not going to be easy, things were going to be better. But the next time I saw him was the following Tuesday in the Emergency Room at Swedish Medical Center. I was in that room when the doctor said, “The time of death is…” I thought I knew the future but I didn’t.
William Willimon, a United Methodist preacher and once the pastor of the Duke University Chapel, tells an account of a young man who changed during his years at Duke. He came in as an 18-year-old- freshmen who came onto campus thinking he knew everything. Life was all set – black and white, right and wrong. He thought he knew all the answers before the questions were even asked. But then he did something in his freshmen year of college while he was home on Christmas break. He had sexual intercourse with a young lady at a church camp. When he got back to Duke he sought out Willimon and confessed what he had done. He couldn’t believe that he, knowing better, did such a thing.
I’m glad that God tells us that there is a right and wrong, a good and evil, a difference between life and death. But I’m even more comforted that He will tell us that we don’t have all the answers and that there is a struggle in the choices that we will make in life. The next verse following our text are these words, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) Do you know the words of James about what comes out of our mouth? “No man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.” (James 3:8-10) Under a section titled, “No One is Righteous”, Paul would say in that great chapter of Romans 3, “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 together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12) Good or Bad? Bad. Black or White? Black. Heaven or Hell? Hell.
I don’t like the fact that God is so absolute, not because of what He says, but because of who I am, and how my life is. There is one way that leads to life, and another that leads to death, and we find ourselves on the wrong path.
We’re on the wrong path if we fail to look for the right place for the right answer. Some of you old timers remember Shorty Campbell. Shorty ran this church for years. When he died a little over thirteen years ago now, we designated the usher’s closet in his memory – we call it “Shorty’s Closet.” (When I die I hope you’ll name the men’s toilet after me – “Pastor John’s john.”) When Shorty died we sang, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” at his funeral. Verse 3 (LSB 660) says, “Stand up, stand up, for Jesus; stand in His strength alone. The arm of flesh will fail you, Ye dare not trust your own.” When David was going to fight Goliath his confession is like Shorty’s hymn, “All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s.” (I Samuel 17:47a) He brought down the giant with a BB gun!!
Do you know what is Black and White? We are not going to be the blessed person by living in our own strength. “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for strength.” (Jeremiah 17:5a) It is certain that if we look to our own self to find the answers of life and death and heaven and hell we are going to get a failing grade. Jeremiah paints the picture of a bush in a wasteland, like a shrub trying to survive in the desert. But it can’t – it will die.
Living without trust in God is foolishness. Trying to solve the curse of our sin, the question of our eternity, the dilemma of daily decisions, without God as the source of our strength and wisdom and hope is just plain dumb. Jesus is your Savior. Trust in Him. Give all your sins to Him. Give your future to Him, as well.
Do you know what is Black and White? Turning to Him. “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. We will be like a tree planted by the water and sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:7-8) Just a few verses later, “Heal me, O Lord, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for you are the one I praise.” (Jeremiah 17:14)
The contrast that Jeremiah gives is between a shrub that has no source of water and the one that is a tree planted by a stream of water, whose roots go deep, and even in times of difficulty has leaves that are green and lots of fruit. The difference? They look to God for their strength. They rely on His mercy. He is the stream that provides life. Didn’t Jesus say clearly in John 4, “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)
Black and White – We can’t live without Him and His forgiveness, cleansing, grace and victory. We can’t live without the saving work of Jesus. “The arm of flesh will fail you.”
Black and White – He provides constant life to us, that even when we know that we don’t have the answers to life, its struggles and even its confusion, our great God, our Savior Jesus, will allow us to live with His hand of might.
Black and White, absolute certainty – we need Him. Black and White, absolute certainty – He provides for our greatest cares, forever. Amen!!
(This message came to the folks at Ascension originally on February 17 in 2019)