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The Man Who Was Most Like Jesus

Jeremiah 17:5-10

Jeremiah, of all the prophets of the Old Testament, was the man most like Jesus. The parallels are almost uncanny. Jeremiah lived in a conquered land just as Jesus did. He came from a backwoods country town, just as Jesus did. He performed his greatest work for God in the City of Jerusalem, just as Jesus did. He knew what it was to be rejected by the members of his family, just as Jesus did. Like Jesus, he was single, never having the comfort and encouragement of a wife and children. Jeremiah taught by using parables—that would also be the method of Jesus. On one occasion he delivered a powerful sermon in his hometown, and the people in his hometown threatened to kill him—the same thing happened to Jesus. Jeremiah took it upon himself as the servant of God to restore a sense of holiness to the Temple—later on our Lord would do the same thing. Jeremiah was tenderhearted to the point where he didn’t hesitate to weep in public—and what was true of Jeremiah would also be true of Jesus. Yet the greatest similarity between Jeremiah and Jesus is not these incidental things. Rather it is the fact that five hundred years before Christ, Jeremiah understood what Jesus later confirmed, namely, that faith is a matter of the heart. It is not a matter of rules and regulations and ritual and routine. Faith is the commitment of the heart. Today I want to talk about your heart and mine—and I wish to share with you two things I have learned from the man who was most like Jesus.

First, a heart focused horizontally is the seed of defeat in life.

There is a great old hymn of the church which contains these words: “The arm of flesh will fail you; ye dare not trust your own.” In other words, if we put our ultimate trust in the things of this world, if we give our hearts only to other people in life, if our lives are lived only on the horizontal plane, then we are headed for trouble. Jeremiah says: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his arm, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a shrub in the desert and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched plains of the wilderness.” Jeremiah is right. It is folly to rely in life on human strength alone. For our human strength is weakened by the impurity of our hearts.

Just an example. The great issue of our day is peace in the world. All of us want peace. It doesn’t matter who we are, if we are rational people we do not want war. And people across the generations have labored long and hard to avoid war. But what has been the result? Over the last 3100 years of recorded history there have been only 286 years of peace. Over the last 3100 years of history, there have been more than 8000 treaties signed for securing peace and every one of those treaties has been broken in one way or another. Over the last 3100 years of history the weapons of war have become increasingly destructive. For example, the atomic bomb dropped on Japan was a ten kiloton bomb. There are 1000 kilotons in every megaton. Today we have bombs which are 20 megatons in power. Focus on the awesomeness, the awfulness of that—and then add one thing more: over the last 3100 years of history human beings have never invented a weapon which was not finally used by someone who possessed it. In the face of that grim reality, there are those who would say that the way to bring peace to the world is through unilateral disarmament.

I take to this pulpit today to declare to you that that is no answer. That is to place ultimate trust in things human, and Jeremiah reminds us that “cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his arm.” Understand me, please. I am a rational person and I want peace. More than that, I am a lover of the Prince of Peace. I am committed to peacemaking in His name. All I am saying is that to call this nation to disarmament will not make for peace. History proves, and Scripture confirms, that the side left in possession of the weapons will use them regardless. The human heart, Jeremiah says, is deceitful and corrupt.

This is much on my mind because I have learned that the recommendation will be made to our next Presbyterian General Assembly that all of us Presbyterians be called to encourage disarmament by withholding taxes used for defense, by removing R.O.T.C. programs from Presbyterian campuses, by refusing to cooperate with military services, by refusing to certify the military chaplaincy as an acceptable ministry, and by engaging in massive civil disobedience. The reason I so dearly love the Presbyterian Church is that the church cannot bind the individual conscience. My conscience leads me to oppose any such recommendation. But that is not the real issue. The real issue is that that kind of recommendation is just another example of trying to impose human solutions on the problems of our world. According to the Gospel of Jeremiah and the Gospel of Jesus that never works. To put our trust in things human—be it people or organizations or ideas or nations—is to court disaster.

Therefore I ask: Why isn’t there a recommendation to the General Assembly calling all of us as Presbyterians to daily pray for peace—asking God to intervene in the affairs of nations to bring about mutual disarmament? Why isn’t there an understanding in the church that peace on earth is a pipe dream until we address the issue of changing human hearts? Why isn’t there a renewed emphasis in the church for world mission, which in fact, has done more to promote peace in the world than any other approach in history? Why isn’t there a realization that all meaningful and lasting social change in history has flowed directly out of times of spiritual awakening and revival? Why isn’t there an understanding that, in the superpower conflict today, we are dealing with a godless political philosophy which in the last forty years has so engaged in the systematic slaughter of men, women and children that Hitler’s holocaust pales by comparison—and therefore the answer is not massive civil disobedience here, but a massive evangelistic effort aimed precisely at those places where people are oppressed in this land or in any other? The Bible says: “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

Our human efforts are not enough. Mankind has written some beautiful pages in the historical record, yes, but some tragic, ugly chapters as well. So I stand with the prophet Jeremiah who said: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man, who makes flesh his arm.” “The arm of flesh will fail you.” A heart focused horizontally is the seed of defeat in life. That’s the first thing I learned from the man who was most like Jesus.

The second thing is this: A heart focused vertically is the key to victory in life.

That great old hymn of the church also has those words: “Stand up, stand up for Jesus, stand in His strength alone.” Jeremiah phrases it this way: “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord. They are like trees planted by water that send out their roots to the stream and do not fear when the heat comes for the leaves remain green and they bring forth much fruit.” Jeremiah is calling us to focus our hearts vertically. He is calling us to place our ultimate dependence in life upon God. “Stand in His strength alone.”

Five hundred years later, Jesus not only called us to focus our hearts vertically, He showed us how to do it. If you study the life of Jesus carefully, you discover that the center of His living and His dying and His rising was His focus upon His Heavenly Father. That is why the very first word we hear from Jesus is: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” And the very last word we hear Him speak in this incarnate life before He was raised to glory—the very last word is: “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” At the beginning, “Father,” at the end, “Father.” Jesus’ focus upon God was the great driving, compelling love of His life. His focus upon God injected peace into the dry veins of His obedience. His focus upon God so filled His days with meaning and purpose that they became something beautiful to behold. It was His focus upon God that gave the deepest colors to the flower of His faith. That was the key to Jesus’ triumphant, victorious life. He knew that God always wins in life—and, therefore, the people who have focused their hearts and lives upon God win, too.

Let me come at it this way. Look back in history to the time of the Caesars. Perhaps if I were to give you a little time, you could name two or three or maybe four of them, but other than that, they are forgotten. At one time they were the wealthiest, most powerful, best-known people on earth. Now no one remembers them, while the whole world remembers that poor carpenter preacher from the little town of Nazareth who brought that great Roman Empire to its knees. Or tell me, if you can, who was the mayor of Corinth when Paul was preaching there? Give me the name, if you would, of the man who was King of France when Joan of Arc gave up her life? Or who was the wealthiest, most powerful man in Germany when Martin Luther nailed his “Ninety-five Theses” to the cathedral door? Or let’s come closer to home. When people centuries from now look back upon the century in which we have lived, whose names will they remember? Moammar Khadafy or Billy Graham? Deng Zhiaopeng or Mother Teresa? Yuri Andropov or Alexander Solzheritsyn? What I am trying to get you to see is that the ultimate victory in life belongs to those who focus their hearts and lives upon God. “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,” says Jeremiah, “for they shall bloom and flourish like trees planted beside streams of living waters.”

Here then is my hope for this world. Sure I hope and pray for peace. I hope and pray that a cure for cancer will be found. I hope and pray that the family shall be restored as the basic building block of society. But I know these things will never be accomplished by human effort alone, no matter how hard we try. What we have to do is to come to God. For it is God who, in these and all other things, will make us more than conquerors.

There are times when I stand in this pulpit and as I am preaching, I suddenly become aware of a great silence, a profound hush. It is as if time stops and I look out at your faces. They are well-lighted so that I can see them. And as I look at you, I feel the power of your eyes. You have very beautiful eyes, you know. Surely you are aware of the fact that when people are deeply serious about something, the beauty of that shows in their eyes. And when I look at your eyes, I see you saying, not loudly, but with a kind of urgent whisper: “Please say something to me. Please give me some help for life. I don’t just want words. I want answers.” And when I sense the urgency of that, I can only say that the answer is to come to God through Jesus Christ. Focus your mind, your heart, and your life upon Him and you will find the key to victory in life. What I try to do week after week after week in this pulpit is to give you God’s telephone number: Jeremiah 33:3. That’s God’s phone number. It reads: “Thus says the Lord your God, call upon me and I will answer you, and I will show you great and wonderful things which you have not known.”

Well…

That great old hymn I have mentioned in this sermon is called “Stand Up, Stand Up For Jesus.” Do you know the story behind that hymn? You should, so I will tell you. Back in 1858, there was a great evangelical revival in Philadelphia. One of the leaders of that revival was a young Episcopalian clergyman named Dudley Tyng. He was a great preacher. One Sunday night he preached to more than 5,000 people in Jaynes Hall and 1,000 of them were converted by the work of the Holy Spirit. It was the next day that Dudley Tyng went out into the country with his father to see a new corn shucking machine. Inadvertently, the young preacher got too close to the machine. It caught his arm and literally tore it from his body. Today medical science could deal with that, but not back then. As Dudley Tyng lay dying, he said to his father: “Tell them to stand up for Jesus!” Then he was gone. One of Dudley Tyng’s close friends was a Presbyterian preacher named George Duffield. That next Sunday George Duffield preached a sermon to honor his dead friend. He chose as his text Ephesians 6:14—”Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth.” He ended the sermon by reading a poem which he had written and dedicated to his deceased friend. That poem was later set to music and became the hymn “Stand Up, Stand Up For Jesus.”

And I wonder if you have ever noticed that in the third stanza the words are very specific. I pray that you never again say those words without remembering the story behind them. Listen:

Stand up, stand up for Jesus
Stand in His strength alone;
The arm of flesh will fail you,
Ye dare not trust your own.
Put on the Gospel armor
Each piece put on with prayer
Where duty calls or danger
Be never wanting there.” 

“Tell them,” he said, “tell them to stand up for Jesus.”

Yes!

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