Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The rich man & Lazarus

Most of us make assumptions.  We make assumptions about what we are, where we are going and how other people perceive us.  We make assumptions about other people and what they are and where they are going.  Some of our assumptions come from educated guesses, others from pure ignorance, whilst others from information that has been passed onto us in one form or another.

Many of Jesus parables are all about blowing apart assumptions and deconstructing religious myths.  They are about reorganising people’s hearts and minds and souls through challenging their world view.  Today’s parable is one such example and in it Jesus attacks the wealthy.

Now here is an assumption that we all make about ourselves.  Are you wealthy or not?  And if consider yourself to be wealthy is this an indication that you are a good person or, well, otherwise?  Most of you along with me would probably think that we are not that wealthy.  For example if you read the figures in the Business Review Weekly’s top 50 entrepreneurs you would be staggered at how much some people earn.  But all things are relative. 

As I was preparing for today I stumbled upon an interesting website that allowed me to find out how rich I am on a world scale.  I entered my yearly income and I was told exactly where I fitted in.  To give you a rough idea I am richer than around 5.4 billion people and there are around 600 million richer than me.  That means I am in the world’s top 11% of rich people.  Now I do not know what you earn but to give you more of an idea if you earn more than $10 000 a year you are still in the top 14% of the world’s richest people.  In our society we all know $10 000 doesn’t seem to go far at all.

Now I don’t know how all this makes you feel, but listening to the parable and Jesus attack on wealthy last week, “you cannot serve two master, God and money”; it makes me sit up and take notice.

Now when Jesus told this story Luke clearly indicates that he was attacking the Pharisees who loved money but we should not slip into any sort self-righteous Pharisee bashing.  Whilst the Pharisees might have been a convenient target Jesus’ real concern is to expose the problems that lie behind the love of money.

Looking to the parable, we are told of two men, a rich man and Lazarus, a beggar.  The story at face value does not tell us too much about these men and their morality and their way of life but there are some indicators.

For instance we must consider that rhe rich man is really very rich.  He wears purple every day and those of you who know your ancient fabrics would know that purple was the most expensive dye.  It was, and still is, associated with royalty.  Not only does the man wear purple the cloth is of the finest linen and we are told he feast sumptuously everyday.   

We are not told how this man came by this wealth and there is nothing to lead us to suspect him of any dishonesty, in fact for all we know he could have inherited the lot or maybe just been a good businessman.  So we should not be leaping to any quick conclusions.

Jesus audience, including the Pharisees, who loved their money, may have thought that this rich man was OK.  And according to some readings of the Old Testament one could argue that this man’s wealth stemmed from God and therefore indicated that God favoured him.  This is an assumption that Jesus is about challenge and he was certainly not the first to do so.

The other man, Lazarus, is a beggar and he lay at the gate of the rich man.  Now we do not pick the nuance up in the English but in the Greek the sense of the word is that man was laid there.  By whom we do not know, but we might assume that whoever has done it has done so because there is a hope that the rich man or one of his guest might show mercy to Lazarus.

We are told that this man longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table but this is not happening. We are also told that the dogs came to lick his sores.

This is an interesting aside.  Usually it was the dogs that ate the scraps underneath the table and by inserting the dogs into the story at this point it is possible that Jesus is implying that the rich man saw Lazarus as lower than dogs. 

This vision of the dogs licking Lazarus sores may appear to us to be the final indignity.  But there is another possibility.  It could infer that that the dogs are more compassionate than the rich man.  Dogs lick their own wounds and there is some evidence from the ancient world that the saliva of dogs was consider medicinal.  In other words Jesus is reversing the assumptions and judgements of the crowd.  It is not Lazarus who is lower than the dogs but the rich man, because the dogs act compassionately towards Lazarus whilst the rich man does not.

The parable then takes a fascinating turn as both men die.  Lazarus ascends with the angels to be with father Abraham whilst the rich man is tormented in Hades.  This would have been a huge shock to Jesus’ listeners who probably subscribed to the particular view that the rich are blessed by God and the poor cursed.  This is a view that we can find in the Old Testament but we also find other views about wealth and righteousness in the Old Testament. The most obvious of these views is found in Job.

Back in the parable, the rich man looks up to Father Abraham and sees Lazarus by his side.  Appealing to Abraham he calls for Abraham to send Lazarus to his aid.  The irony is clear and one can but wonder or not whether the rich man still perceives that Lazarus is lower than he because he expects him to serve him by bringing him water.

The refusal of Abraham is resolute, as resolute as was the rich man’s inability to respond to Lazarus predicament in life.  Abraham points out that between you and us a great chasm has been fixed so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so and no one can cross from there to us.

The rich man in his woe begs that someone be sent to his father’s home to tell his five brothers so they do not end up in the same place.  Abraham refuses and says if they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets then they will not be convinced if someone rises from the dead.

I am not about to buy into an interpretation that suggests that all rich people go to Hades, do not pass go do not collect hundred dollars!  Yet you and I should listen for the tensions that this sets up for us.

Just because someone turns up on Sunday, even as the minister, and sings the hymns or songs and prays the prayers, or at least has someone out the front do it for them, and listens to the sermon or parts of it not at all, and partakes of the bread and wine, and so on and so forth, this does not necessarily mean that this person really participates in what it means to be a part of the coming kingdom.  If we put aside the issue of wealth, and of heaven and hell, and look directly at what it means to be a part of kingdom life now then there are some serious questions as to how all of us live our lifestyle. 

How do we use the gifts that we have been given? Our wealth? Our time? Our intellect? Our practical abilities? Where is Lazarus at our gate?  Possibly half way around the globe? Or maybe in a detention centre? Or maybe even living under the bridges that cross the river?

The gospel imperative reminds us that Christ died for us and for this world, yet participating in his coming kingdom now involves the necessary reflection and response to those in need around us, regardless of whether we think they deserve their predicament or not.

It is confronting stuff for all of us.  Jesus last line sounds a bit like an addition by Luke.  If someone rises from the dead the brothers may still not believe.  Reading this I wonder whether there was an issue for the community that Luke writing for in terms of those who followed Jesus and those who refused to believe that Jesus had truly risen. 

The issue stays with us.  Do we really believe in God’s call in Christ who died and rose and again and has ascended?  Someone has come back from the dead and his coming back will draw us with him when he returns, but in the meantime we are called to be part of Jesus life and ministry now. 

Ultimately, I do not believe that we save ourselves. Grace is God’s sovereign gift.  The gulf between the rich man and Lazarus cannot be bridged by what we do only by God’s unconditional and compassionate decision.  Nevertheless, we as Christians are called to take seriously Jesus words if we are to be his disciples and to live our lives responding to his love.  Paul in his letter to Timothy gave him an idea of what this might mean and I want to conclude today by reading you a portion of that passage:

Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

But as for you, man [or woman] of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Half empty to overflowing

More often than not the Bible can feel like a bit of a glass half empty experience.  A downer. A depression.   We have been dwelling over the past four weeks on the prophecy of Jeremiah and from today’s reading we hear these words of condemnation.

21How long must I see the standard, and hear the sound of the trumpet? 22“For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.”

As if to twist the knife in the wound the people who chose the readings for today pair up this saying of Jeremiah with a parallel from Psalm 14.

2The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God. 3They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.

There is no one who does good, not one! Not you, not me, not mother Theresa, not Martin Luther King Junior, not anyone. 

Now a central conviction that came out of reformed theology which developed through the 1500s was the notion of the “total depravity” of humanity.  It is based on passages just like these – as human beings we are constantly turning away.  Turning from god and each other.

This week I read yet another “dear church” letter.  A letter explaining why the pews are empty and people are leaving the church. “Dear church this is why I am leaving you.”  Amongst all of its rantings the letter only briefly touched on the issue of the confronting images of the scriptures that tell us we are doing living in the world wrong: that we lack wisdom; that we are skilled in doing evil; that we are sinners.

Speaking about sin is both jargon and unpopular these days. 

Yet as a student of history and society I have not needed the scriptures to know of the depravity of humanity.

Even within my life I know my own failings and if you are honest with yourself you know this to be true too. On a personal level we all know that we have limitations and fallibility. We know that there are some people we cannot love no matter how hard we try.  But more than this individual conundrum in Jeremiah, the Psalms, and the scriptures generally, the movement and the judgement that comes is also about who we are collectively: as communities, as ancient Israel, as the church, and as humanity.  It is not just about whether I can be right with God but how the very society in which I am embedded is behaving.

Now the author of the dear church letter did say that we tend to speak in a dead and dusty language that has no relevance to our lives.  Words that have no bearing on our reality.  So, let us think on this notion of the evil of humanity for a moment or two, the heavy handed judgement that the scriptures seem to bringing, and let us bring it into a more contemporary picture.

Today is the 15th anniversary of the attack on the twin towers in New York.  It doesn’t feel like 15 years has passed but there it is.  15 years of what has become known as the war on terror.  A conflict that still rages in the Middle East and in different ways across the globe.  The atrocities continue and just this week we heard about the dropping of barrel bombs containing chlorine in Syria. In Australia this conflict is expressed daily in our anxiety, suspicion and prejudice against particular people within our community and by our treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. 

Of course this conflict is not the only game in town when it comes to violence and hatred and hurt but it has flow on consequences around the globe especially in raising the question how do we as humanity really care for one another.  The response of humanity to those who are fleeing these regions beset by terror is suspicion and anxiety at best and full blown fear and rejection at its worst. 

It is so easy to be inoculated against the travesties that are occurring in the world by our wealth and our access to entertainment but this inoculation of affluence may just be part of the problem.

 In the book Affluenza Clive Hamilton explores our obsession as culture with consumption and owning more.  He suggests that “We have grown fat but we persist in the belief that we are thin and must consume more.”  And whilst we live in a society in which we constantly seek to express our identity through what we own other cultures inadvertently become the prop for our idol of wealth and affluence.  The consequences as we should know are insidious.  A colleague of mine is the CEO of the organisation Stop the Traffik which seeks to intervene in the culture of the exploitation and trade of human lives so that in some cases goods might be produced cheaply for us. 

More disturbing is the notion that the overpopulation of the planet is leading us towards a dire future.  Julian Cribb’s book “The Coming Famine” which was written just after the Global Financial Crisis indicates the disparity between rich and poor, the pressures on food systems and the availability of clean drinking water and points at the connection between famine and war.  There has been scholarly work done on the idea that drought was a key influence in the current Syrian crisis.  Cribb’s book sits alongside Paul Gildings more disturbing book “The Great Disruption” and Clive Hamilton’s depressingly titled “Requiem for a Species” as harbingers of doom.

The ancient and dusty words of Jeremiah tell us that God’s contention with Israel is not only that they have forgotten their God but that in forgetting God they have marginalised the poor and the widow, they have shown scant regard for those in need.  The poor are not to be blamed for their predicament by the rich, they are to be helped!

Do any have the wisdom to attend the problems of our era?  Did any have the wisdom in Jeremiah’s time?  Yes occasionally we see prophets and people who shine as examples swimming against the stream of what we are told is the norm but ultimately when it comes down to it I suspect most of us often feel lost.  The problems are too big. Changing ourselves personally is too hard.   And, even when we do make changes, how can we know now that the changes will have desired outcomes?

We are lost.  John Carroll declares our humanist culture dead. But we are not without hope. We are not left with a dark nihilism.  As Christians the beginning and ending of our understanding of our lives in this world is not simply within who humanity is.

For look and see that across the hillsides of life, through the dark ravines and dangerous places we go comes a shepherd searching and seeking us.  Coming down to be one of us, walking among us, sharing with us in our lostness – Jesus comes.

This is the promise and this is the hope as we name: amidst the reality of our brokenness, and as we come to the realisation that we are lost Jesus comes to bring us home.

Here in this place week by week we share a story that is the counterpoint of the suffering of life and the wayward ways of humanity.  In the midst our folly God does not despair.  God continues to love us, to seek us out and to give us new hope.  God gives us life.

The hope of the gospel expressed so distinctly and yet surprisingly in the letter to Timothy: But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.

I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief.

Beyond the systems and communities in which we find ourselves embedded God, the good shepherd, finds us and bears us up and brings us home even when we are unaware of just how lost we are.

In the face of the tragedy, the evil, the folly and the sin God makes space for the celebration of life to be reignited.  We live.  We see glimmers of life and light. We gather here Sunday by Sunday joining in the celebration of the lost sheep.  We come remembering the one who has carried us here and who invites us to live again as part of his flock.

More than that we are given the audacious task of carrying the invitation to come and celebrate out to others.

This is what strikes me most out of the readings today.  Whilst we cannot ignore the heavy and hard reality of the pervasiveness of our evil as humanity we know that God, who is the author of all things, has sought us out in Jesus and desires us to join in a celebration grounded in new life and hope.  It is a celebration bigger than our individual existence and experience but at the same time remains intensely and entirely personal.

Yes there are passages the rightly remind us to know that we as human beings fail miserably and the consequences can be dire.  Yet that is not the heart of the message of the scriptures.  The message is of God loving, seeking, finding, forgiving, saving, inviting and celebrating.  And life goes on, the creation continues because of God’s immense and immeasurable love for us and all things.

I began with the image of a half empty glass but by now we should know better for the glass is not half empty or half full but the cup of life which we are offered overflows with God’s love. 

This is indeed good news.  Take a few moments of silence to contemplate this news and its implications for your life.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Jeremiah 18: Unable to Change

We have been following the Book of Jerimiah over the last three weeks. 

We started in Chapter 1 and were challenged to listen to Jerimiah because God puts the words into his mouth.

Then last week in Chapter 2 we listened as Jerimiah set up the conditions for repentance.  He declared to the people that they has passed the wrong way go back sign – that they had done something wrong.  To use a colloquial expression he was naming the elephant in the room.  And I( emphasised last week that this is true for all of us – we all pass the wrong way go back sign.

Now today we have jumped ahead to Chapter 18.  This is not to suggest that the previous chapters are not worth reading and I would encourage you that you might take the time as I preach this series on Jeremiah to read the whole book.

Nonetheless, today we find ourselves in Chapter 18 and Jeremiah goes down into the potter’s house to watch the potter at work.  Whenever I have heard this passage I have heard it as a fairly positive message.  God is moulding and shaping our lives like a potter at a wheel. 

Christian teachers often speak about Christian formation.  God’s hands upon us moulding and shaping us and if God is not happy with the shape of what is emerging God can change the shape.

As nice as this image is and as helpful as it can be to speak about Christian formation the imagery is a bit jarring as the passage goes on because as the scene is explained further it appears that God is calling the clay to change itself, for Israel to change itself: to turn away from doing evil and to turn toward the good.  In Christian jargon we call this repentance.

What God appears to be shaping as God works with the clay is not an individual but a consequence to come against the nation.  Will God shape destruction or will God shape life and peace.

The ideas contained here about God’s character are difficult.  Is God like a puppeteer determining everything? Is God like the God in the cartoon on the screen? Is God shaping consequences for people’s lives essentially punishing the bad and rewarding the good?  It can be easy to stumble and get caught on these questions and so ignore the fundamental problem that Jeremiah has been naming for the last 18 chapters and what he is calling the people to now

The people have turned away from God, they have ignored those who need help in their midst, they have become violent, they have declared that there is peace when there is none and so they have deluded themselves.  Through Jeremiah God is holding up a mirror which shows what the people are up to and having exposed the wrong is inviting a response: turn away from evil and turn towards the good.

God was inviting the people to re-engage – to turn back to God and allow God’s love and mercy into their hearts to reshape their lives.

You and I should hear this message as well.  That when we have done wrong or when we have failed to do the right thing all is not lost because God is still working the clay. 

So, having established the condition for repentance by exposing the wrong Jerimiah indicated that turning back to God would change the trajectory that Israel was on.

This is one of those situations in following the set readings that I wonder why the next verse was not included because in the next verse we hear what we might think is shocking response:

But they say, “It is no use! We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will.”

The people are heading for disaster, pretty much shaped by their own violence and disregard for those who are marginalised, but God can change the outcome.  Yet the people say no!

It is one of the points at which we could sit back and think about how foolish the ancient Israelites were but I always see the people of God in the Old Testament and the people of God since Christ’s coming as two sides of the one coin.

Change is difficult.  None of us like change that much.  And when we have to make changes often we need a heck of a lot of support.

Think about changes you have had to make or tried to make.  Establishing a new routine like a daily devotional time, going on a diet, beginning an exercise regime, stopping smoking, going to church more, stopping swearing, giving time to serve the poor.  And think about changes that you have sought to be part of in a community or even a whole society.  Change is not easy.

Today we heard what I think is possibly one of the most confronting passages in the New Testament.  It began with these words:

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

And finished with these ones:

“None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

If turning back to God means following Jesus then in these matters I think it could be argued most of us fail miserably.  Sell all your possessions!

But we say, “It is no use! We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will.”

We will not sell all of our possessions.  We will make our own plans.  We will build our nest eggs and protect our wealth.

So where does this leave us?  Is the potter still at the wheel?  Can a different future be formed for us as well?

The indication of Jeremiah to the people is yes.  The promise of God to us is yes! As we try to navigate through our lives God’s promises to keep working the clay.  

Ultimately, we believe the shape the clay takes is Jesus presence with us and when we fail to respond and repent as we should, when we fail to sell all our possessions or follow Jesus wholeheartedly, just as the rich young man who came to Jesus did, Jesus declares the hope of us all, “with God all things are possible”.

This is the good news:  With God all things are possible and the faithfulness of Jesus himself carries us back even when we fail to change.  So we gather, we listen, we hear the conditions for repentance and sometimes we respond well and sometimes not so much but here at the table this day we will recall that however well or badly we have responded God is for us  and God is with us in Christ and there is always hope.   

Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Conditions for Repentance: Jeremiah 2

Jeremiah 2:4-13, Luke 14:1, 7-14

Last week I began preaching on the prophet Jerimiah and suggested that it is important for us to listen for what the prophet spoke about because God puts the words into his mouth.  The first chapter of Jeremiah is very much about establishing the importance of this very point – Jeremiah is important and listening to his voice is important.  His words which are God’s words will include judgement and hope, words that are uncomfortable to hear because in them we hear God contending with people and their behaviour.

As we move now into Chapter 2 and through to Chapter 6 of Jeremiah what Jeremiah is doing is setting up the conditions necessary for repentance.  He begins to outline what it is that the people had done wrong – which largely boils down to their decision to forget about God.

But here’s the problem when people are wrong sometimes, and probably a lot of the time, they don’t know that they are wrong. 

Essentially what Jeremiah is saying is that back there in time you made some bad decisions and now you are not even aware that they were bad decisions.

Last week I emphasised the point that when we listen to these ancient stories we are listening to the living voice of God still speaking through them so in theses chapters of Jeremiah one of things that I think that we are hearing is the same thing.  That at some point in our lives just like the Israelites we have passed the sign “Wrong way. Go Back”

We do as individuals, we do it as communities and we probably even do it collectively as humanity.  We make bad decisions, wrong decisions.

Now as the author Kathryn Schulz points out often we don’t realise that we are wrong, we ar3e completely unaware that we have made a wrong decision and it is only when this is pointed out to us that we become aware and we might then regret our decision, or in our context as Christians admit our fault as we confess our sin.

Sometimes our wrong decisions can have big impacts on ourselves and on others and sometimes they are smaller.  And there can be no doubt that our decision making have layers of complexity or that sometimes we can oversimplify the decisions.

Sometimes there is clearly a right way or a wrong way when we are making a decision.

If we make the wrong decision though it may be realised immediately or it may be we think we are still right and it may take us days or months or even years to realise, that is to say if we ever do!  Yet the decisions we make and our awareness of them can change us.

Let me share a story about a time I did something wrong.  I was at the National Assembly meeting of the Uniting Church.  There were about 400 people in the room and we had been debating a sensitive issue for a few hours.  Now in our meeting we were given the option of holding up an orange card, for agreement, or a blue card, for disagreement or concern, and we were coming to the final vote.

The last card I had held up was blue but now we were to make the final decision and the President of the Assembly called for us to hold up our cards and there was a sea of orange cards waving in the air and I thought to myself finally we have arrived.  But then the President said wait we still have one blue card and holding my card aloft still I looked around the room for the blue card as gradually I saw more and more eyes turning to the corner of the room I was in.  The person next to me nudge me and pointed at my card, oops – not the orange card I thought I was holding.

It was at that point I realised I had accidently grabbed the wrong card and waves of embarrassment washed over me as I changed my card whilst the whole meeting watched on.

Now this accidental choice may not have been deliberate but it still had consequences and I still feel a sense of shame and embarrassment when I think about this simple mistake.  Of course, sometimes our decisions are more intentional but all of us can make decisions that are unknowingly or knowingly wrong and it is not until they are pointed out that we might feel that sense of regret and sorrow over the decision.

I would want to say though often life is more complex than simple right and wrong decisions and when we are given a decision to make we have multiple options.

Often as Christians we might think there is only one “right” choice to make from the multiple options but I am not sure that is the case.  We can seek God’s wisdom and try to make the best choice from the options yet just as one there is only two options there can be options we take that later on we might regret.

The prophet Jeremiah is trying to help the people realise that some of their decisions, especially in relationship to God have been wrong ones.

They passed the sign!

They forgot about God’s love and grace and generosity.  The made their own cracked cisterns rather than delighting in the living water of God.

Jeremiah is exposing the need for repentance and declaring that though they might think they are right the people have been wrong.  They have chosen a path that leads away from God and into themselves.

As we listen to this story and we remember our own lives and the history of humanity we confronted to consider our own journey through life.  This is why we confess our sins each week – even though sometimes we may not even know what those might be.  We confess that we passed the wrong way go back sign.

We do it in our own lives.  We do it as parents, as colleagues, as spouses, and as friends.

And sometimes we do it as communities, even as congregations.  If we look back through the history of this congregations there is no doubt that we would find moments in which we ask, ‘Did we forget God?  Did we take the wrong pathway?’  We certainly have done it as the church through history.

I remember meeting a young Baptist guy about 20 years ago who was doing his doctorate on the idea of confession and repentance because he was struggling with the fact his grandparents had been involved in running aboriginal missions in which children were taken from their parents.  When many of the people involved were doing what they were they believed they were doing something right, not wrong.

The reading that we had from Jeremiah does not resolve the problem that he is naming for the Israelites or for us.  Yet listening to the gospel reading for the day we do get a sense of how we might respond.

In Jeremiah we find a God who judges, who contends with the people for forgetting him.  A jealous God.  But here in Jesus we find a God who is encouraging humility, encouraging us not to see ourselves as better than others.

This is not about self-hatred or self-deprecation, it is about acknowledging that we are people that are like the Israelites.  We pass the sign wrong way go back and we do not even see it.

Yet in the story we are also reminded that Jesus took the lowest seat of all on the cross and later was exalted as he was raised from among the dead and then ascended.  The promise of God is that this journey from the humble seat to the exalted one is promised to you and I as well.

So have we been like God’s people of every age.  Do you and I pass the wrong way go back sign?  Yes.  Do we hear the voice of God declaring our predicament? Yes. Do we find hope in Jeremiah’s promise of the Messiah and the coming of Jesus? No doubt we can.

Jesus presence in the world and his presence now through the power the Holy Spirit is a source of hope for us. Let us then consider our decisions, and the directions we have taken, and let us find hope in the one who stays with us even when we pass the sign wrong way go back. 

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Whose voice?

A sermon on Jeremiah 1:4-10

When we as people come into the presence of the prophets, we come into the presence of people chosen by God to speak into our midst as human beings.
We come into the presence of people that God chose and set aside to be a mouth piece.
We come into the presence of God speaking to humanity.
Speaking words of judgement and of hope.
Words of destruction and reconstruction.
Words that may be difficult to hear.
But words that we should heed.

On most Monday nights I watch the ABC show Q&A.  Last Monday night one of the audience members asked, “Who should we listen to?” 

In the context of the clamour of competing voices can we hear a clarion call from within the cacophony?  So many experts, so many opinions, so many ideas?

In trying to navigate the complexities of life whomever else we may choose to listen to, by being here this morning you are publicly declaring your desire to listen for God’s voice.  We come to listen for a voice that comes from beyond the constriction of our created existence.  We come to listen for the Word which gives us hope in the midst our struggles.

We come because we are bent double like the woman in the story we read from Luke. We are bent double with the weight of problems that afflict our lives.  Some of us are bent low with physical infirmities and illness.  Some of us are bent low from broken relationships and the disconnection that has occurred between us and people that we love.  Some of us our bent low with anxiety and worries, real or imagined.  Some of us our bent low with our pride and our greed, though we do not know it or acknowledge it.  Some of us are bent low with the constant bombardment of images of suffering from across the globe.  And, some us are simply bent low with age and the weariness of life.  Bent double like the woman we come unobtrusively, hoping to hear a word that helps us see beyond our present experience to the God who made us and who loves us.

Who should we listen to?  Whoever else it is that we might choose to give some authority in our life where it be politicians, populists, or professors we come to listen for God.

We come to listen for God’s eternal Word speaking to us, into our midst.

And today as we come we hear ancient words spoken to the prophet Jeremiah coming to life.  Not dead words but the living Word of God spoken to a boy whom God had been chosen from before the time he was even in the womb.


“Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.””


But the boy’s response is full of doubt and uncertainty, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”

“I am only a boy.”  Jeremiah’s response to God’s revelation is an excuse, an avoidance, an exit point – I am only! Only a boy!

As a preacher it is very tempting for me to head down the pathway of asking about the times you and I have used our excuses in life.  “I am only” “I am just”.  But this would be to turn us all into little Jeremiah’s. I don’t think that is the point of the story.  The point is not to begin to compare ourselves to Jeremiah and somehow be challenged to be more like him.  No!  I think the point of the story is to think about why we should listen to Jeremiah’s voice: because it is God’s words that he speaks.

God responded “Do not say I am only a boy; for you shall go to all to whom I send you and you shall speak whatever I command.”  Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.”

When Jeremiah speaks we should take heed because Jeremiah speaks with words that God has placed in his mouth.

Now Jeremiah lived around 600 years before Jesus, It was a time that many of the Israelites pursued the worship of other gods.   The King at the time was Jehoiakim who is said to have been a godless tyrant.

Knowing this context it should come as little surprise that the words that Jeremiah is to speak are ones of judgement and destruction. God declares to the boy Jeremiah:

“Today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”

The ancient world was full of violence and whilst we might struggle with the implication that God is involved in a violent deconstruction of the nations and the kingdoms we should listen to words of judgement in the context of a world at war; in the context of a world in which the weak and helpless are all but ignored.

How alike is the world that we live in now?
Are there still people who are voiceless, powerless, disenfranchised?
Do we not see images of suffering within our communities and across the globe?

It would seem to me that our violence as humanity is a perpetual reality and though I would challenge the notion of God’s violence in the prophecies I would want also to remind you of our human predilection to violence.

How can this violence be turned on its head? How will the cycle of violence be interrupted?

Jeremiah’s prophecies do not contain all of the answers and the consequences of the violence of Israel and its ambivalence towards the widow and the orphan will be violence. 

But, and this is the important but, perpetual violence is not the goal.  For Jeremiah is to build and to plant as well – to give new life, to nurture the growth.

Part of the growth that Jeremiah nurtures is the vision of the coming Messiah – hope for an interruption to the violence of humanity that has eternal significance.

We believe that Messiah to be Jesus of Nazareth and through his life, his death, his resurrection and his ascended ministry we believe God is seeking eternal peace for the creation, the shalom and Sabbath rest for all people.

In Jesus we see God sharing in the deconstruction and reconstruction of nations and kingdoms and of all creation.  In Jesus God is building and planting the new creation.  This is ultimately the hope that Jeremiah is speaking to his people and that God continues to speak to us now.  God’s future transcends the violence of death and destruction and is about nurturing something new.

This is the voice of hope, the voice of good news that we come to hear.

This is the voice of hope that the woman who was bent double was hoping to hear.

We know the story.  Jesus was teaching in the midst of the synagogue and Jesus saw her and saw her in her need.  And Jesus reached out and Jesus healed her.

And she rejoiced and the people rejoiced and gave thanks to God.

Now of course there were those who wished to challenge Jesus healing, who were upset by what they saw as a breach in protocols around the Sabbath.  But Jesus response reminds them of God’s grace and goodness transcending the rules and the need for healing to come.

Jesus actions and his words remind us that God sees us who are bent double with the woes of life and that God shares our suffering and desires fulfilment in our lives as well.  Though we may have to wait, though it may not be our turn yet to receive that healing, we listen with hope to the miracle of the women and we celebrate God’s faithfulness by giving thanks and praise to God.

When we as people come into the presence of the prophets, we come into the presence of people chosen by God to speak into our midst as human beings.
We come into the presence of people that God chose and set aside to be a mouth piece.
We come into the presence of God speaking to humanity.
Speaking words of judgement and of hope.
Words of destruction and reconstruction.
Words that may be difficult to hear.
But words that we should heed.

In the midst of our afflictions, our ailments, our violence God is building something new, God is planting seeds of new life, those who are bent double are straightened up with hope and we listen for the voice of God, of Jesus and of Jeremiah who speak from beyond the constriction and confinement of our created existence full of God's peace and love.