SERMON PREACHED at THE WAIAPU CATHEDRALof St JOHN THE EVANGELIST, NAPIER
(November 29th) 2015
Jeremiah 33:14-16Psalm 25
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Five hundred and eighty seven years before Christ the safe world of believers’ cosy relationship with God was shattered. Assyria, Babylonia and Egypt were at each other’s throats. Power surges and vacuums inter-twined. Villages and cities were slaughtered, populations upended, migrations and genocidal obliterations reverberated across once-fertile lands, and rivers ran with blood. Josiah had attempted to reform Israel’s faith and the complacent and self-satisfied people wanted little to do with his God. The Egyptians slaughtered Josiah, the Babylonians slaughtered the Egyptians, the Egyptians re-slaughtered the Babylonians and so it went on. Somehow, through it all, a tiny Middle Eastern tribe of not always nice, more-or-less monotheistic former nomads found and lost, briefly observed and lost again a bunch of laws and rituals that made them distinctive, though they by and large indifferently ignored the demands of their inconvenient justice-seeking, hope-promising God.
Into all this stepped a prickly bugger named Jeremiah, who began to warn his complacent compatriots that their self-satisfied pride was soon to come to an end. Like many before me I am tempted to add that my use of the word “bugger” in a sermon will have caused some more offence that the fact that the people of God had become self-satisfied and complacent, or that the Middle East then as now was descending into chaotic slaughter.
That aside perhaps, Jeremiah dared to challenge the self-satisfaction of his people, was put on trial for his troubles, was rescued from execution, but died in obscurity and crippling sorrow, depicted in the Book of Lamentations. His people did not listen, his nation was destroyed, his faith-narrative almost – but in the end only almost – obliterated from the earth. Amidst all this he had continued to serve the God he trusted, and even, as his people’s complacent lives were shattered, had dared to suggest that God would one day bring hope to them again: in those days, he said, Judah will be saved. He died without seeing it.
It was as if Jeremiah spoke of God acting as a magnet, drawing God’s people into a future. It was an impossible, unseeable future, and whether Jeremiah promised good or ill he was hated for it. The Hebrews’ God was unsexy, demanding and frankly embarrassing, and compromise with marauding Egyptians, Babylonians and Assyrians made far more sense that the awkward demands of this risible and inconvenient deity. God had been a kind of useful entity in the Hebrews’ brief nationalistic glory days, providing entertaining and uplifting rites and a little bit of Zionist fervour, but when the going gets tough the self-satisfied get pliable, get compromisable, get unidentifiable.
If we dare to sing “teach me your paths, O God” we may discover that we are called out of the respectable into the ridiculous, called out of comfort into chaos, called out of complacency into naked exposure: only then after learning at last with Jeremiah and Paul and the great prophets of God that we have to fling ourselves broken and hopeless into the twilight realm of God’s promises, only then may we find the living warmth and embrace of the God who is always there, beckoning, waiting, weeping.
Global warming, clashing civilisations, travel warnings, the rise of apparently vicious and puerile Presidential candidates in the world’s most powerful nation: we might well wonder what beasts are slowly slouching towards the Bethlehem of our cosy western comfort zones. Yet as Egypt, Assyria and Babylon treated Palestine as a battle ground it is hardly likely that things were a bunch of fluffy ducks for the Hebrews. Individual lives and the life of a corporate civilisation were under threat in 587 b.c.e. no less than in almost any decade since on almost any tectonic plate of God’s earth. Jeremiah though dared to speak of a living, pulsing God and God’s future despite the ever-present threat of personal or cultural obliteration and no-future, un-future. Today we might be more aware of earth’s every atrocity and idiocy, as far right terrorists hold shoot outs in Colorado abortion clinics, global temperatures rise, and the great empires of the post-modern era carve up Syrian airspace as they attempt to eradicate their own Frankenstein’s monsters, but for human beings the threat is the same: obliteration. And in the face of the unchanging universal threat Jeremiah dared to speak of a God who promises, who weeps, who cares even for a sparrow that falls (though those words were from a later prophet who saw the signs and dared to believe). Jeremiah asks us to read the signs of the time with a bible in one hand and remote control in the other.
But the bible we hold in our hands (and I hope we do), while it speaks of portents and portents of portents is not a time table. It does not speak of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, or Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. It is in itself a promise: “lo I am with you always, even to the ends of the ages.” It is the promise that humanity’s “no”, the decimation of God’s earth and species, the death of dodos and Hector’s dolphins and Baishan fir trees, this is not the final word. It is the promise that what Louis-Ferdinand Céline refers to as cancer cells creeping up our bowels or the sickening sound of sliding tyres and crunching metal is not the final word. It is the promise built on the experience of countless generations of imperfect human beings, the experience that humanity’s fragility is not the final word, that God’s “yes” is.
It is the final word that strangely dwells in humanity’s DNA. In our uncanny status as homo religiosis we long for meaning beyond life in a way that other animals do not, long with a longing that is often repressed, cauterized, trivialised, killed, sometimes with good reason. Yet in all this longing there is a hint of the truth of the imago dei, the image of God that is unique to the upright, laughing ape that we are. As homo religiosis cries out in a myriad ways “to you Lord I lift up my voice,” finding rites around life and love and death, we reveal our possession of this image of god, this signature of the God who is not just Alpha or just Omega but is Alpha and Omega; the signature of the Creator who beckons us from billions of years of yesterdays since we left the primeval swamp and on to an eternity of love in the presence of the God of Jesus Christ, in the presence of those we have loved and lost and will find again, in the many mansions of the eternal City.
In Advent we join the dance of those who have dared to believe. It’s not a sexy journey. It’s not a journey of the elite or the sophisticated or the good enough, of the clever or the holier or cleaner or smarter than thou. It is the journey of those who know each day that we are not good enough, that we are a sin-doing people, that we are an arrogant and unholy people, that we are a people and I a person who desperately needs the healing, restoring love-touch of Jesus the Christ as we cry with the psalmist “pardon my guilt.” It is a journey in the end though that, if we dare to take it, will take us beyond the death throes of any and every being and any and every civilisation into the forever dance of God and those we love in God.
The peace of the beckoning Christ be always with you.