SERMON PREACHED AT ALL SAINTS’, CHARLEVILLE
FIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
(12th September) 2004
Jeremiah 4.11-12, 22-28
1 Timothy 1.1-2, 12-19a
Jeremiah the prophet was such an unflinching and outspoken character that his name, twenty-five centuries after his death, came to be used as a nickname for a party-pooper or spoilsport, a Jeremiah. Yet this use of his name was not altogether fair; he is a party-pooper only when the party involves neglect of the relationship between God and the people of God, and neglect of the standards of compassion and justice demanded by God in return for the privileges God had provided. In other words, Jeremiah is the conscience of a nation (much as Sir William Deane was in this country a few years back (whether or not that was his role).
One way in which Jeremiah ensured his own unpopularity and loneliness was by suggesting that the calamities that befell Judah and Jerusalem were the will and intention of God. One could imagine that it would not be a way to win popularity in contemporary Australia or the United States that the horrors currently befalling the West (and we could include Russia in that category) were the will of God. The Americans are a religiously conscious nation, for better or for worse, whereas in Australia generally we are not, for better or for worse. In either case, the message that suffering is the will of God would be a passport to ostracism and hatred.
Yet it was the message of Jeremiah:
Tell the nations, “Here they are!”
Proclaim against Jerusalem,
“Besiegers come from a distant land;
they shout against the cities of Judah.
They have closed in around her like watchers of a field,
because she has rebelled against me,
says the Lord.
Your ways and your doings
have brought this upon you.
This is your doom; how bitter it is!
It has reached your very heart.”
Jeremiah is suggesting that the enemies of God’s people are the instruments (but never the friends) of God. Isaiah is to go further, describing Cyrus, conqueror of Israel, as his chosen servant (Is. 45.1). The implications of such a claim are phenomenal: “Osama, my servant” would ring in our ears with the same cacophonous alarm. There is no room here for the inevitable horror that we all feel at the high human cost of bombings in New York, Washington, Denpasar, Madrid, Jakarta, or, most horrific of all since 9/11, Beslan. The scriptures of the Hebrew prophets do not generally wrestle with the great philosophical questions as to how God allows horror and tragedy, but demand that the people of God learn from the tragedies that have befallen them.
How great a contrast this punitive God is with the gentle Jesus-as-shepherd of the Lukan parable or of the Fourth Gospel’s “I am” saying, “I am the good Shepherd.” With the Europeanization of the gospel, the rugged danger of the shepherd’s life has been watered down to images of gentle Southdown lambs and green pastures, rather than the rugged Palestinian sheep and ravishing wildlife of the original context. However even if this error is corrected the image of the shepherd God seems far removed from the furious and betrayed God of Jeremiah. So much so that one early church father, subsequently condemned as a heretic, sought to excise the Hebrew scriptures from the bible.
How wise it was that he, the heretic Marcion, was found to be wrong! for while we all to a person feel more comfortable with images of the compassionate God-in-Christ seeking lost sheep, it remains critical that we do not reduce God to domesticity and nicety. The God who flings the fires of stars across the heavens is not a god to be tamed to Europeanized domesticity. The God of the ugliness of Good Friday is not a god unable to bear the scars of Beslan or 9/11, however brutal they may be.
As the critics of Marcion rightly saw, we are not called to choose between Jeremiah’s God and the God revealed in Jesus Christ as an either/or. Even within the life of the one we have come to know as Good Shepherd Christ there is the discomforting image of a bull whip taken at the very least to the tables of the money changers in the Temple. This is no domesticated God revealed in the man Jesus. Yet it is the tender God already known in the Hebrew Scriptures from the Genesis story of the expulsion from Eden, the God who expels yet personally clothes the miscreant proto-humans.
In the end the witness of Hebrew and Greek scriptures are alike. God the compassionate reserves the right to be God the furious: “I am who I am” says YHWH in answer to the domesticating question “who are you.” I will be who I will be.
Anger in the scriptures is always directed at socio-religious hypocrisy, hypocrisy which may include cosy attempts to domesticate the Lord of heaven and earth. Yet in the life-revelation of Jesus of Nazareth the emphasis shifts fractionally. God is revealed not as domesticated, nor certainly as the good-time warm-fuzzy god of so much contemporary preaching, but as a God prepared to taken into God-self the unimaginable horror of the Cross, unimaginable horror of Beslan, of 9/11, of whatever else lies ahead, and whisper resurrection into its ugly scenes.
This then is the God we are called to choose and serve in humbleness, but never in domestic complacency.