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Saturday, 3 September 2016

God's enemies as God's servants

In an arbitrary attempt to bring this series in line with the current lectionary I have now jumped forward three years from my last post ... but we're still back with sermons written in the dark ages of 2007 ... no longer in the semi outback Australian town of Charleville (and environs) but the New Zealand provincial city Whangarei)

(2nd SEPTEMBER) 2007


Jeremiah 2.4-13
Psalm 81.1, 10-16
          Heb. 13.1-8, 15-16
         Luke 14.1, 7-14

At this time in history, as much as at any other time, the word spoken to the people of God by and through the pre-exilic prophets has become a word on target. The ‘pre-exilic prophets’ are those who expended their lives speaking to a complacent People of God, warning them that their haphazard approach to justice, compassion and worship would lead God to turn away from them.
The task of the prophet is not in some crystal ball way to predict the future, but with prayer-filled and God-given wisdom to see and interpret the hand of God in the present and the past, and thereafter to make insightful suggestions about the road ahead. Their task was almost always a road to unpopularity. After Solomon the people of Israel experienced cycles of unity and division, cultic loyalty to their God and nonchalant disinterest in their God. Eventually the prophetic role was born: when the northern kingdom’s King Ahab married the pagan and anti-God Jezebel it was too much, and first Elijah and then Elisha spoke up, warning of God’s anger.
The religious life of Israel and Judah went in cycles. Sometimes they showed some signs of improvement, and the laxities and compromises were driven out of the practices of the nation. Times of peace would then lead to renewed religious complacency and compromise. It was into one of these times of religious malaise that the major prophets exploded, warning a complacent people of shattering events ahead. Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Micah warned and warned again, but the Hebrews paid no heed. The population believed that God was in heaven and all was well, that eternal cosy comfort was theirs. They ignored the plight of the poor, and turned worship into platitudinous mouthing about a docile God.
Assyria swept down from the north, taking all before it. Israel and Judah were first compromised, and then shattered. For a while it seemed, however, that the prophesies of Isaiah and the attempts of King Hezekiah to bring his kingdom back to acceptable standards of justice and worship saved the day. Assyria over-reached her limits. Waves of invasions and counter-invasions took place, but miraculously Jerusalem was not destroyed. Eventually the king Josiah rebuilt his nation’s faith and confidence in God. The Ancient Law of Israel was reinstated, and the people Israel were briefly an independent nation once more.
But the reforms were too brief, too quickly forgotten, and our prophet Jeremiah arose in this moral vacuum to warn his people that, if they did not hear God’s call to justice, this time there would be no miracle. Jerusalem would fall. My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.
There are warnings in this history for the New Testament people of God. Jeremiah spoke to a people who had ears, but even so refused to listen. They had been given, over the centuries, lesson after lesson. The messages in our era, in recent decades and centuries, have perhaps been given by methods other than bloody invasions, but the messages are no less clear for those who will hear the voice of God in past and present. There have been never-ending lessons for the western world, and there are stern warnings for the West in the events since 9/11. The warnings were already there: the complacency and unchecked inhumanity that led to Auschwitz and Hiroshima should remind us that we are far from the people we could be. As Paul put, reflecting on the place of the Law, ‘I do the things I do not wish to do.’ Humankind and you and I as individuals will do the same, falling short of the image of God, let alone the glory of God.
But the warning of the prophets is in this secular post-Christendom age a warning to the community of Christ. The author of Hebrews challenged the Jesus-community to show exemplary standards of love. In doing so she was standing in the tradition of Paul, who wrote to the wayward and increasingly loveless Corinthians: ‘let all that you do be done in love’ (1 Cor 16.14). Hers is a call to conspicuous integrity. It is a call that recognizes, that, like the people of Israel, we will fall short. The Lord is my helper. It is in private and corporate prayer, in constant turning and re-turning to God, that we become the people we are called to be.
When the leaders of Israel returned their people to the standards of God they did so by calling them back to the disciplines of faith. Our task is to call ourselves back. From Israel we learn: do we hanker after values and standards of the society around us, or do we cling tenaciously to values our story should instil in us? Where we are a people who care for those around us, and do so more than anyone else, self-sacrificially and prophetically, then we bear witness to Christ. When we buy into dominant paradigms of instant gratification, then we fail to be the counterculture, the sign to the people, that Israel was called to be. ‘For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted’ is not the way of commerce, of advertising, of the dominant me-now paradigms of society. But it is the way of Jesus and of his antecedents the Hebrew prophets of Israel and Judah.

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