Life’s Winters become Summers.
Jeremiah 1: 1 – 10; Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14
I was annoyed that an injury had interrupted my fitness programme. I could not run. I had injured my right foot’s 1st large metatarsal. In fact the injury had persisted for weeks and I was limited in how far I could walk. Running and walking was not possible in spite of the expensive shoes recommended by the podiatrist. One week my cousin recommended the gymnasium to me. I used to do a lot of gym work so I tried it out. Well, how pleased I am. My fitness level is way above what it was before. The injury that had set me back eventually pointed me to a different fitness programme and I am much better for it. If I hadn’t had the injury I would still be plodding along with the old programme. By the way my metatarsal is slowly recovering too.
It is interesting how a loss of one thing can lead to finding something better. It just takes time, some persistence and a little bit of hope and faith. I have found that a sickness that sends one bed for a day or two can become an opportunity for reflection. One hears stories of people who have faced major illness and through their persistence, hope and faith have come to a better place, or at least a new place that also brings wholeness to one’s life.
A gardener understands that all too well. The winter downtime accompanied by rigorous pruning leads to new and vital growth in the spring. Without the rigorous pruning and the apparently deathless sleep of winter most plants would not be flourish.
There are spiritual lessons for us in these personal and natural events of life. Yes, sometimes the sickness and loss last longer than nature’s winter sleep and are far more painful than an annual pruning. However these downtimes can become times for reflection and renewal. Our lives can be turned around for the better in spite of the physical and emotional scars we carry. All is never lost. I do not want to make light of our sufferings and deprivations, but I do believe that these hard times can become opportunities for something new and meaningful. I believe this especially so as a Christian. The Holy Spirit not only comforts us but also guides us to a new future. The sermon could end here. That’s it. But let us look at a big story of disaster and suffering recorded in the Bible and what came out of it.
We begin with Jeremiah, the prophet, who lived through the reigns of three kings, a catastrophic national disaster and great personal suffering. The book of Jeremiah is filled with personal reflections that reveal the tough nature of his calling. We tend to read Jeremiah’s call and focus on the call and the fact that he tried to escape the calling by pointing out to God that he was not a very good communicator. Well, he should have known better because Moses, Gideon, this preacher and many others had tried that line with God. It doesn’t work. God just says, ‘I’ll get you over that hurdle, don’t worry’. I’m not going there in this sermon. Instead I felt led to concentrate on the content of his mission. God called Jeremiah and said to him that his job will be to uproot, pull down, destroy and overthrow nations and kingdoms, and then to build and to plant [Jer 1:10]. Phew! What a task? To accomplish this mission Jeremiah would have to confront, challenge and bring a message of disaster. He had to tell the king and people that the nation would lose its independence, its sovereignty and king. Worst of all Jerusalem’s magnificent Temple would be destroyed.
Jeremiah obeyed God and not surprisingly he was very unpopular. Very few accepted his message. The rest stubbornly held on to the belief that when God blessed King David there would always be a king of David’s line, and the city and temple would always be there. The Covenant God made with Moses at Mt Sinai stated that God would provide for the people and that the people in return would faithfully follow God’s laws, which were the laws of love. That is, love God and love one another. That was covenantal agreement. Jeremiah pointed out that if the people disobeyed God and trusted in themselves they would stumble and suffer. Prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel and others pointed out that what was essential to being a loyal follower of God was to love God and be just, faithful and honest in dealing with each other as well as any strangers in the community. But this wasn’t the case. The people paid lip service to God in worship and carried on with their selfish pursuits.
So the people were going through the motions of faithfulness but were not sincere. They had been warned that God would punish them. All this was happening in times of political unsettledness. As you listen to the political situation you may have a déjà vu experience. There were two great superpowers, Babylon and Egypt, which were vying for dominance. I guess the bottom line was either trade or the control of land or both. There was Assyria, which morphed into Babylon, competing against Egypt for influence and control in the Middle East. Judaea and Israel were small nations at this time. They tried to manipulate the politics. They put their trust in political alliances and in the naïve belief that God would never let the Davidic kingly line disappear, or destroy the Temple and city, no matter what happened. First Israel was conquered and the capital Samaria fell to the Assyrians, then the Babylonians took over from Assyria. Judah, with its capital Jerusalem, managed to maintain some independence for a while. Unfortunately their king, Hezekiah, tried to cuddle up to Egypt but it didn’t work. Egypt failed to deliver what was promised. Throughout all these political manoeuvrings Jeremiah ministered. He tried to get the king and the people to focus on God’s laws. But the people and king trusted more their political manoeuvrings and stubbornly resisted the Babylonian empire.
The people’s unfaithfulness resulted in the devastation of Jerusalem. First the negatives.
Jeremiah was persecuted and attempts were made on his life. He was not liked at all.
Jerusalem was raised to the ground. The city walls and its defences were destroyed and the army over powered.
The Temple was pillaged and destroyed.
The leaders and the bulk of the people of Jerusalem, who became known as the Jews, were dragged off to Babylon.
Jeremiah opted to stay, but some supporters grabbed him and dragged him off to Egypt where he later died.
The positives were: –
As soon as it was clear that Jerusalem would be sacked he began speaking about the saving work of God and that God would restore Jerusalem. He actually went and bought property at the time of the sacking to show his faith in God’s compassion for the Jews.
The other thing Jeremiah and the other prophets did was to give a helpful interpretation of what was happening. They said that the city’s and the temple’s destruction did not mean God was weak and non-existent but that God was punishing them for their sin and faithlessness. This served to help them understand that God hadn’t been destroyed but that God was allowing this to happen in order to help the people become the people of God. All was not lost.
One of the amazing outcomes of this national disaster was what emerged from the ruins of national disaster and the labour camps in Babylon. Jeremiah’s mission to pull down and rebuild, to destroy and plant led to the establishment of the ‘synagogue’. What the Synagogue meant was that God didn’t need a temple where God was present. The people’s perception of God being tied to a place and space called a temple was set aside and was replaced with the understanding that God was present wherever a few of the faithful met in prayer and reflection. The Synagogue system was God’s way of keeping the people together for both the present and the future. The synagogue made the faith portable. So wherever Jews moved to they would establish a synagogue, which was a group of faithful men and their families worshipping together. They no longer needed a special building.
We may find this hard to grasp because we live with the understanding that God is ever with us. But in Jeremiah’s world – really throughout the whole world at that time – religions were centred on temples. The temple was where the god met with the people. That is a sociological fact of the times. What happened to the Jews was revolutionary. Everyone else looking at them would say, no king, no city no temple equals no god. Your god is dead. It’s all over. The prophets like Jeremiah and his compatriots at the time, reminded them of the faith of their fathers expressed in the lives of Abraham and Sarah. They left their home when God called them. What they discovered was that God was with them wherever they went. Although the sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah knew this they had put that experience aside and become like the nations, having a king and a temple. In their case Solomon’s temple was outstanding. Eventually the Jews’ national disaster revolutionised their worship and equipped them to be the faithful people of God at all times and in all places.
The message for us today I believe is this: we are going through hard times as a local church, more so as a denomination. God is doing something new. God wants us to move in new directions. I am not sure what those new directions will be, but what is important is being prepared for the changes to come. No matter what happens God’s faithfulness to us will not end.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 01/09/2019