For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 11 – Jeremiah 2:1-14 (Related)
We’ve had a few trips into the life and times of the prophet Jeremiah recently, but this week we find ourselves back at the start of his book, in what provides an intro to everything else he’s going to say, rather like the Abstract of a PhD Thesis which sets out the main arguments in order to help people decide whether they want to read all 250 pages or not. Chapter one is famously about his call and his reluctance to obey, and then comes the summary of his message. I’ve chosen to add on the three verses before our lectionary passage, since I believe there’s an important lesson there. Jeremiah, as we know, was the prophet whose task was to announce to the nation that downfall and captivity were inescapable, and he ministered around the time of the start of the Babylonian exile, around 600 BC. He was not a happy bunny, although his work is not without hope, but to this day we call a long passage or speech full of doom, gloom and misery a ‘jeremiad’.
He’s going to spell out in great detail exactly what it is that the nation has done wrong, but in his abstract he makes it simple. Israel has done four things wrong (not just the two he mentions in v.13.
They’ve lost that loving feeling. V.1-3 looks back to the wilderness period, when, according to God, they followed him through the desert with all the love and devotion of a newly married bride. Immediately we have an important paradox: just which Bible is God reading? If you’ve been following my ‘Wilderness Years’ series of podcasts (if you haven’t, you can find them here, or by searching RevJohnLeach blog on Spotify or iTunes) you’ll know that the story was anything but one of love and devotion. It was grumble central, with the people constantly moaning, grizzling, disobeying and rebelling, to the point where Moses wanted to end his own life. So how could God look back from Jeremiah’s time and see it all as such a positive period? The answer is that he forgave. And forgot. When we forgive people, we’re often left with a trace remembrance of what they did to us, and there’s a shadow which remains between us: can we really trust them again? There’s a wariness which creeps into the relationship (at times appropriately), and however much we say we forgive, we’re still cautious. Well God isn’t like that. He remembers our sins no more. When we’re tempted to feel that our relationship has been marred by something we’ve done, that since then God has been cautious towards us, that there’s a shadow between us, we’ve failed to understand how God forgives. If he can look back on those 40 miserable years and see them as the honeymoon period, he can certainly start off again with us and a clean sheet. But the problem here is that they had lost that first love, even if he hadn’t.
They’ve found fault with God. As so often in marriages, when the love and affection dies, the carping sets in. By this time they have arrived and settled in the promised land, but they have turned against the God who so lovingly led them there (v.5).
They’ve chosen new gods instead. V.13 uses that famous picture of a nation who have turned away from the clean sparkling water which God gives them, and dug their own wells which are full of mud and muck. The nation thought they could do without God, as has ours for decades, and now they are drinking the filth their own hands have produced. But there is another big big mistake, hidden in v.8:
They failed to carry out a reality check. As their fortunes declined, they never once stopped to ask the question ‘Why?’ Why is God no longer with us? Why has he deserted us? Why are the rich getting richer and the poor poorer? Why are other nations queuing up to invade us? Why are the streets no longer safe? Why is corruption rife? The people had got used to life as it was, and had failed to stop and ask ‘Why?’
Back in 2014 the C of E published a report called Anecdote to Evidence which was a research project into church growth. The headline from it came from Professor David Voas of UCL (our arch rivals at King’s London) who famously said this:
“There is no single recipe for growth; there are no simple solutions to decline … What seems crucial is that congregations are constantly engaged in reflection; churches cannot soar on autopilot. Growth is a product of good leadership (lay and ordained) working with a willing set of churchgoers in a favourable environment.”
It is this reflective attitude, rather than soaring on autopilot, doing what we’ve always done without ever stopping to ask ‘Is this working?’ which leads to church health, and it could have led to national health for Israel too, had they only been able to pause, think and change. Jeremiah’s great complaint is that they never even stopped to ask the question.