False gods and the real God (a sermon on Jeremiah 2:1-13)

If you want to avoid going through emotional pain or grief or suffering, one thing you definitely need to do is avoid getting into committed human relationships. Committed relationships always involve us in pain of some kind. To be a husband or wife, to be a parent or child, to be a grandparent, to be a close friend, is to make ourselves vulnerable. It opens us up to worry, pain and grief. We will experience trouble in this life, and the agony of bereavement when we lose those we love. Relationships are wonderful, but they are also very hard. We can’t have the wonder without the hardship.

This principle works itself all the way through creation all the way up to the highest point, the throne of God himself. The God we read about in the Bible doesn’t hold himself aloof from his creation; he’s passionate, involved in his world, and totally committed to the people he loves. And this leaves him open to pain and anguish. Philip Yancey has described the God of the Old Testament prophets as ‘a jilted lover’ – jilted by his bride, Israel, consumed by grief and anger, but so head over heals in love with her that he’s desperate to get her back.

This is what’s behind the language we read in the Bible of God as a ‘jealous God’. It doesn’t sound very attractive – we might even say it’s unworthy of God – but then, when we think about it, there are some situations where jealousy is understandable. A married couple commit themselves to each other to the exclusion of all others; this commitment sets up the expectation of faithfulness. The wife of an unfaithful husband will naturally feel jealous; most people would say that she has a right to feel that way. And let’s remember that the Old Testament writers see God and Israel as being symbolically married to each other; that’s what the covenant is all about. Let’s explore this idea in our reading from Jeremiah today. Look with me first at verses 1-3:

‘The word of the LORD came to me, saying: Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the LORD: I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. Israel was holy to the LORD, the first fruits of his harvest. All who ate of it were held guilty; disaster came upon them, says the LORD’.

This is an allegorical description of the time when Israel was wandering in the desert on the way from Egypt to the promised land. God had led them out from Egypt, delivered them from the Egyptian army at the Red Sea, and now he was guiding them through the wilderness under the leadership of Moses.

Jeremiah uses two poetic images here. First, he describes Israel as a newlywed bride. Speaking for God, he says,

‘I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown’ (v.2b).

God and Israel had gotten married to each other, and the wilderness journey was their honeymoon! Where our English Bible says ‘the devotion of your youth’, the Hebrew word for devotion is hesed, sometimes translated ‘steadfast love’ or ‘committed love’ – the love that’s not just about feelings but faithful actions. Usually in the Old Testament hesed is used to describe God’s love for people; this is one of the rare occasions where it’s used to describe human love for God.

Most newlyweds don’t have to be told to spend time together – they love it! They have a sense of wonder about each other, a sense of embarking on a journey of new discoveries, of plumbing the depths of love and passion for each other. It was the same with God’s new bride, Israel, in those desert days: she was deeply in love with the God who had rescued her from slavery in Egypt, to the point of being willing to turn away from all other gods and follow him through the dreadful wilderness to the land he had promised to give her.

Second, Jeremiah describes Israel as the first fruits of God’s harvest.

‘Israel was holy to the LORD, the first fruits of his harvest’ (v.3a).

The Law of Moses said that when the harvest was gathered in, the first fruits – the grain and fruit that was harvested first – was to be given to God for the exclusive use of the priests. No one else was allowed to eat it, because it was ‘holy’ – a word that means ‘set apart for the exclusive use of God’. ‘Holy’ comes from the same root in the Bible languages as ‘sanctified’ and ‘saint’ and ‘consecrate’. So Israel was God’s holy people; God had consecrated her to himself. Israel accepted this joyfully and was happy to live it out daily.

You might be thinking, ‘What’s all this got to do with me?’ Well, this feeling of spiritual honeymooning is common among people who go through a conversion experience. In some cases, the conversion is from a lukewarm faith to a deep, heartfelt relationship with God. In other cases, it’s what we call a ‘darkness to light’ conversion: someone who has no faith in God suddenly discovers that God is real and commits himself or herself to knowing and following God.

This kind of honeymoon faith is often passionate, even reckless. I remember my own conversion experience as a young teenager. I was raised in church, but never really had a sense of connection with God. When I found that, I was passionate about it. I read the Bible eagerly every day – I spent time in prayer – I went at least once a week to a small group for prayer and Bible study. I loved singing the new worship songs that were coming out at the time. I read the things Jesus had to say about living a simple life with few possessions, and living without violence, and I was attracted by them and tried to practice them. And I did my best to share my faith with other people. This was my spiritual honeymoon, and I look back on it with great fondness.

But sooner or later things start to cool down, and then comes the potential for trouble. God’s tone changes in verse 4, and he definitely starts to sound like a jilted spouse. ‘Was there something I did wrong? Didn’t I love you enough? Was it something you wanted me to do that I didn’t do? Was it something I said? Tell me, and I’ll make it up to you!’ So in verse 5 God says,

‘What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?’

In desperation, God reminds them of all he did for them – rescuing them from Egypt, leading them safely through the desert, bringing them to their promised land. What was their response? They abandoned him and turned to other gods instead.

According to the Old Testament, this turning to other gods came after the Israelites settled in Canaan after their desert journey. When you understand the culture of the time it’s not actually hard to understand it. In those days the idea of one god being the god of the whole earth was very rare. Most gods were seen as territorial, and so Yahweh was the god of Israel, Molech was the god of Moab and so on. When you moved to a new land it was smart to get to know the local gods; they were in charge, so you’d be wise to avoid offending them! Also, if you were a farmer, the local fertility gods were the ones who made your crops grow, so not making offerings to them wasn’t a smart thing either.

But the weird thing is that this never actually worked for Israel. The Old Testament story is clear: when they turned to other gods, things went badly for them. Jeremiah says ‘They went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves’ (v.5b). The Hebrew word for ‘worthless’ can also mean ‘empty’, ‘vain’, ‘useless’. Worshipping idols turned out to be a gigantic waste of time.

How does this apply to us today? Modern idolatry in our western world is not about statues of gods made out of wood or stone. In Jeremiah 1:16 Jeremiah says of his people, ‘They have made offerings to other gods, and worshipped the works of their own hands’. Today, we’re still worshipping the work of our own hands. We still think that the things we make for ourselves or buy for ourselves are the things that can make us happy and bring us a sense of fulfilment. We can build a big house, buy a big car, fill a big bank account. We can make a big country that the rest of the world fears; we can start a fashion trend, we can learn the secret of eternal youth, we can build a business empire second to none.

We were created to have the one true God at the centre of our lives. We were designed to find our primary identity as his children, made in his image, loving him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving our neighbour as ourselves. This is what the human being was designed to do. But idolatry is putting something else – something other than God – at the centre of our lives.

Why would we do that? I can think of a couple of reasons. First, idolatry is widely accepted in our society. Of course, we don’t call it ‘idolatry’, but that doesn’t matter; whatever you want to call it, the fact is that the majority of people in our world live with something other than God at the centre of their lives. And that’s generally applauded. If you’ve decided that the meaning of life is to get ahead, to gradually become more and more wealthy, to own more and more things and to enjoy a more and more luxurious lifestyle, no one in our world thinks that’s weird. Why would they? Politicians love people who do that; they call it ‘economic growth’! Jesus called it ‘worshipping mammon’, but who listens to Jesus?

Likewise, in our society, if our country is attacked and you join the chorus of people calling for a dramatic act of revenge, no one thinks that’s weird – it’s just common sense. The Bible says that vengeance is God’s – it’s his prerogative, so to take revenge is to make yourself into a false god. But very few people take that idea seriously, even in churches. In this and many other instances, idolatry is seen as normal, and faithfulness to God is seen as swimming against the tide. It’s much easier just to go along with the idolatry.

Another reason we turn to false gods is that the good news of Jesus no longer seems like news to us. We’re used to it; if we’re honest, we’ve maybe even become a little bored with it. In contrast, our modern idolatries seem new and cool and exciting. This is the same sort of dynamic that drives extra-marital affairs; my relationship with my spouse has become old news, and then along comes someone else, and I feel again that sense of excitement, that intoxication. You know what comes next.

But the truth is that this is all useless. Jeremiah gives us a vivid picture in verse 13. Speaking for God, he says,

‘For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water’.

On the one hand you have God, the fountain of living water. ‘Living water’ in the Bible usually means moving water – water coming from a spring, a stream, a river, as opposed to brackish water from a slough or a cistern. And worst of all would be a cracked cistern that couldn’t even hold water; you’d be parched with thirst, go to it for a drink, and find nothing.

That’s what false gods are like: they promise to quench your thirst, but they don’t deliver on their promises. We’ve all experienced that. How much money is enough? Well, more than I’ve got now, that’s for sure (even though I’ve got a lot more than I used to have)! I’m working hard toward my goals; what happens when I achieve them? Will I be satisfied, or will I have to set new goals, even harder and more challenging? And how are my perfect spouse and perfect children coping with the pressure of being perfect? Asking our spouse to be God for us – to take godlike responsibility for making us happy and secure – is a rather big job description!

St. Augustine one said to God, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”. Many people feel that restlessness, even if they don’t know what it’s about. The British newspaper columnist Bernard Levin – who, by the way, was not a Christian – once wrote these words:

‘Countries like ours are full of people who have all the material comforts they desire, together with such non-material blessings as a happy family, and yet lead lives of quiet, and at times noisy, desperation, understanding nothing but the fact that there is a hole inside them and that however much food and drink they pour into it, however many motor cars and television sets they stuff it with, however many well balanced children and loyal friends they parade around the edges of it…it aches’.

What he is describing is the failure of our false gods, and this is as relevant to us today as it was in Jeremiah’s time. Christian conversion involves turning away from false gods and turning toward the one true God who has been revealed to us in Jesus. What motivates many of us to do this is that we experience what Levin has described: the failure of our false gods. When this happens, some people go into denial and look desperately for another false god to try. But some, perhaps, have the courage to accept reality, and to begin to seek the Creator God who made them and who loves them.

Christians need this ongoing conversion too, of course, not just non-Christians. False gods are all around us, and we’re tempted by their voices. So we need to hear again the Gospel message, the good news that God is real, that God is love, and that God is like Jesus. When we hear and believe that good news, we’re motivated to stop chasing after vanity and come back to God and to his Son, Jesus Christ.

So what should we do? Let me conclude by suggesting three things.

First, be aware of what your favourite false gods are. One of my personal favourites is the approval of others. I struggled with poor self-image as a teenager and a young adult, and the approval of others is pretty intoxicating for me. Over the years I’ve done all sorts of stupid things to get it, most of them involving pretending to be someone I wasn’t. And it never worked, because deep down I always knew that the person I was pretending to be wasn’t real. I’ve got through most of that now, but I know the potential is still there, and so I keep a sharp lookout for it.

Second, take steps to guard against those false gods. If there are situations where you’re going to be tempted to respond to their siren call, try to avoid those situations. Remind yourself of how often you’ve experienced the failure of those false gods in the past. Burst the bubble; point out to yourself that the emperor has no clothes!

Finally, seek the Lord. Do all you can to deepen your relationship with the one true God. Strive to know God better. Take time each day to pray and to meditate on the scriptures. Ask him to help you listen to his teaching and put it into practice in your daily life. Make it your goal to please him in all that you do and say.

Don’t expect this to yield immediate results; remember, if God is God, he’s not under our control. We can’t compel him to show up. But what we can do is to put ourselves in the place of listening to his word and living obediently toward him. And then we can ask him to make himself known to us.

Not sure how to ask for that? Psalm 27:7-9 is not a bad place to start:

‘Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me! “Come”, my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, LORD, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me’.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Meadowvale Update

My long story ‘Meadowvale‘ has been through a couple of updates on this site. I’m now working on the final one, which I’m going to start posting in a day or two at the rate of a couple of chapters a week.

I had contemplated splitting it into three parts (as it is as long as three normal-sized novels), but it wasn’t written that way and I’ve decided not to. It will appeal to you if you like long, meandering stories built around location and family. I’ve actually considered subtitling it ‘The Story of a Marriage’, but I’m not sure about that yet.

When the whole thing has been posted up here, I’m going to get to work right away on releasing it as a Kindle download. Once it’s for sale on Kindle, I’ll just leave a couple of chapters up here as a teaser. So take your chance to read and comment now while it’s free!

Preliminary sermon thoughts on Jeremiah 2:1-13

I’ve been working on preliminary sermon study of Jeremiah 2:1-13 today. Here are my study notes.

Jeremiah 2:1-13 Study Notes

Context

In the book of Jeremiah as we have it (which is not necessarily in either chronological or thematic order) this chapter follows on of course from chapter 1. Chapter 1 tells the story of Jeremiah’s call, his sense of fear (“Ah, Lord Yahweh! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” – v.6), and God’s assurance of his presence with Jeremiah. Then follow two pictures: the almond tree [shaqed] (calling to mind God’s watching [shoqed] over his people), and the boiling pot tipping from the north, representing the threat of invasion.

Chapters 2:1 – 4:2, which follow, seem to be a tight literary unit. The thought progresses from Israel’s earliest time of devotion to Yahweh as his new bride in the desert (2:1-3), to Israel’s abandoning Yahweh in favour of other gods – ‘cracked cisterns that can hold no water’ (2:4 – 3:5), to the call to repentance and restoration (3:6 – 4:2). Our lectionary passage for this week is 2:4-13, but I am looking at 2:1-13, to give the context. The passage begins, then, by recalling Israel’s ‘honeymoon’ period in the wilderness as Yahweh’s newlywed bride (1-3), and then describes Yahweh’s shock at her unfaithfulness (4-13).

Exegesis

         1The word of Yahweh came to me, saying: 2Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says Yahweh:
I remember the devotion[1] of your youth,
      your love as a bride,
how you followed me in the wilderness,
      in a land not sown.
3 Israel was holy to Yahweh,
      the first fruits of his harvest.
All who ate of it were held guilty;
      disaster came upon them,
            says Yahweh. (NRSV)

Yahweh’s message comes to Jeremiah, but it is intended to be ‘proclaimed’ ‘in the hearing of Jerusalem’ – i.e. it will be preached in a central location, probably the Temple, where people are gathered. We’re not told how the message came to Jeremiah – dream? vision? audible voice? – simply that ‘Yahweh’s word came to me’.

The message begins by recalling the time in the wilderness after Yahweh delivered Israel from Egyptian slavery. Israel is described in two metaphors in these verses. First, she is ‘a bride’, a newlywed bride at that. In other words, this is the honeymoon period, and there were no limits to Israel’s devotion to her divine husband.

‘I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown’ (v.2b).

This of course is not an entirely literal recollection of the wilderness story! As we read Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, we can see many instances of the people’s grumbling, lack of trust in God, and dissatisfaction with the leadership of Moses. Large scale worship of other gods, however, is largely absent; with the one exception of the golden calf incident – which could possibly be interpreted more as a mistaken attempt to make an image of Yahweh than as a move to abandon him.

All in all, then, Israel was a joyful and faithful bride, happy with her husband and happy to follow him through some rather unpromising country on the journey to the home he had promised her.

The second image is of the ‘firstfruits’:

‘Israel was holy to Yahweh, the first fruits of his harvest. All who ate of it were held guilty; disaster came upon them, says Yahweh’ (v.3).

The ‘first fruits’ were the earliest part of the harvest which was to be offered each year to Yahweh as his portion of the crop; it was his property, and to refuse to give it to him was robbery. Tremper Longman comments:

‘Israel is the firstfruits of the harvest. According to Pentateuchal legislation (Exod. 23:19, Lev. 23:10-14, Num. 18:12-13, Deut. 26:1-11), the firstfruits belonged to God for use by the priests. They are not to be eaten by non-priests, but rather given to God as a gift. After all, God provides all the harvest. Indeed, there was a special offering of the firstfruits when the Israelites entered the land for the first time (Deut. 26:1-11), so this metaphor as well as the marriage relationship may be reminiscent of God’s early relationship with Israel’.[2]

Israel, says Jeremiah, was God’s ‘first fruits’ of all the nations of the earth. She was ‘holy to Yahweh’; to be ‘holy’ is to be given exclusively for the service of another, to belong to that other without reservation. Not everyone knew this about Israel; some nations tried to attack them on the way to the promised land, but they were not successful against the people God had claimed as his own possession: ‘All who devoured her were held guilty’ (v.3 NIV 2011).

Here then is a picture of Israel’s earliest devotion to Yahweh: faithful to him, committed enough to follow him through the dreadful wilderness to the promised land, claimed by him as his own particular people, and protected by him from others who tried to steal them from him and devour them.

But then comes the change:

         4 Hear the word of Yahweh, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. 5Thus says Yahweh:
What wrong did your ancestors find in me
      that they went far from me,
      and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?

 

Jeremiah’s ministry took place in the context of the southern kingdom of Judah with its centre at the city of Jerusalem, seat of the Davidic kings and of the Temple of Yahweh. It has been approximately a century since the northern kingdom of Israel, centred on Samaria, was destroyed and its leaders taken into exile by the Assyrians. So it seems strange that this oracle is addressed in terms that recall either the united monarchy of the time of David and Solomon, or the now-extinct northern kingdom: ‘Hear the word of Yahweh, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel’. Tremper Longman comments:

‘It is unlikely that (Jeremiah) addresses the northern kingdoms in exile or even the remnants that are still in the land. This epithet for the people of God at Jeremiah’s time may be because Judah now stands for Israel, that is, they are all that is left. Another possibility is that the oracle refers to Judah in this way because it will now recall an experience from before the divided monarchy – the exodus and the wilderness wanderings’.[3]

‘Was there something I did wrong?’ So many jilted spouses have said this, or at least thought it! ‘Didn’t I love you enough? Was it something you wanted me to do that I didn’t do? Was it something I said? Tell me, and I’ll make it up to you!’

In this passage Yahweh is boldly taking this imagery of the jilted spouse and using it for himself. This is not the impassive god of the philosophers, the one who is immune to any pain caused by others. This God has taken the risk of binding himself in covenant relationship – in marriage – to a nation of human beings. To act like this is to take the risk of being wronged. Yahweh has been wronged, and he is in deep pain because of it.

What is the wrong? They ‘went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves’. Idols of course are in view here. Israel was rescued from the gods of Egypt, but now – irony of ironies – she has abandoned the one who rescued her and returned to the worship of ‘the works of (her) own hands’ (1:16).

Furthermore, it is an inevitable fact of human life that we become like the things we worship. Psalm 115 spells this out:

‘Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases. Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; they make no sound in their throats. Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them’ (Psalm 115:3-8).

In Psalm 115 it is the insensibility of the idols that is in view; they have all the instruments of the senses, but they can’t use them, because they are not alive. To Jeremiah, it’s the worthlessness of the idols that is in view. Idols are worthless because they can’t actually do anything; they have no life, so they can’t help those who worship them. But this worthlessness is now shared with their worshippers as well; they ‘went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves’ (v.5). The Hebrew word is actually the same as the one used it Ecclesiastes 1:2 and variously translated there as ‘vanity’, ‘emptiness’, ‘meaningless’, ‘useless’, ‘pointless’. A more literal translation here might be ‘they pursued emptiness and became empty’, but the NRSV and NIV translations make explicit what is implicit in the text, that the ‘emptiness’ is actually idolatry.

6 They did not say, ‘Where is Yahweh
      who brought us up from the land of Egypt,
who led us in the wilderness,
      in a land of deserts and pits,
in a land of drought and deep darkness,
      in a land that no one passes through,
      where no one lives?’
7 I brought you into a plentiful land
      to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land,
      and made my heritage an abomination.
8 The priests did not say, ‘Where is Yahweh?’
      Those who handle the law did not know me;
the rulers transgressed against me;
      the prophets prophesied by Baal,
      and went after things that do not profit.

 

The people ought to have responded to God’s invitation to seek him. Does verse 6 presume a situation where the people feel abandoned for one reason or another? If that was the case, they ought to have asked ‘Where is Yahweh, who brought us up from the land of Egypt?’ Jeremiah assumes that Gods absence was a result of the people’s idolatry. Tremper Longman comments:

‘They (Israel) did not even know that God was gone. The form of the question indicates that they should have missed him, considering how gracious he had been to them in the past’.[4]

In the past God had done wonderful things for them, leading them through all the hardships and terrors of the wilderness. He brought them through those desert wanderings ‘into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination’ (v.7). Of course, before Israel arrived the land had been full of idolatry, and it is the belief of the Old Testament writers that one of the reasons for the conquest of Canaan was God’s judgement against the idolatry and wickedness of the Canaanites. How ironic, then, that God’s own people have themselves now turned to this same idolatry, defiling the land again. The leaders (the Hebrew actually says ‘shepherds’), who ought to have known better, are the worst offenders: the priests and scribes don’t known Yahweh and so cannot teach his law, the rulers sin against him, and the prophets prophesy in the name of the Canaanite god Baal. Longman explains, ‘Baal is named for the first time in the book. Baal is a Hebrew/Canaanite word that simply means ‘lord’ or ‘master’. Baal, along with El, was the focus of worship of the Canaanites who were in the land when the Israelites first entered it’.[5]

9 Therefore once more I accuse you,
                  says Yahweh,
      and I accuse your children’s children.
10 Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
      send to Kedar and examine with care;
      see if there has ever been such a thing.
11 Has a nation changed its gods,
      even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
      for something that does not profit.
12 Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
      be shocked, be utterly desolate,
                        says Yahweh

 

This whole section is phrased as a lawsuit; Jeremiah is a covenant lawyer, arguing the case in the name of Yahweh, whose people have broken their sacred agreement with him. This language comes clearly in verse 9, where the NIV 2011 says, ‘Therefore I bring charges against you, declares Yahweh’.

The charges make use of two vivid images. In the first, Yahweh invites Israel to look around and see the faithfulness of the other nations to their idols. Go as far as you like! Go across the sea to Cyprus, or east to Kedar (in northern Arabia), and you will not find such a thing. These idols are not really gods at all; they are false and worthless, and yet their people are stubbornly loyal to them! Israel, on the other hand, is the people of the real God who made heaven and earth, the glorious God, the Lord of all. And yet Israel has not been loyal to him; they have ‘changed their glory for something that does not profit’.

Yahweh calls on the heavenly assembly to witness all this folly: ‘be appalled, O heavens, at this’. A similar appeal to the heavens as witness can be found in Isaiah 1:2: ‘Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for Yahweh has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me’.

 

13 for 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.

 

Here is the second image. The one true God is ‘a fountain of living water’. ‘Living water’, in the Old Testament, means ‘moving water’ – a spring, a stream, a river, that sort of thing. But the idols are like cracked cisterns; you put water in them, but it runs out through the cracks. You’re parched with thirst and you go to drink from them, but there’s nothing there. What a vivid image for the futility of idolatry!

Application

Many Christians can remember a time when they were on a honeymoon with God. Those who have had a crisis conversion – or even a slow, gradual movement – can often look back on their ‘greenhouse days’, when their love for God was passionate and there was no limit to what they would do for him!

I can certainly remember that. I became a committed Christian at the age of thirteen in the context of the charismatic renewal. I can remember the passion of those early days: I read the Bible constantly, prayed, went to home groups for prayer, study, and fellowship, and did my best to talk about my faith to others. There was a lot of naivety, of course, and no doubt a lack of wisdom, too, but all in all those were days of passionate devotion to Christ.

Sooner or later things start to cool down. This is natural, of course; eventually God brings us out of the greenhouse and into the cold world. Maybe God’s presence isn’t so real to us any more, and we find ourselves asking ‘Where is Yahweh who brought us up from the land of Egypt?’ (v.6a).

Or maybe we don’t. Maybe instead we start to compromise. The idols that were of no interest to us in the early days gradually start to look good again. Everyone around us is getting more wealthy, going on expensive vacations, driving expensive cars. Some of our friends are putting huge amounts of energy and passion into business success. Some are channeling their passion into a fierce love for ‘their country, right or wrong’. These idolatries and many others like them are completely acceptable in our society. And we’re tempted. And maybe we give in to the temptation.

Jeremiah calls us to remember. Don’t you remember how God worked in your life? How much you loved him? How vivid the sense of his presence was? How enthusiastic you were about serving him? Was that only good for as long as he kept you in the hothouse? What sort of love is it that only loves when the going is easy?

And Jeremiah also calls us to consider our present experience. How’s it going, this new idolatry? Those false gods, are they delivering for you? Have you got enough money yet? Are you successful enough that you can let go of the need to succeed? How are your perfect spouse and children dealing with your need for them to be perfect?

Perfectly good things are destroyed – cracked – by the need to be gods for us. The biblical call is to turn away from these false gods and come back to the one true God. This is what happened to Paul’s converts in Thessalonica:

‘For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming’ (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).

The Thessalonians’ conversion experience was a turning from false gods to the one true God revealed to us in Jesus. But of course, idols don’t go away; they continue to tempt us throughout our Christian life. This is why Christians as well as non-Christians need to continue to hear the gospel message. As we experience the failure of our false gods, we need to hear again the voice of Jesus calling us back to the one true God, the fountain of living water, who even leads us in safety through the barren desert on the way to the promised land of the kingdom of God.

[1] The Hebrew is hesed, often translated ‘steadfast love’ or ‘lovingkindness’ in the psalms.

[2] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series), Grand Rapids, Baker, 2008, 2012, p.27.

[3] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, p.29.

[4] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, p.30.

[5] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, p30.

Don’t be Afraid to Open Your Mouth (a sermon on Jeremiah 1:4-10)

The mainline churches in Canada today have a problem, a big one.

Well, actually, we have several problems. In most of our congregations, our demographic is a lot older than the population at large. We’ve not been very good at getting younger people interested in what we’re all about. Many of our congregations are in decline, and at the same time, costs are going up. Our clergy are better paid than they’ve ever been, but there are less jobs out there for them, because fewer and fewer churches can afford to pay their clergy. And there aren’t as many people willing and able to help out on a volunteer basis any more. Life is busy, and in most families the parents are running themselves ragged just to keep up. The church is having a harder and harder time finding musicians and Sunday School teachers and all the other willing workers it needs to do the things it wants to do. And what’s with the culture around us? We used to have a sense that people liked organized religion! Boy, whatever happened to that?

These are all difficult issues. Underneath it all, however, I would suggest that there are two fundamental problems. Our other problems, for the most part, can be traced back to these two. And I’m only going to address one of them today, but I want to name them both at this point, because I think they’re both hugely significant.

First, we’ve never really come to grips with what it means to be disciples of Jesus Christ – to be growing disciples of Jesus Christ, to be in the process of learning, day in and day out, to put his teaching and example into practice in our daily lives. How many of us are growing in our confidence as Bible readers, to the point that we can say we know the Bible better now and understand it more than we did a year ago? How many of us have a sense that we’re growing in our prayer lives, in our sense of connection with God, in our confidence in bringing our prayers to him? How many of us would say that we’re growing in our ability to live a simple life with less possessions? That we’re growing in our ability to forgive people and love our enemies? That we have a better understanding of what it means to follow Jesus in our place of work? That we’re growing in our ability to share the gospel with other people and encourage them to become followers of Jesus?

I think the answer is obvious, and so I repeat: we’ve never really come to grips with what it means to be disciples of Jesus Christ. He calls us to follow him, and too often, our response is, “Would you be happy if I just came to church once or twice a month?”

The second problem is this: we’re terrified of opening our mouths and talking to other people about our faith. “What if I get it wrong? What if they reject me? What if I make them mad? What if they think I’m bigoted – that I’m one of those nasty fundamentalists? What if I somehow offend them? And, scariest of all, what if I discover that I’m really not sure what I believe anyway?”

Personally, I think the first problem is the fundamental one, and I’m going to be addressing it in several sermons over the next few months. But for today, I want to address the second problem, because it’s touched on in our Old Testament reading for today, from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah. Look with me again at Jeremiah 1:4-8:

‘Now the word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations”. Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy”. But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’, for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD”’ (Jeremiah 1:4-8).

Jeremiah, you see, is terrified of opening his mouth!

He actually reminds me of another prophet, Moses. Do you remember the story of the burning bush, back in Exodus chapter 3? Moses is eighty years old, he’s helping out as a shepherd on his father-in-law’s property, he sees a burning bush and goes to look, and God speaks to him. God tells him to go down to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let his people go. Moses offers all kinds of excuses: “Who am I, that I should go talk to Pharaoh?” “If they ask me ‘Which god?’, what shall I say?” “Suppose they don’t believe me?” But then eventually he blurts out the real reason:

“O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10).

In other words, “I do not know how to speak!” Moses, you see, is terrified of opening his mouth!

Young or old, it’s the same problem. Moses is an old man, in his eighties. Jeremiah is a young man; he calls himself a ‘boy’, but the Hebrew word probably means a ‘youth’. You know how you feel when you’re young? You look at all the people around you and they look so self-assured, so confident, so intimidating! You look inside yourself, and all you can feel is fear; “I’m just a child! How can I possibly speak to them? I don’t know anything, and they know everything!” When we’re young, we think that it’s just a young people’s problem – “I’m only a boy!” – but as we get older, we realize that it’s not about age, because we still feel it! It’s about confidence – and when it comes to speaking about the things of God, it’s about confidence in God.

“Well”, you say, “it’s not surprising that I don’t feel confident! Honestly, you don’t know the situation I live in. Let me tell you…”

Well, you can if you want, but before you do, let me tell you about the situation Jeremiah lived in! We’re told in our scriptures that he was born in the village of Anathoth, three miles from Jerusalem. He was from a priestly family and was probably in training to be a priest himself.

Jeremiah lived in a scary time in the history of God’s Old Testament people. He began his ministry as a prophet around 626 B.C., during the reign of King Josiah, a good king who tried to encourage his people to turn away from idols and worship the one true God of Israel. But he lived in times of political upheaval. In those days there were three great superpowers – Egypt to the south of Judah, Assyria to the north, and Babylon to the east. Assyria and Babylon had been feuding for quite a while. Over a century ago, before the time of Jeremiah, the Assyrians had destroyed the northern Kingdom of Israel and taken the people into exile; all that was left now was the two little tribes of Judah and Benjamin that made up the southern kingdom, Judah, centred on Jerusalem.

During the forty or so years of Jeremiah’s ministry, there were several invasions from Assyria and Babylon. Good King Josiah was killed in battle against Egypt; at least two kings were deposed by foreign rulers and replaced by new kings that were more to their liking. Israel became a vassal state of Babylon; it rebelled twice, and each rebellion was put down with brutal force. After the second rebellion, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem, burned its temple and palaces to the ground, broke down its walls and took all its leaders and ruling classes away to exile in Babylon. But not Jeremiah; he ended up in Egypt, and we have no idea how or when he died.

That was the world that Jeremiah lived in. God didn’t call Jeremiah to be a prophet in a nice peaceful time when the churches were full and the word of God was popular. Far from it. God called Jeremiah to speak for him in hard times, when people were more concerned with surviving brutal wars and picking which superpower to support. Which was the wrong question, Jeremiah insisted. The right question was not which superpower to support, but which god was the true God.

Listen to the word of the Lord through Jeremiah:

“And I will utter my judgements against them, for all their wickedness in forsaking me; they have made offerings to other gods, and worshiped the work of their own hands” (1:16).

Today, we’re still worshipping the work of our own hands. We still think that the things we make for ourselves or buy for ourselves are the things that can make us happy. We can build a big house, buy a big car, fill a big bank account. Working together, we can make a big country which the rest of the world fears; we can start a fashion trend, learn the secret of eternal youth, or build a business empire second to none.

All these things are like cracked cisterns, says God:

“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” (2:13).

That’s what these false gods are, Jeremiah says: they’re like cracked cisterns. You think you can go to the cistern to quench your thirst, but when you get there, it’s empty! False gods are like that: they make all kinds of promises, but they don’t deliver on them.

That wasn’t a popular message in Jeremiah’s time. In fact, we can safely say that Jeremiah was not successful. Oh, maybe some people listened to him, but not many – not enough to change the course of history. The majority continued to worship idols and follow the wicked kings of Judah, and the result was the exile. Jeremiah failed.

Or did he? After all, we don’t have too many writings left from King Nebuchadnezzar, but two thousand six hundred years later we’re still reading the words of Jeremiah! And even though Jeremiah never really got over his fear – we can read some of his words to that effect in his book – still, he did what God asked him to do. He spoke the word of God faithfully, and in the end, that’s what God asks of us – faithfulness.

What does faithfulness mean to us today, as people who have been called to speak in God’s name?

Called to speak in God’s name? Yes, that’s our call – you and me. Jesus told his followers that they would be his witnesses ‘in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). We’re part of that church, so that commission is given to us too. By our words and actions we’re called to spread the message of Jesus and invite people to be his followers. And we’re also called to speak in the name of Jesus to challenge injustice and oppression and violence and hatred. These are not the values of the Kingdom of God; the Kingdom of God is about justice and compassion and peace and love. In the name of Jesus, we’re called to spread that message and do what we can to promote it in the messy world we live in.

And this will involve helping people to see the failure of their false gods. Coming to faith in the Creator God involves learning the futility of trusting in the gods we’ve made – money and possessions, success, popularity, false national pride and so on. None of these false gods deliver what they promise. We have to help people accept that their false gods have failed them, and encourage them to turn to the one true God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

Does this scare you? Of course it does! It scares me too! And we have good reason for our fear. In Jeremiah’s time people didn’t treat him very well; he was imprisoned, locked up and kept on bread and water. One time when he wrote down his words on a scroll and sent them to the king, the king chopped up the scroll and burned it in the fire. On another occasion Jeremiah was thrown into an empty well and left there to die – and he would have died, if a friend hadn’t rescued him.

People did not respond well to the word of God! In the Bible, they very rarely do. I don’t know why we think that if people are rejecting our message we must be doing something wrong; Jesus seems to have the opposite expectation! “Woe to you when all speak well of you”, he said, “for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets” (Luke 6:26). So we should not be surprised that people aren’t exactly jumping for joy to hear the message of Jesus. We shouldn’t be surprised that most people aren’t eager to accept our invitation to come to church with us.

But that doesn’t excuse us from sharing the message anyway. God called Jeremiah to speak his word, knowing full well that most of the people wouldn’t want to listen to him. Jeremiah spoke that message faithfully over forty years; at the end of his life he saw the fulfilment of all the dire warnings he had given, and as we read his words we’re left in no doubt that he was heartbroken about that, because he loved his people. And because he loved them, he kept on speaking as God told him to.

What was his secret? Surely we find it in verses 6-8:

‘Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy”. But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD”’.

Jeremiah was able to be faithful to God’s call because God was with him.

How did he know that God was with him? There’s absolutely no evidence in the Book of Jeremiah that he knew this because of any sort of emotion or feeling. It wasn’t shivers down the spine or supernatural joy in his heart or anything like that. It was simply a promise that he had heard from God: “I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD” (v.8). And the promise was enough.

Interestingly enough, when Jesus calls his disciples and sends them out to speak in his name, he gives them the same promise. In Matthew 28 he gives his great commission:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (19-20b).

And then he adds,

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (v.20b).

Jesus is with us, and he invites us to take him at his word and trust that he is indeed with us whether we feel anything or not. In fact, we probably won’t feel anything. What will happen is that we’ll step out in faith, engage in conversation with other people, speak our little word of witness, and discover in the long run that it went better than we thought it would. We’ll shake our heads and say, “I wonder how that happened?” We might even add, “I guess someone must have been looking after me!” Right! Someone was!

Sisters and brothers, if we in the mainline church are going to have any future – and, more importantly, if the message of the love of Christ is ever going to be passed on to a new generation – we’re going to have to get over our fear of opening our mouths. If we’re Christians, we’re disciples of Jesus Christ. Jesus called his disciples to fish for people – that was an integral part of their call. In the Old Testament days Jeremiah knew that, and he was prepared to pay the price, because he loved God and he loved God’s people. Do we have a similar love?

So let’s step out in faith and courage. Let’s thank God for his promise to be with us to the end of the age. And then let’s take every opportunity to speak our word of witness for him – and let’s leave the results in his hands.

The Master Plan of Evangelism/Discipleship

RCIt’s very clear to me that Robert E. Coleman has a different definition of evangelism than many other Christians today. To him, it’s not just getting someone to pray a sinner’s prayer. It’s not just about persuading someone to give their life to Jesus. And it’s certainly not just about persuading people to start coming to church. No – it’s about making disciples. As such, the evangelist’s job isn’t finished when someone decides they want to become a Christian. No – the evangelist needs to walk with the new Christian to get them established as a disciple. And this isn’t about signing up for a multitude of programs – it’s all about relationship.

Who is Robert E. Coleman? He was born in 1928, so he’s getting on a bit now! He has taught at Asbury Theological Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the Billy Graham Centre at Wheaton College, and since 2001 he has been Distinguished Senior Professor of Discipleship and Evangelism at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

In 1963 he published a book that has since become a classic in the field of evangelism andMaster-Plan-Book-Cover-300x464 discipleship studies: The Master Plan of Evangelism (over 3.5 million copies in print). The book is not long (my old paperback edition has 126 pages), and it sets out to answer one simple question: What was the evangelism strategy of Jesus Christ?

In answer to this question Coleman identifies eight principles from the life and practice of Jesus. They aren’t sequential (‘first 1, then 2’), but each constitutes one essential element of the way Jesus did his work. Here they are:

  1. Selection. Jesus chose a small group of average people (Coleman, writing in 1963, uses the word ‘men’, and it is true that all of the twelve were men, but it’s clear that Jesus also had followers who were women, and he certainly has them today!) – people who were honest and humble and teachable. Jesus kept the group small so that he could work effectively with these people; his objective was to mould them, and it is certainly true that the potential for effective training and transformation in a smaller group is much greater. In choosing this method, he was not ignoring the masses: rather, he was expanding his ministry, as each of these men and women would be able to go out and reach many others with the gospel.
  2. Association. This is how Jesus impacted the lives of these early disciples: by being with them, and by letting them follow him. Association preceded explanation; good teaching could take place in the context of association. Because the group was small Jesus was able to give personal attention to each of them. In imitating his method, we will spend as much time as possible with new Christians in order to model the life of discipleship, teach them the things disciples need to know, and answer their questions.
  3. Consecration. Jesus, Coleman says, ‘values loyalty before intelligence’. His disciples would learn the truth in proportion to their willingness to deny themselves, dedicate themselves to the Kingdom of God, and obey Jesus’ teaching. Mere ‘church attendance’ is completely inadequate, and so is mere head knowledge; a commitment to obedience to Jesus is essential.
  4. Impartation. Jesus ‘gave himself away’ to his disciples – he gave them his peace, his joy, the keys of the kingdom, his glory, even his life. St. Paul had the same attitude when he wrote to the new Christians in Thessalonica ‘Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well‘ (1 Thessalonians 2:8). Jesus poured himself into the lives of these people, and the result was their transformation. In the same way, we’re called to share ourselves with others in a practical demonstration of the love of God.
  5. Demonstration. Jesus demonstrated for his disciples how to live the life of faith and commitment: How to pray, how to use Scripture, how to reach other people with the gospel message (and, we might add, how to live simply, how to bear witness to unpopular truths, how to cross barriers and reach marginalized people, etc.). His method was to conceal that he had a method, because his method was himself. Jesus never required his disciples to do anything that he had not demonstrated to them in his own life.
  6. Delegation. In the early days the disciples did little more than follow Jesus and watch him, but as time went on, Jesus began to give them more to do. He included them in his own work and then began sending them out on preaching and healing missions. They were to put into practice the methods they had learned from him. Evangelism is not an optional extra but an essential and integral part of discipleship, and we should be giving evangelistic assignments to new disciples today and expecting them to be carried out.
  7. Supervision. Jesus’ disciples were required to report back to him on their mission efforts, and he saw their inevitable failures as teaching opportunities – a sort of ‘on the job’ training. He was constantly interacting with them and was not afraid to rebuke them when they needed it. In the same way, we need to be involved in intentional, deliberate, one-on-on supervision of the people we are training to be like Jesus.
  8. Reproduction. Jesus wanted to produce disciples who would themselves produce more disciples. The Great Commission calls us to ‘…teach them to obey everything I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:20). ‘Converting’ people isn’t enough; unless those people are becoming obedient, reproducing disciples, something is seriously wrong with our method.

The last chapter of the book, ‘The Master Plan and Your Plan’, is an epilogue in which Coleman spells out how we could implement Jesus’ method. He suggests the following:

  1. Make people a priority
  2. Begin with a few disciples
  3. Stay together with them
  4. Give them time
  5. Meet as a group
  6. Expect something from them – give them tangible assignments to live out their commitment
  7. Keep them growing in grace and knowledge
  8. Help them carry their burdens, and then
  9. Let them carry on the work itself.

I’ve heard about this book for years, but I’ve only read it in the past couple of weeks. Like many great ideas, it is essentially simple. I do think, however, that some of the language and modes of expression need some updating for today’s readers. Coleman is fond of describing Jesus’ goal as ‘world conquest’; that doesn’t have quite the same ring in the era of Jihad that it did in 1963! And he has a habit of listing Bible references, rather than quoting and exploring them, which I find somewhat unhelpful. Also, I think the book could be hugely improved by a few examples of his own experience in putting these methods into practice.

Nonetheless, I have no doubt that Coleman is onto something. It’s not rocket science, of course – good ideas seldom are. For me, it’s a salutary warning not to let programs displace contact with people, and not to let secondary matters take the place of the main job we’ve been given. The Kingdom of God spreads as disciples learn to follow Jesus. There is no more important priority for us than making disciples. And in learning to put that priority into practice, we could do a lot worse than giving serious thought to what Coleman has to say.

So I plan to do that. I’m hoping, over the next few weeks, to explore each of his chapters and to share my own thoughts about them. My purpose here is entirely selfish: it’s my own instruction. I’m not good at thinking inside my own head; I do a lot better when I write things out. Hopefully, my thoughts might be useful to others as well.. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in making disciples (and if you’re a Christian, I hope you are), I highly recommend that you track down this book and read it (it’s easily available as a Kindle download).

 

Fire on the Earth (a sermon on Luke 12:49-56)

When you come back to your parish after being away for four weeks, you kind of hope that the lectionary will give you a nice upbeat text to preach on – something that will sound a positive note as you get back into things. And then instead you find out that we’re in Luke chapter twelve, which is full of warnings and dire predictions and fierce-sounding sayings and things that don’t sound like ‘our’ Jesus at all!

What do I mean by ‘our’ Jesus? Well, we all have our presuppositions about Jesus, about the sort of person he is and the kind of thing he would say and do. When I was a little boy we used to sing a hymn that called him, ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’, but he seems to have lost that meekness and mildness in our gospel for today! Or we might see him as ‘Jesus, the upholder of traditional family values’, and then our text today tells us that he wants to divide families, not unite them. We think of him as ‘Jesus the prince of peace’, and now he tells us that he’s not interested in peace at all – he’s come to bring division. And then there’s always ‘Jesus the therapist’ whose mission in life is to soothe people and make them feel more comfortable. Well, he seems to be nowhere in sight in today’s Gospel!

So what’s this text all about? As always, we need to see it in its context. Luke chapter twelve is all about ultimate questions and fateful choices. We’re asked to choose carefully who we will fear – not just the one who can kill our bodies, but the one who can cast people into hell after death. We’re told to choose not to accumulate possessions but to be rich toward God and seek his kingdom instead. We’re told to be dressed for action and have our lamps lit, like servants who know that their master is coming and want to be ready for him. We’re even warned that if we know the master is coming, but we goof off and don’t get ready, we’ll get a beating!

What’s this all about? Two verses sum up the message of the chapter. In verse 31 we read: “Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well”, and in verse 56, “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” – or, as the Revised English Bible brilliantly translates it, ‘this fateful hour’. What fateful hour? The Greek word is ‘kairos’, which means the significant moment, the time everyone has been waiting for – the coming, of course, of the kingdom of God.

The Christian faith sees world history as being divided into two ages – the present age, and the new age, the age to come. The present age is an age of rebellion against God, characterized by human pride and autonomy, selfishness, war, injustice, oppression and violence. The Jewish people experienced it as a time of oppression by foreign armies, and a time when the rich and powerful in their land made common cause with those oppressors. We continue to experience it today when so many live in poverty while we live in affluence – when war and hatred seem to be proliferating around the world – when people are encouraged to be out for themselves, instead of thinking of the good of the community as a whole.

Isaiah describes this present age in our Old Testament reading. He talks about Israel as being like a vine God planted in a vineyard, hoping for good fruit. He says, ‘For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!’ (5:7). And he goes on to describe other symptoms of this present age: ‘Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!… Ah, you who rise early in the morning in pursuit of strong drink, who linger in the evening to be inflamed by wine… Ah, you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness…’ (5:8, 11, 20). It all sounds very contemporary to me.

 

But the Bible also looks ahead to the new age, the age to come, the age of the peaceable kingdom, the time when God will set the world to rights and when evil will be no more. Isaiah also describes this, in chapter two of his book: it’s a time when the Lord’s house in Jerusalem will be honoured above all others, and the nations of the world will stream to it to learn the ways of the Lord. They will accept the Lord’s arbitration in their disputes, and they will turn their weapons into farm implements and stop learning the ways of warfare. In other words, human rebellion against God will end, and the kingdoms of the world will be taken up into the Kingdom of God.

Jesus assumed all this, but with a significant twist: he saw the two ages as overlapping. There wouldn’t be a clean break between the two; rather, the seeds of the new age would be sown while the old age was still running its course. The new age was inaugurated by his life, death, and resurrection – so in that sense, we could say, the kingdom of God is already present, in Jesus and his people – but it will not be complete until the day he is revealed as judge of the living and the dead – and so we still pray, ‘your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven’.

So here’s the challenge Jesus brought: you are invited to choose which kingdom you want to be in! Will you live out of the old values of the past, the kingdom of selfishness and pride and greed and violence and autonomy? Or will you take the risk of living into the values of the kingdom to come – the kingdom of justice and peace, of nonviolence, of seeking the Lord and learning his ways? Because this is the time of choosing – this is ‘the fateful time’.

Not everyone will want to choose the kingdom of God, and this will bring division. I think of the story of William Wilberforce, the British politician and Christian leader who led the fight against the slave trade in the British Empire in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Wilberforce chose to live into the values of the kingdom of God, and he was hated and reviled for it. People protested that if the slave trade was abolished the empire would be ruined, and the ship owners and merchants and planters and financiers were up in arms. The famous Admiral and war hero Horatio Nelson said, “I was bred in the good old school, and taught to appreciate the value of our West Indian possessions, and neither in the field nor the Senate shall their just rights be infringed, while I have an arm to fight in their defence, or a tongue to launch my voice against the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies”.

So you see, in Wilberforce’s time his work for the kingdom of God divided the house of the British empire – set admiral against politician, preacher against slave owner, and so on. The final aim of the kingdom is peace, for sure, but the journey to that peace is anything but peaceful, because in the present age some people are making a great deal of profit out of injustice and oppression. That’s what Jesus meant when he said he came to bring fire on the earth – the fire of God’s justice against evil and oppression.

But don’t expect the oppressors to cheer about the fact! After all, they didn’t cheer for Jesus either. That’s what he means when he says, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized” (v. 50). He’s using ‘baptism’ in the literal sense of being ‘immersed’ or ‘overwhelmed’ by a flood of water, like people caught in the huge tidal wave of a tsunami. Jesus knew he was on a collision course with the authorities, and he knew that there was only one possible outcome of that collision – his own death. But he accepted this willingly, because he valued his Father’s kingdom above all else.

And so today, even though we Christians are called to work for peace, we know that the journey to peace will be anything but peaceful. Habitat for Humanity decides that they want to build some low-cost housing to help people who are struggling to find a decent place to live, but the property owners in the neighbourhood are up in arms – this is going to lower my property values! A group of churches want to start a program to help homeless people in winter, providing shelter in the church basements and food for those who need it, but the neighbours complain that this is bringing the wrong sort of people into their neighbourhood. And so our house is divided.

You often see it in a family. One member of the family chooses to become a follower of Jesus, and the rest of the family find this annoying or embarrassing. Why does she have to go on about Jesus all the time? Why can’t she be a bit more discrete about it? Or in another family the parents put their foot down and say, no, we’re a Christian family and we’re going to church together on Sunday mornings, and the kids start to complain because they have to miss out on sports teams and all the rest. Or in another family maybe some of them are involved in unethical business – after all, the market is pretty cut-throat and you have to do what you have to do to make a profit – and others choose to make an issue of this. and so a house is divided, father against son and son against father, and so on.

Please understand, it is not Jesus’ ultimate goal to divide families. The vision of the kingdom of God is a vision of love, where people are united in joyful submission to God and his will, and strong families are a vital part of that. But to choose family unity over obedience to God and his kingdom is to make an idol out of the family – to worship what God has created rather than the Creator himself. Jesus is simply saying to us – when you make the ultimate choice to seek first the kingdom of God, don’t expect everyone in your world, even in your own family circle, to start jumping for joy about that – and don’t be swayed by their opposition either.

Because these are fateful choices. There are no insignificant decisions in these matters. Every day the choices we make are shaping us into the kind of people we are going to become, and shaping our world into a different sort of place as well. Read the signs of the times, Jesus tells us. The kingdom is coming, as sure as the sun rises each day. The end is fixed in the plan of God – the earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea – and the resurrection of Jesus proves this. Read the signs, and live accordingly.

The passage ends on a note of judgement. This note has been left out of our lectionary reading today, for no good reason as far as I can tell. In verses 57-59 Jesus says,

“And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? Thus when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny”.

We sometimes hear that the Old Testament God is all about judgement, but Jesus is all about love and forgiveness. That’s a drastic oversimplification; there’s plenty in the Old Testament about the love of God, and Jesus has a few scary passages of judgement too! This particular one is set against the background of the debtors’ prison. In the ancient world you could be thrown into prison for failing to pay your debts, and you would be kept there (at your own expense) until you had paid what you owed – perhaps by the sale of some property.

How does this apply to us? Well, of course, in the Lord’s Prayer sin is seen as an unpaid debt: the original language says ‘Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors’. What we owe to God is to love him with all our hearts and to love our neighbours as ourselves; to fail to do that is to incur a debt. And these debts are not arbitrary, because love of God and neighbour is precisely what the kingdom of God is all about. God isn’t being mean; if we have no intention of learning to love God with all our heart and love our neighbour as ourselves, how can we truly say that we want to follow Jesus? It would be like claiming to be conservatives while all the while we actually believe in the principles of socialism!

The note of judgement underlines the urgency of our decision. The kingdom is coming, but the choice is ours – are we going to live out of the values of this present age, or are we going to live into the values of the kingdom of God? It’s a risky choice, because we can’t see the kingdom of God at the moment – at least, not in an obvious way – whereas the signs of the old kingdom are all around us still. So to choose to love your enemies and to live in a nonviolent way can be dangerous in a world where lots of people still carry weapons and are quite willing to use them. To choose to live a simple life without accumulating possessions can attract some attention in a world where the unspoken motto is that the one who dies with the most toys wins. To choose to forgive instead of taking revenge can be unfashionable in a world where the prevailing attitude is that if you don’t retaliate they’ll only do it again.

And so, as always, Jesus is challenging us to live by faith in things we can’t see. He’s challenging us to believe that to choose the way of God is in fact to choose to live in line with the grain of the universe. That’s the good news in this passage, even though at first it doesn’t sound as if there is any good news. A choice for the kingdom of God is not a futile choice, even though it may end in the short term with a cross – or a division in the family. Because after the cross comes the resurrection, and after the night comes the day, and after the kingdom of darkness comes the kingdom of light. Evil will not have the last word, so even though evil may try to shout you down, keep speaking your truth and keep living the way Jesus taught you, because you know, as Paul says, that in the end your labour for the Lord is not in vain.

“I’ll sing you this…”

IMG_1651Question: what do you call a musical performance? And why?

I ask this because I was intrigued this past weekend (at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival)  by Martin Carthy’s way of introducing the traditional songs he was performing: he said “I’ll sing you this…”

Not “play”, but “sing” (although he’s no slouch as a guitarist, as everyone will admit!).

On the other hand, the most common usage today seems to be ‘I’m playing the _______ (insert name of venue here) tonight’. Not even ‘I’m playing at the ___________’ but ‘I’m playing the _______’.

I wonder why this has become so widespread?

Is it because we somehow think that playing our instruments is more important, more praiseworthy, takes more skill, than mere singing?

Is it because we don’t think the lyrics of our songs are important – just the tunes, or (God forbid!) the guitar licks?

I find it intriguing.

In traditional folk songs, the song is primary. I always advise people who want to sing traditional songs to learn to sing them a cappella first, to get the feel of the song. If you do that, eventually the song will tell you how it wants to be accompanied (or whether it even needs an accompaniment).

The song comes first. The ‘playing’ is secondary. And the fact that it’s me who is doing the playing comes even further back. At least, that’s my ideal, although I suspect I often don’t live up to it.

So thank you, Martin Carthy, for reminding me of what comes first.