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.