Gladness in Hope
Holy Communion Service for the First Sunday in Advent conducted by our Minister.
This sermon is taken from Jeremiah 29, verses 4-7 and 1 Thessalonians 3, verses 6-13.
Gladness in Hope
A few years’ ago, I was staying at Sarum College in Salisbury and they had this collection of paintings on the walls there. They were portraits, done by a local artist, of men and women who were patients in a Hospice (in other words they were terminally ill). The artist had asked each person to say how they wished to be painted. One woman with long grey hair had asked “paint me like Freddie Mercury singing the Bohemian Rhapsody” and there she was, her hair streaming over her shoulders, her eyes made up with thick black eyeliner, her hands clasped, glittering with jewels and her eyes gazing up in ecstasy. Another woman had asked to be painted, “in my favourite chair at home” and there she sat, upright and beautiful in a lovely chair in a lovely room. An elderly man had asked to be painted as a brave soldier, and there he was, in his uniform, with medals, standing by the battlefield.
It was an incredible collection and the message it spoke to me was that you can be given a life, even if you are in a place you really do not wish to be. These men and women were not sitting, with hopeless eyes, waiting for death, although they knew that death was coming fast. This artist had given them the gift of life; the gift of themselves.
Jeremiah was not a popular prophet. He is still not a popular prophet. His very name has come to suggest a miserable old man, proclaiming that “we are all doomed.” The trouble with Jeremiah was that he “told it like it was” and his people heard things from him that they did not wish to hear. The prophets they liked were the ones who said, “Don’t worry. You are God’s chosen people and nothing too bad will ever happen to you.”
Jeremiah told them that if they persisted in their corrupt politics; their social injustice; and their rejection of God’s teaching, they would inevitably end up in big trouble. They did not like that.
The “nice” prophets assured them that so long as their Temple and their Holy City remained standing, they would be safe. And so long as they put in an occasional appearance at the Temple and deposited their donations in the jar, they would keep their privileged position as God’s people. Jeremiah said that neither the Temple nor the Holy City would keep them safe if they had no faith and no morality. They did not like that either.
The “nice” prophets promised a Messiah who would put everything to rights for them. All by himself he would re-establish their kingdom as the most powerful in the world and annihilate their enemies. Jeremiah suggested that the Messiah would look for faith and obedience in his own people before tackling the enemy. They certainly did not like that.
The kingdom fell; Jeremiah was proved right (they did not like that…) and the people were carried off to live in exile, away from their Temple and their Holy City, to live amongst people who knew nothing and cared nothing for their God. As the famous Psalm says, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept.” They were in the last place they wanted to be; surrounded by the last people they wanted to be with; calling on God to take vengeance on their enemies and get them back to their proper place. Now, here was Jeremiah suggesting that the best thing they could do was to settle down, create homes and gardens in the place where they were. Raise their families. Pray for the peace and prosperity of this land where they were now living. WHAT? They really seriously did not like that. But Jeremiah, more than any other prophet, was offering them hope that they could still “get a life” even in this place they did not wish to be.
The trouble with faith is that when you end up in a place you do not want to be, you are not only grappling with the natural pain and fear, guilt and anger; you are also grappling with theology- understanding of God. If there is a God of power and of love, then why have you-a reasonably faithful believer- ended up in the place where you are?
Many Christian churches in this country are in difficult places, struggling to survive, and although we know that it is not only churches- local shops and pubs, community groups and services of all kinds are going to the wall in our current culture; all are experiencing the same fear and pain and guilt and anger; we think that, well, we are about God. We should not be going to the wall. We pray; we meet as church members to discern the will of God, why is God apparently not on our side anymore? I was reading an autobiography of a man growing up in Scotland during the nineteen twenties and in his church, you had to go on the waiting list to sing bass in the church choir. You had to wait for vacancy. In this church we are lucky if we can get a handful of basses to sing in our choir once a year. By the waters of Orpington, we sit down and weep as we remember churches of the past- filled to bursting; every child in the neighbourhood in our Sunday Schools; men queuing up to sing bass in the choir. And it is a theological issue because we are asking, where has God got to?
Many people have concluded that God never was really interested or never really existed at all. The age of religion is past, and the church has no relevance to twenty-first century life.
Others think it must be all our fault. We must have been doing something terribly wrong and still be doing it for our churches to decline so dramatically.
So, if God will just tell us what it is, we might be able to get things right in the future.
Others pin all their hopes on a “Messiah” in the shape of a new Minister; a new, dynamic Elder; a Youth Pastor maybe; someone who can turn everything around for us.
For if God loves us then surely God will get us back to the position of strength we once held. And this is not just about our ego and our love for our own particular faith community. It is also about deep concern for our country and its people. For although the Christian religion has been responsible for some bad things in the past; it also pioneered the provision of education, medical and social care for all; it fought for democracy in Government, for the abolition of slavery, for the rehabilitation of prisoners, for the human rights of working people. What will happen to our nation if the voices of the Christian church are no longer heard?
So no, we are not, as a church, in the place we want to be. And I would guess that some of you-as individuals-could well be in places where you do not want to be and singing of Advent Hope tends to bring out the cynic in us- been there, done it, heard it all before and nothing has changed. And the prophet Jeremiah promises us nothing except that God can give us a life, even when we are in a place we do not wish to be.
Jeremiah was being very radical in what he said. So much of the Old Testament teaching was about religious separation; keep a holy people pure and safe by keeping them apart from the rest of the world. And a lot too was about geographical territory- this land was given to us by God and anyone who tries to take it from us will call down the wrath of God upon themselves. So far as Jeremiah’s people were concerned, the Babylonian Empire, by invading their country, had gone directly against the will of God and they would be punished. Their Psalms (religious songs) of exile could even include that appalling verse that happy is the person who dashes little Babylonian children to pieces against the rocks. When you read something as extreme as that, you cannot help wondering whether the place these people had come from really was as blessed and as holy as they thought it was. Had their Temple honestly brought them closer to God? Had their religion truly made them into better people? And if what they hoped and prayed now for was a Messiah who would slaughter men, women and children indiscriminately in order to get their land back for them, does this Messiah sound like a Son of God?
When Jesus came, he did not lead the army into battle. He did not even use verbal abuse against foreigners and invaders. He did not take his place in the religious hierarchy. In fact, he seemed to have little time for the Temple. But what he did do was to give people a life, a life blessed and honoured by God in the place where they were. Born to poor people who had nowhere other than a stable to sleep, growing up in a village living under the heavy hand of Roman rule, spending his life in poverty and relative obscurity, he still managed to bring God right into the heart of human life. “We saw his glory,” wrote St John, “glory as of the only Son of God the Father, full of grace and truth.” This was a wandering preacher with a few carpentry skills.
To men working as fishermen, tax collectors, freedom fighters, shepherds; to women confined to the home or shunned as being of dubious reputation Jesus gave a life. He showed them themselves as they really were; like the artist in the hospice, he drew out the beauty and the uniqueness of each individual soul. He inspired them to powerful discipleship, not only in their worship but in the way they treated each other, the way they treated the outcasts, the way they related to little children, the way they looked at strangers and foreigners, the way they conducted their business, the way they cared for their families, the way they saw themselves.
When he left them, he did not leave them richer or more powerful or more materially secure. But he left them with a life; a life that was theirs; a life that was precious to God, a life in which God could be found, no matter where they were, a life in which they brought God’s blessing to the place where they were. This is surely the true definition of “a Holy people.”
I have just finished reading Justin Welby’s book, “Re-imagining Britain.” Although Justin Welby is now Archbishop of Canterbury and so heavily immersed in institutional religion, he has also had vast experience in the worlds of finance, economics and politics. He points out that Britain is in the process of undergoing huge changes in just about every area of life (and many people find this hard) but, he says, this is not the first time our nation has undergone such change and nor will it be the last. And change presents possibility for new creativity; for different ways of seeing things and doing things. Change can have far-reaching positive effects if handled with care and responsibility. We need, he says, to form new plans for our nation; reasonable plans (not unworkable ones) based on sound values, rather than on self-interest.
He accepts that one of the huge changes in our society is that the Christian church is in a very different place to the one it occupied a hundred years ago (when you had to go on the waiting list to sing bass in the choir) but his plea
and his only directive as such to faithful Christians is that we seek to be God’s blessing in the place where we are. You cannot turn the clock back. You cannot recreate the past. People of inward-looking and fearful spirit pose a great danger, to both church and nation. They will follow leaders who tell them what they wish to hear, and this will not necessarily be the truth. They will, as one commentary on Jeremiah said of the false prophets, “turn exhausted truths into fetishes,” clinging onto words, attitudes and practices that no longer serve any useful or godly purpose, but which give the illusion of getting us back to the place we once were.
You are where you are, wrote Jeremiah. And no matter where you are God can give you a life and you can become a blessing.
Centuries later St Paul was writing to a small church in Thessalonica. Paul was not in a good place- he was under threat of persecution and imprisonment. The Christians in Thessalonica were likewise viewed with suspicion and hostility by their neighbours. But Paul is not suggesting that they build a barricade or store up plenty of money or keep themselves apart from the rest of the world. What encourages him in his difficult place is the thought of their spiritual strength, their deep love, their growing faith- their gift of being God’s people in the place where they are.
The “Holy Habit” through Advent, Christmas and Epiphany in the New Year is that of Gladness and Generosity. And, despite his having a reputation for being a miserable old man, what we learn from the prophet Jeremiah is that gladness does not depend on the place where you are. God can give you a life even when you are in the place you do not wish to be. What we learn from Jesus is that God has entered the very darkest places of human life and, even in these places, has brought blessing. And so, the Advent hope does not sound quite so cynical after all.
Just suppose that an artist wanted to paint your portrait- how would you wish to be painted. What is the most special and precious thing about you, that you would want expressed in your picture?
Or just suppose that artist wanted to paint a picture of this church, this congregation. How would you want us portrayed? What is the most special and precious thing about this church you would want to see in the picture?
Think on these things over the coming week. Think of what the prophet has promised us. And find gladness in hope. Amen