Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St John’s
Evidence of Faith
Jeremiah 1.4-10, 7.1-11
25 November 2018, NL1-12, Christ the King, To See Ourselves 6
The word of the Lord came to me, saying,
‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.’
‘Alas, Sovereign Lord,’ I said, ‘I do not know how to speak; I am too young.’
But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, “I am too young.” You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,’ declares the Lord.
Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, ‘I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.’
We are now about a hundred years on from where we left off with the prophet Isaiah last week, and about 15 years on from the first chapter of the reading we heard a few minutes ago—roughly between the years 615-600 BCE. Jeremiah has grown up, and the king who worked for reform and tried to bring people to faithfulness has died and been succeeded by one who is opposed to those reforms. Today Jeremiah stands at the gate of the Temple as people from all around the country arrive for a festival that begins with worship. We pick up the story in chapter 7, reading from verses 1-11, which can be found on page ___.
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Stand at the gate of the Lord’s house and there proclaim this message:
‘“Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!’ If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave to your ancestors for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.
‘“Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, ‘We are safe’– safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord.
Many years ago now I overheard someone say “going into a garage doesn’t make you a car, why do we think going to church makes us a Christian?” It’s the kind of question that I think Jeremiah would have liked. He stood at the gate of the Temple, the building where God’s glory dwelled, the building that symbolised all God’s promises to the people, the building where people made sacrifices they thought would maintain their relationship with God...and what he saw was an awful lot of people whose lives on all the other days of the week didn’t match up.
Sometimes it feels like maybe not much has changed, as one of the most common things I have heard about church—in fact I just heard it again last night at a dinner party—is that it’s full of hypocrites, people who say one thing and do another. We claim to follow the Prince of Peace, and yet we arm for war. We hear Jesus say that whatever we do to the least of these, we have done to him, and then we walk by people who are homeless and hungry and turn away our eyes. We let the words “love your neighbour” fall from our lips, and we gossip about the person down the road or we allow others around us to make jokes that are sexist or racist or homophobic.
And then, as Jeremiah observed, we go to church and say the right words and do the right actions and believe ourselves safe for another week.
My response to the charge about churches being full of hypocrites is that every week, worship begins with a prayer of confession. We admit, out loud, that we have not lived up to the calling with which we have been called. It’s hard to be a hypocrite if we start by saying we failed and want to do better....unless, of course, we don’t actually mean it when we say we want to do better.
The people of Jeremiah’s time believed that God lived in the Temple, and God had given them this land, and that both of these were unchangeable realities. This sermon of Jeremiah’s, given at the entrance to the Temple, to the thousands of people streaming in for a festival, would not have made him very popular. No one likes to have their idolatry or their lies called out in such a public way.
But Jeremiah had been appointed to uproot and to tear down, to built and to plant. He had felt God’s words enter his mouth and his heart and his bones, and he couldn’t help but tell the truth, no matter how unpopular it was. In a culture that thrives on lies, truth tellers will always arise, but we may not want to hear them.
And it was a lie that was at the centre of the problem. The lie the people told themselves, about who God was and who they were, about what mattered to God, and about the purpose of worship. Rather than worship being a time of re-orienting to God, changing their hearts and lives, repenting and trying to do better at following God’s way, it had become a time for buying a few more days of God turning a blind eye to their unjust actions. They sang the songs and said the words and then went out and used immigrants for cheap labour, turned women into objects to be played with, and passed orphans around from home to home without caring about what abuse they endured. They offered their sacrifices and, with the scent still clinging to their robes, they walked past the hungry people in the street and told them to get a real job, and scrolled past the stories of food banks and benefits cuts and said it was a shame. They looked around at the big and beautiful building, huge stones and high ceilings and wonderful artwork, and it fed their ambition to get more for themselves, to surround themselves with pretty and enormous things so they wouldn’t have to see the despair, the fear, the need around them.
They could not see the lie they had built their lives on. And so Jeremiah opens their time of worship with a call to confession, a call to see themselves clearly, to admit their wrongdoing and ask for God’s help to do better. He says “do not trust in deceptive words”...and he reminds them that the best evidence of one’s faith is a changed life.
As Richard Rohr put it: “Just as worship begins in holy expectancy, it ends in holy obedience. If worship does not propel us into greater obedience, it has not been worship.”
If our encounter with God in the worship of the Christian Community doesn’t change us, move us toward a new way of living in the world, a more compassionate relationship with our neighbours, a more justice-oriented way of making decisions or doing our work, a more peaceful way of speaking and acting...have we encountered God? Or only our own ideas about God?
Today is Christ the King Sunday—a festival created in 1925 in an attempt to counter the rising tide of fascist nationalism in Europe. It’s a day meant to remind us of our true loyalty, and to call us to live as subjects of Christ our King, rather than as part of any one nation or people or language. It is particularly meaningful, I think, that the Narrative Lectionary places Jeremiah’s Temple sermon on Christ the King Sunday. In a political and cultural world that is often built on lies...in a western church that often values buildings over behaviour...in a period of history when nationalism is again on the rise...we need these words, calling us to see ourselves as God sees us. Or perhaps even to remember that God sees us outside of our church buildings, and that our behaviour Monday through Saturday matters as much as our attendance on Sunday does.
Christ the King begs us to be honest, to trust in the truth, and to live according to that truth, to let our everyday lives be evidence of faith—that God is love; that God cares about those whom the world ignores or uses for its own ends; that God believes we are capable of building the kingdom of heaven on earth, and entrusts to us the ministry of reconciliation and justice; that we belong together, and the suffering of one member of the body will, somehow, be felt throughout the body, even if we try to ignore it; that no matter our age or ability or where we are on the journey of life and faith, God has a calling for us and a desire for us and a vision, a plan, for the flourishing of all life...not just some, not just those who look or speak like us, not just those who were born here, not just those who can afford it...all life.
If our worship is to mean anything, it must be accompanied by living as if these things are true—because they are. And our lives are the vehicle God uses to spread the message outside these walls. They’ll know we are Christians by our love—for each other, and for the world God so loves.
May it be so. Amen.