Sunday 7th June 6pm
St Paul’s Woldingham
Jeremiah is sometimes called the “weeping prophet”, and it isn’t difficult to understand why. In the books attributed to him there is, not to put too fine a point on it, rather a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth. This evening’s reading is no exception: this is a prophet in full rant mode. Why? Well, reading back a bit and forward a bit, we find out why: the people of Israel have been wicked. Jeremiah accuses them of idolatry, decadence; he accuses the priests of greed and lack of holiness. There is a general failure to follow God’s law, including looking after the poorest and most vulnerable in society. And there’s a lot of dishonesty and a complete lack of shame about it: just before this set of verses, we have “For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush.”
Strong words. And Jeremiah has been warned, and told to warn the people, that there will be a punishment coming. The Babylonians are going to invade and they are going to win. This actually happened, despite the attempts of Jeremiah and other religious reformers to try to get the people of Israel back into shape.
Jeremiah was talking to Israel: but what does this scripture have to say to us today? We can’t escape the strong political and social message here. We could certainly examine whether we are committing idolatry: putting the love of money above our commitment to doing God’s work in caring for the poor and vulnerable, for example; and saying, in our own way and words, “peace, peace” – when there is no peace.
Our psalm tonight carries a related message, gentler in tone: trust in the Lord and do good. Commit your way to the Lord. Wait patiently on the Lord. The threat of punishment for wrong-doers is still there, but the message is not to be afraid but to trust – because the audience is different. The psalmist is clearly not addressing a wayward nation here, but rather offering comfort and hope to the afflicted and frightened. It’s as if Jeremiah is an angry speech or perhaps an editorial in a newspaper, promising doom and gloom if we don’t mend our ways, and the psalm is a folk song, softly singing the promise of a better world.
Promises are what is discussed in the Epistle to the Romans, too. This letter to the various churches in Rome is long enough to have been divided up into sixteen chapters, and we’ve only heard a small bit of it today. What was happening in Rome at the time was that Jews and Gentiles in various communities were starting to follow and worship Christ as Lord… but the Gentiles were being encouraged to follow Jewish customs – dietary laws, circumcision, and so on. Over the course of the letter, St Paul explains why that isn’t necessary, and this is the context for our passage today.
The second part of the reading is a quite technical description of just who is and isn’t an Israelite: yes, the Israelites are descendants of Abraham, but not all descendants of Abraham are of Israel: after all, Abraham also had Ishmael. It’s important to remember here, too, that Abraham’s grandson Jacob was given a new name, Isra-el – you probably remember the account of him wrestling all night with the stranger and injuring his hip. So when Paul is talking about Jacob and Esau, he means the nations they were ancestors of: Esau founded the Edomites, and Jacob founded the Israelites. What Paul is saying here is that the “children of the promise” – the nation through which God’s promise to Abraham would be fulfilled – are the nation of Israel, descendants of Jacob, not of Esau or of Ishmael.
Paul is claiming, here, that the Israelites are God’s chosen people – so what’s with the sorrow he writes of in the first few verses? Why is he in such anguish? Paul’s unease is that so many of his fellow Jews don’t recognise Christ as Messiah.
For Paul, you see, that’s the whole point: the fulfillment of God’s promise is not that Israel should be a great nation, necessarily. After all, chosen or not, Israel wasn’t in power when Paul was writing and it has had its ups and downs as any other nation would. Israel’s political and military successes are not what Paul is getting at. Rather, the whole point of God choosing Israel was to raise up the Messiah – the anointed one. God’s anointed Saviour comes from God’s chosen people. And that Saviour is great news for the Jewish people – but also for everyone else. Just before the passage we heard today, Paul writes “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
God may not have chosen the descendants of Esau or of Ishmael to be the nation into which Jesus was born, but God loves everyone – so very much – that we can all be children of God’s promise, through Jesus Christ, the anointed Messiah, our Lord and Saviour.
So as we reflect on the exhortation of Jeremiah to look for where the good way lies, and to walk in it, let us remember this: we don’t need to memorise a long list of do’s and don’t’s to be loved by God. Our political success, or lack of it, is no indication of God’s love for us. We don’t need to worry about being good enough for God, or about being holy enough to be saved. We are already loved: each one of you is already loved just as you are. And the same goes for all the people we fear or look down on or just find annoying: all are beloved children of God.
The good way, the way which will allow our souls to find rest, is the way of following Christ: in our worship, in our prayers, in our work and in our leisure, in all we think and say and do. May we walk in that way all our lives. Amen.