Sermon for February 13, 2022 Sixth of Epiphany “Choices that Challenge”
I was intrigued while reading the text from Jeremiah this week. It seems that this ancient prophet could easily step into our day and offer wisdom and direction. But first, let’s go back almost 3000 years to the time of Jeremiah. Years before the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians Jeremiah foretold that it was going to happen and yet the people dismissed him. As the Temple was being destroyed and the people taken captive or forced to flee to Egypt, Jeremiah implores them to remain faithful to God, to be as the tree planted by the river, that will not fade and where roots are planted deep, who will bring them back to restore the Temple. The words to those who are planning to give up or lose faith, are harsh from Jeremiah ‘cursed are those who trust in mere mortals…whose hearts turn away from God. They shall be like a shrub in the desert and shall not see when relief comes’.
In our day we are not going to be destroyed by the Babylonians but there are forces at work, and always have been, that are trying to crush the message of Jesus and God. For us today, COVID has given focus to those voices and many are fleeing from the teaching of Jesus. I am no expert on COVID but I do know that 20 years ago while I sat on the Bio-ethics committee for what was then Region 3 health authority, the infectious disease specialists where warning us of an impending epidemic and to be prepared. From my perspective today, that warning was mostly ignored. It can easily be argued that a pandemic is not really the same as the Temple being destroyed and a whole nation being displaced. Another truth that is more challenging is that Christians are no longer the dominant religious sector. The point is how we practice our faith in the face of challenging times, recognizing that we are now the remnant and in the face of pending disaster.
Many in Jeremiah’s day just walked away to leave a remnant few to rebuild the Temple. If census information is accurate and certainly our lived reality is that many have simply abandoned faith or treat it as a ‘when I need it’ sort of lifestyle, and COVID has just amplified and give excuse to, the exodus from church life or at least has made worship very accessible and engagement somewhat fractured.
We are the remnant few on whom the task of setting a new foundation for the church of the next generations falls. We may doubt our energy for the task but we are not being asked to do all the work, that will take generations. We are asked to be faithful to what we can do today. With our energy, our strength and our faithfulness. One of the traits of a people in exile is that they have been through the agonizing task of identifying what is of highest value and discarding the rest. After all, we can only carry so much. Jeremiah indicates that what is of highest value is our faithfulness.
Jesus follows that up with a series of blessings. Blessed are you poor now, you who hunger now, you who weep now and when people hate and refile you now. Unlike the beatitudes in Matthew, these words are spoken to just the disciples and closest followers. Those original few from which the teaching of Jesus spread. It was meant to encourage these first followers that in the face of discouragement and even anger, that there is blessing in the work and witness.
This is paralleled by woes. Woe to you who are rich, full, laughing and speak ill of you. For they will be like those in Jeremiah’s day who turn from God, from the truth and are like a shrub in the desert, parched and dried up.
This is not about pointing fingers at others and passing judgement. It is about recognizing the we all have the capacity to live in both areas, and we often do. It is about recognizing that Jesus continually calls us to faithfulness, not perfectness, but faithfulness. How then can we adopt a posture of blessing as a people, even a remnant people striving to be faithful in our day?
For me there are a few actions that I see as vital. I remain hopeful, hopeful that God will reveal a path forward. That the interaction of God with the people will not fade into an inglorious sunset, but it will renew and bring life as it always has. That may happen in my lifetime or it may not. I know my hope is rooted in a God who is faithful over the span of generations. I will surround myself with people and places that nourish my soul and who live in hopeful expectation. I will nourish in the best I can, the remnant so that we can be well in mind, body and spirit, so we will be able to withstand the pressures and be ready for God’s call to action. And I will not rush God’s timeline. This time can be viewed as fallow time, restorative time, desert time or wilderness time. The truth that God leads is challenging for leaders.
As God has done so many time in the span of history, God will restore the ‘temple’, the people and creation, and we will be as the vibrant tree rooted by the life-giving stream. Hope, faithfulness and trust in God are our moment by moment choices as we live as a remnant people.