The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Parish Eucharist      2nd July 2017
Trinity 3
Jan Rushton

Trinity 3 Year A 2 July 2017
Readings: Jeremiah 28.5-9 Romans 6.12-23 Matthew 10.40-42

We are living through challenging times, tragedy and disaster piled up one upon another. The venom of hatred for those who are different - and the terror of avoidable accident - fire racing out of control with an unimaginable speed. The short cut to saving money has itself ‘come up short’. Politicians scrambling to get it right in impossible circumstances, the burden of responsibility. Where is God in the midst of all that is unfolding in the world around us? What might God have to say to us as we grapple with new realities?

God has called out a people - out from slavery into freedom in the Promised Land, and given them a mighty mission! The people of Israel were, in the witness of their life together, to be God’s light to the world. They were a ‘theocracy’, a people living in Covenant with God, the tenets of which were given to Moses in the Law, which is, that pattern of living which enables all to flourish. We tend to think of the Law as the Ten Commandments, but this summary tells us little of the care for one another, and the template for equality, that is God’s order for society: not merely the Sabbath day, the Law declares the seventh, Sabbath year when all debts were to be cancelled; and clear instructions for the care and protection of the disadvantaged. This was not a society without differentials recognising hard work, but it was society where no one was to be destitute - for whatever reason. The roof over one’s head was always to be weatherproof - fireproof.

Yet they, like us, were prone to feathering their own nests, lured by the attractions of status: steady advancement, see the family right, we’re all working hard - take care for yourself. Not my problem. The king commands his armies - and all’s well with the world! Except of course it was not so, the king might be in his castle, but the divide between the prosperous and the poor was growing ever wider, in the kingdom of Judah the prophet was the opposition politician of the day, called by God to listen for God’s word to the people, called to speak truth to power! Jeremiah, famous for his pessimism, lived in times every bit as turbulent and complicated as our own.

During a reign of over fifty years, the great reforming king Josiah has turned his country around in religious practice and in prosperity, only to be killed in unnecessary and futile battle with the Egyptians. The Assyrian Empire had come to dominate the whole fertile crescent from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean and finally Egypt, and while Jersusalem had been miraculously spared defeat, her people paid heavy tribute to the Assyrian king, but now this powerful and magnificent empire of the north, its capital the sophisticated and cultured city of Nineveh, now this empire was crumbling, and those kingdoms it had hitherto dominated, made a bid for freedom. Babylon was the rising power and soon to assert her dominance. The Egyptians fearful of a new enemy chose to help their old enemy, Assyria.
In the year 608 BC Josiah went out to block their way north at the famous Meggido pass, their king dead, and under Egyptian domination, the Pharaoh named Josiah’s son, Jehoiakim, puppet king, pro Egypt Jehoiakim patently lacked his father’s piety, murdering ‘unruly’ prophets whose message he did not want heard. However, it would not be long before the crown prince of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, would once again quell the Egyptians at the famous battle of Carchemish, to save Jerusalem Jehoiakim swiftly transferred his allegiance - and tribute - to the Babylonian king, but, continually looking for opportunity to reassert his independence, when a few years later Babylon was - temporarily - defeated by the Egyptians, Johoiakim took his chances and rebelled! Nebuchadnezzar now king, swiftly reasserted his power, he besieged Jerusalem - and unlike the Assyrians before him, succeeded. During this siege Jehoiakim died, and the Babylonians carried off his son and other leading families to exile in Babylon, installing the dead king’s brother Zedekiah as vassal - and the last Judaite king, encouraged by the court, Zedekiah ambitious for independence, looked again to Egypt for support in rebellion against Babylon, ten years since Zedekiah was made king, this time Nebuchadnezzar razed the Temple to the ground, taking into exile Zedekiah and most of the population, leaving only the weak and vulnerable behind.

Throughout this unfolding story, from the reign of Josiah, a young priest was reluctantly watching and listening for God’s word, even as Jerusalem’s fortunes flourished, Jeremiah saw things differently, God’s Covenant laws of justice and equality increasingly ignored, he did not share in the mood of national optimism, rather he perceived God’s coming judgement on Jerusalem, judgement rising in the north - no matter their confidence in the Temple, their religious institutions, their position as God’s chosen people - and the seeming power of Egypt, that other superpower in the south to whom they looked for support.

Needless to say, especially in days of growing prosperity as Assyria faded, Jeremiah’s message received a rough - a very rough, response. In our short passage from the Book of Jeremiah, the unpopular and reviled prophet publicly confronts another of Jerusalem’s prophets, Hananiah, having repeatedly counselled against looking to Egypt, Jeremiah now has an astonishing and counterintuitive message for his people: they should pay their tribute to Babylon, pray and work for the well-being and prosperity of their conquerors, God instructs Jeremiah to make a yoke and wear it on his neck, enactment of what was coming, the reality that Judah and her surrounding nations would serve Nebuchadnezzar. Hananiah, also a prophet, in verses preceeding our passage, countermands Jeremiah, claiming that God will break the yoke of Babylon, that Judah’s exiled king and people will return within 2 years and in verses following our passage, Hananiah also enacting what will happen, symbolically breaks Jeremiah’s yoke. In this situation, Jeremiah challenges the people to judge between these conflicting prophetic proclamations: how shall they know which one is from God? The answer: by their fruits, did what they prophesied come to pass? Easy with hindsight and of course we have the Book of Jeremiah not Hananiah in our Bibles precisely because Jeremiah was right and Hananiah was wrong not only was Jeremiah right in foreseeing exile to Babylon, he was right that the people of Judah would flourish in serving Babylon’s king. Indeed it is in exile that, as the people of Judah, the Jews, as they wrestle before God with understanding their plight, making sense of all that has happened, it is here that Judaism is born - and the first full understanding of monotheism, that one God only, is creator of all things, all peoples and ultimately here are we as Christians.

Can Jeremiah’s prophecy help us in our own contemporary situations? As we contemplate the gross inequality in the building and provision of housing and the tragedy of our wake-up call; as we address the rise of extremist ideology in our world and in our own communities; as we contemplate leaving the European Union.

At a minimum we are reminded that God’s perspective reaches to another, far wider horizon than ours, might we also be called to work with those who are ‘foreigners’ to us, to seek their well-being and flourishing? Well-being which will redound not only to their good, but also to ours. Spending on education is vital to give young people the tools they need to question and weigh everything presented to them, question and seek clarity of understanding of all that they hear, and especially, from those who would persuade them to buy into their particular ideology, an integrated education where young people from all communities and backgrounds may mix with one another and learn that difference does not make someone ‘other’, need not keep them forever the ‘stranger’ a passion for God’s justice and mercy such that it becomes unthinkable to construct substandard, inadequate buildings; unthinkable that for some homes lower standards are acceptable, the risk worth taking, a willingness to pay what it takes to develop and enforce the highest of standards - in industry, agriculture, housing. How do we respond to the words of Jeremiah? I am moved and impressed by the commitment of our church to new forthcoming ventures to support the homeless and refugees. Watch out for more information. Amen.

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