Evensong 3rd June 2018
Jeremiah - Not making a full end
Jeremiah 5. 1 - 19
It is perhaps understandable to take something of an interest in people who share a name, or a birthday with you. From a young age I had some sense of kinship with Evonne Goolagong-Cawley, and have since been pleased to add Andrew Marr, Fatboy Slim and J K Rowling to the July 31st club. Names can be equally fruitful, though I’m not sure what to make of the predictive text on my phone which only wants to follow ‘Jeremy’ with ‘Clarkson’, or ‘Hunt’, rather than ‘Fletcher’.
Down the years I’ve probably needed the extra impetus of sharing a name to get on with Jeremiah the Prophet. In the Lectionary Jeremiah is Lent, not Eastertide. Open Isaiah at random and there’s likely to be something stirring and inspirational. Do the same with Jeremiah and you are likely to get at best a grumble, probably a scathing denunciation, and quite likely a lamentation. To be a ‘Jeremiah’, according to one definition, is to aspire to be someone who ‘complains continually’ or ‘foretells disaster’. Not much comfort to the people here.
Our Old Testament reading this evening does little to change that view. If you are an Evensong regular, then hold on tight because it’s Jeremiah all the way until mid July. It’s a challenging, challenging, laser sharp analysis of a society which has lost its way. Wearily, and with great determination, Jeremiah looks around for any sign that any one in Judah: people, court, rulers, Temple – anyone ‘acts justly and seeks truth’. He cannot.
The language of tonight’s reading is that of the law court. There are forensic indictments, and there is a lawsuit and sentence. With the nation guilty, there will only be one end. Wild beasts will come, and a foreign nation will devour. Even though Judah trusts in its fortified cities, they will be flattened. The hostile nations are just too powerful, too mighty. ‘All of them are mighty warriors. They shall eat up your harvest and your food….your sons and your daughters…your flocks and your herds…your vines and your fig trees.’
And so it goes on, as, in the next few weeks of readings, Jeremiah again and again holds the nation to account. Jeremiah is an outsider. His background is not the city and the ways of court, but a village, Anathoth, outside Jerusalem. Set apart from the inner workings of the kingdom and with a deep immersion in the study of the law, Jeremiah gives a searching critique of the way Judah has lost its way, and put its trust in alliances and foreign powers which will ultimately fail.
Jeremiah comes from a priestly tribe which centuries before had spoken against Solomon and challenged his empire building. It is a tradition which doesn’t speak very much of kingship, except to say that Kings shouldn’t collect possessions or wives. The tradition is exemplified in the Book of Deuteronomy, rooted in the notion of ‘release’ – inequalities repaired, debts written off, an economy which serves the community rather than enriching the powerful. Jeremiah’s tradition has a lot to say about leaving gleanings so that the widow, poor, alien, can be provided for. Deuteronomy is a food bank book, an excluded people's book too.
What Jeremiah finds, however, in the heart of his tradition, and, despite all the condemnation of the nation, what he finds himself having to speak, is that the covenant between God and God’s people will not be broken by God, even if the people have walked away. For Jeremiah the key is in seeing that God is still in control. Jeremiah tells the nation to accept all this as part of God’s long term plan of punishment and renewal. If the judgement is from God, then the disaster is not outside God, and as God is love, and as the covenant is about hope and new life, then you can be sure that God’s plans are for good and not evil.
There is a glimpse of that in tonight’s poem. ‘Even in those days, says the Lord, I will not make a full end of you.’ Jeremiah points not to destruction, and genocide, but to exile, and the place of Israel as a refugee nation. It will be in exile that the nation remembers itself, discovers its heart and life and purpose. In the midst of what seems like disaster there will be renewal. Out of the exile there will be release, forgiveness, and a new nation. Hearts of stone will become hearts of flesh, and God will dwell not just ‘with’ but ‘within’.
That will come. For now please revise any gloomy views you may have of my namesake. The outsider, the poet of exile, the poet of judgment, is the poet of hope. In a world of vast inequalities and nations who forget themselves, he is the poet, the prophet, the priest we need.
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