The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      17th June 2018
The Using of Words
Jeremy Fletcher

Jeremiah 7. 1 - 16
Romans 9. 14 - 26

I studied and taught English, and researched the use of language in worship, so you’d expect me to be interested in words. How we employ words, what we mean by them and what they do when we use them is important. You can change things with a word. A dignitary can name a ship. A groom and bride marry each other using words like “I will”, and “I give you this ring”. You can say a word which damages someone for ever, and you can’t take it back. So getting words right, using them well, being understood and giving them meaning is vital. 

The wrong translation can cause havoc.  There’s a good one in the Prayer Book version of Psalm 42, where Coverdale’s translation of the sound of cascading waters becomes ‘the noise of the water-pipes’. And understanding the nuances of meaning is also essential. During the Korean War the commanding officer of the Gloucester Regiment told his American counterpart that their situation was ‘a bit sticky’. The English would know that he was in the middle of a catastrophe. The Americans thought they were not too badly off, and didn’t come with support until it was much too late. 

Jeremiah the prophet, in our Old Testament reading, is continuing to berate his own people for their faithlessness and disobedience. This time he attacks them for fooling themselves with words. They declare that their wrongdoing, their following other gods and offensive practices will not cause them harm, because they can make an oath by the ‘temple of the Lord’, as if it was a charm or a spell, convincing themselves they are safe. Their words are understandable, but they are not rooted in right behaviour and moral, ethical and religious standards. The words are deceptive. 

Words fail us when they don’t connect with intention and behaviour. Jeremiah says that only when the words of the people of Judah and Jerusalem are the fruit of their action can they be sure that God will dwell with them and they will be safe from attack. ‘If you act justly with one another, do not oppress the alien, the orphan and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt’ – then, says Jeremiah, God will know that word and action are one. In fact they are trusting in words for themselves alone, as signs disconnected from what they should signify. They do everything wrong and put their trust in a magic formula. If there is a word they need to understand it is ‘integrity’. 

Paul the Apostle in his letter to the Romans reminds his listeners that words which come clearly from God, which are not deceptive, bring life. God’s compassion and forgiveness for us do not depend on humans persuading God with beautiful words or hard work. Divine compassion depends only on God’s love for us, God’s decision to set us free and give us life. Listen to these words from the prophet Hosea, says Paul. Your name has been ‘not my people’, but now I call you ‘my people, children of the living God’. Perhaps the cruellest use of a word is in name-calling. You can think that a nickname, or a word used in anger, is the truth about you. Listen to the truth from God, says Paul. You were called ‘not beloved’. You are now ‘beloved’.

And if we are called by that name, if we are loved by God, then we are called to live lives where our words and actions join up, where our meanings are unambiguous, where we are not fooling ourselves, and where our dependence is seen to be only on God. We can trust the words God speaks to us, because his love was shown for us in that Christ died for us. God’s word and action are one and the same. If we have called upon the name of Jesus, turned away from our wrongdoing and have publicly declared our faith through our baptism – if we are a Christian – then God’s work in us can be relied upon completely

Now we should be able to be trusted in our turn. These two passages require us to look carefully, and see whether the word in which we trust, the love of God, is revealed by our words and actions. That’s about how we treat each other, what we say to each other, even what we think about each other. It’s about what we worship, the things we strive for. How we are, as well as what we say, has to match up Thanks be to God that the key words from God to us are ‘love’ and ‘mercy’. As we hold those out to a needy world, they have to be more than words. 

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