Evensong 8th July 2018
Can I serve a God like this?
Jeremiah 20. 1 - 11
The Hampstead Players have just performed The Bacchae, by Euripides. One of the tragedies which flowered in Greece five centuries before Christ, it is a reflection on the battle of passion and reason, the rational and the instinctive, the sensual and the cerebral. It’s also a profound examination of the nature of trust and devotion, on what a god should or should not be, how a god should or should not behave.
Dionysus is deeply annoyed that some doubt that he is a son of Zeus by a human mother, Semele, who died giving birth to him. He begins the play by promising revenge on the doubters, and then ramps this up, seeming to take increasing delight in making this vengeance more and more elaborate. What transpires is horrific, and even those who have given themselves completely to him are left wondering at his exercise of naked violent power.
CADMUS: O Dionysus, we implore you—we've not acted justly.
DIONYSUS: You learn too late. You were ignorant when you should have known. CADMUS: Now we understand. Your actions against us are too severe.
DIONYSUS: I was born a god, and you insulted me
CADMUS: Angry gods should not act just like humans.
In the end he’s just a spoilt child:
AGAVE: Lord Dionysus has inflicted such brutal terror on your house.
DIONYSUS: Yes. For at your hands I suffered, too—and dreadfully. For here in Thebes my name received no recognition
The devoted chorus wonder about it all, and require us to work out what and how, and in whom, to believe.
CHORUS LEADER: The gods appear in many forms, carrying with them unwelcome things. What people thought would happen never did.
What they did not expect, the gods made happen.
Hearing all this on Thursday evening when thinking about tonight’s Old Testament reading, from Jeremiah 20, was instructive. A century and a half before Euripides, Jeremiah also explores asks what we can believe and what we can expect from God. Having been required to prophesy (because, if he does not, he will burn up), he has also been told that no one will listen. Indeed, his experience is that they will not just ignore but actively oppose him. Our passage begins with him beaten up and in the stocks. If Jeremiah needed any proof that he was damned if he spoke and damned if he didn’t, this was it.
He asks a question Euripides could have asked. Can a God act like this? Can, should, a God ‘dupe’, as in our anthem? Can, should, a God ’entice’, as in the translation in the bible reading? Can, should, a God ‘rape’, or ‘assault’ us, as one commentator says it can also be translated? In fact, the question is also: ‘What kind of God could do this? How on earth can such a God require devotion when all that is inspired inspires is fear and loathing?’
Euripides leaves that question open. Jeremiah takes it on, and comes to an answer. The whole collection of his poems and prophecies is a wrestling with how to respond to the divine when all the evidence seems to be that God is vile. The difference is that Jeremiah has a broader theological context. Where the gods of Greek tragedy seem treat humans as playthings to be tossed aside, the God of Jeremiah has every reason to allow the nation to be punished. It is not God who has broken the covenant. It is not God who has chased after other gods and put trust in political alliances. The God of Israel grieves over his people. He does not exact a disproportionate revenge.
Jeremiah may be furious that he is called to speak people beat him up, but he knows why God is allowing the nation to be overthrown. And, however awful it may seem now (and Jeremiah can lament with the best of them), he trusts that this is not the end. Just after tonight’s reading ends he rejoices that God delivers the needy from evildoers. Later in the book, as the nation is taken into exile, this trust in God finds voice. There will be a new start, a new nation, a new temple, a new heart. Rather than a god who is put out and petulant, the God of Israel agonises with his people, goes into exile with them, and will restore them fully. To be punished is not to be abandoned.
The ways of God are often baffling and mysterious. What I learn from Jeremiah is that our trust in God is not misplaced. That does not mean that we treat every possible circumstance with a warm rosy glow of assured faith. Jeremiah gets furious, and we should too. Jeremiah laments his own sad state, and we should not be afraid to rail at God about this, however selfish it may seem. Jeremiah sees the full reality of the situation he and the nation are in, and does not diminish it. Neither should we. And, somewhere in it all, we can trust that underneath are the everlasting arms, that this is not outside the presence of God, and that the love of God in Jesus Christ is right there in the mess, shining more brightly and giving more warmth because we are aware of how dark and how cold it really is.
I do not pretend to like this, or understand it, or take it for granted. But my testimony is that it is when the full awfulness of something is acknowledged that the love of God is all the more clear, still small voice as it may be after the fire. Ultimately the awfulness will not prevail, because God knows it is awful, and is with us in it to the very end, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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