David Walker - August 21st 2016
May I speak in the name of the living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The Olympics are nearly over. I hope you’ve enjoyed them as much as I have. It’s inevitable for me – I’ve always been a sports fanatic. But it’s amazing how for two weeks every four years we all become experts in Taekwondo, pommel horses and durnie bikes.
But did you see many of the big moments? Live, that is. Mo Farah? Jess Ennis? Usain Bolt? They were all on a little late. I suspect most of us missed out on a lot of the real time viewing. Why? Well, partly, of course, the time difference but these events were even staged late for their Brazilian audience. The main reason was television – in particular the demands of prime time American television. Most of the Olympic timetable was built around the perceived needs of the biggest and most lucrative TV audience in the world, and the need to build a TV friendly narrative around the games.
That’s understandable. We now take it for granted that the narrative of our lives can be determined by the media, and that includes more and more the so-called social media. But there are huge dangers in this.
In 2012 NBC, the official American Olympic broadcaster, edited the opening ceremony, and notably cut out altogether the very moving tribute that was made to the victims of the 7/7 terrorist attack in London (the day after the announcement that London was to host the games). You may remember Emilie Sande singing Abide with Me. NBC switched to a pre-recorded interview with Michael Phelps. They judged this section of the ceremony too downbeat, not relevant to a worldwide sporting event, and not worthy of showing to their audience.
This is but a small example of the one of the major problems we face today in understanding the world that we live in. Where do we look for, where do we find truth? What is real?
Politicians, governments, global businesses, media organisations, those who attempt to shape our thinking trade in opinions, slogans, sound bites with no need to prove what they are saying is true, with little or no constraints of factuality or rules of evidence. And that makes it difficult for us, all of us, as we are forced to see and live in a world constructed and shaped by them. ‘Better off in’, ‘Make America great‘, ‘Take back control’.
Perhaps we do need to take back control, but in a different, more fundamental, way.
We need to challenge the narrative of our times with the reality of our lived experience as faithful believers in God, the God we know in and through Jesus Christ.
Israel, in the late 7th century BC, could not see, did not want to see what was about to happen to them. They had built up a narrative for themselves, a narrative of chosen-ness and entitlement, of immunity. They were in their own little bubble. They had a society that worked for them, or at least some of them, those who obeyed the Jewish law, those who were born into privilege and status. They had lives of affluence and contentment. And yet within half a century Jerusalem would be destroyed and its people taken into Babylonian captivity, into an exile that would last for 70 years or more.
Jeremiah steps into this situation as a prophet appointed by God. God tells him to ‘... speak whatever I command you’ and says that he has ‘...put words in your mouth’. He is told
‘to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant’.
So, what is the role of the prophet?
Walter Brueggemann, a charismatic and influential American theologian who has been described as ‘a kind of theological rock star’, first wrote about his concept of prophetic imagination in 1979. He described the task of the prophet as being
‘...to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us’, a task requiring a huge amount of commitment, insight and, above all, imagination.
Thirty five years, and many books later, in 2014, he had refined this even further when he says
... prophetic proclamation is an attempt to imagine the world as though YHWH – the creator of the world, the deliverer of Israel, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ whom we Christians come to name as Father, Son and Spirit – were a real character and an effective agent in the world.
This appears in his book ‘Reality, Grief, Hope – three urgent prophetic tasks’. Urgency, for him, now well into his eighties, and for us.
The first task is exactly what Jeremiah was charged with by God. To see clearly what was going on, what was happening, what was around the corner. To proclaim reality in the midst of unreality, to bring the word of God back into the centre of things, to see the world again through the lens and focus of God’s vision.
Jeremiah had first to make people see the reality of their situation, a difficult task when the whole of the dominant culture was geared to presenting a different story. The reality he was charged with making them see was God’s reality, because in the end that is the only reality that matters, that is really real.
Much of the Book of Jeremiah is showing the way ahead, exposing the society in which they live for what it is, imploring them to accept the criticism of that society, spurring the people into action to counteract the numbness and passivity of their responses, helping them to grieve for what they are about to lose. For the sharing of grief is the second task of the prophet according to Brueggemann.
The final task is most important in bringing to fruition the prophetic process. This is the holding up a promise of hope. Jeremiah eventually gets there in Chapters 30 and 31.
‘For the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will restore the fortunes of my people...and I will bring them back to the land that I gave their ancestors and they shall take possession of it’.
This is again what we saw in the other prophets we have talked about this summer – Amos and Hosea and Isaiah – is the constancy and faithfulness of God. God will never abandon his people. He will never abandon us. But neither will he make it easy, neither will he get away with abandoning him. He will return to us but only when we return to him. He will turn to us, but only when we turn to him.
Reality, grief and hope. Three urgent prophetic tasks.
In our gospel Jesus illustrates this perfectly. He shows us God’s reality, a different set of rules based not on religious ritual and social conventions but on the rule of love and compassion, of regard for neighbour and fellow human beings.
Jesus heals the crippled woman, frees her from the bondage of her infirmity – because it is the right thing for him to do. He is faced with the whole force of the Sabbath culture and he sees it for what it is. The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. He breaks rules that are made for breaking and he makes the people face themselves and question the narrative that they have been indoctrinated into accepting.
So, what happens next?
We need to think about this cycle of reality, grief and hope, and how we might bring it to our own lives.
First of all, reality. The reality of seeing the world through God’s eyes. Jeremiah’s prophetic words challenge the status quo, question the very existence of the Israelite people and warn of impending doom. Jesus is deeply and profoundly counter-cultural. In his words and actions he proposes a new way of being founded on a commandment of neighbourliness and love for God and our fellow human beings.
The church is the body of Christ, witness to the God in Jesus here on earth. In the face of the dominant ideology, the culture of our times, the received wisdom, the narrative of our social elites, we must see God’s reality. Understanding that reality won’t change things, the way the world is organised. What it will change is us.
Where God’s reality does not measure up to the world around us we may just feel like giving up. It would be all too easy to do so. Having recognised the world for what it is we can feel powerless, overwhelmed, a small congregation here this morning fighting against a world that does not know us or understand us, or even care. But we must not fall into despair and denial.
Instead let us grieve, let us go through a process of honest mourning, a process that may be painful but which ultimately can be healthy and can prepare us to live through our loss. But most of all let us not give up on God or underestimate the power of the God for whom everything is possible.
The problem for us, for us all, me very much included, is that we restrict our ideas of God. Whilst we may most definitely want God in our lives we want him on our terms. Jeremiah gives himself totally to God, he is taken over completely. If we do this, if we give ourselves in this way, we lose control or the illusion of control. It is the control that society has granted us, that we are led to believe in. Any relinquishment of this is a risk, and for most of us a risk too far. How far are we prepared to trust in God?
We must begin with reality. Reality leads to grief, grief and mourning lead to freedom, and freedom leads to hope, hope in the boundless possibilities of God. Hope comes to us through the rhetoric of forgiveness and in the prospect of beginning again in newness through the knowledge of the presence of Jesus Christ in our lives. It is hope that will provide us with the eternally certain antidote to despair, hope springing from reality that will provide us with the trust that we need.