Judgment and mercy

Sep 15th, 2007 | By | Category: Sermons

Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on 16th September 2007

“I looked and there were no people; every bird in the sky had flown away” Jeremiah 4: 25

We began our short journey through the pages of the prophet Jeremiah last Sunday. Jeremiah, the man who had to say hard things in hard times. We saw how he spoke out during the years from 597 BC to 587 BC. Years when the people of Judah did not particularly want to hear what he had to say, years when speaking out at all invited violence and persecution.

Trying to consider what relevance Jeremiah’s forewarnings of doom from 26 centuries ago might have for today, we saw Jeremiah saying to the people of Judah that there were no guarantees, that a nation could fall as easily as a potter crushes the clay. When we feel so secure we  become complacent, even arrogant in our attitudes. We cannot imagine any situation where the well-being of our nation will be threatened.  It is hard to imagine any shadow over the widespread belief that all is well and that all will continue to go well.

The passage from Jeremiah we read last Sunday, the story of God telling Jeremiah to go to the house of the potter, would have been read as the Old Testament lesson in churches all around the world. It was part of the lectionary we share with many other churches. It is a passage that has been made safe and gentle in the ways that it has been used, there is even a modern worship song with lines that go something like,

‘You are the potter, I am the clay,
Let me be willing to let you have your way’.

Few would have read the passage in the violent sense in which Jeremiah wrote it.

It is important for us to understand the way the Old Testament prophets saw the world. To people like Jeremiah there was only one cause and author of all that took place – the LORD. If good things happened they came from the hand of the LORD, if bad things happened then they were part of the judgment of the LORD. There was no belief in the sort of power of evil that we encounter in the New Testament.

The sacking of Jerusalem in 597 BC would have brought with it the loss of many, many innocent lives, yet Jeremiah identified what was happening in the history of Judah as the outworking of God’s judgement against a faithless people.

If Jeremiah was responding to what we see in our contemporary world, the suffering in Darfur, the smouldering conflicts in the Middle East, the chronic poverty of sub-Saharan Africa,  he would do so in terms of the theology of his time. He would see the things that we see on the television news as some horrific outworking of the judgement of God. To have seen it in any other way for Jeremiah, would have to have been to say that God was not God, that God was not in charge of the world he created.

Jeremiah might have used words like the words we read this morning, “I looked and there were no people; every bird in the sky had flown away”. The utter destruction of Judah that Jeremiah foresees in this morning’s passage, destruction to the point where even the land lies as barren as a desert, would have been attributed by Jeremiah to the hand of God. Nothing escapes this judgment, ‘I have spoken and will not relent, I have decided and will not turn back’, say the closing words of the reading.

As a Christian I would have problems with some of Jeremiah’s theology. If innocent women, men and children were slaughtered in the outworking of God’s judgment, then would Jeremiah  have said this was simply the will of the LORD and that it was not for us to question?  Would Jeremiah have looked at the pictures from Darfur and said that this was judgment?

Jesus presents us with a very different picture of God, a God who, as we see in the Gospel this morning, places ultimate value upon individual life. Jesus could not have seen either the destruction of Jerusalem, or the horrifying scenes from Africa, and said this was the will of God, that this was God’s judgment. Jesus shows God to be a God of compassion and forgiveness, it is unthinkable that such a God would have willingly contemplated such appalling suffering.

However, we are left with a problem. If we believe in a God who is more than just a vague deity in a very remote place, if we believe in a God who hears our prayers, then what do we say about what goes on in our world?  What do we say when we are faced with evil beyond our comprehension? What do we say about horrible, horrible events?

Has God just turned away from our world? Are we left like the victim of the concentration camps who wrote, ‘I believe in God, even when he is silent?’

I don’t know the answer. I do believe, however, that there is some clue in Jeremiah.

Jeremiah 4:22 begins with the words, ‘My people are fools; they do not know me’. Perhaps this is at the heart of the evil we see. Because we have been created in God’s image we have been given freedom to make choices, to choose good or to choose evil. Many people have chosen the ways of evil, the ways of self centredness and greed.

We have created an unjust and ill-divided world. We have created a world filled with bitterness and resentment and we have made the mistake of believing that we can continue to go our own way indefinitely. ‘My people are fools’, says God, ‘they do not know me’. It is not God who makes a world of Darfurs, of Palestines, of Afghanistans, of Iraqs; it is people who make such a world.

We stand back as spectators and think that nothing can touch us or the world we live in, we think that such violence and destruction are only for the Middle East or Africa and that such things never reach our world.   When the petrol prices go up at the pumps, when our airports are filled with security checks, when terrorist attacks are much closer to home, we realize there is but one world.

The LORD speaking through Jeremiah threatens unremitting violence and destruction, perhaps vision of the world at its worst.  Jesus offers a vision of the world at its best, a world of compassion and healing.

In a world that Jeremiah would recognize, we need that compassion and healing. We need forgiveness for our foolishness. We need to come to know this God who seeks us—like a shepherd seeking out a lost sheep.

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