Sermon at St Matthias’ Church on 9th September 2007
“Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand.” Jeremiah 18:6
The Central Applications Office tables show that the number of points at Leaving Certificate required to study theology at Trinity College, Dublin is 345; that’s 200 points less than for admission to read law, 220 less than dentistry and 240 less than medicine. Obviously, there is little demand for the places. The most able students now look for courses that offer them lucrative careers, there seem to be few interested in Holy Scripture. Combined with the continuing decline and closure of most of the seminaries, we are left with a situation where in a generation’s time there will be no biblical scholars in our country. What we once knew will be forgotten; the pages of the Bible will become an unknown country, accessible only to a small, esoteric minority.
I think it will be Ireland’s loss. When people seek to understand the times in which they live, when they look for meaning in otherwise meaningless lives, when they look for hope in times of despair and tragedy, they will have nowhere to look. The Bible will be a closed book. The book from which the founding principles of our society were derived will be to them a strange and alien document.
Professor John Bartlett taught Old Testament studies when I was training for ordination. Very dry and very formal, but I used to love his lectures. He would take a biblical text and work through it step by step. He would explain what was going on in the history of the time. He would explain why God spoke in this particular way to this particular situation. He would explain how the text had reached us in its present form, what bits had been edited, what bits had had additional comments added to them on the way down through the years. What might otherwise have seemed like strange words from long ago suddenly sprang to life.
At the very heart of understanding the Old Testament, and understanding what God might be saying to us in our time, were the days of Jeremiah. They were days of sadness and disaster.
The high point in the history of God’s people was the rule of David. Flawed as he was, David was seen as an ideal king compared with what was to follow in later centuries. To understand the pain and grief of Jeremiah we need to understand the process that led to Jeremiah’s times.
David became king around about 3,000 years ago, about 1,000 BC. He reigned over the united kingdom of Israel and Judah until 961 B.C. and was succeeded by Solomon who reigned until 922 B.C. From that year on things began to decline. Israel and Judah split into two separate kingdoms. In 721 Israel, the northern kingdom, fell to Assyrian invaders and Judah continued alone. There was a bright point in the days of Judah during the reign of Josiah, who was king from 640-609 B.C., the Book of the Law which had somehow been lost was found and there seemed a real prospect that the people would reform. Unfortunately the good times did not last and Judah continued its downward slide.
The worse things got the more people clung on to their belief that God would always be on their side. Jerusalem and the Temple were at the heart of what they believed. As long as they held the Holy City then nothing could destroy them.
Poor Jeremiah comes into the middle of this situation charged with telling the people of Judah a few home truths. The people were angry at Jeremiah, they did not want to believe that what was happening was God’s judgment on their disobedience. Judah was a small and weak kingdom and in the year 597 B.C. the Babylonians come sweeping into the place. They raided the Temple, looted its treasures and carried Jehoiachin the king off into exile. This did not fit into people’s idea of God or of their own place in history. They were angry when they were told that they had deserved this.
The people believed that Jeremiah was guilty of blasphemy to dare to suggest that God’s promises to David would not be kept and that there would not always be a king to follow in the line of David. Jeremiah, for his part, was convinced that they had failed to keep their obligations and that the promises would not be fulfilled.
The events of 597 were bad enough, but Jeremiah told people that this was not the end, that there was worse to come. Jeremiah was persecuted for his words. He was hated, jeered at, ostracized, continually harassed, and suffered a number of attempts on his life. Jeremiah suffered greatly, mentally as well as physically, for speaking the truth.
Jeremiah’s words of warning were fulfilled in 587 when the Babylonians returned, destroying both Jerusalem and the Temple and carrying the whole of the leadership of Jewish society into exile in Babylon. Judah had been given chance after chance, they were given warning after warning, but they persisted in their belief that nothing could go wrong.
Reading Jeremiah’s forewarnings of doom from 26 centuries ago, what relevance can we find for today?
Jeremiah is saying that there are no guarantees, that God makes his own decisions. A nation is like clay in God’s hand, if he chooses to crush it and re-form it, then he will do so.
Why would God destroy a nation he has made? Because it will not repent of its evil ways. The people of Judah were impeccable in their conduct of the life of the Temple, everything was done according to the letter of the law. The problem was that their lives did not match their religious ceremonies.
Reading through Jeremiah now we can be amazed at the arrogance of the people. How could they refuse to accept what God was saying to them?
To understand the days of Jeremiah we need only look around us. We have been given the opportunity to build a new and prosperous society in this country. Never has there been so much material wealth. Look at what has happened. Wealth has come before justice. Private interests have come before any concern for the life of the community or of the wider society. The day will come when the money runs out and what will be left?
People have raised these questions and they have been swept aside. What was the Taoiseach’s comment in the summer about those who raise dissenting voices, the moaners and cribbers as he called them?
Jeremiah would have been forthright in his condemnation of the excess, waste and the plain injustice in our society. Jeremiah is a warning to anyone who assumes success automatically follows success, he is a warning to a society where people believe they are under no obligation to anyone. God warns a people that refuses to hear him that he is preparing a disaster for them and devising a plan against them.
Jeremiah can be frightening for us. What is God saying to our country? What is being prepared and devised? Are we listening?