‘’No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD ,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD . Jeremiah 31:34
There is a widespread sense among many of us us that the society we knew has disappeared; that the values with which we grew up no longer count for anything; that the world as we knew it simply no longer exists. The Ireland we knew, the stable, traditional, familiar place, has gone and we don’t know what to make of the place we live in. Everything from the past seems to have been thrown away.
There is no shortage of ways of moving back to the past being suggested by all sorts of people. You will get letters to newspaper editors saying that our society is the way it is because the Catholic Church changed by bringing in the English Mass and therefore lost its authority. You will get letters saying that if women stopped working then all the problems in the world would disappear. You will get letters saying that the root of the problem is in the schools. You will get all sorts of oddball ideas about how we can take the country back into some sort of imagined golden age. I knew one man who believed that the country would be have been an entirely different place if Catholics had been taught RE in a way he thought was right.
What the letter writers fail to recognise is that there has been a fundamental in the way people think, and that whatever moves backwards that could possibly be made would not make people unthink the thoughts they have. We have been centuries moving towards this point. We have reached a time where there is a rejection of all authority; where there is a questioning of all values; where individuals will do what they see and believe to be right for them.
Against this background, life for the traditional Church becomes very difficult. The bishops may speak on a matter, but who listens to bishops anymore? Who listens to anything said by synods or clergy anymore? The odd journalist might pick up on something a church leader has said if it provides a stick with which to beat the Government, otherwise the Church is ignored, left to talk to itself.
These are not new times. God’s people have been through these experiences before. Jeremiah, from whose writings we read this morning, would have said, ‘what’s the big deal?’
In Jeremiah’s time everything got swept away. It wasn’t just their traditional ways of thinking and doing things that they lost; they lost their whole country. Life as they knew it was completely gone. Even the great Temple in Jerusalem, the one built by king Solomon was destroyed. Thousands and thousands of them were carried off to live in exile in Babylon. It was during this time that songs like Psalm 137 got written, ‘By the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down, there we wept, when we remembered Zion’.
Jeremiah is remarkable, he’s not like the people who write to the newspapers, the people who say how awful everything is. Jeremiah sees everything gone and what does he say this morning, ‘’No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD ,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD’.
This is a new time says Jeremiah. All that we knew, all our traditions, all our sacred places, all our heritage has gone, but we still have God. But no longer will people be able to depend on someone else to think for them or to teach them, now they must think for themselves.
Jeremiah is telling the people in his time that they don’t need the Temple and they don’t need the priests, they can know the LORD for themselves. Jeremiah would say to us in our time, ‘OK. Everything has been swept away, all the old ways have gone, but, do you know what? The LORD is still there and every one of you can know the LORD’.
Jeremiah would say to us, ‘It’s time to be grown up Christians, time to be able to pray, time to be able to read the Bible, time to be able to discern God’s ways for yourselves’.
The people in Jeremiah’s time would have been terrified at the advance of the Babylonian armies. They would have been in despair as their country and society were destroyed. They would not have welcomed Jeremiah’s suggestion to them that they would now have to stand on their own feet, that no longer will there be anyone to teach them. But the people of God survived because they were God’s people.
The Church in Ireland will survive amongst those people who can learn the lessons taught by Jeremiah. If the Church for us is about traditions and structures and clergy, then we will be disappointed because all those things are in danger of being swept away; if the Church for us is about a living faith in a living LORD, then our time is coming.
‘’No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD ,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD .