August 18 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Jeremiah 23:23-29; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56
Theme: This Sunday is designated "Religious Vocation Sunday"; in view of that, and the rather dire content of the readings set for the day, an obvious theme may be "You Have Been Warned!"; or, perhaps, "Think Again!". Whatever you choose it must surely have an exclamation mark. These readings are shouting at us. They have the tone of final warnings. I'm going with "Signs of the Times" (which doesn't seem to need an exclamation mark!).
Introduction. After weeks of rather "nice" readings we have a collection today guaranteed to chill the blood; or at least provide a strong antidote to any attack of Sunday School sentimentality which can afflict us from time to time (usually in the Christmas season, so it's good to start building up our immunity now). Jeremiah is known variously as the "Prophet of Doom" or the "Weeping Prophet", both of which have a basis in fact but are equally unfair to him. He lived and ministered in a period of almost constant military and political turmoil, where panic was the default setting. Sound, godly leadership was mostly non-existent, and false prophets were in abundance. Things had not greatly improved by Jesus' time. The truth of God, proclaimed by Jeremiah and incarnated in Christ, fell upon deaf ears. In each case the people seemed blind to the gathering crisis. In such circumstances true faith in God is the only remedy, and the author of the Letter to the Hebrews completes his long remembrance of such faith as a source of encouragement for us.
Background. Over recent weeks I have been reading much and pondering much on the relationship between our doctrines of creation on the one hand and redemption on the other. This was prompted by reading some of the published works by Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI who, it seems, has a higher opinion of Teilhard de Chardin's theology than some of his predecessors. One area of theology in which the Cardinal believes Teilhard's work to be particularly helpful is the doctrine of creation. Both of them argue for a re-think of our understanding of that doctrine, and of its relation to our doctrine(s) of redemption, in the light of modern scientific knowledge, particularly in cosmology and evolution. This is far too big a subject to get into here, but I want to focus on one aspect of it that might help us to survive this particularly difficult gospel passage today.
In broad terms we can say that biblical cosmology painted a somewhat static picture of the universe. From a human point of view, we could picture the world (the earth) as a stage on which we are placed to live out our lives. In essence, creation was finished, complete, done and dusted – and, of course, perfect. Had we not stuffed things up by departing from the script that happy state would have lasted for ever. We did stuff it up, and we have continued to stuff it up, individually and collectively, ever since. The essence of that "stuffing up" is disobedience of the (largely) transcendent God, who, being just, must punish us. Throughout our faith history until the coming of Christ God found all sorts of ways to effect that "punishment", including natural disasters, plagues, pestilence, and invading armies. What our pre-scientific faith ancestors lacked was any real understanding of cause-and-effect: what we now see as consequences they saw as specific acts of God. Their primary image of God was that of lawgiver and judge; and the consequence of that is that we see the primary function of Christ as redeemer, saving us from the just punishment of God.
But what happens if we substitute a different primary image of God – the image of the loving Creator of all things? And what happens if we use the insights of science to understand that creation was not a one-off event, completed long ago, but is a process that has been going on for about 13.7 billion years and is still going on? What if we understand that God has chosen to create in this way and that science is one source of revelation through which God is revealing his creative will and purpose for us and the whole of creation? What if, instead of merely singing "God is working his purposes out", we actually believe it? What if we remind ourselves that in the world as God has chosen to create it our actions have predictable consequences – that what our pre-scientific faith ancestors saw as acts of divine retribution we should see as the consequences of our own actions? That our loving Creator gave us free will, but also, through the Law and the prophets – and today I would add, the discoveries of science – gave us the wisdom to foresee the consequences of our choices and act accordingly.
Here's a very simple example that I used many years ago in a sermon on the Ten Commandments. At the top of a very high and dangerous cliff, with a crumbling edge, two notices were erected. One said: "It is forbidden to proceed beyond this notice. Penalty: Death." The other said: "Extreme Danger. Crumbling edge: sheer drop. Stay away." Were those notices saying essentially the same thing and serving essentially the same purpose? Surely they were, although one expressed the warning in terms of punishment, the other (implicitly) in terms of consequence.
Today we could draw a number of analogies. Just before I started typing these notes, I received a notice of a lecture to be given by Jeanette Fitzsimmons arguing for a radical re-think about our economy in what she is calling a "post-growth" world. Is she a prophet or a false prophet? Take your pick, but her approach is a modern equivalent of Jeremiah's. So, of course, are the voices warning of global warming, and those raising alarm about the degrading of our waterways . Professor Jim Mann might be surprised to know that I think of him as standing firmly in the prophetic tradition as he warns about the consequences of our dietary behaviour, and of our reluctance to exercise as much as we need to. I'm sure that he could write a very modern set of dietary "laws" to match anything we have in the Book of Leviticus, for example. "You shall not eat any foods containing...(sugar/salt/fats)..or you shall surely die (prematurely)."
Some of Jeremiah's most difficult issues related to "matters of state", as we would call them today: to relations with foreign powers, to defence of the realm and national security. He and the modern prophets I have just referred to remind us (sometimes unknowingly) that in the world as it is being lovingly created all issues are issues of faith: do we proceed in the way that God is seeking to lead us (do we seek to co-operate with God in his creative work), or do we prefer to set our own course in opposition to God's?
Jeremiah. A quick overview of chapter 23 illustrates the sort of issue I have been raising above. It starts with a condemnation of the present leaders, who have not been faithful to their charge as shepherds of God's flock. Then comes a messianic prophecy, revealing a future stage in God's creative plan. But in the meantime the country seems overrun by false prophets, continuing to lead the people into error. So God is working out his creative plan, revealing it through his chosen prophet, Jeremiah, and calling for faithful commitment by the people. The test is, who is speaking the word of God – who is telling the truth? And notice the three qualities of God's word: it is grain, not straw (it feeds and nourishes); it is like fire (it purifies); and it is like a hammer (it is powerful, irresistible).
Taking It Personally.
- Start with verses 23-24: are you ever tempted to hide from God? When? Why?
- Reflect on the image of God as the loving Creator of the evolving universe, in which everything that advances that process is good (in accordance with his will) and everything that hinders that process is sinful (contrary to his will). Is that how you see things?
- Reflect on the major issues in our news media over recent days. Are any outside the proper realms of faith (or should I say of prophecy)?
- From the Lord's Prayer reflect on the petition, "Your kingdom come, your will be done". Could this be translated, "your creation be made perfect, your purpose be carried out"?
Hebrews. The author presents a pretty grim picture of what faith can lead us into (a good choice for Religious Vocations Sunday?). Some enjoyed "successful" outcomes at the time: others did not. What mattered in all cases is that they stood on their trust in God, whatever their personal circumstances at the time. They refused to compromise, literally on pain of death. It reminds me of the story of the adult catechumen in a Wellington parish who suddenly pulled out of the process shortly before he was due to be baptised. When asked why he said he had been advised that a Christian has to be prepared to die for his or her faith, and he wasn't. The congregation reacted to this news in disbelief: "What nonsense? Who on earth told you that?" [It was, of course, the Vicar.]
Taking It Personally.
- Re-read the whole of chapter 11. How do you feel about it? Does it inspire you or discourage you?
- Reflect on the Wellington story. Has anyone ever told you that you must be prepared to die for your faith? Does such an idea have any real meaning for you?
- Can you recall an occasion when your faith was costly to you?
- How do you distinguish between a hero of the faith and a religious fanatic? Is chapter 11 really a distasteful list of religious fanatics? Be brave – no one else will know what you think!
Luke. There is no avoiding the fact that this is a difficult passage, made no easier by the fact that it appears to be an assortment of separate ideas brought together. A good question to ask whenever we are trying to understand a passage of Christ's teaching is, to whom was he addressing his remarks? Verses 49-53 seem to complete a long passage of in-house teaching addressed to his disciples, which began at verse 22. Verse 54 onwards is addressed to the crowd. Verses 51-53 have a parallel in Matthew 10:34-36; but verses 49 and 50 are unique to Luke. The usual reading of these two verses is to take them as references to judgment, but I'm not sure that's right. Again, the whole issue of the purpose of the incarnation and of Jesus' mission hovers in the background here. Is he having a Boanerges moment here – is he the agent of God's destructive wrath? Surely not. He was not sent into the world to condemn the world, but to save it: John 3:17. So I am wondering if the reference here to "fire" is to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, manifested, be it recalled, as tongues of fire. This would seem to form a better link with the next verse: the reference to Christ's baptism here clearly meaning his death on the cross. Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, longs for it all to be over and the Spirit released into the world. Meanwhile, the vast majority of people have noticed nothing: they have failed to read the signs of the times. Even though the divine plan has been revealed to them through the Torah and through the prophets – even though they have been told over and over again of the coming of the Messiah and what that would mean and entail – they have not recognised that the Messiah has come among them. Some have, of course, but others have not. Division is inevitable, even within families.
Taking It Personally.
- Try to visual Jesus' face and hair. Does your image come from your Sunday School days? Has he a gentle face, smiling, the very embodiment of the meek and the mild?
- Now read slowly through this passage today. Try to visualise his facial expression as he is saying these words.
- What is he feeling? Is he angry, threatening, ready to give up on them? Is he fearful of what lies ahead of him?
- What signs of the times are concerning you at this time? How do you read them? Make them the focus of your prayers this week.