imageSermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday after Trinity, 14th June 2015
Jeremiah 7:1-16, Romans 9:14-26

On Wednesday night the Leatherhead Deanery Synod met in our church hall. It was a very interesting meeting, addressed by the Revd Canon Dr Hazel Whitehead, who is director for Discipleship Vocation and Ministry in our Guildford Diocese. Hazel is dynamic and somewhat formidable. Her topic was so-called ‘Faith Sharing’.

Among other things, she asked us to come up with about 20 words which would sum up the Good News, the Gospel message, which we would want to share with any heathens that we might meet in our ordinary lives. There was discussion about how one could approach people who were not Christians in a way which might open their minds to knowing more about the Gospel.

We all were nervous about possibly seeming like Jehovah’s Witnesses or those earnest people with clip-boards who tackle you at the least suitable time when you are out and about. I think that it’s probably true to say that many of us are not naturally ‘God Squad’ people, but nevertheless we are sincere in our belief, and if we could find a way of doing it, which didn’t make us look like lunatics, we would be very happy to share the Good News with people who don’t yet know about it.

How would I speak to the ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’, to use the old lawyer’s phrase, about the work of a prophet like Jeremiah, who was at work 400 years after the kingdom of David and Solomon had split into two, a northern kingdom called Israel and a southern kingdom called Judah, including Jerusalem.

Israel had been conquered by the Assyrians in 721 BC-

‘The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold’

as you will remember, in Lord Byron’s poem: and in 587 BC the remainder of the Chosen People, the people of Judah, were deported to Babylon:

By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept (Psalm 137).

400 years before, there had been the time of the Exodus, and Moses had received the Ten Commandments from the Lord. Jeremiah was reminding the people of Judah that they would only be able to continue to live in the Promised Land if they kept God’s commandments: to love the Lord your God, and not to worship other gods, and to keep the other moral laws, not to steal, not to do murder, not to commit adultery, and so on.

Interestingly, when he is going through the various commandments, Jeremiah doesn’t recite the commandments about stealing, murdering and committing adultery, until he has emphasised, they would only be able to continue to live in the Promised Land, ‘If ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless and the widow.’

We tend to think of Old Testament morality as being centred around ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’. Not a bit of it – practical care for the weaker members of society was very important indeed. We perhaps don’t think of it as being part of the Law of Moses – it was not actually part of the Ten Commandments not to oppress the fatherless, the stranger and the widow. But it is part of the Jewish Law: you’ll find it in Deuteronomy (24:17) and in Exodus (22:22). There’s a real strain of socially-directed morality in the Jewish Law.

The Italians and the Maltese today, throwing their navy and their coast guard into rescuing all the refugees embarking from North Africa in unseaworthy craft, are carrying out the Law of Moses. They are saving the strangers, the refugees. Jesus affirmed that Jewish Law. He said, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have come not to abolish, but to fulfil’ (Matt. 5:17).

It surprises me that, although they have committed the Royal Navy, our government so readily rejects the proposals of the European Commission, that all the nations of Europe should take a fair share of the refugees. In this our government’s attitude seems to me not only to be contrary to the Law of Moses, but also to the precepts of Christ Himself.

But if even the government is so deaf to God’s commands, how do I get through to the man on the Clapham omnibus about the ‘law and the prophets’? How can I get him to think about whether keeping to the Law and following the prophets would keep him in the Promised Land, as Jeremiah was saying to the people of Judah? Alas, I have a feeling that the chap on the bus will look at me as though I’d just stepped off a spaceship from Mars.

What about what St Paul says? In Romans 9, ‘Is there unrighteousness with God?’ Is God unfair? Is God unjust? St Paul goes back to the original giving of the Ten Commandments, God saying to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.’ In other words, nothing that humans can do will necessarily influence the will of God.

But does that make God good, or bad? Again, it looks quite difficult to explain to our chap on the bus. (Perhaps not on the actual number 88 from Clapham, but maybe I might be listened to on a number 9 coming along Pall Mall – a Boris Bus – what do you think?)

It was relatively simple in the time of Jeremiah. Behave decently, look after those who are weak and disadvantaged in your society – and God will look favourably on you. He will not turf you out of the Promised Land.

But St. Paul points out that things aren’t quite so simple. In the passage which comes immediately after that terrific passage which we often have at funerals – ‘I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’,[Rom. 8:38-39], Paul agonises about whether the Israelites, the Jews, are still the chosen people.

Of course much of the Old Testament is a kind of epic love-hate story between the chosen people and God. When the chosen people obeyed God, worshipped the One True God, then they were able to escape from captivity in Egypt and go into the Promised Land.

But then when they mixed with the Canaanites, whose land they had occupied, and started to worship the Baals, the gods that the Canaanites worshipped, and no longer exclusively worshipped the One True God, then God was angry with them, and eventually they lost the Promised Land.

What St Paul points out is that God is not some kind of cosmic prizegiver. God is far greater than that. As it says at the beginning of St. John’s Gospel, ‘To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become Children of God’. St Paul says, ‘As Hosea prophesied, I will call them my people which were not my people; and it shall come to pass that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people, there shall they be called the children of the living God’.

God is omnipotent, so of course He can do this: and there’s no point answering back and complaining, railing against God if He doesn’t do what we want.

Back to my 20 words of message to my heathen friend on the top deck of the Number 9 bus. What would he make of a prophet like Jeremiah, and what would he make of a Jewish convert to Christianity like St Paul? Our heathen friend is, by definition, in this context, not an Israelite, not one of the chosen people.

So he won’t be familiar with the terms of art, with the language, of Christianity and Judaism before it. What does a prophet do? Could there be prophets today? In the Old Testament, at the crucial moment, God will speak through a prophet, to His chosen people: ‘Do this. Do that, and you will be able to enjoy the promised land.’

In today’s world, after the New Testament, it may be a bit different. Be alert to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Try to discern what God has in mind for you, and what God is calling you to do. ‘Amend your ways and your doings. If you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow’, says God through the prophet Jeremiah, ‘then I will dwell with you in this place.’

So what are we to make of all this? How would we share it with our heathen friend? How does God speak to us these days? Do we still have prophets, and if we don’t, how do we know if what we are doing is in line with the will of God?

St Paul doesn’t say straightforwardly that God only does good things. He asks, ‘Is there injustice on God’s part?’ He answers his own question, By no means – or, ‘God forbid.’ But he then goes on to say that God ‘will have mercy on whom [he] has mercy and [he] will have compassion on whom [he] has compassion.’ In other words, justice seems to depend on God’s whim, not on whether something is right or wrong.

It’s an old philosophical problem, and it’s possible that it was something that Paul knew about, from his study of Ancient Greek philosophy, and in particular, Plato. 400 years before the time of Christ, Plato wrote about the teaching of Socrates. Socrates himself didn’t write anything down, but he was reported faithfully, just as Boswell reported Dr Johnson, by Plato.

Socrates’ philosophical investigations usually took the form of dialogues, of conversations that he had with various people, which brought out the issues that he wanted to explore.

One of these dialogues is called Euthyphro. It takes the form of a conversation between Socrates and a man called Euthyphro. In the course of the dialogue, the famous Euthyphro Dilemma comes up. It is this: is something good because it is good in itself or is it good because God makes it good? St Paul seems to come down on the side of the second: something is good because God makes it good. The Ten Commandments are expressions of the will of God not because they are good in themselves but because God has laid them down by giving them to Moses.

It does seem clear, nevertheless, that most of the things that are recommended in the Jewish law are, almost self-evidently, good in themselves. But what about the refugee, and the widow and the orphan? What about the immigrants? Is God telling us to look after them? And if He is, what are we doing about it?

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