St Aubyn’s 11th January and St Michael’s 14th January 2018
Readings – Jeremiah 7:1-15; Luke 3:7-18
The word on the street is that the church in this country is dying. You don’t need to read the statistics to know that the average age of congregations is rising, or that the number of churches is decreasing. Organised Christian religion has been declining for so long, that some even predict the end of Christianity in this country. And yet remarkably, amid all the doom and gloom, the fact remains that, according to all the latest estimates, at least 43-44% of people when questioned are happy to identify as Christian.
That’s an awful lot of people. Just imagine if even 40% of the people in this area went to the local churches. We’d all have to have bigger buildings, wouldn’t we? Yet the reality on the ground is that when you look at how many people actually come to St Michael’s, the numbers attending each week only represent about 0.5% of the parish population. Out of the 9500 or so who live in the area we serve, only about 45 turn up here on a given Sunday.
So why is there such a vast gap between the number of people who call themselves Christian and those who come to church? That’s a huge question, with a whole host of different answers. But surely one important reason is that somewhere along the line an awful lot of people have come up with some very strange ideas about what it means to be a Christian. If we were to go out on the streets and ask folk why they thought they were Christians, we would get all kinds of responses. For example, “I’m a Christian because my parents were believers”; “I’m a Christian because I go to church”; in fact, you would almost always get any answer other than, “I’m a Christian because Jesus died in my place for my sins.”
But maybe we shouldn’t blame other people for such confusion. If you were to go to KFC, you would know exactly what you were getting – fried chicken and chips. If you were to go to Primark, you would know what sort of clothes you’d find. But if you were to go into any church in this country, would you find one consistent, clear message about what the Christian faith stands for? It seems to me one of the greatest challenges that the church faces in any generation is to stay on message, and make sure that what we preach and teach really is the good news of faith alone.
In our gospel reading we hear how John the Baptist appeared on the banks of the river Jordan with a radical message of repentance. Now this message wasn’t addressed to people who knew nothing about the Lord or had no religious understanding. It was addressed to people who should have been familiar with the message of Scripture, and what the Lord expected of them. Yet John’s message came as a real shock. Why? Because what they had been taught was that faith was less about a living relationship with the Lord, but rather about having the right religious background. So if you asked them if they were believers they would say, yes, We have Abraham as our father. As John the Baptist pointed out, they had completely missed the point of what faith is all about.
Going back to our Old Testament reading, here the prophet Jeremiah is told by the Lord to stand at the gate of the temple. It was probably the busiest, noisiest place in Jerusalem full of worshippers who had come into the city to bring their offerings. From their point of view, they thought they were OK with God because they religiously went to the temple once a week and on high days and holidays. After all, the temple was the place where the Lord was said to dwell, and the teachers of the day said that so long as they kept up with their offerings and sacrifices no harm could befall them.
But Jeremiah’s message is clear: Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” Or as we might say, don’t imagine you’re a Christian because you keep saying to yourself, “I’m Church of England, Church of England, Church of England!” Meaningless repetition is not enough to make you a believer.
No, Jeremiah’s message to his hearers is that they need to radically alter their understanding of what it means to follow the Lord. So he issues a threefold challenge:
First of all, make sure you mean what you say.
Verse 5: If you really change your ways and your actions…that is, stop making promises to the Lord that you don’t intend to keep. It can, after all, be so easy when we gather in worship to make bold statements about how we intend to live. So, for example, when we prepare for Holy Communion this morning we will sing Take my life and let it be, holy consecrated Lord to thee – which is a wonderful hymn all about dedicating ourselves to the Lord. But I suspect that all too often we don’t actually make any positive changes in response to words we are singing, and maybe, if we’re honest, a more accurate first line of the hymn ought to be Take my life, but let me be. Yes, we may in theory know we need to change our ways and our actions, yet deep down most of us for the most human of reasons would rather have a faith which is comfortable and easy, which makes no real demands on us, and which is there for us to follow as we see fit.
You see, all of us find change difficult, especially change which marks out as different from those around us. We would rather not think too deeply about Jesus’ command to take up our cross and follow Him, and we would like to explain away the demands He makes upon our lives. The only trouble is, once we start doing that, we run the very serious danger of no longer being open to what the Lord says to us, that the words we say or sing in our services remain just words, and that ultimately all we do when we worship is go through the motions. And that’s how in the end the people of God can lose hold of their relationship with the Lord. We hear the call to change and we say, “Thank you, Lord, but no thanks.” That was the problem with the people in Jeremiah’s day, and I believe that is the issue we still need to confront today.
So mean what you say. Secondly, and closely related to this, turn your words into actions.
Let me translate the rest of verse 5 and the start of verse 6 more accurately: if you truly enact justice between a man and his neighbour and do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place…
I guess we all know that the second greatest commandment Jesus gives us is to love our neighbour as ourselves. The trouble is, we are not very good at loving people who are different from us, or who are powerless and weak. That is why the Bible consistently reminds us of our duty towards the foreigner (or as our translation puts it, the alien), the fatherless and the widow. They should be especially worthy of our care and our concern because they are least able to stand up for themselves and therefore more likely to be the victims of injustice and oppression. And indeed it is the mark of just how deeply the love of God has transformed our lives that we devote time and energy to loving those who the world sees as outsiders, and perhaps less worthy of protection.
But at the same time we need to be clear exactly what we do or don’t mean by loving those who are outsiders. It doesn’t necessarily mean following the latest trendy social cause. It doesn’t mean necessarily following a certain political agenda. Again, many churches can lose hold of their relationship with the Lord not because they have necessarily rejected Him, but because some big issue becomes more important than the gospel of Jesus Christ. We love our neighbour not only because that it is a good thing in itself but because of our love for the Lord, and we want our actions towards our neighbours ultimately to point them to Him.
The trouble with the people in Jeremiah’s time, however, is that they no longer worshipped the Lord as they should. And because they no longer knew how much the Lord loved and cared for them, they no longer showed that same kind of love to those who were most in need of care and protection. That is why, for all they knew of the Lord’s commands, injustice and discrimination was rife. And so the third element of Jeremiah’s challenge goes right to the heart of the spiritual problem affecting the nation: Turn back to the Lord you claim to serve.
The rest of verse 6: If you do not follow other gods to your own harm…
Now to Jeremiah’s hearers these words must have been truly shocking. After all, here they were at the gate to the temple, on their way to offer up the sacrifices that the Law of Moses commanded. How dare he suggest they were following other gods!
But maybe we need to think a little more about what a god actually is. A god is something or someone who attracts our praise and worship, and to whom we devote all our energy and attention. It could range from anything like the perfect relationship we crave to a particular lifestyle to a certain goal we want to set ourselves. A god captures the desires of our hearts and minds. And to the people of Jeremiah’s time the god they worshipped was the god of a good harvest. After all, they were farming folk and a good harvest was essential to survival.
Now when the people of God thought about the harvest they couldn’t help noticing that their pagan neighbours had their own ways of ensuring a good yield each year. They had carved images portraying the gods of fertility and prosperity and they held ceremonies and rituals each year in the name of these gods. Perhaps at first the Israelites simply thought there was no harm joining in. But gradually they got drawn into this pagan worship because most of the time it seemed to work. So they too began to have their own carved images and burn incense to them. Everyone else was doing it, why not them?
The chief of these pagan gods bore the name Baal. That is simply the Hebrew word for lord and master. But actually by naming their god Baal the people of God were making an important statement. You see, the God of their father Abraham should have been their lord and master. It was to Him they should have been offering their devotion. But actually He no longer was their centre of worship. Oh yes, they realised He made certain demands on their lives, but so long as they turned up once a week at the services in the temple, no real harm could come to them, could it?
Jeremiah message is unambiguous: “Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe” – safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord.” You see, in the Lord’s eyes there is one thing worse than people who refuse to worship Him. It is people who worship Him one day in seven, and spend the other six days following other gods. The Lord really, really does not like Sunday believers who go through the motions of declaring their love for Him, yet come Monday morning devote all their time and energy to some other lord and master.
Of course it’s easy for us to fool ourselves and believe that somehow everything is OK between us and God. But the Lord watches and He knows the desires of our hearts. He knows what captures our thoughts in idle moments, He knows where we are really setting the goals in our lives. And to me, it seems that if we are serious about our church growing beyond 0.5% of the parish population we need to come back to the Lord with a fresh devotion, and a renewed commitment to serve Him and Him alone. After all, I suspect that too often when folk look at us, they actually see people who think and behave just like anybody else, except for this weird habit of going to church on a Sunday morning. And if that’s the case, it’s not too surprising that they end up with some pretty strange notions of what being a Christian is all about.
It is for this reason Jeremiah’s message is one that we need to urgently hear in our day. The Lord is looking for a people who mean what they say, who put their words into actions, who are willing to turn back to Him in humility and repentance. For then, and only then, I believe will we become the people of God who bring revival and renewal to His church.
And it’s not as if we haven’t been warned. For the people of Jeremiah’s day there was the example of the sanctuary at Shiloh. It was where the Lord first made His dwelling among His people when they crossed into the promised land. We don’t actually have an account of what happened to this sanctuary, but from our reading it’s clear the Lord destroyed it because of the wickedness of the Israelites. Verses 12-13: Go now to the place in Shiloh where I first made a dwelling for my Name, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of my people Israel. While you were doing all these things, declares the Lord, I spoke to you again and again, but you did not listen; I called you, but you did not answer.
As the magnet on my fridge says, “You can either be a good example, or a terrible warning.” so what will we be – a good example of people who know and love the Lord, or a terrible warning of people who go through the motions of worshipping Him?
So today, when the Lord speaks to us, will we listen? When He calls us, will we answer? Today will we be the listening people of God who will show the world what it really means to take up our cross and follow Jesus, whatever the cost?
Our verse for the year: Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labour in vain. Let’s really make sure that what we are building here is of the Lord to the praise and glory of His name.