Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
16th of October 2022
Over the past few weeks, you may have noticed, there has been quite a bit of discussion among politicians and the media about the place of Christianity in Australia and the role Christians can play in public life. There are two things that I have found intensely frustrating about all this commentary. The first has been the contention that Christians are discriminated against in Australia. There are Christians being persecuted in the twenty-first century, it is not simply a historical phenomenon, but that persecution is not happening here. Here, unlike in Sri Lanka or Egypt, we do not have to worry about this building being bombed as we gather in it for worship. We do not risk death by identifying publicly as Christian, as our Christian siblings do in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan. If we want to build churches here the government does not use the planning rules to prevent it, as happens in Indonesia and Israel. In Australia, unlike in Malaysia, Christians are not forbidden from evangelising and Muslims are not forbidden from converting to Christianity. Christianity may no longer be treated with the same respect that we could take for granted before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, but that does not mean that Christians are now less safe. And I am worried that conflating criticism of churches and of elements of the Christian faith in Australia with the actual persecution of Christians in other countries might lead to the latter being taken less seriously.
The second element of the debate that has frustrated me has been the assumption by many commentators that discriminating against LGBTIQ+ people is at the centre of Christianity; that every Christian thinks that homosexuality is a sin; and that Christianity teaches that sexual sins are worst sins. The outside world seems to think that Christianity is most concerned about what people do in bedrooms; when we know that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. The sins Jesus with which seems to have been most concerned, as far as we can tell from what he is recorded as saying in the gospels, were religious hypocrisy and the oppression of the poor by the rich. As we have seen over the past few weeks the Prophet Jeremiah had the same priorities. While Jeremiah does mention sexual sins, saying, for instance, to the people of Jerusalem: ‘You have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me? says the Lord,’ (Jeremiah 3:1) he is using that as a metaphor for the people worshipping other gods. According to Jeremiah the Lord is much less concerned about sexual sins that about the worship of other gods and the mistreatment of the poor by the rich, and it was for those sins that Jerusalem fell.
For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the Lord. (Jeremiah 6:13-15)
Over the past few weeks the lectionary has led us through the response to that fall. First, there was the anger and horror of Psalm 137, which ended in: ‘O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!’ Then, last week, the lectionary offered us Jeremiah’s letter to the people exiled in Babylon. In contrast to the bitter and righteous anger of the psalm, Jeremiah told the exiles to offer prayers for peace. Rather than fighting their captors, rebelling against them, resisting them in any way, the exiles were told to ‘Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.’ It was a message of acceptance.
This week, the lectionary gives us a third response to the exile – hope. While the psalm looked back to past defeat, and last week’s letter to the exiles dealt with their present situation, this week we have an oracle that looks to the future. We are now in the part of the prophecies of Jeremiah that have been called the Book of Consolation. The exile has happened, and many of the people are now in Babylon. Others remain in Jerusalem, but it is a city destroyed. Trouble has come, foreign domination, oppression, and exile. Jeremiah warned that this would happen; his early oracles announced that this was God’s judgement. But now, amid that darkness, Jeremiah lights a candle.
God promises the exiles in Babylon and the oppressed remnant in Jerusalem that Israel and Judah will be repopulated. Every that had been done to them will be undone. No longer will a tiny remnant live among ruins; instead ‘The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals.’ The land itself, not just the people, will be restored: ‘And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord.’ A new life is coming, a full resumption of the life in abundance that was enjoyed before the exile.
The proverb that the exiles had quoted to each other, the proverb that they used to make sense of an exile that lasted generations, would no longer apply: ‘In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But all shall die for their own sins’. This attitude, that the people were being punished not only for their own sins but also for the sins of their ancestors, was common among the exiles. It made sense of their predicament, but it also led to despair. What was the point of hoping for anything new, anything better, if their ancestors had doomed the people. That, says Jeremiah, will no longer be the case. People will still be responsible for their own sins, but they will no longer inherit the guilt of their community’s history.
Jeremiah’s message goes beyond these three promises There is a fourth, an amazing promise that changes everything: the promise of a new covenant. This passage is the only time that a new covenant is mentioned in all the Hebrew Scriptures, although other prophets, including Isaiah and Ezekiel, also talk about God doing new things, giving people a new heart and a new spirit. This new covenant is a gift from God, like the first covenant, but a gift that goes wonderfully beyond that first one.
All of us have enough sin of our own that the promise that people shall die only for their own sins might not be a reassuring one. The news of individual accountability might not be the reassurance to us that it was to the exiles. And indeed, what we are offered goes far beyond such individual responsibility: ‘I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more,’ says the Lord. We are being offered a new relationship with God. No longer is our relationship with God based on us fulfilling our part of a contract. Instead, the new covenant is given without condition, and it is given as an act of God’s grace. No longer is there to be any punishment for breaking the covenant, instead, there is to be forgiveness.
This new covenant will not be written on stone. Instead, it is to be written on people’s hearts. The people will no longer need intermediaries; no longer will Moses have to go up the mountain to speak with God for the people, nor will there need to be priests and teachers to interpret God’s words. Instead ‘they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord’. There will be full knowledge of the Lord, and that knowledge will be shared. No one will have superior access to God, and no one will lack what is required. Everyone will be part of the relationship with God.
If God has promised to forgive our iniquity, and remember our sin no more, does that mean, as the Apostle Paul was to write centuries later, that we should ‘continue in sin in order that grace may abound?’ (Romans 6:1) As Paul answered that rhetorical question; ‘By no means!’ (Romans 6:2) The Prophet Jeremiah, who proclaimed that Jerusalem had fallen because it did not follow the Deuteronomic commandments to care for the widow, the orphan, and the alien, was hardly going to say that that care was no longer required. Instead, the new community of the new covenant will be one in which God’s law is so written on the hearts of the people that no widow, orphan, or alien will be left behind. What is new about the new covenant is not what it teaches, but the ability of people to live it out. We all know what we need to do, and how we need to live as God’s people. The Law, the Prophets, and the teachings of Jesus all tell us to love our neighbour as ourselves, share what we have with the poor, forgive others their sins against us, and pray for those who persecute us. We also know how hard it is to live as God commands in a culture that encourages selfishness and individualism, violence and war. The promise is that the days will come when everything with which we currently struggle will be easy because, the Lord says, ‘I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people’.
In the meantime, as I said last week, we are still living in exile, between the resurrection and the return of Christ. We are still waiting for the end time, for the final fulfilment of all things. In this time we need the encouragement of today’s tiny parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. This is one of those parables which is definitely not an allegory. We are not necessarily the widow, and the unjust judge is most definitely not God. Jesus is not suggesting to us that if we want something from God, whether for ourselves or for those we love, all we need to do is keep asking for it and God will eventually give it to us out of sheer frustration at our persistence. We know that that is not true, we have all prayed persistently for things that we have not received. Instead, this parable simply seeks to reassure us that we have not been left alone in this in-between time. God’s ways are not our ways, nor is God’s time our time, but that is no reason to lose heart. God’s justice will be done, Jesus promises, and so we can continue to pray ‘your kingdom come, your will be done’ to God with hope, without losing faith, certain that God is listening.
The Prophet Jeremiah promised the exiles that:
there shall once more be heard the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank-offerings to the house of the Lord: ‘Give thanks to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever!’ (Jeremiah 33:10-11)
It would take a great deal of faith to hold on to that hope while sitting in the ruins of Jerusalem, or while in exile in Babylon, just as much faith as it takes us to hold on to the hope of God’s justice when we look at the world around us. It is much easier to hold on to this hope in community than to try to do it alone and here in Australia, despite anything politicians or the media might say, we do have the great privilege of being able to meet together for worship and to share the words of God with each other. So let us encourage each other in our persistence, as we pray without losing heart. Amen.