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Sermon - 10 October 2004
Bible Verses: Jeremiah 29: 1, 4 - & 2 Timothy 2: 8 - 15
(click the verses above to read the passages online)

The Word of God is not Chained

October 10, 2004 Jeremiah 29: 1, 4 - 7,
2 Timothy 2: 8 - 15, Luke 17: 11 - 19

This is the word of the Lord
Seek the welfare of the City where I have sent you.
wrote Jeremiah to the people who were in exile. Seek the welfare of their enemies, those who were to destroy Jerusalem?

In about 590 BC Israel is in a brand new situation. The Babylonians had conquered Israel and had a puppet king in place in Jerusalem. many of the leaders, artisans and musicians had been taken into exile in Babylon where the Babylonians could keep an eye on them.

What does God want the exiles to do? Fight? Or stay and get on with life? How do they keep the faith?

In fact, its all so bad - Is God even real anymore in this new situation? Does God have any control? Those Babylonian gods look pretty powerful from the angle of the exiles.

How do we know what God is saying?
Its like the General Assembly of this church last month, there are two competing voices saying "thus says the Lord."

Lets go back to the exile.
Do we listen to the lone, slightly potty voice of Jeremiah who had prophesied for 40 years that Jerusalem would fall, like a rotting basket of summer figs to the Babylonians? Who is telling us things exactly opposite to all that we had been brought up to know as God's word?

Or do we listen to the comfortable familiar words of Isaiah being repeated by the prophets Shemaiah in Babylon and Hanaiah in Jerusalem. Telling the stories they wanted to hear, of God saving Jerusalem and Judah in the past when the Assyrians had come and scattered the people of the Northern kingdom of Israel. They gave warm fuzzies saying God is still the same, God lives in Jerusalem in the Temple "the house of God", the city would never fall" Well, if God was in the Temple he sure didn't seem to be with those in Babylon.

There are heated exchanges between Jeremiah and the other prophets. It was dirty politics in the life and death matters as it happened. Jeremiah is a traitor, giving in to the enemy.

Who are the false prophets and who is speaking the words of God? To whom do we listen?

Jeremiah speaks with hard to hear news and with compassion to the people in exile who are wondering where God is and feeling a long way from home and Jerusalem
He tells them "Thus says the Lord." The future doesn't lie back in Jerusalem, at present. The people there are trusting in physical buildings of the city.

Dennis Bratcher puts it like this -
Jerusalem is placing its hopes in a set of beliefs about how they thought God worked in the world which simply were not true.

Jeremiah gives a picture of a bigger God at work in the world. He tells the exiles the Word of God can't be chained in Jerusalem. Don't fight, don't become terrorists undermining the cities of Babylon, don't even draw apart from the life of the city. God has sent you to be a blessing to the world. You can't be a blessing if you've withdrawn from communication with the Babylonians because they are evil. God is at work in this awful situation you find yourselves in. God is even at work among the Babylonians.

You can see why they shoved Jeremiah down a well in Jerusalem.

Jeremiah went on, he was going to ensure that these people survived to return. Pray for the cities you are in. The welfare of the Babylonians is linked totally with your welfare. This is the real situation you must come to terms with. So get on with it, its going to be a long time. Those of you who came into exile will never return home, so get on with building, planting marrying and having children, settling in the new place. Recognise what can't be changed, do a reality check. Realise that you ARE in exile. Stop putting energy into trying to re create the past that has gone forever.
God's people have more important things to be about than fighting political systems which are going to change anyway. Your understanding about what it means to be God's people in the world is going to change drastically. Pray for the cities of Babylon where you are. Have hope for God is at work among you, the future lies among the next generation of the exiles, they will return.

This is revolutionary stuff.
Who do you listen to if you are in exile?
Who is speaking into your life as it really is?

Bratcher askes these questions of the situation.
Do the answers to issues of life that have been true in the past , even those which are enshrined in sacred scriptures, stand in the new context?
Of is it possible that when history changes the way things are that those sacred answers, relied on in the past may themselves become false in the new context?

In our lives does stuff which worked in the past for us in our faith journeys still stand in new situations?
If we look at Jeremiah we find that God's living Word is dynamic, unexpected, has a new edge to it.
Hanaiah was a false prophet not because he denied God or God's power, in fact he said exactly what Isaiah had said before him. He was a false prophet because he didn't listen to God's word for his own time, but assumed that what had been would always be. But God's word cannot be chained .

How do we apply God's truth in the reality of life? Here is a warning about seeing one piece of God's truth in one context and assuming it is for the whole of time. God IS the same, God is ALWAYS making things new. God's word may call for one action at one time and another at another.

When things change drastically in our lives or the life of the parish our first instinct is to try to return everything to the way it was.

Exile is painful and it hurts to let go and face reality, it is a time of grief and lament, we can use our energies into a futile effort to construct our world the way that is most comfortable for us rather than allowing God to bring us through the pain to new life. The ones who point out the reality are not welcomed and often like Jeremiah rejected. Note that the job description of Presbyterian Ministers of Word and sacrament is to address reality, to sometimes say the things none of us, including the preacher, want to hear.

But the old answers cannot address exile, simply because the old answers were formed in a stable world where the answers made sense. Sometimes in exile the old answers are only pious lies from those who have not been in exile and cannot understand beyond the certainty of the status quo.

Often people go through huge changes in their lives, they come back to their church and listen and hear nothing which speaks to the new reality they know. Words which once thrilled or motivated in a different time and context leave no impression. They misinterpret this as losing their faith and often leave.
What is happening is that they are hearing pious answers for another time and place. It has nothing to do with music, service format, ways of communicating, those things help, but if at the base is a repetition of old words for another time it is dead Godstuff. The new context is not addressed, the active living Word of God is stifled.

We as a parish are in an entirely new place from even ten years ago. We are light years away from those exiles who first settled here and did their own building, planting and increasing in numbers in this land. You know that, we have had the grief , anger and pain of realising that in our personal lives and the life of this parish and this growing dynamic city of Manukau [goodness that sounds like a Barry Curtis speech] things are not what they used to be. No, it is different. But have hope for the living God has not changed and has a new word for us.

"Pray for the welfare of your city" says Jeremiah so long ago.

"The world of God is not chained", is sent to Timothy from a prison cell.

Our context is a city which is diverse in every possible way. Where is God sending us out to be a blessing and to be blessed?

For a start, we live in a city of many faiths, we have to grapple with the fact that we have only pious out of date ways to interface with those around us of other faiths. Those before us never had to deal with these matters. When I read from John Macky's diary from 150 years ago, before the 150th celebrations, he had difficulty dealing with Anglicans and Methodists on the boat trip out. From the response from you about your places of origin on World communion Sunday we are now overrun with Anglicans and Methodists and even Roman Catholics and long may it last. And yet in some areas we still try to operate, because we haven't ever really thought it out, as though we were in still in the context of John Macky.

Jeremiah has something to say to us. Those who stayed in Jerusalem, who wanted to keep the status quo came to a very nasty end, new life came through those in exile without their Temple.
But then and now the future still rests on the living God - I'll quote a very old psalm "whose mercies are new every morning"..

Let us trust
The One who comes and says I come to make all things new. Let us listen for the new word that cannot be contained in the status quo. and let us dare pray for our city in our time and place. Then we will discover where God is at work, very near.

Reference and quotes Dennis Bratcher Lectionary Commentary series Year C

Rev. Margaret Anne Low


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