Sermons from St
Fred Nye, Sunday, July 2nd, 2017
Promises, promises, promises. Our lives are full of them. We hear them in church, when a couple pledge themselves to one other at their wedding - or when godparents, on behalf of a baptised child, promise to renounce evil and turn to Christ. Vows like these are clearly serious and solemn – others are often a lot shallower, like the emailed promise of a vast inheritance if we can just let the thoughtful donor have our bank details. And of course we have recently been smothered in political promises, besieged with equal persuasiveness from both sides in the Brexit campaign, and by all the main parties in the general election.
Today’s bible readings all contain promises, and all three can repay a bit of thought on our part. Our first reading certainly needs some background if we are to understand it. In 593 BC Jeremiah and the people of Jerusalem were offered some very convincing political promises at a time of national crisis. Four years earlier Judah and Jerusalem had been conquered by the Babylonians, a large part of the population had been exiled in Babylon, and a puppet ruler called Zedekiah put on the throne. A peoples’ party then emerged, led by a plausible and smooth-talking prophet called Hananiah, trying to stir up a nationalist rebellion against Babylon. In this story Jeremiah appears as a thoroughly principled yet anguished peacemaker, doing his best to occupy the middle ground between opposing factions, and between God and his people. Things came to a head when Hananiah promised the people that rebellion would restore stability and national sovereignty within two years. Where I wonder, have we heard that one before? In any event Jeremiah, no doubt with some misgivings, proposed negotiation with Babylon rather than rebellion, as the only way of avoiding national disaster. And how right he was. Despite Jeremiah’s prediction that Hananaiah’s uprising would fail, it nevertheless broke out as planned, only to be harshly crushed by Nebuchadnezzar. Jerusalem was overthrown, Solomon’s Temple razed to the ground, and Israel’s dynasty of kings destroyed for ever.
There are so many lessons to be learned from this outing into ancient history. Hananiah had of course got it wrong. In his self-assured complacency he had exposed the nation to mortal danger. He had thought too much of God’s protective relationship with Israel, too little of Israel’s responsibilities. And Jeremiah? He surely is a reminder that the voice of the people is not the Word of God, and that the true prophet can be right, even if he or she – in making us feel uncomfortable - is in a minority of one. As a church, locally and nationally, we have to take this message to heart, learn to live it and to pray it. You may even have come across a Jeremiah here at St. Faith’s – I can certainly think of one or two.
In the passage from Romans, St. Paul wrestles with a similar problem. Like Hananiah, we are all at times tempted to rely over-much on God’s favour, and on the comforts of religion, in a vain attempt to avoid the uneasy business of living as the people of God. If we have been promised eternal life in Christ, then why should we still have to struggle with sin and death? How do we cope with evil and disaster here and now, after the tragic events in our own nation? Hillsborough, the terrorist attacks, the Grenfell tower - all test our faith in God and our faith in humanity. Earlier in Romans chapter 6 Paul gives us some encouragement. As baptised Christians we live in a world where the old creation and the new still overlap. Our sinful selves have already been ‘buried with Christ’, but we are yet to be raised in a resurrection like his. So, meanwhile, we must carry on the struggle against sin and death, and the search for new life: that’s why the voice of true prophecy always moves us away from our comfort zone. The kingdom of Heaven is indeed like treasure hidden in a field. It is already ours but we have to find it. And if we stop looking we will lose it for ever.
But we must leave the last word on promises to Our Lord. In St. Matthew’s gospel, Jesus promises his disciples (and that’s us!) that they will have their reward if they ‘give even a cup of cold water to these little ones’. And by ‘little ones’ he means not just young children, but anyone and everyone who is overlooked, under-privileged and disadvantaged. The promise, the hope, that will carry us through all the threats that we face from insecurity, disaster, violence, sin and death is the promise that Love will win. We are called to join Our Lord in his work of salvation, where even the smallest gift, a cup of water, is a vehicle of his love that brings relief, refreshment and new life to those in greatest need. When we were in the Cathedral last Sunday, to support Jackie Parry as she was ordained Deacon, we heard Bishop Richard say this: ‘(Deacons) are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and the lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible.’ This is the greatest promise of all – the promise that in following Christ we will do his work, in his name, and that even the smallest act of love and kindness on our part will hasten the coming of the Kingdom. This is the one promise that is the measure of all others, the test that all prophets must pass. For a promise that doesn’t do something, however small, to make God’s love visible, is not worth the paper it’s printed on.