Jeremiah 20. 7-13. Romans 6. 1-11. Matthew 10. 24-39.
Andy worked with a number of us earlier in the year thinking about our faith picture. If someone asked you about why you have faith, how would you respond? Sometimes in our lives the response is easy. All is going well. Life is good. Thank you God for all you give me.
But at other times…All is not going well. Life is far from good. Thank you God? Rather, where are you God? If we are honest, we have all been there to some degree in our Christian lives. We may well know people who were apparently of strong faith, but the trials and tribulations of life have broken them. Some of you will have heard me before talk about experiences in Leyton. Here a local big church preached about turning your life over to Jesus and all will be well, spiritually and then consequently materially and physically. We had many people in our church in Leyton who had come to faith through that church. Their common experience was that initially all had been well. They glowed with hope and enthusiasm. Then…bang…something happened. Often it was illness, unexpected death of a loved one, or some big personal item like loss of employment. God was supposed to stop these things happening. That was in the job description. Come to God, and all will be well. Well it was not. These people felt the Christianity they had learnt did not help them cope. I am aware that many people completely lost their faith. Others hung on, and often ended up with us.
The Bible is full of trouble and woe. In the Book of Job a good man suffers. Why? It is a big book, but there is no real answer. Difficulty after difficulty after difficulty happen to Job. He never loses his faith. Stoically, he just continues. He does not blame God. There is a contrast here with the reading today from the book of Jeremiah. I suspect you were shocked when you heard the first words or read them. ‘You deceived me Lord and I was deceived. You over-powered me and prevailed’. Starling words to find in the Bible on the lips of a prophet. Who was this Jeremiah? Why was he saying these shocking things?
(Read Working Preacher, James Limborg Commentary The Prophet and his time]
Jeremiah witnessed terrible things. Outwardly, Jeremiah is described as a wall of bronze. Strong and firm in his denouncing all he saw around him. Strong and firm in upholding the word of God. Strong and firm in the face of opposition, both of ridicule and violence. Yet there are six passages, of which today’s is one, which reveal his internal turmoil. When God called him in chapter 1, he did not want the job.(1) He reminds God powerfully of this at the beginning of today’s passage. His family and friends turn against him. He finds himself isolated and alone. 15. 17. (2) In the next passage to ours today he wishes he had never been born. 20. 14, 18 (3) Who does he blame for all this? The blame is given to God. Accused as being as deceitful as a mirage in the desert. 15. 18. (4) Clearly the man who is a wall of bronze to the world is deeply troubled in his heart.
On Thursday I will have been ordained twenty years. In all that time, over a thousand Sundays, I feel I have never preached a sermon on the depths of anguish that can be felt by someone of faith. That is a failing, because I have seen people go through this anguish. I have felt their pain. I have also had times of pain myself. I had not been here very long when two beloved members of the Fryerning congregation, who had formerly been regulars here, Geoffrey and Fluer Bacon, died in a fire at home. I had to be a wall of bronze to carry the community through it all. But inside…On Facebook I have forwarded some amazing articles about the local churches to Glenfell Tower. They have acted amazingly. Spare a thought for the local Vicar. Yes he is leading people showing God’s love. But how will he feel inside? When we opened up the church following the bomb at the concert in Manchester, a nine year old came in and asked my why God would allow it to happen? His tears were real. Tears of knowing some of the victims were the same age as him. Tears also of frustration and anger towards God. We all share those tears; sometimes we just keep them inside. We need to acknowledge them. When my father died when I was training for the ministry, I felt betrayed by God. Both my parents were frail. I was away doing what God wanted. Dad died suddenly. Mum would be in a house on her own for the first time in her life. God betrayed my trust. My spiritual director of the time told me to tell him. I recall a drive from Cambridge to London on the M11. I imagined Jesus in the passenger seat. I shouted at him all the way. I felt so much better afterwards. Some of the Psalms are just like that. A shout at God of Why? Where are you? But having got it out, into the void comes a sense of God’s love. It did for me then. God hears our pain.
In the Gospel passage, Jesus assumes that those he is addressing will face strong resistance and possibly death. There is a country song from the 1960s, ‘I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden’. Jesus never said that in those words, but that is the reality. In Acts 18 Paul is fearful about continuing his missionary work. (5). Look how knowledge of God’s presence with him sustained Paul. He wrote the letter to the Romans under house arrest, awaiting execution. The passage today is full of the joy of knowing Christ in our life and his power to transform us into the best version of ourselves we can be. Paul worked his way through the difficulties of his life, with an understanding based on the words of Psalm 23, verse 4, ‘you are with me’. Jeremiah worked though his discouragement and continued in his work. In chapter 34 he looks forward to a time of new closeness of relationship between God and his people. And he knows that God has been with him through it all. Please note that only four verses later to Jeremiah complaining to God, he says, ‘But you are with me like a mighty warrior’. On the day after Armed Forces Day, think of God being with us, but not just with us, but to protect and defend us. And for the Christian, that protection will not last for our mortal body, but it is there for our eternal soul. In the Matthew passage Jesus reminds us how important we all are to God and how much he knows about us. ‘Even the hairs on your head are numbered’.
When I take assembly every week at the Junior School, I begin by saying to the children, “The Lord be with you” and they reply “And also with you”. This is an ancient Christian greeting, containing with it the truth we have explored this morning. Jesus said, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” The greeting is an encouragement to feel that, whatever life has thrown at us. As we explored with Andy, we all have our own faith journey and we can consider that as a picture of how God has been with us. It is perfectly OK to have times of exasperation towards God. But we can know he is always there. The first thing I taught our confirmation class this year was Footprints. God accompanying us in life and carrying us when things get really tough. That is faith, real faith. And we all need it; sometimes just to survive, always to enable us to flourish. Amen.
© Patrick Sherring 25th June 2017.