Friday, 29 May 2015

Jeremiah, gloom and looking beyond the horizon

Preached at University College, Durham 28 May 2015
(Jeremiah 2.7-13; Mark 10.32-37)

I’ve said that I’d say something today about Jeremiah, the Old Testament’s great prophet of doom and gloom - and certainly the prophet who had more to say than anyone else, as you’ll find if you work your way through the 52 chapters of the Book which bears his name (with still further Lamentations to follow).

But first… a mention that today in the Calendar of the Church of England is an optional commemoration of Lanfranc, who became Archbishop of Canterbury in the year 1070. Lanfranc got the job because he was appointed by William the Conqueror. They’d known each other through William’s previous life as Duke of Normandy, where Lanfranc had been Prior of the Abbey of Le Bec and then Abbot of Caen. Despite falling out over William’s choice of wife, they patched things up and the newly established King of England decided that Lanfranc was just the man for the Church’s top job. And he didn’t disappoint. Already he was a top scholar and an able administrator. Now Lanfranc set about renewing the Church through its monastic life - while the King’s approach was to replace most of the Anglo-Saxon bishops with Norman appointees. One happy outcome was a programme of building Cathedrals - our own Durham Cathedral amongst them. But, of course, Durham didn’t just get a Cathedral - it got a castle, this Castle. Cathedral and Castle stand together - a sign of orderly government in church and state, but also, I fear, of the subjection / subjugation of its people. Cathedral and Castle together showed them who was in charge!

Nearly a thousand years on we can be grateful for what we’ve still got. But we need an awareness of the history - and of what might be beneath the surface.

Jeremiah was a prophet who dug below the surface. He looked at what others had dug - and this is his central judgment:

… my people have committed two evils:

they have forsaken me,

the fountain of living water,

and dug out cisterns for themselves,

cracked cisterns that can hold no water.

Nearly 40 years after I lived there, I still remember reflecting on those words one day in a street in West Jerusalem. I don’t know why, but they came upon me as something of an epiphany. There I was, living in a modern state established and maintained by three major wars - but that day I think I was struck by just how much like any other western city it was in so many respects. Actually I loved it for that - the vibrancy of a relatively new country, the vigour of its people and the throb of its nightlife at the end of the Sabbath. There was plenty of religion - but for most people it was separate from the daily lives they led, while the Ultra-Orthodox who lived behind us in the Mea Shearim made it look as though religion was to be turned into an end in itself. That’s an over-simplification - but there was always an underlying tension: a religion that had sustained its people for centuries in the ghetto and had resisted any temptation to develop a wider vocation; and a secular society in danger of forgetting its roots while so conscious of the threats to its existence. There was a clash of understandings as to what their nation existed for. And that was something Jeremiah himself diagnosed over two and a half thousand years ago. And it’s something probably true about our own society also.

To call someone “a Jeremiah” is to say they’re not going to be very popular. Old Testament prophets castigated the ills of their society. Jeremiah takes that to new heights. His aptitude for “being negative” could be matched in the opprobrium he attracted only by someone in our own society who commits the deadly crime of being boring. But suppose Jeremiah were to speak to us - what would he see? We still have the grand edifices of religious glories - but religion is in decline and its values so often receive little more than lip service. Baptism is still popular (it’s a much cheaper way of organising the big family party than getting married) - but professions of faith rarely come to maturity. Apparently about 50% of people in this country profess a religious faith - and that raises the question, is the glass half-full or half-empty? The optimist will remind you that the half-empty glass gives you the opportunity to put some more into it. But Jeremiah sees the cistern as not only empty - it’s one his people have dug for themselves, heedless of the faith which had formed them, and it’s cracked, so that it will never hold anything they put in it.

There’s no hope in those cracked cisterns - only new and different vessels can serve the renewal of faith. We need to be challenged in our fundamental understanding. You’d think that Jesus would manage that with those who followed him. But look at our New Testament reading today. Jesus is on the road with his disciples. He speaks of his approaching betrayal, condemnation, death and resurrection. And what happens next? Two of the disciples come to him and ask for places of honour at his right and left when he establishes himself in glory. Jesus speaks of the vocation of the Son of Man - of God’s purpose - and the disciples miss it completely. We can listen but not hear what is said. We have our own understanding and expectation which so easily are deaf to any real challenge. “Cracked cisterns” which don’t work for Jeremiah - against this Jesus will say we need new wineskins to hold the new wine.

Jeremiah is a gloomy pessimist, but the working out of his vocation is compelling. He resists it at first, complaining “I am only a child,” but then goes on to speak the truth to power. He endures punishment and imprisonment, on one occasion lowered into a cistern at the bottom of which he sinks into the mud (38.6) - he knows the plight of another 70 men who are slaughtered and thrown into another cistern (41.7). All along Jeremiah is a doomed man, finally abducted and carried off to Egypt where his eventual fate is unknown. But throughout he is steadfast, unwavering in faith. Hope and deliverance lie beyond the horizon of his life, but he dares to believe that they are real. When life is at its most bleak he buys a field and stores the deeds away (32.14) - he will never enjoy its use, but there will be a time when later generations will.

I began by talking about Lanfranc and a new order which he established - which became just that, “established.” It’s an order signified here in Durham by Cathedral and Castle together. And again and again we have to ask what are they here for? Not to stand as a reminder of power established by force, nor to contain an ever-diminished faith leaking away from the past - but to be places now for the renewal of faith and learning, for the establishment of a fresh vision and way of life in which all may flourish.

Jeremiah saw that. We are to be like clay in the hands of the potter (18.2ff). And God promises his people a “new covenant:” 

“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.”