As we begin to look forward to Holy Week and the cross, I decided this week to use the Old Testament reading as the basis for my sermon.
“Are grumpy old men a myth?”
So reads one of the more eye-catching headlines from the press this week – it’s from the Daily Mail on Tuesday. Films and TV often portray older men as being particularly grumpy. So recently researchers set out to find the truth. They studied almost 200,000 men to find the answer to that question: are grumpy old men a reality? It never ceases to amaze me what some people get to do for a living – particularly researchers. Apparently, they concluded that the answer is that grumpy old men are – generally speaking – a myth.
But one person who was noted for being a grumpy old man was the prophet Jeremiah – though to be fair he was a grumpy young man too in his earlier years. Being grumpy wasn’t something that came to him with age – he was always grumpy. Jeremiah was not noted for being a jolly prophet. I recall that one of the Old Testament essay titles from my college days was “Jeremiah is a prophet of unremitting gloom. Discuss.”
Put Jeremiah and Victor Meldrew (for those who don’t know a well-known grumpy old man from a BBC sitcom) side by side and compare them and you’d probably come to the conclusion that, all things being equal, Victor Meldrew had a relatively sunny disposition and a positive outlook on life.
There were many prophets in the history of Israel who sought to bring God’s message to the people. Quite a number of them appear in our Old Testament – both those who have books named after them and others who are also mentioned in the books of history as well as the prophetic books. They were mainly men who spoke God’s word to the Hebrew people. They challenged kings and officials; they called the people of God to account with God’s law. They told them when they were going wrong and they called them back to the path that God had laid out before them.
And one of the most well-known – and most miserable – was Jeremiah. Consider Isaiah for a moment, someone we hear a lot from in our Old Testament readings. From the moment he was called to be a prophet he embraced his calling with enthusiasm. Not so Jeremiah – the minute he received God’s call when he was around 30 years old he started moaning, initially at God for calling him for he was, he essentially told God, completely useless – that’s Jeremiah, not God.
Right – we need to get some context for our Old Testament reading, so let’s begin with some history. By the time Jeremiah began his work as a prophet, around 625 BC, the Hebrew people had become divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom, Israel, had been conquered by the Assyrians about a hundred years earlier and Jeremiah was a prophet in the southern kingdom of Judah.
And Judah was in turmoil when Jeremiah spoke to them. As a country it was caught between two powerful and hostile nations. Conflict between Egypt in the south-west and Babylon to the East seemed to be forcing a choice upon the nation. Submit to the Babylonians or becoming the first line of attack for the Egyptians. Jeremiah’s message to Judah was that the Babylonians were far stronger than Judah and that they should not be resisted. They were inevitably going to be conquered by the Babylonians because the people had rejected God and turn to idolatry. Not a message the people wanted to hear.
Basically, Jeremiah said, it’s bad news or worse news. You’ve turned away from God, and God is giving you a choice. Either the Babylonians are going to walk all over you, or, if you resist, the Babylonians are going to walk all over you and they’ll be cross that you resisted so it will be even worse.
Well, you can imagine what the response to that message was! You’re all a load of sinners, you’ve been worshipping false gods, and you’re going to be invaded and conquered, and there’s nothing you can do about it! Small wonder that Jeremiah was considered a traitor for saying that, and small wonder that he has come to be seen as the ultimate prophet of doom! And for proclaiming that Jerusalem would, in the end, be taken by the Babylonians, Jeremiah was lowered down into a pit and left to sink in the mire at the bottom – fortunately he was rescued.
Of course, being a prophet called by God, his predictions were right. In 598 BC King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon conquered Judah and sent many of its leading citizens into exile. By 587 BC the fall of Judah was complete – Jerusalem was destroyed and a second wave of exiles was taken to Babylon. But, as you may have guessed, Jeremiah is not all doom and gloom – at the heart of his message of disaster is a message of hope and renewal. In the midst of national disaster, Jeremiah prophesies that God will renew the promise that God had made through Abraham and confirmed in the Exodus. This promise Jeremiah calls a covenant. The word covenant is an important word in the Bible – it means an agreement made by God with his people. It’s the same word as testament. The Old Testament and the New Testament are really the Old Agreement with God, or the Old Covenant, and the New Agreement or the New Covenant.
And this renewed covenant of which Jeremiah speaks will, he says, be different. The thing about the covenants that God had made with Noah, and then with Abraham and Sarah, was that the focus was solely on God’s commitment. In this covenant humankind and God will be present together – it’s much more a two-way agreement.
But what is surprising about this two-way covenant is that, as Jeremiah tells us, God will fulfil not only God’s part of the covenant but humankind’s as well. This is not a covenant where God lays down rules and people have to work hard to keep them all. God makes it easy for us. He says that he will put his law within his people, write it upon their hearts. He will be their God and they will be his people and they shall all know him. No more messages from prophets like Jeremiah saying, “You’re all a load of sinners so God’s going to punish you!”
This is something that we should treasure. That God in his love has written his law upon our hearts so that we instinctively know it. Jeremiah’s message is that, essentially, it’s harder to turn away from God and be disobedient than it is to follow God – for God has made it a part of our nature to know, deep within ourselves, how to live.
Our final two readings today show how God’s words through Jeremiah are brought to their ultimate conclusion: “They shall all know me, from the least to the greatest, for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.”
Jesus, says the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, is our high priest – the one appointed by God to bring God’s saving love to all. For this is God’s desire, to draw all people to him in an eternal loving relationship. John, in his gospel, tells how some Greeks are drawn to Jesus and wish to see him. And Jesus proclaims the depth of that everlasting covenant that God has made with humankind. Yes – choices are to be made about living in God’s way. Yes – judgement will be rendered according to those choices. However, God’s grace is continually offered. And Jesus the Christ draws us close with saving love through the cross: “When I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to myself.”
Just imagine what a community where God’s people know the promises of God deep in their hearts would be like. A community where God’s people sense that the power of God’s saving love is at the very core of their identity. A community where people say, like the Greeks who came to Philip, “We want to see Jesus; we want to see Jesus, lifted up for us; we want to be drawn to the Jesus who is lifted up from the earth to the cross.”
Let us pray
Lord, on the cross you draw the eyes of all the world to you.
We want to see you with our whole hearts.
Draw us into the embrace of your loving and merciful promise,
and teach us to live in your ways.
Then make us bold to reach out
and draw others into the joy of living in communion with you.