Religion – is it a comfort? Is it comforting to be religious? Or does faith, as someone once said about art ‘comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable?’
I suppose it depends on what you mean by comfort. If I experienced the occasional strange heartbeat or fluttering sensation in my chest, I could no doubt look up any number of reassuring articles on the internet, Medonline.com would comfort me by saying it was due to coffee, or stress or even mealtimes. That would be comforting – as long as it’s true.
Or I could go and see the doctor. Problem with a doctor is, he might say, there’s a problem but we can address it with a pacemaker. Maybe that’s not such good news. But if it’s true, surely it’s better to take it seriously and get a problem fixed.
So comfort can be a superficial sort of thing where you hope for the best. Or comfort can be based on reality – when a genuine problem has been addressed. That sort of comfort can come as the result of hard words, or difficult decisions, but it is much more true. And it is the sort of comfort Jeremiah talks about in today’s reading.
It’s about 600 BC. Almost 150 years after the reading from Isaiah we heard last week. A lot has happened in that time. The small kingdom of Judah miraculously survived when its more powerful Northern neighbour Israel was conquered by the Assyrians. But now Judah has struggled on for a century, always under threat. Invasion is imminent.
God called Jeremiah to speak to his people. In Jeremiah’s prophecy he calls them to turn back to God, to do what’s right, and make peace with the Babylonians while there is time.
How do you think they reacted? The message was not appreciated. The people liked their country independent. They wanted to keep their religious options open – just in case. And no-one likes to be told their behaviour isn’t up to scratch. So they made fun of Jeremiah, the people of Judah said he was trying to frighten them. At various times they got bored of him, ignored him, or locked him up. Still the prophet continued to speak, warning them that unless they changed, their society was doomed.
No-one likes the nay-sayer. But if I drive up to a Give Way sign, I don’t think to myself ‘Pedantic, bossy council’. I give way – because the juggernauts coming past won’t be stopping. If I see a sign saying ‘Danger -electric fence’ I don’t think to myself ‘oh, the farmer’s just trying to frighten me’. I give it a wide berth.
We may wonder why so much of the Old Testament is full of warnings. But a parent who saw their toddler wandering into the sea and didn’t call them back would be a parent who lacked love, or responsibility, or both. In the Old Testament we see the Father heart of God who constantly warns his people about the consequences of their actions. He knows what is good for us, his laws are not arbitrary diktats, but the Maker’s instructions, the blueprint for life. Warning comes from love. We might note too that this is not just an Old Testament thing – in our Gospel reading Jesus told people to read the warnings around them.
One of the challenges of being a parent is knowing how much freedom to give. Do you give way to your seven year old who desperately wants to grate her own parmesan? Or do you refuse because you’re sure she’ll end up grating her fingers too? And how important is it that she finds out for herself? Are there times when you have to allow her to experience consequences so that she learns your advice is reliable?
God allows us a great deal of freedom because maturity cannot be forced. And love is not love if it is not given freely. But God does warn, a great deal. All the warnings in the Bible are there so that we can be protected if we choose to heed them. And if we do not, the warnings invite us to repent: to seek God’s forgiveness and turn back to him.
That’s why in v.29 of our reading, Jeremiah says that the Word of the Lord is like fire and a hammer breaking a rock in pieces. God’s Word has the intensity and power of fire. It is dangerous if not treated with respect, but when used as intended it warns, comforts and protects. It is like a hammer breaking rocks, smashing apart obstacles on the path and clearing a way so that people can move about in safety. God speaks to us so that we can know what is best for us, so we can find life in all its fullness as he designed it, so we can recognise wrong and turn from it, so we can find forgiveness when we have sinned.
Accepting that can be tough. The people of Judah wanted to go their own way, and they had plenty of other prophets who were only too happy to support them. These are the people God criticises in verse 25 – those who prophesy lies in His name. They are harking back to the glory days; dreaming that past influence will one day be restored; based on their own wishful thinking they promise that God will deliver them. This is God’s country, they say, we are his people. His temple is here, how could he possibly let it fall? You Jeremiah are prophesying dire things but God won’t actually let them come to pass.
Do they have faith? I suppose you could say they have a faith of sorts. It is a warm fuzzy optimism, don’t worry be happy, hang on to your faith and God will look after you, be true to yourself and everything will be ok. It is a religion of the plastic Jesus riding on the dashboard of my car, a tame and domesticated God. A dream that appeals to many today. But am I a God nearby, says the Lord in v.23, and not a God far off too?
Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? I know what you’re thinking. I can see what you’re doing. The false prophets had massively underestimated God.
Firstly, although they believed that God could deliver his people, they didn’t realise how different God’s plans could be. We can glean their message from the rest of Jeremiah. They said there would be no sword, nor famine, nor destruction of the temple. They taught that God would deliver everyone from danger.
But Jeremiah said: if you turn back to God, he will deliver you through all these dangers. Not from, but through. Troubles will come, that is the world we live in. Things will be very tough and you will pass through great hardship, but God will carry you.
I wonder, do you have an idea of how you’d like the future to be? Do you have a plan for your life, a dream of what would be good to happen? It’s good to have hopes and a vision – as long as we remember that anything can happen and that God can weave the surprises and accidents into the tapestry of our lives. God does not promise to protect us from the challenges of life – but he does promise that he will be with us through them. And he will ultimately deliver us too.
The second way the false prophets underestimated God is they didn’t realise how much he cares. They said to themselves: God is on our side, we are his people. The implication was ‘No matter what we do’. The result in verse 27 was that people were comfortable worshipping idols alongside God, that immoral practises did not get challenged.
Jeremiah said: God is a God of love. That means he loves passionately, he cares for all his people, especially those who are vulnerable. Love means God is holy and righteous. So if you oppress the poor, if you make slaves of your fellow countrymen, if you cheat and lie, why would you think God is on your side? He can see everything that goes on. He is not indifferent to what you do. God offers a universal invitation, he calls everyone into his kingdom, but we have to respond and show it with changed lives.
I wonder what this means for us? It calls me to remember that worship, prayer and sacrament are essential to living a Christian life, and so are care for the poor, service, and simple kindness. It challenges me to remember that religious duties do not substitute for compassion nor vice versa. That my whole life needs to be suffused with the grace of Christ, not just parts of it.
I sometimes imagine my life being like the rooms of a house. Some parts, like the hall and sitting room are kept reasonably well, presentable for visitors. Others, like the spare room and garage don’t get seen much – which is just as well as they’re full of rubbish. But if we’re going to spring clean, we’ve got to spring clean the whole lot. We can’t have parts of our lives where God is welcome, like church and home, and parts where he isn’t, like work or when you get together with certain friends. The joy and true life of Christianity needs to be incorporated into my whole life with transparent integrity.
Jeremiah urges us not to be like the false prophets and underestimate God. Not to think of God as a benign but distant force, uninterested in our daily activities. God is not a tribal deity, to be invoked by those whose ancestors have always served him. Nor is he a plastic Jesus, a good luck totem to carry me through life. God is far more loving, far closer than we can imagine – and that means that what we do matters to him. He is passionate, involved, guiding and warning us. He wants what is best for us and longs that we may clearly hear his voice.