Jeremiah 23:23-29 Luke 12:49-56
This week, amid the many depressing items on the news, came the rather bizarre (though no longer surprising) story of a much older man publicly bullying a much younger woman, (almost still a girl). Arron Bank’s ‘joke’ about Greta Thunberg having a “freak yachting accident” as she sailed the Atlantic to raise consciousness of climate change was neither funny, no palatable. Greta has inadvertently become a prophet of our time. I’m not sure how I feel about such a pressurised role upon a single young person, but her stark warnings confront and divide our sensibilities… call us to uncomfortable realities…
In this church, we may generally find ourselves on the side of the climate change movement…
So let’s think about this topic for a moment too;
Fifty years ago the Stonewall movement began to bring solidarity and strength to the LGBTQI+ community. And for fifty years the church has prevaricated, judged, resisted and floundered.. so that in many respects the church has totally lost its place in the discussion. Whilst Bishops still deliberate on wording of placating documents; the rest of the world has all but given up on the church… we can recall Jesus saying the prophet is no longer welcome in her/his own town and shaking the dust off their feet. And if this prophet is gay? No wonder!
Maybe the church has neglected to hear the gospel of love, inclusion, diversity, acceptance and solidarity which has emerged loud and clear from the gay community.
Has the church not listened to God?
So do we really need a gospel reading which seems to encourage the very divisions we are struggling with in society which feels the tension of division very acutely right now?
Well let’s think – The reading today tells of a purifying fire which cleanses the world of injustice and oppression – it supports all that Jesus ministry has been about.
It tells us also that to follow Jesus into the way of love will cause division, much like the gay son or daughter who realises – and fears – that ‘coming out’ means dividing people’s opinions and loyalties, (and maybe me speaking like this?).
And finally a warning about only believing what we want to believe.. (that could be my reading, it may be a more conservative reading); resisting change, denying reality.
So where truly is the voice of God in the prophets? Where are the prophets today? (as Hamish asks).
Jesus language sounds terrifying… it might be better to simply skip over them. They can put us in fear.. give us a religion of uncertainty. But actually, his words are similar to the words of Jeremiah.
The prophets, Jesus & Jeremiah, both ask ‘do you really see what’s going on?’
For Jeremiah it is a world about to collapse.. and false prophets are saying, “no everything will be ok”… (SPOILER – but they wont). Jeremiah also uses fire imagery to reveal a difficult reality.
The whole section of readings around this in Luke are about the kingdom of God. The kingdom of justice and liberation; The kingdom demands and is impatient.. The reading has three parts;
1. Fire cleanses the world of abuse and oppression, it purifies.
in Luke – a manifesto of liberation…. The Magnificat & the ‘Nazareth Manifesto’
God’s fire is prophetic in that it calls the world back to a different reality, it reveals God’s kingdom as one in which people “act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor … the alien, the orphan, and the widow” (Jer 22:3).
Fire is the presence of God where evil cannot exist. No wonder Jesus wants to start the fire;
2. It does divide. are you against injustice, are you for love?
Do you really stand with the refugee and the orphan, with the vulnerable and the abused?
(words of consolation to the early church which would have felt the pain of this, and to us today)
3. And finally Jesus – like Jeremiah- warns against hypocrisy from the mouths of false prophets…
Hypocrisy is about deceiving ourselves, and allowing ourselves to be complacent and comfortable…
Hananiah, the false prophet whom Jertemiah challenged… emboldening complacency and hubris; ‘the royal consciousness’.
Jesus; “you may see tomorrow’s weather, but do you see the times?” Are you ready to really hear? Climate change, shifting ideas of sexuality and gender, the rising tide of far-right… voices from the margins – -some are healthy some are life-giving, others we ignore at our peril. The time is short.
Whats also worth recognising is that Jesus see the hypocrisy in all of us… it’s the way we all live, we are hypocritical in many ways.. that’s part of the purifying work of this fire.. it’s not there to shame or to point; instead it recognises that we are all conflicted, complex and messy.
So rather than fear, this reading suggests love; “thy kingdom come” is about the worlds well-being!
We often privatise and personalize our spirituality… when there is a wider vision at hand…
Christianity limits itself when interpreted only as personal piety, good behavior, keeping pure from the taint of… (you name it). This kind of passage is liable to cause paranoia, confusion, self-doubt, dualism and a ‘retreat mentality’ from the world and its bad ways. It promotes what Estella calls a ‘transaction mindset’ in the church “if I do ‘the good thing’ then maybe God will like me, but if I don’t….?”
But the OT and NT have a different take.. The gospel is radical in its vision. It is sociological and communitarian; about households and communities. For teachers like Jeremiah, Paul and Jesus ultimately about the whole world! “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off? Do I not fill heaven and earth?” (Jer. 23). The radical Hebrew vision of a God both ‘near and far’.
It speaks with people outside the church.. injustice, oppression, racism, inequality.
And, the good news is free; like Gods Holy Wisdom it calls from the streets. We need prophets, we always do – but they often come from unexpected places..
Such a perspective makes a place of common life-affirming humanity – we find solidarity with our neighbours and those concerned about the worlds and its creature.
God’s fire is woven through all these.
Jesus is the passion of God. Representing humanity and holding the fullness of humanity as he draws all to God’s desire for a kingdom of love. Whether humanity knows this – I’ll leave for you to ponder…
And what for the church?
Well, as the flame of Jeremiah’s frustration grew, so also did a hope;
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel […] “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (Jer. 31)
The Eucharist recalls this new covenant; the anticipated hope in Jeremiah, of divine love which both causes division and overcomes division. Jesus recalls that covenant, (Lk. 22) the unexpected/impossible hope. In the last supper, he becomes that hope, pointing to both death and new life. The fire and passion of God is given for all the world; – So that all may know the freedom of God written in their hearts.
GS Collins 18aug 2019
Image Credit – Asilah, Morocco. Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash