Jeremiah 2:2-13, Luke 14:1,7-14
There can be few more painful experiences than that of a broken marriage. I am very aware that there are people sitting here today who have had exactly that experience. Those of us who are still married, or who are single, can imagine the grief and heartbreak, or have seen it at first hand from our friends. That is exactly the place which our OT reading in Jeremiah 2 takes us. The passage invites us to feel the pain of the breakdown in relationship, in effect the marriage, between YHWH, the God of Israel, and his chosen people. We’re talking several hundred years BC. Listen to some of the language again, God speaking in the first person: ‘I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness…What wrong did your ancestors find in me, that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?…my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord…my people have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water’.
Although these words are nearly 3000 years old (that’s the iron age) written to the ancient people of Israel at a time way before cars or airplanes or mobile phones, there is a strong resonance with the world today. The ancient Israelites abandoned YHWH, The Lord – fell out of love with him, if you like, and begun worshipping and serving other gods – gods of war, fertility, wealth, national pride – and then wondered why it all went so wrong. The problem was that the values they then honoured, the things they aimed for, worked for, hoped for, began to change. ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’, said Jesus (Matthew 6:21). No longer sharing, but keeping; no longer taking just what is needed, but more than that to satisfy greed; no longer welcoming the alien, but rejecting him; no longer justice, but injustice. Does that have a contemporary ring? The people who should have been showing the world what its Creator is like – loving, caring, sharing, forgiving – became just like everyone else. In this painful passage from Jeremiah, I am drawn especially to the last verse: ‘for my people have committed two evils: (firstly) they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and (secondly) dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water’(13). A ‘fountain of living water’ – what a beautiful image that God chooses to describe himself! Let that image of what it could be like soak you, fill you, refresh you. This is what God is like! Not a stuffy old man with a long beard, not a policeman in the sky, not a killjoy but like a fountain of cold water on a steaming hot day. Something to plunge into, to play in, to drink deeply of. And living water – water that gives life, that sustains life, that is alive itself. We mustn’t get ahead of ourselves too far, but a few hundred years later a Jewish carpenter turned preacher met a foreign woman at a well and told her, ‘…those who drink the water that I will give will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ (John 4:14). Alas, that wasn’t what happened. Instead of accepting the offer of divine grace like a fountain, flowing and bubbling, they turned to the worship of other things instead – like looking for another source of water to keep them alive – but instead of the flowing, clear water that YHWH offered, they built stagnant cisterns, water tanks – but even then, they leaked. They could not satisfy.
Last week, as some of you know, I once again visited Taizé, in the company of Ben and Dan Harwood and Alison Peyton. What can I say? It’s a corner of the world where the ‘fountain of living waters’ is flowing. It’s partly the loveliness of the community of people that gathers there. I led a group of young people from Germany and the Netherlands in Bible discussion each day, and asked them at the end what impression of Taizé they will take away with them – most of them just enjoyed the openness and unconditional friendliness – the way you can talk to anyone about anything, enjoy each other’s company in the way you can’t necessarily back home. Then the beauty of the times of prayer which takes place three times a day in the huge church, the singing, the silence. Young people staying long after the prayer had ended in the evening, often to the early hours, singing, praying and maintaining silence. Added to that is simplicity of living – there is certainly no luxury at Taizé, but who cares? Suddenly you’re not distracted by stuff. There is for me, and for many, a deep sense of the presence of God in that place. It is, simply put, how it should be.
Many people, myself included, are finding the current state of affairs in our country and the world deeply depressing. Beyond all the shenanigans over Brexit – and that’s bad enough – is the stark and undeniable reality of climate change that we are now actually experiencing with too-hot summers, and alternating drought and torrential rainfall. The reasons for climate change are easy to understand – our over-reliance on fossil fuels on the one hand and deforestation on the other. How has all this come about? The reasons are many and complex, but human greed, the desire for more stuff is at its root. Where did we get the idea that the only home we know, that is, planet earth, could be plundered? By using the word ‘greed’ we actually frame it in spiritual terms by using the word ‘greed’. Greed is a form of idolatry, of serving and loving a false god. You might remember from a sermon I preached in Lent that it’s also one of the 7 deadly sins. And it turns out to be a cracked cistern, a water-tank with a hole in it. In the end, it doesn’t work.
At the beginning of the Jeremiah passage, God, through the prophet, speaks of Israel’s ‘love as a bride’. The whole picture of marriage – of YHWH as the husband and his chosen people as the bride – is wrapped around the mutual love of one for the other and the promises made – the covenant between them, in biblical terms. Once Israel let go of that, it was downhill for them. Let’s come back to love. When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment in the law he replied without hesitation, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Luke 10:27). He was quoting the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus in the OT (Deut 6:5, Lev 19:18). We tend, I think, to focus on the ‘love your neighbour’ bit, perhaps because it’s easier to get hold of. It’s something I think that our church is pretty good at, on the whole. But loving God? This is where I want to land this sermon, for it is the first and greatest commandment and its loss was at the heart of the Jeremiah passage. Placing the love of God first in our lives will orient us in the right direction. Before Rosemary and I start on a walk or cycle ride, we always try and make sure that we start in the right direction! Doesn’t always work, but we’re so much less likely to get lost!
When we love a person, it involves all of us. It certainly involves our hearts – the warmth we feel for him or her, the desire to be with them, to spend time with them. It will involve our bodies, too: we may actually feel love as a warmth in our body, we will want to touch and be touched, to embrace. We will also want to do things for that person, sometimes even putting ourselves in harm’s way or at personal cost for them. It involves our minds as we talk and exchange ideas, share experiences and think about ways our love is expressed: ‘with all your hearts and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’. It’s easier to understand those words when we put them in human terms. Loving God is very, very close to this. In fact, any expression of love comes from God, since as we are told, ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). But, like human love, we will need to give this time. If our relationship with God has become a bit mechanical and dry – do this, believe that – then we may need to refresh. The last time I preached I talked about the need for silence, and silence is a good place to start: the clearing out of our preoccupations and anxieties and giving space for God. Taking a walk in nature – forests, mountains, rivers is a good place to meditate and pray: to be still, to watch and see. There is something called ‘seeing again’, when you look at something and then really see it. Again, this is a bit like falling in love: you see someone and then you really see them and love them. In a way, that kind of seeing actually is love. So to see perhaps a flower, and then to ‘see again’ – to see its beauty, its colours, its frailty and to allow yourself even to love it – and then to realise that this is an expression of the Creator who fills and sustains all things and to love him – now we’re getting there. The love of the natural world, to each other, is very close to the love of God simply because the natural world is an expression of God. We won’t want to trash or plunder what we love.
It is said that the principal Christian virtues are faith, hope and love (see 1 Corinthians 13:13). Personally, I’m finding myself a bit short on hope these days so I’m trying to focus on love – which St Paul tells us is the greatest of these anyway. Brother Roger of Taizé said that in the face of huge problems which it looks as if you can’t do anything about, you should do something even if it’s very small. If our love of God and of all he has made leads us to do something then maybe there is a particle of hope there too.
I’ll finish by mentioning other ways of deepening your experience of knowing and loving God. A retreat is a good place to start, you can have a look at the Retreat Association website. Pilgrimage is another way: the reduction of your life to its bare essentials, just what you can carry on your back; spending time at holy places like Taizé, Iona, Lindisfarne; and engaging with spiritual direction. If you would like to know more about that, please speak to me, or Rosemary or Cathy Rowan after the service.
So, let us be a people of love.
Image Credit – The poor invited to the feast, 1973, Jesus Mafa, Cameroon