This afternoon’s long reading from Jeremiah’s oracle is about judgement; judgement on the sinfulness of the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the countryside of Israel and Judah. They have been faithless. They are ‘out of sync’ with God. They are guilty of religious and social offences, injustice, oppression of the vulnerable. They have put their trust in an institution, the Temple, rather than in God; where the spiritual leaders are nothing but ‘windbags’. Oh dear, you may well be thinking, nothing changes.
Jeremiah tries to step in to find a righteous person who will avert destruction. He fails. For someone like Jeremiah, who is in the prophetic school of thought that believed that God was a real and active agent in the world, there is an inevitability about the instrument of judgement that will come which in the shape of the awesome war machine of a foreign nation.
You can see what Jeremiah is doing here. He is trying to instil fear into the minds of the people. He hopes that this will pierce the dominant thinking of the people that is failing to make a connection between present reality and where the future lies. A later editor of Jeremiah suggests that God is indifferent to the inevitable suffering. With a shrug of the divine shoulders God says, “As you have forsaken me and served foreign gods in your land, so you shall serve strangers in a land that is not yours” (v.19).
But is this what God is like? The stern, threatening punisher of sins? The enforcer of the requirements of the law governing belief or behaviour, or both? A God who is much to be feared? Is this what Christian life should be about? Measuring up to God’s requirements in order to avoid the inevitable consequences of our sin?
For the most part this caricature will have an effect on some people. We fear for our personal safety; we fear for our national security and identity; and we will take whatever steps are necessary to protect ourselves. It’s a natural instinct. And politicians and advertisers and some preachers – not me – will play to those fears.
Enter St Paul. Flesh is the controlling domain in which we live, with an emphasis on its weakness and corruptibility. The problem, St Paul says, is our inability to curb sin. Paul accepts that his own conformity to the cultural and religious laws of his tradition brought about his persecution of the early church. He was a zealot and he acted out this zealotry in direct proportion to the passion he felt for the law. His was the sin of hubris, a particular kind of over-weening pride for his tradition.
Hubris is a common characteristic of human development, when human development becomes corrupted by self-awareness, over time, from childhood to adulthood. The outcome can in some circumstances be dangerous when populist leaders hold power. Look around the world today for examples of who falls into this category.
Fortunately for Paul, his Damascus moment came when he realised that he had been deceived by the mendacious law of his people. He thought the righteous violence against the Christian community was ordained by God, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (v.15). His religion and the political realm had become infected by a demonic social power, that had grown from being God’s chosen people. The good of the law would usher in the messianic age. At Damascus however, he encountered the real Messiah.
Sin matters. It is a metaphor for the human condition; a condition that brought about the prophecy of Jeremiah when the Israelites were forcibly removed from their beloved homeland, to taste the bitter wine of bondage into slavery. And yet, and yet, remember that line in Jeremiah, “But even in those days, says the Lord, I will not make a full end of you” (v.18). There is a suggestion here of forgiveness. The only problem is that forgiveness would not get them out of their predicament. Israel had to find a way out of the wilderness again. They needed ‘the Way of the Lord’.
The issue of sin in the Bible is not so much about individual sin. The sin of the Israelites in Jeremiah’s time was corporate sin. In Paul’s time it was institutionalised sin; and Paul perpetuated this sin as an enforcer of the law. Sin is built into the structures of our society and we have seen many examples lately of the suffering that it can cause. From inhumane treatment of vulnerable people to the ecological crisis that is facing us. Think of Windrush, think of austerity, Grenfell Tower, the treatment of homeless and disabled people seeking benefits. The remedy is not forgiveness of corporate sin but the realisation, as a society, that this way of governance cannot continue. The realisation that we must find a way out of the wilderness we are in. Only this will release the captives; release for the vulnerable from the bondage of ‘slavery’; and redeem creation by relearning how to live with enough.
But what of individual sin? Sin sometimes preoccupies our thoughts when we suffer illness say, or hardship; but again the remedy here is not forgiveness but healing and wholeness. How can forgiveness be dependent on something we must do, if are we already forgiven by God’s grace? God’s acceptance of us is unconditional, in spite of our imperfections. If we keep focusing on what we must do to be saved then our guilt complex simply becomes ingrained into our lives. Whereas if we accept that we are forgiven, we liberate ourselves from the bondage of sin by making peace with what has happened in the past, if we concentrate on making this a reality, our lives will change and we will become a force for change in the world.
But, you may say, didn’t we repent of our sins at the beginning of the service? Aren’t we still on the hook of seeking forgiveness by doing this? No. What we do at the beginning of the service is to earnestly express our sorrow for what we have done; and just as earnestly resolve not to continue with our sinful way of life. This is about repentance of our sins.
The word repentance comes from the literal translation of the Hebrew word shub that is a constant refrain in Jeremiah; the word that expresses the journey the exiles made from Babylon, turning back to their homeland. In the equivalent Greek the meaning of repent is richer. It means as Paul attests, to go beyond the mind that I have, seeing a new way, a way that is embodied in Christ. Amen.