Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 7 June 2015
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Jeremiah 6.16-21; Romans 9.1-13
“Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” Jeremiah 6.16
To those of us who worship in churches like this one, who even give up a warm summer evening to come to Evensong, perhaps because we find rest there for our souls, those words from Jeremiah might sound like music to our ears; an affirmation of our old-fashioned ways. We like the ancient paths, the old ways of doing things, traditional ceremony and music. We don’t much like novelties – by which we probably mean guitars and drum kits, overhead projectors and screens, worship songs and other forms of ‘enthusiasm’ not unknown in the Church of England these days. Not for us what Americans call, ‘strums and drums.’ We’ll stick to ‘bells and smells.’
But before we settle back and make ourselves comfortable, if we read on we find that this prophetic utterance has a sting in its tail:
‘Of what use to me is frankincense that comes from Sheba,….
your burnt offerings are not acceptable,
nor are your sacrifices pleasing to me.’
‘Ouch!’ We don’t like the sound of that. The people of Judah and Jerusalem think they are walking in the old ways by keeping the rituals of the Temple and its sacrifices; and even doing so enthusiastically and generously. And yet, God says, ‘they have not given heed to my words;
and as for my teaching, they have rejected it.’ They have said, ‘We will not give heed.’
The opening verse of this passage calls the people to look to its history, to delve into its collective memory, to find ways that have been forgotten, to remember the God who has delivered them from slavery and directed them in the way they should go.
Jeremiah means here Israel’s ancient story and the implications of that story found in the Decalogue and the law. So, Deuteronomy sets out the good way:
‘See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by living the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to go down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish, you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you…..’ (30.15-20)
The word and teaching that the people have rejected, is ‘Torah,’ what we usually call the Law. As well as commands, it includes teaching and story– the whole story of God’s way with his people from the beginning to now. It tells of their experience of good at the Lord’s hands. It shows them the good way in which they should walk: “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you.” (Isaiah 51.1-2)
Jeremiah’s warning echoes the consistent witness of prophecy: that when the Law’s guidelines for righteous living in community are absent, when wise reflection and instruction on their meaning, does not guide and shape the people’s life, then no amount of religious acts or sacrifices or generous offerings will draw a positive response from God. Without the pursuit of justice and holiness, no amount of piety will do.
The call to look to the ancient paths in order to find the good way reminds a community of the importance of living by its story and the implications drawn from it. The lessons of history – the experience of people in the past and the instruction God has given them.
This was what led to the creation of what we know as the scriptures. The ways of old, the story of God’s deliverance and guidance, the commandments given long ago, were remembered, retold, adapted, re-applied, corrected and written down, so that later generations would have guidelines, road signs, a map, to know by which way they should go.
This is especially crucial if a community has lost its way or is unsure, of it; if it has chosen to go down wrong paths which lead only to destruction.
How do we know the way? Read the story and tell it. Recall the things that worked and did not work in the past; where the people found the right way and when they lost or refused to follow it. Go back and read the handbook our forebears read on their journey. The good way is not so difficult to identify if we pay attention to the story that has brought us to this point.
Jeremiah’s words often speak of God’s frustration with his disobedient people. Time and again, they have been reminded of their responsibilities as God’s people, yet still, they have refused to pay attention and been downright rebellious. ‘We will not walk in it!’
Of course, you and I are unlikely to be heard saying ‘We will not heed,’ or ‘We will not walk in it.” Well, not out loud anyway. But in the silence of our hearts, in the secrecy of our minds, we might well whisper it quietly. Or we might pretend not to hear words from God which we know are addressed to us.
There is no point us proclaiming that we have the ancient ways because we come to mass and evensong and like traditional music and ceremony, unless there is evidence in our lives of real moral and spiritual transformation, of a real pursuit of holiness not just liturgical correctness, of conduct towards others which reflects the dual commandment to love God and neighbour.
The old ways, if we heed them, call us to repentance; to a self-examination which asks hard questions about what difference our religious life and practice makes to our life as individual persons and as a community. Is it simply a religious compartment of our life; something for Sundays and festivals? Is it a refuge from harsh reality; an analgesic to dull the ache of life?
Or does it guide and shape all that we do: our attitudes to other people, our relationships with them, our behaviour at work, our commitment to our communities, our use of our material possessions and our time and skills?
If we find, as inevitably we will, that we fall short in one or more or even all of these areas, then we should see this as a lesson in realism not a cause of despair. While Jeremiah announces judgement time and again, there are still frequent calls to repentance, warning signs, suggestions of what is needed. The Lord does not simply point to sin and pronounce sentence. The bond between the Lord and his people is so strong it seems, at least on God’s side, that his will does not easily produce the judgement that seems the inevitable outcome of their stubborn refusal to live by the covenant that makes them his people. God gives us the opportunity of repentance – a word which means not just sorrow or regret for past failures – but a complete re-orientation of life towards God.
God has given us the ways in which we should walk. As today’s Collect reminds us, God offers us the means of grace we need to keep his commandments in both will and deed; to walk in his ways. All we have to do is pray for them, use them, practice them, enter more deeply into them, allow them to change and shape us.