Jeremiah 29: 1-14 & 15-23.
Last week we looked at Isaiah, prophet to Judah warning the people to follow the way of the Lord or things would turn out badly. Not to take the easy options but to realise that faith is a long game thing. This week we move decades forward. Israel has been wiped out as Isaiah predicted. But because Judah took the easy option it led to Judah nearly being wiped out.
They were conquered by King Nebuchadnezzar, all the main high powered officials were taken into slavery. Nebuchadnezzar put a token king in charge and left a few officials to keep the peace in his new land.
That left the people divided.
Some in exile in Babylon, a few still in Judah.
It was a complete disaster.
There are leaders speaking to these groups and they are telling the people what they want to hear.
To those in exile in Babylon the leaders there are saying, ‘God still loves you. We are still God’s chosen people. God will not desert us. God hates the Babylonians. God will destroy the Babylonians. They are evil people. They destroyed the Temple, they have taken us into exile. God hates them so have nothing to do with them. God will destroy them and lead us home. Don’t get involved with the Babylonians because we won’t be here long. God’s anger will be swift and just.’
At the same time as the people in exile were being told that, the people back in Judah were thinking that they had gotten away with it.
‘Yes God was punishing us. But we are still here. We have our own king who rules his own people. The bad people have been punished. They are in exile. So we can get on with our lives as if nothing has really happened, because nothing has really happened to us. Babylon is far away. And the king of Babylon will have his eyes busy elsewhere. We are still free to be the people we want to be.’
This was what Jeremiah was warning against, fighting against.
Because in essence what both messages were saying was, we don't need to change.
The people in exile were being told, stay apart, be Jews and never change and God will bring you back home.
The people still in Judah were being told, we can just do what we did before, we don’t need to change, because Nebuchadnezzar is far away and won’t bother us.
The way they had lived their lives had gotten them into the mess they were in, and yet they didn’t want to change.
Which I understand. There is a bit of the ‘devil we know’ thing that we do. Better the devil we know than an angel that we don't know. We might not trust the devil, but at least we know the devil, we could be trusting that new angel but do we know if she is leading us astray, at least we know the devil will lead us astray.
Which is really stupid logic. But that’s what humans do.
One of the things that really, really shocked me when I had my heart attacks was the entrance to the hospitals.
For now I was looking at the entrance to the hospitals as someone who was ill.
And the people who were most at the entrance to the hospitals were ill people. Residents of the hospital who were in for really serious illnesses, and they were at the entrance to the hospital...smoking.
There they were in wheelchairs, often in pyjamas, sometimes with drips...smoking. ‘Better the devil you know.’
Maybe it’s just a stubborn thing that humans have. That deep down we believe that we are always right. And when things don't go the way we want, we don't say, ‘That’s my fault I need to change my ways.’
Instead we say, ‘That was just bad luck, and I can’t be that unlucky again. So I can keep on doing what I have been doing because I couldn't have been that wrong.’
It’s like watching others playing Russian roulette, and you watch them play until one of them blows their head off. Then you say to yourself, ‘Well that was really unlucky. I’m sure that won’t happen to me when I play the game.’
Well when you play the game there is only one outcome.
And that is what happened to the people who didn't change.
The ones in Babylon that were saying, ‘We shouldn’t get involved with the Babylonians. We don't need to change.’
They ended up being arrested for treason against the Babylonian state and killed.
The ones that were in Judah that didn't think they needed to change. Well eventually their deeds came to light and Nebuchadnezzar sent an army and wiped out all the powerbrokers and left the servants and slaves, put his own people in charge.
Jeremiah tried to warn them that they had to look at life differently.
‘Don’t look at the Babylonians as enemies, look at them as neighbours. And help your neighbour in Babylon as you would have helped your neighbour in Judah.
Make a life that is gentle and honourable. Be a witness of good in their land.
There will come a time when you will come home, but not until you are ready to come home.’
And there was wisdom in what Jeremiah said. If God had just sent the people to Babylon and then after a couple of years they returned home, then they wouldn't have learnt their lesson. They would have just have come back and did what they did before. Their time in Babylon was a time of learning and growing closer to God.
As they stayed in that strange place, and didn't try to hold onto the past but looked forward as God suggested, they saw that what God was suggesting was actually working. The more they saw it working the more they learnt to trust. The more they trusted the more they were able to cope with the situation they were in. But not only cope, but to grow.
So what has that got to do with us.
I think it is very clear that the way we do church hasn’t been working.
Whatever we have been doing it hasn't attracted those without faith to see us as a way to live their life.
In fact to be really blunt, the way do church hasn't even attracted our children and our grandchildren.
And now that is showing in our churches.
In the next five years 50% of our ministers will be retiring.
We believe that at any one time roughly 65% of all churches will be vacant. And instead of being vacant for a few months they will be vacant for years. One solution is to create hubs of churches with one minister, where the minister might be the administrator of the churches but it is elders who do the funerals, most of the Sunday services, maybe even the school work, the pastoral care, the hospital visits.
And in that environment I believe the temptation will be to have two lots of churches.
There will be those churches that have a minister and they will say, ‘We don't need to change. God is blessing us because we have a minister. We can carry on doing what we have done in the past.’
And then there will be the churches that don't have a minister and they will say, ‘We don't need to change. It is just bad luck and circumstances that have put us in this position. But one day things will go back to the way they were. On that day we will have a minister and everything will be all right.’
In Jeremiah’s day it didn't work out well for those who said that they didn't need to change. Why do we think it would be any different for us?
Here’s the fear and the hope of Jeremiah.
I believe that Jeremiah saw that the people had gotten where they were because they had lost their way.
They believed that God was just their God so they had no responsibility for anyone else in the world.
They believed that God would help them out no matter what they did. They believed that just being God’s people meant that God had an obligation to be on their side. But that meant they believed that they had no responsibility for their own spiritual growth. In fact they wouldn't understand that they were to grow spiritually. They felt that they could do whatever they wanted and when they needed help then God was to bail them out.
Jeremiah gave them a different mindset.
They were God’s people, a priesthood, a people of faith that shone as an example to all people. That the truth they had seen was that God was always with them, guiding and helping them. And they could show what that life meant to all of God’s people, those that knew about God, and those that didn't.
And we too need to change.
For too long we have seen ourselves as part of a holy huddle club that just meets on a Sunday and there is no commitment after that. That what other people do with their lives don't matter. In fact it would be better for us not to get involved with their lives because that is a commitment way beyond what we can be bothered with.
For too long we have seen this building as the thing that we have to keep precious and the minister as the paid janitor that keeps it all going. It doesn’t matter what commitment we give in time, or talents or money, as long as we can still come to our church on a Sunday.
We might not fight for the soul of our children or our grandchildren, we might be too embarrassed to talk to our neighbour about our faith, but we will move heaven and earth if they threaten to close our building.
The time had come for the children of God to see things differently.
Maybe the time has come for us to see our faith differently.
This is not a church; this is just a place that we meet.
This is not a church; it is just blocks of stone and wood and metal put together in the shape of building.
This is not a church; it is a thing of fabric that will last for as long as it lasts and then crumble and decay, or maybe became a block of flats or a nightclub.
As long as we think this building is the church then it is destined to fail, destined to close.
This is not the church, you are the church.
You are not a building; you are the community of faith.
You are not a building; you are a people who has seen suffering, and seen how God can help you grow through it so that you become stronger, not weaker.
You are not a building; you are a fellowship that can rejoice that no matter how bad things have gotten, you have assurance that you don't face it alone.
You are not a building; you are a gathering of people who see that just as God reaches out to us with hope, so the world needs that hope, and needs to know that God is there for them as he is there for us.
You are not a building; the church was never a building, the church was, and is, the body of Christ on earth.
The church is His people who work together and support each other and help each other on their journey of faith;
that when one of us falls, others are there to lift them up.
that when one of us grieves, others are there to comfort,
that when one of us rejoices, others are there to celebrate.
And all of us, in our lives, in our actions, share what we believe, because how we act is based on what we believe.
We care for others because we believe that God cares for us.
We help others because we believe God helps us.
We have compassion and forgiveness and love for others, because we believe that, because of God’s love for us, he shows us compassion and forgiveness.
What will that look like?
Don’t know, don’t care.
Because I know that if we realise that that is who we are as church, that is what we become as church, then whatever it looks like, it will be right.