This week we once again meet with the prophet Jeremiah, writing for his people in exile in Babylon, encouraging them in their difficult situation, offering them support and hope for the future.
A prophet who was not really very popular with his people. First, before exile, hed got on the wrong side of people with messages of doom and gloom and now, after what he predicted has happened, he is making himself unpopular by calling them to settle into their new life, accept their fate and be good to their captors.
Our second reading is also part of a letter, a letter Paul writes from prison to Timothy, who at one time was a travel companion but has now turned pastor at Ephesus. This letter, like the one from Jeremiah, is a letter of encouragement, offering hope, support and a positive outlook for the future.
Although the two letters were written centuries apart in very different circumstances, they also have a lot in common: Both were written by men of great faith who very clearly saw the pitfalls of faith for their fellow believers. Both letters were sent to people who were in a difficult situation of uncertainty, conflict and alienation, finding their way into a new and different situation. Both are concerned with the threat of flawed thinking patterns to true faith.
Jeremiah tries to convince his people in exile that new ways of thinking are called for. That God has not brought them to the place where they are now to spend their days hankering for the past and hoping for the restoration of what once was. He argues that they should view their exile as an opportunity offered by God to flourish and extend Gods blessing to those who were, up till then, separated from it. Accepting their captors as people to whom Gods love and grace extended as well as to those who were his people of old.
Paul and Timothy in their turn battle with groups of Christians who find the full breadth and depth of Gods mercy difficult to accept and have trouble grasping the concept of free and unconditional love for all Gods people, as well as the idea that God himself so loved the world and all that is in it that he had not deemed himself too high to come down in the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ to share in the suffering and despair of His people.
Jeremiahs people could not get their head around the fact that God had actually let the Babylonians take over their native land and lead them into exile. That the temple, which they thought would have been sacred and forever under Gods protection, was no longer safe. That what they had believed, that God would never let anything happen to them because they were Gods people, seemed no longer to be true. And that this, according to Jeremiah, could be a good thing that could become a blessing not only to them, but to others as well.
The ground had been swept from under their feet, and while other prophets are telling them that all will go back to normal in no time, Jeremiah is telling them that the world has changed and that their whole concept of faith and belief should change with it.
They are no longer Gods people in Gods country, with exclusive rights to his blessing as they thought they were. God wants them to become, in spite of and thanks to the hardship of their exile, a blessing to those that surround them in their new abode so God can be good to those people too.
The early Christians that Paul and Timothy were serving were also confused about Gods grace and for whom this grace really was. Some of them found it really hard to believe that it was for free and for just anybody, some felt that the gospel of a God bodily sharing the worlds pain and suffering went just a bit too far for them to accept.
There were Jews turned Christian whod fled from Palestine because of the trouble that was going on there with the Romans. They wanted to keep Christianity as close as possible to what theyd been used to. They preached Jesus as a Jew and Christianity as a branch of Judaism.
And they said that salvation was only for those who kept the Jewish law to the letter. They tended to consider Christ as nothing more than a good example to follow and an inspiration for a godly life.
Others were descendants of Jews that had lived outside Palestine for generations among Greeks, Romans and Egyptians. Multicultural Jews if you like, who were well versed in the ways of the world, whod converted to Christianity because it appealed to them. Most often they would have seen Christianity as a more advanced form of Judaism. Less strict and benefiting from the insights of other, to their mind more modern philosophies. They were, in general, middle class, hard working roman citizens who wanted nothing to do with ideas that threatened their view of the world.
They tended to emphasise the divinity of Christ and his wisdom, pushing his humanity, his involvement with the poor and outcasts and his suffering to the background.
And then of course there were the Greek and Roman converts, a lot of them very familiar with the Greek and Roman pantheon and the mystery religions of the East. They were very much into what you could call the New Age philosophies of the day. They liked the idea of a small elite group who possessed secret knowledge necessary for salvation, and they liked to think that they were that small elite group. They wanted a religion that was otherworldly and interesting. They tended to ascetic or overly liberal lifestyles. The flesh they said, didnt matter to God, it was only the spiritual that was of importance.
Not very much different from today really:
There are some who consider Christ as nothing more than a good example to follow and the way to salvation one of hard work, commitment and duty.
Then there are those who go out into the world and try to bring everything they encounter together and mould it into something that is acceptable to their tastes and in keeping with the philosophies of the day. Looking for a religion that is comforting and comfortable, gets a majority vote, something they can feel at home with and happy, without too much worry about the rest of the world. A Christianity where the salvation in Christ provides an excuse to turn away from the world around and where people become part of a cocoon of soft pink fluff where those who are part of the community can feel happy "in Christ".
And last but not least there are those who believe that Christianity is something else all together, only accessible to an elite of spiritually developed people that will, through deep and earnest meditation, find themselves in heaven even before the end had come. Considering the world and all that is worldly as a necessary evil and outside the realm of Gods interest and love.
Paul, as we know from his letters, took a very unfriendly stance against all of that.
And it cost him. People turned their backs on him, his congregations were one by one taken over by leaders with more agreeable leanings and by the end of the second century, about a century after Pauls death, there was hardly anything left of all the feverish mission activity that Paul had been involved with during his lifetime.
Perhaps something for us to think about when we worry about the numbers in our Church in our time!
Stick to your guns writes Paul to Timothy in Ephesus, dont let those false teachings worry you. Concentrate on the good news as you have learned it from me and other good teachers. Read the scripture (that would have been Jewish scripture because at the time there wasnt any sacred Christian writing available yet), it will tell you how to live and train you in the life of God. Teaching and training that will equip you for good work and proficiency in the ways of God.
Do not give in, even if it makes you unpopular. People like to hear things that will suit them and the gospel is per definition something they most probably dont want to hear. Just keep at it, teaching, suffering if need be, spreading the good news and ministering.
Paul, echoing the words of Jeremiah against the new dimension of the coming of Christ brings the message of God who has made a new covenant in Jesus Christ. One where the law is no longer something that comes in from the outside, laid upon people by priests and preachers to be followed to the letter, but grows on the inside. A covenant that is one sidedly established by God through Christ. Making its way into the hearts and lives of those who want to serve him through the Holy Spirit, refining and renewing what had been written in sacred scripture before.
The basics of faith, the basics that Jeremiah and Paul and Timothy preach to their people are that Gods gift of love and salvation goes a lot deeper and is a lot broader than most of us would want to accept. Gods blessing, they proclaim, is not for a small and limited group of specifically defined believers but for all Gods people. Salvation is something that God puts in our hearts, not something we can earn or are entitled to for one reason or another. It is free and unconditional and it calls every one of us to a life of good works, sober, enduring suffering, spreading the good news to all the world and carrying out our ministry. Living a life where what God promises in scripture takes shape. Where justice is done and peace is sought and people serve others from a generous heart and a liberated soul. A life that is a blessing to those around, directed outward and forwards and not just inward and certainly not backwards.
Guided by a God, who in the life of Christ did not turn his back on the world, but showed his love for it. Preferring the down and out, the sinners and outcasts as companions, suffering their pain, dying their death, sharing in their desperation and turning it around through the depths of utter darkness and even death towards light and new life. A God that not only wants our praise, our deep faith and constant prayer but longs for us to come alongside Him working towards a new creation through practical and meaningful involvement that will make a difference to others, here and now. Amen.