Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 5 July 2015
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Jeremiah 20: 1 – 11a; Romans 14: 1 – 17
Jeremiah said to him, The Lord has named you not Pashhur but ‘Terror-all-around.’
For I hear many whispering: ‘Terror is all around!’
‘Terror-is all-around’ – an apt name for our age, as the bodies of holiday-makers massacred on a Tunisian beach are brought home and we prepare to commemorate that day ten years ago when Islamist terror came to our city.
In those same lands once conquered by ancient Babylon, the latest manifestation of that Islamist terror, the so-called ‘Islamic State’ employs a combination of extreme violence and modern communications media – a pornography of terror – to instill fear into those they consider their enemies – not only Christians and other minorities, but fellow-Muslims they consider heretical or just not enthusiastic enough about their vision of an Islamic paradise.
One of the ironies of the Islamist terrorism of our age is that its ideology combines the idea of jihad – holy war – with a very secular western notion of the use of terror for political ends; one which grew up during the French Revolution – which descended into what became known as the Terror. In succeeding years, parties of both extreme left and right would espouse terror as the means of bringing about their version of heaven on earth.
Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Jeremiah the prophet faced the threat of invasion by the Middle Eastern super-power of the time. The Babylonians would use overwhelming force to subjugate their enemies. Then they would deliberately ‘decapitate’ a society, deporting its leadership to another part of the empire to ensure the subservience of those who remained.
Pashhur the priest, the equivalent of the Dean of Westminster Abbey, seems not only blind to the political forces threatening his country, but also to the moral decay which the prophet Jeremiah sees as lying behind that fate. He is one of those who cry, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace;” relying on the people’s possession of the Temple as the guarantee of their security. To speak like this, says Jeremiah, is to give the people a false sense of hope.
Jeremiah has gone into the court of the Temple to deliver his message in the most public and visible of places. Pashhur, reacts like the representative of any threatened establishment. He beats Jeremiah – we can’t imagine the Dean of Westminster doing that – puts him in the stocks, placed on public display for passers-by to ridicule. The irony here is that the chief officer of God’s house repudiates God’s message and abuses God’s messenger, Pashhur represents the nation’s total rejection of the divine word, and with even greater irony, he shows that disdain within God’s house.
The prophet’s response is to nickname the priest “Terror-on-every-side”. He will be a ‘terror’ both to himself and to his friends; they and the whole land will suffer death, plunder and exile at the hands of the Babylonians.
If Pashhur represents both the people in their rejection of the prophet and the religious leaders who have led the people astray by prophesying falsely, Jeremiah also represents more than the rejected prophet. Portrayed as a suffering prophet, his fate parallels that of his people. He is beaten and taken captive just as they will be. He is released as ultimately they will be. His suffering and release foreshadow their own. His captivity symbolizes theirs but also offers a glimpse of possible survival.
The second part of our reading brings a change of gear; a switch from prose to poetry. In verse, Jeremiah laments his prophetic calling”
‘O Lord, you have enticed me,
and I was enticed;
you have overpowered me,
and you have prevailed.’
Jeremiah blames God for forcing him into a position where he is ‘a laughing stock’ and an object of mockery. God requires him to deliver a message of doom that events of history have so far failed to confirm. His enemies react by wishing to eliminate him and his message about the nation’s future.
Such is his anguish that he decides to stop speaking, but it will not work. He cannot withhold the fire in his bones. He cannot suppress the compulsion in the depths of his being to speak the words which God has given him.
He speaks of his enemies who have given him the same name he has given to Pashhur: ‘terror is all around.’ His enemies use the same words against him that he used to accuse God of trickery; they want to ‘entice’ him and to ‘prevail’ over him; not to make him speak but to silence him.
But then Jeremiah remembers that God is with him, a ‘dread warrior’. His enemies, who persecute him, ‘will stumble and they will not prevail’. He appeals to the God who tests and sees. Jeremiah’s trust rests in the confidence that the divine word of judgement is about to be accomplished, and that he will be vindicated as a true prophet.
In the encounter between the prophet Jeremiah and the priest Pashhur, like that between Amos and the priest Amaziah (Amos 7: 7 – 10), which we will hear at Mass next Sunday, there is a common pattern. When prophetic, critical and challenging figures confront the community with strong denunciations of its behaviour, those in authority react. The establishment cannot allow the rocking of the boat, so it seeks to silence the critical voice. Pashhur and Amaziah may not have been especially bad men. They were responsible for the proper conduct of worship in the Lord’s house. But at the end of each story, they stand condemned by the Lord they served. Both divine representatives, ministers of the national church, have failed properly to serve the one whose service is their vocation. They are so tied to the maintenance of the religious operation that they cannot hear the Lord’s declaration that it is a whitewashed sepulchre,
The passage prompts us to reflect on the tendency of all institutions, religious or not, to resist prophetic critique; the possibility that its ministers might be the preservers of the status quo, but not attenders to the prophetic word. That word calls us to commitment to the Lord, who made us, and to a kind of life in community which is able to recognise the lies that suggest that those in power can maintain their political, economic and religious dominance when the innocent, the poor and the weak are downtrodden by oppressive acts and systematic neglect.
When truth is set against falsehood, someone has to discern the truth. The book of Jeremiah is vivid testimony to how difficult deciding which prophetic word is the true one is. The passage makes it clear that the decision is one of great consequence: no less than life and death.
The difficulty may lie in our reluctance to hear a critical word from scripture, to give up the comfortable circumstances of our lives. Stopping the ears and eyes to the evident sounds and sights of a situation that we see perfectly well is contrary to God’s will. The problem of deciding between true and false prophetic voices is often one of an inclination to go with what does not offend or disturb us. The comforting and comfortable word, uttered in comfortable circumstances, is probably not the biblical way.
Jeremiah, in the anguish of his calling, in his identification with the word the Lord has given him to speak, would come to be seen by the Church as an anticipation of Jesus Christ the Word made flesh; the one whose message from God would also threaten the powers that be who would seek to silence him. At first sight, they seem to succeed, but in reality they fail completely.
Jeremiah and Jesus are both what the Church would come to call martyrs or witnesses – those who witness to the truth of God, not just in their words but in their being, their suffering.
We hear that word martyr used and abused much these days. It is applied to suicide bombers and men brandishing guns who die as they inflict terror on others, as they maim and kill.
This is a lie which must be named. It is a false use of the word, a wicked distortion which seduces young people, even from our own city, to take up this unholy cause with the promise of a glorious death.
True martyrdom involves the giving of life but never the taking of it; the offering of one’s own life not the taking of those of others.
We need to counter that lie, not least because there are voices in our own society who seek to tar all believers with the same brush. All religious people are deep down violent, including folk like you who have come to this Evensong. Commentators and politicians, whisper ‘Terror is all around!’ They seek to banish faith from the public square and from our schools in the mistaken belief that by doing so they will rid the world of bad religion. In fact, this approach will only lead to more toxic religion as it is driven underground. We will only be freed from bad religion by good religion; the faith which has at its heart the self-giving love of God in Jesus Christ who, as Benediction reminds us, came not to condemn and curse but to save and bless.