All Saints Margaret Street | Trinity 2 Solemn Evensong & Benediction Sunday 17 June 2012

Sermon for Trinity 2 Solemn Evensong & Benediction Sunday 17 June 2012

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house , and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’”

I wonder how you would have reacted if, when you came to church this evening, you had found me standing, like the prophet Jeremiah, at the church gate: calling you to examine your motives for being here, your worthiness to be worshippers at all. Would you have stayed, or slipped quietly away?

We are not told the occasion of Jeremiah’s sermon.  His words to “all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the Lord,” suggest a major occasion in which “all Judah” would be expected to be present:  the inauguration of the new king, or one of the great pilgrimage festivals. 

Later on, we hear of him preaching in the court of the temple at the beginning of the reign of the new king Jehoiakim, Josiah’s son.

The consequence of that preaching was that Jeremiah was put on trial for his life. 

The hearers are those who enter to worship the Lord and the words which follow relate directly to that worship: what defines it; what validates it; what nullifies it. 

Jeremiah’s words echo Psalms 15 & 24, hymns to be sung by those entering the Temple, spelling out the moral qualifications, the manifestations of a holy life, appropriate for anyone coming before the holy God.

“Lord, who shall dwell in thy tabernacle: or who shall rest upon thy holy hill?

Even he, that leadeth and uncorrupt life: and doeth the thing which right, and speaketh the truth from his heart.

He that hath used no deceit in his tongue, nor done evil to his neighbour: and hath not slandered his neighbour.”  (Psalm. 15)

“Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord: or who shall rise up in his holy place?

Even he that hath clean hands and a pure heart: and that hath not lift up his mind unto vanity, now sworn to deceive his neighbour.”  (Psalm 24)

The psalms ask questions. Jeremiah has no need even to ask: the lack of qualifications is transparent.  The prophet’s words forbid entrance until they are met.   In fact, of course, he is unable to prevent the people entering, and in Chapter 26, his lack of power is demonstrated when he is arrested and placed on trial because of his speech. But his words still identify the danger to “all Judah” coming to worship the Lord if those qualifications are not met.

There is a textual problem in the Hebrew for “dwell”  which results in two possible translations: our version opts for it meaning the Lord’s dwelling in the Temple; the other option suggests the Lord allowing the people to continue to dwell in the land.

Our translation would be more directly related to the people’s conviction that the temple of the Lord would always be there, but the two ideas are not unrelated or mutually exclusive, as destruction of the Temple and exile from the land would go together.

The call to change their ways is followed by a warning against a false sense of security: the assumption that the Lord will never let his Temple, his dwelling place, be harmed; that he will always be present in it and keep it, and its worshippers, safe from any ultimate harm. There had been threats to the Temple and to Jerusalem befor: in the days of Isaiah and Hezekiah, but the Temple had endured. The promise of the Lord to defend the city in Isaiah (37.35) was remembered by later generations.

They saw in that promise,  and in the temple as the earthly abode of the almighty God, a protecting shield over Jerusalem. What this did not account for was the Lord’s decision to take away the shield.

“The temple of the Lord” had become an unquestionable slogan. But these words are a lie. They mask a society rotten to the core.  The only way can be turned from lie to truth is by a radical alteration of the moral life.

Jeremiah brings together, more clearly than anywhere else in the Old Testament, the link between ethics and worship. We are given a summary of the Law, of what matters in the relationship with God, indicated for Jews in the Shema recited daily:

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind,”   and the Ten Commandments. This defines the moral life of Israel. 

The fundamental guidelines provided by the Ten Commandments join with basic concerns for justice and protecting the life and security of those on the margins of society or without the means of sustaining and protecting themselves.  The moral life in covenant with the Lord involves rejecting the ways in which we can harm a neighbour’s life, property, marriage, and reputation.  It also calls for a continued attitude of fairness and a special concern for the weaker members of society.  In this summary of the moral life, both prophecy and Commandments  –   set devotion and proper allegiance to the Lord as an essential ingredient. The worship of idols has consequences for our attitude and conduct towards others.

The refusal to separate attitude toward God and  toward neighbour is at the heart of Jeremiah’s sermon. It sets before us the intimate relation between worship and ethics fundamental to the message of the prophets: the repeated insistence on a strict correlation between  what is done in the sanctuary and what goes on outside it.

Jeremiah points to the futility of what happens in the sanctuary, and what it says about presence God’s and protection, when the people’s life-style runs counter to God’s express will.

The Temple, like the church today, is a powerful symbol of divine presence and security. But such symbols are rendered meaningless when those who worship in them violate the divine instruction and use their economic and other powers for personal gain at the expense of others.  The prophets were not speaking in a vacuum, but in the context of sharply increasing division between rich and poor among the people to whom God had given the land In trust and for the well-being of all: sounds all too familiar doesn’t it?  Think of what the Archbishop of Canterbury said at the Diamond Jubilee Service about what “will save us from the traps of ludicrous financial greed, of environmental recklessness, of collective fear of strangers and collective contempt for the unsuccessful and marginal.”

Jeremiah gives a clear and emphatic “No” to the widespread assumption that Zion was secure, that God would never let anything happen to the Temple.

He spells out the call for a change of behaviour:

  • dealing justly in all human relations,
  • not taking advantage of weaker or powerless members of the society;
  • not committing violence against others;
  • not worshipping other gods. 

The bottom line is clear:

  • Fair and just dealings;
  • protection and care of the innocent and weak in society;
  • unqualified devotion to the Lord.

Here we have a series of fundamental principles governing Israel’s covenant life as the people of God.

In a series of rhetorical questions, the prophet develops the case against Judah:  the outrageous incongruity between the widespread violation of the covenant in society and worship in the Temple. 

What is so shocking in God’s eyes is that the people can violate these fundamental requirements and yet still come to worship in the temple, claiming its security, “We are safe”, and go back to commit the same crimes all over again   the people have no shame (3.3). The Temple is no longer a place of worship. It is literally what the Lord calls it: a den of thieves, adulterers, extortioners and idolaters. The “congregation of the Lord,” the “house which is called by my name.” has been turned into a lair of criminals. There is no alternative: it must be destroyed. The sentence follows from the indictment and the self-evident guilt of the accused: the destruction of the Temple.

But even as sentence is pronounced, the Lord tries to jolt them out of their misplaced confidence.  He reminds them an earlier instance of the people’s sins resulting in the destruction of the Lord’s house: the sanctuary at Shiloh.  The Lord is still trying to break the unthinking self-confidence of the people by spelling out some hard facts; throwing some cold water in their face to sober up this recalcitrant and unashamed people.  “Go and look at the ruins of Shiloh. That should knock some sense into you.”

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses