10th Sunday after Pentecost

Lectionary 1st Reading Psalm 2nd Reading Gospel
Anglican lectionary:
Jeremiah 23:23-29
82
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56
Catholic lectionary:
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SECTION ONE: NOTES ON THE READINGS

Jeremiah 23:23-29 – How big is your God?

The background of the chapter preceding these verses, Jeremiah 29 is God’s anger and judgment against useless shepherds / leaders (vs.1-2) and false prophets (vs.9-22) who mislead and deceive God’s people. Instead, God promises to raise up ‘a shepherd who will lead them’, a ‘righteous branch’ and King who will do what is just and right, bring God’s people back to their land, and be called ‘the Lord our righteous Saviour’ (vs.3-8). This Messianic prediction is in stark contrast to the empty hopes and cheap peace offered by the false prophets. Today, we can think of the false prophets of climate denial, greenwash and techno-optimism, who keep saying ‘No harm will come to you’ (v.17), as our world descends into climate chaos and a calamitous loss of biodiversity. God’s judgment awaits those who preach ‘peace’ or ‘hope’ on a false basis. Yet, we are also assured that, beyond judgment, God is committed to his people and his world, and there are genuine grounds for hope, rooted in God not in human progress.

Then come the majestic words of vs.23-24. God challenges the small-mindedness of Israel’s priests, prophets and leaders: ‘Am I only a God nearby, and not a God far away? … Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? … Do not I fill heaven and earth?’. God is vastly bigger than human imagination. He sees what is going on everywhere and he ‘fills’ heaven and earth.

The Hebrew word for fill is often used of when God’s glory fills the tabernacle or temple, but here we see God’s glory filling the whole of creation – heaven and earth – which are also in a real sense God’s Temple. This can be interpreted in a panentheist way. God is not part of creation (pantheism) but neither is God totally remote (deism). Rather, God is intimately present to all that exists, breathing life, nurturing growth, providing nurture and nourishment. Every action that harms God’s creation involves and hurts God too.

Psalm 82 – God, the righteous judge

In some ways this is a difficult and confusing Psalm, with its talk of a great assembly containing numerous ‘gods’, and its challenge to God’s apparent tolerance of injustice and wickedness. Two things help. First, we must remember the Ancient Near East background of tribes, nations and empires with multiple deities that surrounded Israel with its unique monotheism. These false ‘gods’ were a constant irritant to ancient Israel, but here they are shown up as ignorant and powerless. In contrast, Psalm 82 starts and finishes with the one true God’s real place, presiding and judging over these feeble deities and over the whole earth.

Secondly, the challenge to God to stop allowing injustice, and to defend the weak, uphold the cause of the poor and oppressed, and deliver the weak and needy (vs.2-4) is typical of how the Psalms reflect the range of human emotions towards God. Jesus himself encourages us to batter on God’s door like somebody demanding bread from a lazy, sleeping friend (Luke 11:5-8). It is not that God really tolerates injustice or fails to care for the needy, but it can so often feel just like that to us, and the Psalms encourage us to take our real feelings to God. Like Abraham pleading for Sodom, we can cry out to God, ‘Far be it from you to … kill the righteous with the wicked … Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ (Genesis 18:25). As we intercede for places and people devastated by climate injustice, and as we see the super-rich polluting and multinational corporations evading their corporate responsibilities, we should be moved to righteous anger, provoking us both to action and to intercession.

Hebrews 11:29-12:2 – Keep your eyes on Jesus

The concluding verses of Hebrews 11’s catalogue of faith include some remarkable and surprising examples. These weren’t perfect saints. They include a prostitute (Rahab), a prostitute’s son who killed his own daughter (Jephthah), an adulterer and murderer (David), and those who were timid (Gideon) and morally weak (Samson). Yet, such unlikely candidates are proclaimed as heroes of faith, whom ‘the world was not worthy of’ (v.38). Next time you’re wallowing in your own failures, remind yourself of what good company you’re in, and that God can use the most unlikely people.

The main focus here, though, is not these heroes of the faith but Jesus, whom we are encouraged to ‘fix our eyes’ on (12:2). He is the ‘pioneer and perfecter’ of our faith through his life, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension. The race marked out for us is not a race to save the planet (as if we could!) or to achieve climate justice, good though both these goals are! It is a race to follow Jesus, pure and simple. Of course, following Jesus includes caring for the suffering and God’s wounded creation, but those must not become our ultimate goals or we’ll end up burnt out or disillusioned.

Luke 12:49-56 – Interpreting the signs of the times

These are tough words from Jesus, reminding us that there is no justice without judgment, no peace without costly suffering. As with our first reading from Jeremiah 23, there is no cheap gospel, no talk of peace without tackling injustice.

Today there is a great irony in Jesus’ words about being able to predict the weather but unable to interpret the times. Now we can’t even predict which months will be wet or dry, hot or cold! Past generations knew how to read the clouds and the wind, when to sow and to reap, but climate chaos has changed everything. Farmers around the world complain that they no longer know when to sow because extremes of drought and flood have replaced the regularity of seasonal rainfall.

And, of course, there’s a link between chaotic weather patterns and our failure to interpret the signs of the times. Politicians and the media flit from one crisis to another. Even pandemics will come and go. Wars will inevitably take place. Economies will rise and fall. Yet the ecological crisis underlies and subverts everything else. The signs of the times are all around us. As I write in August 2022, Europe has just seen record-breaking temperatures over 40C, China has issued three ‘red alerts’ for extreme heat, and 100+ million Americans have received heat warnings. Unless we fundamentally change our relationship with nature, every other major issue will pale into insignificance. We are like a person who knows they have a cancerous tumour growing inside and yet refuses to have surgery or treatment. ‘Fire on the earth’ and ‘it’s going to be hot’, two phrases from our Gospel passage feel particularly prescient in this context.

49 ‘I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52 From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’

54 He said to the crowd: ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, “It’s going to rain,” and it does. 55 And when the south wind blows, you say, “It’s going to be hot,” and it is. 56 Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?

SECTION TWO: SERMON OUTLINE

‘HOW IS IT THAT YOU DON’T KNOW HOW TO INTERPRET THIS PRESENT TIME?’ Luke 12:56

An effective leader needs to discern priorities clearly. That is what it means to ‘interpret this present time’ or read the signs of the times. Yet today there are so many competing priorities. Our world faces economic, political and social turmoil. There are pandemics, wars, rising prices of fuel and food. There are deep seated issues of injustice within and between nations. And then there’s the climate and ecological crisis. Where do we begin?

In our Gospel reading, Jesus teases the crowd who are listening and their leaders who were, no doubt, eavesdropping. Surely, he says, you’re all country folk. You know how to read the weather. A cloud coming in from the Mediterranean in the west means rain is on the way. A wind from the southern desert means it’s bound to be hot soon. You can read the weather, but you can’t interpret what’s really going on – the big picture.

Today there is a great irony in Jesus’ words. We cannot predict any more which months will be wet or dry, hot or cold! Past generations knew how to read the clouds and the wind, when to sow and to reap, but climate chaos has changed everything. Farmers around the world complain that they no longer know when to sow because extremes of drought and flood have replaced the regularity of seasonal rainfall.

The price of everyday essentials can be affected by many things: wars, market fluctuations, bad weather, political gamesmanship, but the climate and ecological crisis are not like these. Their impact is relentless and it is accelerating. Politicians and the media flit from one crisis to another. Even pandemics will come and go. Wars will inevitably take place. Economies will rise and fall. Yet the ecological crisis underlies and subverts everything else. The signs of the times are all around us. As I write in August 2022, Europe has just seen record-breaking temperatures over 40C, China has issued three ‘red alerts’ for extreme heat, and 100+ million Americans have received heat warnings. Unless we fundamentally change our relationship with nature, every other major issue will pale into insignificance. We are like a person who knows they have a cancerous tumour growing inside and yet refuses to have surgery or treatment. ‘Fire on the earth’ and ‘it’s going to be hot’, two phrases from our Gospel passage feel particularly prescient in this context.

Some of the Bible’s harshest words are reserved for leaders who mislead their people. In our Old Testament reading, Jeremiah 23, most of the chapter is God’s complaint against poor shepherds and false prophets:  leaders who fail to do the best for their flock and prophets who promise empty peace and hope. For them, God has harsh words of judgment.

So, what wisdom can we gain from today’s bible passages as we seek to interpret the signs of the times today?

  1. See the big picture

In Jeremiah 23 God says, ‘Am I only a God nearby, and not a God far away? … Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? … Do not I fill heaven and earth?’. God is vastly bigger than human imagination. He sees what is going on everywhere and he ‘fills’ heaven and earth. We need God’s perspective to fully understands the signs of the times, and he will judge those leaders who mislead their people.

The Hebrew word for fill is often used of when God’s glory fills the tabernacle or temple, but here we see God’s glory filling the whole of creation – heaven and earth – which are also in a real sense God’s Temple. This can be interpreted in a panentheist way. God is not part of creation (pantheism) but neither is God totally remote (deism). Rather, God is intimately present to all that exists, breathing life, nurturing growth, providing nurture and nourishment. Every action that harms God’s creation involves and hurts God too. That is why interpreting this present time means we cannot avoid putting the ecological crisis at the top of our agenda.

  1. Test everything by God’s word

Jeremiah 23:28 says, ‘Let the prophet who has a dream recount the dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain?’ declares the Lord.’ It’s easy to say ‘I have a dream’ but dreams can just as easily be fantasies as prophecies. Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech has lasted because it was deeply rooted in scripture and the biblical vision of God’s shalom and healing. Many of today’s dreams are fantasies divorced from reality. Such made-up dreams are like the chaff which gets blown away, rather than the healthy grain of God’s word which nourishes and builds up. The idea that we can solve the climate and ecological crises simply by new technology or economic growth are false dreams. Those dreams simply encourage the attitudes that have created the crisis, that we can have our cake and eat it – that we can continue to exploit resources and grow our footprint without suffering the consequences. We need to test the dreams peddled by our politicians and advertisers against the bible’s call to live simply, to seek justice, and to work for the welfare of the most vulnerable.

  1. Keep your eyes on Jesus

Today’s epistle is the end of Hebrews 11 and the start of Hebrews 12. It’s a reminder not to put our trust in human leaders, but only in Jesus. The great heroes of the faith, David, Gideon, Samson and others, all had feet of clay. David was an adulterer and murderer, Gideon was weak and nervous, Samson was hotheaded and easily led astray. The amazing and encouraging thing is that God still used them and they are upheld as heroes of faith. But, as we run the race of life, we are told clearly to ‘fix our eyes’ on Jesus who is the ‘pioneer and perfecter’ of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). The race marked out for us is not a race to save the planet (as if we could!) or to achieve climate justice, good though both these goals are! It is a race to follow Jesus, pure and simple. Of course, following Jesus includes caring for the suffering and for God’s wounded creation, but those must not become our ultimate goals or we’ll end up burnt out or disillusioned.

So, how do we interpret the signs of the times?

  • See the big picture: God is God of the whole earth and fills it with his presence and glory. The biggest threat to God’s world today is our misuse of creation. It is the biggest driver of poverty, injustice, migration, food insecurity and underlies many of our health, economic and political troubles.
  • Test everything by God’s word: there are plenty of false prophets peddling dreams with no basis. Scripture is realistic about both our failures and our potential as human beings, and teaches us to recognise our dependence on each other, on creation’s fruitfulness, and ultimately on God.
  • Keep your eyes on Jesus: he is the creator, sustainer and saviour not only of us, but of all creation. If we truly follow him we will want to care for God’s world, not out of fear or panic at the crises that overwhelm us, but out of love for God. That is what enables us to keep going when things get tough and we’re tempted to be disillusioned. That is the sure hope we have that, whatever happens, God is committed to renew and restore creation.

SECTION THREE: ADDITIONAL MATERIALS

Revd Dr Dave Bookless

I love wildlife, wild places and our wild untameable God. So, it’s a huge joy to work for A Rocha International (www.arocha.org) as Director of Theology, speaking and writing about creation care. I also love multicultural urban Southall (London) where I’ve lived for over 30 years, and help my wife lead a small Anglican parish, St Mary’s Norwood Green.

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