Like Jeremiah, we are all given God’s words to comfort, challenge and console. A reflection for back-to-school Sunday. (Listen.)
Over the last two years, our world has been turned upside down. We used to meet inside the building for church, but last week we were on Zoom; and this week here we, worshipping in the garden. We used to leave the house for school and work; but during the many months of lockdowns, most of us learned to work and study from home.
We used to gather in big groups and go to crowded places without a thought; these days, we don’t do this, or we make such decisions very carefully. We used to see the whole of people’s faces; these days, we see a lot of masks, and we have learned to look for smiles by looking in people’s eyes. We used to barely notice when someone coughed or sneezed; these days, these sounds can make us twitchy.
Now a new year is unfolding. We’re heading back to school and work: and we don’t know what the future holds. What will happen if our teachers and colleagues are sick? Will our family and friends be ok? Will we? Will there be a new variant of concern? Will Covid tests be available? Will there be more disruptions, more days at home? When will it all be over?
I can’t answer these questions, but I can tell you a story. It goes like this:
Once upon a time, long, long ago, God’s people were suffering. Their country had been invaded not once but multiple times. The place where they used to worship God was destroyed; so, too, their places of learning and their usual work. Many people died; and the invaders gathered up thousands of survivors and marched them to another country far, far away from family, friends and home. There were no mobiles, no phone calls, no promises: just the aching sadness of not being able to see grandma, or worship in the Temple, or gather in the places and ways that they used to. There was just the fear that comes when nobody knows what the future holds, and the world has been turned upside down.
To these fearful, suffering people, God didn’t give false hope. God didn’t promise that they would wake up one day and find everything back to normal. Instead, he gave them the weeping prophet, a man named Jeremiah. This is how Jeremiah describes being called by God:
“Now God’s word came to me, saying,
“Before I formed you in the belly, I knew you; before you came out of the womb, for holy work I dedicated you; a prophet to the nations I made you.”
Then I said, “Oh, Lord God! Look, I don’t know how to speak, for I’m just a boy!”
But the Lord said to me, “Don’t say, ‘I’m just a boy’; for wherever I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Don’t be afraid of them, for I am with you to save you,” said the Lord.
Then the Lord put out a hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I’ve put my words in your mouth. Look, today I have appointed you over nations and over kingdoms to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”” (Jeremiah 1:4-10).
Jeremiah goes on to do this work of plucking up and pulling down, destroying and overthrowing, building and planting, through the words given him by God. He speaks of visions and conversations with God. He describes invasion in graphic yet fractured detail; he laments, weeps and wails at what is happening. He names all the ways the people and the nation have ruptured shalom, and he shakes with God’s grief at this rupture.
And from time to time, he offers shards of consolation and hope: words of God’s tenderness; images of a world rebuilt; glimpses of a future shaped not by death, but life. But it’s not a neat, tidy story with beginning, middle and happily-ever-after. Instead, it’s a confused and confusing book, with repetitions and reversals and shocking descriptions of trauma. Like the events it describes, it’s a chaotic mess: it’s a book for a suffering people.
But a golden thread runs through this mess: and this is God’s word. For God puts words in Jeremiah’s mouth: and those words enable him to do God’s work through confusion and chaos; through all the times when nobody knows what the future holds and the world has been turned upside down.
Jeremiah is not the only one who has received the gift of God’s words. Whether our lives are confusion and chaos, or whether they are marked by contentment and calm, every one of us has words from Scripture rattling around in us, words which, like Jeremiah’s words, can pluck up and pull down, destroy and overthrow, build and plant. Every one of us has images and verses and fragments from the Bible which feel like a hug or encourage us; which shift our perspective or get through our defences and eventually turn our lives around. Every one of us has words which can be a gift to others.
And so I wonder … as you prepare for this new year, as you count face masks and worries, as you wonder where your lunchbox is and what the future holds, what God words are bubbling up inside you? What Biblical images or stories encourage you or provide a map for you? What phrases from the Bible, what Psalms, songs and prayers, comfort, challenge or console you in this world turned upside down?
Congregational responses included:
- I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord: plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you … (Jeremiah 29:11-12)
- Jesus says: Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30). As the person who quoted this said, There is a burden, there are many responsibilities in my work and my life, but I am yoked with Jesus: I do not carry it all alone.
- The voice of the Lord is over the waters … (Psalm 29:3). The person who quoted this observed that the waters are chaos and confusion. Drawing from other Biblical images, she often imagines God like a bird, strong like an eagle yet gentle like a dove, hovering over the turbulence of life.
- In the words of a father to Jesus: Lord, I have faith: Help my unfaith … (Mark 9:24). This is another father’s daily prayer.
- Someone regularly meditates on the Beatitudes, observing that blessed can be translated as happy e.g. Happy are those who are grieving, for they will be comforted … (Matthew 5:3-11). He takes time daily to ponder where our society says we will find happiness vs where Jesus points, especially in these days of grief.
- Someone loves old hymns e.g. I heard the voice of Jesus say, “Come unto Me, and rest; Lay down, thou weary one, lay down Thy head upon My breast …” This song captures the correct translation of John 13:23, when the beloved disciple reclines with his head on Jesus’ breast (sadly tidied up by most translations into the more manly ’chest’).
- One person grew up on an Aboriginal mission in the Northern Territory. She often lies awake in the small hours, comforted by remembering the old Sunday School songs.
- Someone else’s grandfather always sung psalms, hymns and spiritual songs around the house and garden: and although he died many years ago, almost daily she hears his voice sing in her heart. He especially loved, The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases // His mercies never come to an end // They are new every morning, new every morning // Great is thy faithfulness, O Lord, Great is thy faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22-23). Whenever this song comes to her (which is often), she pauses to find and give thanks for the mercies of the day.
- Many of us love local singer-songwriter Archie Roach’s music; and one person has been playing his rendition of A closer walk with thee on repeat.
- We observed how many of us carry these psalms, hymns and spiritual songs; how they crop up and give us comfort, assurance and a word from God when we need it.
- We finished by singing Lo, I am with you to the end of the world …, a song by the Iona Community which quotes the assurance the Risen Christ gives to his disciples (Matthew 28:20b). Thanks be to God! Ω
We followed this with our annual but somewhat more serious than usual blessing of the school students, as they begin a new school year with face to face teaching while Covid runs wild. The main prayer request? NO MORE LOCKDOWNS! Plus prayers for a place to sit at a new school (‘green pastures!’). Not to be swamped by year twelve. The opportunity to learn new languages. The health and safety of family, friends, teachers and colleagues. And other prayers …
Reflect: What God words are bubbling up inside you? What Biblical images or stories encourage you or provide a map for you? What phrases from the Bible, what Psalms, songs and prayers, comfort, challenge or console you in this world turned upside down?
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