Sunday 21st June 2015, Trinity 3, evening

Jeremiah 10:1-16

by Revd Chris Palmer

One of the things that seems most remarkable and strange in the Old Testament is that the people of Israel are constantly tempted to abandon Yahweh, the God of Israel, and worship other Gods.  They knew the stories of Abraham, of Exodus, of the judges – why would they abandon the hope and source of their life for these nothing deities?

This is of course easy to say with hindsight. I fondly imagine that worshipping Astarte or Baal is as ridiculous for them as me choosing to worship Juno or Zeus.  But that really wasn’t the situation. The different religions of the ancient near east were in cultural competition. There was a tug of war for influence going on, much more akin to the tug of war between different political ideologies in our own day. A later generation will ask why in the 20th and early 21st century we failed to take action to limit climate change and always chose economic enrichment over protecting the planet. Choosing to worship only the LORD was as hard a political path to stay on, as maintaining unswerving policies to care for our world amidst other competing pressures.

The prophets, whose voice later generations hallowed by turning it into scripture, were in their own day just irritating polemicists for the most part. Most people ignored them, and they continued to speak words that only a subsequent century would believe to be true.

So Jeremiah in today’s reading gives us a classic warning against the gods of the nations. They are human creations, false Gods, unable to do anything, and their followers simply become like them in their worthlessness. By contrast the LORD is the creator of all this, with understanding, power, and wisdom at his command, his voice is effective to direct creation and order all things.

Jeremiah’s warning is well meant, but it is possible to see why the unfaithful Israelites abandoned this God. He is unpredictable, undomesticated, wild, and dangerous – to get too near him is worrying. And the sense that he is awesome is complemented by the sense that we are unworthy of him.

The idols they create feel controllable. They are allowed to make statues of these, something never permitted of the LORD. They give a sense of safety in this moment and, a little bit like not putting your eggs in one basket, gives you a sense that you might at least end up with something to sustain and nourish you. These were gods it was possible to be worthy of.

There is a story in the writings of the desert fathers about a deacon called Theodore who keeps running away to avoid being made to exercise his ministry:

“Time after time, the old men brought him back saying, ‘Do not abandon you role as a deacon.’ Theodore said to them, ‘Let me pray to God so that he may tell me for sure whether I ought to function publicly as a deacon in the liturgy.’ This is how he prayed to God: ‘If it is your will that I should stand in this place, make me sure of it.’ A pillar of fire appeared to him, stretching from earth to heaven, and a voice said, ‘If you can become like this pillar of fire, go and be a deacon’. So he decided against it.”

Rowan Williams comments on this passage. He starts by saying that we are tempted to read this as Theodore evading responsibility, but a different interpretation suggests itself:

“What then is Theodore’s problem? I suspect that is the identification of this personal summon to ‘become fire’ with a specific visible role in the church – as if ordination involved some sort of attempt to lay hold of a destiny that would take a lifetime of prayer and watchfulness to grow into. For Theodore, to be a deacon would mean to lay claim to a spiritual wholeness which it would be impossibly arrogant to assume for yourself. It’s true that the church does not encourage us to understand every struggle over vocation to ordained ministry in such terms, but it is a story that ought to make all ordained people uncomfortable, if only in its clear suggestion that exercising a public role in the church’s worship involves standing in the furnace of divine action which unites earth and heaven. If we can’t see that this is a dangerous place, we have missed something.” [1]

This is a story not only for the ordained though, but about every person’s worship of God. I suspect that Israel’s reluctance to worship only the LORD involved similar scruples. The prophets almost universally paint a picture of God that makes the hearer ‘uncomfortable’, as if they are ‘standing in the furnace of divine action which unites earth and heaven.’ Just read what Jeremiah says in today’s reading.

Seen this way then, as with Theodore, it’s not merely obtuseness, but a sense of not being about to stand the encounter with God that leads the Israelites away; it is too frightening a place to be.

At least two writers about the spiritual life say the same thing about encountering God, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing and St John of the Cross writing about the dark night of the soul. Both say that many people set out on the road of encountering God through contemplation only to discover that the encounter with the darkness, the mystery, the unknown, the beyondness, the sheer otherness of God is so bewildering and disorientating that they retreat into their familiar set prayers and easy meditations.

But in a similar way, I think this is really the temptation we all constantly face to be diverted from the quest for God into compulsive behaviours or life-denying habits of living. That sense that our deepest destiny is in friendship with God can feel alive and strong at certain moments of life – moments of enlightenment and hope – but at other moments it feels like a distant dream; our inner voice tells us that it’s just a quaint idea that doesn’t really deliver fulfilment. And then whatever habit of living we are drawn by that sucks us away from God, good relationships, or generosity feels so much more appealing in that moment.

Know what that habit is for you.  Withdrawing into your mobile phone instead of encountering your family; choosing to accept the provocation and pick a fight instead of keeping quiet; going back to the person that’s damaging because we can’t quite believe we are good enough to thrive alone; staying at work for another two hours, even though we’ve done all that be expected, rather than going to get some exercise…

And as I said earlier, we have collective idolatries too. Short term prosperity, national influence, insular definitions of security stand in the way of peace, of environmental justice, or care for the refugee.  But to choose these good things feels like Theodore and his pillar of fire. In politics we daren’t ‘stand in the furnace of divine action that unites earth and heaven’ – and so settle for lesser, idolatrous versions of well-being

As Theodore recognised, the liturgy is the place of encounter with the true God. As we are offered God’s healing in anointing and in the body and blood of Christ tonight, God is inviting us not to fear the encounter which truly gives life – or rather to have a holy fear, a holy awe, but still go there.

[1] Silence and Honey Cakes, Rowan Williams, p65