Prophet of Judgment

 (Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-281; Luke 15:1-7) – J G White
11 am, Sunday, September 15, 2019 – UBC Digby

A woman in New Zealand told about a little sermon her daughter gave one day for their family devotions time. The daughter was nine years old.  Here is Lucy’s sermon: When I think about God I think of a person who would never murder or kill anyone.  But when you think about it you wonder because wasn’t it God who swept the angel of death over Egypt?  It makes you think doesn’t it? Is God against it or is he not? I mean what had the boys done to die? It was Pharaoh wasn’t it?  Now do you realise how little we know about God? I hope this made you think, thanks for listening. (Brian McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration, 2016, pp. 110-111.)

We are thinking about God as we hear words of scripture, words of the great prophets. We are walking with the prophet Jeremiah now. We are merely sampling from the 52 chapters, fifty Bible pages of ancient speech and drama. Today, we glimpse this prophet of judgment, bringing a tough message with tough language and tough imagery.  Through years of dramatic events in Judah, Jeremiah pursues his message, warns his people, and eventually leaves the holy land, like so many of his fellow Jews had done.

Our biblical prophets are people with big personalities. As we study Jeremiah, we find several portraits of this man, here. He is a prophet of severe judgement, against his own people, and outsiders. He is a person of deep caring love for his people, a weeping prophet, with inner struggles. He is a preacher of the truth who battles falsehood. He is a proclaimer of scripture and a composer of scripture, sharing what he learns from Almighty God.

Today, these words – the LORD says:
I speak in judgment against them.
My people are foolish, they do not know me.
They are skilled at doing evil,
but do not know how to do good.
The whole land shall be a desolation.

The lyric of Psalm 14 goes well with Jeremiah’s word from the Lord.
Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
There is no one who does good.

We, we don’t really like bad news, warnings, and harsh correction in our religion, do we? If you did, you would be attending a church where you’d get a direct verbal rebuke much more often. 

Preachers with sermons like those of Jeremiah are negative, nasty, and not compassionate, we might think. Our mind easily, as Richard Rohr says: [The dualistic mind] presumes that if you criticize something, you don’t love it. Wise people like the prophets would say the opposite. (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, September 11, 2017)

A real prophet, in any age, loves the people and the religion. That is why he or she is a good person for the job. He cares so deeply about what is going on, that divine warnings can come from his mouth.

I think immediately of one of the people who was a pastor to me in my young years, and who is still a friend. This week he will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his ordination as a Baptist Minister. He is a unique personality. He is very opinionated. He speaks often of what he likes and what he dislikes: he’s known for this. He’s famous for saying: ‘I do not approve!’ He knows what he believes, and what he likes, and he sticks to it! Here are some examples, from a book he wrote a decade ago, about Christian Hymns. He was inspired to write this long essay because of two church services he’d been to in one day, that, he would say, failed. Let me quote:

Recently, an order of service asked a neo-classical, elderly, white, Anglo-Saxon, United Empire Loyalist congregation to sound as close as possible to a southern United States afro-american congregation — of a hundred or more years ago. It was pathetic. Obviously most of the people could not comprehend the meaning or the context of the spirituals. (R. H. Prentice, Hymns at Heaven’s Gate: The Use & Abuse of Hymns, Gaspereau Press, 2008, p. 14)

On the same day as the above experience, another congregation sang hymns that were perfectly attuned to the people who had gathered, but were misplaced, brutally torn apart, leaving some to wonder what had gone wrong with the message of familiar hymns. One hymn, by F. W. Faber, ‘There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,’ was ripped apart at the seams with three consecutive but crucial stanzas missing: the very three that contained the whole kernel of the hymn’s message. The result was tragic. ( Ibid, p. 15) 

These judgments about hymn-singing sound so much like the man who wrote them; this is so quintessentially him. 🙂 But I say this lovingling: because I do love and still respect this opinionated chaplain. He is a beloved man. Today, in a church where he served as youth pastor, 50 years ago, people in their 60s who were in his Baptist Youth Fellowship are having a big reunion to celebrate him! He has always been able to tell people how they are going astray because he also cares so much for them. And people love him for his opinionated attention and faithful compassion.

Like Jeremiah of old, the best prophets of our day are those who speak out, and speak strongly, while they love us and our world. Out of intense caring comes intense action. Look for genuine compassion in the loudest voices: this will help us know who to heed and who to forget. Not every loudmouth is loving!

Richard Rohr has written of six characteristics of biblical prophets. He says one is this: [Sixth,] prophets simultaneously announce and denounce. They announce God’s reign of justice and peace and publicly denounce the world’s regimes of injustice and war. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., they hold high the alternatives of nonviolence and disarmament and lay low the obsolete ways of violence and weapons. (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, September 14, 2017)

The Good News, proclaimed, has it’s bad news. We call it all, Gospel, Good News. For the good gets the final word.

So we end with the words of our great Prophet, Jesus, the Messiah, the Saviour. Skim through the middle chapters of Luke. Christ says things like:
You hypocrites! Chapter 12.
Unless you repent, you will all perish. Chapter 13.
You hypocrites! Chapter 13.
Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Ch. 14.

But Jesus also says this, Ch. 15: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.

Jesus: the Shepherd of the sheep, the Good Shepherd of the sheep! We start to get the message that the God who looks like a stern judge, truly cares so much, and loves all of us deeply. God comes after us, looking for us, seeking and saving the lost. 

Along with Psalm 14 we could remember Psalm 23. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me – pursue me – all the days of my life. 

When you hear the words of some prophet of judgment, bearing down on your conscience and your actions, look in that also for the Love that pursues you. The Holy One is chasing you down, 
because we have strayed, yes; 
because we are loved and we belong, yes!

Seeker Sensitive Service

(Psalm 51; Luke 15:1-10)
Sun, Sept 11, 2016 – UBC Digby – J G White

Seeking and finding the lost.  What a theme in our lives.  In the newspapers this past week was the story of a woman I met in hospital.  Hannah, who was injured and left by the side of the road while hitchhiking.  As she sought a new start in life, she ended up with a broken hip, seeking help in the night by waving her hand.  She was found, but her cat now is missing in Deep Brook.  Hannah is in hospital recovering from surgery and can’t go out to find her cat, Daisy.  And then, there are the police, seeking information so they can find the man who threatened and hurt Hannah.  Seeking and finding…

We read together – maybe we prayed – the first part of Psalm 51.  In the midst of the confession and regret and seeking God’s mercy, there is God – also seeking.  But still, You long to enthrone truth throughout my being... (Psalm 51:6a, the Voice)  You desire truth in the inward being… (NRSV)  God longs for good things inside us.  God desires good in our lives. God is a Seeker.  As much as God is hidden from so many so much of the time, God is also looking to reach and touch us.  

We heard from Jesus today two of His parables.  It was said of Jesus that without a parable he told them nothing. (Matthew 13:34) Today’s spiritual little stories are of seeking and finding.  The Parable of the Lost Coin, and the Parable of the Lost Sheep.  In both cases, the lost things are found, and there is much rejoicing!

Frederick Beuchener said: A parable is a small story with a large point.  Most of the ones Jesus told have a kind of sad fun about them…  With parables and jokes both, if you’ve got to have it explained, don’t bother.  (Wishful Thinking, 1973, pp. 66-67)

We find Jesus telling these stories of the lost coin and the lost sheep after he is challenged by some religious experts on the company He keeps. “He even sits down and eats with sinners, and tax collectors!”  Jesus’ answer is these stories… and the story of the lost son, or ‘prodigal’ son.  

Jesus is God, up close and personal.  And this God seeks out those considered farthest from the Kingdom.  Jesus rejoices to spend time with them.  God is a seeking God.  Seeking even those shamed and saddened and shunned in this life.

A couple months ago I saw a comment online that was sort-of about Digby Baptist Church.  A man from somewhere – down in the city, I think – said how disappointed and discouraged he was that Digby Baptist now had a Pastor who was the friend of a pedophile.  

Well, I soon figured out what this was about.  The man giving us a bad review has a daughter married to the son of a friend a mine.  This friend, who is still a ‘facebook friend’ of mine, served time in prison last year for an offence against a child.   But I say that ex-convicts need friends too.  Jesus was with my friend while in prison, and now after; I will remain his friend too.  Jesus reaches into our shame and hurt.

Contemplative activist, Richard Rohr, writes about the basic shame that so many of us develop deep inside ourselves.  He says: Many of us suffer from this primal shame. It hides in the unconscious and is not easily available for healing. Grace has to search it out and turn it into patient goodness instead.

I love this phrase: “Grace has to search it out.”  Think about it.  God’s amazing grace searching out the hardness and hurts deep inside us – for healing.  We get this hint from the end of Psalm 23.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.  Or, as Eugene Peterson translated it: Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life.  Do you ever get that amazing feeling that God and goodness are pursuing you, chasing you down?  

Let me tell you a bit of a story.  The story of a man, a highly esteemed Christian man, still known the world over, though he died, well, November 22, 1963. (Many people remember that day.)  

Anyway, long before, when this man was in university, he had given up on the whole God idea, and did not believe.  But about the time he finished being a student and started working, he felt the relentless pursuit of God.  God was coming after him, seeking him.

This man was looking for joy in his life, and wanting to understand real joy.  He started to believe that we humans experience Joy by being united, connected to some kind of absolute source of joy in the universe.

As time went on, the books he studied, the friends he made, were used by God to close in on him.  Yet he felt that he was being given a choice.  

The man wrote: “I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out.  Or, if you like, that I was wearing some stiff clothing… or even a suit of armour, as if I were a lobster.”  The he says, “ I felt myself being, there and then, given a free choice.”  

The man chose to open up the armour and be free.  He wrote:

You must must picture me alone in that room at [university], night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.  That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me.  In …1929 I gave in and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. (Surprised by Joy, 1955)

Who was this convert? This was C. S. Lewis, coming back to God, as God clearly sought him out.  C. S. Lewis, famed Christian author, known for his tales of Narnia, and books like Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters.  

As Lewis tells his story, in his 1955 book called Surprised By Joy, he tells us that this conversion was to God, but not yet to Jesus and Christianity, really.  But one of the first things he did was start going to worship.  And his attitude was interesting.

As soon as I became a Theist I started attending my parish church on Sundays and my college chapel on weekdays; not because I believed in Christianity… but because I thought one ought to “fly one’s flag” by some unmistakable overt sign.

The interesting thing is he was not inclined to enjoy what he found in church and chapel.  Lewis says he found church a wearisome “get-together.”  He speaks of the “fussy, time-wasting botheration of it all! The bells, the crowds, …the notices, the bustle, the perpetual arranging and organizing.”  Lewis admitted that he always found hymns extremely disagreeable, and of all musical instruments liked the organ least.  

Yet C. S. Lewis went and joined in on Church life, because he had to admit God was God.  And soon after, he did come into Christianity.  It was on a trip to the zoo.  On the trip to it.  Lewis says, “When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.”  

He gives a lot more details of his story that I have skipped.  It is a great testimony about the relentless, loving God who seeks a person.  The goodness and mercy that follow us all the days of our lives.  And how wonderful when they catch up with us in this life and we join Christ!  

So, no wonder that this Christ, our Master today, once called fishermen to become fishers of men and women.  We who join Jesus are to join in on the seeking and pursuing of souls.  

Next Sunday morning a few of us who attended Oasis – our Baptist Convention meeting – will report on that.  Just now let me tell you one great lesson that Dr. Anna Robbins gave us there.  She reminded the crowd of Baptists that we are invited by Christ to be fishers of people. The Church is a fishing vessel.  A working fishing boat.  

So the Church is not a cruise ship, Anna said.  Not a cruise ship!  Not for our enjoyment, not filled with luxuries, if we can afford them.  Not a pleasure cruise, with lots of entertainment.  It is a working vessel where every crew member must have a part.

And the Church is not a warship either, Anna said.  It is a fishing boat, in all weather too.

We sometimes sing of Jesus as the one
Seeking the lost, seeking the lost,
Saving, redeeming at measureless cost.   (Robert Walmsley 1831-1905)

Shall we not also do the same, in our time and place?  Disciples in training for seeking and saving.

In recent decades there has been a trend in some congregations to have on Sunday morning – or whenever – Seeker sensitive services.  Worship that is planned to be very welcoming to visitors and people who are not yet Christians.  Everything is clear and safe and connects with the people who come in: the music, the flow of service, the sermon, the chairs.  

But today, I call “seeker sensitive service” what God does, and we do, day to day.  We seek people.  We are sensitive to people, and to what the Holy Spirit is out there doing.  Don’t wait for ‘seekers’ to show up in the pews on Sundays.  Seek the sheep out in the fields.  We are serving – serving Jesus, and serving the people out there in our lives.  So may we be.  Seekers, sensitive to serve.