Again, apologies. Another late addition to our site! I led the first service of the New Year on January 3rd. Here is my homily.
A Prayer for our times:
We may not all be gathered in the same building, but at this time, when we need each other so much, we are invited to worship together, from where we are – knowing that God can hear us all and can blend even distant voices into one song of worship.”
Jeremiah 31:7-14 ;
Psalm 84 ;
Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a ;
I have never been a big celebrator of New Year – in fact, Andrew and I usually stay in, have a nice meal, and watch a bit of TV, and go to bed at our usual time. So for us, New Years Eve 2020 was no different to many others; we shared a good meal, we drank a glass of wine, and we watched one of our favourite current affairs programmes, “The Last Leg “ – it is an irreverent, “sideways look” at the news, and there is always a “Last Leg of the Year” programme, looking back at the year just gone. This is our “go to” NYE viewing, just as Jools Holland’s Hootenany is the required viewing for many others. This year the programme started with an apology: in their last show of 2019 the presenters had all sung together, that 2020 was “going to be alright”… And then, said Adam Hills, the main presenter, look what happened.
We have all had a strange and different year; for the majority of people it has been full of difficulty – people have lost their jobs, been unable to feed their family, many have died, isolated from their loved ones; the incidence of young people with mental health problems has rocketed; education has been disrupted; uncertainty has ruled supreme. We have felt disconnected, insecure, threatened, displaced.
All of these emotions, and more, were being suffered by the Israelites to whom Jeremiah gave his prophecy. They had been taken from their familiar places and forced into exile; they had lost contact with their loved ones, they had been separated from everything they knew and were far from home, living alien lives. And from this strange and unfamiliar setting, Jeremiah – part of the exile himself – spoke words of hope and of a heartfelt longing. We heard his prophecy: with weeping they shall come and with consolation I will lead them back. As a broken, weeping disparate group of people, the children of Israel will return to their Promised Land, and God will give them comfort.
The Psalmist also echoes this yearning hope and trust that God will bring comfort, with the words we read: Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs…and then...Happy are those who put their trust in you
Both the Psalmist and the Prophet are speaking, not as someone outside the desolation, and the exile, and the discomfort, but rather as one caught up in it, suffering with those to whom they speak. But they speak not of the gloomy situation in which they find themselves, but rather of God’s future when those who weep will be comforted, and there will be no more tears. They encourage their listeners to be confident in God’s promises; to take heart, because God is.
God is what he is.
The two OT readings are full of hope and a belief in God’s goodness and mercy; of God’s plans of comfort for his people. But the Gospel reading is less endearing, less comforting. After all, it is rare that any retelling of the Christmas story includes what happened after the Wise Men “went home by another way”, having been warned not to return to Herod. We stop the story there: the visitors have been, the gifts have been given, and all is well. We do not like to think of what happened next – the anger and rage of Herod that led to the death of many young children, the parents weeping as they saw their young ones slaughtered, the holy family fleeing to a new life of insecurity in a strange land- refugees from a desperate situation. We don’t like it because we can’t neatly explain it away: Jesus comes to bring light to the world, and then this happens? Why was Jesus saved and not the tens (or even hundreds) of other babies? If God could save one child, couldn’t he have saved the others?
It’s the enduring question that has been asked no doubt from the beginning of human thought: if God is so great why does evil exist? Why do people get cancer, or MS, or motor neurone disease? Why do the bad people flourish and the good do not? Why does war happen? Why does Covid – or any other fatal disease – happen? Why did the person I love die? If God is so loving and powerful, then WHY?!
And I am unable to give any real answer. I can only say God is what he is.
What this means is that we are confined by our finite minds. We can only imagine things in a tiny circle of our own experiences; our understanding of God and his ways is confined by what we can grasp and try to put into words – which are limiting.
The Baptist preacher David Henderson writes: Be confident. Give God time to work. Most of us have learned by now that God’s timing is not the same as ours. The Bible says “one day is as a thousand years in the eyes of the Lord.” God takes His time doing His work because He has a linear view of time. He looks at the thousands of years of history and looks into the future for thousands of years and sees time in the BIG picture. As a child we would go annually to see the Christmas parade on Main Street in our hometown. But I could never see quite as far as I wanted to know everything that was coming our way. I always wished I could climb up on top of one of the buildings so I could see it all---everything that was coming and everything that had passed. This describes God’s view.
A man cried out to God and asked God, “what’s a million years to you?” And God said “a minute.” Then the man asked, “Well, what’s a million dollars to you?” And God said “a penny.” Then the man asked, “God can I have a penny?” And God said, “Sure, in a minute.” Stay confident, God is at work.
The Herods of this world – be they diseases, viruses, grief, evil, hatred, homophobia, racism, whatever – the Herods of this world will NOT prevail. God with us, Emmanuel, has promised us that. His prophets shouted these words to the exiled people, the Psalmist wept this even in the midst of his sorrows, Joseph and Mary knew this as they were forced to flee at dead of night into exile and then live in a strange and foreign land, unsure of the future.
We too have been displaced; we too are living in a place where our future is unsure. And we too are being asked to trust God, to believe that his view of this pandemic – and all else that is wrong and hurting in this world – is bigger than ours, and that all things will work together for good, that – as the Psalmist said - No good thing will the Lord withhold from those who walk with integrity. It’s just that we want those good things in a human minute, and God will give them in a God minute.
And isn’t that the difficult thing? It doesn’t seem very helpful for me (or anyone else) to say “Yes, it will all be OK – but we don’t know when. So your life may be absolutely terrible at the moment, but you know, it will be all right in the end”
It’s not helpful because we are hurting NOW; we are alone NOW; we feel far from God NOW and what bogging use is it to be told that everything will be rosy in some vague indeterminate time in the future? How can it help to be told to be confident in God’s plan?
So, if you are feeling angry at God, or far from him, or just plain pissed off at him, that is OK. It is acceptable not to feel encouraged, or secure, or uplifted when we read these words from Jeremiah. Because we are what we are. And God understands and accepts us and our angry hurting words, because he is what he is.
And his promises are what they are also. You may not want to hear this right now but in Ephesians Paul reminds us what God has already given to us: We have been blessed, chosen, adopted, redeemed, forgiven; we are loved lavishly and unconditionally, shown God’s will, given an inheritance... and all this is sealed with the mark of the Holy Spirit. He promised, it is done; because God is what he is. We can rely on him.
So if during this past year your trust in God has been shaken, take heart. Think about the words spoken by Jeremiah, and addressed to a people struggling and insecure, and consider how they might speak to you? But at the same time, don’t be afraid to rage at God, to tell him exactly what you think of him at this moment, to weep, to swear, to stand wordless before him. Because he KNOWS. He knows what you feel; he knows who you are; he knows. And he loves you. No exceptions.
And if during this past year, you have felt God near, and your trust in him has grown, then think about how your words and attitude can be a voice like Jeremiah’s, speaking to the hurting displaced people of this world of deep longing and a daring hope for a better future.
And so we pray: Eternal and infinite Lord
Bring deep rest to those exhausted and spent. Bring deep solace to those bearing loss upon loss. Bring deep purpose to those plodding on in unceremonious conscientiousness. Bring deep release to those glad to see the end of 2020. Bring deep wisdom to those leading and governing. Bring to us all deep trust in what is possible in partnership with You. For it is Your pleasure to help, and for this we thank You, Gracious God