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Jeremiah 23.23-29, Psalm 82, Hebrews 11.29-12.2, Luke 12.49-56
“There may be trouble ahead,” says the old song, but in truth it’s not a question of “may be”. We can bet on it that at some point in our lives there will be trouble. Collectively or individually we are bound to hit hard times and challenges. They might take the form of illness or loss, or they might be national or international crises, like the looming challenge of climate change, which threatens to make large parts of the world uninhabitable. No one is immune from trouble. Most people, though – and I include myself in this – prefer to ignore the problems until they hit us, by which time it is often too late to do anything much about them.
If you’re a fan of the Hitchikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, you might remember the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, who features in it, a creature described as so mind-bogglingly stupid that it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you. So all you need to do to protect yourself from it, despite it being very ravenous, is to wrap a towel round your head. You can’t see it, so it can’t see you. Problem solved.
The Bugblatter Beast doesn’t exist outside the world of fiction – I hope - but its way of thinking certainly does. We can all behave like this. Seeing and acknowledging a problem makes it real to us, and we very often think that it is better to turn a blind eye and hope it goes away by itself. That’s what the prophet Jeremiah was complaining about in our first reading. He was called by God to speak to the people of Jerusalem at a time when there was definitely trouble ahead. The Babylonian army was advancing on the city, and it was obvious – if you didn’t have your head wrapped in a towel – that things weren’t going to turn out well.
But the people of Jerusalem preferred not to think about that, and most of their prophets were happy to reinforce their blindness. “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!” they said – in the ancient world the gods were often thought to speak through dreams. But their dreams, said Jeremiah, were no more than “the deceit of their own heart”. It would all be fine, they said. God would stop anything bad happening to them.
God called Jeremiah to break through this wall of denial. His words would be “like fire…and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces” . They would be just as vulnerable to the looming destruction as the nations round about them, he said, and they’d better wake up and prepare themselves for what was to come. You can imagine how well that went down. They preferred the dreams that comforted to the reality that challenged them, just as most of us would.
Jesus had an equally tough message to deliver to his disciples. They saw his popularity with the crowds. They heard his wisdom. They felt great when they were with him, as if they could do anything. Surely they were on a one way trip to glory. Jesus’ opponents would fall like dominoes as God swept him onto the throne of Israel! Then everything would be perfect. The lion would lie down with the lamb, swords would be beaten into ploughshares and best of all, they would get ringside seats for the whole thing.
The early Christian audience for which Luke wrote his Gospel probably nurtured the same sort of hope of easy triumph. When following Christ caused them to be rejected by their families or put them at risk of persecution , they thought they must be doing something wrong. Why wasn’t it all working out the way they thought it should?
That’s why Luke reminds them of Jesus’ words. God was in control, love would win in the end, but there wasn’t going to be a shortcut to glory. The immediate future, which was the bit they would have to deal with, would contain sadness, loss and conflict. It was inevitable if they were challenging injustice. They just didn’t want to see that inevitable reality.
And who can blame them? They were people like us. One day we’ll look back and see with 20/20 vision the threats we are blind to today, like the threat of climate change, or the warping effects of inequality – things we could do something about, but rarely take as seriously as we need to. Deep down we know they matter, but most of the time we act as if they don’t. One day we, or the generations that come after us, will ask how we could have missed their importance, why we didn’t act sooner.
Jesus asks his disciples “why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” and we might ask ourselves the same question. But beating ourselves up for not having our eyes open won’t do any good. Instead, we need to ask ourselves what it is that makes us keep them closed. Why do we so often put off dealing with things that really need our attention.
There are probably as many answers to that question as there are people asking it. It may be that we are just plain lazy. Acknowledging a problem means doing something about it, and that means work. But my experience is that few people are really genuinely idle. In fact it can take as much, if not more, work to avoid a problem than to fix it. We drink, eat or work to excess, we engage in risky behaviours, we worry about things that don’t matter, all to distract us from what we really need to do. The real problem isn’t laziness, it is fear. We are afraid we won’t be smart enough or brave enough to do the things we need to do, afraid that we’ll find we have bitten off more than we can chew, afraid that we are in over our heads and drowning, with no one to come to our aid.
But Jesus had said it would be like this, that life would often feel as if it was a mess. His own life had ended in humiliation on a cross – that is the baptism he talks about at the beginning of the passage. He’s going to drown in the deep waters of death. But that wouldn’t be the end, however final it appeared. And it wouldn’t be a sign that he had been abandoned or that he had done wrong. God would be with him in the squalor of the cross, and the darkness of death, and would bring him through it to new life, and if God could be with him in these terrible places, he could be with anyone, anywhere. “Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” God had said to Jeremiah. “Do I not fill heaven and earth?”
What do we need in order to face up to the challenges that confront us, the ones we work so hard to avoid seeing and acknowledging? Just the same as Jesus needed. We need to know that God is with us, that we are not alone, that we are held safely whether things seem to be going well or disastrously, that we can’t fall out of God’s hands, in life or in death. Knowing that gives us the courage to deal with whatever comes our way, to look at what we are most afraid of square in the face, secure in the knowledge that it cannot destroy what God has created and redeemed in us.
Ultimately it’s a matter of trust, which is really what the Bible means when it uses the word “faith”. To many people faith is what you believe, intellectually, in your heads – that list of propositions we find in the creed, but the original Greek word we translate as faith really means trust, which is quite different. Trust is far more active, something you do when you put your life into another’s hand. It’s the commitment couples make here at the chancel steps when they marry each other. It’s what an adult child does when they phone their parents in the middle of the night because they are in trouble, knowing they’ll get the help they need. It’s what you do when you turn up on a friend’s doorstep, maybe after years, knowing that they will be glad to see you, and won’t mind you dropping in, even if the house is a mess and there’s nothing to eat. That is trust, and it is a vital part of our emotional and spiritual health.
Trust creates a safe space to grow and to change. If we believe that someone loves us deeply and strongly enough, we can make demands on them , try things out , get things wrong, take the risks we need to take. We know that they will stick with us. But it’s a chicken and egg situation. Often we need to take the risk in order to discover and develop the trust in the first place.
It is just the same with God. Our trust in him grows when we live our faith, when we practice forgiveness, when we are generous rather than anxiously hoarding what we have, when we answer God’s call to serve, when we love those who will never be able to repay that love, and let ourselves be loved by them too, when we face the things in our lives which need sorting out. All these things push us out into the deep waters with God, but through them we learn that, as the Bible says, “underneath are the everlasting arms” of God’s love. (Deuteronomy 33.27, NIV translation)
I don’t know what your challenge is today – it may be deeply personal, something that is unique to you, or it may be a common challenge we must face together, but whatever it is, it is safe to open our eyes and look at it, because we do so in the company of God, from whom nothing is hidden, and whom nothing can defeat.