Sermon preached at St Stephen's Lewisham
Sunday 23 June 1996
Year A Week 12; Jeremiah 20:10-13; Romans 5: 12-15; St Matthew 10:26-33
When the first pictures came through of the ruined shops and buildings in the Arndale Centre in Manchester as a result of the IRA bomb, my mind flashed back to a painting which I had been looking at a few weeks ago in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
The picture is by Rembrandt and is entitled Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem.
The incident which it portrays was the capture and ransacking of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 586 BC
Jeremiah was one of those people called by God to be a prophet. A prophet in Bible terms, you will remember, is not so much someone who foretells the future (though that may be one of the things which God calls him to do); a prophet is, first and foremost, a speaker-out, someone who lets his voice be heard, and in particular someone who acts as God's mouthpiece when the people of God are straying away from the truth into which God himself has led them, and the righteousness to which he has called them, and have chosen instead to follow what the Bible calls cunningly devised fables and allowed and encouraged amongst themselves every kind of immorality to flourish.
Jeremiah had warned them over and over again that such falling away (apostasy is another word for it) could only lead to disaster. But when, over the course of many months, or perhaps it was years, nothing so very disastrous seemed to happen to them as a result of their faithlessness, Jeremiah became a figure of fun amongst his contemporaries, even his own friends. "I hear so many disparaging me 'Trouble on every side'" he wrote in this morning's first reading. They called him names like "Mr Disaster", "Trouble-on-Every-Side", and the word Jeremiad has even passed into our own language as someone who foretells bad news.
"Let us wait till he makes a mistake, then let us discredit him" his colleagues said.
Well, in the end disaster did strike right at the heart of their civilisation. Rembrandt's picture of Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem shows Jeremiah sadly resting himself on a rock outside the burning city. Below his left elbow there is a book plainly labelled Bible, and near him is a small collection of objects which may represent some of the valuables which had somehow been rescued from the blazing inferno from which and others he were fleeing.
Our Bibles do not mention those objects, but there is an ancient tradition handed down to us by the historian Josephus that Jeremiah was indeed given a number of gifts by one of the Babylonian soldiers who had befriended him during the capture of the city. We can imagine the soldier finding these objects lying around in the street outside the temple, picking them up and giving them to Jeremiah saying "I think these are rather more your line than mine, would you like to have them?" Anyway, however Jeremiah may have come by them, there the objects are in Rembrandt's painting. they include some metal basins, a magnificent shawl, a bottle, and a traveller's satchel.
Let us forget the IRA bombers for a moment and the damage which they have inflicted on the lives of the people of Manchester. Jesus, in today's gospel tells us that we are not to fear those who can only destroy our bodies, but rather to beware of those who have the power to destroy both our bodies and our souls. Let us consider the damage inflicted on the Church of God and society as a whole by those who have presided over them during the past 40 years.
The past 40 years have been marked by a progressive turning away from God in favour of a culture made up of a deadly combination of cunningly devised fables and the instant gratification of people's desires.
All through this time there have been prophets of God who have prophesied to the best of their ability that the doing of such things could only lead to disaster. When during the first few years nothing very much seemed to happen the prophets, as was Jeremiah by his contemporaries, were dismissed as "scaremongers" and "pessimists" and Jeremiads.
Today, 30 Years later people are just beginning to realise that the prophets were speaking the truth.
The City of God is burning down. The Temple of the Lord which so many people trusted in and believed to be inviolable has been taken over by the powers of darkness, and you and I, like Jeremiah in Rembrandt's painting have been left outside the city wondering what we should do next.
Remember the objects in the picture. Some of them may be open to differing interpretations, but about one of them there is no doubt at all - that Bible on which Jeremiah is leaning his elbow as if to prop himself up. It has the word Bible in large letter on it, so there is no doubt what that stands for.
So long as we continue to lean on and depend upon Holy Scripture for the basis of our faith we shan't go terribly far wrong.
Last week Fr Kirk was telling us about all the various attempts which have been made of this period in question to discredit the Bible and its teaching. Where the Bible says "thou shalt not" our would-be leaders have told us "Why not? Have a go!"; where it says "Love God and your neighbour" they have told us that loving our neighbour is really what life is all about; where Scripture says quite unmistakably that there is no other name by which we may be saved than that of Jesus Christ, these clever-clogs have been urging us to hold multi-faith services and implying that all faiths are equally true and people should choose the one that suits them best.
On the fundamental importance of believing what the Bible has to teach us, those people we have been thinking about this morning, Jesus, St Paul, Jeremiah and Rembrandt had no doubt at all; any more than the millions of other who have safeguarded the "faith once delivered to the saints" over the years. If we don't carry the Bible in our emergency escape kit we shall soon lose our way.
About those other items which Jeremiah has with him in the picture, we may hold different views as to what they symbolise. Here, for what they are worth are my suggestions.
The temple vessels suggest to me the Sacraments. In the services of the temple, vessels nearly always had something to do with either purification or sacrifice. whatever our understanding of the two great sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion it seems pretty clear that Jesus intended us at the very least to baptise people in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and to feed them on the spiritual food of his Body and Blood in Holy Communion. We shall again not go far wrong if we keep those two commandments which he has given us - baptize all nations, do this in remembrance of me.
The precious shawl or robe, woven without a seam, suggests to me that equally valuable commodity called truth.
Before a priest or a prophet presumed to speak in the Name of the Lord he would put on the ephod or robe or shawl, which signified that what he was saying whilst wearing it came not from himself but from the Lord.
We likewise must not be shy of wearing the prophet's robe when what we are saying comes "from the Lord", nor of taking it off when we are expressing our own personal opinions and judgements. St Paul was very careful always to do this. "This I have from the Lord", he says in one place; "This is my own personal view" he says in another.
The flask which Jeremiah has with him suggests something in which oil is to be kept. Oil is the substance used in the Bible to mark out particular people or particular places as being committed or hallowed to God's service. We anoint the sick because they are special; we anoint the newly baptized and confirmed to mark the fact that God has chosen them out of all people to be his faithful soldiers and servants to the end of their lives; and those who receive anointing signify that they are committed to the service of God here on earth and afterwards in Heaven.
The last object is Jeremiah's traveller's satchel. It serves to remind us that we are "strangers and pilgrims" in this world, and therefore we shall not always see things in the same way that the world sees them.
Of course it is of the greatest importance that we Christians should behave ourselves in a manner which befits foreigners and strangers; but by the same token we must beware of becoming too "at home" in this world, of putting down too many roots here, still less of starting to think and behave as the world does.
Jeremiah's satchel in Rembrandt's picture isn't a suitcase, still less a cabin trunk. Just an overnight bag, large enough to contain a pair of pyjamas and a toothbrush so to speak and not much else.
Yes, of course we should accept with thankful hearts all the good things in this life which God offers us. No, we should not adopt the world and its ways for, as St James said, when it comes to the crunch, and choosing between the two, friendship with the world means enmity with God.
The picture of Jeremiah presented itself to me again the next day in the Cathedral during that splendid confirmation where the nave was filled to overcrowding and some 40 candidates from our parishes turned to the Lord, confessed their faith and repented of their sins and were baptised and confirmed.
Looking down on the assembled company one realised that in one sense, of course, we are "only a tiny minority" even though the nave was full. But let's face it, like Jeremiah, we are refugees for the truth's sake and many people are simply not prepared to pay the price of going into exile.
On the other hand we know, don't we, that we've got all those things necessary for such a journey.
We have the Scriptures from which the Word of God is proclaimed every time we meet together for worship. We have the sacraments which are administered "decently and in order". We have the truth which is taught and explained from the pulpit and in the various publications which are given us for our learning; we have the oil of commitment to God and to each other, expressed in all those people prepared to give up their Sunday afternoon to go and support their fellow Christians, many of whom they had never met before; and each of us has his own travelling satchel of personal, intimate belongings which we carry with us on our pilgrimage. Not much admittedly. "A poor thing but mine own".
And finally we have something which doesn't appear in Rembrandt's picture because he is depicting Jeremiah at the very start of his exile journey out of the ruined city into the wilderness beyond; it's something which we only discover when we've travelled a certain distance down the road along which God is leading us.
That "something" is each other. I mean our fellow-pilgrims. There are those from St Stephen's of course whom we have met up with already; but then there are events like the confirmation in the Cathedral and the Pilgrimages to Walsingham and Glastonbury where we find that there are so many thousands more "like us".
But then, as we progress still further we become aware that all the people whom we meet on earth are only a tiny fraction of the whole Communion of Saints, the living and the dead who are, like us, on their way from the City of Destruction to that Eternal City "whose maker and builder is God".
Let Jeremiah have the last word: looking back on that journey which he and others had made which must have seemed at the start that surely the bottom had dropped out of everything that is worthwhile in their lives, he was able, nonetheless, in the end to say "the people who escaped the sword found grace in the wilderness."
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