Blessing and Trust in Uncertain Times – a Sermon preached by Graham Low at St Mary’s on 17 February 2019 (The Third Sunday Before Lent – Proper 2)
In recent weeks we have felt blessed by the artistic and creative gifts that have brought us our new altar frontal and vestments. Blessing is a key part of our worship, indeed it is at the heart of sacramental life, and is a theme which occurs in three of today’s readings. When we hear or use the word blessing, or blessed, we know that it can convey quite a rich variety of positive meaning. It may be a declaration of God’s power, or God’s benediction, or God’s favour. It may be an invocation of that power. It can be about asking for the prospering influence of God upon almost anything. More generally it can describe anything that can make us happy or prosperous: a boon, something that is adored or adorable.We shall hear the word used directly or implicitly at several significant points later in this service.
In our first reading we heard the words “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord”. Out of context this is a richly positive statement. But the book of the prophet Jeremiah contains rather little that can be called a blessing. It is about a period of about 40 years, ending with the fall of Jerusalem, with much loss of life and the departure of most of the survivors, on foot to a painful exile in Babylon. Jeremiah remains behind with some of the poorest of the survivors, who turn against God andbegin to look to Egypt for help. The chapters around today’s reading make somewhat confusing reading. Sometimes God positively seems intent on restoring, on blessing, Israel. And suddenly God appears to tell Jeremiah to stop praying for the people because he has closed his ears to the people. Even if Moses were to pray for the people, they willgo to their destruction. Poor Jeremiah oscillates between praise, prayer and lament.
And so Jeremiah’s words “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord” are a challenge from God: they are not just pleasant and comforting words in the middle of disaster. The key word here is trust. Can and will Jeremiah and anyone else actually trust in the Lord? The dilemma for Jeremiah is:in whom, or in what do the people place their trust? One tempting answer may be to trust in mere mortals: though the Babylonian mortals have power to be violently destructive, at least the Egyptian mortals have formed an army, which might be a better option than God whose mortal army has been routed. But this would bring them a curse beyond all curses. Yet the alternative “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord” seems utterly hopeless.
But Jeremiah does not lose faith in God: though he has huge doubts, he has a vigorous and strikingly honest and open dialogue with God. Later in Chapter 17 we read stubborn but trusting words of Jeremiah to God: “Save me and I shall be saved, for you are my praise. I have not run away from being a shepherd in your service. Do not become a terror to me; you are my refuge in the day of disaster”. These words of profound trust are those that he puts to the people in their darkest hour.
This passage has reminded me about various vicarage gardens that I have inadequately tended over the years. Each has had some rather stunted bushes growing in the shadows of large conifers. In dry weather they have wilted and gone yellow or brown. The gardens have not been quite like the wildernesses of Jeremiah but these bushes have never thrived because they have lacked light, water and nutrients. Jeremiah reminds us that our lives require light, water and nutrients for us to grow and thrive. And we need to have reserves for times of spiritual and emotional, as well as physical drought: we need wells of enrichment for all of these situations. We cannot place all our trust on human beings: as God says to Jeremiah, the heart is devious above all else – perverse and beyond understanding. Placing all our trust on human beings will have the same effect as on the bushes in my various gardens: we may survive but we shall not thrive until we are fed with the living stream that comes from God.
Jeremiah’s image reminds us of the importance of developing deep roots reaching into the resources that we need in times of disquiet, of instability, of famine, and when faith seems distant or absent. These deep roots are formed by trust in God, so that we may live and grow, whatever our lives may bring to us. Their formation is indeed a blessing.
At first sight the beatitudes mentioned in three of our four readings appear to be quite different. For Jeremiah “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord”; for the psalmist “Happy are those whose delight is in the law of the Lord”: for Luke “Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the persecuted, the grieving…”. But each states the affirmation: blessed are those who live in dependence on God rather that in dependence in self. Put another way, those who live under God’s reign, those who trust God, are to be blessed.
I mentioned earlier that nowadays blessedness is often equated with happiness. But it is clear that biblical understandings of happiness contrast greatly with contemporary understandings. There is a great deal of current interest in what happiness is and how it may be achieved – just look at the vast number of books now available on this subject. The contemporary view is essentially self-centred rather than God-centred. As we have seen this morning, the biblical view is that happiness comes about through entrusting one’s life to God, and depending upon God as the resource for facing the worst that life may bring us. It is about seeking to follow what we can of the patterns of thought and behaviour that God puts before us. Happiness is not a reward, but the result of choosing to follow God, to live for God. There is a paradox here. Choosing to live for God can invite opposition and suffering as Jeremiah, the Psalmist and the Evangelist knew so well. Mark is clear in stating that to lose one’s self in this way is to find one’s life.
We see today the chaos that different views on bringing about the wellbeing, or, we could say, the happiness, or the joy of our country, has brought. Assertive self-seeking has greatly eroded our trust in our institutions. Today’s readings are a sharp antidote to this. Yes, present strife and suffering are very real but, as Paul points out, belief in the resurrection is to entrust ourselves to God, now and always. This trust is the basis of the blessedness or the happiness, or the joy of which our readings speak. Today’s collect puts this so well that I end by reading it to you again.
who alone can bring order
to the unruly wills and passions of sinful humanity:
give your people grace
so to love what you command
and to desire what you promise,
that, among the many changes of this world,
our hearts may surely there be fixed
where true joys are to be found;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.