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Beware the false optimism which comes from our pulpits, says Ian Stackhouse
I have a sense that there are a lot of Jeremiahs out there. The fact that they are often dismissed as old miseries, pessimists, incorrigible melancholics, means they tend not to surface too much. Indeed, some of them end up becoming just that: grumpy old men. But every once in a while, amidst the clichés of modern-day discourse, you will hear them speak, and when they do it is life giving.
Like Jesus, who was once likened to Jeremiah, their words are both challenging and hopeful, sometimes in the same sentence. In contrast to the bromides of so many who hold public office, they bring a gravitas which is compelling even as it is disturbing.
I write now because I believe the world desperately needs some Jeremiahs. Such is the crisis the globe is facing, media soundbites will not do anymore, of whatever political agenda, nor false optimism from the pulpit. What we need instead are people who have wrestled in presence of God, who weep as they write their sermons, and who are willing to embody what they say, no matter how costly it proves to be.
There are many aspects of Jeremiah's character which we should draw comfort and inspiration from. One of them was his courage.
It’s one of those strange ironies that the scene of our greatest triumphs can so often become the cause of our undoing. The old adage is true: we are never more vulnerable than when we are winning.
Such was the case with the temple in Jerusalem. About 150 years before Jeremiah, there had been a most stunning victory. Surrounded by the Assyrians, King Hezekiah had cried out to the Lord, and by the morning, without having to lift a finger, the army of Sennacherib lay strewn on the ground (Isaiah 36-37). By any standard, it was a miracle, and it strengthened the belief that God was indeed among his people. Indeed, the victory became something of a dogma: a conviction that the temple was inviolable.
Soon enough the dogma developed into a mantra. We have a reference to it in Jeremiah 7:4 "The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord." But the reason its on the lips of Jeremiah as a kind of parody is because the inviolability of the temple had become a presumption. The line between faith and presumption is a very thin one. Even those with the best intentions can be guilty of it. Instead of inspiring holiness, which is what it should do, the belief that the temple would never fall had fostered moral complacency among the people. The logic goes something like this: if God can always be relied upon to protect his house, what does it matter how we live? God will forgive. That’s his job.
And so it was that the house of prayer became a den of iniquity. On the surface everything looked good. Religion was never more popular. Josiah’s reforms were starting to put a shine on things. But underneath it was corrupt. Worship and ethics had become so detached that the temple was nothing more than a smokescreen for all kinds of dubious activities.
Passivity in the face of injustice was not only cowardice but complicity in the crime
It takes a courageous person to call this out. What we are dealing with here is not just individual sin but a religious ideology that hides systemic evil. To attack this is to strike at the very heart of the nation. It is to risk not only one’s social standing but one’s very life. But courage is what Jeremiah possessed in abundance. His temple of the Lord sermon (7:1-15) is about as gutsy a message as you will ever hear. Undaunted by the inevitable anger that his message would undoubtedly arouse, he sets up his pulpit at the place where he will get a maximum hearing.
A modern example
When I think of Jeremiah I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. From the very beginning he saw through the deception of Nazism, called out the hubris of the Fuhrer, and lacerated the German Christians for colluding with volk nationalism. In actual fact, his strongest invective was reserved for the Pietists. Apostasy he could cope with. That was easy to denounce. What was far worse, as far as Bonhoeffer was concerned, was the silence of well-intentioned Christians. Passivity in the face of injustice was not only cowardice but complicity in the crime.
At the same time as I think of Bonhoeffer, I also think of his friend George Bell, Bishop of Chichester. Placed alongside the German martyr, Bell doesn’t cut a particularly impressive figure at all (and recent allegations, posthumously made, and poorly dealt with, will forever, alas, leave a question mark over him). In many ways, however, he was braver than his young friend, for it was Bell, in his role as a bishop in the House of Lords, who was the first person to make the distinction between the evils of Nazism and the suffering of the German people. According to his most recent biographer, it was this important but unpopular demarcation, as well as his condemnation of the government’s policy of blanket bombing, that explains why Bell never became Archbishop of Canterbury after the war. His ‘unpatriotic’ stance was not well received by the Westminster establishment, even if it was praised elsewhere as an instance of profound humanitarianism.
Being Jeremiah, then, is to possess immense courage. Being Jeremiah means knowing the difference between cheap grace and costly grace. Cheap grace, as Bonhoeffer pointed out in The Cost of Discipleship, is "the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession." As a form of religion it is very convenient and very popular. Costly grace, on the other hand, "is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him."
Being Jeremiah means rising above the prevailing ideologies of the day and having the freedom to say the emperors got no clothes. This is not easy when national ideologies are buttressed by media propaganda. Dissent ends up branded as treason. But a true prophet will not be deterred by that. More pressing for them is the urgency of exposing the lies, challenging shibboleths and reminding those in power that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." For Jeremiah you only need to walk among the ruins of Shiloh to see that is the case.
Ian Stackhouse has been the Senior Minister of Millmead (Guilford Baptist Church) since 2004 and has been in pastoral ministry overall for nearly thirty years. He is married to Susanna and they have four sons who are at various stages of young adult life. Ian has thus far authored four books – The Gospel-Driven Church being his PhD thesis – and has contributed various other chapters and articles. As part of leading Millmead, he has occasion to travel in the UK and overseas, ministering in churches, seminaries, conferences and retreats.
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