Rev Dr Craig Gardner of South Wales Baptist College was guest preacher on July 7th
Where do you come from?
Jeremiah 1:1-8, Matthew 28:16-20
Where do you come from? That’s a rhetorical question for now but it’s one that can either be an invitation to a congenial conversation or increasingly for many people in recent days it might be received as a threatening interrogatory.
If I overhear another Northern Ireland accent in an airport or on a train (What? You thought I was from Ponty?) I might begin such an enquiry.
‘Whereabouts in Ireland are you from’, say I?
‘Me?’ they ask. ‘I’m from Banbridge town in the Country Down.’
‘Really’ , I say, following a pattern of Irish conversation familiar since before the famine, ‘Do you happen to know Mary Williams, she’s a teacher there?
‘Mary Williams’, they ask back, ‘sure she’s my third cousin twice removed… I had tea with her last week.’
It’s a small world where I come from. And questions to strangers that ask ‘where are you from’ especially when you are away from home are rarely nowadays seen as malicious.
Of course there was a time not so long ago when that wasn’t true.
By asking ‘Where do you come from’ and gaining an honest reply anyone who was local could usually tell if you were Protestant or Catholic. You were either ‘in’ or ‘out’ of favour with the person who began the conversation. Where you came from mattered … it mattered a lot. And that’s the sort of conversation that has been reported as sadly much more common in the last few days –the one that uses where you come from to determine if you’re welcome here or not.
Who can tell whether being in or out of Europe will yet be a good thing, It doesn’t matter to me today how anyone voted But what ought to be of concern is the rise of questions that begin ‘Where are you from?’
Because these new questions are not initiated to discover if you have a common acquaintance through your aunty Mary.
No, these questions are now being asked to establish if you are an immigrant, if you are a now unwelcome arrival to these shores. And if it so established, then it is often then accompanied with threats, abuse or violence.
It’s nothing new. In my lifetime people liberally displayed signs in shop windows and at B & B’s ‘No blacks, No Irish, No dogs.’
It’s not always a big step from such prejudice to violence and for pretty obvious reasons I hope it’s one that Wales resists and opposes.
Whatever your vote in the referendum I would hope that as followers of Jesus Who was once himself a refugee We would not want to descend to such judgments or behaviour.
The point I want to make however is that where you come from can be very important.
It is so in the Bible.
Jesus is known as Jesus of Nazareth – for a reason. Paul was originally known as Saul of Tarsus – for a reason. Amos was one of the shepherds at Tekoa – and was known as such for a reason.
Where you come from often matters in the bible. Maybe not as much as where you going to … But it is important all the same. And so the book of Jeremiah begins with the words: ‘The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, one of the priests at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin.’
Not anything particularly special, It’s not too dissimilar to how other books of the prophets begin.
But – you knew there was a ‘but’ coming! – it says Jeremiah is from Anathoth.
Not a well-known place, It’s hardly Jerusalem or Jericho
But for all we might not have heard that much of Anathoth it has some history in the story of Israel.
Where Jeremiah comes from is important. Anathoth is the place where the priest Abiathar is banished by King Solomon (1 Kings 2.26) for not supporting Solomon’s claim to the throne.
It is a place to exile dissents not quite a gulag in Siberia but exile for a rebel none the less.
Here in Anathoth, a rural village, away from the urban power base of Jerusalem and all that goes wrong there, as king after king fail to rule in the ways of Moses.
Here in Anathoth, such things are not forgotten, a memory of God, a story of God, a covenant with God is passed on from generation to generation.
And now 400 hundred years later, Jeremiah comes to Jerusalem from Anathoth carrying the word of the Lord and the radical attitude of the prophets that’s been in the village for 400 years.
If that sounds ridiculous I can take you villages in Ireland that supported one side or another 400 years ago And the memory and suspicion still runs strong.
This is the marching season where Protestants go a little crazy about a battel found in 1690.
So 400 years of fermentation out in Anathoth and in comes Jeremiah from the exiled margins, to the corridors of power.
God raises up a new prophet, known by God, appointed by God, deliberately chosen by God from Anathoth where he has been shaped by the enduring spirituality of his home town even before he was born.
I think we see here a wonderful example of the patience of God? Of God’s timing.
Oh how we will need patience in the coming days and months. However we voted and whatever pans out in the country goodness knows it can’t keep going at the pace we’ve had this past week.
But we will need patience and perseverance in the country, but in the church above all, so we can show the nation what it is to walk with difference but in love. So we can act with heavenly patience.
What there is no doubt about, is that once again in scripture we see that God has a plan and a purpose and once again it involves God’s people. Not just in where they come from but in where they’re going too.
God has a habit of calling men and women into his purposes, from where they are to where heaven calls them inviting them to participate into heaven’s story.
And where we might live our lives in the context of one life span – three score years and ten or maybe eighty or ninety now –
God works patiently, patiently persevering with the plan over centuries.
Sometimes the story comes from just one particular place like at Anathtoth (or maybe in Pontypridd) and sometimes it seems to have gone quiet and then back it comes.
Now it’s time for these, the descendants of Abiathar to re-enter the story to answer the call and continue their purpose and Jeremiah is the one appointed to take centre stage.
What we see here is a Bible that reveals a God who is always interrupting human lives, calling them to something that was never in their sights, not in their plans or even their imaginations.
I sometimes say that Jesus was both the best and the worst thing to ever happen to me.
Worst because until then my life was going on just fine. Good prospects. Upwardly mobile. No need to worry too much about others, and certainly not do crazy things like forgive those who harm you and love your enemies.
And all the good life went belly up and even more so when I was called to ministry.
Now for sure I wouldn’t swap all that for now, for all I had to lose I had a life to gain and Jesus is the best thing to ever happen to me. But the truth in all of this folks is that for Christians our lives are not our own. God sees in us more than our personal projects, our career goals, and writing our own life story.
For sure God will use our deepest desires, the longings in our heart, our natural talents and gifts and uses them to help us hear heaven speak and do God’s will.
But each of us as individuals, and indeed as a fellowship, must listen for the summons, discern the mind of Christ for us, we must hear the specific call from God. Wherever we are from God is calling us to something to somewhere and to someone. Vocation is not for ministers and missionaries for God comes to call on each of us no matter where we’re from.
Our lives will find themselves in constant reference to the one who alone is sovereign.
Look at Jeremiah: he has no ambition to be a prophet.
Unlike most young people who are always saying they are old enough for whatever it is they want to watch, or wherever it is they want to go, who-ever it is they want to hang out with.
Unlike most young people who want to grow up so fast these days Jeremiah says ‘God, I’m too young for this. I am only a child.’
But age is not a deciding factor when it comes to the call of God.
Some of you listening might think you’re too young for God to bother to give you a task, well remember Samuel and Timothy, to whom Paul says ‘Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are too young.’ And remember Jeremiah!
Some of you listening are thinking to yourself, too young? I Wish! If only! I’m far too old for that.
Really? Does God not interrupt a perfectly good retirement with Abraham and Sarah! Not just to call them into something new but to call to be parents. Age is no deciding factor.
Some of you are thinking its ok, I’m neither old or young, but in the middle, hidden in the busy masses, with lots of things already going on God’s hardy going to be calling me. Well maybe so: but you know, that how you make God laugh, is to tell your plans to heaven.
Really it doesn’t matter how old or young you are.
How rich or poor. How smart you are, or how confident or good looking or well-connected, or anything else.
If you are following Jesus then there has already been a call upon your life.
And if you’re not, you have to kind of wonder why you ended up in this Church, on this morning, with me taking about this text. Might this not be the call itself? Wherever you’re from, Come and follow Jesus because Jesus follows Jeremiah picks up his mantle carries on his calling to be a prophet to the nations, to bring God to the world.
We who decide to follow Jesus, we share in his prophetic ministry:
The church is called, just as Jeremiah was and just as Jesus was to be prophets to the nations to bring God to the world.
In these days we need to recover what it is to be truly prophetic communities. Fellowships engaged with God and the world supporting one another in how we bring the purposes of God and the blessings of the Kingdom to the world.
And so to each one of us, and to every church the word of God says to us as to Jeremiah:
I put words in your mouth you must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you to.
It is not so much about where you’re from, although that’s still important Jeremiah was formed not only in his mother but also in the womb of Anathoth so where you come from has its place.
But it’s more about where God is taking us. You and me and us as a community of prophets.
Is it just across the street to our neighbour? Into our workplace? Or to our place of recreation?
Maybe it’s further afield, maybe its half way across the world?
Would it be nice if God’s answer here was the Stade de Lyon on Wednesday night! God please send me there – but more seriously, near or far, where might we be sent to say whatever it is God commands of us?
And to each one of us here, where-ever we are from and where-ever we are being sent, God says to us at the sending, Do not be afraid, for I am with you and I will rescue you.
Do not be afraid. The claim that God is with us, of course is echoed in Jesus own words to his disciples: ‘Lo, I am with you always to the very end of the age’
This is the word of God to Jeremiah and the rest of Jeremiah’s life consists in coming to terms with the word of God, finding ways to explain its purposes to those around him and as one commentator puts it, living with the hazardous consequences of that reality.
Coming to terms with what is said in the word of God, finding ways to explain it to those around us and living with the hazardous consequences of that reality.
Isn’t that a good description of the Christian life?
We try and come to terms with the living word of God who is Jesus. We try and find ways to share that with the people around us and we live with the hazardous – the challenging, risky, unsafe – consequences of having being called by Christ, and having answered the call.
And it is so vitally important now in a divided nation and both Wales and the UK are clearly divided after the vote last week facing an uncertain future,
Still the church must stand as prophets to the nations, the UK, the EU and the world struggling perhaps with the word of God, struggling perhaps with finding ways to explain it to those around us and struggling for certain with the hazardous consequences of that reality.
This call to Jeremiah is a call to us because it is replayed in every life that says ‘yes’ to Jesus, I will come and follow you
This call is for everyone who seeks to speak truth to those in power, it is for all who would challenge lies and spin, it is for overcoming fear and doom and gloom, it is to overcome prejudice and stand against injustice, to work for the good of all, particularly the least of us believing in the kingdom of God.
Doing all that may leave us vulnerable to ridicule, we may be accused of not loving our country enough or of loving it too much.
We may face insults and violence –
Which are all things Jeremiah faced, and Jesus faced, and in many places in the world, what the church still faces today, in ways we can happily only imagine.
But Jeremiah is summoned to up root and tear down, to declare the end of one world the end of one reality and to proclaim the beginning of a new world a fresh way of doing things.
This not replacing one earthy kingdom with another, it’s not exchanging one set of people and alliances with another, rather it is changing the whole nature of how we are in the world.
We do not do things as they have always been done, we do not do things as others do them.
God calls Jeremiah to the work of the gospel. To take a world much loved but dying and to make things new. And like Jeremiah, as the church, we too are watching the termination of a world we have loved too long and lost:
I don’t mean Europe. We need to rise above that for a moment, I mean the whole thing that we all Christendom. The whole alliance of you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours between state and church.
In the Western world that alliance is crumbling. There is very little common Christian story in this country or in others that is held together within in culture like it used to be.
Everything has been shaken up, those foundations are moved and they will never be the same again.
We can react like Israel did and pretend that it’s not happening, we can carry on regardless and hope that it all turns out ok, or we might give in to rage and fear and find someone to scapegoat and blame clinging to a nostalgia of an imagined past.
But nostalgia and indifference are the great enemies of the church.
We can wish we were back in the good old days or we can deny they have ever gone away, but if it is any one of those we choose I fear we miss the great new thing God longs to do with us and through us, because God is always uprooting and tearing down, exactly so that he might re-build and re-plant.
In one sense, regardless of the referendum, the church continues to be the church, shaped by the call of God in Christ, caught up into the vision of God’s new creation, playing their part in the Kin-dom of God, attentive to the changes of rebuilding and replanting.
And the Kin-dom of God is neither a UK on its own or one joined to the EU. Remain or Leave, our deepest identity and purpose is found belonging in Christ. The institutions and structures that frame our politics are not eternal, all empires and corporations are but provisional, So our ultimate hope and faith is not in where we come from or in what is decided by the Assembly or Westminster, Brussels or Washington,
Our hope and faith is placed in the one who will bring about a new Jerusalem, and a renewed earth, Jesus Christ our lord. Who bids us come and follow no matter where we are from.
He bids us come and follow for he has a place to lead us to, a people to join us with, a purpose for us to accomplish. He has a hope for what we might yet be.
If you read Jeremiah you could be led to thinking that he is more a prophet of doom.
Yet while much of his work is plucking out and tearing down, he never forgot the fullness of his call which ended with planting and building.
Jeremiah plants and builds the newness of God. The peace of God. The new kin-dom of shalom.
One where there will never be another Somme. Where there will never be no tears and fear and pain and weeping.
One where all creation is reconciled to God and lives in harmony with one another.
That is the hope of a new world that we are called to live into being Knowing that there is no newness without loss. Knowing that there is no resurrection without the cross, but knowing too with certainty that there is a resurrection. A rising again of faith and hope and love.
The prophetic call of the church is a serious work of hope.
Not hope in the referendum. Nor the government or the opposition Although we must remain engaged with all of this.
But as Christians, our reason for hope is nothing less than Jesus Christ.
Leaders and governments will come and go. Economies will rise and fall. Lives will begin and end, but Jesus remains the same, yesterday, today and forever .
Wherever we are coming from – this is where, and who, we are going to.
Jesus Christ. Hope for the nations, who calls us to be prophets, who calls us to come and follow him, and if we dare to follow then he promises, that where ever we may go –
Lo, he will be with us, even to the ends of the earth.
We sang this Iona Hymn © 1988 The Iona Community
Lo, I am with you Lo, I am with you to the end of the world;
Lo, I am with you to the end of the world;
Lo, I am with you, Lo, I am with you,
Lo, I am with you to the end of the world.