Say 'I’m A Christian'
The Bible readings for today provide us with a very significant contrast on the issue of identity and allegiance. What is it you stand for? Who are you associated with? How do people see and recognise you, characterise and evaluate you? Who or what are we identified with as a congregation? What is our image? What do people think of us, if they do at all? How – even – do we see ourselves?
Jeremiah the prophet, the son of Hilkiah, a Temple priest, was born about 655 BC. He was from the small village of Anathoth, about three miles north east of Jerusalem. It was through Jeremiah’s childhood training for holy service in the priesthood that God began grooming him for his future role. God called Jeremiah when he was still a youth. In fact, God had already set Jeremiah apart for the office of a prophet before he was even born, in order to take God’s words to all Israel and to the nations. God gave Jeremiah the overview of his prophetic ministry: “Behold, I have put My words in your mouth. See, I have this day set you over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out and to pull down, to destroy and to throw down, to build and to plant”.
Jeremiah served as one of God’s prophets through the rule of five kings of Judah. He even continued to plead God’s case against Judah during the time of Jerusalem’s destruction by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. His prophetic ministry extended over a period of more than 40 years, during which he wrote both the Book of Jeremiah and Lamentations.
God called Jeremiah to his prophetic ministry about one year after King Josiah began leading the nation in a great reform from the widespread idolatry promoted by his father, Amon, and his grandfather. About a century earlier King Hezekiah had led religious reforms in Judah, but his son Manasseh promoted the vile practice of child sacrifice and worship of the “queen of heaven”. This continued into Jeremiah’s time. It was against this background that Jeremiah was appointed to reveal the sins of the people and the grave consequences of ignoring them. Jeremiah was among those who had hoped for a permanent spiritual revival, but tragedy came when righteous Josiah died suddenly at the young age of 39. The whole nation mourned his death, as did Jeremiah. Ultimately, Josiah’s reforms were not enough to preserve Judah and Jerusalem from God’s punishment.
When King Josiah died, Jeremiah’s hardships as a prophet of God increased. His message aroused great hostility and death threats, especially in his native village, Anathoth. Even his own relatives conspired against him and betrayed him. He was put in stocks and mocked. Later, spiteful men obtained the king’s approval to arrest Jeremiah for prophesying disaster. These men then lowered Jeremiah by ropes into a cistern, and he sank into a layer of mud. When another court official learned about Jeremiah’s fate, he persuaded the king to let him rescue Jeremiah before he starved to death at the bottom of the cistern. Yet Jeremiah knew he had to speak the message God had given him. He wrote how, if he tried to resist speaking what God told him to speak and tried not to even mention God’s name, God’s words became like fire in his heart. He was unable to hold them in. God told Jeremiah that if he would boldly speak His words and not shrink back in fear of the people, He would give him the strength he needed to withstand the persecution.
The message God sent to the people via His prophet was that the people needed to return to God. Another message was God’s impending judgement upon Judah. Even though this punishment would surely come, God also gave the encouraging promise of restoration in the future messianic Kingdom. And before Judah was destroyed, God revealed plans that He would protect the Jewish exiles during their stay in Babylon and that He would cause them to return to Judah after 70 years. Another encouraging message in this book was God’s willingness to spare and bless the nation if the people would repent of their sins.
What then was the identity of Jeremiah the Prophet? It was clearly that he was a Man of God, a man called specifically and especially to be identified with the living God. That was his life’s purpose and his vocation. He was a suffering servant and a precursor of Jesus. What was the identity of the People of God at that time? They did not have a clear identity as the People of God. They had become too infected by the alternative religions of the circumstance, geographical area and culture. They were not singularly identified with the living God of their history as a chosen people. The standards required of them to be distinct in life and conduct were too hard for them. They had given in to many things that other peoples did around them. Above all, they had become idolaters and worshippers of false gods. They had lost their vocation to be witnesses of the living God and thus had given up their spiritual inheritance and purpose as an identifiable people in the middle east.
This sounds familiar does it not – to us – in the 21st century – in Scotland, Britain, Western Europe, America? There is scarcely a mention of God in all that is broadcast in our media. Songs of Praise is now just an entertainment show and there is Thought for the Day on radio which more and more requires avoidance of any talk of God. The journalist Robin Aitken wrote a few days ago that the BBC corrals permitted opinions within a very tight boundary fence: feminism is never challenged; atheism is celebrated; "human rights" trump all (unless it's the rights of the unborn). Subtle godlessness pervades so many documentary and scientific programmes. We are told that we may find signs of life on Mars or that a meteorite brought life to earth. There are no references to the majestic beauty of the earth, its stunning sceneries and spectacle – that fact that it is an enjoyable place to be far more than just a place of survival. 'God saw that it was good', says the Bible. The word can also mean God saw that it was beautiful. The idea of personal creation is left out of any assessment or argument for our origins and purpose. In the soap TV programmes family and social relationships revolve around pubs. That is not actually a true reflection of life anywhere in Britain. Life here does not centre on the Happy Valley or the Croon. Life is Seafield does not revolve around the Seafield Arms. Life does not centre on daily public consumption of alcohol for the majority of people in our land. But that is the impression that is given and children see and watch this night after night. There is crudeness in society at large. People are tense and stressed. Marriage and family life are fragmented. Political correctness stifles opinion, honest use of language and proper evaluation. Commentators call this ‘the post-Christian society’. That is where our cultural identity lies these days. That is how we are seen and how we see ourselves.
Let us then think for a few minutes think about Paul’s description of a Christian community in 1 Thessalonians 5. Firstly he asks for respect to be given to Christian pastors, preachers and leaders. In my own time in ministry respect for us as people called by God and marked out for that role has declined markedly. This reflects the words of Jesus ‘they have not rejected you – they have rejected me’. Even within some congregations there can be little respect for the ministry. Scotland historically has had a love – hate relationship with ministers. Today it is more indifference and avoidance. But Paul says 'hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work'. A good Christian community lives in peace, says Paul. Christians are meant to solve their issues, problems and tensions in a different way from others. Paul elaborates on this giving practical advice. 'Warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone'. This is all pro-active caring and looking out for others. It is not survival of the fittest or 'Deil tak the hinmost'. A key element in a Christian community is not paying back wrong for wrong. Revenge is not an option for the true Christian. And that is a hard lesson to learn and even harder to put into practice. Christians are to be kind to one another and to everyone else also.
The identity of a Christian community lies also in its way of life. Paul urges Christians to be joyful always. That is far from easy amid the worries of life and health but it is possible in good times and in bad. Christians are not meant to be moaners or complainers. We are to be positive and upbeat even in adversity. 'Pray continually' says Paul. As a way of life, wherever you are, whatever you are doing, bring God into it. 'Give thanks in all circumstances', says Paul, 'for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus'. It is almost a command that we be thankful every day. We are not be eaten up with anger and bitterness and regret and sorrow.
Paul steps up the scale and intensity of what the Christian community must represent. 'Do not put out the spirit’s fire, do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything'. Even in the earliest days of Christianity and among very new Christians there were the naysayers and the objectors. We Scots don’t suffer from too much Christian enthusiasm. We are suspicious of Christian display or excess. It is sometimes said that far from pouring out the Spirit’s flame in congregations, most have never been ignited in the first place. Christians have to show forth a good life and not be tempted to do evil. I think that these days Christians stand out in our society in the way we conduct our lives. The consensus has broken down and Christians are left as distinct amid the idolatries and spiritual darkness of the age. These are some of the indications of Christian identity and you can sense that they are very different even from the society of the people of God in the time of Jeremiah. Do not underestimate the difference that Jesus brought to the world. Look at the alternatives. Jesus truly is the Light of the World.
Paul offers a benediction. 'May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it'. For Paul it is preparation for eternal life that matters. That is what it is all for. Do you really want to be in the company of Jesus for eternity? That is what Christian formation is and what Christian community is. These then are to be our identifying marks of witness. This is what we are to stand for and be seen to be doing. If you can say 'I’m a Christian' to this then Praise the Lord. It is by Grace that we are saved and it is by Grace that we continue to be saved.