A sermon drawn from Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 and Luke 17:20-37
The gospel text this morning is one we don’t hear in church that often – but it may sound familiar anyway, because we read Jesus saying similar things every year on the first Sunday in Advent; it also happens to contain one of Jesus’ most popular sayings, though possibly for the wrong reasons.
There are several odd points about this gospel text – a couple of which I want to try to clear up right away, so they won’t be on our minds for the whole sermon.
First, at the very end, where Jesus says that “where the body is the eagles – some translations read ‘vultures’ – will gather” he seems to be quoting a proverb or saying; and commentators interpret it as meaning something like “where the sin is, there will be the judgment,” or “where the trouble is, there’ll be the response to it.” So, where the fraud is, there’ll be the auditors. Or, where the disaster is, there’ll be the first responders. Which seems to have a little in common with our saying, “no smoke without fire.”
Then, at the very beginning, where Jesus’ responds to the Pharisees with that line that might be even more famous in its King James wording, “the kingdom of God is within you,” people love to take that in lots of directions. And, not to discourage anyone, but … Jesus uses a word here that occurs one other place in the Bible, which is when Jesus is pronouncing woes on the Pharisees in Matthew, and when he says, you-all are so careful to clean the outside of cups and platters, but inside they’re full of plunder, of violent greed, and self-indulgence – you-all need to clean the inside, then the outside will be clean, too … (Matthew 23:25-26). In light of that, it seems likely that Jesus does indeed mean here “the kingdom of God is about … the inside” of the human person – that Jesus is trying to make clear that the place to start bringing in the kingdom of God is not in the scrupulous observance of externals, but in the even more important internal stuff, in observing – and correcting – one’s orientations, one’s motives, one’s desires, one’s loves … because when God reigns there, then everything else will fall into place – and sooner or later will be obvious on the outside, too.
Now, hopefully, with that out of the way we’ll have the mental space to look at what I think is really interesting, and still odd, about this discourse of Jesus’s, which is how Jesus sounds like he’s saying just the opposite of what Jeremiah was saying to the exiles in Babylonia!
Because it sounds like, at first anyway, that Jesus is saying there was a problem with the way people were “eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage until the day Noah entered the ark” … and that there was a problem, in the days of Lot, when “they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building” right up to the last disastrous minute. It sounds like Jesus is talking about “business as usual” like it’s a bad thing; like if people had been less … preoccupied, with their normal lives, maybe there wouldn’t have been a flood, or fire from heaven, or a Babylonian exile.
So … why does the prophet Jeremiah seem to commend this very behavior to the exiles? I could not help being curious about this.
And I think there are some lessons for us in this seeming clash of attitudes towards “normal” life, which may be less of a clash than it looks like, honestly, lessons that mainly have to do with our … orientation to “normal life,” our … expectations of it; because “normal life” is full of wonderful opportunities, but sooner or later, it ends. Normally, abruptly. Which poses a couple of questions for us: one, about how to live in normal times, and then, one about how to respond to … end times, when those happen.
And, as the title of the sermon suggests, but just to spell out where this is all going, I think the wisdom here is that … yes, when things are going along normally, we do need to make the best of that, but … knowing that the end times will come, be able to let go. Because …
Let’s start with that letter to the exiles. I confess, I love this beautiful text in Jeremiah, because it sounds so encouraging, and so positive, and so affirming of simple, ordinary human life things: building houses, planting gardens, raising families, sending our children out to raise their families, and as God says, “seeking the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile” … being a blessing, blooming where we’re planted … this would make a fabulous inspirational meme on Facebook, it feels that good.
Plus, a regular person could do all this. That’s encouraging, too. These are instructions people can follow. We ourselves could take this to heart … keep living our normal lives.
However, that message evidently sounds much better to someone living in a suburb in 21st century southern Indiana than it sounded to the exiles in Babylonia. Because the next verses (which we don’t read in church) tell us that they were so outraged that they wrote back to Jerusalem and asked the government of the day to get Jeremiah to stop writing to them. The ancient world equivalent of asking to have his Twitter account suspended.
Maybe because “normal” life for them was back in Judah, and that normal life had just been ended, abruptly and violently and cruelly, by the Babylonians, who were clearly their enemies and not their friends, so Jeremiah’s instruction would have been a little bit like writing a letter to the Ukrainians who’ve been annexed to Russia and saying, keep on keeping on where you are, and pray for the Russians and seek their welfare. Very hard instructions to swallow.
Worse yet, Jeremiah tells them in the same letter that they’re going to be in Babylonia for the next 70 years. He might as well have just come right out and said: face it, most of you are never going back to Judah, most of you will die in Babylonia.
The normal life you want to get back to, the normal life you’re attached to, Jeremiah says, is not coming back. You need to embrace this new normal, you need to make the best of it. This is what God says to do, says Jeremiah.
But as we probably know, the exiles in Babylonia do not have the best track record when it comes to doing what God says. Because as we have been repeatedly told, by this same prophet, the exile itself is a consequence, of centuries of unfaithfulness and injustice and brushing aside the instructions already had from God for a long time.
This instruction, to get with the new normal, to make patiently working for the welfare of the neighbors a priority of normal life, actually has a flavor of something we could call … rehab. Practical spiritual therapy. The point here is not to use this time to do exactly what they were doing before: not to get ahead at others’ expense, not to forget about justice, not to ignore the least, and not to shrug off what God demands when it gets in the way of business as usual. The point is to make the best of this new opportunity to turn back towards God – because that’s something that people can do, wherever they are, even in Babylonia – and ideally, that might even commend the God of Israel to the new neighbors, will give them a beautiful picture of what faithful living looks like.
If we hear it that way, Jeremiah’s letter still sounds encouraging, and humane, but not exactly like “business as usual.” It sounds more like taking advantage of a temporary absence of crisis to cultivate their orientation towards God, their desire for God.
Cultivating an orientation towards God was exactly what people were not doing in the days of Noah, or the days of Lot, or the days of the exiles before they were hauled off to Babylonia. All of those “normal” times had become famous for their wickedness by Jesus’s time – they’re still famous for that, in our time.
How successful the exiles eventually were in that rehabilitation project is hard to assess. On one hand, we know the exiles in Babylonia did turn back to God – developing the style of worship we know as the synagogue, and establishing the famous Torah schools that later gave the world the Babylonian Talmud. On the other hand, we know that “normal life” in Babylonia eventually also came to an abrupt end, when Babylonia was conquered by the Persians.
Of course … because we know that “normal life” has ended that way throughout history.
That particular end time also brought an end to the exile, and gave us some of our most beautiful Biblical images of redemption.
The Pharisees Jesus was talking to would live through their own, different abrupt end time, a few decades later, in the year 70 CE, when the Romans crushed a rebellion by burning down the temple in Jerusalem.
For that matter, we know normal life ended for Jesus’ own disciples a few chapters after this discourse, with Jesus’ betrayal and arrest and crucifixion – and then Jesus’ resurrection – and then Pentecost – an end to “business as usual” that offered an entirely new life to humanity, that people are still trying to live into.
“Normal life” for people in all the intervening centuries between then and now has continued to have a persistent habit of ending suddenly that way, and of not “going back to normal” … not always in the violence of war, fortunately.
Sometimes with the outbreak of unprecedented new diseases … as we ourselves have all experienced in the past couple of years. Churches across the country are continuing to experience some of the after-effects, what are starting to look like permanent changes – that have come about since COVID.
Some just with … apocalyptic inconveniences. Like the Friday afternoon of September 9, 2011, right before rush hour, when the governor of the state of Indiana closed the Sherman Minton Bridge over the Ohio River between Louisville and southern Indiana – and 80,000 people, suddenly had to find a different way home, and a different way back to work the next Monday, and for months afterwards had 10 hours a week of stressful driving added to their commutes. 80,000 people, including a quorum of the Session of the Corydon Presbyterian Church, including me.
People took to calling that event “Shermageddon,” but the main lasting impact was that the region got a couple of new Ohio River bridges – albeit, toll bridges.
Some end times are far more catastrophic, and far fresher in our minds. Like the way the record-breaking flooding this past July brought devastation to people and communities in eastern Kentucky – the National Weather Service reported that rainfall between July 25 and July 30 was 600% of normal, lives were lost, and livelihoods, and Rev. Janice Stamper, who shared her observations on the aftermath in the September issue of Presbyterian Outlook – points out that for many survivors, “rebuilding” simply won’t be possible, because the volume and force of the flash floods washed away the land itself; there’s nothing left to rebuild on …
Or like the way the “normal lives” of the residents of Gulf Coast Florida have been devastated by Hurricane Ian, just a few days ago – a storm that ended the lives of over 130 people, by the latest count, all of whom were friends and family members of many others; that called for some 2.5 million people to evacuate homes they may never return to; and which, according to Business Insider, will likely have a permanent impact on the real estate and insurance industries in the region.
In every case, the “new” normal starts with acknowledging the end of the old one – and the demands of that end – as Presbyterian Disaster Assistance’s motto is “out of chaos, hope.” The people in their blue PDA t-shirts who show up to move furniture out of a flooded basement in Eastern Kentucky, shovel up mud, and help with clean-up arrive as a response to that chaos. (there’s a great video on the PDA website, btw)
We can be prepared to do that, too – in Florida, for instance, where Peace River Presbytery seems to have been the most affected by Hurricane Ian, Peace River Presbytery’s Hurricane Immediate Response Protocol was already in place – a page of instructions to member congregations about what to do ahead of the disaster, what to do immediately after the event, suggestions for taking care of the most vulnerable members, where there’ll be a Presbytery pastors’ meeting within the first 48 hours to check in and to pray together … this is all on the website, and it attests to the way Christians think [ahead, even] about how to respond to human need in extreme situations.
Because, as we know, these abrupt ends of normality are, if not quite “normal” themselves, and not always “predictable,” surely are disruptions and dislocations we know to expect, and to keep expecting, over and over, as long as we are still in this world in which rains can come and winds can blow …
Maybe none of them qualifies as “The” eschaton, The “end of the world” – those references to “shermageddon” notwithstanding. But surely each of them qualifies as an eschaton, an end to life as people have known it, an end that involves losses, sometimes painful and lasting ones; and a beginning of something else … a beginning, hopefully, that always includes at least one or two promising opportunities.
But by now at least a few people here will, I hope, have begun to think … there’s more to this lesson than just not getting attached to a “normal” life, especially normal life that’s not all it should be; or even, than not being too attached to the “normal” life of this unstable historical world. Because there IS something, or rather, someone, to whom we can hold fast, to whom we Christians would, surely, say we should be attached – to God, through our savior Jesus Christ … and that attachment, that holding fast, is not subject to these abrupt endings at all – as the prophet Jeremiah also said, right in the middle of his famous lament over the abrupt end of normal life in Jerusalem that is the whole book of Lamentations, right at the center of that poem: “the steadfast love of the Holy God never ends;”
All these end times remind us that, in the end, the kingdom of God arrives first on the inside – with our orientations, our motives, our desires, our loves … because as loveable as “normal” life may be, from time to time, we know it will come to an end … but if our deeper normal, our ultimate love, is the steadfast love of God, that will never come to an end, no matter what happens to the normal life around us.
Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Christ’s Sermon on the Mount of Olives on the Second Coming,” Alexander Ivanov, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons