Scripture Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10

Luke 13:10-17

I have called you by your name, you are mine

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This morning at St Stephen’s we had the joy of celebrating the Sacrament of Baptism. We baptised Caitlin Liddle, the granddaughter of Sandy and Rosemary Cumming. The baptism of a child is a time of great joy for the child’s family and friends. But it is also a celebration for the Church for family. For baptism remind us of many of the joyful truths of the Gospel. It reminds us that God calls us by name, that we all of us belong to God. And it reminds us about how new beginnings is at the heart of our faith.

Those of you who use computers will know that, with all their capabilities, they are often frustrating. Every so often, a computer will stop working, and nothing you will make it work again. The only way to get it going again is by switching the computer off completely and restarting it. Once you are rebooted, you can carry on what you were doing. The thing is, we humans can all do with a reboot. We all need God’s forgiveness, the chance to start afresh, to have our sins washed away and to let old things die and new faith take its place. That’s why baptism is such a powerful symbol of what the Gospel is all about. For in washing with water, we act out the new beginning which God offers all people. Through faith in Christ, we can let our old selves die, and begin again. We can wipe the slate clean. God offers us, all of us, a new start.

A friend of mine spent some years working with the churches in Mozambique. He told me that when they had people converting to Christianity, their baptisms would take place a service on a beach, and each one would be fully immersed into the waters of the Indian Ocean. However we do it, baptism is a symbolic participation in the life and death of Jesus. That’s why I said near the beginning of the baptismal liturgy:

Jesus went down to death,

but out of the dark depths of sorrow and suffering

he rose to life and victory.

This was his Baptism.

This we recall each time someone is baptized.

Baptism means ‘coming through the waters’,

to life and salvation in Jesus Christ.

If we have been baptized, we have symbolically participated in Christ’s death and resurrection. As St Paul wrote to the Church at Rome:

When we were baptized into union with Christ Jesus, we were baptized into union with his death. By our baptism, then, we were buried with him and shared his death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from death by the glorious power of the Father, so also we might live a new life. For since we have become one with him in dying as he did, in the same way we shall be one with him by being raised to life as he was[1].

The Bible is full of stories of people who start anew, begin a new life. We have two stories like that today.

The first comes from around six centuries before Christ, and it’s the story of how Jeremiah became a prophet. Jeremiah lived through a time of great crisis and despair for the Jewish people. The Jewish nation of Judah, centred on Jerusalem, was in crisis. It was not ruled well, and became increasingly weak. Eventually the powerful rising empire of Babylon made war on Judah, with disastrous consequences. Jerusalem fell, and most of inhabitants, Jeremiah included, were taken off into exile in Babylon. The city, including its famous temple to Jeremiah’s God, was reduced to ruins.

Jeremiah loved his country, but he was called by God to be a prophet who pronounced judgement on his countrymen. He told them straight that their problems were cause by them turning away from God by oppressing the poor and worshipping other gods- of course there would be judgement. The destruction of the temple and the exile in Babylon- out of the promised land- must have seemed something like the end of the Jewish faith. Yet Jeremiah was remembered, in the Babylonian exile and later, when the people were allowed to return to their land. For they realised that he had spoken the truth- both when he spoke words of judgement, but also when he spoke words of hope.

And so we read today one of these remembered stories about Jeremiah. In our passage, Jeremiah tells of how, when he was young, God called him to be a prophet. Even before he’d been born God had selected him to be a prophet. But this story comes from the time when Jeremiah was a very young man. He says he struggled with this call, because he thought he was too young. His words can be translated,

I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy[2] .

But God convinces Jeremiah that he is commissioned to speak God’s words to kings. He might not be confident, he might be just a lad, but God will give him words to speak which will lead to the fall and rise of nations.

For God, no-one is too young. God can make prophets out of boys and girls. Often it is young people, with their enthusiasm and idealism, and their rebellion against our comfortable ways, who speak the truth to the rest of us (and does not Greta Thunberg, speaking so clearly and fearlessly about climate change to our own generation, remind us powerfully that children can be prophets?). God took Jeremiah when he was very young, overcame his reluctance to speak, and made of him a prophet to the nations, to be remembered for centuries to come.

Jesus of Nazareth was a prophet too. He showed people- in words and actions- how God was at work in the world, how God wanted them to live, and how God made change for the better possible. Perhaps the most striking examples of that are to be found in the stories of healing miracles which we find throughout the gospels. For modern people, these stories may be hard to believe. But if we pay attention to the meaning of these stories, they help us to see how God makes new life, new beginnings, possible.

Luke the Gospel writer tells us of a woman who has been ill for eighteen years. She’s bent up and cannot stand straight. The popular belief of the time was that such a disability was caused by a demon, an evil spirit. She’s in a synagogue, where Jesus is teaching on the Sabbath. It seems that she did not seek healing: the text says, simply,

When Jesus saw her, he called out to her, “Woman, you are free from your sickness!” He placed his hands on her, and at once she straightened herself up and praised God.

I wonder if this lady was quite elderly. In any case, I suspect that she was often overlooked by the people around her. But Jesus sees her (for Jesus always sees those who suffer in silence), and is filled with compassion, and heals her.

Nobody knows the troubles I see

nobody knows but Jesus

as the Spiritual says.

And Jesus action in healing her is a prophetic action. By healing this woman, he’s making it clear that God offers a new start, a new life, to anyone, male or female, the sick and the healthy, young and old. For God’s love and grace knows no bounds. God does care about all kinds of people. And God wants to bring healing and joy into our broken world.

But sometimes religious people get the wrong end of the stick. I am told they used to lock up the swings in the parks in this town on Sundays, because many people here used to believe that God didn’t want children playing on a Sunday. We find a similar, grumpy, killjoy attitude in the Gospel story. You’d think everyone would be delighted that this poor woman had been cured. But no- the synagogue leader goes around preaching against Jesus. ‘There’s six days for work- come on those days for healing, but not on the Sabbath’. Jesus, however, is no Sabbatarian killjoy. In fact, he suggests that it’s a wonderful things that this woman should have been freed from her illness on the Sabbath, of all days. His enemies- the religious leaders- are silenced, and the ordinary people rejoice.

For Jesus reinterprets the old traditions, and reminds people what they are really about. Why shouldn’t he heal on the Sabbath, God’s day? For the Sabbath is God’s day, so it should be a day for rejoicing: rejoicing in the God who brings healing, salvation, the chance of a new start. Rejoicing in the God who sees the needs of the forgotten, who feels the needs of of those who need healing!

And so the people rejoice, for they understand Jesus’ message, better than some of their leaders understand: that God cares for them, and loves them. This healing is a prophetic action: it speaks powerfully of what God is doing in the world: bringing healing and joy

Our country today needs a prophets like Jeremiah, who are not afraid to speak on behalf of the God of all the nations. We may not be facing foreign invasion, but there is no doubt that our nation is in deep trouble. Some of our leaders seem determined to undermine democracy and create economic hardship, purely for party political reasons. How on earth have we got to a stage where people who reply on lifesaving drugs are worried about whether they can obtain them? What kind of political leadership has got us into this?

Lots of the decisions seem to be being made by a small circle of people, far away in London. So we might well be tempted to despair, to think that there is nothing we can do. Perhaps we might hope for a prophetic voice, a Jeremiah who will name the issues and call the nation to repentance. But you may well be thinking that there is nothing you can do.

Jeremiah thought he was too young, that he wasn’t any good at speaking, that he couldn’t possibly stand up to kings and powerful leaders. But God called him by name, called him to speak out, called him to be a prophet who could uproot and plant nations. We should take heart from that.

For we all still live in a democracy, and in a democracy, everyone has a voice. So you can still write to the Prime Minister, to your Member of Parliament. You can sign petitions and go demonstrations if you like. You can also listen to those who are worried, and speak words of peace where there is conflict, try to understand those with whom you might think you disagree with. You can speak up for those who feel forgotten. None of you are too young or too old: kings listened to Jeremiah, though he thought he was too young, and no good at speaking. You all have a voice, and you can raise it to say what you think is right.

And when we do lift up our voices, let us recall that our faith is a Gospel of joy and freedom. Let’s not sound like people who want to lock us swing parks. Let our prophetic message be a positive message. There is already too much negative speech out there- too much name calling and personalised attacks. In the spirit of Christ, may we be gentle prophets, even when we are firm for justice. May we always respect those with whom we disagree. For after all, did not the prophet Jesus say we were to love, not just those who agree with us, but even those we think are our enemies?

For if, as Caitlin was today, you have been baptised, you have been called by God, called by name, called by the God who is Lord of the nations, who loves and knows you personally. So even in these difficult times for our own nation, let us speak, and speak of a God who is bringing healing and wholeness. For that is a message that is prophetic, and joyful!

Ascription of Praise

To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.

1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2019 Peter W Nimmo

After sermon:

SS: offering

OH:  Hymn 251 I, the Lord of sea and sky

Notes

[1] Romans 6.3-5

[2] Jeremiah 1.6 NRSV