It’s no wonder that Jeremiah was reluctant to take up his calling as a prophet. If you remember from last week’s reading, Jeremiah is young, just a boy, who has been called to speak the word of God to the people of Israel. And, he’s reluctant at first to take up that calling, and perhaps we start to understand why as we listen to today’s text. In today’s reading we hear the first words that God speaks through Jeremiah, and they are not happy words. They are a lament, an accusation and a judgment, spoken in sadness and dismay and anger.
“What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?”
“They did not say “Where is the Lord?” The priests did not say “Where is the Lord?”
“My people have changed their glory for something that does not profit . . . they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”
Long ago, in the days of Moses and Joshua, when God led the people through the Red Sea across the wilderness and into the promised land of Israel, in those days the people knew God. They were close to God, they saw God’s presence and guiding hand in the day to day events of their lives. But now, some six hundred years later, they’ve lost that awareness. They don’t see God in their lives anymore, and failing to see, they have forgotten God, and turned to other deities and other priorities. They go after worthless things and become worthless themselves as a result.
And all because they fail to ask a simple question: Where is the Lord?
Where is God in all of this? In the events of my day to day life, where is the Lord? Do I see God? Do I look for God?
You know, I have a lot of sympathy for the people of Israel that Jeremiah was talking to. In fact I think that we in our time and place probably have a lot in common with them. Back in the days when God appeared to the people, leading them as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, back in the days when God parted the Red Sea and led the people across, back in those days the question “Where is the Lord?” was a lot easier to answer.
But by the time of Jeremiah, life for the people of Israel had settled into a much more mundane rhythm. Signs and visions were few and far between. Life consisted of doing your daily work, raising your family, working the land, and every so often sending your sons off to war against the neighbouring nations. Where is God in all of that?
It’s not easy to see God, to be aware of God’s presence in the ordinary things of our day to day life, especially when we compare our situation with some of the extraordinary things that we read in the Bible, the miracles and signs and visions and so on.
But we still have to keep asking the question: Where is the Lord?
Do you ask that question? When stuff happens in your life, do you wonder to yourself, “Where is God in all this?” When good stuff happens, a promotion, or a summer holiday, or a wedding. When bad stuff happens, an illness, or a loss, or a heartache. When nothing happens, or when things just seem ordinary: Do we look for God in all of this?
Because I think the message from Jeremiah this morning is a message that applies in our time just as much as in Jeremiah’s time: When we stop asking the question, “Where is the Lord?” we start getting ourselves into trouble.
And it seems to me that there are two very different reasons why we might stop asking the question “where is God in all this?” as we go about our day to day lives.
The first reason is that we don’t know. And the second reason is that we don’t want to know!
Let’s have a look at each of these in turn.
There is perhaps nothing as frustrating as asking a question and not knowing the answer. Sometimes it happens in moments of tragedy. When someone is struck by illness, when there is an unexpected death, we hesitate to ask the question “where is the Lord?” because we’re not sure that we’d find an answer.
The same is true for less tragic, more mundane situations. In the day to day stuff of our lives, we may ask “where is the Lord?” we may look for God, but we may see nothing but the randomness of life.
It is frustrating to look for something and not see it. But sometimes we just need to keep looking, and maybe to work with others, to share our experience with others, and get some advice along the way.
This reminds me of an experience that I had while I was in the Seychelles doing an internship many years ago. One of the most beautiful creatures in the Indian Ocean is the green sea turtle. One day someone took us out on a boat trip, and the wind was blowing hard. We were out in the open, the waves were big and choppy, and there were white caps all over the sea. All of a sudden the captain of the boat pointed out to the side and said to me “Look, a turtle”. Now I looked where he was pointing - and all I saw were waves and foam and choppy water. But eventually, when we got close enough, I saw the turtle that he had spotted. That same thing happened a second time, and a third time. Each time, my friend saw a turtle, and each time even though I looked in the place where he pointed, the turtle was invisible to me. He could see things that were invisible to me because he knew the ocean so much better than I did. Because he had spent so much time on the water, the things of the ocean were visible to him. And when he pointed them out and brought me close enough, I saw them too.
Something similar happens when we look for the presence of God in our lives. Even though we may not see anything at first, if we keep looking, if we keep asking “Where is the Lord?”, if we get someone who can see to point us in the right direction, eventually we too will start to see.
The second reason why we might stop asking the question “Where is the Lord?” is not that we don’t know the answer, but rather that we don’t like the answer.
Think of the Pharisee in today’s gospel who decided to invite Jesus to a dinner party. What happens when the Lord is invited to the party?
First, as the host and his guests are on their way to the house where the party is being held, Jesus exposes the Pharisees as hypocrites by healing a man on the sabbath and then challenging them to pronounce on whether this is lawful or not. Then, as the other guests seat themselves at the table, vying for the places of honour, Jesus urges them to humble themselves and sit at the less honourable places. And then Jesus turns to the host himself, and right in front of his guests, Jesus tells him that he has invited the wrong people to the dinner. “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours. Don’t invite the good people, the honourable people. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.”
Now there is much that we could say about this gospel, about its radical inclusiveness, about its shredding of conventions of social order and obligation, about how Jesus reverses expectations and in so doing embarrasses his host in front of his guests. We don’t have time for all that this morning, but these might be things you want to think about during open space. Imagine someone in your family getting married, and instead of inviting family and friends to the wedding, sending a bus to the shelter to load up with wedding guests!
What I want to point out is this. When we do ask the question “where is God in all this?” we just may find out that God is not where we are. We just might not be on the same page and the deceptively simple question “where is the Lord?” may turn into a call for repentance and an opportunity for transformation. It may even turn your life upside down.
So every day, in all the circumstances of your life, ask the question: Where is the Lord?
Homily: Year C Proper 22, September 1 2019, St. Albans
Readings: Jeremiah 2:4-13; Ps 81.1, 10-16; Heb 13.1-8,15-16; Lk 14.1,7-14
Image by Shawn, Creative Commons