For those of us who belong to the historic denominations in the lands that made up “Christendom” it is tempting to believe that the Church is declining and that Christianity is in retreat. Our churches are smaller than they used to be, in some cases very much smaller, and are less central to the lives of our communities and of our nations. Marriage, and especially marriage in a church, is now an optional extra to the formation of partnerships and the raising of children. Less than 20% of children are now baptised, compared to more than 70% 60 years ago.
Where the churches had an assured and accepted place in the fabric of society we are now marginal and peripheral, regarded with suspicion and even disdain. The hostile and dismissive language of the “new atheism” of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchen finds wide resonance and among many rejection of belief in God is common sense. For centuries the Church was powerful and impossible to challenge. It controlled education, was essential to the government of the land. It dominated the world of ideas and of art. Christianity was simply what one believed, going to church was what one did.
All that is gone.
For anyone for whom success is the measure of truth and power and influence the measure of success then the Church and Christianity are in serious trouble. It must seem as if there is something seriously wrong with what we teach, what we preach and what we do if we have been consigned to the margins in this way when we held the centre for so long.
To begin to understand what has happened and how we should respond we should, as Christians, begin by turning to the story of God’s people as it is told in the Bible. Are there instances there where our predecessors have similarly seen a collapse of their position, a loss of power, of their place in the world? How did they react? What do our Scriptures say we should think and feel, what we should do, when faced with failure, defeat and exile?
It has often been said, I think rightly, that the single most important and decisive event in the creation of the Old Testament as a collection of writings is the final destruction of the Kingdom of David by the Babylonians in 586 BC.
David’s line had ruled in Jerusalem and the priests of the nation had sacrificed in Solomon’s temple for hundreds of years. The kingdom and the priesthood were said to have been established directly by God and to have a special place in God’s plan for creation. David’s descendants were anointed by God to rule and the priests to maintain and protect the place of God’s presence in the Holy of Holies. The books that record this remain Scripture for us.
Finally, though, the king was overthrown and replaced by a governor appointed from Babylon. The Temple was destroyed, the Holy of Holies desecrated, the Ark of the Covenant and other objects from it removed to who knows where and handled who knows how or by whom.
What a shock, what a blow, to those who believed themselves to be those chosen by God to be his people. To represent him and to be the custodians of his very dwelling place. What a shock to see all that swept aside by the armies of Nebuchedrezzar of Babylon.
This is a disaster on a scale unimaginably greater than a collapse in baptisms and church attendance or the inability to make one’s voice heard on matters of legislation. This is a matter of it being made impossible to worship in the way one has been taught to worship and of seeing institutions one believes directly set up by God himself and vital to his purposes on earth utterly destroyed.
Into this situation Jeremiah the prophet spoke words of warning and words of consolation, he spoke of the acceptance of judgement and also of faith in promises made. The story we have heard of Jeremiah’s purchase of land is part of his attempt to make the people of Israel see what is happening to them in the light of God’s plan for them and to inspire them to perseverance in faith through all their troubles.
As the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem, as the city of God, Zion itself, approached its fall, Jeremiah urged not heroic resistance, not confidence that God would save the city, but rather submission and surrender to Nebuchedrezzar, whom he described as the servant of God, bringing God’s judgement to God’s own people. That is why he is in prison as our passage begins. Zedekiah, King of Judah, has been pursuing a policy of rebellion and defiance against Babylon and has been claiming God’s blessing. All along Jeremiah the prophet has been denouncing this policy and denying that it accords with God’s will. He has been urging the inhabitants of the besieged city to throw themselves on the mercy of their enemies.
Now however he adds a new dimension to his proclamation. He buys his ancestral land and in so doing says that beyond the destruction of the nation that God is working through Nebuchedrezzar is rebirth. He says that God has not abandoned his people, he is simply forcing a change of direction on them. On the other side of defeat, overthrow and exile there is new life, a renewed mission from God.
Jeremiah’s message to Israel is a twofold one. First he say to them: your special place in God’s plans does not guarantee victory at all times, it does not mean that you will always succeed and prosper. Sometimes you will be visited with defeat and failure. When this happens you are to accept it and seek God’s purpose in it. You can raise your voice in anger or in sadness but you are not to conclude that God has abandoned you, nor are you to turn away from your tasks of worship and witness, or from the attempt to live as God has ordained.
Secondly he says: whatever problems and setbacks are encountered God’s promises remain in place. His people have their duties and they also have their promised possessions and privileges. For the ancient people of Israel that was deeply connected with possession of the land. The action of purchase that Jeremiah undertook was close to the very heart of the covenant with God.
The promises we have in the new covenant in Christ’s blood have been transformed from that. We are promised eternal life in a world made new. This promise is not the possession of a nation but is open to all. We receive it on behalf of all the nations and we proclaim it to all the nations. Nonetheless the confidence and faithfulness that Jeremiah both urged and demonstrated are not different from the way we should respond to the problems of the Church.
God’s promises in the new covenant do not depend on the strength and success of the Church, far less of any individual denomination or local church. They depend only on God’s trustworthiness. What more can we need?