Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.
Last weekend I drove the two-hour journey from Nottingham to near Church Stretton. On the whole trip, there was one garage open with petrol. I’m sure many of us will have struggled to fill up over the last few days. The best way to encourage people to panic is to suggest that they shouldn’t panic! These sorts of shortages can bring out the ugly side of human nature. Irritation has in some cases turned into abuse and physical violence. We have got so used to a ‘just in time' supply chain that we assume that’s how life ought to operate. Adverts tell us that the world revolves around us and our needs. It fosters a spirit of entitlement that shows itself in anger when those needs are not met when we want them.
Situations like petrol shortages expose not just an unreasonable immaturity, but a deeper more spiritual malaise. I see it in myself on the rare occasions when I retire to my woodshed for some leisurely DIY. I get irritated and angry when my plans are thwarted by my own lack of ability and the Lord’s steadfast refusal to adjust the laws of physics to accommodate my incompetence. The great saints and prophets of the scriptures show it too. Jonah throws a tantrum because God decides to forgive the Babylonians when they repent, rather than give them what Jonah thinks is coming to them. The Israelites all through the Old Testament presume on their sense of identity as God’s chosen people. They feel corporately that this should somehow exempt them from the consequences of their actions. When prophet after prophet warns them that they cannot continue a life of idolatry and injustice without expecting any consequences, they meet a wall of resistance.
There is a certain fragility in our society today. The easy sense of everything going the way we want it to has been shaken to the core by COVID. Plagues are no longer something that we see on the news happening somewhere else. Organisational chaos is no longer restricted to banana republics run by despots. We find we are much more dependent on others than we thought we were.
The great Old Testament Scholar Walter Brueggemann in his book Relief, Grief and Hope talks about a prophetic response to these things. In the people of Israel, as with the modern west, he talks about the ideology, denial, despair response. The ideology he critiques in the modern mind is precisely this sense of entitlement or exceptionalism. These awful things, be they planes flying into buildings or economic dislocation or shortages really shouldn’t happen to us. Our response is so often denial, a failure to look the reasons squarely in the eye and the idea that if we just work harder we can make things the way they used to be. If that doesn’t work we shift into despair, vulnerable to simplistic promises that the right sort of leadership can sort it out – and in America people vote for Donald Trump.
The prophetic response of Jeremiah is reality, grief and hope. He was the one who told it like it was, irrespective of the consequences. Jesus too names the reality of the human condition, broken and in need of grace for its healing and redemption. In climate change, we have to take responsibility for our part in it. In the life of our church, we have to recognise that much of the way we have done things is no longer effective. The Church of England has no divine right to continue to exist in its current form. COVID has simply exposed painful realities that we can no longer deny or hope will go away. These things cause us to grieve, as any loss rightly does. Any efforts to encourage change that don’t acknowledge the pain of the losses associated with it, and give space for their honest expression, are doomed to fail. The book of Lamentations is one such worked example of a community working through this in the reality of exile. But the prophets always complete the cycle with the voice of hope and restoration. Gods promises are not to be thwarted by human frailty and sinfulness. Even these can be woven into the tapestry of the unfolding plan. The reality of the
prophetic voice is to remind us that most of our circumstances are beyond our control. All the good things we receive are a gift of grace. We do not know what the future holds, but we do know who holds the future.
In our current situation, both nationally, ecclesiastically and personally, we are invited to face reality honestly, to recognise the pain of losses but not to slip into despair and wishful thinking, but into deeper trust. In all things, God works for good in those who love him. Whilst the immediate future may be unclear, we have read the end of the story when the kingdom that we pray for every time we pray the Lord’s prayer comes in all its fullness. A kingdom where God wipes away the tears from every eye and there will be no more death, or mourning, or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.