A sermon preached by the Reverend Dr Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields
October 16th 2022
‘The days are surely coming says the LORD …’ (31:27, 31)
That’s what the prophet Jeremiah says that God says, and he says it twice.
First time, according to Jeremiah, the days are surely coming for judgement, and for retribution for those who have sinned: ‘the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when … all shall die for their own sins.’ (31:27, 30)
Second time, according to Jeremiah, ‘the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant … [where] I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts … I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.’ (31:31, 33, 34)
The days are surely coming both for judgement and for a universal renewal of our human relationship with God – but when? When will this day or days arrive? Obviously that day has not yet arrived. Just take a look at the world around you. Reflect upon your own life experiences. In this world, on all too many occasions God lets the guilty go unpunished, though given that on some occasions we are among the guilty, perhaps that’s as much a relief as it is a frustration.
And in this world, it’s still far, far from the case that everyone has a deep abiding knowledge of God and God’s will. The prophet Jeremiah speaks of a time when, ‘no longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other ‘know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.’ (31:34) Yet, speaking as a church minister, I don’t feel I’m in danger of being made redundant any time soon because everyone knows the reality of God deep within their hearts.
So what on earth has God been up to since the seventh century BC, when Jeremiah was prophesying? Two thousand seven hundred years have passed and the world is still not as it should be. God’s apparent inaction in a world of suffering is a problem for many of us. It was a challenge for many in biblical times as well: ‘how long, O LORD? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?’ as it says in the OT psalms (13:1-2)
Over the centuries there have been many attempts to explain why God permits significant suffering and injustice in the world, despite the pleas of the faithful. There’s even a name for it: theodicy. Some of the explanations for why God permits suffering in the world are ingenious, and some are even plausible. Whilst they meet an intellectual need for explanation, however, as far as I am concerned such arguments never completely satisfy the soul. Perhaps you feel something similar.
Quite simply, there is no knock-down argument relating to the existence of suffering and injustice in the world alongside the existence of its creator that will totally satisfy everyone. Here we stand at the edge, or even step beyond what our limited human understanding can encompass. It is, as the Apostle Paul might have said, ‘mystery’ (Ephesians 3:9) We cannot understand this mysterious situation unless God helps us; unless there is a revelation to us about what God is like.
To understand God’s character we look to Jesus Christ. In his life, Jesus reveals to us the nature of God – who and what God is like. And one of the ways that Jesus does this is through his teaching. A significant amount of Jesus’s teaching comes to us in the form of stories which are called parables. Today, in the Gospel of Luke we are presented with a parable told by Jesus which is very much to the point about God and our experience of suffering in this world.
There is a judge, one who does not fear God and has no time for other people either. (18:2) There is also a widow who keeps coming to the judge, seeking justice against an unnamed opponent. (18:3) Alongside orphans, widows in the Bible were symbolic of those vulnerable people to whom powerful people, like judges, had a moral obligation, concerning their safety and welfare; they should receive justice. In the parable, the widow is powerless, but she is not voiceless.
Repeatedly she comes back to the judge with her demand for justice. In other words she nags the judge for justice. If, traditionally, nagging has been associated with women, that’s because it’s what’s available to the otherwise powerless to get what they need from those who are failing to deliver: “look, I’ve said I’ll do it, so why do you keep coming back to me about it every six months?” And because this widow ‘keeps bothering’ him, this judge will ‘grant her justice’ so that she will go away and not come back. (18:5)
Then Jesus says something significant about God and about us. Think about what this unjust judge is like, says Jesus, then think of its opposite in order to know what God is like: ‘And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?’ – like in the psalms – ‘Will … [God] delay in helping them? I tell you … [God] will quickly grant justice to them.’ (18:7, 8) Our situation – a world where much is unjust – can be compared with that of the widow, but the character of the judge is there to be contrasted with the character of God. We are the widows, but God’s the opposite of that judge.
So how should we respond? What should we do about it? Well, according to Luke, Jesus told this parable ‘about their need always to pray and not to lose heart.’ (18:1) This a parable about going on praying even when it seems to us that God might not be listening.
We all know that we pray for things to happen that don’t then seem to happen. We pray for peace on earth, but violence and wars continue. We ask for justice and fairness, yet we see huge disparities in wealth between and within nations, and we don’t expect that to go away any time soon. We seek the health and wellbeing of individuals, including ourselves, but illness and difficulties continue to be a part of their lives and ours.
That’s a rather stark picture. After all, we also have experiences where we feel that our prayers have been answered; an inner conviction that we can share with others. Of course, our conviction will not qualify as irrefutable evidence for them that something has happened because God answered prayer. Just think how you feel when someone else claims that their prayer changed a situation. We can’t know. We have to take it on trust.
Jesus challenges us to trust in God. He says God is the epitome of a just judge, eager to give us justice. It’s a matter of faith concerning God’s character; faith that we derive from what Jesus says to us. It was like that for the prophet Jeremiah who did not live to see the future which he foretold. He took God on trust, talking about the days that would surely come when God’s justice would be established, and we would all know God face to face. Luke also took God on trust, reporting Jesus’s teaching, but not living to see the day when the Son of Man would come, looking to find faith on earth. (18:8)
We do not have to trust in silence, however; in fact, just the opposite. Although, like the widow, we are powerless to change everything, or to fully understand the purposes of God, still, we can continue to pray. We can nag God about it. It’s perfectly in order to keep coming back to the heavenly judge, just like the biblical widow did. She cried out for justice against her opponent, we cry out for justice in the face of violence, sickness, poverty, and that host of other things that trouble this world.
We also may not live to see the days that Jeremiah hoped for, when God’s justice is established, and the LORD is known in everyone’s heart. Like Luke, we may not live to see the coming of the Son of Man – Jesus Christ – and that time when God’s will is done on earth as it is heaven. In truth, I suspect we won’t – maybe that’s down to my lack of faith.
Whatever the case, in the interim, we should keep coming back to God; we should keep making demands of God; we should carry on nagging God to establish on earth the justice, generosity, and love that Jesus and the prophets tell us is of the very nature of God’s own self. And may God grant us the faith and the determination to do just that. Amen.