Monday, 12 September 2016

Half empty to overflowing

More often than not the Bible can feel like a bit of a glass half empty experience.  A downer. A depression.   We have been dwelling over the past four weeks on the prophecy of Jeremiah and from today’s reading we hear these words of condemnation.

21How long must I see the standard, and hear the sound of the trumpet? 22“For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.”

As if to twist the knife in the wound the people who chose the readings for today pair up this saying of Jeremiah with a parallel from Psalm 14.

2The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God. 3They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.

There is no one who does good, not one! Not you, not me, not mother Theresa, not Martin Luther King Junior, not anyone. 

Now a central conviction that came out of reformed theology which developed through the 1500s was the notion of the “total depravity” of humanity.  It is based on passages just like these – as human beings we are constantly turning away.  Turning from god and each other.

This week I read yet another “dear church” letter.  A letter explaining why the pews are empty and people are leaving the church. “Dear church this is why I am leaving you.”  Amongst all of its rantings the letter only briefly touched on the issue of the confronting images of the scriptures that tell us we are doing living in the world wrong: that we lack wisdom; that we are skilled in doing evil; that we are sinners.

Speaking about sin is both jargon and unpopular these days. 

Yet as a student of history and society I have not needed the scriptures to know of the depravity of humanity.

Even within my life I know my own failings and if you are honest with yourself you know this to be true too. On a personal level we all know that we have limitations and fallibility. We know that there are some people we cannot love no matter how hard we try.  But more than this individual conundrum in Jeremiah, the Psalms, and the scriptures generally, the movement and the judgement that comes is also about who we are collectively: as communities, as ancient Israel, as the church, and as humanity.  It is not just about whether I can be right with God but how the very society in which I am embedded is behaving.

Now the author of the dear church letter did say that we tend to speak in a dead and dusty language that has no relevance to our lives.  Words that have no bearing on our reality.  So, let us think on this notion of the evil of humanity for a moment or two, the heavy handed judgement that the scriptures seem to bringing, and let us bring it into a more contemporary picture.

Today is the 15th anniversary of the attack on the twin towers in New York.  It doesn’t feel like 15 years has passed but there it is.  15 years of what has become known as the war on terror.  A conflict that still rages in the Middle East and in different ways across the globe.  The atrocities continue and just this week we heard about the dropping of barrel bombs containing chlorine in Syria. In Australia this conflict is expressed daily in our anxiety, suspicion and prejudice against particular people within our community and by our treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. 

Of course this conflict is not the only game in town when it comes to violence and hatred and hurt but it has flow on consequences around the globe especially in raising the question how do we as humanity really care for one another.  The response of humanity to those who are fleeing these regions beset by terror is suspicion and anxiety at best and full blown fear and rejection at its worst. 

It is so easy to be inoculated against the travesties that are occurring in the world by our wealth and our access to entertainment but this inoculation of affluence may just be part of the problem.

 In the book Affluenza Clive Hamilton explores our obsession as culture with consumption and owning more.  He suggests that “We have grown fat but we persist in the belief that we are thin and must consume more.”  And whilst we live in a society in which we constantly seek to express our identity through what we own other cultures inadvertently become the prop for our idol of wealth and affluence.  The consequences as we should know are insidious.  A colleague of mine is the CEO of the organisation Stop the Traffik which seeks to intervene in the culture of the exploitation and trade of human lives so that in some cases goods might be produced cheaply for us. 

More disturbing is the notion that the overpopulation of the planet is leading us towards a dire future.  Julian Cribb’s book “The Coming Famine” which was written just after the Global Financial Crisis indicates the disparity between rich and poor, the pressures on food systems and the availability of clean drinking water and points at the connection between famine and war.  There has been scholarly work done on the idea that drought was a key influence in the current Syrian crisis.  Cribb’s book sits alongside Paul Gildings more disturbing book “The Great Disruption” and Clive Hamilton’s depressingly titled “Requiem for a Species” as harbingers of doom.

The ancient and dusty words of Jeremiah tell us that God’s contention with Israel is not only that they have forgotten their God but that in forgetting God they have marginalised the poor and the widow, they have shown scant regard for those in need.  The poor are not to be blamed for their predicament by the rich, they are to be helped!

Do any have the wisdom to attend the problems of our era?  Did any have the wisdom in Jeremiah’s time?  Yes occasionally we see prophets and people who shine as examples swimming against the stream of what we are told is the norm but ultimately when it comes down to it I suspect most of us often feel lost.  The problems are too big. Changing ourselves personally is too hard.   And, even when we do make changes, how can we know now that the changes will have desired outcomes?

We are lost.  John Carroll declares our humanist culture dead. But we are not without hope. We are not left with a dark nihilism.  As Christians the beginning and ending of our understanding of our lives in this world is not simply within who humanity is.

For look and see that across the hillsides of life, through the dark ravines and dangerous places we go comes a shepherd searching and seeking us.  Coming down to be one of us, walking among us, sharing with us in our lostness – Jesus comes.

This is the promise and this is the hope as we name: amidst the reality of our brokenness, and as we come to the realisation that we are lost Jesus comes to bring us home.

Here in this place week by week we share a story that is the counterpoint of the suffering of life and the wayward ways of humanity.  In the midst our folly God does not despair.  God continues to love us, to seek us out and to give us new hope.  God gives us life.

The hope of the gospel expressed so distinctly and yet surprisingly in the letter to Timothy: But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.

I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief.

Beyond the systems and communities in which we find ourselves embedded God, the good shepherd, finds us and bears us up and brings us home even when we are unaware of just how lost we are.

In the face of the tragedy, the evil, the folly and the sin God makes space for the celebration of life to be reignited.  We live.  We see glimmers of life and light. We gather here Sunday by Sunday joining in the celebration of the lost sheep.  We come remembering the one who has carried us here and who invites us to live again as part of his flock.

More than that we are given the audacious task of carrying the invitation to come and celebrate out to others.

This is what strikes me most out of the readings today.  Whilst we cannot ignore the heavy and hard reality of the pervasiveness of our evil as humanity we know that God, who is the author of all things, has sought us out in Jesus and desires us to join in a celebration grounded in new life and hope.  It is a celebration bigger than our individual existence and experience but at the same time remains intensely and entirely personal.

Yes there are passages the rightly remind us to know that we as human beings fail miserably and the consequences can be dire.  Yet that is not the heart of the message of the scriptures.  The message is of God loving, seeking, finding, forgiving, saving, inviting and celebrating.  And life goes on, the creation continues because of God’s immense and immeasurable love for us and all things.

I began with the image of a half empty glass but by now we should know better for the glass is not half empty or half full but the cup of life which we are offered overflows with God’s love. 

This is indeed good news.  Take a few moments of silence to contemplate this news and its implications for your life.


  1. Peter - you may find of interest my observations about the role of religious belief in the question of whether or not humans can survive the 21st century:
    Julian Cribb

    1. Thanks Julian I will have a look into this book. Peter