To do good

This is a sermon for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28.

Last time I was here, you may remember that we looked at Jeremiah, and his idea – repeated over and over in his book – that when it came to God, the Israelites had ignored the real deal and gone after a cheap counterfeit version instead.

And I want to pick up that train of thought today, because in today’s reading from Jeremiah I think we see one of the most significant consequences of that acceptance of a shallow pretence at a living faith.  Jeremiah gives God’s words about his people and says, “My people are foolish, they do not know me… They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.”

These two ideas are intrinsically linked; knowing God and knowing how to do good, for Jeremiah, are two sides of the same coin.

Let me say upfront that this is not me trying to say that, for example, all atheists are immoral or anything like that.  It is quite possible to not believe in God and have a sound and robust ethical system.  We’re talking about “doing good” on a different level than what we might consider to be fairly basic moral reasoning.

But before I delve into that too deeply, let me point out that we can find the same argument made in the New Testament as well.  In the first chapter of Romans, Paul makes a fairly sophisticated argument, but what it boils down to in its essence is that rejecting the knowledge of God leads to… well, here are his words: “Though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking… to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.  They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice.  Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”

Goodness me, did he miss anything?  Well, Paul’s rather fond of a rhetorical flourish.

He makes his point, though; leaving the knowledge of God will inevitably, in his view, result in losing the ability to do good.

So if we’re not talking about basic moral reasoning, which we know isn’t an exclusively Christian preserve, then in what sense is “doing good” dependent on “knowing God”?

I’d suggest that “doing good” here means something deeper than keeping to the rules of an ethical code (however you define your ethical code).  It means aligning your whole self with God; recognising that God is, ultimately the author and giver of all good things, seeking to live our lives in such a way that they become an extension of the will of God in the world.

This points us towards the purpose of our gathering for worship; we come together so that we may know God better, and knowing God better, may more closely pattern our lives on God’s life.  Worship isn’t just something we do, it’s supposed to be something that changes us; that sees us leave here having been nudged just that little bit closer to God than when we came.

Ultimately, our worship is supposed to be the foundational act from which all of the things which have been broken or gone wrong can be repaired; because it’s the opportunity to reorient all of those broken or disordered things back towards the creator who made everything, and said that it was good.

And this is what I meant when I said that Jeremiah was talking about “doing good” on a deeper level than we often mean it.  I think Jeremiah, and Paul, and many great thinkers after them, have realised that the Christian life is not meant to just be one in which, as long as we don’t break the rules, we can pursue our own agenda.  It’s meant to be one in which we learn to let God’s agenda be our agenda.

In preparing this sermon, I looked at some Jewish writings on these ideas (I find that sometimes the Rabbis point out aspects of the Hebrew scriptures which Christian commentators typically overlook).  And the author I was reading had an absolutely lovely line to describe how he understood this.  He said that, “The man who worships is a king,” and what he meant by that, is that every person who truly aligns his or her life to that of God, becomes a conduit, if you like, for the reign of God on earth; and as such becomes a living expression of that reign.

This is, I think, something of the same idea that some Christian authors have had when they talk about mission, not as something that we send missionaries to do, but as our human participation in everything that God does.

This is why, for example, we pray after communion, “Father, we offer ourselves to you as a living sacrifice…” What we’re saying is, here, Father; see my hands, my feet, my mind, my heart.  You know my strengths and my weaknesses.  I give them all to you, to do the things that you would have me do.   To be your hands, your feet, your mind, and your heart; in action in the world and in caring for all those around me.

That’s what worship is intended to be; when everything we do, say or think reflects our intention to be living expressions of God’s will at work in the world, that’s real worship.  In a sense, the church service is just the warm up, the place where we come to learn and be reminded and resourced for the real thing, out there in the rest of our lives.

So what I’m saying – what I think Jeremiah is saying – is that when you know God, the real God and not the pretend God that you make up or accept because it’s easier, then you are able, by God’s grace, to let your life reflect the priorities, the cares, and the love of God.  And so you are able, by that measure, “to do good.”  But if you buy into the false God, the shallow God, or the easy version of God, then you end up pursuing your own priorities, cares and passions; and that doesn’t usually end in a very good place.

That might not sound like a very optimistic assessment of human beings and our potential, since it seems to be saying that on our own, we’re inevitably going to get it wrong.  But I do think there’s some hope there for us as well, because it’s saying that all we have to do is get our primary, fundamental thing right – our relationship with God – and the rest will naturally flow from that.  If you really know God, the rest will follow.

So the question it leaves me with is, what do we need, to know God better?  And how will we make space for that in our life together here?

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