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Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost 

Readings: Jeremiah 31:27–34; 2 Timothy 3:10–4:5 & Luke 18:1–14

In the seven years since 2016, we have witnessed the end of several of the longest premiership droughts in VFL/AFL history.

The Western Bulldogs won only their second premiership in the club’s history in 2016, 62 years after they first tasted success in 1954. Richmond’s premiership success, the year after the Bulldogs in 2017, came 37 years after their last premiership win in 1980. And of course in 2021, Melbourne broke a 57 year drought when they won their first premiership since 1964. I therefore take heart, as a Carlton supporter who has now endured 27 long, and often painful years, since our last premiership success, that the bad times won’t last forever.

That’s the message from today’s reading from the Book of Jeremiah. The message that Jeremiah conveys from God to the people of Jerusalem and Judah who are exiled in Babylon, is that the time is coming when God will restore the fortunes of Jerusalem and Judah. They will return to their homeland and rebuild what was previously destroyed by the Babylonians. And the message is not only for the people of Judah, but also for those descendants of the Northern Tribes of Israel that were conquered by the Assyrians in the 8th century BC, and whose people were sent into exile throughout the Assyrian Empire.

God promises to make a new covenant with the people when they return to their homeland. This new covenant will not be like the covenant that God made with the people through the law which He gave to Moses. The law required loyalty and commitment to God, which was proven by keeping all of its regulations. But the law, in and of itself, had no power to make the people obey. And despite God’s love and care, the people broke the covenant. 

This new covenant would operate differently. It would still make the same essential demands on the people, but this time, instead of God’s law being inscribed on stone tablets, it would be written on the hearts and minds of the people. The point of the metaphor is that the people would have a built-in capacity and desire to obey God’s demands. The people would no longer need to encourage one another to “know the LORD,” because they would automatically “know” him as they experienced the forgiveness of sin.

Last week I talked about my own “dark days”, and I suggested that perhaps my feelings during those times were somewhat similar to those experienced by the exiles in Babylon. I also suggested that each of you too had no doubt also experienced your own “dark days”. My “dark days”, like those of the exiles, didn’t last forever. Events in my life gradually started to take a turn for the better, and eventually I felt that my “new” life, was significantly better than my life had been “prior” to my bad times. And none of that was really my doing. It really all came about as a result of me letting God’s Spirit guide me.

Just as God promised to make a new covenant with the exiles in Babylon, I somehow felt that I had a new personal relationship with God, where I had a built-in capacity and desire to obey God’s demands. I allowed myself to trust in God, and I followed this feeling deep within me, that I believe was the Holy Spirit leading me down a particular path, which in my case was a path to ordained ministry. The result of me trusting in God is that my life is so much more rewarding and fulfilled than before, but that doesn’t mean that my life is without its bad times.

I think life is naturally a series of ups and downs, of good times and bad, and I believe that it’s our attitude to both, in particular the bad times, that determines how well we cope with the natural rhythm of life. In today’s gospel passage, Jesus tells his disciples a parable about a widow seeking justice from an unjust judge. The judge initially refuses to grant the widow justice, however because she persists and continues coming to him, the judge eventually gives in and gives her the justice she is seeking. Jesus tells this parable in the context of the disciples need to pray constantly and to not lose heart, which is perhaps something we need to do, especially when we are experiencing bad times.

Writing to his student and disciple Timothy, the Apostle Paul tells him about some of his own bad times, and how Jesus saved him from those times. Paul encourages Timothy to continue reading the Scriptures, because they contain all that is required for salvation, which comes through faith in Jesus. Paul urges Timothy to proclaim the good news of the gospel, regardless of whether the time is favourable or unfavourable. We perhaps find ourselves at a point in time when, in our own society, it’s unfavourable to proclaim the message of the gospel.

I find it very interesting in today’s passage from the Second Letter to Timothy, when Paul writes, “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3–4 NRSV) I wonder if indeed that’s the time we find ourselves in today, in Western society? A time when more and more people are turning away from God, and the teaching of the church, and are turning to various forms of “self-help” and “new age” thinking, that perhaps reaffirm a lifestyle that is built around wealth, status and power.

Jesus asks his disciples a question in today’s gospel passage, “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” He then tells them another parable, this time about a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee, who considers himself to be a more righteous person than the tax collector, is praying to God, but is also boasting to God about his self-proclaimed qualities. On the other hand, the tax collector is praying to God, but is ashamed of himself and considers himself unworthy to be in God’s presence, and he asks God to forgive his sins. 

Jesus then says to his disciples, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14 NRSV)

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