This is a rough draft of the sermon I preached on Sunday following the result of the referendum in which the UK decided to leave the EU
On Thursday night, I went to bed about 11ish with the prediction of a close vote in the referendum but that it was expected that we would remain in the EU by about 52%-48%. Nigel Farage had made a statement that sounded like he was accepting defeat. I woke up about 4:30 on Friday morning and my phone buzzed. I get BBC breaking news to my phone which then vibrates when I receive it. I thought it might be confirmation of the referendum result so I had a quick look to see that the BBC was predicting that Britain had voted to leave the EU. I was rubbing my eyes because I was sleepy and I thought I must have misread it. I put the radio on to hear that actually it was true. I think many others were as surprised as me about the way the vote went (whichever way people voted!)
I believe it has the potential to be a landmark moment in modern history, maybe in the same breath as the post-war years and the setting up of Europe, the break up of the Soviet Union and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. This is a moment of great change and today we are right at the beginning of this. We already know that there will be a change in Prime Minister after David Cameron’s resignation. We may have a change in the leader of the opposition as well. We don’t know what affect this will have on the make up of the United Kingdom. After voting in favour or remaining in Europe, there are calls from Scotland for a second referendum over their leaving the UK, so that they can remain a part of Europe. What will happen in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland? What will our future relationship with the rest of Europe be like? Will it be positive or not? We have seen the inevitable immediate fall of the pound and heavy stock market falls. But we don’t know how this will affect us in the medium to long term. There is much uncertainty at the moment and there is going to be a period of readjustment. Politically, economically and for society in general we are entering a new phase which is unknown. We are a divided country. Whilst there might be an outright winner in terms of the referendum first-past-the-post system, there is an almost 50-50 split in opinion and a lot of strong feelings. Amongst those who wanted to remain I have heard plenty of expression of disappointment, sadness and concern… what does the future hold? Is everything going to be OK? How do we live in light of what has happened?
We are going to read Jeremiah 29:1-14. Before we read it let me give you a bit of context. In the year 605BC, Jerusalem was attacked by the King of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar. The King of Judah paid money and gave treasures to entice Babylon to withdraw. The payoff worked and Babylon withdrew, however, they took with them some people to live in exile. Then in 598BC, after the King of Judah stopped paying money to Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar returned, took more treasures and sent more people into exile. And the passage we are going to read is written between this time and the ultimate fall of Jerusalem twelve years later.
Let us imagine what it was like for people living in exile at this time. It was a time of adjustment. They were no longer in Jerusalem but in Babylon, with all the adjustment it requires to live in a different country and a different culture. Along with the adjustment goes the worry – what is life going to be like now. How do we live in light of all that has happened? And in his letter Jeremiah offers them advice which may be helpful for us today. For as Christians we have to think about how we will live in light of what has happened over the last few days.
Read Jeremiah 29:1-14
1) Seek to understand what God is saying
The letter opens with these words: “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” V4 There is a fascinating background to the letter that has been written. Jeremiah received a message from the Lord that said he should make yoke bars and put them around his neck. These were the bars put around the oxen to keep them moving in a certain direction. And Jeremiah’s message from the Lord was ‘we are now serving Babylon, put your neck under his yoke and move in his way.' Think about it for a moment... this could be interpreted as a defeatist attitude; someone who is being particularly pessimistic. He certainly isn’t giving out a message of hope. As we move into Chapter 28, we read of another prophet, Hananiah, who is giving a different message from the Lord: “I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the articles of the Lord’s house that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon removed from here and took to Babylon.” Ch28:2. And naturally enough, this is a much more popular message. Don’t listen to the gloom of Jeremiah be encouraged, everything will soon be OK. Imagine how difficult it was for the people of the day to know who to believe.
One of the things that I found hard in the campaigning over the last month or two has been the difficulty of knowing who to believe. As so often in electioneering it seems that sometimes the thing that is said is about soundbites and interpreting the truth in a particular way to get to the soundbite that you think is popular. In some ways saying the popular thing is more important than accuracy. And giving cause for fear of a different route is equally admissible if it helps your cause. My personal opinion is that both ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ campaigns have been guilty of this.
I love Jeremiah’s response to the popular soundbite. He says: “Amen! May the Lord do so! May the Lord fulfil the words you have prophesied by bringing the articles of the Lord’s house and all the exiles back to this place from Babylon.” Ch28:6.
Jeremiah is saying that he hopes he is wrong but actually what the Lord actually says is more important than saying what is popular. Jeremiah opens his letter by saying: “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” V4
Jeremiah recognises that the words of Hananiah are popular but what the Lord is saying at this time is more important. I think the church at this time needs to be urgent in seeking what the Lord is saying. We are hearing so much analysis in the media, we are hearing politicians say many things, we need to say, “Lord, what are you saying?” We need the events of the last days to renew our enthusiasm as Christians to come together, to unite and seek to try to hear what God is saying. Let us pray for the prophetic voice that will come through with what we need to hear. The words of Jeremiah were a blessing for the people. They may not have realised it at the time, but they needed to hear what God was saying to their nation. We need to hear what God is saying to our nation today.
2) Get on with life!
This is what Jeremiah says next: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” V5-7.
How do we live in the light of our exile into Babylon? The answer the Lord gives through Jeremiah is “Get on with living life!” Do the normal things of life like planting gardens and eating their produce, getting married and having families. This may not be the situation you would choose, but get on with living. We may welcome the vote that took place last week or be upset by it, either way we need to get on with living with how things are and not how we would like them to be. But we do so responsibly: seek the peace and prosperity of the city. Some of you may have read the joint statement between Justin Welby and John Sentamu. This is some of what it says:
On Thursday, millions of people from across the United Kingdom voted in the referendum, and a majority expressed a desire that Britain’s future is to be outside the European Union… As citizens of the United Kingdom, whatever our views during the referendum campaign, we must now unite in a common task to build a generous and forward looking country, contributing to human flourishing around the world. We must remain hospitable and compassionate, builders of bridges and not barriers. Many of those living among us and alongside us as neighbours, friends and work colleagues come from overseas and some will feel a deep sense of insecurity. We must respond by offering reassurance, by cherishing our wonderfully diverse society, and by affirming the unique contribution of each and every one.
Yes, we are to get on with living life but we do so with responsibility as well. As Christians we need to help shape the nation we are to become. We have a responsibility to speak up for peace, which is more than an absence of war but a peace that flows through every area of life for all people. We aren’t to simply go along with whatever is being said at the time; not to bury our heads in the sand; but rather to respond to this moment and seek to ensure that the country we evolve into is one that is generous and forward looking that leads to flourishing around the world as far as we are able to contribute to it.
We need to hear the word of Jeremiah: “Pray to the Lord for it”. Right now we need to pray for this country more than I think I would ever have said so before in my life time. This is such a significant moment of shaping and adapting to a new situation. We need to be on our knees together to pray.
3) Hope in heaven
This passage of Scripture contains one of the most popular verses that we share today: “For I know the plans I have for you”, declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11
I believe this verse is too often quoted out of context. We use it at times of uncertainty or when there is a new phase of life simply to say, “Everything is going to be all right”. And we do so in saying that everything is going to be all right in the immediate period of time. You have your exam results, you have a new job, you are setting out on a new course: “For I know the plans I have for you…” Everything is going to be all right. In fact, we often use this verse in the way that Hananiah did – everything will be fine within 2 years! God has good plans for you. But when things don’t work out, what then?
Jeremiah reveals the promise of well-being and prosperity was to be after a period of seventy years: ‘When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my good promise to bring you back to this place.” Ch 29:10 In Psalm 90 we are told the length of our days is ‘three score years and ten or eighty years if we have the strength’. In effect Jeremiah is telling the people that this promise of restoration will be fulfilled once they die. It is only after they have died that they will be brought back to the Promised Land from exile. Listen to what the Lord says in v14: “I will be found by you”, declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
This verse reminds us of the promise that we have beyond this lifetime. As we face the circumstances of this world we do so with the hope of what lies beyond death. Will death harm us? Is death the end? No, the Lord has different plans that will prosper us. As Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden and the presence of God, so the Bible tells us that God is working to draw us back to himself. This verse is not about promising that everything is going to be OK for the individual in the near future. This verse is for the community of believers whose belief is in the almighty and loving God who will make all things right in the end because he has a perfect plan for drawing us away from exile and back to him. That is a great reason for hope. We don’t know exactly what is going to happen in the coming days, weeks and months. I suspect there are times when it is going to be a bumpy ride but we know that we our future is secure.
Ultimately, we don’t find our identity in whether we are British or European. Christians find their identity in Jesus. In Philippians chapter 3 Paul speaks about those whose minds are set on earthly things (v19) and goes on to say “but our citizenship is in heaven…” (v20). In other words if we follow Christ, then we are first citizens of the Kingdom of God, under his reign and rule, under his authority and governing power. The church is an outpost of heaven here on earth. Ultimately we don’t live for an EU ‘kingdom’ or a United Kingdom. Our priority is to Gods Kingdom and seeing that come here on earth. We do this with the hope that God has good plans for us. Sometimes we see them in this world. One day we will see them for eternity.
So, Brexit is happening. How do you feel about it? You may be happy and excited for the future, worried and upset. Whichever, though, we have a task: to try to hear what God is saying; to work to build a country that we can be proud of; to hope in a God whose Kingdom will never fall and which will outlast the years.