Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 5th January 2014

5 January 2014 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence

I have spoken to them and they have not listened,
I have called to them and they have not answered.

On this first Sunday of the new year, may I begin by wishing you all on behalf of the Dean and Chapter a very happy and peaceful new year.

If you are coming from one of the Eastern or Oriental Orthodox Churches, it may be that you are still waiting to celebrate the birth of Christ and his incarnation, in which case I should also be wishing you a Happy Christmas on Tuesday of this week!

In the Church of England, our festival of Christmas is often marked out by a special service of Lessons and Carols – a series of readings from Scripture interspersed with choral and congregational music.

Traditionally, there is no sermon or Eucharist at the service, but rather Scripture and music speak for themselves, joining in a symphony of praise, telling the story of our creation and fall, calling and redemption.

Having recited this story of salvation, the climax of the service comes with the reading of the first chapter of the Gospel according to St John: the Mystery of the Incarnation:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

In this series of sermons at Matins each Sunday in January, I want to dig deeper into this story of salvation and to hear it told from four different perspectives.

Today I will be attending to the Call of God upon the people of Israel, both from the point of view of scripture, the Tanakh, known to us as the Old Testament, and also asking about how it might be understood today.

In subsequent weeks, I will be considering the call of Jesus – to ministry, to service, to sacrifice, to Messiah. And then towards the end of the month, I want to see how the disciples and the early church were called, before finally asking about Christian vocation in its broadest sense for ourselves.

I have spoken to them and they have not listened,
I have called to them and they have not answered.

You see, our first reading from the prophet Jeremiah almost sums up the conundrum about the call of the Children of Israel. Even the most superficial reading of scripture reveals a story of God’s persistence and Israel’s blind disobedience.

The call of God to Adam in the Garden sets the scene, you’ll remember the story well:

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’

This theme of disobedience is played out time and again, even when the Israelites are rescued from slavery in the land of Egypt, they still rebel against God, creating images and idols.

This pattern of behaviour is repeated in the time of the kings, and even when the northern land of Israel is overrun and its people taken to exile in Assyria in the eighth century, their southern neighbours in Judah do not listen, do not heed the warnings of the prophets, do not amend their ways.

This is what the prophet Jeremiah speaking over a century later was warning them about:

I have sent to you all my servants the prophets, sending them persistently, saying, ‘Turn now everyone of you from your evil way, and amend your doings, and do not go after other gods to serve them, and then you shall live in the land that I gave to you and your ancestors.’

And what Jeremiah prophesied – not merely telling the future, but warning the people of the consequences of their actions – was nothing less than the destruction of Solomon’s temple, the heart of worship in Jerusalem, and the dispersal of their people. It is about the land, the people, the nation, and their relationship with God.

And it is this sense of vocation, the call of God upon the people of Israel, is quite different to many Western ideas of vocation. This is not simply about an individual’s sense of God calling them – calling them to do something, or more often not to do something! Rather this is about how a people, a nation, a land can be called.

This is a question St Paul addresses directly in Romans 11, where he says that Israel’s apparent rejection of the Messiah is not final, and that the salvation of the Gentiles – us – will prompt the renewal of God’s covenant with them.

But just pause for a moment and think how radically different this is from how many in the West will think about vocation. If I were to ask what is the call of God upon the people of the United Kingdom, we would struggle to give a coherent answer. Our nations are too diverse, there are too many competing narratives, who would have authority to decide?

And more than that: to speak of ‘a land, a people, a nation’, in the context of God’s will for us, runs the risk of raising the spectre of the kind of nationalism over which blood has been spilt in centuries past.

Therefore, is it possible to talk in our own day about the vocation of a nation, God calling a people, a land?

Following the genocide and Holocaust of the Second World War, this is a question which has had to be addressed in the State of Israel. The unwillingness and inability of the Allies to protect the Jews in those years led to the fundamental aspiration for ‘A land without a people, for a people without a land’.

Some twenty years ago the Church of England in a report on Christian-Jewish relationships, acknowledge the fundamental right and vocation of the Jews to the land of Israel:

“Disregard for Israel’s safety and welfare is incompatible with the Church’s necessary concern for the Jewish People. Christians are therefore called to enter sympathetically into Jewish fears and hopes for Israel”. (A New Way, 1994).

However, the same report also acknowledged that there are competing vocations to the land:

“Christians also have to balance this with acute concern for Justice for Palestinian people, many of whom are Christians”.

In this first sermon on vocation, then, I simply want to make the point that the sense of divine calling is not limited to the individual, but rather embraces society;

the call to the people of Israel from slavery to freedom
the call of the prophet Jeremiah to obedience and attentiveness;
and in our own day, the call to ‘a land, a people, a nation’.

This marks a fundamental challenge to Western liberal thinking which would relegate the spiritual to the private realm. However, in allowing for this possibility, we are immediately confronted with the hard question of practicality – if we do acknowledge the call of God on a society’s life, how can that be balanced with the rights and aspirations of others

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