When someone has a pessimistic outlook or a gloomy disposition they are sometimes described as being ‘a bit of a Jeremiah.’ After hearing today’s first scripture reading you might appreciate why: The opening verses are full of despair and perhaps just a little self-pity.
But Jeremiah gets a bad press unfairly. Although something of a reluctant and, indeed, unconfident prophet in the land of Judah, about 600 years before Christ, he nonetheless served God faithfully for 40 years in the most trying of circumstances.
Judah was a tiny kingdom, surrounded by the large and powerful nations of Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. Previously Assyria had been the most dominant of these, but in the days of Jeremiah it was losing its grip and Babylon, under the splendidly named King Nebuchadnezzar, was on the rise.
Jeremiah not only saw the threat that Babylon posed to Judah, but was troubled that the Jewish people were burying their heads in the sand about the looming disaster. To compound matters, they had turned away from God. In past times, when they were more faithful to God, society had been more unified and the country was strong. But lately the people had become selfish and self-indulgent, and society – and indeed the nation – was weakened as a result.
Jeremiah saw how vulnerable Judah had become, and urged the people and their leaders to return to God so that everyone would once again be pulling in the same direction. His message fell on deaf ears, as did his advice to the king to surrender to the Babylonians rather than incur the destruction of an invasion.
But Jeremiah’s advice was ignored, and he was shunned and abused. The final invasion of Judah by Babylon when it happened was worse than anyone could have imagined. Jerusalem and its wonderful temple was destroyed, and Judah’s leaders, priests and other elite were taken captive and transported to Babylon - about 10,000 people.
At the point where today’s reading starts, that invasion hasn't yet happened and Jeremiah is still warning the people to change their ways. He has just been beaten and placed in the stocks by the temple priest, who is fed up listening to the prophet’s warnings. And so begins Jeremiah’s complaint to God: ‘I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me… All my close friends are watching for me to stumble’ (vv.7, 10).
You can begin to see why being called a Jeremiah is an accusation of pessimism. But there’s a lot more to Jeremiah than gloomy predictions.
He understands the inevitably of change, and the folly of ignoring the signs of imminent change. There are always forces at work — social, environmental, political — that lead to change. This is as true for churches as it is for nations, businesses or other organisations. Those that learn to adapt and thrive are the ones which are attentive to changes going on around them, and manage to adjust their activities accordingly.
Perhaps you remember when Blockbuster video rental stores were a feature of every high street? What happened to them? At one point that business was worth $8.4bn. But videos became obsolete, and DVD rentals waned as consumers moved towards streaming movies over the internet. You now don’t even need to leave your house to choose a film to watch tonight.
Or what about Kodak, once a household name that was synonymous with family photographs and holidays snaps? You might assume digital cameras and smartphones did for them, but the rot set in long before.
Kodak’s business model was based, not on making money from the cameras they sold but, on selling film and processing photographs. I remember as a boy the first thing my father did when we got home from holiday was to package up his rolls of film in bright little yellow envelopes and send them to Kodak in Hemel Hempstead for processing. Perhaps about a week or so later the postman would deliver our holiday pictures.
And then one day my friend Kevin turned up with his new camera. It was made by a company called Polaroid and when he pressed the shutter to take a picture, the photograph popped out of the camera instantly.
At the same time as Kodak was belatedly trying to produce their own instant cameras, which they hopelessly mismanaged, Japanese companies were producing regular film that was cheaper and brighter than Kodak’s, so even their core business was put under pressure from competition. The great company that had been a market leader for decades, and had grown comfortable with its success, failed to spot the changes on the horizon or to adapt quickly enough to them.
In Jeremiah’s day, the people of Judah still remembered the time when their kingdom had been safe and strong and secure. But that was 100 years before. The people weren't paying attention to the changes taking place in the political landscape around them. Jeremiah could see it, and see how weakened Judah had become and how strong Babylon was getting.
Managing change is as necessary for a church as for anybody else. We must adapt and respond to the changes taking place around us if we want to stay relevant. With church attendances falling and society becoming more religiously diverse as well as more secular, we can no longer assume that people have even a rudimentary understanding of the Christian faith. A lot of people have literally no idea who Jesus is or what goes on in a church.
I’m reminded of a conversation a friend overheard in a jeweller’s shop, when a young lass asked for a necklace with a cross on it. The shop attendant brought out a tray of pendant crosses for her to look at. She paused for a moment before asking, ‘Haven't you got any of the ones with the wee man on it?'
Whatever the place of Church in society in the past, we no longer hold that position and cannot assume that the kinds of events and activities we used to offer are the most appropriate for today and tomorrow.
That means we need to pull together in the same direction, and be willing to let go of the past and embrace new possibilities for the future. We can either instigate change ourselves in order to adapt to the changing environment, or we can wait for change to engulf us and sweep us away.
At St Anne’s we have a great opportunity to reimagine our mission in the context of the regeneration taking place around us. There is lots of new support and funding that we can access to help with this. A great deal of my time at the moment is spent talking with people in the community, with clergy colleagues, and with the diocese about how we might shape a response to the opportunities that regeneration offers.
We won't be able to do that if we’re constantly looking to the past: whether trying to recreate an experience of church that is long gone, or a reluctance to break habits, routines or practices that leave us stuck in a rut.
Jesus said, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9.62 NIV).
So how is change here going to happen? Because it will happen. That is a simple fact. Nothing remains the same for long. Will St Anne and All Saints be proactive in initiating the kind of change we can manage and control, enabling us to adapt to a new environment around us? Or will change be imposed upon us because we waited too long, like Kodak and Blockbuster, or we buried our heads in the sand like Judah?
Jeremiah recognised that to manage change effectively, two things need to happen. Firstly, the people have to be united. Instead of pulling in seventeen different directions pleasing themselves he wanted them to unite around a central idea. And for Jeremiah that begins with God. A body of people for whom seeking God's way is at the heart of all they do, become strong, and energised, and engaged, and outward looking. More importantly, they learn to be attentive to hearing what God is calling them to do, not as individuals, but collectively as a community.
Secondly, change needs to start from within the heart. It is spiritual renewal that enables us to deal with the things that daunt us. Jeremiah was not a confident man, and in many ways rather too sensitive to be a prophet. But even in his lament to God, he draws deep on his well of faith. ‘Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord, for he has delivered the needy from the hands of evildoers.’ (v13).
Whatever challenges we face in the days ahead, if we constantly seek to renew ourselves spiritually, and give up our personal agendas to work together as one body, we can be ready to face those changes; ready to adapt and evolve and reimagine the role of St Anne’s in the parish and to share Jeremiah’s confidence that in God we have a mighty warrior by our side (v11) strengthening and enabling us to face the days ahead.
May it be so.