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Against the odds
The Reverend Jane Sinclair Canon of Westminster and Rector of St Margaret's Church
Sunday, 17th February 2019 at 11.15 AM
Two thousand six hundred years ago, Ashurbanipal ruled the known world of the Middle East. He was king of Assyria, a vast empire that at its most influential stretched from modern-day Cyprus to Iran, from Turkey to Egypt. Ashurbanipal’s capital, Nineveh, was the largest city in the world. It was sited in what we know today as the city of Mosul – now sadly very badly damaged in recent warfare. But Ashurbanipal was a fearsome warrior, an empire builder; a man, too, of letters and culture, and the undoubted ruler of the superpower of his day. He and his work are the focus of an inspiring exhibition which I had the pleasure to see recently at the British Museum.
The Assyrians were rightly feared for their military might, and their administrative prowess. A sophisticated form of pony express ensured that royal commands were swiftly delivered to the furthest reaches of the empire, where loyal governors held local sway. Ashurbanipal understood his task as king to be the defeat of the forces of chaos and the establishment of dependable rule across his empire. When foreign armies threatened the empire’s borders, they were ruthlessly crushed, as the Egyptians discovered to their cost. The populations of occupied towns and villages were deported to distant parts of the empire as slave labour. Thus was peace established and maintained throughout the empire.
But not forever. For superpowers waxed and waned in strength and influence then, just as they do today. Shortly after Ashurbanipal’s death in 631 BC, Babylon rebelled and began quickly to establish itself as the new superpower of the Middle East. By the early sixth century BC, times were changing, new threats emerging.
The peoples of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were tiny, insignificant players in this vast geo-political scene. Perched on a thin strip of land hundreds of miles west of Babylon, and before that, far from Ashurbanipal’s Nineveh, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were little more than convenient staging posts for armies seeking to expand empires north towards what we now know as Turkey, or south into Egypt. The kingdom of Israel itself fell to the Assyrians in the time of Ashurbanipal’s grandfather.
Sandwiched between the superpowers of Assyria, and later Babylon, and Egypt, what were the remaining kings of Judah to do in order to ensure the survival of their people, their culture and their faith? They opted for what they thought would be the safest course of action: making alliances and treaties, hunkering down, threatening no-one, and paying tribute to their powerful neighbours in the hope that they would be left more or less in peace. That’s how a less powerful and threatened people normally hope to survive when the odds are against them.
It was a vain hope, as Jeremiah and his fellow prophets saw all too clearly. By the time Jeremiah writes the words of our first reading this morning, the threat of invasion by the Babylonian imperial armies is all too evident, imminent even. The prophet rails against those who would trust in alliances and the payment of tribute, ‘Thus says the LORD: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD. They shall be like shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes.’
For Jeremiah has his eyes fixed on the bigger picture, beyond any threatening army, beyond the menace of hostile empires, beyond the politicking of negotiation and appeasement. Jeremiah’s focus is on God – the God who created the heavens and the earth, the God who has chosen an otherwise insignificant people to be his own, the God by whom all kings and all empires must eventually be judged. The prophet calls on God’s people, tiny in number as they are, defenceless in the face of overwhelming military might, to keep faith with the God who keeps faith in them. ‘Blessed are those who trust in the Lord…They shall be like a tree planted by water…in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.’
This is not an easy message to give or to receive. Jeremiah is at first ignored, and then pilloried and punished for his words. Superficially it looks as if Jeremiah is undermining the efforts of Judah’s leaders to protect the people from invasion and certain death or slavery to follow. He may be correct, but he is hated for it. And yet it proves to be Jeremiah’s words which survive the catastrophe of invasion and exile. They survive because, superpower politics aside, Jeremiah addresses the far more profound question of God’s covenant relationship with his people, and the source of the people’s identity and calling.
However insignificant the people are in the eyes of powerful neighbours, these are God’s people whom the prophet is addressing. Their task is to remain as faithful to God, as God’s task is to remain faithful to his promises made to them. They are to live as if the empire has no power over them, for in God’s economy the empire is powerless. Live as God’s people, come what may. That is who you are. That is where your true hope, your future, lies. That is your purpose: to be God’s people.
Five hundred years or so later, a prophet from Galilee addresses a crowd of people who are longing to be healed of diseases and freed from unclean spirits, with all the pain, fear, ritual taint and lack of social standing that blight their lives. This is still an occupied land. It’s the Roman empire now which holds sway. And still these are an insignificant people, far from the seat of power, far from being worthy of imperial attention, other than for the purposes of paying their taxes. Many of the people long for freedom from occupation, but they have not the military means or the leadership to take on the Romans and their allies. They hope for rescue – perhaps from the Messiah who has been promised them in their Scriptures from of old.
But, like Jeremiah before him, Jesus has his eyes firmly on the bigger picture. God’s kingdom is what matters; not getting rich, or dining in luxury, or being a celebrity basking in the admiration of others. It is the poor, the hungry, the bereaved, and those who suffer rejection because of their faith in Jesus – it is these to whom the kingdom of heaven is open: the least likely, the least respectable, the least in the eyes of the world.
It is as if Jesus is saying to the least powerful, the most despised: do not give up. Look with the eyes of faith and remember God’s promises; live as if the empire – be it Rome, or the strictures and false expectations of your own community – live as if the ‘empire’ has no power. For in God’s economy, the powerful forces which threaten and bind us are powerless.
We are to live as God’s people, come what may. To be counter-cultural. That is who we are. In Jesus’ beatitudes lie our true hope, our future. Whatever may happen to us as a result of power politics, and the failure of human alliances, our own purpose is clear: to live as God’s people, and thus to bear witness to God’s subversive, wonder-filled, upside-down kingdom.