Rejoice with me!
Readings: Jeremiah 4:11-12; Luke 15:1-10
Jesus didn’t try out his parables on focus groups before he told them. There were no trial screenings of different endings to his stories. And yet, if there had been, I think the two stories we heard from Luke’s Gospel this morning would have made the cut.
First there’s a shepherd. He has 99 obedient, docile, slightly dull sheep. And one rebel, a maverick, who gets itself lost. The shepherd leaves those 99, faces risk and danger, cold and wet, loneliness and fear, but finds that sheep and brings it back to the fold. It’s an image of God who loves everyone – his safe, devout, cautious followers, and the reckless, independent, disinhibited one who ends up a long way from safety. And he says, when the sheep is found, Rejoice with me!
Then there’s a woman. She has ten silver coins, one of which somehow falls from its place and rolls into a dark corner of the house, with few windows and only lit by an oil lamp. She leaves the rest of her tasks and turns the house upside down to find that precious coin, which she has worked for, made through her effort and her love. It’s an image of God who loves everyone, not only those safe and sound but the one who has rolled away into a dark place, hardly wanting to be found. And she says, when the coin is found, Rejoice with me!
They both have the perfect narrative arc. A protagonist we warm to. A sudden loss. The quest for a goal. Struggle to get there. The joy of redemption. A community of love. A happy ending. And the Academy Award goes to Joshua Kristos.
They’re fiction but offer an account of the truth. The truth that ultimately we cannot ever be lost to God, that he will look for us, that she will rescue us, that nobody is beyond redemption. 2000 years later, in St Andrews at the start of a new year, what new parables could we imagine which also express this truth?
A first-year undergraduate stops in the middle of North Street at 9:05 am, staring blankly at a map of the town on their phone. A janitor approaches. Can I help you? Yes, do you know where I can find the Buchanan? Or School V? Or Purdie Theatre B? The janitor then guides the student to their lecture room, no longer lost but helped to their first lecture. Rejoice with me!
A fresher wonders if they will ever make friends. Everyone else at dinner seems to have fallen so easily into friendships and is talking animatedly, everyone else has someone to walk into town with, everyone else has found someone who sees the world in similar ways. And then, after a lab on Thursday, someone says Do you want to get coffee? And you join her and conversation starts to flow. Rejoice with me!
A week into your new modules and you have a panic that this is not for you. Why did you, a lover of the natural world and of how things grow, get persuaded to study Economics and Management? You are worried you will seem like a fool but nevertheless you email your Adviser. I think I’ve taken the wrong path. Could I change course? She replies quickly and encouragingly, OK, let’s see what we can do… Rejoice with me!
You wake up one Saturday morning. That’s funny. The light’s coming from over there. The covers are a funny colour. Who is that? Ooooh, and there’s a hazy memory of that fourth Pablo and the friends who poured it down you. Later, you realise that you’re not sure if this is how you want to live, and that you have the power to make your own decisions. Rejoice with me!
The essay is due in about 17 hours and you’ve read an article or two, and have the photocopied lecture-notes of a kind friend with terrible handwriting in front of you. You’ll never make the deadline. But with a strong coffee at your side, you get started, begin to understand how the Byzantine world responded to 5th Century Barbarian influences. You are so fascinated that the word count easily reaches that magic 1500, and with a minute to spare you press Submit. Rejoice with me!
You struggle to sleep. So much work, so many deadlines, I need to get a first. I need to get an internship. Will I ever get a job? My friends are a mess. They need me to be there for them. I don’t have time to sleep, to eat, to go out, to have a relationship. I’m not really good enough at anything… But something within you says that there’s another way to be, that life is good, and there is a healthier path. You walk into the Asc, into Eden Court, into the Chaplaincy. I think I need to see someone. Rejoice with me!
You go to church with your friends. But somehow the certainties of your upbringing, your parents’ faith, your school CU group don’t work any more. It all seems so narrow, so strange, so unconnected with your new life, so unbelievable. Your old faith seems childish and boring. Yet you feel a deep loss at letting go. And so you start to think. You read the Bible and really read it. You question what ministers say. You discover your own faith. Rejoice with me!
There could be countless more parables of life in a University. Indeed, all our lives are stuffed full of such stories, every day, criss-crossing, all happening at the same time. And all, I believe, can come to the same place. Rejoice with me! God is with us. God’s love seeks us out. There is a good path which we can take. The Holy Spirit is alive in the world and in our lives. Rejoice with me!
It is so tempting to finish there, staying resolutely inside the Bubble. But the Lectionary – the assigned reading for today – doesn’t quite let us stay there. The Old Testament reading is from the prophet Jeremiah, and is one of the most powerful prophecies of destruction in the Bible. There will be a hot wind, known as the sirocco, coming out of the desert, and turning what is fertile into a waste place, a place of desolation. The language takes us right back to the Bible’s account of creation.
23 I looked on the earth and lo, it was waste and void.
The Hebrew for waste and void is tohu va vohu – exactly the same expression as the earth before God’s creative activity in Genesis Chapter 1. In other words, this prophecy is of a rollback to a desolation before creation, before light, environment and life, teeming life, abundant life, before all was good. The cities are ruined, the soil has become a desert, the whole land is desolate. I don’t see a test-screening liking this picture much. Rejoice with me! Can we still say that? Can we still believe that God is good, is loving, seeks out the lost, that the Holy Spirit is alive and in the world?
I cannot help but see our climate emergency foreshadowed in this passage: the hot wind, the desert, the ruined cities, the mountains quaking, the disappearance of the birds. A silent spring. v. 28 the heavens above grow black. Friends of mine were in Brazil recently, 1000 miles from the Amazon fires, and yet black, sooty rain was falling.
Rejoice with me!
I am a pretty cheerful person. When I became a minister I promised to discharge the duties of my ministry cheerfully. And I’ve tried to do that, for 18 years, eight of them as Chaplain here. But I confess there are moments when it seems hard to find reasons to be cheerful, when the Amazon is burning, when we see new contracts being granted to take carbon out of the ground, when we see more and more of our land given over to production of beef. There doesn’t seem much prospect of joy in politics, or science alone, or a technological fix. Rejoice with me!
We seem lost, as a species and planet. Jeremiah calls us foolish, stupid and skilled in doing evil. There’s no hope it seems in purely human ingenuity. Perhaps the only place to turn is God. God never changes: God remains faithful, trustworthy and loving.
Rejoice with me!
God who took the tohu vavohu, the waste and void, and made of it the possibility of stars and planets, including Earth, K2-18b and countless others which may bear life. God who lets life come into being, and evolve, and blesses it. Rejoice with me!
God who has accompanied, guided and redeemed our world. Rejoice with me!
God who seeks for the lost, rescues them and invites her friends and neighbours over to celebrate. God who invites God’s friends to share in the search, to care for our community of creation. Rejoice with me!
And so, even in the face of destruction, we are not alone. Whatever we face, whatever the earth faces, this is God’s world, and God’s gift of life is good. God’s whole being is bent on love, on flourishing, on rescue, on completeness, on fellowship and community, on celebration and fulfilment. God’s search for the lost can inspire us to search with God for new paths, for creation teeming with abundant life, for the flourishing of all God’s children.
Rejoice with me!