“Let’s See What God is Up To! ~ A Reflection for Reformation Sunday”
Jeremiah 31:27-34 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ October 25, 2020
“Let’s see what God’s up to!” is a phrase often heard from a friend before he heads out with the group. In this humble commissioning, and I’m not even sure if Dave would name it as such, we prepare to go out onto the street and distribute a hot meal and bagged groceries. I have been volunteering some of my time with this group that offers this outreach ministry to those who live on the margins ~ on the street or in extreme need ~ and rely upon groups like Dave’s to get by. And having cooked up a hearty stew and bagging up groceries, we take time to ponder what God has done: in providing this food, in providing all this person-power, and in working in our midst as we ALL (recipients and volunteers) experience grace and hope. Let’s see what God is up to is a humble invitation for us to begin time our conversation this morning. Let’s see what God is up to is a call for all who seek to live in the amazement of God’s reforming presence. Let’s see what God’s up to! Come let’s see.
Amidst this challenging pandemic time in which we live, there have been a variety of viewpoints put forth as to what God is up to, and I suspect that you have heard them: Firstly, God is pronouncing judgement and we are experiencing God’s divine wrath delivered now for the generations who have gone astray. And to that view, I must protest saying…That is NOT the God I know, who has come in Jesus’ grace. And that is NOT what God is up to! A second viewpoint, God has left us and we are alone…or (an atheist twist on this viewpoint) views this time as proof that there never was a God who existed. God is dead or God was never born in the first place. And based upon the evidence of God’s presence alive in so many, I will vehemently argue against this viewpoint as well. The third viewpoint, God is here with us amidst this time of reformation, rediscovery, and revival of our faith. God is very much alive: weeping with us, present with us, caring…even in this state of rapid change. This viewpoint argues that if we have eyes to see, then we will find that God is reforming the way forward. We are living in what some suggest will be the most rapid time of change that we will see in our lifetimes. I would like to suggest, this morning, that THIS is what God is up to!
God is, and always had been, liberating and reforming and bringing change since the very beginning. Let’s see what God has been up to! Reformation…change is God’s nature, whether scientists conceive of it in terms of a ‘Big Bang’ or theologians poetically record it over the symphonic movement composed throughout seven days, God brings reforming change. This Sunday, we focus upon a powerful example of that reformation as we go back in history 503 years to the Protestant Reformation that occurred in Germany on October 31st in 1517. Historians record the Protestant Reformation to be one of the most significant periods of change in the 2,000 year history of the church. There were others, of course…we might think of Rome’s adoption of Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire back in the 4th Century ~ shifting an illegal house-movement of Jesus’ followers into an institution called ‘church’. Or the schism between the East and the West at the turn of the Millennium ~ creating Orthodox and Catholic branches. And then we arrive at what God was up to in the 16th Century.
You might recall that we spent a lot of time on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation back in 2017. That was an exciting anniversary to mark, and there is an abundance of information and the October 29th service that year is still up on the website. But briefly, the Protestant Reformation was fuelled by a concern with the institutional operation of the church by those who were charged to fulfill this task…her priests. There were many Reformers spread throughout Europe: Martin Luther, a priest and professor in Germany, is among the more notable Reformers. Others include: Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin in Switzerland, John Knox in Scotland, and Hans Tausen in Denmark. While these concerns over the operation of the church were not new in the 16th Century, what was novel was the ability to promote change through the invention of the printing press. Previously, mass production of any literature was impossible. Books, such as a Bible, were the prized possession of the learned and wealthy. The Gutenberg printing press began to create a new world where information, books, and Bibles were now able to be distributed to all. In Martin Luther’s case, he posted his many concerns (his theses) with the operation of the church in a central place: the church door. The concerns ranged from the concerns over the church’s practice in selling salvation (how is that for a church fundraiser?), and his argument that faith, not just one’s deeds, would ultimately be that which would lead to salvation. The Protestant Reformation is a further example of people paying attention to what God is up to. And the Reformed movement of churches ~ a movement of which we are a part as the United Church of Canada ~ are witness to that nature of God. A God who is always up to something, if we pay attention.
The Jeremiah text was a key passage quoted by the Reformers. It has been one where God’s people considered that theological posture of seeing ‘what God is up to today’. Jeremiah may have wished he was a bullfrog, because his tenure as a prophet during the fall to Babylon was a truly horrible time. Imagine: the entry of the warring Babylonians conquering the Promised Land. Imagine, the destruction of what once was your temple, the place that long stood as the physical location of God’s presence, now reduced to rubble. The people carried off in chains; the Promised Land reduced to rubble, bodies laying where children had once played and your job is to prophesy. Jeremiah, along with Isaiah, are the two ‘major prophets’ whose call was to prophesy God’s word to the generations.
While the book begins with Jeremiah’s call as a young boy with the horrible task to prophesy as they are ‘plucked up and pulled down, destroyed and overthrown’. As we heard Dan offer the reading, we are reminded of the predominant understanding of the children paying for the sin of the previous generations. “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” The generations continue to pay for the ways that the generations of old had walked away from God’s covenant. How long would they pay…they wondered? How long do we pay for the past? This text provides the answer to that question: there is hope…“the days are surely coming, says the Lord” as we now find our way towards the end of his prophesy in the 31st chapter. This is the time of change…this is the time of hope…this is the time of Reformation! “The days are surely coming…when I will make a new covenant!” When you walk away into the darkness, you do get lost; when you walk the wrong path, the wrong decisions are made; when we stray, we find ourselves in places where we never imagined. Yet God will not leave us there. God’s transforming nature will find a way to redeem; God’s will IS to find a way; God will create homecoming! And this is the covenant, the promise, that God will make: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” It’s time… time to come home…time to build and plant. It’s time to behold what God is up to!
The time in which we live in is truly a challenging one indeed! I wonder, as we find ourselves in our 7th month of this pandemic time, if this time will be seen as being among the most formational for the church by our generation? We all wondered what would happen, didn’t we? With the advent of the digital generation, we have seen that God is alive when everything else is shut down. God will not be silent! God is not dead or distant! God’s presence has continued to be made present through online worship and zoom gatherings, through emails and telephone calls. God is present in socially distanced masked gatherings; through the delivery of sermon packages, through the goodwill of neighbours. God is alive. God is alive!
The challenge through all these historical times of reformation is in trying to focus and see what God is up to. Rather than seeing the challenge and chaos before us, seeking to see what God is up to. Throughout October, we have been gifted with a segment in our worship called: ‘Glimpses of Gratitude’. In it, I asked members to tell stories of what God is up to in their view. God is alive in the struggles; God is alive in the uncertainty; God is present…YES, God is alive. And we are grateful.
Looking back on the Protestant Reformation, it was the printing press that allowed this change. One of the tools that is allowing for a Reformation amidst this pandemic time is the digital computer age in which we live. I wonder what ways the church will re-invent herself in the days ahead? How will we faithfully be the church into the future? What will the brave new world look like? What will God be up to?
I think this is a good question for Reformation Sunday, and especially Reformation Sunday amidst a pandemic! And I know that this period of rapid change has been hard. Many have shared with me how truly hard this has been. I share this experience as it has certainly been hard on me as well! But the one thing we hold fast to….now…and always. Is that whether we are gathered through a screen, or on a phone, or together in worship….God will be closer than ANY of those situations. Jeremiah reminds us of the intimate place of God: inside each one of us. God is in our hearts. “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
Let’s go…let’s go and see what God is up to. In our hearts, in the world, through the high-speed connection of our computers. God is reforming, transforming and bringing us home. Even now.