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Truth, wrangling over words and Brexit

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
2 Timothy 2:8-15

I have a question to ask you:

How are you feeling about the world and our country right now?  Unhappy?  Uncomfortable?  Unclear what is happening?

We’re less than three weeks from potentially leaving the EU.  But will it happen on 31 October?  Will it ever happen?  And if it does, will we have a deal with the EU, or will we crash out without a deal?

And what about truth?  Who can we believe?  All the newspapers seem biased one way or the other, not giving a clear picture of reality, but clouding it with propaganda according to the politics of their owners.  Governments seem to ignore the evidence of experts and the voice of reason, not listening to the opinions of others, to drive their own political agenda regardless of the cost to the world, their nations or their people.

So let’s look at our readings from this morning, and think about how they apply in these times.

And I would like to begin with the passage from 2 Timothy.   And, this morning, I want to focus on the last two verses of our reading, chapter 2, verses 14 and 15. 

14 Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. 15Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.

Immediately, I think we see two verses which speak to our post-truth era.

Let’s hold that thought for a minute, because there are some key things we need to do when reading and understanding scripture.

The first, is that we need to understand the historical context of what has been written.  Who wrote it?  When?  To whom?  Why?  What was their agenda?  What were they saying?  And how would the reader have understood it?

Important questions.

And it seems that this is a skill which, far from just being required when reading scripture, we seem to need more and more when reading the newspapers – or perhaps the tweets of presidents – or the briefings of our own government.

So let’s ask these questions.

Firstly, who wrote it and to whom?  Well it is clear that it was written by Paul and addressed to Timothy. 

Timothy was a young man from a Christian family who had been charged by Paul to care for the growing church in Ephesus, which had had particular problems surrounding heresy and false teaching.  Meanwhile, Paul had been imprisoned by the Emperor Nero, who was persecuting the church.

So now that we know the context, our passage starts to come to life.

Paul’s admonition to Timothy to warn the church to avoid wrangling over words makes complete sense.  It is as if the church is trying to make up its own gospel, to reinterpret things its own way. 

And Paul says, “STOP!”.  This kind of thing does no good but only ruins those who are listening.

He urges Timothy instead to hold on to his faith, doing his best to do God’s work unashamedly, and “rightly explaining the word of truth.”  In other words, when Timothy is teaching, Timothy should make sure to teach the true Gospel, not the heresy of these other teachers.  And he shouldn’t get into debate, he shouldn’t wrangle over words with them.

So that’s the first part of studying scripture.  What’s the second?

Well, it’s to ask what the scripture says to us today.

The simple approach is to take the same message and apply it to the church today.  We need to hear this message.

How often in the modern church do we argue about the meaning of scripture, or whether this doctrine or that doctrine is sound, or relevant, or for today.

Does the church accept women leaders?  Is it acceptable to be gay?  Or married and gay?

It’s important we work out the answers to these questions, but what does it say to the world when the church cannot decide what it believes?  Why should they turn to God?  How true was it when Paul says “avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening”?

And how much does each one of us need to hear and respond to Paul’s plea:  “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.”

But, the question is, how do these two verses speak into our post-truth world.

For isn’t the whole problem of parliament’s indecision over Brexit because they are “wrangling over words”.  And isn’t the outcome that it “does no good but only ruins those who are listening”?  If we had less wrangling and more working together, those who support Brexit could decide on and agree an approach to getting the job done, and maybe, just maybe, agree a deal with the EU. 

And those who oppose Brexit, and in particular a no-deal Brexit, could decide how to achieve their goal, deciding who, for example, could lead an alternative government.

And what about the call to explain the word of truth?

Well perhaps this doesn’t just refer to the true Gospel, but maybe we can take it quite literally.  We are to speak truth.  In all matters.  We are to encourage others to speak truth.  We are to hold on to truth.

We may find politicians or spin doctors or journalists lying to us, or ignoring the evidence, or showering us with propoganda.  They try to cast doubt in our minds over what is true and what isn’t so that we no longer know truth.  We should close our ears to this.  And we should push back on them, insisting that they speak truth.

For these are the standards that our society needs, and these are the only standards that ensure our government can govern justly, and honestly, and peacefully, and in the best interests of our nation, our people, and, most importantly, the poor and disadvantaged.

And if we are not holding those who govern us to those standards, surely we are not fulfilling our duty as Christians to support the poor?

So let’s move on to the letter that Jeremiah writes to those from Jerusalem who are in exile in Babylon. 

So let’s ask the same questions.  Who were the exiles, and why was Jeremiah writing to them?  Well the answer to this question is recorded not in the book of Jeremiah, but in 2 Kings 24:8-17:

Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he began to reign [as King of Judah]; he reigned for three months in Jerusalem. He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, just as his father had done.

At that time the servants of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came up to Jerusalem, and the city was besieged. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to the city, while his servants were besieging it; King Jehoiachin of Judah gave himself up to the king of Babylon, himself, his mother, his servants, his officers, and his palace officials.

He [that is Nebuchadnezzar] carried off all the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king’s house; he cut in pieces all the vessels of gold in the temple of the Lord, which King Solomon of Israel had made, all this as the Lord had foretold. He carried away all Jerusalem, all the officials, all the warriors, ten thousand captives, all the artisans and the smiths; no one remained, except the poorest people of the land.

The king of Babylon made Mattaniah, Jehoiachin’s uncle, king in his place, and changed his name to Zedekiah.

So we see that there were 10,000 exiles in Babylon: the king, his court, the soldiers, and the “artisans and the smiths” – so those who could make and repair things.  And back in Jerusalem we have a vassal king installed by Nebuchadnezzar.

Our story moves on to the fourth years of the reign of Zedekiah, as we move to Jeremiah 28, the chapter before our reading.  The prophet Hananiah prophecies that God would break Nebuchadnezzar within 2 years and return the exiles.  But Jeremiah spoke out and said that this was a false prophecy and not from God.  Three months later Hananiah dies.

And it is now that the narrative moves to our reading.  Jeremiah sends the letter we heard from Jerusalem to the Judeans in exile in Babylon.  And he tells them something very clear:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6Take wives and have sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 

And Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

In other words, you are going to be there a long time – and indeed it wasn’t to be for another 33 years until they were released.  So the best thing they could do ws to seek the good of the place where they lived, both through actions and through prayer, and that way they would find their own welfare.

Once again, let’s ask how this applies to us?

Well, with such a divided nation over Brexit, perhaps we can apply it to our own situation.

Suppose you are a Remainer.  And suppose we leave the EU without a deal.  You don’t like it.  But this is what Jeremiah would say to you:  seek the good of the United Kingdom, in your work, in your interactions with those around you, whether you agree with them or not, and in your prayers.  Don’t give up but find a positive way to live with the situation and to help our country find its welfare as an independent nation, you will yourself will find your own welfare.

And maybe you are a Brexit supporter and you are nervous that we will become a so-called vassal state, or perhaps that we might not leave at all.  Well don’t turn on your Remainer friends, but encourage them and support them.  Seek the good of the EU – champion its goals and what it can achieve for us.  You may not like it, but in the EU’s welfare, you will find your own welfare.

So, to summarise, let us show the world who we are as a church.

  • Let us stand up for truth, giving and receiving not only sound Christian teaching, but always seeking out and speaking truth in all matters.  Let us hold our leaders and our press to account to speak the truth.  For only then do we find justice.  Only then can the poor be helped.
  • Let is avoid wrangling over words, whether in the church or in worldly matters.  It does no good and only ruins those who are listening.
  • Let us seek the welfare both of our country and of the EU, of Brexit supporters and of Remainers, of those who want a deal and those who don’t, and let us do this both in actions and in prayer.  For in this, we will find our own welfare.

Amen