I grew up on a small holding part of which my father used to grow vegetables which he sold mostly to local shops. He kept a little grey Fergie which for the uninitiated is a famous tractor developed in the post war years, tiny when compared with giants of today. It was a treat and a brag at school to be able to drive the tractor around our land. Once I had learned to handle it, my father said that I could have a go at ploughing. The art is to get the furrows straight. There is nothing that offends the countryman’s eye more than seeing a ploughed field with crooked furrows. The best way to get straight furrows is have a point, a target at the far end of the field to aim at keeping the bonnet of the tractor perfectly lined up as you open up the first furrow. If you go to a ploughing match where ploughing is done in competition, you will see striped poles set up at the end of the field for the purpose. If the first cut is made true and straight, it is easier to keep the rest in line if you keep the inside wheels of the tractor in the first and succeeding furrows. When I began to plough, my father marked out a tree for me to aim for.
However, the story is told of one would be ploughman being given this piece of advice and setting off across the field with great confidence. As he neared the other side, both he and his tutor were aghast to see the furrows heading first this way and then that. The novice was asked: ‘Did you follow my advice and select something to aim at?’ ‘Yes.’ he replied, ‘You see that cow over there…’
The bible scholar, Walter Brueggemann, has these pithy words when commentating on today’s passage from Jeremiah: ‘A destiny of either life or death is determined by the object of one’s trust.’ (Brueggemann, 1998) In other words, what we aim at in life will determine the outcome of our lives. If we chose that which is trustworthy and true, our lives will be made up of sound straight furrows. If we opt for what is fleeting and unstable, our lives will be a mass of twisted and broken furrows.
Speaking the words of God, Jeremiah says: ‘Cursed is the one who trusts in man, (mere mortals) who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the Lord.’ (Jeremiah 17.5) The message came at a time when Judah was in crisis. They were about to go into exile. Their kings had put their trust in alliances they had made with other powers. Their fortunes rested with their military, economic and technical resources but these were now failing. The Babylonians were on their backs. Through his prophet, God tells his people that because they have trusted in human resources rather than their God, they are like a bush in the wastelands and will not see prosperity. They will instead dwell in the parched places of the desert, in salt lands where no-one lives. (Jeremiah 5.6)
For us, the imminent threat is not the ransacking of our land and exile, but it is climate change, the disposal of plastic and nuclear waste, the loss of opportunity and hope for many living in relative poverty. These all serve to exacerbate instances of mental illness, abusive relationships along with drug and alcohol misuse. Where do we put our trust, our hope? To whom do we turn to find the way out of these problems? Is it to mortals? To the experts and the politicians? Or is it to the Lord?
This is not to denigrate the work of many people of all creeds and none who do valuable work to combat the ills of our society or politicians who genuinely work for national and international agreements which benefit us all. It is rather an appeal to us, to you the Christian community to get your thinking, your theology right. To be clear that God is sovereign in all things and that our trust should ultimately be in him. If he is the marker for whom we are aiming, the one in who we trust, then our perspective on the world around us will be different from neighbours, friends and colleagues who do not share our faith. We will know and believe that the answer to the problems of our society and the world lies in the heart of every human being on the planet. Hearts are sinful, deceitful above all things as Jeremiah has it at the end of the reading. (Jeremiah 17.9) It is only in relationship with Jesus through his work of salvation on the cross that lives can be righted and set on a good course. This should be our mindset. When others raise the woes of the world, we ought not to get caught up in a completely negative ‘we’re all doomed’ type conversation like Private Frazer from Dad’s Army, nor do we need to be over board in enthusiasm for the latest cure all. Rather to be thoughtful and prayerful, always ready to share our hope and trust in the Lord.
May we be encouraged and supported by what Jeremiah has to say of those do trust in the Lord: ‘Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when the heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.’ (Jeremiah 17.7-8) What a contrast to the one who trusts in mankind for all the answers who is like the bush in the wastelands. The same idea is also laid out in our psalm today, psalm 1. The challenge is this: Where is our trust? What are we aiming for? Where do our roots lie?
A similar choice is presented by Jesus in the gospel reading for today. (Luke 6.17-26) This time it is blessings and woes. There is a huge crowd of people not only listening to Jesus’ teaching but also being healed of diseases. Evil spirits were given their marching orders, and many are coming to be cured. It’s and exciting time. Jesus looks at the disciples; he looks at us and offers his blessing on four kinds of people: the poor, the hungry, the sad and the despised. How odd is that. For good Jewish people hearing Jesus saying that for the first time, it was a real puzzle. It turned upside down what they always understood about God. God’s blessing was to be seen in prosperity. Those who were rich, well fed, happy and respected were the ones God was blessing? Surely poverty, malnutrition, sadness and being shamed were all indications that you had fallen out of favour with God?
But Jesus is concerned to turn that thinking on its head. While it is true that all the good things of this life are blessings from God, if you make them your end your goal, you will have no room for the blessings of eternal life. So, it is woe to you. But those who do not enjoy every creature comfort, who are not always the life and soul of the party, they have the capacity for the eternal values of which Jesus spoke. If we are blessed with these things in life, we need to be thankful but not make acquisition and good standing our aim and goal in life, but rather ‘press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called us heavenwards in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3.14)
Jesus said: ‘No-one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ (Luke 9.62) The direction which we chose, the place we head for, that in which we place our trust is of vital importance and affects every aspect of our lives. If like the ploughman, we want to make a good job of it, we need to be clear and intentional about placing our trust hope in Jesus and not in the things of this world. We need to see that we maintain our course not drifting off the mark or hiding our intention from others. In these ways, we may enjoy the rich blessing of God, a fruitful tree standing sure through drought and storm.
3rd Sunday Before Lent 17.02.2019