Our subject this morning in our series Changing Britain is RESPECT THE HUMAN. And to help us with our thinking I want us to look at verse 16 of Jeremiah chapter 6. My headings after some words of introduction are first, THE CROSSROADS; secondly, ANCIENT PATHS; and, thirdly, REST FOR YOUR SOULS.. Jeremiah’s message is so relevant for today. But when did he say these words in verse 16:
“The LORD says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But you said, “We will not walk in it”’?”
It was after the people in the north of Israel had forsaken the true, living and loving God and his ways and suffered for it. In the 8th century BC they were overrun by the ruthless Assyrians and many were taken away as captives. Then in Jeremiah’s time, at the end of the 7th and the beginning of the 6th centuries BC, the people of Judah in the south were doing the same as the Israelites in the north had done. They were going their own way and worshipping other gods. And things were degenerating spiritually and morally.
The people and the religious leaders were in denial. Hence the message of advice and warning in verse 16 that came from God through Jeremiah. But the people said, as you see at the end of verse 16,
“we will not walk in [the way you tell us to go].”
And verse 17,
“We will not listen”.
So God said, verses 18-19:
“Therefore hear, O nations; observe, O witnesses, what will happen to them. Hear, O earth: I am bringing disaster on this people, the fruit of their schemes, because they have not listened to my words and have rejected my law.”
But is not this exactly the problem in today’s world? Millions are not walking God’s way spiritually and morally. Why should you, therefore, assume that all will continue well if things don’t change? So what can you learn from Jeremiah for such a time as this?
Well, first, about THE CROSSROADS and which humanism to choose?
Through Jeremiah, the Lord says,
“Stand at the crossroads and look.”
In Jeremiah’s day the people of God first needed to do some “looking” and stock-taking. And that is needed today. You have to do it individually and we together have to do it as a church. And then individually and as a church we must take such action as we can in our collapsing culture - for such it is. You must see what is going on. But when you look at “respecting the human”, you can see there are two basic sorts of humanism to choose from.
And one, the God rejecting sort, has become quite nasty. Humanism is fundamentally a search for realizing your human potential. It is seeking ways you and others can be more fulfilled, and enjoy more, explore more and develop more the world around you. But there are two paths that people can take in that search. As in Jeremiah’s day, you can take the path that goes God’s way. Or you can ignore him and turn your back on him and go on that other path at the crossroads. That is your own path.
But when you do that, you move away from the good life that the Bible teaches and that past Christian generations have seen the Bible implies. And you decide for yourself what is right and wrong. That “going your own way” has been increasing in the Western world over the last two hundred years.
Especially on the European continent, in France and Germany, there have been thinkers who have led the way in this revolt from God. Initially, it was a rational movement. It appealed to human reason. But it did that enjoying the Christian moral capital of previous centuries. So people were still agreed over much moral behaviour. Societies could still hold together.
But that is changing and has changed.
The industrial revolution showed some of the worst sides of human nature, as did the First and Second World Wars, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao plus Viet Nam and the threat of a Nuclear Armageddon. All that led many in the second half of the 20th century into an alternative humanism that already had been gathering strength.
This was not a secular intellectual humanism following deistic thinkers. Those old humanists had believed in a god; unlike the God of Psalm 139, our Psalm, he was a distant god who did not speak or get involved in the world. Now, however, by contrast there was a following of positive and aggressive atheists like Feuerbach, who believed religion was for children; Marx, who believed religion caused injustice; Freud, who believed religion was an illusion; and, Nietzsche, who said God was dead and all is now permissible.
Nietzsche held that once you deny God, you can only achieve authentic freedom by denying moral constraints and inventing your own morality. And through various lesser intermediaries this philosophy has resulted in a new aggressive post-modern form of humanism where the human will rather than the human intellect is sovereign.
In fact the individual human will is one of the very few things it leaves that is sacred. Indeed, the human will is the new holy of holies which must never be invaded - hence the near hysteria over phone-hacking while ignoring the sexual morals often promoted by journalists and their most vociferous critics. For the individual human will must be respected and protected and be sovereignly free, whether rational or irrational, good or bad.
And this irrational existentialism – such is it called – (in an anodyne form) has been taught to teachers in training and then children, particularly in the 1980s, through such things as “values clarification” programmes. It then, little by little, has become the “politically correct” practical philosophy in many schools. It also is assumed in medical ethics, in Parliament, in the courts (sadly) and in the media.
It is, of course, a main source for “moral relativism” and “non-judgmentalism”. Such “non-judgmentalism” is what many now mean by “respecting the human”. And it creates huge problems and ends up being quite pernicious. Ignoring the biblical tradition, people are now told to make up their own ideas on beliefs and morals. But if these beliefs and morals are wrong and if you are a reasonable human being, you cannot, by definition, respect such beliefs or behaviour. You will want, when appropriate, peacefully to argue against false views and values. Ignoring rationality is so dangerous – witness the terrible views and values evidenced in Norway on Friday.
Yes, as a Christian you must respect the individual concerned. You respect them as loved by God and created in his own image. But you simply must not respect their wrong beliefs or behaviour any more than you would respect your own young child’s beliefs about, or behaviour in, walking towards the edge of a precipice.
In short, when today you “look” at the current situation, you see two humanisms to choose from. So how do you help people decide? Answer, and our …
… second heading, verse 16, you tell them to “ask for the ANCIENT PATHS
… ask where the good way is, and walk in it.”
When you forsake the living God of history, and you worship or honour just what you can see and feel (namely the physical material world), you will soon ignore history and the past. This was happening in Judah in Jeremiah’s time as people were exchanging the worship of the true God for the worship of the Baals. Baal worship was essentially nature worship with fertility the object, through sex, farming and sometimes the sacrifice of children. So it was concerned almost exclusively with the present. And that is the same today.
But today it is because there is a presumption among many people that the present and the new is always better than the past and the old. So advertising says products are “new” to prove they must be good. Averts in a recent Time magazine went from “new Royal First Class” on Thai Airlines, to “the new SLK Mercedes-Benz” which must be a good motor company because of, I quote, “125! Years of innovation”, to Schneider Electric’s “yes, the smart grid is coming [so it’s new] and we are actively implementing intelligence and innovations.” and so on. Now in 1954 C.S.Lewis, in a lecture, had asked the question:
“How has it come about that we use the highly emotive word ‘stagnation’, with all its malodorous and malarial overtones, for what other ages would have called ‘permanence’? … Why does "latest" in advertisements mean "best"?
His answer was, of course, that in technology the latest usually is the best.
However, as he rightly points out, mechanical progress does not mean all else is progressing. But inevitable moral and human progress has been believed to be the case by many. So why bother, they say, with studying the past?
Lewis reported on teaching men from the RAF at the end of the Second World War:
“It seemed to me [he said] that they did not really believe that we have any reliable knowledge of historic man. But this was often curiously combined with a conviction that we knew a great deal about Pre-Historic Man: doubtless because Pre-Historic Man is labelled ‘Science’ (which is reliable) whereas Napoleon or Julius Caesar is labelled as ‘History (which is not).”
Something similar seems to have been the case in Jeremiah’s day. So what in his day was it to “Ask for the ancient paths”?
Answer – it meant going back to Mosaic teaching that you have in the first five books of the Bible – or as much of that as King Josiah had recently rediscovered. And equally today, if you are to decide about the true nature of humanity and human beings, you too need (as we shall see) to go back to that same teaching.
Of course, if you are a new aggressive humanist, you will say the decision as, for example, to when human life begins and ends is entirely up to you and not the Bible. But the Christian humanist disagrees.
Let me explain, for a moment, by outlining some of the “ancient path” on this very subject and in particular abortion.
We know abortion was common in the ancient world – hence the Hippocratic Oath for doctors: “I will not give a pessary to a woman to cause abortion”. But the coming of Christ and the spread of the Christian faith brought a challenge to abortion. In the period immediately following that of the Apostles one of the distinctive marks of the church was its opposition to abortion. In the modern period and with modern knowledge, until negative interference in the womb began with legalized abortion, there was general agreement in the Christian West. It was that human life was a continuum from fertilization to death and foetal life should never be terminated, save in the rare situation that a mother’s life was endangered. There was agreement with King David over the answer to the question
“whose is the history of that which is in the womb – the mother’s or a separate human individual’s?”
As we heard in Psalm 139, David had no doubt. It was his history and he was in the womb – Psalm 139 verse 13:
“you created my inmost being; you knit me together my mother’s womb”
Most importantly it was recognized that the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Divine Son, began not with Christmas and his birth, but his conception. “He,” as we say in the Creed, “was conceived.” Also the Bible sees human life as a gift. So when Job was bereaved he said:
“the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away” (Job 1.21).
Human life is not something you achieve by reaching a certain level of health or intelligence. Respect and protection are to be offered to human individuals because they are all created by God in his image. It is not because of physical fitness or mental ability. Jesus Christ had a particular respect for the deformed and the outcast. So Genesis 9.6 says:
“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”
That brings us back to humanism in general. For the concept of man being “in the image of God” is at the heart of, and a decider for, true humanism.
We are introduced to the concept in Genesis chapter 1. Verses 27-28 say:
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’"
But what is it to be “in the image of God”? What are the features of God that we should aim to imitate to be truly human in God’s image? I am convinced by theologians who say there are at least five.
First, there is rationality. Genesis 1 reveals God deciding and then acting to bring creation into being, and then reviewing it and finding it good.
Secondly, there is creativity itself.
Thirdly, there is the ability to manage and shape your environment (subduing the earth). With co-operation with others than results in civilization.
Fourthly, there is morality or obeying God’s will. This is to reflect God’s preferences and keep his image in us from degenerating.
And, fifthly, there is socialization. God made us to live in community with others – in a social group. God’s words in verse 27 were,
“Let us make man in our image.”
Why the plural? Christians down the ages have seen that as the personal plurality of God and a social aspect to the Godhead. This is clearer in the New Testament which shows that God is one God in three Persons - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - the divine Trinity.
So for a true humanism and to be truly fulfilled you need to be rational, creative, managing (certainly your own self and immediate environment), moral according to God’s word, and social. That is what God created you for and is in the process of re-creating you for when Christ returns. And such re-creation is desperately needed because of the Fall. If you study the “ancient path” of the Fall account in Genesis 3, you will see that fallen men and women, with their backs to God, going their own way and seeking a false humanism, are characterized by the following: a failure to realise that true fulfilment is going God’s way; a failure to realize that man is finite and that what is possible is not always permissible (the sin of Babel, Nazi eugenics and today’s experiments on human embryos); a failure to see that pleasure must give way to truth and righteousness; a false belief that God is repressive; a false belief that you can conceal the consequences of sin; and a denial of responsibility and guilt.
You do not need rocket science to see that the ancient paths and that good way of true humanism is obviously the best. And it is the best because also…
… our third, and final heading, verse 16, says it is the way to “find REST FOR YOUR SOULS”
Jesus saw the relevance of Jeremiah. He quotes from the following chapter – chapter 7 verse 11 - about the Temple becoming “a den of robbers”. On another occasion he echoed, if not quoted, this very verse. In his great invitation, he said and still says:
"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Mat 11.28-29).
Jesus was the greatest humanist ever. He came to reveal not only God but man and true human living. He said:
“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10.10).
And he did not only say:
“ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it,”
By his Holy Spirit, he also gave strength for walking in that good way.
Jeremiah pointed to that when he later prophesied of a new covenant when God’s law would be internalised in human hearts and minds. So the greatest practical love and respect of another human being is to direct them to God’s way and lead them to Jesus Christ. Who needs rest for their soul this morning? God wants “contented” people with restful souls. So both Jeremiah and Jesus say that contentment and rest for you comes from going God’s way. In addition Jesus says as you accept his forgiveness and learn from him and submit to him, you will receive the Holy Spirit. Has anyone not yet submitted to Jesus Christ? Why not do so this morning? And if you have, why not regularly (and with this I conclude) “… ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and [then] walk in it.”