Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Love in the Shape of a Cross

John 1.1-14

Now that we've talked about our own presents, it's time to open another one - a present for everybody here today but, as I hope you can see, it's not a very big present.

Someone helps me to open it and it turns out to be an empty box with the words 'Love' scrawled on each of it's six sides.

Well, an empty box of love. That's a bit of a lightweight gift, isn't it? I'm reminded of the priest who went on holiday to Spain. He was a visiting a church one day and when the sexton discovered that he was a priest he said to him, 'Would you like to see our most holy treasure? Normally we only get it out on feast days, and then we parade it around the village, but - as you're a priest - I'll give you a special glimpse of it. And he led the priest down to the crypt under the church and there on a tiny stone niche under the high altar was a golden box with a glass lid. The sexton lifted it down carefully and the priest looked inside. As his eyes grew accustomed to the dim light in the crypt, coming from just a few electric light bulbs fastened around the ancient stone walls, he realised that what he had first thought was indeed true - the box was empty. He had expected to see the thumb nail of a famous saint, or a sliver of bone, or a lock of hair, but no, there was nothing inside the box at all.

'What is it?' he asked, bemused. 'Don't you know?' said the sexton triumphantly. 'It's the Holy Spirit!' So there they were, looking at the Holy Spirit supposedly shut up in a box. And this (our box) is love shut up in a box - it's an equally daft idea, isn't it? Except that, when you unfasten the sides of the box it becomes love in the shape of a cross!

I belong to a minister's e-group. We exchange ideas and answer each other's questions. And one of the things people have been discussing over the last couple of days is how it feels to go and visit your family at Christmas, especially after you've been working so hard in the days leading up to Christmas itself. For some it's a wonderful opportunity to unwind and relax in the company of people who will love them unconditionally and spare them the criticism which they sometimes face during the rest of the year. But for others it's the exact opposite. Their fathers and mothers criticise them continually and they find it hard to bear.

One woman was amazed when she collected her mother from a fortnight's respite care and the sister in charge of the residential home gave her mother a hug and said, 'Isn't she lovely? I wish I could take her home!' 'So do I!' thought the minister. 'Because if you had her at home with you for any length of time you'd very soon see another side to her nature!'

People have been wondering why parents and children can sometimes antagonise one another in this way, when they can both get on perfectly well with everyone else they meet. I think the answer is that the relationship between parents and children is so important to us, and so full of love, that we always expect the very best of one another and then of course we get desperately disappointed when our children, or our parents, can't always meet our expectations. Whereas, if we don't love someone, then we'll put up with what's ordinary or even mediocre and think it's acceptable and even be quite nice about it. That's why it's our own children, or our own parents, who often see us at our most difficult and inflexible.

God is different, of course. God also wants to get the very best out of us and to give the very best to us, and God gets just as frustrated as any parent when we fall short. But God doesn't lecture us, or criticise us or complain. Instead, God offers himself to us again and again, in love, calling us to respond and to be the best that we can be in him.

With acknowledgement to Robert Amos for the idea of the cross-shaped present.

The Prince of Peace

Isaiah 9.2-7, Luke 2.1-14, Titus 2.11-14

The zeal of the Lord of Hosts versus the boots of earth-shaking armies on the march. It's a slight over translation but it's a wonderfully evocative image and if you went to the cinema, to see Schindler's List or the Lord of the Rings trilogy, then you'll have a vivid idea of the sort of clash which Isaiah has in mind.

In Schindler's List the confrontation is between an enterprising man and a group of Jewish prisoners on the one side, and the might of the Nazi war machine on the other, symbolised by a cohort of SS soldiers parading through the streets of Cracow. The whole street seems to shake as they march past the camera.

In The Lord of the Rings the confrontation is between Frodo Baggins and the Fellowship of the Ring on one side, and the huge armies of the dark land of Mordor on the other. As the vast column of soldiers heads for the battlefield where they will confront the forces of goodness, the whole canyon through which they are marching seems to shake with the echo of their footsteps.

But in Isaiah, of course, it is all of the armies which have ever marched anywhere on earth who are confronted by the authority vested in one tiny newborn child. He will be the Prince of Peace and the old ways of getting things done will be made so utterly redundant by his coming that they will be fit only to be burned up or recycled into something more appropriate for an age of endless or boundless peace.

The Gospel reading takes this amazing image, which is only an uncertain hope in Isaiah's prophecy, and anchors it firmly in history. Scholars have struggled, actually, to find any evidence at all that Augustus ordered an empire wide census. Nor is there any obvious reason why people should return to their home town from the place where they are currently living. After all, the whole point of a census is to record where people are living now - not where they used to live or where they might like to live in future. In 1901 my grandfather was recorded as living with his grandparents in Marshchapel in East Lincolnshire, and not in Grimsby with the rest of his family, because he must have been on a visit to them at the time when the census was taken. But he didn't go there deliberately. It's just where he happened to be on the night when the census enumerator called.

But Luke is doing his best here to anchor his story in a definite time and place. Not only has the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace finally been born on earth, but it has happened in a place called Bethlehem while August was emperor of Rome and Quirinius was governor of Syria.

Ironically, Augustus reckoned that he too was the living fulfilment of Isaiah's prophecy. Coins from his reign bear the inscription, 'Augustus Caesar, Son of God, Father of the Fatherland.' And not to be out done, he was also called the Prince of Peace. The Poet Horace says of him in one of his Odes, 'As long as Caesar is the guardian of the state, neither civil dissension nor violence shall banish peace.' But only when Jesus is born do armies of heavenly angels join in the chorus of acclamation, proving that he is the true leader destined to bring 'peace on earth to all in whom he delights'.

Christians are divided as to how exactly we should understand the story of the appearance of the angels to the shepherds. For some it's an historical fact just as real as the life and inflated claims to greatness of Augustus, and they go on pilgrimage to the Shepherds' Field outside modern day Bethlehem and photograph the very spot where the shepherds heard the angels sing. But to others it's simply a story included by Luke to underline the fact that Jesus' significance is eternal whereas Augustus will be emperor only for a fleeting moment in history.

And it's no coincidence, of course, that the message of the angels is heard by shepherds. Sometimes they symbolise the leaders of the nation, as we saw last Sunday morning when we were looking at the prophecy of Micah. But they also symbolise the most ordinary of people. Almost every family would have owned a few sheep, even families who did not own any land, and it was the duty of one of the younger children - usually, but not always, a boy - to take the sheep into the wilderness to graze, travelling to fresh pasture each day and often quite far from home. Only if a family did not have a child old enough to tend their sheep were they forced to look to a hired shepherd to care for them - and there was often a feeling that hired shepherds were less likely to defend your sheep against a wolf, a lion or a bear. Shepherds then were plucky, independent, used to living rough and being away from home, outside the normal bounds of society and yet, many people - as they were growing up - would have been through a phase of their life when they too were shepherds. So in this one story we combine an appeal to the people at the very centre of society - kings and community leaders - and to the people at its outermost edge, just as in the story of the wise visitors following the star to Bethlehem the Christmas message extends its reach to every point of the compass. The good news is for everyone.

The passage from the Letter of Titus brings into sharp focus the irony which has been unstated within our readings so far. In the prophecy from Isaiah we have seen the ironic contrast between earth shaking armies and a newborn child who is destined to be the Prince of Peace. In Luke's Gospel we have seen the contrast between the mighty August and the baby lying in a manger, who is acclaimed by angels. But only in the Letter to Titus is the full extent of the irony spelt out. The grace of God disciplines us just as Augustus had once disciplined his people to renounce their godless ways. The Poet Horace and said that Augustus had 'wiped away our sins and revived the ancient virtues', but he had done this at the point of the sword, by ruthlessly intriguing against or defeating his enemies and by ruling as a dictator, whereas the 'splendour of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ' appeared only when he 'sacrificed himself for us to set us free from all wickedness and to make us his own people, pure and eager to do good.'

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Big Things in Small Packages

Micah 5.1-5, Luke 1.39-45

Last week all eyes were fixed on Copenhagen, and no wonder for the very future of the world hangs in the balance. Will the world's leaders be able to settle their differences and save the human race and many other creatures from extinction, or will they continue to bicker and prevaricate while one half of the world fries and the other half drowns?

Great hopes were invested in President Obama. Would he or wouldn't he even go to Copenhagen, and if he did would he be able to break the deadlock? Sadly, his keynote speech seemed only to make matters worse by putting all the blame on China and humiliating the Chinese delegation. Is something as basic as injured pride going to be the cause of humanity's downfall?

Micah describes a similar situation. It's not the world that is under threat in his prophecy, of course, but the tiny country of Judah. The people have had to flee the land and take shelter behind the walls of their cities while the Assyrian hordes lay waste to the land. The ruler of Judah, King David's successor and the Lord's anointed representative, is publicly humiliated - suffering the equivalent of a smack in the face from a leather glove, the sort of taunt used by men to demand a duel or Nazi officers laughing at their hapless prisoners.

And yet, while all the attention is focused on the walled cities, where all the action is, Micah reminds his readers that sometimes big things come in small packages. Tiny insignificant Bethlehem was the place where the mighty King David had been plucked from obscurity as a shepherd boy to lead his nation to victory over the Philistines, and the same thing can happen again. When Bethlehem, or perhaps the nation, has brought forth a new leader, his compatriots will be able to return from exile or, perhaps, go back to their farmland for he shall restore security and peace.

If Copenhagen had witnessed a similar David and Goliath moment, when a leader from somewhere small and insignificant proved to be the catalyst for a new era of peace and prosperity, it would surely have been Dessima Williams - the passionate, articulate and outspoken leader of the Alliance of Small Island States - who would have emerged centre stage. Whenever she was interviewed she was always impressive and compelling, but sadly President Obama and Prime Minister Hu Jintao did not listen to her, or indeed to the British delegation either, so the struggle will have to go on.

The last part of verse 5, incidentally, does not belong with the rest of the prophecy. It has been inserted into the text at this point by a later editor. It doesn't refer to the new messianic leader from Bethlehem at all. Rather it is a boastful claim that, if the Assyrians attack Judah, countless people will rise up to lead the nation against them. The phrase seven and eight in Hebrew means 'an incredibly large number' and, although it might seem strange to us, 'shepherds' and 'rulers' are often interchangeable in Hebrew thinking.

And so to our Gospel reading. It describes a moment of hope, expectation and joy because these two women really do believe that now the prophecy of Micah is going to be fulfilled and, from Bethlehem, there will at last come a leader who will change the world for ever. However, the Christian interpretation of Micah's words sharpens the message. Not only will God's new messiah come unnoticed from an insignificant place like Bethlehem, while all the world's attention is focused elsewhere, but also the new leader will himself be a very ordinary person - born in a stable, of doubtful parentage, a carpenter by trade. And yet, already, John the Baptist is foretelling the new Messiah's imminent arrival, even though he is still in his mother's womb.

Sometimes when young people are off out for the night and everyone else in the house is going to bed before they return, Mum or Dad will say to them, "I'll keep the light on for you" so that they will be able to find their way back into the house safely and easily when they return. Isn't that the role of Christians in a time like the present? We have to keep the light on, keep hope burning, even when the world's leaders seem incapable - as one environmental campaigner said sadly - of looking beyond their own narrow self-interest. 'If we're ever going to beat problems like global warming we will need a totally new kind of leader,' he said. Isn't that what Christmas is all about?

The Gospel says that ordinary people, and ordinary communities of people, can make a difference to our world - especially if we are inspired by the example and the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

God's Grace at Work in the World

Baruch 5:1-9, Philippians 1:1-11, Luke 1.57-64

Baruch is a book which didn't make it into the Protestant version of the canon of scripture, although you will find it in the Roman Catholic version. It purports to have been written soon after the Exile of the people of Jerusalem to Babylon and other parts of the Middle East. The author claims to be Baruch, the person who wrote down the prophecies of Jeremiah, but because no copies have survived in the Hebrew language - if indeed there ever were any - people have long suspected that it was written much later, probably during a time of rebellion against the Greek rulers of Palestine about 150 years before the birth of Christ.

The opening image of chapter 5 pictures Jerusalem as a woman, perhaps a widow or an orphan, who is exchanging the garments of mourning for a wedding dress. Now at last, after a long time of exile and sadness, it is the time for celebration.

When I went with my daughter, Jenny, to see her try on the wedding dress which she and Helen had found during a trawl through the bridal shops of Leeds, a colleague at work said, 'Prepare to shed a tear.' And I think the tone of the reading captures that sense of something very special happening which, in this case, will utterly transform Jerusalem into a symbol of true peace and glory.

This is no ordinary peace. We're not just talking about the absence of conflict here. We're talking about 'righteous peace' - a pure harmony brought out by the removal of all the causes of bitterness and division between people. And we're not just talking about ordinary glory, the kind associated with celebrities and VIPs - swanky cars, high fashion, loads of expensive bling, an entourage of heavies to protect them from the hoi polloi. No. We're talking about 'godly glory' - the kind of glory which, for Christians especially, is associated with love and self-sacrifice, for godly glory finds its fullest and truest expression in the Cross of Jesus.

The passage then moves on to another striking image. The old city of Jerusalem is perched on top of a high hill and the writer imagines the City, personified again as a woman, gazing into the distance,
straining to see her lost children returning to their home. They will gather from all the points of the compass to which they were scattered - though mainly they will be coming from the East, whence a long column of weary prisoners trudged into exile when the City fell. But they will return not on foot, but carried high in triumph like conquerors.

My grandfather was a policeman in Surrey and one of the high points of his year was to accompany the winner of the national rifle shooting championships on a victory parade led by a military band. The winner was always borne aloft by the other competitors in an open topped sedan chair, and that's the kind of picture which Baruch evokes here.

Finally, the passage echoes Isaiah by depicting the idea of ancient hills being levelled and valleys being filled in to make a straight path for the returning exiles to follow. However, the writer adds an extra dimension to the image. The road will be a tree-lined avenue, or else it will run through woods and groves, shading the travellers and providing fragrant air for their journey. Generally, ancient travellers were wary of making their way through woods, because trees can shelter highwaymen and outlaws as well as providing shade. But Israel will walk safely in the glory of God.

The key note of the passage is that glory will be given to God and his people - but not glory as the world currently understands it; this will be glory tempered by a mercy and righteousness that makes true peacefulness a real possibility, even in the Middle East. What would this look like in terms of today's world situation?

We should picture Afghanistan, still occupied maybe, still struggling no doubt against the Taliban, but without any corruption and bribery, and without any bombs falling on wedding parties or innocent villagers. We should imagine a policy focused on making travel and ordinary life as safe for as many people as possible - the kind of policy which has, of late, been attempted with some success in Iraq. It's a policy which, of course, requires the occupying army to show mercy to former adversaries, like the new policy in Iraq which allowed tribal and religious leaders formerly opposed to the Americans to join them in resisting the more hardline Al Quaida militants.

Peace in Palestine. That's another intractable problem, isn't it? How would mercy and righteousness play out in that situation? I think it would have to involve the more powerful side in the conflict treating their enemies as equals in the negotiations for peace and offering serious concessions in return for an end to violence. It would mean paying compensation for war crimes and agreeing to abide by international law. It would mean an end to illegal settlements. That's my interpretation of mercy and righteousness.

And what about the meaning of mercy and righteousness in our own situation? I think it means giving everyone meaningful work to do for a fair day's pay. It means not giving up on those who have struggled to get the education and training that they need. It means ridding ourselves of a culture where people think that how much we can earn in salaries and bonuses is the true measure of our worth, and where fairness and integrity receive the recognition they truly deserve. I think that would go a long way to making our streets and parks safe places for everyone to walk.

These sound like political ideas, and they could be part of a political manifesto, of course. But as Paul makes clear in his letter to the Christians of Philippi, striving for peace. mercy and righteousness is also a deeply personal thing. In fact, without personal commitment to the vision on the part of millions of ordinary people, we won't see the glory and harmony in our society which Baruch envisaged. Paul says that by the grace and peace of God working among us, we have to share in the gospel - or 'take part in it' as the Revised English Bible puts it, though I prefer the idea of 'sharing' because to share in something implies that we identify with it completely, whereas anyone can take part in something for a day or two and for a variety of motives.

That Paul really is talking about a deep level of sharing and commitment is made clear by what follows. Paul himself has landed up in gaol because of his total commitment to the cause, and - even though he is parted from them - the Christians at Philippi have continued to hold him in their hearts and he has continued to pray constantly and joyously for them, longing - with the compassion, or deep yearning, that is a characteristic of truly Christ-like people - to be with them again and be able to support them.

The beautiful image of his friends holding Paul in their hearts, and thus reciprocating his Christ-like concern for them, is missing from the Revised English Bible translation which we heard tonight. It talks instead about Paul holding the Philippian Christians in deep affection, but - whichever translation we prefer - did you notice how that word 'sharing' crops up again in this verse? The Revised English Bible describes how the Christians at Philippi share with Paul in
the privilege of defending the truth of the gospel. But that's a paraphrase of Paul's actual words. The original Greek talks about Paul and his friends sharing in the grace of God, who will bring the good work begun among them to completion by the day of Christ. Only when we all share in the grace of God can the full harvest of righteousness anticipated by Baruch actually be achieved.

Incidentally, we have just seen that the Revised English Bible can sometimes be a bit free with its interpretation of the meaning of the text. But don't ask me which is the better translation of that striking phrase in verse 7 about being held in the heart. The Greek says something like, "Because to hold me in the heart you", which doesn't make much sense, does it? It could mean, 'Because you hold me in your heart' or it could mean 'Because I hold you in my heart'. Normally, the Greek language would make it absolutely clear which meaning is intended, but on this occasion there seems - at least to me - to be a grammatical mistake in the sentence, which prevents the meaning from being clear. That's why the New Revised Standard Version opts for one translation and the Revised English Bible opts for the other.

So, when people say that "
every word in every part of the Bible comes from God" I think they have a problem, because if the Bible really were that kind of book it wouldn't have any unnecessary ambiguity in it and, of course, God would not make any grammatical mistakes. The truth is, I think, that Paul dictated his letters and - like anyone doing dictation - sometimes got a bit muddled halfway through one of his longer sentences. Hence the difficulties with translating some of what he says. But, even when the details are a little clouded, the big picture is always clear and that's the level at which the text is inspired by God.

And one more incidental note about this passage - the reference here to bishops and deacons simply means the leaders of the Christian community in Philippi and its pastoral or community workers. I think Paul is still using the word 'bishop' here to mean any kind of leader, and the later distinction between bishops and priests, or presbyters, hasn't emerged yet.

So, finally, to our Gospel reading. This isn't the lectionary reading. The lectionary invites us to read either Zechariah's hymn of praise to God after John's birth, or the story of John the Baptist's ministry, when he called people to repentance in order to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, God's anointed representative. But I thought it would be interesting to look at John's naming ceremony, the moment when Luke says that - to the surprise of the onlookers - Elizabeth and Zechariah departed from tradition and called their son 'John', instead of one of the names previously used in their family.

The story puts me in mind of my granddaughter, Erin. Before she was born we were informed that we wouldn't be told what she was going to be called, because we probably wouldn't like the name and might try to persuade my daughter and her husband to change it. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. We've had three goes at choosing names for a child, and that was quite enough. We once missed a turning on the motorway because we were deep in discussion about whether our third child should be called Susanna or Sarah. As it happens, he was a boy so it made no odds.

Why the name 'John', then? Because, it means 'God's Grace' or 'God is gracious'. Zechariah had been sceptical when God's messenger first told him that he and his wife would be the parents of a special son. As a result he had lost his voice - not, I think, as a punishment, but as a reflection of the deep turmoil going on within his psyche as he struggled to come to terms with God's intervention in his life. His choice of the name 'John', 'God is gracious', which he writes on a piece of broken pottery - the equivalent of a post-it note or memo today - marks the turning point when Zechariah reaches the same understanding as his wife, that only by sharing in and opening ourselves to God's grace can we play our allotted part in his great enterprise to reshape the world. To put it another way, only when we fully participate in God's grace can we share in bringing about the glorious harvest of mercy, righteousness and peace.

The Gift of Hope

Malachi 3.1b—2 , Luke 1.68—74

When I was small my grandfather used to tell the story of his most memorable childhood Christmas. I always used to find it unbearably sad, but it's important to say that he didn't tell the story to get sympathy, or as a way into a rant about how young people don't know how lucky they are these days. He always told it as a funny story, and - of course - as a warning about what happens to naughty children.

The story goes like this, when he was small - about five or six years' old - he slept in the same bed as his younger brother. On Christmas morning he woke up very early and decided to look in his Christmas stocking. And guess what was in it? An apple, an orange, a six pence and - one toy. It was a clockwork train. He wound it up and it ran along the bed. Then he wound it up and it ran along the bed again. And then he wound it up and, again, it ran along the bed.

And then he got bored. So he decided to have a look in his brother's stocking and see what Father Christmas had brought him. And guess what his brother's stocking contained? An apple, an orange, a six pence of course, and - one toy, not a train this time but a steamroller.

And this is when he did a very naughty thing. He wound up the steamroller and it ran along the bed. And then, guess what happened next! He wound it up again and it ran along the bed and it fell off the end. He picked it up quickly and it seemed to be all right but, of course, when he wound it up this time it wouldn't go.

So what do you suppose he did? He stuffed all of the presents back into the two stockings, laid down again in the bed and pretended to be fast asleep until his brother woke up. Of course, you can imagine the fuss when his brother found out that the steamroller wouldn't work. I guess my grandfather hoped his parents would think it must have been like that when it was delivered by Father Christmas. But there was a fatal flaw in his thinking. Can you see where his plan had gone wrong? The steamroller was already wound up, which meant someone must have tried to play with it.

The upshot was that my grandfather got the broken steamroller for Christmas and his brother got the train. So his only real present that year was a broken toy steamroller, which I always found very sad.

My grandfather only got one present partly because, in those days, children didn't expect much for Christmas, so Father Christmas didn't have his work cut out like he does now when he has to deliver mountains of X-Boxes and Wiis and what have you. But still there are children who don't expect much for Christmas, who don't see any point in writing a great long wish list if things they would like to receive, and that's the reason for our service today.

Our two short Bible readings were also about a gift - the gift of hope. In the very short reading from the Old Testament prophecy of Malachi his readers are told to expect a messenger who will bring them a promise that the world is going to be put right. All the things that are wrong in our world will be purified or scrubbed clean. Not by magic, of course. And not without a cost. Our drama reminded us that if you purify something by setting it on fire that will not only get rid of any impurities that are clinging to it, but it will also change that thing forever. It will be transformed into something completely different.

If we were to set fire to a pair of jeans, of course, they would be transformed to a pile of ash. That's a silly idea, and not a change for the better. But even if we put them in the washing machine and clean them with strong detergent they will be transformed. Their colour will fade a bit more. They might shrink a bit. And they will look less grungy - at least for a while.

My son is a waiter and after every shift he comes home with his trousers covered in gravy, because customers leave a sea of gravy on their plates at the end of their meal. The trousers need a good wash to transform them back into something presentable for the next day.

Refining silver is a bit of a step change, of course, from washing clothes. In the picture we can see some liquid silver which has been obtained as a bi-product from making gold. It comes out of the furnace where the gold is refined as a black powder residue, but when it's heated up to a very high temperature it melts and becomes white liquid which can be poured into a plaster mould. When it cools, the plaster mould is broken, leaving behind the solid piece of silver.

God's coming into the world at Christmas is the moment which turns the black dross of our daily lives into the pure silver of eternity. This is because, the baby Jesus born in Bethlehem grew up to become the man who was crucified, in the final phase of his mission to help human beings reconnect with God. As we discover God's love, flooding into our lives and our world, it's like receiving the one present which can transform our drab Christmases - the Christmases when the toy got broken or the relatives got on our nerves - into the meaning and purpose that will make our lives worthwhile.

Then, as our reading from Luke's Gospel says, we will be able to serve God 'by being holy and good as long as we live'.

Friday, December 04, 2009

The Perfect Leader

Jeremiah 33:14-16, Luke 21:25-36

As we enter a new liturgical year, with the beginning of Advent, how appropriate that the Old Testament reading should be about the perfect leader, because - before the year is out - we shall be thinking a lot about what it takes to lead a modern nation state out of economic crisis and through the uncharted waters of global warming.

The prophecy was first spoken in the context of impending disaster. The days were surely coming when the Kingdom of Judah would be crushed like a bug, and the Prophet Jeremiah had been warning about this for a long time. He had even been put in prison for spreading defeatism and being unpatriotic. Now is the time to say, 'I told you so!' But instead the register of the prophecies changes just at this point and the prevailing tone of despair at the climate of corruption and faithlessness surrounding the nation is replaced by a new note of hope and expectancy. All manner of things will be well after all!

Actually, these may not be words spoken by Jeremiah himself, because they are missing from some of the manuscripts. But they are words inspired by Jeremiah, and - even in translation - they have a power and elegance which is in itself uplifting. 'The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.'

What exactly is the promise to the house of Israel and the house of Judah? The young shepherd David summed it up when he went out to meet the giant Goliath in single combat. The promise is that the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel and that the Lord saves his people without sword or spear. The promise was also set out, in a bit more detail, by the Prophet Ahijah, when he met the future king of Israel, Jeroboam, on the road leading from Jerusalem. Ahijah told him, '"The Lord says, 'If you will listen to all that I command , walk in my ways, and do what is right in my sight by keeping my statutes and commandments, as David my servant did, I will be with you and will build you an enduring house.'" So there you have the two versions of the promise - the short version from David, the man of action, and the version with the small print attached, from the Prophet Ahijah, who was obviously working in the insurance industry at the time.

But, of course, David and Jeroboam did not always do what was right in the Lord's sight, and their kingdoms eventually fell. Jeremiah was there to witness the last days of the independent kingdom of Judah, just before its annihilation. But the promise that is made here is that a righteous branch will eventually spring up from the royal line of David - someone who really will live up to the small print in the contract, and who will execute justice and righteousness. In those days, when Judah is finally identified with what is right in God's sight, the nation will be saved and her citizens will live in safety.

So, when we're reading the election manifestos, and listening to the speeches and observing the posturing of our political leaders, we need to ask ourselves, 'Are these the kind of leaders who are going to do what is just and righteous? Are they going to protect the poor, are they going to do something decisive to tackle global warming, are they going to act with honesty and integrity?' Nothing else matters, because this is the only route map to living in safety.

Of course, no political leader is going to entirely live up to the ideal. Politics is a dirty business. Even in the best of times it involves compromise and horse trading, which is why Christians traditionally see the ultimate fulfilment of the prophecy in the life and reign of the Lord Jesus.

Jesus himself seems to have been looking forward to a time of disaster and turmoil which would be ended by the arrival of God's anointed leader whose true power and great glory would eclipse the politicians and put the world to rights. The signs of the times which he predicted sound awfully like the storms and confusion which we hear about all of the time in the news.

They're also a fairly close match to the dreadful end predicted in the film 2012 when - if I've got this right - a galactic alignment of planets causes the neutrinos in the sun to mutate, giving rise to all sorts of special effects. 2012 was inspired, if that's the right word, by a Mayan prophecy rather than the words of Jesus, and it doesn't end with a just and righteous ruler coming in a cloud to restore peace and tranquility.

Tempting as it is to try to correlate Jesus' prophecy to precise events in our own time, and so create a timetable for the end of the world, the fact is that Luke was already introducing a note of vagueness into these sayings when he edited his sources. We have simply got to be alert at all times, like the townspeople waiting for a once in a thousand year flood event, praying that we may have the strength to escape calamity when it befalls.

The advice to stand upright and hold our heads high when disaster threatens could seem a bit like encouraging us to sing, 'Always look on the bright side of life' or to keep a stiff upper lip when all around are losing theirs. But I think in fact it's a challenge to be like Jeremiah and his followers, to look beyond the bleak and gloomy headlines of today and work tirelessly for a new era when justice and righteous will finally hold sway all across the world and we will all be able - as a result - to live in safety.