I`ve got one of those new-fangled gadgets at home… it`s called a `tablet`… You`ve probably seen them about. It`s basically a little hand-held computer and some while ago I was trying to get grips with how it works and I discovered that among the little buttons you can press…. is one that says “Factory settings”.
As far as I can work out… if the blessed thing isn`t working as it should then I gather you can press this button and it takes things back to the beginning… to how things were when you bought it. This, I think is designed to clean up the system… the down-side of course it deletes all the stuff you`ve done in the meantime…. Including things you might otherwise have saved… like e-mail addresses of people you`re in touch with and so on… but it`s a kind of re-set button.
And I found myself wondering of how many of us have that occasional, wistful thought… “Wouldn`t it be nice to have our own, personal `re-set button`? Wouldn`t it be good to have some button we can press to as it were set all manner of things right…. Wipe the slate clean or some way of undoing the things we regret…. you get the picture(?)
And this reminded me of how often I`ve seen this attempted ……in particular by those we call celebrities. On numerous occasions I`ve seen well-known public figures turn up- especially on chat shows- and engage in a sort of `re-set` of their career. There`s quite an art to it really. The conversation usually goes along the lines of… “Well the divorce behind me now… I`ve stopped drinking and I`m out of re-hab`…. and I`ve just written a book about it all…..” And by virtue of this confessional exercise it`s not long before we start thinking of this person as a `national treasure`!
Journalists often refer to this kind of spectacle as “re-inventing oneself”…. And it`s a game we`re all encouraged to play apparently. So I wasn`t surprised a few days ago, when I caught a brief news item which spoke of a proposal to dispense with the customary ways of addressing people… What we know as “Mr” or “Ms” or “Mrs” are thought by some to be old hat because they don`t take account of those who choose to quote: `identify themselves` differently.
Now I`m not going to get into a discussion about what`s often called `gender politics`, I just want to use this as an illustration of how it often seems that many people want to as they put it: `self-identify`.. In other words, such people assume that they will create themselves; they choose `who they will be`… and so on. And should they get bored… or fancy a change; then just like the celebrities they can press the re-set button and start all over again…….The sad thing, of course, is that such people never really have the uniqueness they crave. I mean for much of the time we`re following a path laid by image makers…. We shop at certain places…. buy certain brands of clothing… and mix in certain circles so as to re-inforce this image we feel `suits us`.
And `suit` is an appropriate word… because it`s just like putting on a garment; it`s an external thing… it doesn`t get to the core of things. And I don`t know about you but this seems like such hard work! I mean, why would we want to persist in living in such a way that we are forever conscious of playing a role; of fitting in with or rebelling against cultural and other images and expectations? It may be just me but it seems awfully like `perpetual adolescence`. But if that`s NOT the way to go then what alternative do we propose?
Well let me ask if you have ever been on retreat? I`d like to recommend it to you. I`ll give you all the guidance, help and encouragement you need… but I think it would do you good. Being away for a few days… and there are plenty of places to choose from… and it really isn`t that expensive… Just taking a few quiet days to reflect and pray is our version of the re-set button. It`s what I would call `re-hab for the soul`.
In my experience; what happens is that as you arrive and settle into the quiet and the space of a retreat house… As you begin to enjoy some comfortable accommodation… and often beautiful surroundings; the person guiding you may well offer you a short Bible passage… a few verses to reflect on. Now, there`s a huge number they could choose from… but one of them might be the passage we heard this morning. Those opening verses from the Book of Jeremiah. ”Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you…” (Jeremiah 1.4)
What I`m getting at is that verses like this one seem almost designed to set the terms of our engagement with the Lord .… and especially in a time of retreat. Verses like this tell you straight away that there IS some `re-setting` going on… a re-setting of our lives…. But it`s not about US re-creating ourselves… It`s not about us giving ourselves some new identity; it`s about us RECEIVING the identity we were given as the passage says….. since `before we were born`.
Now you don`t HAVE to go on retreat to get this point .. (but many folk don`t get it until they do….!) Because this is also part and parcel of what`s going on here this morning. Sunday worship is also about pressing the re-set button… about getting things; about getting our lives the right way around. Because here`s the thing: before Jeremiah knew God… God knew Jeremiah. ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you`.. says the Lord.
“Before you or I ever thought or knew about this God… He knows US. THIS is the reality of our lives before God.. “ (Eugene Peterson) It`s THIS that defines us… and gives us a true sense of who we are. We are known before we know. (1 Corinthians 13)
Back in the seventeenth century St. Francis de Sales –in one of my favourite books; written for those seeking to maintain a life of prayer in the busy-ness of home and working life- wrote a series of short reflections. The first begins like this: “Consider that a certain number of years ago you were not yet in the world, and that your present being was truly nothing. My soul, where were we at that time? The world had already existed for a long time, but of us there was as yet nothing. God has drawn you out of that nothingness to make you what you now are… and he has done so entirely out of his own goodness and without need of you” (St. Francis de Sales Introduction to the Devout Life).
I think it`s very easy for us to think and talk of God as an object about whom we have questions. We might be curious about him or even read books about him…. We might pop into church from time to time to see what he`s up to… or admire the occasional sunset. But long before we had questions about God he has been questioning us. Long before it ever crossed our minds that God might be important ….. that God singled US out as important; this God engaged with us……..
As Jeremiah says: Before we were formed in the womb God knew us. Again, we are known before we know… and sitting with a verse like this or bending ourselves to worship simply presses the re-set button….. It gets things the right way round. In other words, my identity does not begin when I begin to understand myself. It will not be found in whatever image I try to cultivate or present to others. There is something previous to all of this… and it`s what God thinks of me.
To put it another way: in a place of retreat… or indeed on Sunday mornings we are confronted with the Word of God… and that word is “Before”….. In a place of Retreat and on Sunday mornings we are let in on the back story….. We`re reminded of all that has gone `before` us…. and we`re then invited to see the place we have been given in the story… and we`re called to take part in the conversation. As those who are now `in Christ`…. we submit ourselves to the continuing work of God. We`re NOT self-created… On the contrary, as St. Paul tells the Ephesians, “We are the Lord`s work of art” (Ephesians 2.10)