Wednesday, 25 August 2010


Sermon for Midweek Holy Communion
1 Corinthians 1:1-9 / Matthew 24:42-51

Many of you know that I used to work in Veterinary Research. In the lab, one event that inevitably caused distress to scientists and supervisors alike was the unannounced health and safety inspection. Lab by lab, mass panic spread through the building as the inspector’s beady eyes darted about, and they scribbled in secret code on their notepads. As my lab was often the last to be visited, we were the lucky ones: usually forewarned by about 30 minutes - so that we could make sure everyone had their lab coats and gloves on; the chemical spills were cleaned up, any dodgy experiments were halted, and toxic substances stored away.

Of course, we all knew we were supposed to conduct our work according to the health and safety guidelines, but with time and experience, things have a tendency to go slack. When we’re first employed, we’re shown the right way to do things, and we conform for a while. But then we work out what we think is the bare minimum required to keep things ticking over. We work out where we can let things slide, so long as we’re not found out. We work out where we can take advantage of the system. It happens in many workplaces all over the country. It happens in the government. And it can happen in the Church, too.

Jesus said, ‘keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. ...Be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him’. Is the Church still keeping watch? Is the Church ready for what St. Paul calls the revealing of the Lord, which will happen without warning?

Jesus says it will happen quietly, like a thief in the night, and those who are not prepared will be caught unaware. Most of us take care in preparing our homes against thieves by locking up each night. I wonder if we consider meeting with God as likely a prospect as having our house broken into.

I once received a greeting card from a friend. On the front of the card is an illustration of Jesus knocking on a door, kind of like that famous painting by William Holman Hunt called ‘Light of the World’. The caption on the card says, ‘Jesus is Coming. Look Busy’. More than 2000 years have passed since the disciples were assured that Jesus would return one day. We cannot know when exactly Jesus will return. But we CAN think seriously about what we should be doing while we wait for his return.

Jesus says in this morning’s gospel reading that it would be good if upon his return the faithful and wise servant were found to be giving the other servants in the household their ‘food’ at the proper time. The wise servant carries out the master’s instructions, ensuring the welfare of his fellow servants. This sounds like a fairly pleasant way to spend our ‘waiting’ time, by feeding each other. ‘Give us today our daily bread’, we pray, and we do need it. Being ‘fed’ at the proper time suggests to me regular healthy eating, which would promote the strength and well-being of the servants. If you’re healthy and strong, you can do a lot of good work. If you’re unhealthy, it’s more difficult to keep watch and be ready for life’s unexpected events.

Being fed or nourished can also have other meanings, too. I’m thinking here of encouragement – it’s good for the Lord’s servants to encourage each other at the proper time - being sensitive to each other’s needs; helping to build up the faith of others.

But in the illustration of the master who stays away for a long time, nourishment of the servants isn’t the only point. Jesus gives the example of the faithful and wise servant because it’s an example of obedience to the master. Jesus wants his disciples to actively, faithfully and obediently live out his commandments and take on his commission until he returns.

Jesus commanded us to love God and to love one another; and he commissioned us to go and make disciples of all nations. The gospel has been proclaimed around pretty much the whole world, and it’s necessary to continue that proclamation. Professing Christians have been kept busy over the centuries. But the history of Christianity shows that some who profess to act in the name of the Lord have instead acted in the name of corruption and oppression. And if we’re honest, many of us get our priorities wrong as Christians. We get side-tracked and distracted by the complications of life. But alongside that we need to keep a centred core of readiness; and we need to keep short accounts with God - to be prepared to meet with him either upon our own death, or when Jesus returns to the earth, whichever comes first.

Here’s a question for you: what is the Scouting and Guides motto? Be prepared. Robert Baden-Powell explained the meaning of the phrase:
‘To BE PREPARED means you are always in a state of readiness in mind and body to do your duty. ...To be prepared at any moment to face difficulties and even dangers by knowing what to do and how to do it’. This is about being prepared for earthly health and safety. But our readings this morning are concerned with an even more important thing – our eternal health and safety! If at any time the living God might knock at the door, wisdom means endeavouring to be ready at all times.

Back to my research lab and the unannounced visit from the health and safety inspectors, after an inspection, we would receive a detailed report about which areas of the lab were found to be below the required standard and what we must do to improve. Would it help if we Christians could be given such a concise and concrete report from the Lord, with tick boxes and a time schedule for completing the necessary improvements? And I wonder how close God’s inspection report on us would tally with our own self-analysis. (For a glimpse into what God’s report might say about the Church, just read the letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation)!

But for ourselves, in the absence of a personalised health and safety report from God, we pin our hopes on the mercy of the Lord, and do the best we can in our circumstances. We have the master’s orders, though, and we should resolve daily to be obedient until his return.

We have big clues on what to do while we wait – and these clues are found in Scripture. St. Paul (1 Cor 1) says we are ‘called to be holy’. ‘Holy’, meaning set apart. Set apart for God, knowing that we belong to God. The call to holiness is the vocation of the Christian believer. And holiness in action increases with an increased focus on our relationship with Christ and his will for our life. This is the life of faith, which according to Martin Luther, is a life in which we recognize that although our sinful nature never leaves us, the grace of God ‘invades’ us and draws us close to Christ. And according to John Calvin, part of holiness is suffering – suffering is not a punishment from God, it is participation with the life of Christ, who suffered for us. The Christian mystics would agree with Calvin on this point.

So what shall we do while we wait for Christ to return? For your consideration I suggest taking up the responsibility to actively be holy. Love is at the core of holiness: Love God and love one another. Actively be faithful and obedient to God; feed and encourage others. Keep watch and be ready, because we do not know on what day our Lord will come. Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Psalm 27

I'm back from being away! It was a wonderful long holiday, and I've finally finished washing the piles of laundry that resulted from our travels to France and Germany and having 8 people in the house.

During August and September we are doing a sermon series at church on the Psalms, the collection of Hebrew poems compiled over a period of some 1000 years and written by more than 12 different authors. The following is taken from the sermon I preached yesterday:

Today’s psalm, Psalm 27, is credited to King David, who probably did write the majority of the psalms. Psalm 27 was written against a background of great danger. David may have been writing in response to persecution from Saul or from his son Absalom; he was obviously under the threat of enemies, but they remain unspecified here in this psalm. Whatever it was, it was certainly a nerve-wracking and hostile time.

If you’ve ever been in a situation where you were really afraid – for your job, financial security, your health, your personal safety or the safety of loved ones, for your freedom, or for your life... you will know the debilitating effect of fear. Whatever your present situation, the reality of life is that everyone eventually will experience some kind of trouble and distress. In our Psalm, David meets his fears head on and defies them with the strength of his faith.

In the midst of distress, David begins Psalm 27 with an affirmation of the depth of his faith and his confidence in God:

The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?

David’s courage and assurance comes from his security in the Lord. God was his light – guiding him; God was his salvation – delivering him; God was his stronghold –protecting him. The questions, ‘whom should I fear’ and ‘of whom should I be afraid’ are rhetorical, like the questions posed by St. Paul in his letter to the Romans in chapter 8: ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’ ‘Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?’ ‘It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns?’ ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?

As Christians we strive to adopt Paul’s attitude and David’s attitude - to have confidence in God and not be afraid, and we ask for the help of the Holy Spirit, as we cannot do this in our own strength.

One Christian who was greatly strengthened and consoled by Psalm 27 was James Hannington, the Anglican missionary to Uganda who became bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa. In 1885, he was imprisoned and soon after, martyred. Now he’s a Saint with a capital ‘S’, but on the day before he died a martyr’s death under horrible circumstances, in his journal this St. James declared that in the midst of being ‘broken down and brought low’, he was comforted by Psalm 27.

None of us are likely to be in the same position that James Hannington was in when he endured a martyr’s death. But still, God cares for us in our relatively smaller trials of life. Sometimes when we feel like life has become a daily battle, we can forget this truth. We might think that our concerns and suffering isn’t that important in comparison with some of the problems other people have in the world today. But we mustn’t belittle the smaller trials and fears we all encounter in life, because each individual person matters to God – even the very hairs on our heads have been numbered! Our good shepherd seeks out and cares for the one lost sheep. So please don’t ever think that your problems or fears are too small for God to attend to.

These days we have fears of many kinds: for the safety of our children or grandchildren, because of violence and terrorism; or we fear our declining health or our declining wealth, and whether or not this planet can endure all the abuse we are putting it through. In the face of threatening times, David proclaims in Psalm 27 that he wants one thing over all; that is, he wants to stay close to God.

Like the Teacher in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, David has tried everything – work, pleasure, money – and none satisfy. But whereas the Teacher in Ecclesiastes resolves the seeming futility of everything with cynicism, David in Ps. 27 concludes that the only satisfying resolution is communion with God. It is God who makes us safe, and knowing this leads David to confident praise.

Of course, this confidence does not eliminate all trouble from life, and a deep faith should not lead to a denial of reality. This psalm has been set in a context in which troubles are acknowledged. And this leads David into the pleading prayer of verses 7-12: Hear my voice when I call, O Lord; be merciful, and answer me... Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger... David knows he is unworthy, but his hope lies in God’s mercy, not on the basis of his own moral behaviour. This gives us all hope, as we all fall short of the glory of God.

David’s heart is soft and his soul is open to transformation by God as he pleads: ‘Teach me your way, O Lord; lead me in a straight path’. We, too, need to be teachable and open to the leading of God’s Spirit. We, too, can have confidence as we call on God for mercy, for his guidance, and for liberation from that which causes us to be afraid.

The psalm concludes with a return to confidence; David’s complaint was real, but it’s powerfully contained in the trust before and after. The final verse is a deep encouragement: Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart, and wait for the Lord. David is fully confident that with the Lord as his light, his salvation, and his stronghold, he will see the goodness of the Lord in the here and now – ‘in the land of the living’.

This psalm has a universal resonance with people, because we all go through tough times. And through this psalm we are reminded of the assurance we have through confidence in God. The great gift of the psalms as a whole is that through various times and seasons of our lives we will be able to identify with at least one (and probably more) of the 150 psalms. And in the case of Psalm 27 and many others, as we seek the face of our Lord in the midst of the fearful trials of life, we can allow the psalmist’s words to console us, to strengthen us, and to lift us up. Amen.