Sermon St John the Baptist Mildenhall, 18th August 2019
Ninth Sunday after Trinity: Hebrews 11.29-12.2 & Luke 12.49-56
Given this morning’s readings, it would be so much easier if I was able to preach a good ‘fire and brimstone’ sermon. Ten minutes, or maybe more like twenty-five minutes of telling you how it is clear that we are a doomed generation and that God’s wrath is waiting for us. However, despite a promising start in the more conservative circles of the Dutch Reformed Church, my experience of God has been one of a God who loves us, and who gives us hope, strength and comfort when we most need it.
So, there is a bit of a challenge this morning, as our readings speak about torture, sacrifice, fire and division. How can we make sense of them, and yet hold on to the promises given to us as well? Before looking at our readings specifically, it is worth reminding ourselves of the promise we were given at the birth of Jesus. We believe in a God who was born as baby, bringing peace to the world. However, as much as Jesus was the promised bringer of peace, he was also the fulfilment of the prophets: standing in the tradition of Isaiah, Jeremiah and many others.
Also, and crucial for our understanding of this morning’s readings, Jesus was given the name Emmanuel: God with us. Jesus did not come into the world to fix it for us, but to walk alongside with us. In the Incarnation, God wanted to share the life of humanity, so that we could share in His divinity. So, God with us, not God for us.
With that in mind, we are ready to look a bit more closely at our readings. I wonder what Jesus’ disciples and the crowds will have felt listening to the words we hear this morning? I’m pretty sure that there will have been some who have let these words wash over them, as I suspect many of us do when we hear or read Scripture. Others will have heard it as a justification of violence to defend their faith, a pattern familiar throughout the history of most world religions.
Yet others, and I suspect I would have been one of them, would like these words to go away, but somehow, they keep going around in our minds and our hearts. More and more questions arise: what does Jesus mean here, how can we reconcile this with the message of peace and goodwill towards men? And the more we think about it, the more uncomfortable it gets.
But maybe that is precisely the aim of these words: to make us feel uncomfortable. Again, we believe in a God who is all-loving, who welcomes home the stranger and the outcast. However, our God is also a God of justice, and, as I mentioned earlier, Jesus was as much a prophet as he was a peacemaker and healer. Although our faith brings hope, it certainly doesn’t always bring comfort. God with us, not God for us.
With that in mind, it is important to note that today’s Gospel passage is set just after Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem. Hence, it needs to be read as part of the preparation for Holy Week: the week that does not only celebrate the Resurrection at Easter, but also remembers the sacrifice Jesus made on Good Friday: yes, a hopeful, but by no means a comfortable message in itself.
Starting to apply Jesus’ words to our own situation, I think it is helpful to think of them as descriptive rather than prescriptive. It is a fact rather than a wish that some of the implications of our faith are uncomfortable; it is a fact rather than a wish that to arrive at an endurable peace, there needs to be justice first – and justice is often hard-fought.
This also applies to our passage from the letter to the Hebrews. The writer of this letter urges us to run with perseverance the race that is set before us. If we compare our life to a race, we know that indeed we need perseverance at times, we know that life is more like a marathon than a sprint. Again, this is rather a description of what life is, than what we would necessarily wish it to be like.
Looking at our texts as being descriptive rather than prescriptive, also has implications for our understanding of God. It is not so much that God wants people to suffer to become better people, but that it is the reality of life that often through suffering we discover a strength in ourselves we didn’t think we had, and experience a closeness with God who strengthens and comforts us when we need Him most. Here again we see: God with us, not for us.
I would briefly like to go back to the sense of discomfort that our readings convey, as I think it is something we need to face at times, both in our own spiritual and religious lives, but also as a society at large. The reading from Hebrews speaks about discomfort in the sense of discipline. Just as we know that to be healthy, we need to moderate how much we eat and drink and make sure we get some exercise, so too does this apply to our spiritual lives.
We need to make sure that we make enough time for prayer, worship and reflection – the spiritual equivalent of exercise. Equally importantly, we need to make sure that we moderate other habits, such as looking for material goods and gain, to name just one. I guess most of us can live with the sense of discipline. Although we may not always notice the effects immediately, we see how it helps us in a rather direct way. However, much harder to embrace is the discomfort of which Jesus speaks in Luke’s Gospel. On one level, we know that there are times when peace requires truth and justice, but it is something else to really live a life like that.
Are we really ready to change our lives in the light of climate change? Most of us will be happy to be more diligent in our recycling, or buy more sustainable products as long as we can afford it. But are we really willing to radically change our lives: no more long-haul flights, or maybe even no more flights at all? A bit less meat, or maybe even no more meat at all? Those messages are uncomfortable, I’m not denying that, but what if that is what it takes to save the planet? Are we willing to hear that message?
It is not much different for our political situation at this point. It’s not hard to see the divisions, not just in house-holds, but in this nation as a whole. But how will we work through it? Indeed, who knows how to interpret the present time? Yet, ultimately, we believe that our God is a God of hope; we believe that at the end of the race that is set before us there is a reward better than we can ever imagine. Indeed, we know that Good Friday was not the end, and that the darkest moment was also the beginning of new life and hope.
This morning’s readings are a reminder that our faith comes with a challenge: the promised peace will take its toll. Jesus has made the ultimate sacrifice for us, but as we are once more reminded, that means that we have an example to live our lives, rather than someone who has done it for us. God’s work is not finished, He has not done it for us, but we have the promise that He is with us, always. God with us, Emmanuel.