Holy Communion Service, conducted by the Revd. J. Millington
This sermon is taken from Isaiah 40, verses 28-31; Mark 1, verses 29-39
Holding the Torch
Does it sometimes seem to you that whenever you are weary, frustrated and miserable, there will always be someone who, without meaning to, makes you feel guilty?
Like someone who has an even heavier workload than the one you are struggling with but who still goes jogging every morning and bakes five-layer party cakes in the evening.
Like someone who has far more needy and dependent members of their family than you do but who still does an awesome amount of voluntary work for others.
Like someone whose long-term health problems put your aching back and chronic indigestion to shame.
Like someone who has had crisis after crisis to deal with in their life but who still glows with love for God and loyal commitment to the church, when you have dragged yourself here on a Sunday morning thinking, “why do I bother?”
Hearing those verses from Mark’s Gospel- a day in the life of Jesus- might have had a similar effect. Jesus, after a long day, goes to Simon’s house for supper and Simon’s mother-in-law is ill. Jesus heals her and she is able to get up and prepare some food. Great. But the news spreads and before Jesus can even digest his meal, hordes of others are queuing up outside the house, looking like A and E on a bad day. But Jesus goes out and heals them all, both the physically and the mentally sick. (In Jesus’ culture, all kinds of illness were believed to be caused by “demons” and this is why his healing was referred to as “casting out demons.”)
Finally-at goodness knows what hour- he gets to bed but then very early in the morning he is up and out so that he can spend serious time alone in prayer. Later his friends come and tell him that “everyone is looking for you.” So Jesus goes with them to travel through more towns, preaching in places of worship and doing works of healing. You feel exhausted just listening to this…
Think of what we call the “caring professions:” medical work, mental health services, social services, emergency services, teaching; and how those who work there nowadays are being stretched beyond their limits as more and more is demanded of them.
Think of the Christian church in this country; of ordained ministers being spread ever thinner over more and more congregations; and of the church members themselves having ever more demanded of them as they become fewer in number.
And it is not only the “caring professions” that are stretched. Most professions nowadays are expecting fewer and fewer employees to do more and more work. So if being a follower of Jesus means that we must commit ourselves to his way of living, what does this look like for your average Christian today? Their professional workload is likely to be getting heavier; their family commitments, especially to the most vulnerable, are getting higher as health and social services are being cut back; and then on top of all that they have their church asking them to commit to some form of ministry, reading them a passage from the Bible telling them how Jesus never seemed to stop ministering to others. Glad you came?
Questions are starting to be asked about our modern cult of being “superhuman.” It is becoming obvious that people are suffering serious health issues of mind and body, heart and spirit as their stress levels continue to get higher and higher. Something will have to give.
But I think it is also true to say that a certain level of social cynicism has been infiltrating our culture since the two World Wars of the twentieth century. In 1914, men and women were fired up with patriotic ideals to lay down their lives for their country, willing to sacrifice all they held most dear for the sake of a war that would finally end all wars.
Only it did not. Twenty years later it all happened again. And many of the “heroes” who survived were flung on the social and economic scrap heap.
Religious cynicism went hand in hand with national cynicism and the church was dismissed as worthless along with a series of Governments who had made promises they were unable to keep. Family loyalty was thrown to the wind as one writer after another exposed the darkness behind smiling family group photographs.
In George Orwell’s satire on Communism, “Animal Farm,” we see Boxer, the carthorse, passionately committed to the ideals of justice and equality set out in the revolution that drove out the abusive human farmer and gave the animals freedom to run their own farm. Boxer’s personal motto was “I will work harder.” He spent his life and all his strength on the good of the farm community. When his strength failed, the pigs who were now in control of the farm, sold him to the knacker’s yard.
We know equally sad tales of passionate men and women who have committed themselves to a good cause only to see it fail and their work dismissed as worthless. We have known kind people who have offered hours of their time to help the needy, only to have it flung back in their face. Monica Dickens wrote a novel called “Thursday Afternoons” in which, she said, “I wanted to show how people you are strong enough to help can destroy you if you are not quite strong enough.”
Then you look at Jesus and his life of unremitting care for others- all he did, all he gave in his healing, empowering work. And what happened in the end? He was betrayed, abandoned, rejected and handed over for crucifixion.
“Virtue is its own reward” goes the saying but I am not sure that we believe it anymore. Most people nowadays, even if they want to get involved in serving others, want to see some financial or physical reward that they can rely on. Can Jesus offer us no more than a life of unremitting work for others that will only end in exhaustion, rejection and failure? Where is the good news here?
Our Old Testament reading, which we sang, came from Isaiah chapter 40. The people for whom this was written were weary, discouraged and very cynical. They had fought a war against tyranny and they had lost. They had been brought up to put their faith in God and all would be well but, from where they were standing, God had failed them.
Isaiah is not going to make false promises. Nor is he going to offer soothing platitudes.
He is looking on a complex world, where natural forces are difficult to predict and understand; where political manifestos are spelled out in physical force rather than social justice; where religious beliefs you once thought sacred and inviolate are now held up to cynical scrutiny and ridicule. He is called to minister to people who have suffered tragedy and deprivation beyond our imagining and who are asking him, “where is God?”
I think Isaiah, like most preachers, is trying to work things out for himself as well as others. He starts by looking at the skies and setting God in a vastness of context. God’s power has to be vaster than all the power in the universe put together or He would not be God. God’s vision perceives the world as a whole, not just the part we can see or He would not be God. God’s knowledge spans past, present and future, through millennia of time, where we can only experience our own lifespan. God’s judgement is greater and fairer than that of any political leaders, who are always guided by their own agenda. God’s strength does not lie in physical or even mental ability. We are looking at a being who is infinitely greater than we can imagine and can never be called to account because he is not working to our agenda.
OK, says Isaiah, but does this mean that God is far too great and remote to be interested in what is going on in our little corner of the world at this brief point in history? No, he reasons, that cannot be so. God’s heart must also be so vast that it can reach out in love to every single creature or God could not be God. God will not dismiss anyone as worthless or insignificant. We may get weary when we are confronted with yet another person wanting a piece of us after a hectically stressful day but God is never weary. We may get frustrated when someone we are trying hard to help rejects our efforts but God never gives up. Our minds become overwhelmed at the sheer complexity of issues such as pain and suffering, injustice and poverty. God’s understanding is bottomless.
So what does this mean for us, wonders Isaiah?
If God has both infinite strength and infinite love, then he can surely keep us strong. He can renew strength in us, when we cannot manage it for ourselves. He can make us fly like eagles, famous for their vigour and speed. In love, he will pick us up when we fall down exhausted and set us on our feet again. Just as the life in nature keeps on being renewed, so God’s power in us will keep on coming back and will take us to heights we never hoped to reach.
Yes, political structures can hurt and oppress us but they will not last because their strength is only of themselves. Yes, people can chase after money as the ultimate satisfaction in life but it will turn out to be worthless in the end. Yes, organised religion will have its ups and downs but nothing can prevent you from worshipping God. “He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak… those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.”
So where does that leave us? With our long to-do lists that never get done; when we are weary and someone is asking something of us that we simply cannot give? When our nation or our family or our church do look as though they are going downhill fast and no-one will listen to us? And we do not know what to say anyway….
Many of you will have heard me say that I come to church every Sunday with a long list of all the people I need to speak with- either about church matters or about what is going on in their lives. And every Sunday I go home with same list and I am lucky if 25% of the names have been ticked off-sorted. And I say to myself why cannot you be more focussed? Why cannot you stick to your list and not get distracted? Or why are the other 75% not in church where I needed them to be today?
What I have not told you is that every Sunday before I come to church, I pray that God will guide me to the people He most needs me to speak with and as I never go home without speaking to somebody, it is just possible that God’s list and my list are not always the same. It is just possible that I might be carrying out God’s agenda rather than my own. Simple, really…. Why did I not think of that before?
At our Synod Area meeting last week, Revd Richard Church was speaking about the Walking the Way Programme, which we shall be using here very shortly. It is all about being a disciple of Jesus in the 21st century and yes, realising that our agendas and God’s agenda are not always the same. He spoke of one elderly Christian lady who simply prays each day that God will direct her to the people who most need her. She is ready to share her faith or simply show her care at the bus stop; in the supermarket; stopping to talk to a neighbour. She does not have her own to-do list; she simply invites God to download his to-do list into her life. She does not fret about all the amazing things she cannot do but looks out for the amazing things God will enable her to do. And even if, at the end of a day, she cannot see any particular way in which she has worked for God, she trusts God to know what he is doing and where he has been able to use her. There are many people who have taken their first step towards God because of a chance remark or simple action made by a Christian, that that Christian has long forgotten. And there are many people who have taken their first step away from God because of something said or done by a Christian who has been so focussed on their own agenda that they have stopped engaging with God’s.
Many of you will remember Michael Rees, a much loved former minister of this church, who died of cancer eleven years ago. Nigel Uden, who was then our Synod Moderator, told me of how he had gone to visit Michael in the hospice on his way home from the all day Synod meeting. With tears in his eyes he told me how Michael had greeted him lovingly – “Nigel, you must be so tired after Synod. You should not have troubled to come but it is so very good to see you.” Within days of his death, Michael could still offer ministry to Nigel.
Of course we need to use our brains, our hearts and our bodies as we follow Jesus. Of course we need to think and plan and act for the kingdom of God. But our agenda needs to be downloaded from God’s far vaster agenda. And in order to be able to fulfil this, we must trust that our strength will not come from us but from God. For, as we have seen, even when our strength is virtually gone, there will still be a ministry we can offer in Jesus’ name and in the power of God.
You see, Jesus’ experience of betrayal, rejection and suffering was not the end of his story. God had a greater agenda than the ones his friends saw as Jesus was taken and crucified. God had a vaster power than the physical body out of which Jesus’ friends saw the life drain out. God’s great purpose was to save the world through love and self-sacrifice and it was to this purpose that Jesus gave his life and through which he came back from death. It is to this purpose that we are invited to offer our lives, believing that we shall be saved as God’s children and that through the life of God in us, the world shall be redeemed from evil.
Jesus is the light of the world and the darkness has not overcome it. Let us hold the torch in faith. Amen.