Sermon for Evensong – Sunday 17th June, 2018
As folk are probably aware Sarah and I are, God willing, to become grandparents twice this year.
As part of the preparation for those days, there have been of course the usual round of visits to midwives, and scans, and so it was that earlier this week Ella went to see the midwife in Balclutha – a fine way for the new Vicar’s wife to get known in a small community!
And, and my how things have changed since my day, the visit to the midwife was with the new Vicar! So it was that Brett got to listen to the little one’s [sic] heartbeat (fetus – a ghastly word for a human being – is Latin, and can be more wonderfully translated ‘little one’)
What a thrill to hear that rapid swish swish swish swish. Brett must have been excited for he even sent me a text to tell me! And the words that came instantly to mind were of that old Stevie Wonder classic – ‘Isn’t she lovely’ – although thankfully, we don’t know if the baby is a he or a she, perhaps it was a prophetic word! – that song in which Stevie sings – ‘We have been heaven blessed, I can’t believe what God has done, Through us he’s given life to one’
I can’t believe what God has done – through us He’s given life to one.
You may have noted I began by saying ‘Sarah and I are, God willing, to become grandparents’. Perhaps it sounded like a quaint throwback to a previous age? Just this week I re-read the following words from the diary of a certain Nehemiah Wallington: speaking of the safe delivery of his son, and his wife’s survival, he said “The Lord’s name be praised for it! . . . one or two weeks before, my wife fell sick, [and] I did hear of three score women with child and in childbed [childbirth] that died in one week in Shoreditch parish, and scarce two of a hundred that was sick with child that escaped death” he further noted that his own family’s survival was due only “to the great mercy of God”
A tangible mercy, constantly before the eyes of those for whom human life hung by a thread [So writes Ephraim Radner in A time to Keep, from where this account comes (p24)]
‘God willing’ – ‘what God has done’. The tangible mercy of God . . .
We may well ask, how tangible is the mercy of God in these days, at least for those of us who live at the top of the heap with regard to healthcare provision. We might say, perhaps we should, that God has been Very Willing in this regard – that we live surrounded by the manifest Goodness of God in healthcare provision. That we should give up most of our ‘busy days’ to thanksgiving and praise for the wonder of such healthy and yes, lets not be coy, wealthy lives . . . yet, it seems that we are not surrounded by such thanksgiving, indeed the sense of God’s Provision, His Mercy is perhaps at best ‘a dying note’ in our Modern World. Our Modern World
A World in which these words of St Paul to the Romans in our reading tonight might cause us to say ‘we’re glad to be shot of such a god . . .’
‘Will what is moulded say to the one who moulds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?’
For He says to Moses,
‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’
So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomsoever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomsoever he chooses.
That we are not the creators, but the created, By God, for the Good purposes Of God, for his Glory – as St Paul says elsewhere ‘All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.’ 2 Cor 4:15
So before we dismiss these words of Paul, let us look around, let us consider the phenomenal goodness of so much of our lives. Let us dare to assume that all that we have is the Gift of a gracious God who has had mercy on us, and not our own greedy acquisition. What Abundant mercy! How our hearts should well with gratitude . . . Yet, so readily do we give praise and thanksgiving, but rather we are given to carp and complaint.
Just the other evening I was sat with an old friend in conversation. She was deeply upset about something – yet as we pondered together we realised that there we were, warm, exceedingly well fed, drinking an exceptionally fine wine – living lives of incomparable luxury, unimaginable even to our parents generation . . . yet how readily our thoughts turned to that which we lacked? And, more, where really was God in all of this?? And how for those at the other end – with lives of unimaginable suffering and toil, a simple smile, or courtesy would cause praise and thanksgiving to light up their lives. Materially our lives are So full of light we might say, that we are blinded to it, seeing only the shadows
Is not our problem finally that insofar as we think of God at all, it is impossible to comprehend God as The Prime Mover in all existence, when to our perception, the human and human agency seems to be all but everything
As we have made life unbelievably secure in historic terms – albeit at a cost which I suggest we are only able to discern the extreme contours of – as we have barricaded ourselves against the contingencies of existence, God has become less and less present in our consciousness, but a faint note
We must agree that it is most difficult for us to accept that God is at the centre of all things – we tend, even if we believe, to imagine that somehow we are at least equal partners. How much of our so called Theological discourse uses this language of being equal partners with God . . . but even to admit that is in real terms far far too much. It is hard for us to stomach for our gaze is filled with what We have done . . .
Human life is increasingly one devoid of the view of anything except that which we like to think of as our own making – even to the life of the unborn child. It’s all down to us.
And if you happen to be religious, that is neither here nor there – the same attitude still easily prevails – we think there is little if any difference between the Christian and others in the world, except contestable ‘matters of opinion’.
As Stanley Hauerwas puts it, almost of us are in practical terms atheists . . . ‘Our’ technological prowess and powers over the Creation leaves all of us, Christian or otherwise, with the largely unconscious working model of life that it is down to us, and that God may be a comfort for those for whom life doesn’t seem to work out, but certainly no ‘use’ in the world we are making.
We laugh perhaps to readily at the old farming joke – when the Vicar stood at the gate with a farming parishioner, and exclaimed ‘My, how the Lord has blessed us with such increase’, only for the farmer to reply, ‘‘Praps’, but tha’ should’ve sen it when he had it to ‘issen . . .’
We find it close to impossible to ascribe All Things to The One who acts with infinite love mercy and compassion towards His World . . .
Yet in some respects, this view is not new – human kind has long loved to stand back and admire the work of our hands.
So earlier the prophet Jeremiah “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’
For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors for ever and ever.”
Imagine if you will the glory of the Solomonic Temple, in all its splendour, there was nothing like it in Jerusalem – oh . . . with the exception of Solomon’s palace . . . how easy to look at this remarkable work of solid engineering, of human craft and design, and not to sense a degree of permanence and security with regards to the work of humans, indeed of humans themselves. And so we are surrounded by signs of our own power and competence . . . the cry of thanksgiving and gratitude grows more and more dim
Who now hears of a pregnancy and commits themselves to prayer for a safe delivery – after all it is all so safe nowadays . . . – yet as our psalm reminds us tonight
For I am your passing guest,
an alien, like all my forebears.
You have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight.
Surely everyone stands as a mere breath.
Surely everyone goes about like a shadow.
Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;
they heap up, and do not know who will gather.
None of this has changed. Human life hangs like a thread, in the goodness and mercy of God
Jesus reminds us more than once of our hubris in this respect – his disciples look at the Temple and ask him to consider these fine stones, and he tells them, ‘not one will be left upon another’ – he speaks of the rich fool who saw his days blissfully extended as he contemplated his full barns – “you fool, this very night your life will be required of you, and who then will get all that you have acquired”
‘Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; they heap up, and do not know who will gather’
Even the faithful in these days give God little more than a passing thought when we come to those things in which we have instead placed our trust – God it seems only comes into the picture when things go awry . . .
God never intended for there to be a Temple – the thought entered David’s heart – yet the Word of the LORD came to the prophet Nathan ‘’Are you the one to build a house for me??’
David in the security and splendour of his accession to the throne, has forgotten the order of things. He thinks that He will build a hose for God! It is only a small step to forgetting God altogether, as he does later when standing on the roof of his palace – above it all – and looks down to see his nemesis – Bathsheba. His heart filled with proud thoughts, master of all he surveys, except he isn’t . . .
He never intended for their to be a Temple, for he would build a Temple for himself . . . ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up . . .’ ‘Do you not know? You are a Temple of The Holy Spirit’ ‘I can’t believe what God has done . . .’ This is the Temple of the LORD, the Temple of the LORD . . .
Sheer and Abundant Gift – the Word made flesh tabernacling amongst us – that we might become the dwelling place of God! And HIs Life erupt from us in praise and thanksgiving
And so we spend our days, so busy for God, doing His work we tell ourselves . . . not knowing what it is truly to have faith and to See the world as held in each moment in God’s Gift – given for God’s good purposes. It seems that the last words you might find on our lips are those of Job ‘The LORD gives – the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD.
We live in an age where the gulf between those who Bless the name of the LORD in and through all things – those who Understand the strange nature of all existence as Sheer gift – and those who whether in practise or in thought, curse God, is greater than ever.
The test is Always and everywhere Praise and Thanksgiving, for each and every day. Those Good people – who turn to anything that may lie in the future and commit it to God’s Good and Perfect will, even if often we cannot delineate its contours – accepting our finitude. May the words ‘God willing’ be often found on our lips, our lives continually oriented to The One from whom all good things come (Jas 1:17) – and our hearts be full of gratitude and praise for lives unimaginably full of blessing, from the source of all blessing. ‘For we are passing guests, aliens like all our forebears’ – yet The Temple of the Living God . . .