Pentecost 25 Isaiah 65:17-25 Luke 21:5-19
It is a pleasure to be with you this morning and to be amongst these beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God. Is it right to hope that some of it will be standing at the end of this sermon? I hope so.
I am here because when Glynn was first ill I made the offer to assist in some way and, in the mysterious workings of the St Matthew’s office, this was the time and occasion of my assistance. I don’t have any real idea if there is some significance of this time at St Matthew’s, maybe there is a complete lack of significance in this day and that is why it was picked. I don’t know.
Let me tell you what time it is where I live. As many of you know I am on the staff at St John’s College. We are at the end of our academic year. Students are about to leave to fieldwork placements or maybe leave leave – they have just a little waiting before ordination and their first appointment in holy orders.
This end of the year is perfectly matched by ending of our liturgical calendar which comes to an end next week. So, we are at this ending and on the edge of a new beginning kind of time.
Now, one of the joys of being at St John’s is the daily chapel services – every day prayer happens and I love the rhythm of the ride and I particularly enjoy the flow of the reading of scriptures. For the last week or so we have been trekking through the book of the prophet Daniel. Fantastic end of the year stuff because it is all so end of the world and crisis stuff. There is my all time favourite – Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – thrown into Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace. Then there is Daniel thrown to lions. It is the decline of the Babylonian empire and things seem dangerously out of control. Will the faith and fortitude of these heroes be enough? The students are no doubt asking similar questions of themselves: will their faith and fortitude be enough for that which lies ahead of them. Daniel is great stuff. Epic. It might be about today?! Old empires in decline and are at war. As has been said, “Didn’t we prefer the US when it was just morally bankrupt?”
Anyway, the appointed scriptures are superbly fitting at the end of the academic year as the students, like birds, stand at the edge of the nest.
What will I do and what will I be? Will I plummet to the ground and die? Will my wings and that breath of God, which I can only just feel in my face, hold me up?
I think is where to locate the readings that you have just heard. They belong as part of the same time and space. I mean they both belong a time of ending and, at once, on the edge of a hoped for, not yet, beginning. I think they address the question of what we shall do and be.
Time doesn’t allow me to pause over the wonderful Isaiah passage. (Clay told me that you try and keep sermons under the hour here.)
I’ll focus on the Luke passage. But like the Isaiah passage we can locate Luke’s gospel as belonging to a time of tremendous tension of endings – of endings and unknown beginning. The temple that was not getting built fast enough in Isaiah’s time has been built and is now, at the time Luke is actually writing, the temple destroyed. Maybe that is why Luke remembered the words of Jesus, “not one stone will be left upon another.”? Who knows? This is time and space of destruction all around – things were not going according to any kind of happy plan; rumours of wars and dreadful portents abound. What is going to happen next? What shall we do? These press in with extra urgency.
Can you sense this space and time?
The question arises: What will happen? What will we do?
Now you will understand that I don’t like the advice that we are offered in the gospel. Oh, to be sure I like it that Jesus directs our attention away from the fear mongers, those who delight in the rumours of wars, – “do not go after them,” he says, and,” do not be terrified.”
(I like that, I have never felt very warm about those who stand on street corners and barrack us about the end of the world.)
[Have you noticed that folk who create apocalyptic visions most often imagine that it is just them wandering around at the end of the world and it is just up to them to start a new heaven and new earth. Their visions are so self-absorbed. “Don’t go after them.”]
What I don’t like about Jesus’ advice is the instruction: “Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance.” I have something like an allergic reaction to these words. This is counter to so much of what I try and impress upon the students, which is to prepare them, over years we prepare them, to have some defense, some reason for the hope that lies within them.
[You know, I did think that I could just turn up this morning and see what happened. I did think I should resolve to prepare nothing and just see what words and wisdom came.]
This Gospel advice runs counter to so much of what I teach.
‘You don’t just turn up.’
Except ... the message that really rests in this piece of the gospel is surely true: that we have to trust that God’s Holy Spirit will give us what we really need.
You know how it goes: we are justified; we are saved, by our faith.
St Matthew’s has always been thoroughly protestant church – by faith alone – you know this.
It is not by our own efforts, not by heaving on our own bootstraps that we haul ourselves out of the miry clay. It is by faith in God’s grace, by the gift of God … not our gifts, by the gift of God we are saved.
I wonder how much we believe this?
The strange thing is that the gospel actually ends on quite another note:
“By your endurance you will gain your souls.” (v19) Puzzling.
I can tell you, people don’t much believe in “endurance” these days.
The key reason Christian folk say they don’t like “endurance” is it is apparently advocating a gospel of works – by our doing comes our salvation – and this is message made of straw. We are meant to reject this, let it burn in the fires of hell.
The other reason people don’t like endurance is because it is about is about our effort over time. People do believe in themselves and their own effort, but prefer instant results and immediate gratification. It is not a pretty word ‘endurance.’
It is like perseverance, endurance.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith … (Hebrews 12)
People don’t like to hear that the life of faith is about perseverance and endurance.
Keeping at it, day after day; but that is how it is, I reckon … the life of faith is seldom one great and glorious sprint effort, over in a few seconds with the glory and prizes coming quickly.
Mostly the life of faith is getting up, saying some prayers and going into the day and there is no halo waiting with a fruit digestive at morning tea. It takes all day in the heat of the day, and day after day. Endurance.
“By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
So, you can see that today’s Gospel confronts us with one of the great paradoxes in Christian life.
On the one hand it is not about our effort, it is about trusting God’s grace, it is about our faith and this amazing grace that saves wretches like me.
On the other hand, it is by our endurance that we will save our souls. Run with perseverance the race that is set before us ... be doers of the word.
It is about us living lives that are worthy of our calling, the Christian life is not just sitting in church of a Sunday and waiting for the gift of grace to land like the perfect little something in our laps.
What are we to do? How do we resolve this tension between two different answers? Which is it ‘grace’ or ‘works’?
I reminded of the story of child coming out of Sunday school with a gift all wrapped. It was something that the children had been working on for a weeks. There she was running towards her waiting parents, juggling spare clothing and a biscuit and the gift and, you know it, she trips and there is the unmistakable sound of breaking pottery. A sharp intake of breath from the parents, a long eternal silence, then wailing … utter grief.
The boldest parent goes forward and attempts to gather up all the pieces, “It doesn’t matter love.” “It doesn’t matter. It is the thought that counts.”
And the wisest parent gathers the child up and says, “Oh, it does matter honey, of course it really does matter. I am really sorry.” And sits and weeps with her daughter.” [i]
What we do, the outcome of our efforts and our endurance does matter; what we do does count and it matters just as much as the love, and faith and hope within us. Both faith and works matter, together, and we have unfortunately and falsely driven a wedge between them as if they can be separated. Each one gives meaning to the other. They are the internal and external reality of the same life.
So, for us today and everyday we need both: trust God and you will be saved, endure and you will save your souls.
Everyday when we stand on the edge of nest and wonder about what we are to do,
Every day when we wonder what is going to become of the world and there are wars and rumours of wars,
Every day that we question our own faith and fortitude we can only do one thing, or is it two? Trust and endure – they are the inside and outside of the same Christian life.
Everyday, we take a deep breath and … trust God and get on with the wrok of loving our neighbours as ourselves and, to be sure, in that we will have to endure.
[i] Not my story; from memory. I can’t find the reference for it. It comes from a sermon studied while I was at Yale.