You may know the story of a question set in a training examination for police recruits:
‘You are on the beat and you see two dogs fighting. The dogs knock a baby out of its pram, causing a car to swerve off the road, smashing into a grocer’s shop. A pedestrian is severely injured, but during the confusion a woman’s bag is snatched, a crowd of onlookers chase after the thief and, in the huge build-up of traffic, the ambulance is blocked from the victim of the crash.
‘State, in order of priority, your course of action.’
One recruit wrote, ‘Take off uniform and mingle with crowd.’
Which direction do you walk in when there is conflict? Do you walk towards it, or do you – like the police recruit – behave like Jesus really said, ‘Go out into the world, shut up and keep your heads down’?
Perhaps you want to avoid conflict, because you see the potential it has to be destructive. And so our theme this week is about how we can affirm hope in conflict. Because if we come through conflict healthily, it can be constructive, it can result in growth.
So how can we approach conflict in hope?
Firstly, we can have a hopeful attitude to conflict by looking to our future goal. Hope is about what the future will hold, so if we can envisage a future goal and work towards it through conflict, that will help.
And – surprise, surprise – Paul has that in mind in Ephesians 4. It’s about unity, one of the things we fear will be a casualty of conflict. He starts the chapter with the fact that God has already given us unity in Christ, and he looks for us to maintain and build that unity. So the unity that is already given is present in all the ‘one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all’ language (verses 4-6), but he also calls us to ‘make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ (verse 3, italics mine). By the end of the passage, he is talking about us as one body, where every part does its work together in love (verses 15-16).
Our goal, then, is unity. We have been given and entrusted a basic unity of the Spirit in Christ, but it is our duty to live out the unity we have been given.
What does that mean for us when conflict arises? It means we engage in the humility, gentleness and patience that Paul writes about (verse 2). None of these qualities is about compromising our convictions – humility doesn’t simply mean lying down, rolling over and saying to the other person, “Well of course I was wrong, you are right.” It does mean we bring a certain attitude of heart and mind to the discussion, where we value the worth of the person we disagree with, where we do not shoot them down on the assumption that we are always right and they are always wrong. It means we treat those we disagree with as people who – like us – are made in the image of God, and so should be treated with dignity, love and respect, however much we may genuinely believe they are in the wrong. If we only see conflict as a battle to win, we shall end up with disunity. But if our goal is to resolve our differences honestly and become more united, then we shall bring humility, gentleness and patience to the table. Again, this does not mean we walk away from conflict or pretend it isn’t happening, because those strategies just perpetuate the open wound. But we hold our convictions with a Christ-like heart.
So – to those of you whose natural instinct is to charge into conflict aggressively, I say – by all means don’t duck the conflict, but do take a step back before you get involved in order to check your heart. Please make sure you are entering the fray with humility, gentleness and patience.
And to those of you who find conflict stressful and who would rather duck out, I say – your gifts are needed in order to heal the tensions. You do not need to be afraid of voicing your beliefs, there is an important place for those who would put their point across quietly. We need to hear you, too, and remember that assertiveness is not about being belligerent, it is simply about being able to state your position, your desires and your needs. That truly can be done in a Christ-like way.
There is a second future goal in Ephesians 4, and it is maturity. Listen again to the final three verses of the reading, and note the references to growing up:
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
From infants to a mature body. That is our goal. How often is it that among a group of people who are physically grown up, the level of behaviour when it comes to working through conflict is nothing less than childish? Too often I have come across actions in churches by adults that amount to more than “It’s my ball, I’m taking it home and you’re not playing.”
So what makes for maturity, according to Paul? His answer would appear to be, getting stuck into Christian service. Tracing back the few verses before these, maturity in the church comes from his people learning to serve, and that’s what leaders are about. Immaturity comes when people just say, “Feed me, feed me, I’m not being fed,” and they complain and spread disgruntlement. It’s no good treating Sunday morning as once-a-week spiritual feeding station, then just going away until next week. That’s a consumer mentality that thinks everything we like must be laid on for us, and we should get something for what we pay. Such an attitude knows little or nothing of the Gospel, and it therefore causes strife in the church by its moaning and bleating.
If we are to be hopeful, then, about conflict, we shall see that one of the ways we can become a more mature, grown-up fellowship is by committing ourselves to serve Christ by serving one another and serving the world. That way, we become less me-centred and more God-centred and other-centred. This takes us away from the complaining state of mind that inevitably follows from a mentality that expects everything in the church to be provided on a plate for me. Too often, the problems we deal with are caused when someone moans that the church in some way let her down, when she has not been cultivating an attitude of service herself.
You see, we are not just shaped as people by what we think: we are shaped by our desires and by our actions. And even if we do not currently desire to serve, we should begin serving, because eventually such action will affect our desires and our attitudes towards others.
Thirdly and finally, although I have touched on some practical action as we have considered how our hopes shape us, there is a particular course of action to which Paul calls us to aspire in our desire to grow into maturity. And yes, it comes in those words of his that have become a hackneyed expression in Christian circles: speaking the truth in love (verse 15). This, he says, helps us grow.
But ‘speaking the truth in love’ is difficult. Some of us are better at truth than love, and so we go up to someone and offer ‘a word in love’, which turns out to be cover for negative criticism. Others of us are better at love than truth, and we use love as a justification to avoid a conflict when one is actually needed.
How, then, can we break the impasse? Let me offer a suggestion. While the context and other uses of the word almost certainly refer to ‘speaking the truth in love’, the literal translation here is, ‘truthing in love’. In general, there is not simply an obligation upon Christians simply to speak the truth but to live the truth. Some of our problems are caused by barstool Prime Ministers who love to criticise but do little to live out the Gospel. We need fewer pontificators and more practitioners. When we are devoted to practising the Gospel life – to ‘truthing in love’ – our hearts become softened by grace. We are aware of how much we need the mercy of God, and this affects the way we approach others.
Naturally, it will also bring us into greater connection with the holiness of God, and this will alert us to many things that are wrong with the church and the world. But before that happens, the holiness of God will expose what is wrong with us.
Equally, for those of us who are too nervous to confront an issue and prefer to pretend it’s not a problem at all, living the truth leads us into a greater courage so that we can bring problems out of the darkness into the light where they can be dealt with healthily.
Unity, maturity, truthing in love – yes, we do actually have cause for hope in the face of conflict.
 Op.cit., p136 #231.
Taking my iPod for a walk the other morning after dropping the kids off at school, this great old song came on:
For one so young at the time, it was such a mature song, and I began to think about the disappointments that crush our dreams:
- You dreamed of a long and happy retirement, but your spouse was struck down by a terminal cancer
- You thought your work was going to change the world, but instead you clung on for retirement
- Your children’s choices in adulthood broke your heart
- You longed for children, but none came along
- You expected to marry, but either the right person never came along, or they did and they were a disappointment, or they left you for someone else
- You wanted to be a church leader, but the church didn’t share your conviction
- Your heart ached for reconciliation with your family after those dark early years, but it never came and the parent who so let you down died before it could be resolved
Parents, teachers and church leaders all encourage children, teenagers and young converts to dream big dreams. “You can change the world!” Years later, many of those former young people are sat among the shards of shattered hopes. We could live differently.
We could sing the cynical words of ‘Always look on the bright side of life’, – you know, ‘Life’s a pice of sh*t when you look at it’ – as the best an atheist, nihilist world can offer.
But I can’t accept that. Wouldn’t it be better to live with that Christian balance of Cross and Resurrection? The disciples thought their dreams had been destroyed at Calvary. ‘We had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel,’ said one on the Emmaus Road. The discovery of an empty tomb and witnessing the One who blessed and broke bread changed everything.
A sermon I preached about three years ago and which you can find here on this blog was built on some personal experience of walking through such dashed dreams and darkened hopes. It was based on the last verse of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s great chapter about the Resurrection. His conclusion is not to sit tight and look forward to heaven, but to keep on striving, because ‘in the Lord your labour is not in vain.’ The God who will make all things new – even new heavens and a new earth – will make something good out of broken dreams.
Perhaps we can therefore encourage young people to dream differently. Dream on; dream about God’s kingdom purposes, which cannot be thwarted, even if he takes us on a detour to get there.
I’d like to see him reflect more on the problem ministers have of being surrounded by people with little hope – not necessarily the naysayers in the congregation but also those facing various pastoral crises and difficulties. I’d also like him to take personality traits and perhaps medical predispositions to depressive tendencies into account. (And while writing this post, WordPress suggested Trait Theory as a tag: I’ve not looked into that.)
Nevertheless, I like the thought of surrounding yourself with people of hope (#3). It reminds me of the effect of having fellowship with Christians of strong faith.
I have hope in the face of a problem when it is in an area of my competence. I may not know the solution immediately, but I feel sure we shall discover it.
Prayer needs conversion to the mode of hope, too, at times. When we do not know what to do and we pray, an important component is the attitude we bring to prayer. Do we have hope that in coming before God in prayer, we shall eventually be led to the right decisions or actions?
What nurtures hope for you?
What did you think when you heard there was to be a reading from Revelation in the service? Many Christians switch off. Revelation is regarded as the book for the weirdoes and extremists. It is full of strange language and has been the basis for all sorts of bizarre beliefs.
But Revelation is a book worth rescuing. It is written in the way it is, because it was addressed to persecuted Christians in the late first century. For them, it made sense to communicate in an unusual style that they understood, and maybe the Roman authorities didn’t. To such Christians, the news that Jesus, crucified by the Roman authorities, had risen from the dead and was reigning, was the very best of good news. Hence Revelation begins with this big vision of the risen Jesus.
What does that do for us? We cannot claim we are being persecuted for our faith, although certain aspects of legislation and public opinion have certainly moved against us, and that is making some Christians nervous, especially as the General Election approaches. It may be that we end up further out on the margins due to our faith, and if it does, this reminder of our risen Lord will sustain us as we seek to follow him.
How does it do that?
Firstly, we have confidence based on who Jesus is. According to John, Jesus is
the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth (verse 5).
Taking those three descriptions in turn, we have each time something to fortify us in our witness if the going gets tough in society for us.
Jesus is ‘the faithful witness’. He was faithful in his witness to the kingdom of God. He was faithful, even to the point of death. Remember that the Greek word for ‘witness’ in the New Testament is the one from which we derive our word ‘martyr’. Jesus’ own life, then, showed that faithfully following the call of God is costly. It may even cost our lives, when we peaceably but firmly stand for God’s message. The early Christians, then, who faced persecution, knew they were walking in the way of their Master.
What, then, of when we face opposition? We too are called to be ‘faithful witnesses’. We hold resolutely to our faith, even when it is thought stupid, irrational or even morally wrong. We refuse to compromise. But we do not do so in some militant, aggressive way. We recognise that difficulties may come our way, including from those in political power. Jesus has not withdrawn his call to deny ourselves, take up the cross and follow him. Do you face something tough in your life because of your faith? Jesus is calling you to do what he did, to follow in his footsteps. It should not surprise us as Christians that this happens.
Is that depressing? If it is, that is where the next description of Jesus comes in. He is ‘the firstborn of the dead’. Jesus’ faithful witness led to the Cross. But it didn’t end there. He vacated the tomb when he was raised from the dead. Thus we have hope as faithful witnesses. Our witness may be costly, but evil will not have the final word. God will have that: he will vindicate his people in the resurrection and the judgment. As God raised Jesus from the dead to new life, so he will also raise us. This is our hope.
But not only is Jesus the first to be raised from death, promising the same for us in God’s great future, his title of ‘firstborn’ of the dead indicates his sovereignty. The firstborn of a king inherits the throne. Jesus is not simply back from the dead, he is reigning. So those who think they are in charge and controlling everything are mistaken. Fatally mistaken, you would have to say. The risen Lord has been given ‘all authority in heaven and on earth’ (Matthew 28:18).
And that is what leads to the third ascription: Jesus is ‘the ruler of the kings of the earth’. Who are these pretenders who think they control the destiny of an obscure religious sect two thousand years ago? They are not the ultimate rulers they think they are. They are subject to Jesus himself. If they do not submit to his rule now, they will be brought to justice. Again, it is part of the vindication God promises to his faithful people.
But more than that, it has a particular application for us during this General Election campaign. Whenever a politician proposes policies that go against the will of God or seek to marginalise his church, let us remember who rules over the kings of the earth – Jesus does. Any time one of our political leaders comes over all messianic is a time to remember that Jesus rules over the kings of the earth. Any time they start to promise heaven and earth is also a time to remember that Jesus reigns over the rulers of the earth. And any time we as an electorate look to our politicians and expect them to bring in the kingdom of God is also an occasion to recall that Jesus is king over all creation, and every human ruler must submit to him.
So this is who Jesus is. He is the faithful witness, who shows Christians that fidelity to God may well be costly, even to the point of death. However, he is also the firstborn of the dead, showing the resurrection hope of vindication in which the faithful share. And he is the ruler of the kings of the earth, to whom even the most unjust rulers will have to answer. In these respects, when we know who Jesus is, he truly is our hope when Christians are marginalised, pressurised or even persecuted.
Secondly, we have confidence based on what Jesus does. Now I will admit that a distinction between ‘who Jesus is’ and ‘what Jesus does’ is artificial, because we know who someone is by what they do. But I use the distinction between who Jesus is and what Jesus does in this sermon to match up with the different ways in which our text uses language.
And I say ‘what Jesus does’, because I want to draw attention to a series of verbs in verses 5 and 6. Sorry if this sounds like an English lesson! Here they are:
To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. (Verses 5b-6)
He loves us, he freed us and he made us. These three assertions also give us confidence in all manner of situations, including the times we are under pressure for our faith.
Firstly, ‘he loves us’. I remember a friend telling me that nothing gave her greater security in life than knowing that her husband wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. Forty or so years later, they are still together, and the husband gave up promotions in his career to stay at an ordinary rank so he could care for his wife, who has suffered persistently from mental illness. But even in her periodically fragile state, the wife knows she is loved, and it does her the power of good.
It’s similar with Jesus. He loves us. He is committed to us. He has no intention of letting us go. His hold on us is stronger than our hold on him. He has loved us with an everlasting love, from creation through the Incarnation, the Cross and Resurrection to the present day and beyond. Whatever we face, he loves us and is with us.
More specifically, the second thing Jesus has done in this reading is that he has ‘freed us’ – ‘freed us from our sins by his blood’. Here is the most decisive example of Jesus’ committed love for us. What we most need is to be freed from our sins, for they bind us. His death on the Cross loosens the chain and we walk free in forgiveness. The Cross is not only the example Jesus sets of being the ‘faithful witness’ I talked about earlier, it is also the greatest sign of God’s love, because it took God substituting himself for us in Christ to break the curse of sin.
This isn’t just someone saying he loves us; this is someone proving it in the most costly of deeds. If that is how we are loved in Christ, we can be all the more sure of God’s commitment to us through thick and thin. We may not always be accepted by the world, but if Jesus does this much for us, he is not about to give up on us when life gets sticky.
The final example John gives of what Jesus does for us is that he has ‘made us’. Made us what? He has ‘made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father’. His love which extends as far as redemption through the Cross does not finish there. We are not simply forgiven and then wait around on a platform with our ticket for heaven. Christ’s redeeming love has a purpose: it is to make us into something now. Whatever the world thinks of us, Jesus has made us with a purpose, to be a kingdom of priests, serving God the Father.
What does that mean? For starters, it means that we all have a special dignity in that Jesus has given us a purpose in life. Rejection and mockery from the world is contrasted by acceptance and purposefulness from God. As a kingdom, we have a royal standing in the eyes of God. Those whom the world despises have immense status in the eyes of God. Whatever the world sometimes thinks of us and however we appear to the world, we are in fact royalty in disguise.
But what is the purpose? We are priests, John says. Each one of us represents people to God in prayer and represents God to people in word and deed. We may bring the needs of anyone to the merciful presence of God. While we might especially do that for our sisters and brothers in Christ, we have the privilege also of doing that for those outside the family of God. Debbie and I offer to pray for people in the school community going through troubles. Lots of Christians do things like that. We don’t simply pray secretly behind people’s backs, though – we ask if we may.
Furthermore, we have a particularly special trick up our sleeves: we can pray for our enemies. When oppressed, the true Christian response is not to lash out. It is to pray for them. It heaps burning coals on them, but does not bind us up as bitterness does when we refuse to forgive.
Then on the other side of the priestly rôle, we represent God to the world. We do this in our words and matching deeds. Whether the world likes us or not, we are priests to them. Whether they accept what we offer is up to them, but divinely appointed priests is what we are. So the world cannot do without us! The purpose Jesus gives us in making us all priests not only gives us personal dignity, it gives us a vital rôle to play in the world.
In conclusion, if we are struggling because we are being pushed to the margins of society, Jesus has good news for us. By what he is and by what he does, he gives us confidence, purpose and dignity. He gives us the inner resources to sustain us in the face of apathy or hostility. No wonder this little passage leads to a doxology from John: ‘to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen’ (verse 6). May his goodness to us lead us also to doxology.
Tomorrow (Saturday) I begin a week’s leave to spend half term with Debbie and the children. I have just finished writing my sermon for Sunday week, when I return to duty. Here it is.
All around me I find people struggling for hope. For some, it is the economic uncertainties of the recession. Will they have a job? Can they pay their mortgage? For others, it is the onset of serious or potentially terminal illness. I think of two families I know where a child has cancer. Or people wonder what legacy we are leaving to our children and grandchildren from the environmental devastation our greed has caused.
And of course, I find it in the church. I think of one church facing an imminent decision about possible closure, and another where the signs are not promising for ten years’ time.
I’ve come to the conclusion that our problem is that we conceive of hope wrongly. This is all hope based on circumstances, or on what people do. It’s an uncertain hope: “I hope that such-and-such will happen.” Such-and-such may or may not happen.
Christian hope is different. Let me introduce it this way. A couple of weeks ago, Debbie and I went to a concert by the worship leader and hymn writer Stuart Townend. We sang his hymn ‘In Christ Alone’, and it’s easy to slip past the profundity of that first line: ‘In Christ alone my hope is found.’ The Christian hope is in God. Our hope is in God in Christ.
So to our passage from Revelation. We’re familiar with it at funerals, where its words bring comfort, and that’s good. But there is so much more it can offer us. Why? Well, if you want a bunch of people who needed Christ-shaped hope, the first readers of Revelation would be good candidates. Facing persecution in the AD 90s under the Roman emperor Domitian, they saw loved ones arrested, tortured and killed. Our troubles look small fry in comparison. The vivid pictures that John gave them form a Christ-shaped hope. I believe we need a Christ-shaped hope to fit a Christ-shaped hole in our lives. Come with me as we explore this. Let it strengthen us for whatever we are facing.
Firstly, there is hope for creation. Whenever we go on holiday, an important item on my check list for packing is books. This year, I packed three but only got through one. Last year, I took a couple and only managed one. You’d have thought I’d have learned my lesson this year, wouldn’t you? But you’ll perhaps remember I never want to be caught short of reading material!
And the book I read on holiday last year was one that has helped a lot of people rethink their understanding of Christian hope. It is called ‘Surprised By Hope’ and was written by Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham. One of the most important slogans in the book is this: ‘Heaven is not the end of the world.’
Got that? Heaven is not the end of the world. We frequently speak about the Christian hope after death as being the hope of going to heaven to be with the Lord. That is true as far as it goes. But the Bible talks about so much more. The biblical story doesn’t end with heaven: it ends here with ‘a new heaven and a new earth’. In some way that Revelation doesn’t explain, heaven and earth will be renewed. 2 Peter speaks about the destruction of the earth, but again followed by a new earth where righteousness will reign.
Our hope is not to be disembodied spirits floating somewhere in space, it is physical. God is interested in the physical and the material. He made it and he will redeem it. Just as God will not simply leave the dead in Christ in heaven but will raise them to life with new bodies, as he did with his Son, so he will also bring in a new creation.
What does that mean for us? It gives us hope for creation. Since God cares about his physical creation, so do we. Christians should be at the forefront of concern for the environment. We shouldn’t be like some Christians who say that the human race was put in charge of the earth and we can do whatever we like with it. That’s wrong. It’s God’s world, and we look after it as his stewards. One day he will renew it.
Debbie and I are no experts on green issues, but we see it as our duty to encourage Rebekah and Mark in a responsible attitude to the creation – not in a negative, hectoring way, but by filling them with a sense of wonder. Every now and again, we visit a country park near Basildon and Pitsea called the Wat Tyler Country Park. There are plenty of the usual attractions for children there, but there is one place we always visit when we go there. The RSPB has a place there, and we take the children to that so they may gain more of a sense of wonder about wildlife. It does help that Rebekah fancies herself as a young Doctor Doolittle anyway, but Mark enjoys the activities, too – I recall him coming out once, very proud of the wormery he had made!
As adults, we know this is serious stuff. You may well be aware of the forthcoming Copenhagen Climate Summit. At the time I prepared this sermon, European Union leaders were in deadlock about how to take further steps in reducing climate damage. So I’ve done my little bit of lobbying. Various organisations make it easy to do this, especially if you are online. I use something called Superbadger from TEAR Fund on Facebook. Recently, I have sent a couple of emails to Gordon Brown, asking him to continue his efforts in this area. So have thousands of others.
But let’s remember, this is about hope. The fact that God will replace the current heavens and earth with a new one means that whether we succeed or fail in our efforts, the purposes of God will not be thwarted. We put ourselves in harmony with his purposes when we care for creation. Done with the right spirit, creation care is for Christians an act of worship, and a sign of God’s hope.
Secondly, there is hope for humanity. The holy city, the new (there’s that word again) Jerusalem, comes down out of heaven, like a bride adorned for her husband (verse 2). Mention of the bride makes me think about the Church, the Bride of Christ, rather than a literal city. This speaks of the redeemed community.
The hope for humanity is a simple one: God dwelling in the midst of the redeemed community, for the voice from the throne says,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them …’ (verse 3)
You may think me odd, but this puts me in mind of Magnus Magnusson on old editions of Mastermind. This is one of those “I’ve started, so I’ll finish” moments. Why? Let me render part of verse 3 more literally: ‘See, the tabernacle of God is among mortals. He will tabernacle with them …’
Perhaps you remember the tabernacle, the ‘portable sign of God’s presence’ in the Old Testament. Holding that in your mind, go back with me to John chapter 1, where we read of Jesus, ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among them’ – or, more literally, ‘The Word became flesh and tabernacled among them.’
So here in Revelation 21, God’s purposes in John 1 are fulfilled. What God started in Jesus, he will finish. The mission of Jesus will be fulfilled. God will dwell with ‘his peoples’ – and note it’s ‘peoples’ not ‘people’. The Bride of Christ will be composed from every tribe, tongue and nation under heaven, a vision that must be anathema to Nick Griffin and the British National Party. How distorted is their attempted takeover of Christian language. In Christ, people are reconciled to God and to one another. It’s a sign of hope for a divided and troubled world. Be clear about one thing: the extinction of the Church is not on God’s agenda. Rather, it has a vivid, glorious, multi-coloured future in God’s new creation.
What is our part in this now? If God’s mission to dwell in the midst of reconciled peoples was expressed in Christ dwelling in the midst of the human race, then we are called to something similar. For Jesus said, ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you’. Therefore, just as Jesus dwelt in the midst of those he came to reconcile to the Father and each other, so must we. No religious ghettos. No spiritual escapism, where we run inside our castle, pull up the drawbridge and be relieved that we can worship without the distractions of the world. No more the increasingly futile approaches to mission that wait for ‘them’ to come and meet ‘us’ in our comfort zone. Instead, as the Father sent Jesus, so he sends us. Our sharing in God’s hope for humanity means we choose not to engross ourselves in church-filled lives but live out God’s love in the midst of the world, where we are needed. For now, I’ll limit myself to these words from Henri Nouwen:
More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.
Thirdly and finally, our passage has hope for the individual. I want to consider those famous words from verse 4 that make this reading so apposite at a funeral:
‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
To those who first read Revelation or had it read to them, these words had immense impact. Remember ,they were facing hideous persecution. Tears, death, mourning, crying and pain frequently soundtracked their lives. How they longed for it to pass. How they, the suffering ones, longed for justice – which is surely why Revelation takes delight in the downfall of the wicked.
So this constitutes the good news of God’s hope for individuals. Whatever we struggle with in this life will be abolished in the new creation. Be it sickness or injustice, its days are numbered. One day, God will call time on all that corrupts the beauty of his creation and will restore all things. Indeed, this is so important that when the voice from the throne says in verse 5, ‘See, I am making all things new’, this is at most only the third or fourth time God himself is reported as speaking directly in Revelation. Not only that, God has given an advance sign of his promise to do all this in the Resurrection of Jesus. The Resurrection constituted amongst other things – the healing and transformation of a body traumatised to the point of death, and God’s vindication of his Son in the face of those who condemned and executed him. The Resurrection is healing and justice. We look forward to both of those in full measure when God’s new creation comes. The Resurrection guarantees our hope in God’s healing and justice.
But meanwhile – what do we do? Shall we lie down and allow pain and wickedness to walk all over us and others? By no means! We pray for healing, we campaign for the oppressed and we accompany the suffering – for that is what we must do if, like Jesus, we are to dwell in the midst of the world, with all its pain. Sometimes, we shall see victories and rejoice. At other times, it will seem like evil has won the day. But when it does, with Christian hope we can laugh at the darkness, for whatever battles it wins, God’s hope means the war is lost. Whatever discouragements we have, our certain hope in God means we need never completely lose heart. We have a vision of hope to fortify us, and the Resurrection to guarantee it.
In conclusion, let me take you back to that Stuart Townend concert I mentioned near the beginning. He introduced another of his famous hymns, his version of the Twenty-Third Psalm, ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’. He talked about how loved that psalm is by millions, both inside and outside the Church for its sense of comfort.
However, he said we needed to do something with that comfort, and that was why he wrote the chorus with its words,
And I will trust in You alone.
And I will trust in You alone,
For Your endless mercy follows me,
Your goodness will lead me home.
If we are comforted, then we need to trust, he said. And I think it’s the same with the Christian hope, which we find ‘In Christ alone’. We may be encouraged by the prospect of God’s hope for creation with its new heaven and new earth. We may find succour in the hope for humanity found in the God who dwells in the midst of peoples reconciled to him and to one another. We may be comforted by the thought that one day, sickness and injustice will finally be completely conquered when all – like Christ – are raised from the dead.
But we need to trust. And that means action. Action in creation that is consistent with God’s purposes of renewal. Action in the church, as we dwell in the midst of the world to offer reconciliation in Christ. And action for the sick and oppressed, as we anticipate the fulfilment of their hope in Christ.
Let us be strengthened in God’s hope. And let that hope propel us to trusting action.
 Robert H Mounce, The Book of Revelation, p373.
If yesterday was St Patrick’s Day, I hereby declare today Bozos In The High Street Day. Two visits to major stores convinced me of that. In both cases, centrally decided policies or actions crippled the ability of those ‘on the ground’ to help.
First, I visited W H Smith to pick up the copy of Mission-Shaped Questions I had ordered from them with a gift token. Having also received vouchers for £5 off books costing £10 or more, I wanted to order one or two more titles. However, there had been a power cut in the centre of town. Smith’s had lost electricity twice. As a result, their barcode scanners still weren’t working, even though power had been restored to the shop. This meant that if I ordered a book, they wouldn’t be able to give me the £5 discount. For gone are the days when you could order something and leave a deposit: now they insist on full payment upfront. As a result, ordering the book without the discount meant they were no longer competitive and they lost my business. I have no quibble with the young woman who served me: she spoke to her supervisor to see if there might be a way around it, but there wasn’t. At a time when they have lost so much to online stores like Amazon and when the recession is making life even harder, their inflexibility lost another sale.
Second candidate for Bozo status: Staples. I make occasional visits to this overpriced store that claims to price-match its rivals. Usually, it’s when I desperately need an inkjet cartridge, I’ve forgotten to order online and I am humiliated into paying their prices. Other times, it’s to get craft resources for Sunday School.
Well – one day last summer, I was in there on one of my desperate inkjet missions and I couldn’t find my Staples Reward Card. (Not that it had rewarded me then, nor has it since.) A helpful assistant said, “Don’t worry, I’ll issue you with a new one. Ring the number on the accompanying leaflet and head office will combine your two accounts into one.”
That made sense. Except head office refused to do anything. Today, I finally remembered to take all the paperwork back when I called to buy some coloured card for an Easter party. The local people are bemused by their head office. Rightly so, in my opinion. I can’t see how a local shop would have the resources to amalgamate accounts. All they can do is scan the cards and issue new ones. Someone somewhere else just can’t be bothered. If they can’t be bothered …
Alain Samson, a social psychologist at the London School of Economics, says that in times of difficulty, “people are brought together by looking for common values or purposes, symbolised by the crown and the message of resilience. The words are also particularly positive, reassuring, in a period of uncertainty, anxiety, even perhaps of cynicism.”
Dr Lesley Prince, who lectures in social psychology at Birmingham University, is blunter still. “It is a quiet, calm, authoritative, no-b*llsh*t voice of reason,” he says. “It’s not about British stiff upper lip, really. The point is that people have been sold a lie since the 1970s. They were promised the earth and now they’re worried about everything – their jobs, their homes, their bank, their money, their pension. This is saying, look, somebody out there knows what’s going on, and it’ll be all right”.
These seem reasons worth pondering from a Christian perspective. People want to hear a message that – in the words of Bob Marley – is “Everything is gonna be all right”, but there needs to be substance and reason behind such claims. Otherwise it’s wishful thinking. The Christian claim is that we do have substance behind our hope, and it comes in the Resurrection of Jesus. However, with such claims ruled out on principle, our society is left without substance at a time when hope is needed.
The common values and purposes our culture cherishes still remain those of economic idolatry. It seems to be taking someone of simple intellect like poor dying Jade Goody to be putting spiritual issues in the centre of the news. And yes, some of what she is reported to say or long for does sound like folk religion, but she knows she has such little time left and spiritual claims are clearly featuring highly in her concerns.
Hope is in short supply right now. Increased unemployment. Home repossessions threatening to hit 1991 records. Banks, the backbone of our economy, in turmoil. Many suffering fuel poverty as gas and electricity prices stay high, even when petrol prices have reduced. You know the rest. We could do with some hope.
In the time of John the Baptist, Israel could have done with some hope. You’ve heard it enough times. In their own land, yet feeling like exiles, because they were occupied by Rome. Every now and again, someone popped up to offer hope in terms of an uprising. Every time, Roman legions quelled the rebels and executed them publicly.
Well, you root yourself in another time when the people of God needed hope. The time addressed in Isaiah 40. Most of God’s people had been deported to Babylon, and had been there a few decades by this point. A handful had been left in Jerusalem.
Then, a prophet in the Isaiah tradition turns up in Babylon, addressing the dispirited exiles and the desolate residents of Jerusalem. Using three metaphors from the physical world around him – wilderness, grass and mountains – he offers God’s hope to those lacking it and most needing it.
And this theme of hope complements what we thought about last week, on the first Sunday of Advent. Then, our theme was waiting. Today, it is hope, which is the content of Christian waiting. Had we read to the end of Isaiah 40, we would have heard – depending on which Bible translation we used – about those who will renew their strength by either ‘waiting’ or ‘hoping’.
So – without more ado – how does the Isaiah prophet help us to hope, using these images of wilderness, grass and mountains?
Last week, as we considered the theme of waiting, we wondered how we live when it feels like God is absent. Isaiah 40 is bold in response to this: you may feel that God is not here, but God is coming! He gives us a picture that is a bit like the building of a new road (hopefully without the environmental concerns we have about such a project in our society). Prepare God’s way in the wilderness, make a straight highway in the desert, raise the valleys, lower the mountains, and smooth out the rough terrain, and you will see God’s glory (verses 3-5).
So – in a time of God’s apparent absence, the good news is that God is coming. In a time of spiritual darkness, the good news is that you will see God’s glory. Music, surely, to the ears of disillusioned exiles in Babylon, and beaten-down people in Jerusalem. This is a message of comfort. Your punishment is over. Enough is enough (verses 1-2).
We may not know when things will change for the better for Christian witness in our culture, but we can hear similar echoes of hope in Advent. Our waiting and hoping is for Jesus who is called Immanuel, God with us. God is coming. We are not alone. Christ is coming. Christ came. The Father sent the Spirit of Christ. Our sense of aloneness is only apparent. It is not actual.
Of course, we must be careful: proclaiming that in Christ, God is with us, can make us sound like we have a religious superiority complex. This is not a matter of our deserving special rank. It is a matter of grace, God’s undeserved favour to sinners. The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost. It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. Jesus, God with us, came for lost and sick people – including us. Yes, God is with us in Christ. But we hold that knowledge humbly. And as we share it, we do so as one beggar telling another where to find bread.
And the wilderness was specifically to be a place where God’s glory would be seen. Would God’s glory be seen in raining down fire and brimstone? No. It would be seen as he led a raggle-taggle bag of exiles back home.
Similarly, Advent is a time when we wait in hope for the glory of God. His glory will be seen and sung about in skies over Bethlehem. His glory will be seen, in the words of Bruce Cockburn,
Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe
It’s a different kind of glory. It’s wilderness glory, a manger at the back of a house in Bethlehem, not a palace in Jerusalem. It’s the glory of God humbling himself into human flesh, one who later as an adult would not grant the wish of two disciples known colloquially as the Sons of Thunder, who wanted to unleash damnation on enemies.
Yes, come to unexpected dry places like a wilderness – like a manger – and find that God is present in strange glory. Come to Broomfield and find him? Why not?
When the prophet speaks about the people being like grass, I think he has wilderness grass in mind. It withers and fades in the heat of the wilderness, so when we hear about that happening when the breath of the Lord blows on it (verse 7), I think we’re meant to imagine that the Lord’s breath is hot and intense. The breath of the Lord, the Spirit of God, is not here life-giving but life-taking. The judgment of God had fallen upon the people with the Babylonian invasion and exile; now, like grass in the hot sun, they are withering and fading.
It’s not difficult to find similarities in later generations. In the days before Jesus was born, Israel was withering under oppression from Rome. In our day, we in the western church (especially in Europe) feel like we are withering and fading. What word of hope do we find here? It comes in verse 8:
The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
Whatever happens to us, the purposes of God are not thwarted. Whether we wither due to divine judgment on our faithlessness or whether it is general oppression or persecution, hear the promise that ‘the word of our God will stand forever’.
A story was told during the time when Russian communism ruled Eastern Europe. Soldiers raided the home of a Christian family and made some arrests. To humiliate them, they threw the family Bible on the floor. But a soldier noticed that one page didn’t burn. It contained the words of Jesus: ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.’ That incident was key in the soldier’s conversion to Christ.
There will be many attempts to destroy God’s word from its place in our society, and some of those attacks will focus on the church. But we are in Advent, the season of hope. The word of the Lord stands forever, and the gates of hell will never prevail against the church of Jesus Christ.
None of this is a reason for complacency, but it is a reason for hope. Therefore, it’s here to boost our faith and fuel our prayers for God to renew his wonders in our day.
So God is present in his strange glory, and he is speaking and will not be silenced. Those are grounds for hope, but they are not very specific. We need a vantage point. The herald, the preacher (who by the way is female in the text), needs to ‘get up to a high mountain’ to see things as they are and be several hundred feet above contradiction in preaching good news to discouraged people (verse 9).
What good news? That God is victorious over the enemies of his people, that he comes in conquest, with his people as his booty, and with the gentleness of a shepherd caring for ewes and lambs (verses 10-11).
Israel’s hope was the end of captivity in Babylon. The hope in Jesus’ coming was in his resurrection from the dead. Our hope, based on that resurrection, is that of God’s final victory when he appears again, not only to claim his own, but to renew all of creation, with a new heaven and a new earth.
There are always reasons in the world to make us gloomy. At present there is a plethora of reasons. There are also reasons to be pessimistic about the western church. You would think there were few grounds for hope. But when you get up the mountain to see things from God’s perspective, the situation looks different. You see hope in the promises of God, who has acted decisively in the past, who will do so again, and who one day will make all things new.
It’s rather like the old story told by Tony Campolo. People give him all sorts of reasons to be negative about the state of the world and the church. But his standard reply is, “I’ve been reading the Bible. And I’ve peeked to see how it ends. Jesus wins!”
So let the world write us off. Let our friends regard our faith as irrelevant. Let Richard Dawkins describe religion as a virus. But see God’s view from the mountain: Jesus wins. Let that fill us with Advent hope.
And while we’re on the mountain, let us – like the female herald in Isaiah 40 – proclaim it to all who will hear. Let us encourage one another in the church. Don’t be dragged down by the lies and limited perspectives of the world: Jesus wins.
And let us also proclaim it to a world sorely in need of hope. To people who thought they could trust in money, until the banks blew up. To people who gained their sense of identity from their job, until redundancy hit. To people struck down with disability or chronic or terminal illness, whose lives had been based on the vigour of their bodies. To all these people and many others, proclaim that Jesus wins. It is promised in the actions of God and especially in the Resurrection. We have a hope worth trusting in. Why be afraid? Why be dismayed?
You may recall I’ve said that my first circuit appointment was in the town of Hertford. There, the Methodists regularly quoted John Wesley’s Journal regarding several of the visits the great man made to the town on his preaching travels. They were fond of quoting one entry in particular, where Wesley was utterly discouraged. It said, ‘Poor desolate Hertford.’ Those words hung like a curse over them.
But you may also remember how I have talked of being involved in ecumenical youth ministry in the town. Somebody gave me the complete set of Wesley’s Journal, and I looked up all the entries on Hertford. They weren’t all doom and gloom. Some were, but one in particular wasn’t. In it, Wesley recounted coming to preach at a school in the town. To cut a long story short, he saw a revival break out among the children.
You can imagine the impact that story had on us as we gathered to pray about youth ministry. Never mind ‘poor desolate Hertford’. There was a heritage of Holy Spirit work among young people in the area. God had not been absent or silent. He had been gloriously present, proclaiming Good News.
So I want to say that the Advent hope is like that. It is time to cast off the darkness. The great Advent text in Isaiah 60 says, ‘Arise, shine, your light has come’. This Advent, might we just dare to believe and to hope in our God?
And might we find that in this hope we have something beyond riches to share with a world, whose own versions of hope have plummeted in value?
Mum does not have lung cancer. I heard that a few minutes ago from my sister, who is at the hospital with her today. The consultant visited her in the recovery suite after this morning’s surgery to say that the lesion he removed was not cancerous. This is an astonishing piece of news, given that he had written to the GP and another consultant, saying he was fairly sure that not only was it lung cancer, but a specific type in particular.
As yet, we do not know exactly what the diagnosis is. For that, we await the next ward round, either this evening or tomorrow morning. Next suspect on the list was TB, followed by a list of obscure conditions.
My sister and I had so prepared ourselves for bad news, that Wednesday’s results (no secondaries) and today’s are astounding. Much as I believe in the healing ministry, I have hardly dared pray for healing. Terrible confession, I know, but true. There is no way I wish my dear mother dead, but knowing she is seventy-eight, I had begun to prepare myself some time ago for the thought that one day bad news will come and it will be the beginning of the end, and I would then have to wait for the outworking of our Christian hope to see again. My faith has risen since Wednesday’s news, but this is amazing.
The feeling of relief is almost indescribable, except to say that in my case it is so strong it has left me feeling weak and dizzy. Somehow, in the next few minutes I have to cook dinner for the children and then go out to give a Boys’ Brigade devotional. I’m not sure my mind will quite be on the job – in the nicest possible way!
Thank you to everyone who has prayed. Of course, the family wouldn’t turn down more prayers …
It was the eminent American theologian Tom Petty who once sang that ‘The waiting is the hardest part.’ We, like millions of other families, are currently waiting. We are waiting for next week, when Mum enters the Brompton Hospital for her investigations. Admission is Monday, procedure is Tuesday, we are told the results Wednesday, and if surgery is feasible, that happens Friday.
Meanwhile, even a short wait from Monday last week when the consultant broke the potential news, feels like it is dragging. If it feels like that to me, I don’t know what it is like for Mum or Dad.
And there are others who wait much longer. In Scipture, waiting is often for years, decades, even centuries – for the hope of the Messiah to ease the pain of God’s people (and even then he wasn’t in the form they expected).
Yet one thing I must recognise is that God uses waiting positively. ‘Waiting’ and ‘hoping’ are interchangeable English translations of Hebrew, if I recall correctly. (Compare different English versions of Isaiah 40:31). I believe God can use the waiting period to shape us. George Carey once said to me at Trinity College, Bristol that theological training wasn’t simply about information, it was about formation. And isn’t that true of the whole Christian life? God is forming us. One means he uses is waiting. As we pray, struggle, wrestle and argue, God forms us more into the image of Christ.
I pray that God is doing that for us as a family right now. If you are waiting, is he doing it for you?
When the singer Sam Phillips was operating on the Contemporary Christian Music scene under the name Leslie Phillips, she wrote a song that I imagine her paymasters didn’t like. It was called ‘Answers Don’t Come Easy’, and it returns to me at times like this. She sang:
I can wait
It’s enough to know you can hear me now
I can wait
It’s enough to feel you near me now
And when answers don’t come easy
I can wait
I think she was wise.