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Sermon: Justice And Meaninglessness

Ecclesiastes 8:2-17

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s interesting we come to a passage about justice six days after the death of Margaret Thatcher. Did she uphold the rule of law for the sake of good order in society, or did she use the Police to batter ordinary working people?

I’m not going to express an opinion on that debate. I have my views, and while I tend a certain way about Mrs T, my beliefs can’t be summed up in just a sentence or two.

But we come to the writer of Ecclesiastes, living in a vastly different society from ours, yet asking similar questions about justice and authority to ones that many people ask today. After all, as The Who sang in ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’,

Meet the new boss,
Same as the old boss.

So we’ll look at the questions Qoheleth (‘The Preacher’) raises in this passage. We’ll have to take some of his answers further in order to set them in a New Testament context, but I couldn’t pick just one New Testament passage to complement this one, because there are a few we need to take into account.

Firstly, he advises his readers to keep the law. It’s for a mixture of reasons, though:

Obey the king’s command, I say, because you took an oath before God. Do not be in a hurry to leave the king’s presence. Do not stand up for a bad cause, for he will do whatever he pleases. Since a king’s word is supreme, who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?’

Whoever obeys his command will come to no harm,
and the wise heart will know the proper time and procedure.
For there is a proper time and procedure for every matter,
though a person may be weighed down by misery. (Verses 2-6)

It all starts off rather well: obey ‘because you took an oath before God.’ Whether this is like an oath in a court of law, or whether it simply indicates that someone on principle has declared before God that they will obey the king, it is something that takes promises to God seriously. Those who make serious promises to God should keep their word. No-one should be frivolous about their vows to the Lord. If we are not going to keep a commitment to him, we should not say that we will.

Now this has an indirect effect on a just society. Justice requires truth-tellers. Justice requires those committed to honesty. Whether you take an oath to God in court or simply make an affirmation because Jesus said ‘Let your yes be yes and your no be no’ in the Sermon on the Mount, false testimony leads to injustice.

But at the same time, just promising to obey the king because he wields power as Qoheleth implies in verse 3 is insufficient in itself. It may be a minimal reason for doing right, but on its own it is no more than a pragmatic reason, based on fear. It’s the social cousin of the parents who say to a child, “Because I say so!”

Ultimately, the New Testament has an even stronger reason for commending a general principle of obedience to the authorities. Paul describes it in Romans 13, where he says that the authorities are instituted by God for the purposes of justice. They are both to punish the wrongdoer and reward those who do right. This is seen by Paul as promoting a stable and healthy society.

Now don’t you think it’s quite remarkable that a man of Paul’s experience should say such positive things about the state? He is someone who on more than one occasion suffered at the hands of the judiciary for the wrong reasons. He was arrested under false charges. He was thrown into prison on trumped-up charges. He was not always protected when he was attacked. Yet despite this, he still wrote about the basic need to submit to those in authority.

I am sure that various questions are forming in your minds about this. One would be: how does this black and white language about rewarding the righteous and punishing the wrongdoer relate to Christian belief in forgiveness? Allow me to tell you a story.

During my ministerial training, I celebrated my thirtieth birthday one Sunday. Another student and his wife invited me over to their flat for a wild celebration over … beans on toast. At the end of the evening, they offered to call a cab for me, but I declined. I felt I knew what I was doing as a city boy – and I didn’t want to shell out unnecessary money as a student.

Big mistake. On the way back to the hall of residence where the single ministerial students lived, I was mugged by a young thug. The first thing he did was to smash my glasses, and he then compounded it by hitting me in the eyes.

When I struggled back to the hall, one student phoned up my bank to cancel my plastic money, and another (who was a former solicitor) took me to the police station, and stayed with me into the early hours while I was interviewed and gave a statement.

I am sure the young hooligan was known to the local community, but the police never made an arrest. I was asked at a later date whether I would have given evidence in court, had he been apprehended. I replied, ‘Yes, just so long as I was sure first that I had forgiven him in my heart.’ It is my conviction that we need to forgive for the sake of our hearts, and to uphold justice for the sake of a stable society.

But there is another question Christians will pose about law-keeping, and it’s this. Do we really have to give our loyalty to an unjust government? How do we cope with Paul’s teaching in Romans 13 when obeying a government would put us into conflict with things we know elsewhere are God’s will?

In 1981, while apartheid was still entrenched in South Africa, a black Christian community worker from Soweto, visited London. While he was here, he was interviewed by Simon Jenkins, the editor of a small magazine called Ship Of Fools that is now a large Christian website. During the interview, Jenkins asked him, ‘How do you respond to Paul’s words in Romans 13 about submitting to the governing authorities because they are given by God?’

Mbeje replied,

 It is very clear that the South African government is a government which has not been appointed by God, and if God has appointed that government then he must be a very, very unjust God. Personally, I believe that God has nothing to do with the appointment of the apartheid government in South Africa. If I believed that God had appointed that government, then I should not be against apartheid.[1]

Mbeje’s words point, I believe, to the fact that Romans 13 is not the only word in the New Testament about our attitude to authority, just as the call to obey the king in Ecclesiastes 8 is not the only thing the Preacher says about the subject. As well as Romans 13, there is Revelation 13, where Rome is the Beast. They lead us to the second of the two themes in our reading, then, namely the imperfection of justice. In the rest of the chapter, we read about the wicked being praised (verse 10), delayed justice (verse 11), and some occasions where the wicked get what they deserve but others where what they deserve and what the righteous deserve get reversed (verses 12-14). No wonder nobody can make sense of this, he says (verses 16-17).

And this is why I called this sermon ‘Justice and Meaninglessness’ on the sermon series outline. Things don’t always go as they should. We bring up our children on a ‘happy ever after’, people get what they deserve basis, where every story ends with goodness being praised and wrong being punished, but as we grow up we soon discover life doesn’t always cash out like that. For me, I think it was watching an episode of the TV cop show ‘Softly, Softly’ which ended with the police not catching the criminal. I started to ask questions of my parents. How could it be? This was real life, they told me.

And I’d be surprised if there were anyone here today who doesn’t recognise that. Life isn’t fair. The good don’t always win. Bad people get their way. How can this be?

No wonder Qoheleth says in verses 14and 15,

 There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless. 15 So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.

Note that word ‘meaningless’ that keeps cropping up in Ecclesiastes. The failure of justice always to win can make life seem meaningless. It just seems like a counsel of despair. The commendation to enjoy life then becomes little more than ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’.

But I take you back to the beginning of this series. On the first Sunday of the series, which we introduced with an all age service, we also had an evening service where I looked at chapter 1 in more depth. I pointed out that the familiar words, ‘Meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless’ in Ecclesiastes may better be translated, ‘Breath of breaths, everything is temporary’. If you plug that meaning in here, then actually we have words of hope. The failure of justice to prevail at all times is not meaningless, it is temporary. As Christians, we believe that a new world is coming, ushered in by resurrection and final judgement. The imperfections of justice are not for eternity. Sheep will be separated from goats.

And you know what? This is an Easter theme. Paul in Romans 1 speaks about the Resurrection of Jesus as being God’s vindication of his Son. An injustice was done at the Cross. Throughout the Book of Acts, preachers such as Peter remind their hearers of that. But on Easter morning, God reversed the injustice. The world had said ‘no’ to his Son, but he said ‘yes’. It’s another case where the Easter event is a foretaste of all that is to come in the fullness of God’s kingdom.

Let us remember that the imperfection of justice is temporary. That can spur us on to work for justice with a sense of hope. It is also, then, why the Preacher commends ‘the enjoyment of life’ to his hearers. The Christian can enjoy life, even in the midst of an unjust world. It isn’t a closing of deaf ears to the cries of the suffering. It isn’t a making the most of life before it all disappears. It is instead defiant laughter in the face of evil. Eating and drinking and being glad in the midst of our daily toil is one sign on our part that we believe a new world is coming, and that God has served notice to quit on the forces of darkness.


[1] Ship Of Fools, issue no. 8, December 1981, p 36.

Sermon: Ruth Part 2, The Compassion Of Boaz

Ruth 2:1-23
“Is the Gospel against Surrey?”

That was my colleague Bob Sneddon’s question at my first staff meeting in this circuit.

Is the Gospel against Surrey? We are the wealthiest county in the country, filled with butchers and bakers and movers and shakers. It is natural that when we pledge allegiance to a Jesus who upturns the moneychangers’ tables and the values of wealth and power that we ask hard questions about discipleship in this particular culture.

This may make you think, “Oh no, I’ve heard it before. Someone has just assumed that everyone in Surrey is rich and the streets are paved with stocks and shares. Doesn’t he know that several in this congregation are on limited incomes? Not another preacher here to condemn us, surely?”

No, I’m not here to condemn – although we must acknowledge that the message of Jesus poses uncomfortable challenges for his followers.

Rather, if we are to face the facts that Jesus challenges his disciples radically in the area of lifestyle, we need not simply to be hectored but to be offered a positive rôle model.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Boaz.

What would the Gospel life look like if, like some of our neighbours, you could spend Christmas on a cruise ship, or going to Australia, or merely going skiing? I think Boaz gives us some clues.
The narrator introduces Boaz to us as ‘a man of standing’ (verse 1). Because of his wealth – we shall soon hear that he owns land and servants – he has a position of influence in his society. This man could fit into Surrey.

But what kind of man? Plenty of people with standing in their communities prove to be uigly characters. This expression, though, can also mean that he is noble in character. As we shall find out, that is true of Boaz. If we want to know how influential and powerful people might live the life of faith, Boaz is worth our attention.

For certainly he is a man of faith. Note how he greets his workers: ‘The LORD be with you!’ he says, and they reply, ‘The LORD bless you!’ (verse 4).

Is this just some liturgical exchange? If so, a harvest field is a curious location for it. Is it simply the routine pleasantries of the day? It could be, but what we pick up from the rest of this episode is a man who has a good relationship with his workers and with others. So I believe his greeting, ‘The LORD be with you’ is genuine.
This, then, is a man who carries his faith into everyday life. One executive once said that at home his order of priorities was God, family and then work. However, when he got to the office, he reversed those priorities: work, family, God. Not Boaz. Putting his faith as his top priority influences everything about him. It shapes the way he conducts his business. This is more than someone whose faith means that he doesn’t swear and he doesn’t steal the paperclips.

A favourite story of mine about this concerns a man who was an elderly Local Preacher in my home circuit. No-one – but no-one – preached like John Evill. He had been born in Swansea and was a toddler at the time of the Welsh Revival. He preached like the Revival was still happening.

In his working life he had been the Secretary of the Enfield Highway Co-Operative Society. He used to tell a story about his interview for that job. “Mister Evill, if we give you this job, will you put the Co-Operative Society first?” he was asked.

“No!” he replied. “The Church of Jesus Christ comes first in my life!”

And he didn’t mean that he would huddle away in the church and not give due time to his work. Jesus was number one. That affected how he did everything. He took the Lordship of Christ into work every day.

Boaz does the Old Testament equivalent. But how does it manifest itself? There are several ways we see in this passage. One of them comes in that simple warm exchange of greetings with his labourers. This is a man who works on having positive relationships with his workers. They are not cogs in the machine, they are not merely the recipients of his orders, they are made in the image of God, and so they are treated with dignity.

When we were considering whether to move our children from Bisley School to Knaphill School, one of the things that impressed us about Kevin Davies, the Head at Knaphill, was the rapport he had with his staff. Yes, he was in charge, but there was a warm relationship evidenced by an easy humour between them. If someone who to my knowledge has no explicit faith can do that, how much more can the Christian manager?

A Christian friend of mine called Dan Collins is an entrepreneur and the founder of a company in Hertfordshire called Fresh Tracks. One of the things his outfit does is lay on innovative team-building events for organisations. Starting in their early days with quad biking, they now run a chocolate challenge that has featured on the TV show The Apprentice, and other events where teams have to make sculptures, wooden toys and films. The company has five core values:

Relationships matter
Fun
Ideas are our life blood
Waste is wrong
Wealth creation for distribution.

These may not be overtly religious values, but then Fresh Tracks is not a specifically Christian company. However, it is clear to me that Dan has taken his faith to work as an influencer. Certainly others recognise what he is doing: he also tutors for the Cranfield School of Management.

So if I am a Christian in a senior position, am I thinking: how can I so take the Lordship of Christ into my daily work that I am known as a boss or a manager who blesses their staff?

But Boaz goes further. He crosses boundaries and seeks justice for the poor. What does he do when he learns that the unfamiliar young woman is a Moabitess, that is, a foreigner from an enemy country, and that her story is known as one of tragedy and suffering (verses 5-6)? Not only does he underscore his foreman’s decision to let her work in the field (verse 7), he especially protects her. He puts her with his own female servants (verse 8) and issues orders that the men are not to touch her (verse 9).
That command is quite significant for Ruth, if it is true as I argued when I preached on chapter 1 last week that when Naomi’s son ‘took’ her in marriage, that most likely indicated a forced abduction, and that she is therefore a woman who has been the victim of domestic violence at the hands of a man. In the words of one commentator,

Boaz is hereby instituting the first anti-sexual-harassment policy in the workplace recorded in the Bible.[1]

Also, she can drink the water the men have drawn – in a culture where foreigners would draw for Israelites and women for men, this is extraordinary[2].

What has Boaz done? For him, it’s not all about the bottom line. It’s about compassionate justice.

How can all this play out today for Christians who have power and influence? It surely makes the case for being counter-cultural. It cannot only be about maximising the return for shareholders. Yes, profits may be needed to sustain a business and for people to flourish in employment, but the kingdom of God is about a righteousness that incorporates justice and faithfulness. It may well involve going against social convention. It may mean leading a team in which we say that we will neither practise nor tolerate bullying or oppression.

And remember, Boaz follows through on this. It isn’t a one-off gesture. He invites Ruth to join his workers at mealtime, something that she wouldn’t have expected. The text suggests that as a stranger, a foreigner, she had kept her distance until the invitation.

But not only that, Boaz, the big boss, serves her the roasted grain himself (verse 14). He leads by example in humbly serving the stranger. No wonder, then, that his words soon after that to his men to ensure that she has plenty to glean (verses 15-16) carry extra power. For Boaz, even in a culture where the word of the boss was law, his attitude is, ‘Do as I do, not simply as I say.’ Christians in leadership cannot require of their subordinates what they are unwilling to do themselves. Everywhere in Scripture healthy leadership is by example. That is why the Apostle Paul tells people to copy him. It isn’t arrogance: it’s a principle. That is why Jesus said he had set an example for us to follow. Same thing.
And in giving that order to his men, Boaz demonstrates one more thing I want to highlight about how he uses his power and authority. It’s a justice matter again. Not for him the idea that he can look good by letting Ruth glean a little, his instructions are designed to ensure that she has plenty for her needs and for Naomi’s. In fact, Ruth takes home so much (verse 17) it’s hard to imagine how she transported it all! So he doesn’t opt for the minimum effect he can have on the payroll, the least damage to the balance sheet. If he is going to do something right, it will have the potential to have a cost for his business, so that people may receive what they need in order to participate in society.

All this is all very well, but much of it could have been said in one form or another by someone giving a talk on how to run a business ethically without necessarily referring all of it to the life of faith. Which is why I want to draw this to a close by highlighting how God is the seam running through the story.

Some parts are obvious, whether it is Boaz saying, ‘The LORD be with you!’ (verse 4) or his recognition that Ruth has ‘come to take refuge’ under the wings of ‘the LORD, the God of Israel’ (verse 12). In the light of his godly behaviour, Naomi says, ‘The LORD bless him!’ (verse 20). In all these ways, God is explicitly acknowledged in the story.

But there is another hint, too. There is a comment I take to be ironic when Ruth first goes off to work in the field:

So she went out and began to glean in the fields behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech. (Verse 3, italics mine)

‘As it turned out.’ Is this luck? Are you kidding? Jews didn’t believe in luck, and nor should Christians. Later, someone would write in the Book of Proverbs,

The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD. (Proverbs 16:33)
For the Jew, nothing happened by sheer chance. There were no coincidences, only what some Christians call God-incidences. Ruth’s arrival in the field of Boaz is of a piece with the cause of the famine and the bringing of Naomi back to Bethlehem with Ruth. This is the hand of God. This is providence.

Now I don’t know how you see providence. I certainly don’t see it as the Christian version of ‘fate’ but as God using his free will, which is greater in power than ours. But on any account, God has silently brought Ruth and Boaz into the same orbit.

And this is something to remember. However much power or authority we might seem to exercise in this life (at least in comparison to others), we are not in charge of our destinies, or the destinies of others. He is bringing people across our paths all the time for us to bless in his name. Indeed, that is also true for those who do not have the wealth and influence that others have.

Is it a coincidence that we are in certain networks, neighbourhoods and friendships? Of course not. God has either placed us there or allowed us to be there.

Now we are in those places, it is our responsibility in his name to say, how can I exercise my faith by engaging in positive relationships? How can I put my faith into practice by a concern for the kingdom of God that manifests itself in faithfulness and in justice for the poor and the unpopular? How can I cross boundaries in Jesus’ name? How can my example match my beliefs?

In this week’s episode, we see only the beginnings of Boaz’ influence for good. Much more will come, as those who know the whole story will testify. How much of a difference can we make for Christ in the world by being attentive to how we use the power we have been given for good and for justice?


[1] Daniel I Block, Judges, Ruth (The New American Commentary), p 660.

[2] Ibid.

Sermon For Sunday Week: In Christ Alone My Hope Is Found

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.

Revelation 21:1-8

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[1]. 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.


[1] Robert H Mounce, The Book of Revelation, p373.

Peacemakers

“Blessèd are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

I remember my first Remembrance Sunday service as a minister. The Anglicans and the Methodists gathered together every year in the parish church. The vicar didn’t like preaching, and always delegated that to the Methodist minister. He chose the Beatitudes of Jesus as the Bible reading. I’m sure you don’t see any parallels with this morning, then. 🙂

In my naïveté, I felt I had to expound the whole passage. I said something about every one of the nine beatitudes. So – here we are, another ecumenical Remembrance service in a village parish church, settle back into your pews … 

No. I’ve learned. There is enough in one of these Beatitudes to fill our thoughts on a day like this. I could have chosen, “Blessèd are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled”, but instead I selected, “Blessèd are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” What might these words of Jesus mean for us on Remembrance Sunday, and what might they mean for us generally in following him?

Peace with God
We cannot understand the mission of Jesus unless we see it as being out peacemaking between God and human beings. He said that he “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for the many” (Mark 10:45, italics mine). Jesus came to bring reconciliation. He came with the message of God’s grace and mercy for sinners. He demonstrated it by his outrageous association with the most unworthy members of society. He accomplished it in his death on the Cross, where he took the blame for the sins of the world. In his Resurrection, he made the new life of God’s kingdom visible and possible.

In the Gospel of Jesus, peacemaking bridges the gap between God and people caused by our sin. The apostle Paul says that God in Christ appeals to us to be reconciled to him. That happens through the Cross, when we respond by turning away from sin to follow Jesus and trust him. It is the work of Jesus as the Son of God to make God’s appeal to us and to make the bridge-building possible.

So what better time to find peace with God than Remembrance Sunday?

Peace with Neighbours
At college, a friend of mine bought a book of cartoons about the symbol of reconciliation at Holy Communion services, the sharing of the Peace. The cover had a cartoon showing one character offering the Peace to a rather frosty person. Its title? ‘No Thank You, I’m C of E.’

Some people think the introduction of the Peace into Christian worship is one of those touchy-feely happy-clappy trends that don’t fit with traditional worship. In fact, it’s a much more ancient tradition than the Book of Common Prayer. Only one tradition of Christian reconciliation is older, if you want to be truly traditional, and that is Paul’s command that we greet one another with a brotherly kiss. I don’t hear traditionalists calling for that too often!

But my serious point is this: a liturgical action like the Peace symbolises the fact that if we are at peace with God, we are called to be at peace with our neighbour, insofar as our efforts allow. That is why the Book of Common Prayer invited all those who were ‘in love and charity with [their] neighbour to take [the] holy sacrament to [their] comfort’.

In other words, we cannot have the blessings of reconciliation with God as a private possession without striving for reconciliation with people. Children of God will be such peacemakers. We will forgive those who have wronged us, not by pretending something didn’t happen or didn’t matter, but by separating blame and punishment. We shall take steps to apologise and make appropriate amends when we know others have been hurt by our actions. This is what those who have been adopted into the family of God do. God has built a bridge to us in Christ: we build bridges to others.

Peace with the World
Here’s the thorny problem with this text on Remembrance Sunday: if Jesus calls his followers to be peacemakers, should we ever go to war? Clearly, Christians have disagreed about that for two thousand years. I’m not about to settle it in one brief sermon. 

It’s worth noting that there was a political application to Jesus’ words here. If peacemakers were to be called ‘children [sons] of God’, then that would have struck a chord with his first hearers. In Jesus’ day, you will recall that his homeland of Israel was occupied by Rome. There were different Jewish responses to the fact of occupation. The wealthy Sadducees ingratiated themselves with their rulers. The Pharisees prayed for change.

And the Zealots were the freedom fighters. Rome would have viewed them as terrorists. What did the Zealots call themselves? ‘The sons of God.’ At very least here, then, Jesus repudiates the use of violence in advancing the kingdom of God.

It may be a different matter when it is not a matter of forwarding the Christian cause as one of justice for others, where we defend the oppressed. Jesus would have had the Hebrew word for peace in his mind, shalom. Now shalom is not peace simply defined as the absence of war. It is about the presence of justice and harmony in society.

Thus if promoting justice and harmony meant taking forceful action against the wicked, we might in some ways be peacemakers. However, that is something that needs weighing carefully and only pursuing in ways where we guard as much as possible against descending to the level of the oppressors. So, for example, that is why – although I disagree with Barack Obama on issues such as abortion – I welcome his commitment to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay.

An Anglican priest from Kenya once told me, “If I am attacked for being a Christian, I will not fight back. If I am attacked for being a black man, I will.” Whether you agree with him or not, he was trying to distinguish between the fact that Christians may not seek to advance the Gospel aggressively or violently, but we may use force if it is a matter of justice for others. However, let us exercise caution. Force should only be exercised with reluctance, not enthusiasm. 

One final area of peace to mention this morning:

Peace with Creation
This may seem an odd thing to talk about, and perhaps the moment I said ‘Peace with creation’ you thought this was going to be an excuse for some trendy talk about the environment.

Well, this point is about environmental concerns, but it is thoroughly rooted in the text. In the Old Testament shalom peace includes harmony with creation. This is not some ‘Hello trees, hello flowers’ approach, or viewing our planet as a goddess called Gaia, as some do. It is about taking seriously our stewardship of God’s world. If in the kingdom of God the lion will lie down with the lamb, if nothing will be harmed or destroyed on God’s holy mountain, and if the throne of God is surrounded not merely by humans but by ‘living creatures’, then we have a vision of harmony with God’s created order.

Even without this vision, we would surely want to fight to make peace with the environment for the sake of our children and grandchildren, just as many fought for a just peace in World War Two.

But the Bible’s vision of the future is a large and compelling one. It is not, as popularly supposed, one where the material is vaporised and we are all ethereal spirits floating on clouds. Rather, it is one where just as Jesus’ body was raised in a new physical form, so will ours be. It is one where heaven comes down to earth, and God inaugurates a new heaven and a new earth. Creation is redeemed with a new creation. Peaceable creation care today anticipates God’s future. It is in harmony with it.

Blessèd, then, are the peacemakers. Children of God are those who have been reconciled to their heavenly Father through the Cross of Christ. In response, they offer that same peace to others, they seek reconciliation with their neighbours, justice in the world and the well-being of creation.

May the Holy Spirit help us all to be peacemakers.

Sermon: Forgiveness

Matthew 18:21-35

Introduction
Many years ago, I heard the true story of a young Christian woman who was raped. Many who suffer rape keep their identity secret, but this woman rushed to her church for support and told the story. 

The support came in this form: ‘Have you forgiven him?’

Job’s comforters, indeed.

We believe in forgiveness, and this parable makes clear that it is paramount in discipleship. But do we always handle forgiveness well? Is it really a choice between denying the opportunity to express your pain -as happened to the woman who was raped – and being bitter?

Today, rather than expound the parable of the unforgiving servant in my normal style, I’d like us to explore what forgiveness is and why we need to forgive.

What Is Forgiveness?
What do we make of Peter’s question about how often we should forgive? Seven times? Seventy times seven? (Or should that just be seventy-seven times – so much easier!)

I think we generally accept that Jesus is not putting a ceiling on forgiveness when we reach four hundred and ninety. Forgiveness is something we keep having to do – and I’ll come back to that question later.

But I think Jesus is also showing us that forgiveness is the permanent refusal to exercise vengeance. The numbers ‘seven’ and ‘seventy’ are connected with vengeance in Genesis chapter four. In that chapter, Cain kills Abel. The Lord chooses not to kill Cain, but makes him a wanderer, and threatens seven-fold vengeance on anyone who kills him. Later, one of Cain’s grandsons, Lamech, kills a man who wounded him, and says, ‘If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold’ (Genesis 4:24).

So when Jesus says, ‘Not seven times but seventy times seven,’ he is withdrawing the vengeance option. That is what forgiveness is. True forgiveness never says, ‘I forgive you, it was nothing,’ it says, ‘Yes, you hurt me, but I choose to lay aside my desire for vengeance.’

This is probably one of the most important ways in which we can be witnesses to Christ today. Most people will not read a Bible, but they will read our lives. So when we refrain from the option to press the vengeance button, we are allowing them to read about Jesus.

Of course, there is much more to what forgiveness is. Just to examine the Greek word employed here by Matthew and other New Testament writers tells us something. The word,aphiémi, means to set free. It’s what you do when you cancel a debt: you set the debtor free from their obligation to repay you. Forgiveness is like that. You release the one who has hurt you from the obligation to pay for what they have done. You allow them to walk away. You choose not to exercise your right of punishment.

But forgiveness is much more than setting free the offender. In a wonderful way, forgiveness sets us free, too. If we harbour resentment, then we become bound up, as if ropes have been wrapped around us. When we forgive someone, then the ropes of bitterness fall away. Forgiveness sets everyone free.

Perhaps another image of forgiveness will help. The Psalmist says, ‘As far as the east is from the west, so far has he [God] removed our transgressions from us.’ To forgive is to remove. It is to take sin away. Think of the hurt from sin as a large object that you cannot put in the wheelie bin for your normal rubbish collection. Instead, you open up the rear doors of your car and fold down the rear seats. You open up the hatch and remove the parcel shelf. Then you put the large object in the back, take it to the council depot at Drovers Way and dispose of it. How do you feel? Considerable relief, I expect. 

So it is with God’s forgiveness. Sin is landfill. That may not be a good illustration environmentally, but I’m sure you get the point. It’s buried. He doesn’t dig it up again. I think that’s why R T Kendall in his book Total Forgiveness says that if you keep talking about a wrong that has been done to you, then you probably haven’t forgiven. I’m not sure I entirely agree with him, but I take the general point. Forgiveness takes away sin. There is a sense in which it isn’t here any more.

One thing that is often said about forgiveness is that if we truly forgive, then we forget as well. ‘Forgive and forget’ are put together. Perhaps that’s a development of the idea that forgiveness is about the removal of sin. Others say, ‘I can forgive but I can’t forget’, and feel condemned by those who associate forgiveness with forgetting what happened. So does forgiveness necessarily involve forgetting the offence?

I am in the middle of reading a book by an Anglican priest containing his reflections on divorce, having been through a divorce himself. Early on in the book he gives one definition of forgiveness. He doesn’t describe it as forgetting at all. He calls it ‘remembering well’. Humanly, we are unlikely to forget bad things that have been done to us. The more we try to forget, the more they are entrenched in our memory – much like the proverbial flying elephant. But we can come to a point where we hold the memory in a holy way. When the memory comes back to us, we choose not to bitter. One way of doing this is by praying that God will bless the person who hurt us.

Some years ago, I heard a tape from Spring Harvest of a sermon by Caesar Molebatsi. If you haven’t heard of him, Molebatsi is a black South African pastor much involved in justice and reconciliation issues. During the terrible years of apartheid, he was hit by a white car driver and lost a leg. Although the driver was caught, he never apologised. Molebatsi has a permanent reminder of the violence in that he has only one leg. He regularly has to choose to forgive, because it is impossible to forget when the sin done to him meant he is without one of his limbs. His only choice is ‘remembering well’.

And that links with one other observation I’d like to make about forgiveness. One of our great mistakes when it comes to forgiveness is to think that it is instant, or a one-off. The moment we have said, ‘I forgive you,’ everything is fine. It isn’t. Someone like Caesar Molebatsi knows that. Bob Mayo, the author of the book on divorce I mentioned, also knows that. Whatever happened between him and his wife, he has the permanent reminder that she is no longer there, but living somewhere else.

No: forgiveness, says Bob Mayo, is a journey. It may take time and practice. We may long for reconciliation with the one who wronged us, but often forgiveness precedes reconciliation. It may be a long time before we can face seeing someone who hurt us deeply, even though we hold no bitterness against them. 

Miroslav Volf is a Croatian theologian who has written much on forgiveness and reconciliation, especially in the light of his experiences through the wars in the Balkans after the collapse of communism. One of his books, ‘Free Of Charge‘, was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book in 2006. In it, he says that forgiveness means we blame but do not punish. We do not pretend about the offence. It is real. But we choose not to punish, or press for punishment.

That is rather like God’s treatment of us with regard to our own sin. The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin so that we might repent and follow Jesus. The Spirit of God never pretends that the sin was a fiction. Otherwise, we could never repent and walk in the ways of God’s kingdom. But having convicted us, there is no sentence and we are treated as if we had never sinned, even though we have. If this is how God treats us, then it is also the goal we seek in our journey of forgiveness.

Why Forgive?
Having explored in quite a few ways what forgiveness is, I’m sure it’s already evident to a large extent why we need to forgive.

First of all, because it is consistent with the character of God. The Lord may say, ‘Vengeance is mine,’ but that is surely because God is the only one to whom vengeance may safely be trusted. In our hands, vengeance becomes revenge, not justice. But ‘the Lord is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love’, and the work of the Holy Spirit within us is to make us slower to anger and more ready to be rich in love.

It’s central to our calling to become more Christ-like. Whatever the word ‘Christian’ means today, it started out as meaning ‘little Christ’. Debbie and I say that Rebekah is her mini-me and Mark is my mini-me. Notwithstanding the fact that the ‘mini-me’ language comes from the Austin Powers films, where Mini-Me is the son of Doctor Evil, I nevertheless assume that Jesus is longing to see a vast crowd of his ‘mini-me’s on earth. A central way in which we can be more like him is in adopting the practice and discipline of forgiveness.

For of course Jesus often called his would-be disciples with the words, ‘Follow me’. He didn’t simply mean a geographical following of him, but following his lifestyle. It’s what Jewish rabbis did: they expected their disciples to follow them in the sense of imitating their life. So if discipleship is about following Jesus and Jesus modelled forgiveness, then it’s of the essence of Christian faith to forgive.

But this approach poses questions, and one is this: another strand of the call to faith is what Paul emphasises, namely that God saves us in Christ entirely by his own work, and not on the merits of our good deeds. How then can it be essential to forgive? Wouldn’t that be salvation by good works, rather than by faith?

I believe the answer is something along these lines. God does indeed save us entirely by his own work in Christ. We receive that by faith, and faith itself is not a good work, either: it is the holding out of empty hands in trust to receive all that God has done for us. However, the test of faith is whether we are grateful for God’s gifts – or as Paul put it to the Galatians, ‘faith working by love’. It’s therefore reasonable and logical to expect that those who by faith receive what God gives us in Christ demonstrate that by showing grateful love. And since Christ shows us the love of God supremely in forgiveness, it behoves us to show true faith by being forgiving people. That is what makes sense of the parable. That is why at the end the master is angry with the unforgiving servant. He has not demonstrated this.

One other question occurs to me, and it is the question of justice in society. If forgiveness means blaming but not punishing, how do we keep good order in society? Won’t criminals run rampant, free from concern about being imprisoned? Perhaps a story I have told before might help.

On the night of my thirtieth birthday, I was in Manchester training for the ministry and was invited to a friend’s house for a celebratory meal of – beans on toast. My friend and his wife offered to call a taxi to take me back to college, but – feeling I knew city life as a Londoner and being too stingy to pay for a ride – I declined. That was my mistake. On the way back, I was mugged by a teenager. He smashed my glasses and took cash. I had no hesitation after the attack in calling the police. As it turned out, they didn’t catch my assailant (even though he was clearly known in the area), but I resolved that if they had, I would have co-operated with a prosecution. However, I felt I could only do that as a Christian once I had committed to forgiving the thug. Society needed justice, and the criminal needed forgiveness. I felt that was a fair balance.

And that ties up some of the other reasons why we forgive, which I hinted at earlier: forgiveness is good and indeed authentic witness. If there is one thing we can do in society to show Christ, it is to forgive.

So may God who is rich in mercy fill us with the knowledge and experience of his mercy, that we too may be rich in mercy to others.