SERMON PREACHED AT CHRIST CHURCH, WHANGAREI
TWELFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
(19th AUGUST) 2007
Hebrews 11.29 – 12.2
Often in our Christian communities we become a people of the Good Times. An awful lot of contemporary Christian worship is about the good time God, and the wonderful times we have in relationship with that God. And, to be fair, the word ‘gospel’ does mean – at surface level, good news.
In fact the word “gospel” has more complex overtones than that, and it was never intended to mean something about warm fuzzies and glowing good times. The Christians stole the word from the Roman Empire, where it was mainly used for the routine of announcing the birth of a new heir to the Empire. It was a solemn announcement, and nothing in it suggested that everything would be rosy for the citizens of the empire from that moment. It was about celebration, but not about fairy floss. The Christian community chose wisely: the gospel of Jesus that we share is not about fairy floss but about a challenging commitment whose benefits reach far beyond our sight.
So when we turn to Isaiah, in the Hebrew tradition, we find far from warm fuzzies. The prickly prophet, like all the Hebrew prophets, approaches his people with discomforting and unsettling challenges, blasting those who are willing to hear out of cosy comfort zones. Just as they were very happy being the people of God, keeping their God cosily in their back pockets, Isaiah tears their complacency apart: I will ruin my field. It will not be trimmed or hoed, and weeds and thorns will grow there. This is far from the stuff of fairy floss, though it may be that it is precisely what God has been saying to the cosy and complacent Christian community in the last decade. I will ruin my field. It will not be trimmed or hoed, and weeds and thorns will grow there. And this is gospel how?
It is gospel, as we read first through the Hebrew Scriptures, because the same God who punishes is also the God who heals. God punishes but does not desert The People of God. When Isaiah proclaimed the words of God he took his audience out of their comfort zone: God … looked for justice, but there was only killing. God hoped for right living, but there were only cries of pain. As we of the post-Christian West look at our history of exploitation we might just sense that these are words on target for us, too. The nations from which the West gained its wealth have not been hugely recompensed over the years. Even the fertile soils of God’s earth, of Papatuanuku, if you like, have not been greatly rewarded for their offerings.
Which is not to lay a guilt trip on you that I don’t lay on myself. But perhaps as we watch the patterns of global warming and weather extremes we are hearing again Isaiah’s word to God’s people: I will ruin my field. It will not be trimmed or hoed, and weeds and thorns will grow there. The Spirit, the great Enemy of Apathy of John Bell’s wonderful hymn, is whispering stern warnings to us.
Yet in this we are called still to be a people of faith – faith, as we said last week, which is the knee-jerk or automatic response to the encounter with Jesus in scriptures, prayer, fellowship and worship. Faith is the fourth dimension (or is it fifth?) that looks beyond the here and now. ‘Faith,’ said Paul, ‘is the assurance of things hoped for.’ Following in Paul’s tradition the author of Hebrews put it another way: by faith they conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Faith is the dimension that lifted the perspective of our Jewish and Christian ancestors beyond the here and now, beyond present difficulties, to another realm.
For the Christian believer that realm, though just beyond our sight, beckons back to us. In the eucharistic feast of our faith, as Jesus gave it to us, the future dimension is always present together with the past. The past saving acts of God are present in the communion – Creation, salvation in the Passovers of Exodus and Cross – but so too are the future dimensions: the future coming of Jesus, the parousia, and the new heavens and the new earth of the Book of Revelation.
These future dimensions become an entelechy, an energy from God’s future that draws us on and in: ‘God gives us a future’, writes Liz Smith in the hymn many of us sang at Onerahi last Thursday, ‘daring us to go, into dreams and dangers on a path unknown.’ Liz is right, but we remember that God is just ahead of us as we are led into that future, keeping our footfalls warm even when it seems otherwise, as sometimes it will.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses … let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross.