Martin Heath's sermon
9th July 2006
Ezekiel 2. 1-5 2 Corinthians 12. 2-10 Mark 6. 1-13
It’s good to be with you again – thank you for inviting me to preach this morning. May I speak now in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In my worst moments I share the view of those historians and sociologists who believe that Britain – and western society more widely – is in free-fall, going through the terminal decline that is the destiny of all empires. The process may be slow and convulsive, but it is inexorable and may have already arrived. The signs that something is seriously amiss are all too evident in, for example, the rage that quickly erupts over what are or ought to be trivial matters. The signs are apparent too in the increase in mindless casual violence, especially among young people; in the xenophobia and scape-goating of the alien and stranger; in the nihilism at work eroding our institutions; in the relativism that says that all that matters is what works for me. To which we must add, on this anniversary of the London bombings, the hatred and warped ideologies that express themselves in acts of terrorism. To social psychologists these are the hall- marks of a world and a society profoundly unhappy with itself, a society frustrated almost to breaking point. In biblical language it is a society afflicted by unclean spirits, desperately in need of a healing vision. So where, in the face of such pessimism, does that leave us – people of faith – who, while supposedly not of the world, are nonetheless most decidedly in it? Like the psalm writer we may ask ‘when the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?’
Well, what we could do is batten down the hatches, or fly away with the wings of a dove into the desert, as the psalm writer elsewhere longs to do, seeking peace and insulation from a hostile world.
Or, we might seek sanctuary in a consoling, protective spirituality, keeping our faith a private relationship with God. Except that the source of our spirituality, the Holy Ghost the Comforter, doesn’t necessarily comfort us in the way we might like. Comfort here means to strengthen or equip and Ezekiel’s experience of God’s Spirit was to be commissioned as a prophet - in spite of his protests. St Paul too, as we have heard, had a profound and rapturous spiritual experience –caught up in the third heaven, as he puts it. But, far from delivering him from all his hardships the consequence for Paul of that exhilarating experience was to root him yet more deeply in the realities of ministry and the life of the world. What it did give him was a greater appreciation of God’s grace, such that he came to accept his bodily affliction as a necessary thorn in the flesh –paradoxically to save him from being too puffed-up, too self-regarding. Caught in the tension between exhilaration and suffering, he came to understand that the knowledge of God’s grace was really all he needed, and that only in his weakness could God’s power be made perfect.
What a hard truth this is for us to understand – knowing how far we are to go using our God-given mental and physical faculties and all the resources of the world and ever increasing knowledge, between that and living at the same time in an absolute daily trust and faithful dependence on him. And yet there is a profound truth here, that it is only when we let go, when the weight of anxiety threatens to overwhelm us, when we realise that there is nothing more we can do, that we can begin to learn again our need of God and his grace; that we can come to find that our faith, poor though it may be, can make us well.
But perhaps our world may not be in quite such a state after all, at least not much worse and possibly better qualitatively than it was when, under the impulse of the Spirit, Ezekiel began his prophetic ministry and Jesus commissioned the twelve disciples, giving them authority over the unclean spirits. But if my catalogue of woes resonates in any way and rings an alarm bell with you, maybe we should take it as a wake-up call from God – because he has brought us into being, has brought us to faith not only to live as the beneficiaries of his love and mercy and grace, but also to consciously and commitedly play a role in his divine purpose, which - in case we have forgotten – is precisely the salvation of the world.
To put it another way, we have a prophetic calling, and prophecy is what lies at the heart of today’s Good News. Now, by prophecy we do not mean predicting the future, in the sense of fortune-telling. Prophecy in the Bible means declaring God’s purposes, calling nations and individuals to live as God intends. In the Old Testament the role of the prophet is endlessly to recall the community from its waywardness and independence to faith and obedience to God so that, when the prophets warn of the dire consequences of disobedience they are really doing no more than stating a fundamental law of existence – that if you do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God, then everyone can live in peace and harmony. Conversely, if we ignore or choose to disobey these ground rules we should not be too surprised if the community begins to disintegrate.
But prophecy does not belong only to those austere men of the desert we read in the Bible. Our Lord too had a prophetic ministry and, because he has handed on his ministries, first to his disciple and, through them, to us, it follows that both, the Church and its individual members in every age, are called also to be prophetic - and, furthermore, to do this whether people are receptive or not.
Proclaiming the truth about God and the way he calls us to live is in itself a righteous act – whether others pay heed or not. Thus it is incumbent on the Church in every age to speak out on moral and ethical issues. It is I think heartening that, while numerically the churches here represent only a minority of the population, their views continue to be sought and still carry a weight and an authority out of proportion to their size. Many individual Christians are active in this prophetic ministry with regard to, for example – the debate about euthanasia, abortion, the use of stem- cells, fair trade, the indebtedness of hopelessly poor nations, the continuing slave trade and nuclear disarmament. Speaking out in the name of God on these and other moral issues is right at the heart of the Church’s prophetic ministry today.
But if we feel that such issues are too weighty and specialised – beyond our competence, there is also – and in any case – what I call ‘living prophetically’, by which I mean a conscious, committed effort to live out our faith in God and his purposes; to commend God’s requirement for justice and peace to those we meet and whose lives we share by our manner of living and the values we espouse. It’s so easy to drift with the majority and collude with negativity, mostly born of fear – witness for example the hysteria in the press over immigration, asylum seekers and Islam. Living prophetically means maybe just asking a question or two, saying ‘well, actually I’m not so sure’– challenging prejudiced assumptions and the all- too- often demonising of the alien and stranger – those who in the Bible are to be treated as full members of the community of Israel ‘for you were once homeless- exiles and strangers.’ Indeed, we could say that we are all asylum seekers, in our journey through things temporal to the things eternal.
Living prophetically means opening ourselves to the restless, renewing power of God’s Holy Spirit, who is always willing us, nudging us and maybe disturbing us. But we have to make a response. It’s no use if we think it will just happen; we need to cooperate – to take up what is on offer if we are to find for ourselves the peace that seems to be so elusive, and to play our part in revitalising our communities. Living prophetically is to do with presence and with example, for the kind of people we are has the power to communicate itself mysteriously to others; what we are on the inside makes a difference on the outside. Living prophetically requires that there are times when we act contrary to basic instinct, eschewing bitterness and revenge, and pursuing instead the things that make for forgiveness and reconciliation. Living prophetically is discovering that the path to fulfilment and peace lie in the service of others-in shared lives (and not always with those we like or get on with) rather than in the frenetic, self-serving restlessness of the world. It consists in the re-discovery that access to the truth and a fulfilled life do not lie in personal autonomy and a what-works-for-me-is-best philosophy, but on a complete dependence on God and trust that – despite much evidence to the contrary - his purposes are being achieved in human history.
It is in such ways, I believe, that in our own time we can go out like those first disciples in today’s Gospel with the message of salvation, and that in such ways do we exercise authority over the unclean spirits. May God give us grace to wait on him in patience and trust, and May we be signs of renewed hope in the life of the world.
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Comments about this site or problems? Contact Webmaster (Colin Richards) at firstname.lastname@example.org Last updated 11/07/06 09:30 Author: Martin Heath