THE WILL AND INTENTION OF GOD

Sermon delivered on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, the 26th March 2017 by Bishop Nicholas J.G. Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England (Cayman Islands) in the service of the Holy Eucharist.

Scriptures: 1 Samuel 16: 1-13     Ephesians 5: 8-14     S. John 9: 1-41

Ephesians 5:8f “Once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true).”

The rather diffuse history of this Sunday, in which in earlier times those in service to family households were encouraged to return to their Mother churches to make Lenten preparations with their own families, has bequeathed to us Mothering Sunday, connected also with Refreshment Sunday, the Sunday in the middle of Lent in which we take stock of the Lenten observance so far, relax and refresh ourselves a little, and then begin the home stretch to Easter. Mothering Sunday in secularised England has become for the most part Mothers’ Day following the American pattern of such a day coming up later in the year.

Many mammals are born with their eyes closed. There is no need for vision in the womb, and no light there I suppose. Being born is obviously a huge shock to the system, not just for the mother, but also for the baby. Part of that shock is the swift advent of light and vision, and one can watch a newborn infant accommodating to this, gradually focussing on objects and beginning to make sense of them. Some animals don’t begin to use their eyes for several weeks after they are born.

The main character after Jesus in the Gospel today is the unnamed man who was born blind, and did not become sighted until, in Jesus’ words, the works of God were made manifest in him. We can say that the shock of birth never became complete for this man until Jesus saw him and graciously took the matter in hand. Until that time the man had never visually escaped from the darkness of his mother’s womb. He was known by others as the one that sat and begged - a non-person in the community of his time. We are told that after being given sight he was brought before the leaders of his day, and that these Pharisees in spite of his sight and evident intelligence could not afford to change their perceptions of him, because that would have acknowledged the mighty work done by Jesus. For them, since this person was once a non-person, he was for ever a non-person. They cast him out, but when Jesus heard of this, He sought him out, and made of him an enduring disciple. The man had become sighted in more than one way, and Jesus considered the Pharisees that had so treated the man to be something much worse than blind.

When the disciples of Jesus first saw the blind man, they supposed that there must have been some inherited problem of sin, to have caused the condition. Their approach to the situation was problem-oriented; however, this approach was answered by Jesus with an approach that was outcome-oriented. The significance of the man's condition, Jesus said, was that the works of God might be made manifest in the man, since, Jesus said, He Jesus was present, and the light of the world, therefore, was present. And this challenges us to ask, how do we see the difficult situations with which we are confronted? In our analysis of them, is it our purpose, or perhaps habit, to ascribe blame for them, or is it our purpose to provide illumination and to heal? For since we are baptised into Christ, even in us the healing and enlightening light to which Jesus referred is present.

Every mother knows that giving birth is a real problem, but the important thing about it for her is the outcome. Afterwards all the pain and inconvenience is either forgotten or put on the back burner, while joyful attention is paid to the child that has come into the world. Here is a parable for even the deepest and most intractable of our difficulties. The will and intention of God is never that they should finally engulf us, but that in the words of the Prayer Book, we may be granted a happy issue out of our afflictions.

Our Old Testament reading today describes some elements of a serious difficulty and the beginning of a happy outcome. In spite of his being appropriately chosen and anointed for kingship, King Saul proved to be unfit and was divinely rejected for the role. The problems of this are alluded to when it is said, in the Scripture that appears just before the words of our first Lesson today, that Samuel, the seer who had anointed Saul originally, grieved over him. The very human side of Samuel comes out: it is no light thing for him to regard the king as rejected. It is good to see such humanity, whenever it happens, in modern politics, where it has too often become second nature for us to vilify opposing political parties. groups or individuals. The impending downfall of Saul gave no pleasure to Samuel to contemplate. But Samuel is given the courage to move forward, in spite of his grief over King Saul and in spite of his fearfulness of King Saul's remaining power. In the account of the choice of David over his brothers, the Lord reveals to Samuel an important principle. It is “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature ... for the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” - one of the finest statements in the Old Testament. So it was that finally the man after the Lord’s own heart was chosen in the place of Saul; and yet our New Testament faith is not that the Lord chooses only good-hearted people. On the contrary, God sent His Son into the world to die for us bad-hearted people in order to make us good. The Lord looks on the heart not in order to condemn it but to rescue it, to release it from condemnation and then to make it progress in holiness towards the goal of salvation. Once we were darkness, says St. Paul, but by His grace rescuing and continuing to work with us, now we are in the realm of light, and we are to walk as children of light.

Walk as children of the light,” says St. Paul, “proving (or testing) what is well-pleasing to the Lord.” We are not to be entrapped by the past or even by the present. The significance of the difficulties that beset us is in the outcome that the Lord can fashion out of them. As we have seen, one parable of this is child-birth, but another is the whole work of the Christ, who through all His labours including the Passion, brought forth the means of our justification and the salvation of mankind. “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead,” we are shown. “And Christ will give you light.”