THE FIRE AND THE HAMMER
Sermon delivered on the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity the 14th August 2016 by Bishop Nicholas J.G. Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands in the service of the Holy Eucharist.
Scriptures: Jeremiah 23:23-29 Hebrews 11:29 - 12:2 S. Luke 12:49-56
Jeremiah 23:29 "Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces?"
For over a decade since we started living in our present house, there were some rocks between the gateway and the front door that we wanted to level, and the text this morning reminds me of that time. One was a long-shaped one near the entrance itself; it poked up above ground level to be a bit of an eyesore and a slight annoyance when you walked and sometimes stumbled over it. My wife and I both at various times set to with a sledge-hammer, and we tried to have the occasional hired man do the same, but for years all to no avail. Those rocks were so hard they just would not chip down, unlike many others we succeeded with. We believed that it could be done by heating them with fire and then pouring cold water on them, but we would have to be extremely careful when setting a fire so close to the house. Then there was the idea of hiring a jack-hammer, but we considered the danger of the jack-hammer doing more harm to the man than the rock.
THE DAY WILL COME
So for a long time being the rocks remained and continued to annoy. We were confident that the day would come that would see the rocks broken in pieces, so we could afford to bide our time and not get over-worried by them. There were so many other things pending anyway. The day would come, we assumed and prophesied, when these tough obstructions would be cleared away, and they would be cleared away because they would finally meet their match in something that was stronger than them. But actually they are in truth still there, but concealed beneath a stone ledge that we had a stonemason construct along the front of the house. I suppose that illustrates that the way an obstacle can be dealt with is not always the first way that comes to mind.
PROMOTING THE AGENDA, NOT THE TRUTH
In our first lesson today, the prophet Jeremiah speaks a prophetic word concerning some people of his day who put out things they dreamed about as if it were prophecy, but in fact it was just the fiction of their own mental processes. This is not to say that dreams might never be used as a vehicle of revelation, and other parts of the Old and New Testaments assume that they are. But although couched in a different form, Jeremiah was dealing with an issue that confronts us with renewed force today. The issue is, once again, What is the truth? We are daily pounded by media impressions that want to project ideas into our minds, ideas sometimes with little more reality than a dream of our slumbering or our imagining, and these media are in league either with vast commercial concerns that want to sell things or with governments that are increasingly attempting to manage the minds of their peoples. So we are being told things, not necessarily because they are the truth, but because they are thought to further the interests of the tellers. Indeed we have reached the stage at which it is even thought to be quite reasonable for educators to advocate the use of texts and procedures which will help to ensure certain societal outcomes, and to abandon texts and presentations whose purpose was merely to convey what the truth, the mystery, the beauty, the delight or the goodness was about a thing.
CULTURE FEEDING ON ITSELF
Our modern secular prophets, the media, governments and even educators, however, are in more serious danger than ever before of generally coming under Jeremiah's strictures: "How long shall there be lies in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart, who think to make my people forget my name by their dreams which they tell one another, even as their fathers forgot my name for Baal?" We live increasingly within a culture that feeds not upon what is objectively true, but upon itself and its own ideas. In its engagement with this culture it is becoming extremely important for the Church, which is the Body of Christ, standing therefore in an objective relation to the culture, not to become entrapped by any part of it, not to become bound by the ideological canons that happen to be fashionable at the moment. Make no mistake about it, elements of this culture are looking greedily and self-interestedly at the Church, no longer for any divine guidance or revelation that it might offer, but to manipulate it to forward their own agenda. The Church must engage with the culture in order to communicate with it, to provide salve to it, and to put to good and holy purposes what God has created and provided within it, but increasingly there is a wolfish element within it that must be prevented from consuming us. Increasingly today we are engaged in the battle for the mind and the spirit, and any loss on our part of consciousness over this will be pounced on as the opportunity these elements are looking for to place one more ideological tablet into our drinking water. We will not win on every battleground and we must choose our engagement carefully. But we can be encouraged while we watch, while we fight or even while we fail, by the assurance of Jeremiah's prophetic words that nothing can ultimately match or overcome the truth that God speaks. "Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces?"
RUNNING WITH ENDURANCE
Our New Testament passage from Hebrews assures us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. The writer was referring to the men and women of faith of Old Testament days who had passed on, and we can include them along with the men and women of our own New Testament age who have preceded us. The point is that we do not watch or fight alone. We are in the company of the Holy Trinity and of the human witnesses who have gone before. We may at any time seem to be very much in a minority, but we should not forget the invisible fellowship, the Communion of saints and angels under the Lordship of Christ. He who is for us is greater than he who is against us. In the words of Hebrews our fight is to put away every encumbrance and the most besetting of our sins, and to run with endurance through the whole contest, looking away from our immediate circumstances to Jesus, the author and perfecter of the faith. Television can sometimes pick up the expression on an athlete's face running with great determination to win a race, and this provides a good visual image for the endurance, or "patience" as rendered in the Authorised Version, that we need to beat the ideological pundits of our own time, who the Lord says in Jeremiah's wording "think to make my people forget my name". They may do so today by projecting the idea that "God" is made in man's image, and is therefore our construct rather than objective and transcendent reality.
OPPOSITION BETWEEN THE GOSPEL AND THE OUTLOOK OF HUMAN CONSTRUCTS
The Gospel today shows us that like the fire and the hammer upon the stone, the reality of the coming of Christ on the one hand – the fire and hammer - and the truth of our human condition on the other hand – the stone - constitute a recipe for conflict, and I consider that the signs of our time indicate the fundamental and increasingly open opposition between a worldview based on the objective truth of the Gospel and a worldview based on human constructs denying the transcendence of God and the objectivity of the Incarnation and considering the Atonement to be a human option. Fire is being cast upon the earth, division is being endured, and we too, if we are faithful, have a fiery baptism ahead. We are to look to Jesus, place our feet in His footsteps as He runs with us, and endure the time in His strength.
BIBLE STUDY QUESTIONS
1. Give examples of media presentations that may be manipulating the truth to serve particular interests.