THE CHOICE FOR LIFE UNDER THE EYE AND THE HAND OF GOD
Sermon delivered on the 19th Sunday after Trinity, the 11th October 2015 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Amos 5: 6-7, 10-15 Hebrews 4:12-16 S. Mark 10: 17-31
Hebrews 4: 16 “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
For most and probably all believers, in the course of life the issue comes up: “How strong is my faith? Could some circumstance arise in my life that might break it and destroy it?” Perhaps some of us know of situations that have tested other people’s faith to breaking point, or even our own and they came away from that situation not believing in the God proclaimed by the Christian Church any more. Yet we can be sure of our faith not on account of our own feelings at any time, but on account of the facts to which faith looks, including God’s words and promises. We can place our reliance on Christ because of what He has done and what He has said. Whether we are feeling on top of the world about anything or depressed about it does not need to control the level of our faith, because faith should look to the facts and the promises of God, rather than to feelings. We need to recognise that our souls are designed for feelings to follow faith, rather than faith feeding on feelings. If they exercise crowd psychology, those in the world who aspire to or exercise leadership tend to exploit our human capacity to get this wrong, and work on human feelings in order to get the crowd to put their faith or reliance on the orator or controller.
True faith must look to the facts and promises of God rather than to our feelings, which are highly variable and are affected by all sorts of extraneous things; but which nevertheless may be well led by our faith. When I first considered the text for this address, I thought that the “then” in it might as well be left out, so that it would read “Let us ... with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” On further consideration I realised that the little link word “then” was one of the most important words in the whole text: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace ....” It is important because the confident drawing near to which we are exhorted is linked by the “then” to what has already been said: to the facts which the writer has shown to us. He has told us that “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses; but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Before that he tells us that “we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God.” These truths are some of the facts that we can rely on, the author is saying, this is part of God’s word on the matter. Because of these facts, we may with confidence draw near to the throne of grace. Such confidence is not based on how we feel about our day, for instance, or dependant on whatever fears or distresses the day or the week may have brought us. But the continued exercise of that confidence will certainly have a good effect on the way we feel about all we encounter.
The Epistle to the Hebrews shows us that as a result of drawing near to the throne of grace we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. In other words we must come as dependents and not as those who are able to manipulate or control God in any way. And God does have important things to say about the attitudes that He requires. The content of the Old Testament lesson and of the Gospel for today makes that very clear. The service of the Holy Eucharist also, above every other sort of church service, demonstrates to us many things about the attitudes that God seeks and requires of us when we approach him. At the heart of the service we come forward, kneel down and stretch out our hands to receive Him, in an attitude of humble yet confident dependence.
The prophet Amos in our first lesson today gives us a glimpse of the prevailing religious attitudes in northern Israel in his time. He warns his audience that it is the Lord they must seek, the Lord that loves justice and righteousness, truth and fair dealing, the Lord that hates people taking bribes and turning aside the needy in the place of judgment. “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate” declares Amos. “It may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” Amos warns his hearers not to think that injustice and inordinate opulence, while the poor are trampled on, are unnoticed by God. Seeking Him means attending to these matters as well, and not just going to Bethel, Gilgal and Beersheba, running around the places of worship. So when we in our own time “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”, we also cannot think that it is all right to attend church but leave matters of truth, righteousness and fair dealing unaddressed. The One we come to in confident dependence for grace and help, gives us this grace and help precisely to address problems such as those. So, yes, God gives us His grace and help so that we may help His little ones and His needy ones through our Rector’s Discretionary Fund and through the Charitable Account, for example. Yes, God gives us His grace and help to prevail in the witness to Christ that the very church property is called to display to this community. And yes, we are given of His Spirit in Baptism and Confirmation so that we ourselves may give out of the same Spirit in the Name of Christ for the sake of those who need our witness and help. Experience shows that if we do not give out from what we receive, things go wrong with our spiritual life. There is the well-known comparison between the fertile Sea of Galilee, from which water flows out just as other water is flowing in, and the rightly named Dead Sea, from which the incoming minerals cannot escape because there is no flow of water leaving it, but only evaporation. Although this is only an analogy, it is true that we who are given mercy must ourselves be merciful, we who find grace to help in time of need must dispense out of that received grace for the needs of others including the needs of the Body of Christ. And let us not forget our Lord’s words “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us.”
The Gospel today continues our studies in St. Mark that we have followed over the greater part of this year. Today we encounter the young man who seems to be seeking from Jesus advice on some act of specially meritorious goodness, upon which he might rely to inherit eternal life. In this account is a verse that directly portrays Jesus’ own feelings towards the young man: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him” But that love of Jesus for him heralded a mighty challenge to faith, and one that the man could not accept. The message of Amos to his hearers had required them too to separate themselves from their way of life if they wanted genuinely to seek the Lord, but this went further. The young man indeed needed to do something special, but the Lord judged that it was not to make some contribution or subsidy that the man imagined. It was actually to turn his whole life upside down, and to put himself on the same level financially as the twelve who followed Jesus, and to become like them, one who literally followed after Him. Some have speculated that after the Resurrection he thought better of refusing Jesus, and that his name was Barnabas.
The confidence we are exhorted to have in drawing near to the throne of grace must extend to faith over whatever that “drawing near” will imply for our lives in general. It might have very great implications indeed, as the young man of the Gospel began to understand but drew back from. And let me quite unashamedly ask of every individual in this congregation: is there someone here like that young man? Someone who might perhaps make a huge difference to the story of St. Alban's Church? Will that person then “choose for life” - the life that the Lord calls us to - or will he or she draw back or keep drawing back from that choice? Understand that if we do not choose for life, then we will have chosen for something that is not true life for us at all. And to choose rightly will likely seem even impossible to us; but with God, all things are possible. Let us hear again and respond positively to this great biblical pastoral plea: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”