RECEIVE THE WORD OF TRUTH
Sermon delivered on the 21st Sunday after Trinity, the 5th November 2017 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Micah 3:5-12 1 Thessalonians 2: 9-13 S. Matthew 24: 1-14
1 Thess 2:13 St. Paul said, "We thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers."
Matt 24: 11 Jesus said, "Many false prophets will arise and lead many astray."
THE CALL TO BE TRUE
The Scriptures today have to do with distinguishing the true from the false, where the things of God are concerned. Jesus warns in the Gospel, "Take heed that no one leads you astray." It is as if the Lord was speaking of our own time, in which false words that claim to be, if not God's words, at least at any rate true words, are being spoken within everyone's earshot through radio and the TV, not to mention the social media, at every hour of the day or night. Even (and more importantly) within the mainline churches there is an astonishing variation of message that can be obtained from those churches' pulpits time after time. In the Church, one teaching will categorically pronounce another teaching equally prominent within the Church to be false or defective. These are the conditions that separate the adults from the children, so to speak, in matters of religion. One man with whom I was having a conversation said that all the churches had so many different rules that as for him he was going to stay at home and read his Bible. While that point of view I am sure draws sympathy from us, and indeed we can take it a step further and admit that even within the same ecclesial body there are different and conflicting standards about the most basic things, still his response to the situation was that of the child rather than the man. For we are charged with a responsibility by God to receive the word that is truly God's word, and to preserve ourselves from being captured by the word that may purport to be a word from God, but is in fact false. The New Testament and church history show us that this sorting out of what is true from what is false is done largely within the context of the church, rather than by individuals that are divorced from the church's life. So we have to be man or woman enough to stick it out, to remain within the fellowship of the Church, to keep receiving the true word of God, and to keep discerning and rejecting the words that are false, or the words that are not quite true, though they too may purport to be the word of God. This certainly has been one aspect of our particular calling as the Church over the last many years here in Cayman. It is a time to ask, how true have we remained to that calling?
PLAINEST GREEK, THE UNEMBELLISHED WORD OF GOD
Undoubtedly when Paul and Silas (who is the same person as Silvanus) first spoke the word of the Gospel to the residents of Thessalonica they communicated it in the plainest Greek that they could, since one supposes that the Thessalonian accent would have differed quite a lot from Paul's native Greek coming from the north-eastern Mediterranean coast. The words of the early preachers were always wrapped up in something of a cultural package, as are the words of preachers to this day. Compare the style, for instance, of a Keswick preacher from the UK with a John Hagee or a TD Jakes from the U.S. But as the apostolic good news of Christ spread further and further westward, it had to enter a variety of cultural environments, and care would have been taken to communicate the word as plainly as possible. So St. Paul must indeed have been thankful, as he said in today's text, that the Thessalonians had received their words, the word of Paul and Silvanus, not as the word of men but as the word of God. The cultural package of their accents and expressions had not hindered the communication of the word of God, except to the majority of the local Jewish community there, whose cultural resistance went far deeper than a matter merely of accent. According to details found in Acts ch 17, Paul and Silas had had only about three Sabbaths in the local synagogue to communicate it, before they had been forced to move on by their opposing Jewish compatriots who accused them of treason against Caesar and caused an uproar in the city, an accusation that reminds us in many ways of the one made against the Lord Jesus Himself. Evidently after they departed from Thessalonica their opponents continued to accuse Paul and Silas of heresy, immorality, trickery and greed, but in his letter Paul reminds the Thessalonian church of what his conduct among them really had been, treating that gracious and honest conduct as a litmus test, so to speak, of the truth of his teaching. The Thessalonian mission had met with considerable opposition, but by the grace of God because these new Christians had been receptive to God's word, they had continued to survive as a church, against all odds.
THE WORD THROUGH PROPHETS AND TEACHERS TO THE PRESENT
So in Thessalonica St. Paul had been accused of heresy and greed, and we can compare that with the Old Testament passage from Micah in which we are told of so-called prophets who really did lead people astray and proclaim "peace" only when those they preached to put food into their mouths. The prophet Micah warned that the result of all the corruption of justice, the legitimised murder, the bribing of priests and prophets and the hypocrisy of those who did these things and yet spoke the language of religion, would be disaster for the community. "Because of you" Micah said, "Zion shall be ploughed as a field, and Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins." Now as a matter of fact a century passed and these judgments had still not come upon Jerusalem. We read of this in a very interesting passage from Jeremiah. When the prophet Jeremiah was on trial because of prophesying against Jerusalem, Jeremiah told them that if they amended their ways and obeyed God, the Lord would "repent of the evil" that He had pronounced. And then some of the elders of the land defended him by the example a hundred years beforehand of Micah who had proclaimed Jerusalem would become a heap of ruins, and yet it had not happened. They pointed out that the king of that time, Hezekiah, and his people had not put Micah to death, but on the contrary had feared the Lord and entreated the favour of the Lord, with the result that the Lord lifted for the time being the disaster He had pronounced against them. The word of the Lord through a prophet, an apostle, or a preacher, even in the mouth of the Christ Himself, is not to be thought of as false if as a result of the warning and its being heeded, the original threat is either lifted or delayed. We can interpret the apparent delay in our Lord's return, in comparison to the expectations of much of the New Testament, along these lines. God is merciful, though His mercy must not be taken for granted especially in times of hard-heartedness and disobedience. We have to determine in our own hearts in this complicated age in which we live, whether to heed the word that God has constantly been feeding us with, or whether to reject it and accuse the authentic messengers of leading the people astray and being motivated by self-interest. If we heed God's true word today, we may perhaps avert yet again the judgments that are hanging over our community, our age, and the world, judgments that perhaps are all too clear to those with eyes to see. God is merciful, but Jesus has declared, as in today's Gospel, that one day the end will come. And if we, the Church fail to heed God's word, but rather set out to judge that word and belittle it as if we were not members of Christ's Body as do so many in the West today, and follow the world's fashions of disbelief, atheistic humanism, legitimising unethical practices such as experimenting with human-animal hybrids, sexual immorality and the wanton murder of the unborn and the elimination of the weak: if we partake in and condone all the public misbehaviour and monstrous blasphemy that characterises public life through the media and elsewhere: and if we put ourselves under the sway of the false prophets of our own day who distort the truth out of motives of self-interest, then we too will place ourselves along with the rest under those judgments that have been declared, and will deny to ourselves and to them the way of grace which through the Lord Jesus Christ has been so kindly offered, and proclaimed by word after word, in century after century, to this present day. May we, then, aspire to be faithful to the true word, that is the Lord's, and avoid the sway of what has been corrupted by falsehood and self-interest. If we do so we may yet again perhaps avert for a further time the judgments that so patently are hanging over our age, and yet are being so widely ignored.