THE STEADY PROHETIC OUTLOOK IN THE MIDST OF SHIFTING CIRCUMSTANCES
Sermon delivered on the Fifth Sunday After Trinity the 5th July 2015 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Ezekiel 2: 1-5 2 Corinthians 12: 2-10 S. Mark 6: 1-13
2 Corinthians 12: 9. St. Paul testifies that the Lord tells him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
A famous essayist once wrote that prosperity is an Old Testament blessing and adversity is a New Testament blessing, and that the New Testament blessing is better than the Old Testament blessing, because while prosperity will act to disclose a person's vices, adversity will act to disclose a person's virtues. Certainly if one looks at many of the great characters depicted in the Bible as a whole, one can hardly quarrel with this assessment. The kings David and Solomon, for instance, experienced many blessings of prosperity, but this did not seem necessarily to have a positive influence on their characters, and even David, who is remembered as the greater of the two, was shown up in a time of peace and plenty to have traits that led him to arrange the murder of a faithful soldier of his, traits indeed that caused long-term weaknesses in his personal affairs that could ultimately endanger the kingdom. As for Solomon, in spite of his legendary wealth and wisdom, at the end of his rule the kingdom was poised ready to split in two because of the human effect of his very successful economic machine, involving, for some, harsh servitude. Even though prosperity is a blessing from the unchanging Father of lights, it may, as we saw last week, in our own human and very changeable hands become something other than a blessing, and that is something that we need very much to keep in mind, perhaps especially here in the Cayman Islands, having been governed now for 56 years under a separate Constitution, and having also become well-known, and by some, less well-regarded, as a Financial Centre.
Perhaps even more surprisingly, forms of well-being quite apart from monetary wealth are shown up biblically, as they are in our Scriptures today, as not always being among the most apparently useful of God's blessings. If you read the book of the prophet Ezekiel, part of which forms our Old Testament lesson today, you cannot help but wonder at the extraordinary power and nature of the visions this prophet is granted. Yet even so his visions do not necessarily give him the success in communication that any prophet would desire. His visions and his sense of a direct apprehension of God's voice and God's will do not guarantee him a receptive human audience. Ezekiel might be spiritually wealthy as a visionary, but he must still bear the impudence and stubbornness of what the Lord calls “a rebellious house”, the people of Israel. Whether they hear or refuse to hear, the only thing that the Lord will guarantee is that they will know that a prophet has been among them. The prophet must be satisfied with the knowledge that he speaks God’s words, not that they are always appreciated. In our Gospel we see something comparable, in that our Lord Himself, having already repeatedly taught crowds of people, calmed the winds of the Galilean Sea and performed powerful miracles of healing, is treated with coldness in the part of the country where He grew up. They acknowledge His wisdom and His mighty works, but for them He is still the local carpenter, the son of Mary, and they are offended at the thought that their grown up local boy might be very much more than a carpenter. And in those circumstances, in some sense, Jesus became spiritually impoverished. The Evangelist tells us that “He could do no mighty work there, except that He laid His hands upon a few sick people and healed them.” And we might well ask, Could not the spiritual abundance of the Son of God Himself have changed their minds? Today too we think of the power of Christian ministries in such terms. Do we not rather blame the priest or the evangelist for not being "powerful" enough when he is unable to effect a spiritual renewal? We are given no more than hints of it in the Gospel, but there must have been a good and providential reason why the Lord Himself at this point became relatively powerless. Now, to heal a few sick people certainly does not seem powerless to us, but still the powerlessness that the Evangelist told of must have been real. And the account of Jesus' relatively unfruitful work at Nazareth is followed first by the fact that He went about among other villages teaching, and also by His commissioning the Twelve to take out the same ministry themselves, to a wider area no doubt than what He alone would have covered in the same time. To them He gives the significant instruction, “If any place will not receive you and they refuse to hear you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet for a testimony against them.” It makes clear that Jesus Himself followed a prophetically steadfast course of moving on from an unfruitful situation and from those that were unresponsive to Him, and told His apostles to do the same. Those who had heard and not been responsive at first could come round in their own good time. Let's remember that among Jesus' own brothers, who are not depicted in the Gospels as being responsive to Him, were those who later played leading roles in the Church. So it is possible to suppose that Jesus' relative weakness and unfruitfulness at Nazareth, the time of spiritual adversity that He experienced there, became providentially the impetus for a wider reach of the Kingdom of God that Jesus and His apostles proclaimed into the surrounding areas. For us too, then, spiritual adversity may be understood prophetically to be, at least potentially, more fruitful than spiritual prosperity, and such biographical details as we have of the men and women of God down the ages confirm this. We are not called to live only in the spiritual high places, but to negotiate the low places also in faithfulness to the Lord. In our modern world these may be the places of delays or loss that we are called to encounter, or the places of aggressive atheism, or the places of disdain and opposition to the Christian ministry encountered sometimes in the Press, or sometimes in governmental or even judicial authority. We may be called to respond faithfully to such circumstances just as much as when things seem to run smoothly for us. Those low places may in the end become more fruitful than we had at the time imagined.
In his own very characteristic way St. Paul confirms this in today's lesson from 2 Corinthians. He says that it is not the visions and revelations he has had that he will boast about, but rather the weaknesses that he is liable to be despised for. He says that the thought of all his visions might lift him too high; so to prevent that he was given what he calls a “thorn in the flesh”. Nobody knows for certain what the nature of this ailment or obstacle might have been, whether physical or psychological; and a great variety of conjectures have been made about it. Having prayed three times that it would leave him, the Lord makes him to understand that the weakness that Paul is left with is for a good purpose. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” the Lord tells him. We must remember that this is a revelation made to someone who has laid his hands on many and healed them. But St. Paul too is made to understand that spiritual adversity rather than victory might come to be the more fruitful of circumstances. “For the sake of Christ,” Paul declares, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
He is strong in those circumstances because he is the more reliant in direction and thought on the power of Christ than on his own powers of spiritual wealth or charism. If St. Paul and even the Lord Jesus Himself went through experiences of weakness, can it be any wonder that we too might need such experiences or circumstances at times to place us on a fruitful path? At such times, remember that you are far from being abandoned by the God who loves us, and have faith that you are being directed in ways that prosperity, whether material or spiritual, will not provide you with. For the Lord told S. Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And Jesus Himself said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In those times, pray that you may discern the direction that for His sake you are being given.