GOD, THE FIRST, THE LAST AND ALL THROUGH

Sermon delivered on the 6th Sunday after Trinity, the 23rd July 2017 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.

Scriptures: Isaiah 44: 6-8     Romans 8: 12-25     S. Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Isaiah 44: 6 Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.”

It is always good to remember certain Bible verses such as this one, but especially when one is hit by some misfortune or for some cause feeling a bit fragile or vulnerable. The batsman at the crease who has not yet settled down to his game of cricket will feel naturally apprehensive when the first few balls come thundering down the pitch. One ball missed me to the left and the next ball missed me to the right, but I don’t like the look of that one coming straight at me and I need to take action not merely to avoid it but to take advantage of its direction and spin. The teachings of our Faith, however, reveal that if we are envisaging God as some global ball player launching projectiles at West Indian islands or the American continent from the west African coast, and then relinquishing control of them in their transatlantic voyage, we have a wrong idea of God. For He is in control of a thing, both Scripture and the our Fathers in the Faith teach us, not just at its launch or beginning but all the way through until it reaches its destination. Storms and tornadoes, may be used to illustrate such a truth; after all, we know they are driven by forces impinging upon them all the time, and not merely by what gave rise to them in the first place. Many storms begin from the Cape Verde Islands, but while where they start from has an influence upon where they can go, that is not at all a defining influence. So when disaster or misfortune of any kind threatens us, our capacity to rise from it is strengthened by the knowledge of a beneficent and gracious God who is not only “the Beginning”, but indeed has all of the process under His rule. It is not His purpose for us to be destroyed or cast down by any misfortune, but for us to avail ourselves of His grace and power even in the midst of all troubles. This is part of the mystery of God’s Providence, which is always good, but not, in our own view, always continuously pleasing or even comprehensible. We also might recall that in the world tens of thousands die daily from causes other than old age, children and animals suffer from starvation, and modern day slavery is rampant. While we naturally place ourselves at the centre of the view we have looking out upon the world, we must admit to being selfish to make the suffering that we individually feel be the cause of the loss of our faith in God, when, after all, the toll of the world's suffering is so very great.

In our second lesson St. Paul acknowledges what he too calls the sufferings of this present time and I think teaches us a valuable outlook. He says that he considers that these sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. He goes further to say that this condition of creation is not something outside the purposes of God; it is not just a blind thing of chance that has no meaning. We often have a sense of futility or meaninglessness when we contemplate some sad event that, as we say, “just doesn’t seem to make sense”, and St. Paul is in agreement with this when he says that the creation was subjected to futility. Once again, the Scripture proves to be realistic. It doesn’t pull any wool over our eyes or present us with a pair of rose-tinted spectacles. But notice carefully what St. Paul says: it is not just from its own will or its own lack of will that the creation demonstrates futility. St. Paul goes further than our immediate observation in declaring that the creation was subjected to this condition. There was an intention in this subjection, an intention that however much we might find it to be unfathomable, is within the mind, heart and understanding of God Himself. The Church Fathers teach that this subjection of the creation to such a condition is linked to the Fall of man. Verse 21 of our lesson describes it as “bondage to decay”. Yet St. Paul says that God so subjected it, not in dismay or in retribution, but (as he says) “in hope”.

At first sight, this really may not seem to make a lot of sense. To us, with His subjecting anything to futility, let alone the whole creation, God’s beneficence appears easily to be in question. Yet by declaring that God does this in hope St. Paul invokes the future as a factor in his argument. God’s intention, St. Paul says, is measurable or observable not just from things we see and experience as present realities, but even more from the things we do not as yet see, but nevertheless hope for. Indeed, St. Paul teaches, the creation waits with eager longing for the sons of God; and the creation will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. This is obviously a picture painted with an extremely broad brush. We can only begin to understand the broad outline of what St. Paul is teaching. He is saying that just as the present condition of the futility of the creation is linked to the Fall of man, so its being set free from this is dependant on mankind’s redemption. At the end of the argument he stresses that the fulfilment of hope is always, by definition, in the future and not in the present.

I believe that this outlook is very helpful to us. We should not be surprised at any of the signs of futility that we see in the created world, or even at the striking signs of its bondage to decay, such as may appear in storms, earthquakes, tsunamis or even unexpected sickness or fatalities. The chief part of the drama that we need to be concerned with is our redemption, the first fruits of it that we experience now and the fulfilment of it that we wait for. Because we have been redeemed by the perfect offering of our Saviour Jesus Christ, the bondage to decay of the creation, however striking the signs of it may become, cannot bind us; indeed that redemption through Christ has not only freed us, but it is the first act in the unfolding of the whole creation’s release from its current captivity. By making firm our own redemption through faithfulness to the one who has freed us, we take part in the cosmic rescue of all that is around us.

Having taken this first and major step out of our personal captivity to sadness or vulnerability, we are urged forward by the example of St. Paul and the other apostles to fulfil the mission upon which we are set - to play a part, however small it may seem to be in our eyes, in God’s releasing of the creation from its captivity. This can be thought of as the Christian exercise of the particular gifts God has endowed us with, whether these gifts are identifiable in the famous list of 1 Corinthians 12, or not. If we have made the major choice, drawing upon His grace, of inviting the Lord Jesus Christ to direct our life forward, He is likely to employ some of the particular endowments He has granted to us as individuals, or indeed, perhaps unknowingly to us, to provide us with a fresh gift or gifts, to be employed to His honour in the building up of the church and in the relief of suffering in the world around us. Let us all therefore follow the example of the apostles themselves and of the many who followed them, and play our part in the great prayer: “Thy Kingdom come: Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.”