GOD'S GOOD PLEASURE
Sermon delivered on the Sixth Sunday after Trinity the 10th July 2016 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands in the service of the Holy Eucharist.
Scriptures: Deuteronomy 30: 9-14 Colossians 1:1-14 S. Luke 10: 25-37
Colossians 1:9f St. Paul says, “We have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, to lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”
We know, and many of us personally, how good a parent feels if his or her child does something that is really pleasing to him. Having pleasure, then, is an essentially good thing. It follows therefore if we think that God is against the idea of pleasure, we have it quite wrong.
Pleasure is actually God's real domain. The devil has fooled us if we think that God is opposed to pleasure, that God is the one who says No to everything that is truly pleasurable. Even in the Garden of Eden narrative it was only ONE tree that God said No to, so far as obtaining pleasure from it was concerned. As for all the other trees in the Garden, they were placed there specifically for man's pleasure. So we may rightly infer that it is not at all the idea of pleasure that God is opposed to, but His will is always that we choose the pleasure that is highest over any pleasure that is lower, the high pleasures being those that are in alignment with God's own will and purpose, those in other words that give Him most pleasure. It is these pleasures that we are to choose over any pleasure that beckons us from something that is out of alignment with God's own will and pleasure.
If we consider our Scripture passages this morning, we could think of all of them as advocating the highest pleasures. The Old Testament passage is from Deuteronomy, and characteristically for Deuteronomy, it promises abundant prosperity in terms of our work, our families and our property, for those who obey the voice of the Lord and keep His commandments and His statutes. Moreover His obedience is not merely to be a superficial or external thing. We are to turn to the Lord our God with all our heart and all our soul: our will and our intelligence are to be aligned with the Lord's intention, for it is not a superficial words-only obedience-by-rote that the Lord requires, and indeed such would not give us the real pleasure that the Lord desires to confer upon us. The passage goes on to say, what the Lord desires of us is neither too hard for us nor something that is far away from us. “The word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.” If we were to imagine ourselves as kites, the kite might say, “Oh, if only I could get rid of that string that is holding me down, I could fly above the clouds and have so much more pleasure.” But then the string breaks and after a little while the kite comes crashing down. Guiding us by being nearby and holding us down in SOME ways, God keeps us up in every way.
The same theme comes out of our Collect for last week, which suggests that the highest pleasures are from what God has prepared for us, rather than from breaking out of what He has prepared. You may remember that it goes like this:- O God, who hast prepared for them that love thee such good things as pass man's understanding; Pour into our hearts such love toward thee, that we, loving thee above all things, may obtain thy promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord. That Collect could have been written with the words for obey and obedience in the place of the words for love, and it would still have made perfect sense. [Show] Because the characteristically Christian understanding of loving God includes being obedient to God. In the Scriptures to love a course of action has the connotation of sticking to it, cleaving to it. Conversely, the highest expression of obedience is not a slavish obedience, but a loving obedience. The Collect might have the “good things” of heaven in mind when it speaks of what has been prepared as the “good things as pass man's understanding”, but those good things of heaven are to be known by us in a foretaste of them here on earth; for as the Catechism teaches us we are not merely heirs of the kingdom of heaven sometime in the future, but rather we are inheritors of the kingdom already.
So St. Paul too prays for the Colossians that they be strengthened with all power, according to the Lord's glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. We might say that those who enjoy life in the fullest sense are those for whom God has answered this apostolic prayer. Of course the prayer is not for an easy life or for a life free of the endurance of suffering or free of patience through suffering. But it is a prayer to be granted power and joy. Such are some of the high pleasures that are in alignment with God's will and purpose. The kite does best when it is guided by the string, even though that guidance is against the pull of the wind, and we humans obtain the highest pleasures from our lives not by giving in to the winds of the world, the flesh and the devil, no matter to what heights they might beckon us, but by pulling against those winds, seeking and receiving the Lord's strength and power after the pattern of the gloriously resurrected and ascended Christ, to endure and to be patient with joy.
We probably need not have to ask therefore which of the three travellers on the Jerusalem to Jericho road, the priest, the Levite or the Samaritan, enjoyed his journey the best, or would have done if this story of Jesus were based on an actual event. Perhaps the priest and the Levite were hurrying to perform their religious duties, but their failure to love their neighbour cannot have made them feel very good about themselves or their journey. They cannot have derived any pleasure from their recollection, even if perhaps they were pleasing themselves when they decided to ignore the wounded man in the road. The Samaritan who showed mercy would have been the one to derive some satisfaction about the event afterwards, in spite of having to be delayed on his journey. So I think St. Paul's apostolic prayer for the Colossians, whom he had not himself actually seen at this point, that they be strengthened with all power, according to the Lord's glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, is a wonderful prayer for a pastor to have in his mind about his church people. May you too, then, all of you, as St.Paul put it, be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, to lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. Unlike the kite with the broken string, you too, as child, teenager or adult, will then derive the most pleasure from such a life, whatever endurance and patience will be required of you.