Sermon Sunday 19th July
Readings: Matthew, Chapter 13, verses 24-30, 36-43
Romans, Chapter 8, verses 18-27
I’d like to start, if I may, with a confession: I am not very good at doing ‘Joy’. I haven’t read C.S.Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy (perhaps I ought to) but I can identify with the idea that Joy is an emotion which comes up from behind and grabs you. It is certainly not, in my experience, something that one can cultivate like kindness or generosity. In fact, the more I struggle to feel unalloyed Joy, the more elusive it becomes.
It may be a matter of temperament – something that I just have to live with. After all, I don’t think I come across as a miserable old git who makes everyone around me feel gloomy and despondent. (At least, I hope that’s not the case.) But I still feel guilty and ungrateful because the hope that Christ embodies – the creed which I have signed up to – does not keep my heart dancing… Perhaps I am a miserable old git, after all.
It can be a relief to be able to blame someone else for negative emotions. I am afraid I point the finger at my poor, old mother who became a Jehovah’s Witness when I was eleven and chucked a slop-bucket full of Armageddon, doom, gloom and imminent end-of-the world predictions all over what had been (as far as I was concerned) a happy, contented home-life. This was 1968. And we had another eight years, up to 1975, to see the light or be swamped by all the cataclysmic events referred to in The Book of Revelation.
My formative years were, therefore, spent looking over my shoulder, waiting for the four horses of the Apocalypse to come thundering past. If anything is calculated to squash Joy, that is. The fact that, for my mother and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, this time of destruction would be followed by a thousand years of something really rather lovely never worked for me. For one thing, no-one else in our family was a card-carrying JW with the passport to that post-Apocalyptic bliss. And for another, I didn’t really like any of my mother’s new friends. They struck me as exceptionally ordinary, rather dim and very dull. I’m afraid I became a bit of a theological snob.
Which brought its own complications. Because I am now temperamentally incapable of separating heart and mind, feeling and reason. If it doesn’t work, intellectually speaking, I distrust it.
Now I have got that off my chest, I shall roll off the psychiatrist’s couch and explain that that was intended as an introduction to this passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans. In the passage we read, Paul has just confessed to his readers that he frequently fails to live up to the standards that he professes. He beats himself up, claiming that he has nothing good in him and that he regularly falls prey to sin. His life is a constant battle between what he calls mind and body.
In Chapter 8, as we saw, Paul describes creation groaning with frustration, longing to be liberated and experience salvation. This chronic yearning seems to be the lot of humankind. This idea is brilliantly illustrated in George Herbert’s poem, The Pulley. Here it is.
When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by;
Let us (said he) pour on him all we can:
Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.
So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flowed, the wisdom, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottom lay.
For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.
Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness:
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.
When I am beset by gloom’ or sinking under negative emotions or struggling to stay on the strait and narrow, it can help (I find) to remember that this restlessness is a God-given strategy to keep us yearning for the salvation that he alone can provide.
During a particularly long joyless phase, I comfort myself with the notion that Contentment is bad news. Who wants it? Contentment is static. Contentment can turn one glassy-eyed and slack-jawed, empty-headed, occasionally stifling a yawn – but smiling sweetly in between-times.
Paul likens this restless, chronic frustration (or vanity as it is sometimes translated) to a woman’s labour pains. In time, there will be a positive outcome: the birth of something new. He urges us to remain hopeful, reminding us that the Spirit exists to help us in our weakness, to ensure that our petitions to God the Father are aligned to his purpose.
Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome is linked by Biblical scholars to his letter to the Galatians which was probably written shortly before. Both letters are attempts by Paul to clarify the route that the emerging Christian church needs to take. In his letter to the Galatians, he denounces the overbearing way in which Jewish Christians are behaving towards gentile converts. The Old Jewish Law, he says, is not something that has a significant standing any longer. It has been replaced by Christ’s message. Gentiles do not have to observe Jewish customs before they become Christians. That’s quite a jump. His letter to the Romans, continues this theme of dynamic change. With the tension between Jewish and gentile Christians addressed, he can now concentrate on how all Christians should live; it’s the next phase of spiritual growth and understanding. I warm to this theme of God’s staged revelation of himself to humankind.
It’s been going on for a long time. Homo sapiens began to leave the African Savannah 70,000 years ago. 40,000 years later, something scientists call the Cognitive Revolution had occurred. Humankind not only had language, they could think in abstract terms; they had imagination and a sense of the spiritual. It would be another 35,000 years before the stories from Genesis, relating the experiences of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, illustrated the way God revealed himself to the Israelites. It is easy to forget how extraordinary it would have been at that time to worship an invisible God and deny the existence of all the other deities revered by the rest of the world. But that’s what happened. The Jewish people became the conduit through whom God showed himself, all set against a background of tribal conflict and imperial ambition in the Middle East. God was taking the business of revelation very, very slowly until the moment was right for his incarnation as Jesus. But the birth, life and death of Jesus do not mean the labour pains are over. Humankind needs now to adhere to the teachings Jesus delivered. Alongside Paul, two thousand years ago, we in the 21st century are still waiting for what we cannot yet see. And we have to wait with ‘persevering confidence’ or ‘patiently and confidently’ as other translations have it.
I like the phrase ‘persevering confidence’ because it implies some activity while waiting; it’s not just a sitting back and looking forward. Much of the rest of Paul’s letter to the Romans clarifies how Christians should live their lives and there is much to aspire to. Of course, these Romans and other early Christians believed that Jesus was likely to return within their own life-times. All they had to do, therefore, was hang on; it wouldn’t be long to wait.
Their mind-set cannot have been so different from that of my mother and her generation of Jehovah’s witnesses in the Sixties and early Seventies, convinced that 1975 was the year when ‘the end of the world as we know it’ would kick in. I don’t know what the rebranded JW.Org’s line on the Apocalypse is; I suspect they have steered clear of setting a new date too categorically. But they will, I have no doubt, still be focussing on The End.
There have always been these Apocalyptic prophets. All through the middle ages, they kept cropping up with their ‘end is nigh’ message whenever there was plague or famine. It’s rare these days to see the grim faced man on the high-street sandwiched between his DOOM and REPENT boards, but such individuals do still proclaim their message in towns and cities.
But focussing on the end, forever peering into the future, can prevent us from heeding the present. Living in the present demands a different mind-set.
Of course, there is Biblical precedent for the hell-fire, repent-or-be-damned, doom-and-gloom merchants. The passage we read from Matthew’s gospel has Jesus delivering one of his very few hell-fire parables. The parable of the Darnel Seed shows us things from a different perspective from Paul in his letter to the Romans. Whereas Paul talked about internal weakness, frustrating our efforts to be faithful to Christ, this parable suggests there are external factors that risk choking our spiritual growth. The roots of that which is good are so tangled up with the rubbish, it’s impossible to separate them successfully. Moreover, darnel (Lolium temulentum or ‘false wheat’) is almost indistinguishable from true wheat until the ears appear, making it hard to tell what’s good and what’s bad. Here is an acknowledgement in the parable of the complex environment which surrounds us. The more technologically advanced we become the more inter-dependent and ethically complicated life is. For example: issues relating to gender are now spread across an increasingly fluid spectrum; history is subject to revisionism; ‘woke’ university campuses muzzle controversy; abortion and a woman’s right to choose continue to exercise law-makers; would sanctions on China for its treatment of the Uighur Muslims be ethical if the back-lash brought mass unemployment to the West?
Engaging with the present is challenging. Christians can’t disengage from the world they inhabit. To do so would smack, in my opinion, of smug contentment or – even worse – complacency, while sitting back and waiting for the angels to pull up the darnel. Nor do I think that disengagement fits with Paul’s instruction for us to persevere throughout this period of frustration. Given that there is rarely a one-solution-fits-all response to modern ethical dilemmas, it becomes all the more imperative to pray honestly, in a spirit of openness, for guidance.
As so often happens (but unsurprisingly when revelation begins with Eden and finishes with Gethsemane) I find myself falling back on a horticultural metaphor. If our spiritual life is competing for nutrients and water and sunlight with darnel and if weeding out the darnel is impossible because the roots are so entangled, maybe we have to wait until the ears of corn are apparent. That which is harmful can be identified by its fruits. When the inferior, corrupt darnel can be clearly distinguished a dose of weed-killer can be applied, to individual plants before they ripen and seed. Where we see malign or thoughtless behaviour, at whatever level, whether internal or external, we must eradicate it before it spreads. (There may or may not be an organic product available.)
And if we’re successful, would it not be the most wonderful thing when the angels arrive, at the controls of a shiny combine-harvester or with sharpened sickles in their hands, to revise their terms and conditions? Harvesting is fine but there’ll be no bon-fires because there is no longer any darnel left growing in our fields?
We would have so persevered, restless in our longing to be reconciled with Jesus, that his work on earth would be complete.
And Armageddon can be crossed off the calendar.