Sermon for Holy Trinity Geneva on Sunday 14 August, 9th Sunday after Trinity
Texts: Jeremiah 23.23-29; Hebrews 11.29-12.2; Luke 12.49-56
Read the signs of the times
One of the most annoying experiences we may have, and often those with fairly serious consequences, are when we assured that all is well when this is not the case. Thus, for example, when we arrive at the airport poised to catch a flight only to be told it has been delayed. This feels bad enough but we sit hopefully, assured that the flight will take off. Then another delay is announced but assuring us that the flight is definitely going ahead. Then, when we’ve waited most of the morning, we’re suddenly told that the flight is cancelled.
Of take the example of a company in which things are not going right. For a long time, it may seek to assure its customers that all is well, referring to its famous reputation in the past and promising all sorts of benefits in the future to keep its customers loyal. Then comes the sudden news – the company has gone into receivership – and there is considerable doubt whether the holidays, furniture or whatever the company specialises in, will ever be given to the customer who is often left, high and dry.
The problem with false promises or false prophecies as we might call them is that they both lead people astray. They also mean that people aren’t able to make good alternative provision which they might well do if they had the true facts in time.
These is the point which the prophet Jeremiah is making in the reading we’ve heard today, when he bitterly criticises the false prophets amongst his own fraternity of prophets. He is criticising them because they are literally doing far more harm than good by lying to the people – telling them all is fine when it clearly in not, and thus preventing people from doing what they urgently need to do which is to turn away from false gods, put their trust in God, repent and start to live a new life of righteousness in Him. ‘They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal’ (Jeremiah 23.27).
And the key problem, as Jeremiah discerns, is that these prophets have become so much part of the society of those to whom they prophecy that they have become complacent and comfortable. They’re reluctant to rock the boat and to tell people the truth rather than the message that they want to hear. In just the same way, the prophet Isaiah challenges what he calls ‘the false shepherds’ of Israel – those who set themselves up as those who care for and protect the flocks, but in fact, are so much in cahoots with the society in which they live that they too end up not only failing to protect them, but joining their destruction so that they too may consume them.
This links too closely with Jesus’ criticism of the crowds which we heard today but also of his criticism of the religious leaders who should have guided them. He is quite withering – “You can read the signs of the times and tell if it will be raining tomorrow, or they’ll be a dust storm and a searing heat. But you can’t interpret the signs of the times – those things which are happening under your very nose and before your eyes and need your urgent response!”. He is critical of their leaders of being so caught up in their past traditions and also their own self-interest that they cannot witness truthfully to the people and fulfil their true role as God’ prophets.
Read the signs of the times. It is a challenge to each one of us as Christians and to us as a church. It is relatively easy to be ‘good’ and ‘nice in a quiet, unobtrusive way yet we are called to a prophetic ministry and witness in the world. As children of God, through Christ, we are called to proclaim his kingdom, show how the values of that kingdom challenge our world and yet bring us that hope which we do desperately need. So how do we avoid becoming those false prophets which both Jeremiah and Jesus criticised and instead be faithful bearers of both the challenge and the hope of God’s kingdom in our world?
I believe we can draw some very key messages from our Bible readings today to help us.
First of all, we need to root ourselves on Christ – to hold on with absolute faith in who is and what he has achieved for he is ‘the pioneer and perfector of our faith’, It’s about reminding ourselves every day as we get out of bed, that God loves so much that he has allowed his only Son, for our sakes, to come into the world and to show us what real love and real living is all about. It is about Jesus loving us and forgiving us so much that he was willing to die for us. It is about God raising him to new life and the fact that through Christ, we are reconciled to God – and that it is always possible if we really wish it to turn from that which is evil, hurtful to others and ourselves, and to repent and start anew. It is about the power of Christ’s resurrection and all that means in the face of real evil and apparent hopelessness in the world and in the muddle of our own lives.
This is our core faith and calling and the message we are called to proclaim even when things feel dark, hard and challenging. Our calling is to be salt of Christ to the world, and also bring the light of Christ to the world. Whether we are lay or ordained, we are all given this calling at our baptism and we are asked to live out in whatever way we can right till our life’s end.
The second message from our readings today which I believe can help us is the faithful witness of those who have gone before us. The author of Hebrews gives a highly impressive list of all those who even before Christ came into the world, had risked life and limb to witness faithfully to God and his truth in the world, often in the face of great adversity. He tells his listeners, many of whom in their early Christian communities, may have been under pressure to go back to their former ways of life and religious practices to hold firm and to draw strength from the ‘great crowd of witnesses’ who had stood firm in their own time and context and witnessed.
In the same way, as Christians, whilst we are rooted on Christ, our cornerstone, we also draw strength and inspiration from the saints who have gone before us – that astonishing collection of men, women and young people who witnessed to Christ in their generation in so many different ways. But we can also draw strength and inspiration from those far closer to home – the hundreds and indeed, thousands of faithful Christians who have worshipped at Holy Trinity since 1853 without whom, we would not be here as a faith community today. At the recent USPG conference which I attended, we heard the obituaries of some of the USPG missionaries who had died recently and I was very struck by their role in the great ‘relay race’ of faith, in building and sharing the faith of Christ in a many different countries and contexts throughout the world.
But the third message from our readings today also reminds us that we are called to witness in the way which speaks to the needs and situation of our contemporary context not that of the past. Otherwise there is a very real danger that we become witnesses to nostalgia rather than the word of God which we are told is sharper that a two-edged sword. It’s sometimes tempting to think that those who went before us in past just had to preserve Christ’s message. But they didn’t. They faced, just as we do, the challenge of reading the signs of the times of the society and world they lived in and had to discern how God was calling them to make His word and kingdom relevant in their specific contexts. This is why our development project at HTC is called ‘Building Tomorrow’ rather than ‘Building a museum’.
So to do this, we need to hold onto Christ’ the pioneer and perfector of our faith’. We need to listen to God very closely each day in prayer, discerning His will and praying for deeper holiness that we may become less bogged down by sin and those aspects of the world which can harm us and lead us astray and instead, are set free in Christ to serve him more freely. I love the image in Hebrews of laying aside the weight and the sin that clings to us so closely. For it expresses the freedom Christ offers us to be our true selves in Him – to bring His message of truth, redemption and hope to the world and not to get side-tracked in the process.
And as we do so, we too are called by Christ to read the signs of the time in our current age. In other words, to discern where our world is going at this present time, and what God is calling us as Christians, to say and do in this current context which may help.
As we look at the news at present or even just talk to our neighbours, we may feel overwhelmed – so great are the needs and suffering in the world. But we need to start somewhere so this morning I am going to offer examples of three areas in which I think we can witness both to the signs of the time and Christ’s message of hope in response to those signs.
The first which is so much on our minds just now is the environment. We know that have horribly abused our world and caused untold suffering and now, we are beginning to experience the consequences. It isn’t news – we have been warned of this for decades now but we have buried our heads, even whilst, our brothers and sisters, living in more vulnerable circumstances and in more vulnerable parts of the world, have suffered as a result. The church was not at the leading edge of proclaiming this sign of the time, but this is now changing quite rapidly. Here at Holy Trinity there is a lot we can do starting with our own lives and our church. We will be doing an environmental audit this autumn to look at our current practices and to see what we can improve. We will also, in our liturgy, celebrate the season of Creationtide in September and early October and our young people will be exploring aspects of the environment in Junior Church and Youth Group
Then there is the sign of the time which is the fear, left particularly as a result of Covid. This has manifested itself in many ways including isolation of both old and young, growing mental illness – a reluctance to start projects anew and start afresh. Here I believe we have a real opportunity here at HTC to build community, to take practical steps through our contact with one another, through the social events we plan our outreach to shows that in Christ, new life and renewal are not only possible – they ae a reality!
And third – we are aware of so much hate and suspicion in the world just now, arising from past hurts, and in its extreme forms, showing itself in war and bloodshed. In the latter area, our powers are limited although we can pray and we know and are assured by God in the power of prayer. But we can, in our small ways here, witness to and practice forms of reconciliation in our willingness to forgive and to accept forgiveness, in showing others of Christ’s reconciling love.
In the Book of Revelation, we hear these words: ‘Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches”. I hope and pray that we may be a listening, caring, nimble and responsive church – one which is always seeking to see the signs of the times, prayerfully discerning how God is calling us to respond and helping and encouraging one a other in that response.