Hope

Praying with hope – I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief!

I was the third preacher ask to addressed the issue of prayer and given the title Praying with hope and the text, “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief”  (Mark 9:24). You can read this in context at Bible Gateway.

This is a sermon in a short series on prayer. Philip has asked me to preach this morning on how we can pray with hope. Given the gospel story and specific text he has suggested he would appear to be expecting the emphasis to be on situations where it is difficult to have hope. The issue is particularly important because many of us will go through times when it feels difficult to maintain hope.

The story I shared with the children earlier (Sally’s place) is principally the story of two parents coming to terms with the death of an adult child to disease. Put yourself in their position, where is the hope in that situation? What about people who are facing death themselves or the death of a spouse? Moving away from death many people in our contemporary world are struggling so hard to find employment that pays sufficiently well to support their families, where is the hope in that situation? What about the people sleeping rough on our streets, people who may once have held down a secure job and lived in the heart of a loving family but have fallen off the rails for some reason, where is the hope in that situation? All of us, yes all of us, know directly or indirectly of someone who is living in a situation which appears desperate, where hope is difficult if not impossible. I’m just going to stop for a few seconds to allow you to focus on someone who you know, or know of, who’s situation appears desperate and beyond hope.

It is not just at a personal level that we have a problem. There are so many aspects of our society that seem desperate. A glance at the papers, or a short time listening to the news on television or radio is all that we need to be reminded of this. Our planet is being degraded at an alarming rate and we are already in a period of mass extinction that hasn’t been experienced since the dinosaurs died out. There is an epidemic of obesity across the world which is threatening to overwhelm the health care resources of even the most advanced economies. Floods and hurricanes devastate parts of the planet in one way whilst forest fires and drought destroy others. A madman opens fire on people enjoying a music concert for no apparent reason.

In considering a Christian response to such situations we have to start off with an acknowledgement that they are real. Many individuals are living through truly bleak experiences. Our physical world is really threatened. Our society, from many different perspectives, is progressing in the wrong direction. Glib prayers that pretend that God is good and that all will be well if we only trust in him sufficiently are not appropriate. How does it help a parent who has just lost a child to be told to focus on how loving God is? Despair, in many cases, is not a failure to see how wonderful God is, it is a rationale response to the desperate situations that we find ourselves in.

This is a sermon about prayer, how should we respond?

I think it can help to ask where God is in such situations. We can be helped here by a modern understanding of the world. So often in the modern world we see science as an enemy of religion but I think it is more appropriate to see it as an ally. We can use what we now know of how the world is through science to inform how we think about God.

For most of human existence people have simply now known what causes disease or earthquakes or drought and it was assumed that these were, in a very literal sense, acts of God. We now know better. Cancer is not caused by God, it is caused by defects in the DNA within the nucleus of cells within our body. Earthquakes are not caused by God, they are caused by stresses that build up in the earth’s crust as a result of tectonic activity. At a societal level, global warming is not caused by God, it is caused by humanity generating too much carbon dioxide and methane. The obesity epidemic is not caused by God, it is caused by people eating too much inappropriate food as they become more affluent. Even mental illness, the focus of our gospel story, is not caused by God, or evil spirits either, but by a dysfunction in the biochemistry of the brain.

Modern science let’s God off the hook. We do not need to see God as the cause of the ills of the world, as the source of our despair, we now have alternative and much more convincing explanations. I am with Isaiah, God is not in the earthquake, the wind, or the fire.

But, of course, if God isn’t causing these things in the first place then it is illogical for us to pray for him to stop them. If cancer is caused by defects in DNA or earthquakes by seismic forces (literally) then it doesn’t make sense to pray to God and expect these things to stop or even to change.

So what can we pray for? If God, isn’t in the cause of the ills of the world, where is he?

I believe that God is not in the cause of those things that challenge us but in our response to them. God is not in the cancer, he is in the loving response of those affected by cancer. Nothing will ever convince me in the story that I told earlier that Sally’s cancer was in any way ordained by God for any reason that we couldn’t understand then and still don’t understand now. But I know that God was in the way Ray and Barbara and the rest of that family responded and in the building of that creche in Africa.

Nothing will ever convince me that the hurricanes that have recently ravaged the islands of the Caribbean and parts of the United States were summoned by God. But I know that God is in the way that governmental and no-governmental age agencies have responded to the crisis, are providing emergency relief and are re-building communities.

Nothing will ever convince me that God had anything to do with that madman who sat in an upper room at a hotel shooting indiscriminately at peaceful people attending a music concert. But I know that across Las Vegas and beyond, God is in the way that families and churches and communities are comforting the families of those that died and allowing them to come to terms with their loss, and eventually to overcome this and be re-born into new life.

So, if God is in our response, both individually and collectively, to the events that assail us and others in life, how should we pray. We should pray, of course, to allow God into our lives so that we can be agents of that response.

There is a tendency, in many parts of Christianity, which is mistaken in my belief, to see prayer as a passive activity. We can see prayer as a way of handing problems over to God and assuming that this is enough, that, in handing over the problem to God, we have been absolved for taking any responsibility ourselves. In my view prayer is much more an opportunity for God to hand responsibility to us.

Another way of looking at this is of the absolute arrogance of the Christian who expects prayer to be a time when God should listen to them. Maybe we should be more humble and see prayer as a time when we should listen to God. When we pray “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done” we are not making a demand of God, we are accepting a purpose and discipline for ourselves.

And this should give us hope, even in the most desperate situations, because however bad any situation becomes, however, bleak the future looks, there is always something we can do to make it better. In the face of personal tragedy there will always be a word of comfort we can offer or a loving embrace or a time simply to sit in silence with a person who cannot face the future. We cannot remove the cause of the tragedy but we can be part of the response.

Societal problems can be more challenging but are still fundamentally something we can respond to through the way we live and the way we give. We may feel that as an individual our actions are worthless but we need a vision of ourselves as part of the people of God. There are two billion Christians on this planet and a further four billion followers of other religions who are all, fundamentally, seeking a better world. Imagine how much could be achieved if, rather, than using prayers as a time to tell God what to do, we all used them as a time to listen to what he is telling us to do.

Go, in peace, to love and serve the Lord.

This was followed by my hymn “God of Love, where are you?

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Ride on, ride on in majesty?

800px-assisi-frescoes-entry-into-jerusalem-pietro_lorenzetti

Entry of Christ into Jerusalem (1320) by Pietro Lorenzetti.

This is a sermon preached on Palm Sunday after a reading of Luke’s account of the “Triumphal Entry”.

I’ve preached here before on Palm Sunday. I know because I always find it a challenge to preach on Palm Sunday and I can remember facing up to that challenge here in a previous year. The challenge is that traditional perceptions of what Palm Sunday should be and my own reading of the scriptures disagree quite fundamentally. Traditionally Palm Sunday is perceived as a time of celebration – a time when the church celebrates with the crowd in Jerusalem before getting down to the real business of Holy Week.

When I read the scriptures that is not what I think is appropriate. If the crowd were celebrating (Luke’s gospel is inconclusive and can be read as suggesting that it was actually the disciples who were celebrating), they were celebrating for the wrong reason. The crowd wanted a political leader to free them from oppression. They wanted a competitor for Pilate who was probably progressing to his palace from the other side of city. For many of them, worn down by years of oppression and poverty, they may simply have wanted a party.

I don’t think, though, that Jesus was celebrating. He chose to ride on a donkey, the most humble of beasts. His is not a triumphant entry, it is a humble entry, even a penitential entry. Jesus knows that in entering Jerusalem he is signing his own death warrant. This is not a time of celebration for Jesus. It is the start of a long walk from freedom to death row. Make no mistake, Palm Sunday is the first day of Holy Week.

The lectionary hides this to a certain extent. It misses the point, it focuses on the celebration. It stops short of the two verses that make it clear that this is very far from a celebration in the eyes of Jesus. ‘He came closer to the city, and when he saw it, he wept over it, saying, “If you only knew today what is needed for peace! But now you cannot see it!”

Jesus weeps for Jerusalem, He sees the celebrating crowds and knows that they are celebrating for the wrong reasons. Put yourself in his shoes, you feel you’ve been sent by God to preach his word. You’ve spent the last three years travelling round the country preaching that word with a disparate groups of disciples and with no place to call home. You thought you were getting somewhere, you thought the people understood. You thought it was time to come to Jerusalem and proclaim God’s Kingdom in the holiest of cities … and when you get there you realise that no-one has understood you – that they’ve got it wrong. How would that make you feel? I suspect it would drive you to weep.

“If you only knew today what is needed for peace! But now you cannot see it!”

Don’t those words resonate for us today as we look around the world? As we watch our televisions, listen to our radios, read our newspapers. We can apply them literally to countries at war or at risk of war. If only we knew today what is needed for peace in Syria. Alternatively we can be more metaphorical and apply them to political turmoil caused by corrupt politicians in countries like Brazil. We can apply them to the fear of immigration that is threatening to dissolve 70 years of peace and cooperation within Europe. We can apply them to the war that we are fighting with our own planet. We can apply them to a war that is being fought within our society and as reflected in the recent turmoil within the conservative party between those who have much and want more and those who have very little. If only we knew today what was needed for peace – but we cannot see it. Palm Sunday is not a time to celebrate with the crowd but a time to empathise with Jesus and weep with him.

But it is more than that – it is also a time of hope. Jesus felt all these things. He must have wondered if all his sacrifices so far had been in vain. He must have wanted to get off that donkeys back, turn around and walk back to a quiet life in the rural town from which he had come. But he didn’t, he continued riding forwards, through the gates and into the city. For all that he must have questioned whether he was being successful or not, he knew that this was his purpose. Recognising how little the people knew of God’s Kingdom he was even more determined than ever to explain it to them. According to Luke’s Gospel he rode straight on to the Temple and began to drive out those who did not understand what the Temple was for, “It is written in the Scriptures that God said, ‘My Temple will be a house of prayer.’ But you have turned it into a hideout for thieves!” Jesus turned his disappointment and pity into motivation to follow God even more actively. Rather than turning away in despair he upped his game in hope.

There are many reasons for the contemporary church to share Jesus’ disappointment, pity and perhaps even despair. As I’ve already noted there are all sorts of situations in our world where what is needed is peace but where society cannot see how to achieve it. After a period of perhaps a thousand years when the church has dominated society within Europe it is in serious decline. Our congregations are getting older, they are getting smaller and in many cases are disappearing. To many of us the society in which we live seems to have turned away from God. Jesus preached of God’s Kingdom for three years only to discover, on his arrival in Jerusalem, that no-one had understood. Has the church in Europe been preaching the same message for a thousand years with the same result?

There is, of course, a complex answer to this question. Whilst there are undoubtedly many aspects of modern society that lead us to despair, considerable progress has been made. We live in a democracy in which all people regardless of gender, wealth, race or physical ability have equal rights. Slavery has been abolished (if not eradicated entirely). Western Europe, at least, has left behind war and recognised that political cooperation is the pathway to future prosperity. For all the tensions within our education, healthcare and welfare systems we recognise that the extent to which we educate our children, care for the ill and support the disadvantaged are measures of the health of our society. Many of these things have been driven by Christians active within society and most of the rest has been driven by a contemporary value system which, whilst becoming apparently more secular, is a direct consequence of that thousand years of Christian teaching.

All this, it can be argued, is a result of Jesus not turning back, of him putting aside his personal sense of despair and focussing on God and the world’s need for His Kingdom, of a recognition that whilst that Kingdom will not appear overnight it will come. It is the result of Jesus placing hope at the centre of his mission.

Let’s do the same. Let’s look at the progress that the world has made through the time of Christendom and give thanks. We should by all means look at the contemporary world and recognise that the completion of God’s kingdom still seems only a far off prospect. But we should recognise that it is a progress that has started, that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Our role as a church, however, small or apparently impotent we may feel ourselves, is to hold up God’s light to the world, to proclaim the Good News, to offer up Hope. In a world that is desperate for peace we must show how this can be attained.  If Jesus, sitting on that donkey, in the middle of a crowd that was celebrating for the wrong reasons, and conscious of the hostile establishment within Jerusalem could continue to hope for the coming of God’s kingdom, then so to can we. Amen.