Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Sunday, 18th November 2007
“By standing firm you will gain life”. Luke 21:19
There is a story told of a tourist visiting Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. He was wandering around the cathedral looking lost. “Can I help you, sir?” asked one of the cathedral vergers. The man seemed to be searching for something and clearly could not find whatever he was seeking.
The tourist stopped. “Yes”, he said. “I’m looking for Poet’s Corner but cannot find it. Perhaps you could tell me where it is”.
“Certainly, sir”, said the verger. If you go back out of the west door of the cathedral , down the steps and across the road. There is a bus stop there. Catch the Number 11 bus and ask the conductor to tell you when you should get off for Westminster Abbey. Ask someone at the Abbey, and I’m sure they will show you Poet’s Corner”.
If the story is true, I’m sure the visitor would have been taken aback. The answer was correct, he was looking in the wrong place for Poet’s Corner, it’s just that it was not the answer he was expecting.
The point of the story is that it is probably a reflection of experiences many of us have had in our lives. We have looked for help or looked for guidance and the answer we have got has been much more complicated than we expected. We have probably had moments in life which have been very difficult and we have looked to a friend or to a member of our family for help; what we have really wanted is for them to take over, for them to take all responsibility from us. But there are few problems in life that can be solved instantly and few problems that can be solved by someone else, sooner or later we have to face up to our own responsibilities.
How good would a friend be who came and took over your life when you were having difficulties? A good friend would help you overcome those difficulties yourself. A good friend is not someone who makes a situation vanish; a good friend is someone who helps us cope with a situation, so that next time we can handle it ourselves.
As we read our Gospel passage this morning, we are reading from the closing stages of Jesus’ ministry with his disciples and Jesus is warning them in very blunt terms that things are not going to be easy, and that they are going to have to cope with things themselves, “they will lay hands on you and persecute you”.
Jesus has spent some three years working with this group of people. I suppose he could have said, “You sit and watch me and I will do everything in a miraculous way”, but he doesn’t. He calls together this slow and plodding and awkward group of people, an unpromising lot if you ever saw one, and he makes something special of them.
They do indeed face all the things that Jesus says will happen. “They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name”, warns Jesus, and all those things happen, and many worse things besides. Yet this motley group becomes an extraordinary group, in three hundred years they will have changed the entire Roman Empire.
Perhaps the trials and tribulations of those early times were essential in moulding the church. It seems that it sometimes takes the worst of times to bring out the best in people. During the week I was reading soldiers’ accounts of being in combat together and their regrets that the camaraderie they found on the battlefield did not exist in civilian life. Reading Scripture we encounter people with huge problems who work through those situations with God’s help and through their experiences become wiser and holier people.
Jesus’ followers are volunteers: “But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves”, he says. They are under no compulsion; they have to decide for themselves. “Make up your mind”, you choose; no-one is forced to follow Jesus. The Spirit is with us to guide us and to inspire us, but the Spirit never forces us to do anything. We are not puppets, we are not controlled.
Jesus does not promise to do things for his followers, what he does promise is to work in partnership with his followers, “I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict”. There is a promise there that God is present in difficult times, consoling in moments of sadness, guiding in moments of uncertainty; what is not promised is a magic wand to conjure away all our troubles and all our problems.
When we look for God’s help, it may not be what we expect. It is very easy to have a plan in our minds and to say, “Look, God, this is what I want and I want you to help me to get it”. Sometimes we try to make bargains with God, if God answers our prayers in the way we want, we will go to church every Sunday, or we will say our prayers every night, or we will give a tenth of our income for church work, or whatever. However, God’s ways are not our ways, and like those first disciples we have to trust. “Not a hair of your head will perish”, not a literal promise, but an assurance that ultimately we are in God’s hands.
The visitor in Saint Paul’s Cathedral could have decided that the verger was playing some sort of practical joke; telling him to go and catch the No 11 bus, indeed! Had he decided not to accept the verger’s guidance, he would not have travelled to Westminster Abbey and would never have found Poet’s Corner.
God takes the initiative, but we must respond. There is no promise that it will be easy. Jesus warns the disciples that there will be times when life will be very difficult, but God will be there to help. The journey of life is more hazardous than a bus trip from the City of London to the City of Westminster, but the destination to which we are heading is far greater. Along the way we are kept going by Jesus’ promise, “By standing firm you will gain life.” Life far greater than anything we can imagine.