Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris in Ossory on Wednesday, 9th February 2011
“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have ” 1 Peter 3:15
An American writer on spirituality, who returned to faith later in life, (whose name escapes me, though the story remains!) tells of going to church as a child Brought up in a devout family, she went along to church with them Sunday by Sunday, and took seriously the words that were said.
One Sunday, she remembers the congregation standing for the Creed and she realized for the first time what was being said. She listened with excitement as the words declared that Jesus would come again to judge the living and the dead; and wondered why the congregation did not seem equally excited. They went on to declare that they looked for the resurrection of the dead; they were going to see their loved ones again, shouldn’t they be happier? Then there was the life of the world to come; they were going to live forever, wasn’t this wonderful news? Yet everyone stood with deadpan faces.
The writer says she looked around and realized that the people really did not believe what they said, and so she too gave up believing. Whatever words they recited, there was no hope in their hearts. If being filled with hope is not an essential mark of being a Christian, then what is?
A man in the North used to frequently ask me a question in church, ‘Ian, if we were put on trial for being Christians, would there be enough evidence to convict us?’ The man had been a forester all his working life, working by himself much of the time, and spent a lot of time thinking. I took the question seriously and would think about what he said. Being honest, I would have had to say that there wasn’t much evidence to show we were any different from anyone else around. Would people have looked at us and said they could see that we were Christians? I didn’t think so. I could see little difference between those of us who gathered in the church week by week and a neighbouring farmer who claimed to be an atheist; we were no more filled with hope than the congregation in the story.
Shouldn’t we be different? If we really believe the things we say, then shouldn’t it make a real and actual difference to the way we live our lives?
If we can’t explain what difference being a Christian means to our lives, then what do we mean when we say that we are Christians?
Sometimes I preach about things and people say, ‘Ah, but the times were different, or the people were different; that might have applied then, but it doesn’t apply now’. The church is sometimes the last place where one finds a sense of hope; go to any clerical meeting and you will find the Church of Ireland does a good line in gloom and despondency, but that hope is a rare commodity.
When we believe that our times are the worst, or that there is no cause for hope, we should do well to read the story of Jeremiah. Jeremiah has hope for his people when everyone else has given up.
Jeremiah is a man for whom faith makes a very real difference, not just in what he thinks or says, but in much more material ways. Jeremiah’s faith hits him in the pocket. The country is on the verge of invasion, they are about to be overrun by the Babylonians. Everyone would have been trying to get things together, to sell whatever they couldn’t carry with them, the last thing anyone would want to do would be to buy land.
Jeremiah’s cousin comes to him and says buy my field and Jeremiah buys it. He knows it is a foolish investment, but believes it is a sign that there will be a future for God’s people in this place, ‘houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land’. Thousands of people were taken into exile when the Babylonians invaded. The poorest people were left behind, the rest were to spend half a century in a foreign country. Jeremiah didn’t get back to the field he had bought, but the story remained as one that encouraged people to have confidence in God’s plans. Even when everything seemed bleak and when there seemed no prospect that they would ever improve, Jeremiah’s story was a reminder that God would do unexpected things.
Bringing Jeremiah’s experience into our own times and into the experience of our own Church, it would have been like someone buying one of the Church of Ireland city centre churches when they were all being closed back in the 1980s and 1990s. If someone had bought one of those churches and had said God’s people will again gather in this place and that God will again be worshipped in this building, the hard headed men would have said they were mad.
The hard headed men said there was no future in the city, that it was time to get out, that the buildings should be sold for whatever could be got for them. Many of our churches were closed and sold, some survived by the skin of their teeth. The city centre is now crowded with Christians – some of the old church buildings are crowded with Christians. No-one could have foreseen the changes that would sweep through Ireland, no-one could have foreseen tens of thousands of people arriving here and the growth multinational congregations, but is the church simply about the things we can foresee?
Jeremiah could not have foreseen that after half a century of exile, Cyrus king of Persia would allow the Jewish people to return to their land, Jeremiah didn’t live to see the day. Jeremiah acts in faith, he trusted in God more than in the advice of the ‘hard-headed’ men. Even when it came to putting his hand in his pocket, Jeremiah trusts in God.
Jeremiah would have understood the words from the Letter to the Hebrews, ‘faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see’. I wonder how many of us have faith by those standards? Evidence that we are Christians is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.
The ‘wise’ people in the time of Jeremiah would have said don’t go spending your money on investments that might never work: they would have said Jeremiah’s field was very poor value for money; they would have said that you needed to be hard headed about things. The ‘wise’ people were soon dead and forgotten, the foolishness of Jeremiah lives on. The ‘wise’ people lived according to their own wisdom, Jeremiah lived by faith in God.
Jeremiah demonstrates to us the sort of ‘foolishness’ that God sometimes expects, the willingness to let go of our way of thinking and our way of doing things, and allowing God to do the things that he wants.
Do we ever have that sort of hope? In the life of our church or in our own lives, do we have the sort of hope that allows us to place things in God’s hands? When we say the Creed, are we so inspired by the beliefs we declare, that we suddenly feel our hearts filled with hope, or, if we looked around, would we feel a sense of discouragement?
There can be no situation more hopeless than that Good Friday afternoon in Jerusalem, yet by Sunday morning, God has turned everything around. Have we hope that God will change things—for our people, for our church, for ourselves? One of the best sermons on hope I ever heard was a single sentence—it’s Friday, but Sunday is coming.
‘I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel’, says Jeremiah, in defiance of the wisdom of his time; a declaration of hope in hopelessness.
What would we do to show our hope in God?