I sometimes feel anxious for new Christians – not because in finding faith they have found a new purpose to their lives. Of course not. It’s our mission which despite every other change in the way the world works and therefore how the church works, never changes. No, my concern is the problem that such people face, namely us, the community that hopefully welcomes them. It’s not easy to get into any society that has its own customs and rituals, but even more, to be at home with this book which monitors church life; or should do. We who are mostly of a certain age or tradition, have the basis of understanding of this extraordinary collection of writings representing the faith-experience of many different people over centuries of revelation and reflection.
But for people who come to it fresh – all those pages, all those different names, all those firm and sometimes contradictory statements about what we should believe and how we should live – it must be very formidable indeed.
It’s not that easy for us. We may read the book on our own with help from bible notes. We nibble at bits of it as we are doing this morning, catching the rapture of faith and recognising the common struggle with doubt. But making the connections between these often contrasting even contradictory books is never easy though always important to attempt. There is a grand theme or design that can often be detected, as we will now try to do!
1. Habakkuk 1:1-4;2:1-4
From those first four verses : How long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen….
So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous –therefore judgement comes forth perverted. A vivid picture of what it may feel like to live on a housing estate terrorised by a gang. A picture of how it must feel for Palestinians, prisoners in their own land. Painful paranoia, if, in your relationships, you feel everyone is against you. A picture of what it feels like to be bullied at school or how you are trying to make peace with a neighbour for whom property rights are more important than personal relations. The never –to- be- forgotten memory of how Jews, Gays and Gypsies; men, women and children, were slaughtered at Auschwitz. We were in Poland recently and heard how when Russia occupied that much invaded country, all the intellectuals were rounded up and killed.
A generation of thinkers and visionaries lost. Many people – most? – carry around in their minds and souls a feeling of loss that can very easily become anxiety, anger, unbearable distress. And no one seems to care. God doesn’t seem to care. ‘How long shall I cry for help?’ says the distraught prophet. To be let down by people is bad enough, but for God to do the same!
And then, the other part of that prophecy – ‘there is still a vision. ‘If it seems to tarry wait for it, it will surely come..’ Lost we shall be found; what we have lost will be recovered; what others search for, with them we will discover. The crying will have an end. There are two boundaries to prophecy – and we might also say, to the gospel of Jesus – at one end there is loss and despair (the crucifixion) and at the other discovery and hope (resurrection). The wicked may indeed confound the righteous, but they will be dispersed and justice will prevail. The promise of the prophets and the constant theme of the psalms -‘weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning’.
2. Thessalonians. 1:1-4,11-12
The two letters to the Thessalonians are tender letters – and probably the earliest scriptural writings we have – Paul writing to a church he understands and feels deeply about.. He loves them for themselves but also because they are having a tough time. ‘Persecutions and afflictions’’. And he has had ample experience of such difficulties himself.
The Church in Britain today is having a difficult time. The Methodist Church is reorganising itself for economic reasons, slowly coming to terms with its smallness; the Church of England is divided over moral and theological issues; and, shackled by a tradition of status with the monarch head of the church that has the force of divine law; the Catholics resist any sort of change: their hierarchy says one thing and the people do another. Unlike the political parties we don’t glare and gloat at each other, and are united in our weakness and uncertainty as we try to serve a potently secular world where the voices of dissent and scorn for the Christian position are loud and insistent. But ‘persecutions and afflictions’? Oh no. A difficult time in which we must keep our nerve and hold to our faith, but no one – at least in this country – is being beaten or losing their jobs or put into prison because they are followers of Jesus. And yet it’s not easy, and the days of faith in which some of us felt we grew up in the Church have long gone and we wonder about the future.
But the future is in our fellowship. We are still here. Not so many of us. Not so sure of things perhaps. But loyal to each other and listening still in faith to the words of Jesus, and wanting to live a life comparable to his. Paul was proud of the resilience of those first Christians who had found faith through his ministry. Despite it all he says, your faith is growing abundantly. And that’s our calling and our ministry to each other. Our words may not convince, but the quality of life together may. Our faith growing abundantly in a culture of unbelief could be our greatest evangelical opportunity.
3. Luke 19:1-10
‘The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost’ Jesus said. Here we are meeting a moment where people, are inheriting a stern but for many an unrewarding religion, a people whose land is inhabited by oppressors who trample on and ruin a once treasured inheritance, but one that now makes less and less sense to them, as it is manipulated by power-hungry priests and unyielding Pharisees. Jesus knows what it is to be rejected and misunderstood, to have doubts and to struggle with a faith which is often unrewarded by results. Speaking to others he speaks about himself. He knows his destiny – to define loss and to remedy it..
And here’s Zaccheus, a man who is by definition, lost. The friend of Rome and the antithesis of Robin Hood – he robs the poor for the sake of the rich. Rich, yes, but morally and spiritually poor. And he knows it. He wants something else. Zaccheus takes the initiative and in the face of public disapproval, gets a tree-high view of Jesus, partly concealed from a potentially hostile crowd. But this lost man is seen, summoned and saved by Jesus. His story is a parable of the human condition – the hard truth is faced: we are lost, but then the alternative, the promise, the gift of grace, moving out of trouble and the discovery of a new way, and like the tax gatherer, we are brought home to God. Jesus deals with loss. He doesn’t speak about remote ideas and a religion that is quiet and alone and protected, but one that is with the people – the common people – he comes out of their life and introduces them to a life radiant with the presence of a welcoming and forgiving God.
The Christian faith is not –as is often said – a religion of the book, though there is a book and we treasure it. Instead it’s a new look at life through the eyes of a man, Jesus Christ, flesh of our flesh, son to God in a way no other human being has been. The book’s collection of writings is there to help us enter into his experience. The bible is dangerous only when it becomes a substitute for the livingness of Jesus and its words govern us instead of his Spirit setting us free. We can’t do without it, but we can do with too much of it when it becomes our master. Our only master, and friend is Jesus and he needs space in our minds and affections so that he can become our lord.
And here through these very different bits of scripture, meeting different situations and from the background of different expectations and beliefs, we can find a thread of continuity for there are clear connections in words spoken first, remembered, and then written down by people who out of their distress search for the Living God. So hear these three bits of our holy book, as they address what it is like to live in hard times.
Attend to the long ago insight of a prophet, his recognition of how bad things are; inexplicably bad. And yet his belief that there will be another and better day: ‘there is still a vision for the appointed time.’
Hear the apostle and his assertion that faith is a gift that in fellowship can grow, and growing can be shared with others. ‘your faith is growing abundantly’.
Listen to the voice of Jesus, who is son to every man and woman in every generation, who says that everyone can come home to God. ‘the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost’ And so he did. And so he does.