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Thursday, 2 July 2009

Without Honour

I don't actually like the title for this sermon, but it was the working title and I didn't change it.

Once upon a time there was a big flood, and people had to climb up on to the roofs of their houses to escape. One guy thought this was a remarkable opportunity to demonstrate, so he thought, God’s power, so he prayed “Dear Lord, please come and save me.”

Just then, someone came past in a rowing-boat and said “Climb in, we’ll take you to safety!”

“Oh, no thank you,” said our friend, “I’ve prayed for God to save me, so I’ll just wait for Him to do so.”

And he carried on praying, “Dear Lord, please save me!”

Then along came the police in a motor-launch, and called for him to jump in, but he sent them away, too, and continued to pray “Dear Lord, please save me!”

Finally, a Coastguard helicopter came and sent down someone on a rope to him, but he still refused, claiming that he was relying on God to save him.

And half an hour later, he was swept away and drowned.

So, because he was a Christian, as you can imagine, he ended up in Heaven, and the first thing he did when he got there was go to to the Throne of Grace, and say to God, “What do you mean by letting me down like this? I prayed and prayed for you to rescue me, and you didn’t!”

“My dear child,” said God, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter – what more did you want?”

In a way, that’s rather what happened to Jesus in our Gospel reading this morning. What a difference from last week’s reading! You remember, we looked at the story of Jesus healing the little girl and the old woman. Jesus was mighty popular then, all right.

But then what happens? He goes home for the weekend. Big mistake! Because on the Sabbath Day, he goes to the synagogue with his family, and because he’s home visiting for the weekend, they ask him to choose the reading from the Prophets. Luke’s version of this story tells us that he read from the prophet Isaiah, the bit where it says: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favour and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn.”

Mark doesn’t go into such detail, but he does tell us that Jesus’ friends and family were amazed. “Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What's this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles!” And we’re told they were rather offended. “He’s only the Carpenter’s son, Mary’s lad. These are his brothers and sisters. He can’t be special.” And they were offended, so we are told. Luke says they even picked up stones to throw at him to make him go away. But Mark says that he could do no miracles there, just one or two healings.

And he was amazed at their lack of faith.

After all, they thought, what did he know? He’s just a local lad, a builder. Ought to be home working with his brothers, not gadding about the country claiming to be a prophet. They couldn’t hear God’s voice speaking through him. They didn’t expect to, and they didn’t want to. Like the man in my story, they had very definite ideas about how God worked, and working through a local boy they’d known since childhood wasn’t one of them!

You know, I really love King’s Acre. I’ve been worshipping here regularly for more than half my life – I first came over thirty years ago, a young bride of 25 years old. You people have known me for years, you’ve stood by me in my struggles with the faith, you’ve prayed for me, you’ve loved me. When I decided, tentatively, that it was just possible that God was calling me to be a preacher, you didn’t laugh at me. You encouraged me, you prayed for me, you supported me. You rejoiced with me when I was commissioned – seventeen years ago this month, it doesn’t seem possible, does it? In short, you’ve known me for the best part of my life, you’ve watched me grow up, you’ve helped me grow up, and you accept me for who I am. And my goodness, I thank God for you!

But it could have been different. You could have turned round and said, what her? Who does she think she is, thinking God has called her to preach? You could have refused to listen to me.

Now, obviously I’m not Jesus, but I hope that sometimes God does use me to bring His word to you – that part of it isn’t my problem, of course! I have no way of knowing what God wants to say to you this morning, I just preach what I think I’m given to say, and trust God for the rest. But the point is, if you refused to listen to me, simply because I’m Annabel and you’ve known me since I was little more than a girl, that would be treating me rather like the people of Nazareth treated Jesus.

Do we have definite ideas about how God works, I wonder? Do we expect to see God working in the ordinary, the every day? Or do we expect him always to come down with power and fire from Heaven? Do we expect Him to speak to us through other people, perhaps even through me, or do we expect Him to illuminate a verse of the Bible specially, or write His message in fiery letters in the sky?

We do sometimes, because we are human, long and long to see God at work in the spectacular, the kind of thing that Jesus used to do when he healed the sick and even raised the dead. And very occasionally God is gracious enough to give us such signs. But mostly, He heals through modern medicine, guiding scientists to develop medicine and surgical techniques that can do things our ancestors only dreamed about. And through complementary medical techniques which address the whole person, not just the illness. And through love and hugs and sympathy and support.

We do need to learn to recognise God at work. All too often, we walk blindly through our week, not noticing God – and yet God is there. God is there and going on micro-managing His creation, no matter how unaware of it we are. And God is there to speak to us through the words of a friend, or an acquaintance. If we need rescuing, God is a lot more likely to send a friend to do it than to come in person!

And conversely, we need to be open to God at work in us, so that we can be the friend who does the speaking, or the rescuing. Not that God can’t use people who don’t know him – of course He both can and does – but the more open we are to being His person, the more we allow Him to work in us, to help us grow into the sort of person He created us to be, then the more He can use us, with or without our knowledge, in His world. Who knows, maybe the supermarket cashier you smiled at yesterday really needed that smile to affirm her faith in people, after a bad day. Or the friend you telephoned just to have a catch-up with was badly needing to chat to someone – not necessarily a serious conversation, just a chat. You will never know – but God knows.

We are, of course, never told “what would have happened”, but I wonder what would have happened if the people of Nazareth had been open to Jesus. He could have certainly done more miracles there. Maybe he wouldn’t have had to have become an itinerant preacher, going round all the villages. Maybe he could have had a home. I think God may well have used the rejection to open up new areas of ministry for Jesus – after all, we do know that God works all things for good.

And, finally, what happened to the people of Nazareth? The answer is, nothing. Nothing happened. God could do no work there through Jesus. Okay, a few sick people were healed, but that was all. The good news of the Kingdom of God was not proclaimed. Miracles didn’t happen. Just. . . nothing.

We do know, of course, that in the end his family, at least, were able to get their heads round the idea of their lad being The One. His Mother was in the Upper Room on the Day of Pentecost. James, one of his brothers, was a leader in the early church. But were they the only ones? Did anybody else from Nazareth believe in Him, or were they all left, sadly, alone?

I think that’s an Awful Warning, isn’t it? If we decide we need to know best who God chooses to speak through, how God is to act, then God can do nothing. And God will do nothing. If he sends two boats and a helicopter and we reject them because we don’t see God’s hand at work in them, then we will be left to our own devices. As the people of Nazareth were.


  1. That *is* an awful warning!

  2. Apologies for being off-topic, you should feel free to delete this comment after reading.

    A couple years back, you wondered on limyaael's comments how your half-done fantasy race could develop any concept of time measurement without a day/night cycle for a rhythm. This was the only place I could find for making my suggestion:


  3. Thanks, Kizor - good idea. I'd almost forgotten that race, oddly enough, but remembered them again the other day. I don't think they'll ever be complete enough to write about, but you never know.