Sunday, 1 January 2012

Still I will say, 'Blessed be the name of the Lord' - A New Year's Day sermon

Habakkuk 3: 16-19; Matthew 26: 36-50

El Salvador was a country torn by greed and corruption; 40% of the land was owned by 14 families with 90% of the country’s wealth owned by 0.5% of its people. On the 15 August 1917 a baby was born to a regular and typically poor family, in a small city. Shortly after, the baby was baptised and bought up in the faith, spending much of his free time growing up in one of the two churches in the city. At this time many believers were being persecuted even to the point of death and assassination. At seven he contracted a life-threatening disease but slowly recovered. He was only educated till 13, although that in itself was for then average. He was trained by his father in carpentry as academia very rarely lead to any work but at the age of 14 he left home by horse to begin his calling to ordained ministry in the church. At 25 he became ordained and worked as a parish priest in El Salvador. His eyes were opened to the extreme injustice that was all around him and was known for his hard stance on ethics and justice. Progressive reforms were being issued as the church stood with the people in criticising the government. In 1974 he was made the bishop of the diocese of Santiago de María, where his home city was. The following year the national guard raided a village in his diocese, killing and mutilating the inhabitants. At the funeral of one of the victims, he spoke up against human rights violations. Shortly after, his friend, another priest who was out spoken against the government was gunned down. He buried his friend, although he was not given governmental permission to do so and the next Sunday cancelled all services though-out the country, except one: A mass service, conducted outside the cathedral for all to see. Over 100,000 people turned up to see and hear what he had to say whilst government groups were leafleting: “Be a patriot: Kill a priest.”. For the next three years he spoke up against injustice and received a steady stream of death threats. On Sunday, March 23, 1980, he went to a quiet place to pray then phoned a local news paper to say his goodbyes, telling people that the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. At the service he was speaking, as usual, about how the gospel speaks against injustice including a famous call for the government to repent, "In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression." The following day, during mass, after speaking about the need for a seed to die for wheat to grow and bring a harvest he was assassinated by a single bullet. His name was Oscar Romero, the Salvadorian martyr.

Believe it or not we are still in the middle of the Christmas season. We’ve written cards with “Merry Christmas and a happy new year” inside, or something like that. They may even depict in picture or maybe even in words the cry of the angels “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” It is the season of good will to all mankind and dream of a wonderful season full of parties and rest with friends and family. We also look forward to the new year and hope that it is better then the one that’s gone before, full of hope and expectation for what the new year might bring for us, pregnant with potential. Movies at this time of year particularly are full of happy endings and things that turn out alright in the end. The problem is that things in real life don’t work that way. All of us have bad days, weeks, months and years. For those of us whose year has been wonderful we rejoice in that and look forward to another, but for those of us whose year has bought pain and disappointment the clichés can feel painful and the thought of a new year evokes pain and fear. I think most of us can probably relate to these feelings and if you cannot, although I pray you won’t, you almost certainly will one day. The world is full of wonder and awe but also of pain and disappointment, and no-one is exempt. We like to think that if we are good enough or nice enough, if we do the right things and work hard, or we worship regularly enough then we will have a long and happy life. It was, and in some cultures still is, common to think that if we succeed then we deserve it and if we suffer, we deserve that too. The problem is reality just doesn’t share the same thought. There are plenty of good, loving, kind people, like Oscar Romero, who suffer miserably and plenty of evil, cruel, and twisted people who know little or nothing of pain and struggling.

The Jewish people thought very much like this. They were God’s special people so of course God would protect them and give them financial security. If people were poor or ill it was because they weren’t religious enough and didn’t do the right things. You may remember the disciples shock at being told it was hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven because they thought the rich were the ones that God blessed the most. Constantly though we see another picture. The Jews are constantly in trouble. The big two are Exodus and Exile: Exodus, where God saved his people who had been enslaved to hard labour in Egypt, and Exile where the Jews had been invaded, captured and taken to Babylon. The book of Job addresses this subject too. Job looses everything, except his own life, and his friends try to help him by saying that he had done something to deserve it and to repent but Job is insistent that he is innocent. It turns out he is right. He is vindicated by God although he is not given any more answer to why, then to trust in God and his ways.

Our OT reading this morning was from a book called Habakkuk. He was a prophet who was troubled by the unfaithfulness of his people and their abominal behaviour. The book starts with Habakkuk complaining at God in the same way many of us still do today, “How long, O lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?” and “Why do you tolerate wrong?”. God's answer is 'patience'. “I am doing something in your day that you would not believe even if you were told”. God was telling of the exile, that extremely dark but important period in israels history. Habakkuks message is a call to faith. You have forgotten God and follwed idols, he says. Stop and return to God. Have faith in him and trust. That is where we get to our reading for today. Despite the darkess that is to ensue and the seemingly hopeless situation, Habakkuk chooses to trust in God because he knows who He is. It is not that Habakkuk thinks he will have a better time then the rest for, as we have already heard he has suffered and knows he is not immune but realises that either he can forget God and worship wood and stone which is powerless or he can remember God, the mighty God who loves and remembers his people and is mighty to save.

We see the pinnacle of this, as in many things, in Jesus. We know Jesus as the God-man, the one with whom the father is 'well-pleased', the perfect, the righteous. If there was ever one for whom the common thought should be true then it should be Jesus, the truly blessed one. We would expect to see him healthy, rich and happy. This however is not what we see! He is no richer then the average man, he was born running for his life and became a refugee, he was hated by those who you would expect to be his closest allies, he had no real home to speak of, he had few close friends and of those whom he did, one betrayed him and of course he died an early, unjust death of the most horrific nature. In our gospel reading we peek at him at his lowest moment. He feels crushed by the weight of expectation and the severity of what is to come. He takes his closest friends with him for comfort and support and they continually fall asleep. Alone in the garden he prays, “Father, if its possible take this away from me”. This is not an easy or happy life!

This year friends perhaps we will feel like Jesus, over-whelmed by all that is expected of us or scared by the prospect of what is to come. Perhaps we are praying to have something taken from us yet it remains, or perhaps we are just praying in general that we might have evil taken from us, as we do everytime we say the Lord's prayer. Perhaps we are tempted to just walk away and leave our worries behind. Remember Jesus, our example. Things were not going how others expected yet he trusted in the father. It meant great pain and loss from his part but he still trusted. He could have walked away but trusted in God and that all things work together for the good of those who love him, even if it means pain now. God never promises to take all pain and suffering from us this side of the new creation but he promises to be with us, just as the father was with Jesus in the garden and how he was with his people in exile.

Belief, faith and trust are not abstract principles. They are not things we believe despite the evidence but they are things we actively do. To know God, to know his character, when things are good. To build a relationship and a trust in what he does so that when he seems quiet, when the world seems too much to bear, we have a foundation to work on. C.S. Lewis once said that “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” Are we willing to trust God even in the pain, even if it means pain? Of course this is not easy or passive. Sometimes we ignore God all year and call on him when something goes wrong and wonder why he is hard to hear. We must get practicing at hearing his voice now, get reading the bible and praying, learning his character so that trust is not blind but reasonable behaviour. We must also support each other. Rejoice together when things are good and mourn when they are not. This of course means a community of friends and family, of openness and trust. When others cannot hear God's voice we can speak words of life to them to hear. When our faith is weak alone, together we are strong. When we stumble on the rocks of life alone, together we pick each other up. And of course, as the apostle Paul tells us, where we are weak, God is strong.

I of course hope that you will have a year of peace but I pray that our faith is strengthened and that we trust in God no-matter what 2012 brings. In a moment we will listen to a song that speaks of trusting in God no matter the circumstance. I hope that this can be a reminder to each of us this year in the good and the bad. Have a read of the words and dwell on them. It's called 'blessed be your name'.

Till Next Time!

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