Sermon 17 Nov St Ambrose
‘Make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance.’ This goes against all of our wordly wisdom about getting our story straight, doesn’t it? It should come as no surprise though, because with Jesus things are always backward to the wordly way of doing things.
Imagine you receive a message to come to the boss’s office. Your mind would be whirling, wondering what you’re going to be hauled over the coals for. The various options would surface, and for each you might prepare an explanation, one that shows you and your motives in the best light. You would be sweating and nervous, – depending on your conscience – hoping that you would say the right thing, and trying different explanations in your head to find the best one.
But Jesus tells the disciples that when, not if, they are arrested and persecute, and thrown in prison, not to practise their defences, not to work out their story.
Can you imagine sitting in a prison, waiting for the big day, when your life and death hang in the balance, but not preparing your story? It’s very different from the normal way isn’t it? No meetings with lawyers and supporters, no letters sent to influential people.
If you have a think about it, you soon realise that instead of worrying and doing all this mental work preparing a defence, the disciples, and us, would have free head-space. This is time to contemplate God, to pray, to listen, to intercede for others. If we don’t need to spend all our mental energy justifying ourselves, it frees up so much space to do better things.
Why can the disciples be peaceful and serene, even in prison awaiting trial which may end in their deaths? Because Jesus says: I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict”.
Our logical minds tell us that Jesus couldn’t have given them these arguments, because he would no longer be with them in the present. But Jesus knew that he would be there in the future in the form of the Holy Spirit.
Dear friends, we too can trust that Jesus will give us the words, whenever we are in dire need of them. He probably will not show up in court in person, or stand in the doorway of the bosses’ office, but if we trust the power of the Holy Spirit, those words will come to us.
There is a further way the words of the Lord will be with us when we need them – if we have them already hidden in our heart, waiting to spring up at the right time.
What does that mean? That means words of scripture, memorised and known, so they can spring to mind when we need them. Some of you may have learnt memory verses at Sunday school as a child. I think it was even a competitive thing in some classes. Who did that as a youngster? What are some of the verses that stay with you? Do you find that they leap to mind just when you need them?
Yesterday’s morning reading was the passage beginning ‘consider the lilies of the field’. That was one that stayed with me when I was a single mother, wondering how to find the money for food that week. God was reassuring me that God would take care of me and mine, and I didn’t need to worry. The scripture wouldn’t have been there for me though if I hadn’t already hidden it in my heart.
Next time you are facing a time of stress, when you will be asked to testify, trust that God will give you the words. Don’t be scared of sharing your faith journey – it’s your own story and no one can contradict or deny your own experience.
The picture that Jesus paints for the disciples sounds like a scary one to start with. ‘You will be betrayed …they will put some of you to death… you will be hated…’
We are making a brochure to put in letter boxes around the parish, to let everyone know who we are and what we do. I don’t think those lines should go in the brochure, do you?
But again, it’s a matter of context. It’s not the end of the passage, and it’s not the end of the story. Yes, our earthly life may have a bit of bother, to put it in the usual Kiwi understated way. But Jesus reassures the disciples, and us, that not a hair of our head will perish. Perishing is not the same as dying. Perishing in the New Testament context refers to an everlasting death, the death of being separated from God in eternity. We are promised that we will not perish. Even though our bodies suffer and die, our souls will go into eternity with God. We will not perish if we trust God.
If we go back to the first part of the gospel reading, it looks like a description of our news programmes. ‘Nation will rise against nation, there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues.’ It sounds like an end-time scenario, but actually it’s just normal. There have always been wars. Someone worked out that in the 2000 odd years since Christ there had only been 20 years where there was no war anywhere. They’d probably missed one in the depths of the jungle somewhere.
Nations will always struggle against each other – it’s part of the human condition of pride and greed. How about earthquakes? They too are part of the normal state of the earth. Famines and plagues too. Jesus is telling the disciples that normal life will continue, that life won’t suddenly be perfect and rosy-tinted because the kingdom of heaven in near. Some people walk away from God when bad stuff happens in their lives, but it’s not what happens that shows the kingdom is near, it’s how we react to it. A deep faith, a sincere trust that God will never let us down, will carry us through those awful times. It won’t be easy, no one promises that a Christian life will be easy. And if they do they’re probably after your money.
The readings at the time of the church’s year are all about signs of the future. They sound scary but are ultimately reassuring. This can be a very hard season for many, as the end-of-year craziness coincides with Christmas preparations and we are under so much pressure to spend, spend, spend, to have the perfect family, to be seen to be flourishing. Let the words of Jesus go with you into advent, and give you the strength to rely on God to carry you through, and to share that hope with others.