A sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday of Lent, 28 February 2021
Preacher: Canon Nigel Davies, Vicar of the Close
Please scroll down to the bottom of this page for a video of this sermon.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.”
Congregations gather in churches and cathedrals with different expectations and needs. Over time, the clergy who serve them, come to know them and are able to craft sermons which meet, and hopefully exceed, their needs and expectations. In the strange times we are living through, it is more difficult for clergy to make these determinations, especially as is the case this afternoon, when the service is being live streamed, with a potential planetary reach! With rows of empty chairs, only half knowing which camera I should be looking at - whilst conjuring up faces in my mind’s eye that I have only seen on Zoom, and still others I can only imagine, I have yet to come to such an understanding, of those I am serving as ‘Vicar of the Close’.
Perhaps it is best for me to fall back then, on what I have learnt about the demographic of Evensong Congregations over the years, knowing that they are generally advanced in years, and for the most part seeking comfort and reassurance through their faith - from the familiar words of the service, in the autumn of their years.
The two readings we’ve just heard, are the kind of readings that give reassurance and encouragement to those of advancing years, yet at the same time they have a slight edge to them. It is reassuring to know that God will not be ashamed of those who have clung to faith during their lives - it is the encouragement needed, in a world which seems to have left behind traditional forms of belief and practise.
It is perhaps less reassuring to note that Abraham, who Paul holds up as one of the great exemplars of the faith, began his journey into an unknown future at the age of 75 - an age when very few people are looking for a new challenge!
It is highly unlikely that those listening to this sermon will be required by God to ‘up sticks’ and set off in search of a ‘Promised Land’, so there is no need to go in search of your suitcase! However, there is a challenge for people of faith, amidst the comfort faith brings, and it comes in the first verse of the 11th Chapter of Hebrews, where Paul writes:
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for,
the conviction of things not seen.”
Faith involves an existential commitment to a reality that is not always apparent. It involves an act of will, no less difficult than Abraham’s decision to leave his home, with the incredulous words of his friends and extended family members, ringing in his ears – you can imagine their words to him, I’m sure.
The foundation of any Christian’s faith is in the person of Jesus, and his teaching. We latter day Christians are not as fortunate as the disciples, with resurrection experiences to confirm our faith. We do, however, have these words of comfort spoken by Jesus which we can own:
“Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed."
Yet we are also those who Jesus enjoined to ‘Love God and our neighbour as ourselves’ - we are those required to live by Kingdom Values, expressed in these words of Jesus found in Luke’s Gospel:
“I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Such behaviour will be seen by many as ludicrous, or fanciful - as foolhardy as Abraham’s journey into the unknown. To cling to our belief that Jesus Kingdom values will prevail, is in Paul’s words:
“the conviction of things not seen.”
and to those who sit lightly to the Christian faith, having convictions about things unseen, is stuff and nonsense. Christians could be liken to those who Peter Pan asks to clap to show they believe in fairies, in order to save Tinker Bell, who has drunk the poison intended for him.
I would like to suggest to those who take such a view, that they should spend a little time in the world of quantum/particle physics, which on casual acquaintance can also seem like fantasy - only it is taken very seriously by the scientific community and its conclusions, though sounding preposterous, can be validated by experiments and mathematical equations.
One could also asset that the conclusions of this branch of science concerning the universe, seem to support these words of Paul written 2000 years ago:
“what is seen was made from things that are not visible.”
The Christian Faith is validated, not through experiments or equations, but in lives lived in commitment to the values of the Kingdom. Faith is vindicated by the actions of those who put into practise a love for God and their neighbour. Faith is vindicated by the selfless acts of love - experiments in caring and compassion if you will - carried out by countless followers of Jesus, down the years. People’s lives have been changed; people’s lives can still be changed. There is sufficient evidence to be found, even in these troubled times, for those prepared to look with eyes wide open.
I began with verses from the Letter of Paul to the Hebrews, his confident explanation of the essence of the Christian faith – I will end with words not of an apostle or a theologian, but of Barrack Obama, who expresses the experience of faith with which most of us will be familiar. At an Easter Prayer-Breakfast he said these encouraging words:
“Our faith changes us. I know it’s changed me. It renews in us a sense of possibility. It allows us to believe that although we are all sinners, and that at times we will falter, there’s always the possibility of redemption. Every once in a while, we might get something right, we might do some good.”