Third Sunday before Advent
Third Sunday before Advent
A sermon preached by Canon Nigel Davies
After Reflective Prayer last Monday, over coffee in the Refectory, a group of us gathered in one of the booths, with Bill Smith who led the session. Our conversation turned to the use of the Old Testament in worship and congregations’ familiarity with its contents, more especially the stories. We bemoaned the fact that across the various denominations, familiarity with the Old Testament stories is sadly lacking. Bill told us that in the Baptist church where he had been a Paster, they had devised a sermon series which covered many of the stories the OT contains, to familiarise the congregation with these stories.
When I was growing up, Old Testament stories were very much part of my experience of Christianity. The characters in the stories were as familiar to me as other childhood heroes, such as Biggles and Dan Dare. They came alive for me in the illustrations in the Children’s Bibles I had, or Hollywood Blockbusters such as Exodus and the Ten Commandments, or in David Kossoff’s retelling of the stories, that was popular at the time.
Then I wasn’t aware of their theological content, real or imagined – they were just exciting stories that captured my imagination. There are so many to choose from and I am sure most of you here in the Quire of watching via YouTube, can think of you favourite. Our first lesson this evening is such a one – Gideon the reluctant hero. As the story unfolds, the tension mounts, as the number of fighting men dwindles and Gideon understandably is beset with doubts, which are removed by what he overhears, on his clandestine visit to the Midianites camp. Through a clever strategy he leads the 300 to victory over the Midianites who flee the scene – fantastic!
If these stories are often neglected by clergy in the pulpit and folk in the pews, there are many in the secular world, who have latched on to these stories, in the world of Leadership Coaching and the story of Gideon has been appropriated in this way – The Gideon Effect has become a ‘thing’, the narrative used to encourage leaders in the secular world and in the church. Clergy with dwindling congregations are comforted with the thought that they can be like Gideon, and with a small number of faithful, committed Christians, arrest decline.
Stories such as those in the OT can be a great source of inspiration, encouragement, and engagement – they capture the imagination more than books of theology. That’s probably why Jesus used parables, as they tend to be much more memorable than words of instruction. I am sure we can all call to mind a favourite parable that Jesus told – much less the latter chapters of John’s Gospel, from which our second lesson this evening was taken. Jesus ‘Farewell Discourse’ as it is familiarity known, repays repeated re-readings and light shone upon it, by an informed commentary or two. It also contains the ‘New Commandment’ from verse 12 of the chapter: –
“This is my commandment,
that you love one another as I have loved you.”
Then almost in parenthesis: –
‘No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
The last sentence is familiar to us, especially today, Remembrance Sunday, as it is invoked to explain the sacrifice made by so many service men and women on the battlefield in the 1st and 2nd World wars and the other conflicts since then, where the forces of the Crown have been deployed.
What I wonder do we make of the ‘New Commandment’ that Jesus has given us? To whom does this apply? Are we to love only are fellow Christians? Unfortunately, Christians have a history of not being very good at that, down the centuries we have been much better at killing our fellow Christians albeit for good theological reasons. The kind of love that Jesus requires is much more difficult to live up to, because it calls for a radical reorientation in our lives, it is the lifestyle choice that needs to embed in our lives, needs to become our default behaviour. The radical nature of this love is made clear by Jesus in Luke’s Gospel 6:27-31
“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.”
Sadly, we are all guilty of equivocation when it comes to this passage, this commandment – loving our fellow Christians can be hard enough – loving those outside our faith’s orbit, almost seems impossible.
Commandments about loving others doesn’t seem to do it for us, as we know only too well in our sad and benighted world. We seem to love power, prestige, possessions, more than God and only love our fellow human beings in so far as they accord with our world view.
The stories we tell ourselves shape our actions and the world we create – what we need it seems to me, are better stories based on an inclusive overarching narrative of the triumph of love – oh wait a minute, silly me, if I’m not mistaken, that’s the Gospel!!