24th August 2014

Baptist United Evening Service.  24th August 2014.

At our service together a couple of weeks ago, Iain Pope – the Minister of the church we’re in tonight – said something that had me nodding in agreement, like one of those little dogs you used to see on the rear parcel shelf of cars. What he said was this: that it had sometimes been hard for him to come to worship during the last few weeks. For I have felt exactly the same: praising God and leading services have not been easy for me. And I don’t think that’s because I am lazy (although it has actually been quite difficult picking up the pieces after my summer holiday), nor do I think that I am losing my faith (well, I hope not!).

No; the reason is quite different: it’s because I have been so troubled by news from the wider world, which seems have gone from bad to worse over the summer. We certainly haven’t had the customary “silly season” this year! So we have had the conflict and the passenger plane that was brought down in the Ukraine, the shelling, killing and now executions in Gaza, the continued agony of Syria and its poor people, the desperate state of the Christian, Yazidi and possibly Turkman people in Iraq (not to mention the killing of that American journalist), the Ebola epidemic in Africa .... To hear of those things on the car radio driving to church, and then to engage in joyful worship about our great God who, we say, cares for all people and holds them in the palm of his hands, has torn my soul apart. Our worship seems to have taken place inside a happy, cosy “bubble”.

Now, I do realise that I am in danger of sounding curmudgeonly, critical or sanctimonious! And I am certainly not saying that you haven’t been just as saddened by these awful events as I have. But I do feel that, for the most part, there has been a massive disconnect between our worship and what has been going on in “the real world” – at least, until Heather Marsden’s marvellous prayer of intercession last Sunday. And that makes me uneasy, partly because I believe that God has a concern for every human being in this planet, and partly because I believe that lament has as honourable a part in our worship as has praise. Of course there is a time for praise: for God does not change and merits our adoration, whatever we mortals get up to here on earth; equally, his salvation in Christ still stands firm. I don’t deny those things for a moment. But surely there is another side to things; so both praise and lament, hosannas and weeping, sunshine and shadow should form part of what we do together in God’s presence.

I expect that some of you might disagree with me. For you may feel that a time of worship provides a welcome opportunity to escape from the pain and pressures of the world, that it offers a moment when we can set our usual concerns to one side and allow ourselves to be caught up into God’s presence. There is definitely something to be said for that point of view; we certainly do need to gain something of God’s perspective on this world rather than remaining rooted to the earth, and there is good precedent for being given a glimpse of glory when we are in adverse or sorrowful circumstances: Isaiah the priest received his vision of God in the Temple at a time when the nation of Israel was probably being threatened by enemy forces; while John the apostle, exiled to hard labour in Patmos towards the end of his life in a time of Christian persecution, was lifted up into the heavenlies and gave us the book of Revelation as a result – the only problem is that Christians have been fighting over its meaning ever since!

Nevertheless, I don’t feel it’s very good for us if we simply see church as a bolthole or refuge from the world, however nice that might be. I feel that somehow we have to bring at least some of our woes and sorrows into church with us – and then let God transform them into hope as we worship. As Christians, we are citizens of two kingdoms, God’s and this world’s; I would suggest to you that most of us find it quite difficult both to bring God’s Kingdom into the normal routines of life, to apply our faith to daily circumstances, and equally to bring the world and its needs into our place of worship and lay them before God. In our services so far we have prayed quite a lot for each other and for our churches – and that has been good. But intercessions for Iraq, Gaza, Syria and the Ukraine, for our own Government or even (dare I say) for the machinations of Ipswich Borough Council didn’t get much of a look-in till last week. Do we somehow feel that these are not sufficiently “spiritual” issues, not worthy of mention before God?

I don’t know how many of you ever bother to look at the “Baptist Times” website: it’s the electronic successor to the old “Baptist Times” newspaper, which I am sure that you all used to read voraciously every Thursday morning (!) A few weeks ago it published an “opinion piece” by John Rackley, who recently retired from ministry at Manvers Street in Bath and has been visiting a number of other churches. And one thing he noticed in the services he attended is that intercessory prayer for the world so often seemed to be missing; if there was any, it usually focused on missionary work or on individual Christians living in foreign countries. John was left asking why there had been so little intercession, “standing with people whom we do not know but belong to in common bonds of humanity, as well as people for whom God so loved the world he gave his one and only Son”? And he suggested a number of answers; one or two of them are quite challenging.

Please “park” those thoughts for a moment; for now I’m going to take you on a bit of a theological tangent – please don’t switch off but come along with me! I want to tell you about a long-standing heresy called “docetism”: it goes back to the second century of Christianity. Some of you will know what docetism is all about: it basically says that Jesus was a spiritual being who didn’t really have a flesh-and-blood body at all. He seemed to be living among us on earth, we thought that he was a real man – but, in fact, he wasn’t, it was all an illusion. I’m sure you can see why this is so wrong. For, at Christmas, we declare that Jesus was born amongst us as a baby; when he grew up, he say that he experienced all the nitty-gritty issues of human life (although without sinning); when he died on the Cross we claim that he suffered as both a man and as God. So it’s very important that we stand up and affirm the humanity of our Lord, and historical Church Councils have often stood up and done so. For, if Jesus had not been a real human being, then we would not be saved; it’s as simple as that.

I am absolutely sure that we would all reject this heresy out of hand and stand up for a belief in Emmanuel, God living among us. Yet, when you start examining much of our worship, you would think that it is a heresy that we do subscribe to. For while we are busy exalting God and declaring him to be the Sovereign Lord of the universe (and there is nothing wrong in doing that), we seem to easily forget that – to quote the distinguished hymnwriter Fred Kaan – we are called to “sing Magnificat in crowded street and council flat”. Escapist religion is extremely attractive; but it fundamentally centres on ourselves rather than on Jesus. Although he did, I know, take “time out” to pray (I’m sure, too, that he joined in the great festivals of the Jewish year) I can’t see Jesus ignoring the pains of the world in his worship. That would seem totally out of character and odds with his mission.

I don’t know how many of you have heard of the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann? He is getting on now; but he was the keynote speaker at the “Catalyst Live” event put on by the BMS last year. He had a crisis of faith in his twenties as he tried to make sense of God in his native country which had witnessed the rise of Nazism, the Jewish Holocaust and the carpet bombing of cities such as Dresden and his native Hamburg. How could a loving and almighty God allow these things to happen? None of the usual Christian answers worked for him; but eventually Moltmann came to terms with these horrors in a book called “The Crucified God”, which has been hugely influential. In it, he says that, when Jesus gave up his life on the cross he did not provide a “quick fix” for the problems of the human race but, as the Crucified God, he suffers along with the world. By so doing, he breaks through the vicious circles of human hate and vengeance and opens up the possibility of a true revolution of righteousness and peace. That is surely a good message for today; and it shows that Christians must never cut themselves from the harsh realities of life. Indeed, we are not being true to Jesus if we exclude them from our worship.

Well, I’m giving you a hard time this evening, I know. And I must be honest with you, I actually find it jarring when someone mentions “secular” issues in the context of a “Christian” service, or when they speak of tears and pain rather than joyful praise. But these things are part of what it means to live as a human being, they are repeatedly mentioned in the Bible and should not be ignored. In any case, we are human: we cannot simply forget about our worldly cares when we enter church, and we find it almost impossible to sing the Lord’s Song when our world’s violence turns any thought of even one peaceful Sabbath into a pipe-dream. As the Methodist hymn-writer Fred Pratt Green wrote, the Church of Jesus must never shut its outer door, attempting to drown the voice of traffic or to drug its concerns with singing. Rather, our prayers should make us ten times more aware of the world we are trying so hard to banish from our thinking.

“Ah well”, I might hear one or two of you saying, “we might have expected a woolly liberal like Andrew to say something like this”. Well, it’s for you to decide the extent of my “woolliness” although it’s true that my theology is rather more liberal than most folks’ here tonight. Nevertheless, I believe that what I have been trying to say actually goes to the very heart of our Gospel. For, if we believe that Jesus lived among us in a dirty and mucky world, why are carefully wiping the dirt of our feet before we come into Church? If we believe that Jesus came to set the captives free, why are we not praying for those captives in our services? If we believe that he died for the sin and pain of the world, why are we not reflecting on that sin and pain in our worship? If we believe that God created us as human beings to live in community, why are we not crying out for broken communities in our prayers? And, ultimately, if we believe that God is truly the All-Wise and Sovereign Lord of the nations, why are we not pleading that his wisdom and authority will transform the hearts and minds of power-hungry tyrants and rulers?

One final thought as I close. As Evangelical Christians – and most of us would probably accept that description – we say that our faith is about personal salvation in Jesus. We may well go on and say that we want to see God forming his Church to be a holy, worshipping and serving people here on earth. But what if there is more? What if the Church finds that it sings God’s song best when it ponders and shares the world’s sorrows? What if it has a mission, not to sing within the safety of its own four walls, but in the places made desolate by death, destruction and despair? And what if its songs must lament the cruelty, violence and division found on this planet which God had created to be so different? Tonight, I am not saying that the Church needs to give up singing, but I am saying that we must always sing thoughtfully and prayerfully. And, above all, let us make sure we sing because we believe that Christ has abolished death and promised abundant life to a needy and hopeless world.

I’d like to finish with two quotes. One is from an interview I watched last week with the classical conductor Daniel Barenboim. For the last fifteen years he has been working with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra which brings together musicians from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. In the light of recent events (the interview took place just after the latest cease-fire had broken down) he was asked if he still had any hope for the future. He’s not a Christian man; but he said something like, “Things are always changing, the world moves on. We can’t afford the luxury of bathing in pessimism”.

Perhaps that’s not so different from what the prophet Habbakuk wrote, clearly living in a time of calamity but still clinging on to God:

“Though the fig tree does not blossom,
    and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
    and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
    and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength”.