Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 21 January 2018.
I suppose that one of the most creative parts of our national life must be advertising.
A printed advertisement must rely on the impact of the image and words of a page or part of a page while in television and in cinemas, the advertiser has only half a minute to make the appeal – maybe a minute if the budget is particularly flush with cash.
And so they have to set a scene, create a need and show how they or their product can meet that need. And of course the whole thing goes into overdrive when it comes to political campaigns.
Yet all our lessons are about an appeal made and how people answered. In Jonah and in the gospel, the prophet was commissioned only to sound the warning. He was not responsible for its success, and that was another matter. And even Jesus’ appeal to possible disciples was brief: “Follow Me.”
Whereas the advertiser has to create a sense of need or of grievance, and usually people are only too ready to find something missing in their lives or a person to blame for it, in these readings the challenge was different.
For here the prophet, or Jesus had only to set out the stall truthfully and honestly, and it was always going to be probable that some – indeed many, would reject it.
While many came to see what John the Baptist was about, and many heeded his call, we do not know how many rejected it. Equally we do not know how many potential disciples Jesus called but who rejected his call.
What we do know is that those who are remembered are those who heard the call and answered it, leaving all else behind. And yes, in the story of Jonah, we are told that much to his astonishment the people of Nineveh rose up as one and turned to God.
And it may be that as we feel the changing of the times and the movement of public opinion, then the message which we continue to express will itself find a resonance in expressing and them meeting needs.
But only perhaps when all alternatives have been tried and found ineffective.
Yet we are in changing times and the assumptions that we had grown used to since the fall of the Berlin Wall are now again being questioned.
Will capitalism with the rule of law and responsible and representative democracy withstand the public questioning of their relevance or effectiveness?
Is war coming and if so where, how and with whom as our enemies and allies, and anyway how would it be fought? What level of public mobilization would be involved?
Even if we withstood the first assault, could we rally sufficiently to see it through thereafter? Or would acquiescence or even surrender be more attractive?
Yes, there are many questions which are facing our society, and which we cannot ourselves answer.
But there are other questions which we can answer and do so with a confidence that comes not from our circumstances but from our faith.
For we are still proud to proclaim that there is life and love and forgiveness. There is still a community of prayer and fellowship and support.
And this is where we find that our standing in Jesus Christ really does mean something. For we can stand on the forgiveness of sins and the renewal of life as we continue in our own lives.
But more than that we are also confident that Jesus has personally and at enormous cost, overcome the power of sin and death, even when we accept their continuing reality.
In Him God has intervened directly and personally to achieve what humanity and its various alternative belief systems cannot and never could.
But sin and death and the corruption and compromise of all that is dear do not have the last word. Indeed, if they did then we would have no conception of anything else – and yet we are all aware of beauty, joy, love, self-giving, justice, peace and the fullness of the Kingdom of God which make life worthwhile.
I have said before that believing Christians are now a counter-culture in a society which lives by image rather than reality, by condemnation rather than forgiveness, by vengefulness and delight in the fall of another rather than the beauty of building and creating and renewing.
In the Old Testament, Jonah was surprised that the people of Nineveh did indeed repent and accordingly the wrath of God was abated. But the people did indeed change.
In Paul’s letter, the Corinthians were called upon to reassess their priorities in terms of the things that last and the things that do not.
And in the gospel, Jesus called out simply and without embellishment: “Follow Me.”
The rewards would be unimaginable and the costs unspeakable, but as He said elsewhere: “Without Me, you can do nothing.”