Sermon delivered by the Rev Sydney Maitland
We have all our memories of being tested and often enough being found wanting. It could have been school or college exams, driving tests, or perhaps more seriously, our ability in family, personal or professional relationships.
There is that awful sense of having come short while others succeeded and are rightly praised. For us however there is that kind of loss and emptiness, and in some things we can begin again while in others, the moment is passed and life moves on to its own fulfillment and climax.
In Jeremiah there is a solemn pronunciation of judgment against ancient Israel, which should have been marked out for holiness and to the glory of God, but instead was notable only for being foolish and stupid, with no understanding and skilled only in doing evil, but not knowing how to do good.
Well, if the church has taken to itself the promises of God to Israel, them it must also embrace the judgments. Equally, if a Christian nation was blessed by God then it also should ask whether it may not also be judged for forsaking that blessing.
But we deceive ourselves if we believe that the judgment of God is an exercise in vindictiveness. Where ignorance has prevailed then it is clear that mercy may also prevail: for those who desire it. But where knowledge was once the rule and has been rejected then this excuse will not apply and deep personal and national repentance will be required.
Only a couple of weekends ago we were all on the verge of major global war – and we have been spared.
Yet the judgment of God is drawn more surely from how we have responded to His own provision for us, and how we have handled it.
That provision includes the gifts of His scriptures and sacraments, but more supremely in how He took an initiative that we could never have contrived or even imagined, in giving us His only Son Jesus Christ.
He has taken upon Himself the burden of reconciling us to Him, He has revealed Himself, taught us, shown us by profound visual aids and has secured these things in the gospels. What more could He do without violating our own freedom of choice and of loyalty?
God will never deny who or what He is and yet has done all that could be done to reconcile us to Him: and if we reject that initiative then how is God to be blamed for our responses?
Paul stresses the mercy of God in choosing him, not for any merit he may have shown but despite his own folly and blindness.
But then Paul was called to a life of sacrifice and of privation, a life of insecurity and of loneliness and danger as he gave himself wholly to the missionary task appointed to him. This was no call to soft living and easy options but to a close engagement with the living reality of God as he grew to know Him ever more powerfully and intimately in Jesus Christ.
In the gospel, Jesus is shown with a contrast between the scribes and Pharisees who objected to His availability to the tax collectors and harlots.
The Pharisees and scribes already know the scriptures pointing to Jesus and yet refused the evidence of their own eyes as Jesus continued to do the things expected of the Messiah.
The learned had become blind and deaf, so much so that they resented it when the unlearned and the compromised readily came to hear Jesus. Those whose learning of the scriptures was limited were ready to listen while those who were spiritual, academic and intellectual snobs would not.
We might indeed ask whether there are any parallels in our own nation today, and whether there is also a need for major penitence.
But for Jesus the stress is not on judgment but on mercy. It is not that He denies the place of judgment, but rather that while He can He still presses the claims of His own self-giving, and wholly sacrificial love.
This is a love that strives to reach all that He possibly can so that all have the opportunity to respond and to receive. In this way He teaches of the lost sheep and the lost coin. The flock is not complete if one sheep is missing, and this can happen even when the sheep know His voice.
He will pursue the lost sheep, searching out the hidden and dark places, the places where no one expected Him to go, and He will Himself descend into those depths, where He may call to that lost sheep, using only His own voice.
He exerts all that He has and is to recall that sheep to its own safety from the traps and crevices where it had wandered, and when He finds it He holds it, binds up its wounds, and carries it back to safety.
For us there are two aspects that we have to hold together.
First, we also are wayward sheep, easily distracted from what we know to be the truth by the more attractive enticements on offer elsewhere. And the Lord indeed exerts Himself to find us and restore us to what we know.
Jesus knows us and calls us by name: and we should be able to recognise the sound of His voice and to turn around to move towards it.
In this He calls us without judgment but in order to rescue us from that judgment. And perhaps some here are hearing that voice: calm, clear and insistent, which will not go away.
He calls so that we may indeed recollect ourselves and turn again towards Him.
But there is a second aspect for Jesus has no hands but ours and no feet but ours. It will also be our voices that He may need in order to reach the lost and the bleeding and the hopeless and the stressed.
These also are sheep that have to hear the call our voices: clearly calmly, gently and insistently – so that some who cannot imagine the presence of Jesus may at least hear the voices of His other sheep, also calling out and offering new life and new purpose.