Sermon delivered by the Rev Sydney Maitland
It must be some 40 years ago now, but when my mother broke her leg and was confined to bed, I gave her a copy of Lord of the Rings, hoping it would cheer her up.
This was a forlorn effort for while she reveled in biography and archaeology, she did not do Hobbits, while truth to tell, I did and still do. The story has a long and desolate description of the heroes’ travails amid a land of utter desolation, where there is rock and wilderness but no kind of comfort or relief.
I understand that part of Tolkien’s story is drawn from his experiences in the trenches of WWI and the heroes’ travails in this nameless wilderness could indeed be drawn from this horror from which escape seemed impossible and survival was the best that they could do.
Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles however instructed them not to expect an early restoration to the Land of Israel and that instead they should be ready to make the best of their exile. They should be ready to be there for a long time and so they should make homes, plant gardens and put down roots.
Rather than expect to escape their exile and the lessons to be learned there, they were urged to learn their lessons so that later generations may indeed prosper and know the ways of the Lord, which they had themselves abandoned.
Instead of living in denial, the exiles were to take to heart the reasons for their sojourns there, and to learn their lessons well so that those to come after them might thrive.
In this sense they were to be compared with the children of the Exodus who proved unfit to enter the Promised Land and so dwelt in the desert where a new generation would be born and would grow into a people worthy of the Lord’s promises.
These were indeed hard words, more fitted for the spiritual gymnasium rather than the ease of the garden or the watering hole. But this was the place where the people were to learn the things of God, and to take them to heart.
Writing to Timothy, Paul also had counsels for endurance. He was writing from prison and knew the opposition and indeed persecution that the gospel message could encounter.
Timothy also was encouraged to face the prospect of hardship and rejection, and to use these circumstances as vehicles for spiritual growth and not discouragement. He would find himself in self-denial and not in pampering, while endurance was to be far more than just survival. It was to be the passport to fulfillment in realms where the things of God did indeed prevail, and yet where patience was proved by being exercised and where love was of the kind that gave out even in the face of rejection.
The hardship of the times would lead him deeper into the experience of Jesus Christ as he also learned to bear the cross that had been given – or rather, that had been entrusted to him. But this was not a recipe for the faint-hearted or the shallow-rooted.
As Timothy committed his daily path into the hands of God so he would find that the strength to negotiate it would be there day by day, even in the face of the most uncompromising of personal encounters.
For Jesus the 10 lepers presented Him with a rare occasion for humour.
The Messiah was expected to heal lepers, and so a healed leper presenting himself to the High Priest and requesting re-admission to the community was a kind of visiting card from the Messiah.
Jesus had already sent one healed leper to the High Priest, but the message had evidently not been understood properly. Perhaps 10 – well, 9, would to the trick instead.
It is rather like waking a slumbering body politic with a thunderflash instead of a soothing musical harmony and indeed it had its effect.
But that effect would to be invite a level of scrutiny and opposition which would lead Jesus to the cross, especially when Jesus came to Jerusalem to press the point.
Far from sending nuanced and “appropriate” messages of goodwill that all reasonable people should surely accept and understand, Jesus was uncompromising in presenting Himself and in calling on the people and their leaders to repent.
Jesus was not there to overthrow the Temple or the law: rather He was there to ensure that the tradition of Israel was more than an exercise in good liturgical manners and expedient judgments but penetrated the heart in all things.
He was there to change lives and to release the bound from their chains of guilt and humiliation so that they may have new, forgiven lives empowered to forgive others and to render self-giving love instead. Rome was never going to object to that, but the gospel would challenge the expediency of their social and political arrangements.
The shepherds of Israel would again become shepherds, guiding and teaching and protecting their flocks: and doing so by personal example.
What was true then is of course true now. From Jeremiah and Paul we learn that growth comes not from denying or escaping our circumstances, or blaming the politicians or economists or bankers, but by living within the situations where we are placed.
It means forgiving where we are, loving where we are, growing in the fruit of the Spirit where we are and not expecting escape.
It is within the constraints of daily life that we are to grow, and not by blaming or escaping them.
But there is something else that we dare not lose sight of: leprosy was highly infectious and lepers were driven from society to that the whole of the community might not be contaminated by it.
Under the normal course of events lepers would be avoided at all costs, even if food was left for them. But in Jesus’ case, rather than being infected by leprosy, He personally overcame it in each person He met and healed.
Whatever the cause of guilt or sorrow or disappointment in our lives, it is by bringing it before Jesus that we may be healed and released into a new life.
And that includes release from the power of guilt and hatred that others, enjoying the trappings of power, would like to retain as a means of controlling us.
It is why the name and person of Jesus is still a spiritual thunderflash in our own times: a cause for rejoicing for those who are forgiven, and a cause of deep resentment for those from whose clutches they are delivered.