Sermon delivered by the Rev Sydney Maitland
I think that we are all feeling a kind of rundown as the days get shorter, colder, wetter and darker. There is of course the expectation that the spring will bring us warmer and longer days, but that is the other side of the winter which still lies before us.
But we are assured by the promise of the turning months that things will improve. It is different however when in the middle of a time of trial, a personal crisis, a frustrated hope, even a broken promise, and we look around for encouragement. It seems so dark and impossible and when hope becomes fantasy or wishful thinking then the effect is only that much the worse.
In Jeremiah however, the promise of a return and a rebuilding is given to the exiles from Jerusalem and the Land of Israel, as they sojourn next to the waters of Babylon.
It is in the midst of their exile that they were encouraged to look up. They were shown a new picture of a new kind of life, and one in which they were to be ruled less by detailed regulation and more by the power of the Spirit of God within them.
They will not return to life as it was before, but to a new kind of living. It would be a life in which they had a personal and abiding sense of the presence of God, without being bossed around or hectored by constant demands.
The life of the community would reflect the reality of God, as they learned and worshipped together.
And this promise was fulfilled partly when the people returned to rebuild the temple and the walls of Jerusalem and the worship of God was renewed in Jerusalem while the word of God was studied in the synagogues of the villages of the Land of Israel.
It was also partly fulfilled with the coming of Jesus, His death and resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit: even if the church itself was sometimes been given to formalism and control.
Paul’s advice to Timothy however was to hold fast to what he already had. Here Timothy had several forms of encouragement and support. He had a personal faith, supported and renewed and given life by the presence of the Holy Spirit in his life.
He also had the scriptures which pointed to Jesus, which gave him his hymns, prayers and meditations in the psalms and the lessons of the prophets and the stories of Israel.
Timothy was not operating in a vacuum and was not without personal guidance and support. He did however have to use and appropriate these by faith, and to live within them.
As he faced trials, so he could encourage others who also faced trial. As faith was tested so he could help others, also under trial of faith. As personal circumstances changed, he also could be with others also facing new circumstances.
But above all he could refer again and again to the things of his faith, especially when tired or discouraged. The scriptures were not going to change: but he would be strengthened as he read them, lived in them, pondered over them, and learned how, when they seemed to be confusing or obscure, to wait for the mists of confusion to clear, and without rejecting them wholesale in the process.
For Jesus the lesson was also quite simple. His parable of the wronged widow demanding justice for her cause drew on the common experience of the community. The widow was desperate, with no other support and he case was never finally resolved: so she kept on until it was.
His lesson is pretty direct – that if even a partial and possibly corrupt local judge could be worn down by persistence, how much more would the loving and merciful Father also listen to the pleas of His people?
The point of course is persistence in the face of confusion and even disappointment. This is a faith that never gives up, and which even in the face of delay refuses to go under. It is a faith above all in God, and is placed above personal needs and circumstances. Even when faced with confusion, rejection, sadness or grief, it does not go away or succumb.
Perhaps the most important reason is that the faith is not about ourselves: it is about God and what Jesus has done for us in giving us access to Him. This is a faith that is determined to believe, to pray, to worship and to serve God come what may, for even if He never answered our needs He would still be worthy of our worship as His due.
The reality however is that He does indeed see and care and move to meet us, for that is His nature. The challenge however is that we also need to remain in a position to hear and to receive Him.
It is a position that makes its requests simply but does not demand. It abides even within delay without becoming bitter or disappointed.
For this is the place where the fruits of the Spirit are grown, where the qualities that characterized the life of Jesus are brought to maturity and sweetness. This is where love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control are brought to perfection. Fruits that start off small, hard and bitter: but grow into their fullness of refreshment and sweetness.