Sermon – 13 August 2017
How do we succeed with God?
1 Kings 19:9-18; Matthew 14:22-33
Impress to succeed!
In the parish magazine of St Matthew’s Redhill has been the same advert for at least 14 years. Usually on the back cover, it’s offering skilled guidance to anyone needing help in honing a CV or considering ways forward in their career. There is a picture of a young woman looking pleased with herself, clenching her fist in a gesture of gladness, satisfaction and achievement, and underneath is the business name: ‘Impress to succeed!’ This is the way of the world, and we have to live and work in it. The risk is that we treat our faith and our church in the same way: impress to succeed?!
What about with God – does God need to impress to succeed with us, with some dramatic signs? Walking on the sea, for instance. That’s quite dramatic! Impressing to succeed. But we mistake the purpose of the miracle stories if we think they are dramatic signs to compel us to believe. Rather, they teach us about God, Jesus and ourselves.
In the bible, the sea is not somewhere you visit on holiday. It’s a place of chaos, evil powers, challenging the ways of God. And Jesus in walking on the sea is identified as God himself present on earth. When Jesus says, as he does so often, ‘Take heart, do not be afraid’, ‘It is I’ is a misleading translation. We might mistake ‘it is I’ for the funny man with only one line on ‘Allo ‘Allo, do you remember? ‘It is I, LeClerc?!’ But Matthew’s Greek doesn’t actually say ‘It is I’, it says, ‘ego eimi’, ‘I AM.’ Jesus himself is Yahweh, ’I AM’, the holy, unpronounceable name of the Lord that is disclosed to Moses in the book of Exodus (3:14).
Later (Exodus 33:6) in Exodus, as a gesture of humility, God’s people strip off their ornaments at Horeb, the mountain of God. What happens when we strip off our ornaments? Elijah is fleeing on the same mountain from Ahab and Jezebel and is also down to brass tacks. He must learn to hear and obey the voice of God, even when preoccupied by the picture of a nation that has turned to idolatry despite his prophetic endeavours. The Lord is present not in dramatic signs such as earthquake, wind or fire, but as ‘a sound of sheer silence’ (1 Kings 19:12) – as the King James bible puts it, and as we sang, the ‘still small voice.’ And Elijah stands in this presence until the question to him is repeated: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ (1 Kings 19:9 & 13)
What are you doing here? We are together in the presence of God. And as a church teaching the Christian faith, I hope we are and can continue to be a school, as Mark Oakley recently put it, is ‘a school for learning how to relate more deeply to God, ourselves and each other.’
Notice that God is not playing by our rules. Impress to succeed is not God’s way. Jesus’ earthly life ended in loving, self-giving, agonising failure. And he calls us to take up our crosses and follow him. We can express that in many different ways.
Today we have shared in the laying up of the Standard of the Limpsfield Royal British Legion women’s section, which has provided care and support to the Serving and ex-Service community, and especially to their families, since 1921. There is of course sorrow in that closure – as there is as we prepare for the memorial service for John Davies this Friday, who led our local Poppy Appeal with such commitment for many years; but also thanksgiving, glad memories, completion and hope in Jesus who gave himself for us, suffered and died – and was raised. Today is not the end of the story.
This is our Easter faith and hope, and the pattern of our Christian lives, as Peter shows us (Matthew 14:28-31): Peter, the great impulsive, human, enthusiastic and broken Peter, the representative disciple from whose example of both faith and failing we can all draw hope and inspiration. Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me. Peter is losing faith in the face of fear and trouble, sinking in panic. He is distracted by the high wind, it upsets his balance, he takes his eyes off the face of Jesus, and he begins to sink. Then, after he cries out in need, he is gathered up and rescued by forgiving love.
However mysterious this story, we are not meant to get stuck on logistics! These sea miracles work because their message about God, Jesus and ourselves is true. The still small voice of the God we meet in Jesus will meet our fear and give us peace: if we ask.
For Christianity is not a system, which some people can use easily and some people can’t, and each person can only reap the rewards accordingly. Christianity is a relationship, offered by God, in which our place is opened up by Jesus, and in which we are constantly encouraged by the Holy Spirit. No one is ‘good’ at it, but that’s all right, because entrance is not by exam, and places are not limited.
The temptation is to go off looking for challenges to prove our worth to God, or seeking him in dramatic signs. Surely silence and the rhythm of our own hearts are too small and mundane for God? But remember, God is not playing by our rules. Elijah and the disciples have all seen the spectacular power of God, but they all learn to be much more awed by God’s offer of intimacy than by any other kind of demonstration. In the end, what more could we want?
So whether you come this morning in grief and loss, fear for others, yourself or the world, thankfulness or summer leisure, fix your eyes upon Jesus and – whatever moment you are in – the Lord will reach out and save you.
He may not save you from what is happening – it’s not magic – but whatever is raging around you, the still small voice of calm, the Holy Spirit with you and within you, will give you that peace of God which passes all understanding. But to experience that you need to be desperate enough or self-aware enough or washed-up enough to know that you need the Lord to save you, and to ask him.
The name of Jesus means ‘God saves’.
So with God it’s not impress to succeed; but rather the opposite: to succeed, know your need.
And then you will find, as I used to sing at primary school: [Sing to God, 143]
When the road is rough and steep ….
Fix your eyes upon Jesus.
He alone has power to keep …..
Fix your eyes upon him;
Would you like a bit more?
Jesus is a gracious Friend,
One on whom you can depend,
He is faithful to the end ….
Fix your eyes upon Him.
James Percival, Team Rector