In 2016, I entered the first Sermon of the Year competition run by Preach Magazine. I only submitted an entry due to knowing how few women put themselves forward and feeling that I had a responsibility to represent womankind by putting a sermon entry in. And I won it! Which was amazing! The prize was free study at London School of Theology and I convinced them to let me enter one of their Masters programmes without a first degree (I left education at 18 having done a two year course to gain a childcare qualification). Fast forward two years and the competition is in its third year, the final will be on 21st June at LST and I’m now a regular columnist with Preach Magazine!
Anyway, I thought it was about time I put my sermon online. It turns out that the sermon I wrote and preached has involved our family living out the message in some sort of old skool prophet way (which I can tell you is not that fun). There’s been a lot going on in GLW family life over the last few months and I’m hoping to write something to share with you about it, but I felt to firstly share this sermon as I kind of feel it is part of what needs to be told. So here goes…
“Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.”
I am much too young to have “listened with mother” but this question has followed us through the generations. I shall ask you again, “Are you sitting comfortably?”
This sermon is entitled “Reason For Hope”. Hope involves balancing on the line between despair and complacency. It is the narrow road we are called to as Christians. For if life is too comfortable, what have we to hope for? Hope can only exist until it is realised. We can celebrate the realisation of our hope, but the hope itself is replaced by the delight of hope fulfilled.
Paul tells us in Romans 8 that “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to daughter and son-ship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?”
What have we to hope for if we are sitting comfortably?
Hope requires a deficit; something not yet received. However most of us want a reason to hope without the need for hope in our lives, without the discomfort of any deficit. There’s a reason why the fastest growing churches are in geographical areas of persecution and oppression; when people are in need of hope, Jesus offers Life, whereas there are conversations aplenty in the UK about whether the church is dying and how to revive it.
Maya Angelou, in her book “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” says, “I find it interesting that the meanest life, the poorest existence is attributed to God’s will, but as human beings become more affluent, as their living standard and style begin to ascend in material scale, God descends the scale of responsibility at commensurate speed.”
We hear Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry mocking the existence of God, as they enjoy the privileges of financial and social security; as white men with enormous power and control over their own lives. Last year Stephen Fry used the example of a fly that burrows into a child’s eye as justification that God can’t be real. Yet often we will find that the children and families who have actually dealt with the burrowing eye fly are more likely to believe in a loving God than Stephen Fry is. Because when you have nothing, God can become real very quickly.
As Christians we are called to a life of discomfort. The artist Banksy famously said, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Although he is talking about art, this is also the truth of the Gospel. In a world that sings along with Pharrell Williams that “Happiness is the truth” Jesus’ call to “pick up our cross daily” leaves the gospel of happiness echoing hollow and empty. For as much as Jesus comforts the disturbed, the lonely, the wounded, the abused, He does not call us to be comfortable.
Those familiar with nineties and noughties Christian music will know the band Delirious. One of their songs is called Find Me In The River. Within it are the lines, “We’ve longed to see the roses, but never felt the thorns. And bought our pretty crowns, but never paid the price.”
In our comfortable existence we want the goodness of God’s gifts and blessing, but the fullness of life Jesus talked about is accessed by dying to ourselves every single day. This is not to say that we should engage in self-hatred. Selflessness is not thinking less of ourselves, it’s thinking of ourselves less. The paradox of Christian faith is that in giving ourselves to God, we find ourselves.
Are you sitting comfortably?
God loves us so much. If like Cain, we come to God in our plenty and choose to give Him less than the best of what we have, He will still love us. He will still meet with us. Yet, it was Abel who was “looked upon with favour”. God will not demand our all, but if we give it we will find Him and know Him in that.
Having grown up in a Christian family, I knew cognitively about the hope Jesus offers, yet it was only after 4 years of being prevented from loving God by an abusive man that I discovered in my heart what it really means to have a reason to hope. I found myself living in a hospital, with a three-month premature baby and a traumatised toddler. I hoped my baby would recover and that my life would improve. Yet God didn’t pat me on the head and grant my wishes. God asked me to give up even the hope that my baby would get better. He told me to stop praying for my baby to recover and start praying for His will to be done. He told me I needed to be confident of my love for Him, whether my baby lived or died.
We are so often taught the Gospel of Sitting Comfortably. The catchall verse of Jeremiah 29:11 is trundled out to tell us that God has good plans for us, to bring us hope and a good future. Yet what about all the people who haven’t known a good future? The ones who struggle with depression? The ones who die of starvation? The ones who are abused and raped? The ones with children who are blind because a fly has burrowed into their eye?
The Gospel of Sitting Comfortably owes a lot more to capitalist culture than to Jesus. We are sold the lie of consumer based self-actualisation. That we can access total fulfilment through consuming, spending, owning; that the abundance of our possessions leads to the overflow of happiness in our lives. That sitting comfortably or even better, drowning in a sea of excess, is what life is all about.
But that is not the Gospel. That is not our Hope. For we are blessed when we are poor, blessed when we are mourning, blessed when we are humble and blessed when we are merciful. Blessed when we are pure in heart and blessed when we make peace. We are blessed when we are persecuted because of righteousness, when we are mocked and when people lie about us. Because ours in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Are you sitting comfortably?
How much are you willing to give God? Will you be obedient if He asks you to move house? To give up your job? Do you need a reason to hope or do you just like having one.
In one of the Hunger Games film there is a scene where the not-so-benevolent dictator is explaining his theory for maintaining order amongst oppressed people, “Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.” Sisters and brothers, we have access to a hope that can set the world alight. Yet because of God’s grace, He allows us to contain it. He allows us to hold just enough hope to know we are saved, without forcing it to change us, to make us people of the deficit. We have a hope that could set our lives and our communities ablaze, yet we are sitting too comfortably.
Until we are willing for God to disturb us, to take us outside of comfortable, then He won’t. And though we have a reason to hope, we have no need of it. No need of it at all.
We are called to be a people of deficit. Our Saviour was tortured and died. We cannot shy away from pain and wounded-ness, for our hope is in the resurrection of a tortured God. The title of this sermon is from 1 Peter 3: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
Does anyone ask you for your reason to hope? Or does your life look the same as those who don’t know Jesus? Maybe people know you’re a Christian; not because of your “reason to hope” but because of your lack of gentleness and respect. Maybe they know your opinions on different issues. But discussing our opinions has little to do with our reason to hope. In fact, the certainty of our rightness can sometimes stand at odds with a life of faith; it is certainty and not doubt that is the opposite of faith.
Maybe you’re sat here, and you’re wondering what I’m going on about. What is this “reason to hope” that I’m talking about? God came to earth over 2000 years ago, He was birthed out of a woman as a human baby and grew up to live and teach a way of life that almost every religious and ethical group would agree has never been surpassed. He willingly died to once and for all transform humanity’s relationship with God. And then He rose again, conquering death and making a way from death into eternal life for all of us, regardless of the way we mess up or are messed up by others. After Jesus had risen from the dead He supernaturally floated back up to heaven and in His place came the Holy Spirit, another aspect of God, who would guide and gift us to live radical lives, according to The Way that Jesus taught and modelled in His life.
My children and I lived in a hospital for five months. In that time I separated from my ex-husband, and went through a court case against him for raping me and I moved to a new area. Since I chose to give my whole life to God I have not been comfortable, my ex-husband was found not guilty; I still have post traumatic stress disorder; my premature baby became well but has been left with behavioural issues; my traumatised toddler has become a gloriously self-assured 12 year old; I have remarried and moved when and where God has told me to. Recently my mum died and the shockwaves of that have been very painful for me. My 22-year-old niece and her 3-year-old son have come to live with us and we have had to trust God for the money to provide for them. We have carved up our living room to make her a bedroom and my 9-year-old son has had to learn to share a room with a 3-year-old. Our house is filled to bursting. We face pain, disappointment and frustration on a regular basis.
And yet, I do all this in the full assurance that I am loved and called and precious. Because Jesus became human, I have a God who can walk beside me and knows what it is to suffer. Through the Holy Spirit, I am held in the painful times. I am comforted, though I am not comfortable. And I live a life of freedom and in the hope that this life is not the end. Jesus’s death and resurrection made a way for each of us to have hope for this life and for the next. This is my reason to hope.
As you leave this place, may you know the God who disturbs, may you embrace a life with deficit, where the cost is great and the blessings many. And may you be willing to live a life with a need for hope. For those here that don’t know Jesus, may you know that He is the reason to hope.
Are you sitting comfortably? I hope not.