The persevering people of God

A sermon preached virtually to our college community by Trinity tutor Revd Dr Helen Collins at the end of March.

Three weeks ago, I began to think about what passage to choose for what would have been an all-age sermon on the theme I had been given: Jesus and joy/celebration.

As a rule, I hate being asked to choose a passage, because in the act of choosing, you are predetermining what you think the Bible passage says. However, the two passages that quickly came to mind were Luke 7 (‘we played the pipe for you and you did not dance’) and Hebrews 12 (‘for the joy set before him, endured the cross’).

As I tried to decide which one to choose, I was praying through what message God might have to give this community. At the time, three weeks ago, I was imagining a message of joy in a context largely consumed with essay deadlines, work stress, and anxieties about moving on. Coronavirus was nowhere on the collective radar. How much can change in three weeks.

And yet, as I studied both of these passages in my attempt to decide between them, I realised they actually had a lot to say to each other—and a timely message for our present circumstances began to emerge. 

Luke 7:24-35—John and Jesus

Let’s look closer at Luke 7. This passage comes early in Luke’s gospel as Jesus’s fame is spreading throughout all Judea, and the people are saying that ‘a great prophet has appeared among us’ (v16).

John gets wind of these claims and sends his disciples to verify if Jesus is indeed ‘the one who is to come’. Therefore, the focus of this passage is primarily upon the identity and the mission of Jesus. Jesus responds to John’s disciples’ request (‘Are you the one who is to come?’) by referring them to his deeds (‘Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised’), echoing the messianic hopes of Isaiah 61.

Luke doesn’t tell us whether John’s disciples were convinced, but as they leave, at the start of our reading, Jesus turns the question around, from his identity and ministry to John’s (‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see?’). He affirms John’s status as a prophet, and the one who was to prepare the way for him. Jesus is therefore tying his mission very closely with John’s. We are told in verse 30 that in rejecting John’s baptism and therefore his teaching, the Pharisees and experts in the law have also rejected Jesus’s ministry and God’s purposes. In the face of this rejection of John, and therefore of God, Jesus asks ‘to what, then, shall I compare this generation?’ What are you like, ‘people of God’ who have rejected the purposes of God? You are like children, sitting in the marketplace and calling to each other—we played the pipe for you, and you did not dance, we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.

When I first thought of this passage, I had mis-remembered it as Jesus saying these words to the crowds, as if the crowds were the stubborn ones refusing to respond to Jesus’s message.

However, Jesus is suggesting that the crowds are saying this to one another, and then he links their calling to one another to the ministries of John and himself in verse 33-34. Jesus is saying: John, who was sent by God, came with a message of sin and judgement, and the crowd say, ‘Oh dear, this is all a bit sombre and heavy, all this fasting, we’re not as bad as all that, let’s have a dance’. Then Jesus came with a message of salvation and forgiveness and reconciliation, and the crowd say, ‘Oh dear, this all seems a bit frivolous and improper—all this feasting and drinking with undesirables, there are serious things going on in the world, we want a teacher with dignity and propriety’. It is not then the generation who are cast as stubborn by Jesus, but rather, it is the messengers of God—John and Jesus—who are accused by the crowds of being unmoved in the face of the changeable whims and desires of this generation.

Method, message, and mission

There is an interesting contrast set up between method, message, and mission. Jesus is known for the method of eating and drinking, and John characterised by the method of fasting. The point in this story is that it’s not about the method. Indeed, the crowd are the ones obsessed with the method. In verse 32, they don’t demand inward dispositions of joy or sorrow, but only outward manifestations of dancing and weeping. Indeed, the generation demand these very things, and remain disappointed even as they receive them. 

This seems so apt for today. We still live in the midst of a generation that up until recently consistently demanded fun and frivolity—take it easy, don’t worry, treat yourself, you deserve that new holiday or car, open another bottle of prosecco. The sort of naïve, optimistic, whistle–in–the–dark hedonism that holds coronavirus parties, disregards the official advice, and says stop overreacting. Dance, sing, we demand to be happy and will defiantly celebrate life. On the other hand, and much more so in recent days, our generation demands weeping and fear—we are doomed, check out, give up, be overwhelmed. The sort of pessimistic fatalism which stockpiles toilet paper, spends a small fortune on yeast through eBay, and says we’re not doing enough to stop this virus. Weep, mourn—we demand to despair, there is nothing we can do, all is lost. How quickly it changes. And how strong within us is the desire to return to the normality of our methods of dancing and feasting as soon as possible, as if our vocation were to be healthy and happy, and as if our ‘normality’ was desirable and just for everyone.

At this time, we are very likely grieving the loss of our familiar and cherished ‘methods’—gathering, parties, public worship, handshaking, hugging, public ordinations, even breaking bread. The hope for us today is that John and Jesus remain utterly fixed and faithful, not to their methods, as if they have some value in and of themselves, but to their God-given message and their mission. When John came preaching judgement and repentance, the crowd fixated on the method of fasting and rejected him. When Jesus came preaching salvation and forgiveness, the crowd fixated on the method of parties and dismissed him. Both John and Jesus were rejected as deviant by a generation who could not see through their methods to the purposes of God. 

Sadly, it would seem in our contemporary society that our familiar methods of being church have not gained much traction with our communities—whilst we might cherish our different singing styles and courses and brands, it is not clear that this generation cares. As we are forced to lay many of these aside, what might it look like for the church to refocus on its message and let that lead to the development of new methods? Our primary call is to witness to the fact that Jesus was utterly faithful and steadfast in fulfilling the purposes of God in the midst of constant and changeable opposition.  

Hebrews 12:1-3

This focus on Jesus’s faithfulness leads us nicely into the Hebrews passage, which tells us it was Jesus who, in the context of immense opposition, endured the cross, scorning its shame, for the sake of the joy set before him.

Surrounded by all the faith-filled people of old described in Hebrews 11, we too are to run our race with perseverance, and are to consider him who endured, so that we do not grow weary in persevering for the promise of joy.

Therefore, as Christians, we should not wish to be known primarily as “the party people”, but as the enduring, persevering people of Jesus Christ. Our primary ‘method’ is just to keep going, through good times and bad, highs and lows, celebration and tragedy. We are those who aren’t swayed or deterred by changeable and uncertain times. We keep going come what may, knowing that God’s purposes aren’t measured in uncertain days and weeks and even months, but throughout millennia.

Crucially, this ‘keep going’ is not yet another demand upon us to compete with the cries of ‘dance, dance’, ‘weep, weep’ which already surround. This is not a call to ‘keep calm and carry on’ as if that is the right middle way between jubilation and despair.

The whole point of the Hebrews passage is that Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. He is the pioneer, the beginning of all racing—the one who cleared the space, marked the route, and laid the running track. And he is the perfecter, the end of all racing—the one who ran a perfect race, who achieved the victory, and secured the ultimate prize. The one who is sat down at the right hand of God. He is the one who has done it all. He is not only our example but also our motivation, strength, and surety. We run our race to him and in him and with him and for him. Therefore, we fix our eyes upon him, not as some good example for us to try to emulate as we wearily stumble. No, we fix our eyes on him as our joy, our hope and our crown, our light and our salvation, our firm foundation, our purpose and our righteousness, our victory, already secured and known by grace, the Saviour of the world, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who sits at God’s right hand.

Amidst the inevitable siren calls of our day, to dance: ‘the virus is going away, celebrate, everything is back to normal!’ or to weep: ‘the virus is getting worse: panic, everything is lost’, or even the sensible and seemingly Christian call to ‘keep calm and carry on’, we are wisdom’s children who say: ‘Jesus Christ is Lord. Repent, rejoice, persevere—the victory is secure in him’.

Hopefully, we will again see days of parties, celebration and feasting—and, of course, we can find new ways to do this during these difficult times, but not because parties are our mission. Witnessing to Jesus is our mission. Reconciliation and salvation in him is our message. And persevering is our primary method.  Not because it depends on us, but because it has already all been done and secured by him. This is Christian joy. This is our joy and hope. He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people.  Amen. (Rev 22:20-21) 

Revd Dr Helen Collins is Tutor in Practical Theology and Director of Formation at Trinity College Bristol.

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