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30th April 2023

It is Not Finished

Passage: Isaiah 55;6-11


It was December, a few years ago; I was standing outside a front door not far from here, looking thoughtfully at the notice beside it. It read “no junk mail, no circulars, no cold callers and no God-botherers.” I was delivering our church Christmas cards; invitations to our Christmas services. I stood there, a card in my hand, wondering, “shall I, shan’t it? Should I? Shouldn’t I?” Then it occurred to me that it is not I who ‘bothers God.” It is God who bothers me. I put the card through the door.

A few weeks ago, I had my “exit interview” with our Moderator and one of the questions she asked was, “what has given you excitement in your profession?” My answer was, those things which I, personally, have not engineered. Like meetings with a difficult issue on the agenda, that I had no idea how to move forward but during a meeting together, we came up with a solution. Like the pastoral crises I have driven to, wondering what on earth I am going to say; coming away not really aware of what I had said but hearing later that I had said exactly the right thing. Like new people turning up at church for a wider variety of reasons than the best advertising campaign could cover. Like the right person for the right job being the last person I had thought of. Like the sermons most Ministers know about- not that good; you are not very pleased with them, but someone tells you afterwards that they heard the voice of God speaking to them then.

Things like this send shivers down your spine and convince you that, even if you are having a bad day, you are, after all, in the right job. The reading from Isaiah about the living word of God doing what God intends, with, without or despite us, was chosen for my ordination service by the preacher: The Revd Professor Buick Knox and I can see now exactly why he chose it. Christian ministry is about something far greater than me.

I did have some sympathy with those people who wanted “God-botherers” to go away. Religion is widely rejected now because it comes across as unscientific, irrational and causing more trouble than it solves.
And, despite hearing it constantly as a child, I also have to say that I never managed to get my head or my heart round what is known as the doctrine of atonement: that God, being holy, cannot have any contact with sinful humanity, unless a blood sacrifice is made to appease him. Without the brutal crucifixion of Jesus Christ, God would remain eternally alienated from us. If this is “religion,” I can see why people don’t like it.

I have tried many times to “unpack” this doctrine and decided to have one last go today. No-one denies that there is evil in the world, which causes suffering. No-one denies that everyone to a greater or lesser extent, does wrong, contributing to suffering. No-one denies that the world in which we live is complex and that most of our knowledge has come the hard way. OK. But, if that is “it,” the story of life in a nutshell, we are living Greek or Shakespearean tragedy in which just about everyone ends up mad or dead because of malevolent forces which are beyond their control. And that is not good news. It means despair, which leads to more pain, which leads to yet more evil.

Surely then, we need redemption. We need to hope that evil may be overcome by goodness; suffering by healing; ignorance by wisdom. We need to forgive, because so long as we harbour grudges against the pain in our lives and in our world, there can be no healing and no peace. We see people striving to create goodness, healing and understanding in the face of the most appalling evil. And we also see just how great a struggle it is, to let go of your own pain and to maintain hope in the face of the most persistent wrongdoing.
Which is why, when I see Jesus Christ, suffering the full extent of evil, yet losing none of his power to love, to heal, to forgive, I find a God who gives me reason to hope because redemption is not just about me.

“Seek the Lord while he may be found, “cried Isaiah. Stop, look, listen for the power which is greater than ours. “Let the wicked forsake their ways and God will freely pardon.” The power of God, Isaiah says, can turn lives around; it can transform deserts into fertile lands; war-torn empires into places of peace; hopeless lives into love and laughter. God’s power of forgiveness and redemption is set into the very foundations of life, so do not give up.

But the people to whom Isaiah was speaking had their own agenda. Their vision was for a political empire in which they would be at the top. All other nations were seen as the enemy to be ground underfoot. There was no place for forgiveness or redemption. They were set on a one-way track of wars and prejudice, hatred and suffering.
In the same way, once Christianity gained the political upper-hand in the Roman Empire, religion became a series of power struggles, so-called “holy wars,” proclaiming the divine right to exterminate anyone seen as outside the faith, claiming a monopoly on “redemption,” as in deciding who would go to heaven and who to hell. The church I grew up in spent a lot of time making their little lists of who would go where. Once again you are talking a one-way track of hatred and division, fear and oppression, and a God no-one wants to know.

When John the Baptist prepared people for the coming of Jesus, he cried, “repent” which means turn your lives around. Turn your eyes away from your own agenda and your own strength and look at God for a moment. Picture a world, a life, a faith in which everyone believes in a power of redemption: what difference might that make to you, your family, your work, your neighbourhood, our nation? Jesus Christ, John promised, will be that power. No matter what the forces of evil, hatred, pain and ignorance, he will be greater because he is the full reality of God in a human life. If it means giving his lifeblood to save the world, he will give it because his holiness is the holiness of unfailing love.

Later in the service, we shall hear a wonderful piece of music recorded in the great Town Church of Dresden. The church was blown to pieces during World War Two and I was privileged to visit Dresden during the late nineteen nineties when they had started gathering the fragments together in the hope of rebuilding. It looked impossible to me. But in 2007 I had an even greater privilege of entering that church, restored to its full glory. It was an awesome experience, because both the Dresden church and our own Coventry Cathedral had been transformed in spirit. They now embody a spirit of penitence- Father, forgive. We have all hurt, killed and destroyed. And they now embody a spirit of hope and redemption. We trust in you, Father, to make us peacemakers.
The music is the Sanctus by Gounod: holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna- save us now.
The holiness of God does not mean alienation from us but reconciliation. Because God-as we see in Jesus- has a power of love, of forgiveness, of empowerment greater than anything we can imagine, and, as we turn to look at this God, so we see a world filled with his glory and pray in hope “Hosanna. Save US now.” Because you can.

As I look back on my Christian faith and ministry, it was not I who bothered God but God who bothered me. It was not I who decided to walk with God but God who decided to walk with me and who kept walking with me, no matter how many wrong turnings I took; it was God who gave shape, purpose and yes, excitement, to my life. Like Peter, I was given a ministry of feeding and caring for God’s people, which, inevitably, has never been as good as I would have liked it to be, but, at the end of the day, it is not just about me. My ministry was to create opportunities for people to meet God for themselves and allow God to do the rest. You cannot know everything, Jesus said to Peter, nor can you live other people’s lives for them. You just follow me-that is all.
In that simple command I find both my own limitations and my potential. My prayer for this church and for every one of you is that you too will in find in Jesus both the grace to accept your limitations and the freedom of redemption to realise your potential as people of God.

To finish, I have long felt that this little poem by Geoffrey Studdert- Kennedy sums up the way I feel about my life, my faith and my ministry. It is called “It is not Finished.”


IT is not finished, Lord. There is not one thing done,
There is no battle of my life, that I have really won.
And now I come to tell Thee how I fought to fail,
My human, all too human, tale of weakness and futility.
And yet there is a faith in me, that Thou wilt find in it
One word that Thou canst take and make
The centre of a sentence in Thy book of poetry.
I cannot read this writing of the years, my eyes are full of tears,
It gets all blurred, and won't make sense. It's full of contradictions
Like the scribblings of a child,
Such wild, wild hopes, and longing as intense
As pain, which trivial deeds make folly of--or worse:
I can but hand it in, and hope that Thy great mind, which reads
The writings of so many lives, will understand this scrawl
And what it strives to say--but leaves unsaid.
I cannot write it over. The stars are coming out, my body needs its bed.
I have no strength for more, So it must stand or fall--Dear Lord--
That's all.