8 September 2019 Sermon (St Paul’s Hills Road, Cambridge)

Isaiah 43.14 – 44.5

Thus says the Lord,
your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
For your sake I will send to Babylon
and break down all the bars,
and the shouting of the Chaldeans will be turned to lamentation.
I am the Lord, your Holy One,
the Creator of Israel, your King.
Thus says the Lord,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honour me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.

Yet you did not call upon me, O Jacob;
but you have been weary of me, O Israel!
You have not brought me your sheep for burnt-offerings,
or honoured me with your sacrifices.
I have not burdened you with offerings,
or wearied you with frankincense.
You have not bought me sweet cane with money,
or satisfied me with the fat of your sacrifices.
But you have burdened me with your sins;
you have wearied me with your iniquities.

I, I am He
who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
and I will not remember your sins.
Accuse me, let us go to trial;
set forth your case, so that you may be proved right.
Your first ancestor sinned,
and your interpreters transgressed against me.
Therefore I profaned the princes of the sanctuary,
I delivered Jacob to utter destruction,
and Israel to reviling.

But now hear, O Jacob my servant,
Israel whom I have chosen!
Thus says the Lord who made you,
who formed you in the womb and will help you:
Do not fear, O Jacob my servant,
Jeshurun whom I have chosen.
For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,
and my blessing on your offspring.
They shall spring up like a green tamarisk,
like willows by flowing streams.
This one will say, ‘I am the Lord’s’,
another will be called by the name of Jacob,
yet another will write on the hand, ‘The Lord’s’,
and adopt the name of Israel.

John 5.30-47

‘I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgement is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me.

‘If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true. There is another who testifies on my behalf, and I know that his testimony to me is true. You sent messengers to John, and he testified to the truth. Not that I accept such human testimony, but I say these things so that you may be saved. He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light. But I have a testimony greater than John’s. The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf. You have never heard his voice or seen his form, and you do not have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe him whom he has sent.

‘You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. I do not accept glory from human beings. But I know that you do not have the love of God in you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; if another comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God? Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?’

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I’m really delighted to be here at St Paul’s this evening, and delighted that Michael has asked me to preach. I’m Alastair, an ordinand from Westcott House and I’ll be attached to St Paul’s until next summer.

I first moved to Cambridge 17 years ago when I was studying at Robinson College. I then worked as a lawyer in London for 11 years before multiple pangs of conscience told me I should be doing something slightly different. I had always had the idea of church ministry in the back of my mind, and I explored the idea of being a Church of England priest for several years before moving back to Cambridge two years ago to start training.

I didn’t move here on my own. I met my wife, Serena, at Robinson where we both sang in the chapel choir. We married nine and half years ago and now have two children, Sebastian who is 6 and Genevieve who is 3.

We recently got back from the Greenbelt festival, which we go to as a family every year. I’m sure many of you know it: it’s a wonderful arts and music festival held over the August bank holiday, with a strong focus on faith, social justice, and making the world better for everyone. It’s an inspiring place where you can reconnect with your faith and come away with loads of new ideas.

Jesus’s words in this evening’s reading “I can do nothing on my own” sound a little like my experience at this year’s Greenbelt. As my daughter is only 3, perhaps you can imagine. She needs to use the portaloo; I go with her. I need to use the portaloo; she insists on coming with me. I’m having a brief sit down after chasing around all morning; my daughter wants me to try my hand at knitting; I try my hand at knitting. “I can do nothing on my own.”

But Jesus in this passage from John is not talking about the difficulty of finding some peace and quiet. Jesus is responding to a criticism of his earlier behaviour.

Earlier in John chapter 5, Jesus has healed a paralysed man. The man had been ill for 38 years and lay by a pool which people believed contained healing waters. Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche community imagines this pool like a Victorian Asylum – a collection of people who had been shunned or driven out of society, utterly helpless. The paralysed man says that nobody would help him into the water. He is alone. He can do nothing.

Then Jesus turns up, sees the man, talks to him, knows of his despair and loneliness and heals him. As Jean Vanier notes, it is striking that it is an asylum, a home for the lost, where Jesus turns up, not some royal or religious centre of power.

Instead of wonder, Jesus provokes a huge controversy amongst the religious leaders. Jesus healed the man, and the man picked up his bed on the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest. Things escalate and the leaders question Jesus about his authority for doing these things, his authority for breaking the Sabbath.

Jesus’s answer is summed up in one phrase: “I can do nothing on my own.”

Jesus does not heal the man on his own, by his own power. Jesus does these things because he has been sent to do them by the one he calls his Father. It is God’s will that Jesus goes to this place of forgotten people.

“I can do nothing on my own”

These words might resonate with our own experience of God. They remind me of those wonderful words from Psalm 139.

O Lord, where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in hell, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.

“I can do nothing on my own”

At one level this is a reassurance that nowhere and nobody is beyond God. Wherever we are, God is with us: even amongst the lost and rejected of society. Perhaps especially amongst the lost and rejected of society. Simply by going there, Jesus challenges any society that hides away those it doesn’t want to see.

There is an another aspect too. John’s gospel has already described Jesus as the Son of God, the Lamb of God, the King of Israel. Jesus does things in John’s gospel that only God should do. At the very beginning of the Gospel, Jesus is described as the Word who was with God and who was God.

“I can do nothing on my own” identifies the actions of Jesus with the actions of the God of Israel. In this episode, when Jesus walks amongst the most forgotten in society, it is the action of a God who values every person, even those society has rejected.

The actions of Jesus are the actions of God. There is such a strong intimacy between Jesus and the one he calls Father that the writer of John’s gospel calls Jesus God.

But this intimacy Jesus has is not one we share. There are times when even those beautiful words from Psalm 139 can seem hollow. We may be going through a living hell and feel no presence of God at all. We may be having the time of our lives – ascending metaphorically into heaven – yet have no sense of the divine.

The psalms speak of this as well. From Psalm 88:

But I, O Lord, cry out to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O Lord, why do you cast me off?
Why do you hide your face from me?

The awareness Jesus had of the closeness of His bond with His Father is simply not our everyday experience. And leaving religion aside, whether we are alone or in company, loneliness is something we all experience. Not just the loneliness of being on our own, but feeling a lack of meaningful connection even if we’re in a crowd. We try to forget ourselves, we hide ourselves away.

“I can do nothing on my own” in that context sounds more like a cry of despair or prayer for help.

How do we deal with this? With our doubts about God, ourselves and others? When we feel quite alone even in the company of others, the company of friends even. Days when God seems neither for us, nor against us, but just…”where are you?”

There was a day when Jesus felt that too. Not very obviously in John’s gospel but in Mark, yes. Being led to his death, one friend betraying him, the others deserting him, tortured and nailed to the cross, that cry of desolation from Psalm 22 “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” “I can do nothing on my own”

Can we hold together a Jesus forsaken by God, and a Jesus who could do nothing on his own without God, a Jesus who WAS God? Even when it appears God has forsaken Jesus, is God still at work in Him?

Can we hold those thoughts together when we think about ourselves? Even when we feel that God is distant from us, when we feel God is nowhere, is God there for us? The paralysed man in John is in the pits of despair, festering away by that pool for years and years, yet finds himself face-to-face with God Incarnate.

But there are days when we just can’t see it. There are days when perhaps we don’t know it about ourselves, but others can see it or we can see it in others.

On days when I doubt God, myself and pretty much everything else I take comfort from those around me – my wife, my son, my daughter who likes seeing me knit and who won’t let me go to the portaloo without coming in with me. I thank God for those who pray for me. I think of my dear, departed grandmother, in her final bed-bound months still praying for me and my family every day. I think by that point she knew she could do nothing on her own, could do nothing without those around her, could do nothing without God.

On difficult days I thank God for the church as well. The communities of people who keep praying and encouraging when their members and those in the wider community are finding things hard or impossible.

The church communities who gather round a pool in baptism and round a table in holy communion. Whether we’ve never come to that table before, or have been coming for 38 years or more, we all come in need of healing – saving from our spiritual blindness, our spiritual paralysis, our loneliness, our godforsakenness.

We can do nothing on our own, and so Jesus meets us. Somehow in the communion meal that we will share together – the meal Jesus left us – Jesus meets us. Jesus who could do nothing without the one he called Father meets us and invites us to eat and drink, to join the heavenly banquet won for us out of His death and rising to new life.

However we feel – ascending to heaven, or making our bed in hell – however we feel about ourselves or about God, the church still gathers at the table. In our blindness, our paralysis, our loneliness, our godforsakenness, we gather together as the Body of Christ and receive the Body of Christ.

Amen.