Faith and worship

The Lord is everything to me. He is the strength of my heart and the light of my intellect. He inclines my heart to everything good; He strengthens it; He also gives me good thoughts; He is my rest and my joy; He is my faith hope and love.

St. John of Kronstadt

Recent sermon


Sunday 29th August 2021

There is a story in the middle East of a simple man who went to the imperial city, leaving his village. He returned later and many of the villagers asked him who he had met. He said “I have met the king on the king’s highway outside the city with his chariot and courtiers, and the king spoke to me”. The villagers asked “and what did he say to you?” He said “Get out of the way!”

This story may make us smile, but what is interesting is that he is not offended by what is said to him, but rather is impressed by the fact that he had seen and heard the king. Many have met Our Saviour the Lord Jesus; they are not offended by what He commands them to do, for they are happy to have met Him and will give their lives to Him. Likewise in today’s Epistle (1 Corinthians 4:9-13) Saint Paul writes: 

For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonoured! To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless. And we labour, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now.

Saint John the Baptist, who we commemorate today, is similar to the simple man, the fools for Christ and the martyrs. For they are not offended by the Lord’s words. They are joyful in that they have encountered the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. However, the World is very much offended. Some people may find His words jarring or upsetting, while others experience only the power of the Holy Integrity of His Love, no matter how painful the truths are that He speaks.

In the Gospel of Saint John, we hear about arguments regarding purification between John’s disciples and the Jews. They speak with John about their concern that Jesus’ disciples are baptising and that “all are coming to Him”, (3:25) that is, the one whom John had declared and affirmed. John replies and exalts Christ (John 3:27-33):

John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent before Him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore, this joy of mine is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease. He who comes from above is above all; he who is of the earth is earthly and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all. And what He has seen and heard, that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony. He who has received His testimony has certified that God is true.”

We see how Saint John is prepared for this. John is not nonplussed, he is ready, comforted and prepared. He surely remembers Isaiah’s prophecy when he declares (Isaiah 40:1-11):

 “Comfort, yes, comfort My people!”
Says your God.
“Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her,
That her warfare is ended,
That her iniquity is pardoned;
For she has received from the Lord’s hand
Double for all her sins.”
The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord;
Make straight in the desert
A highway for our God.
Every valley shall be exalted
And every mountain and hill brought low;
The crooked places shall be made straight
And the rough places smooth;
The glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
And all flesh shall see it together;
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
The voice said, “Cry out!”
And he said, “What shall I cry
“All flesh is grass,
And all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
Because the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever.”
O Zion,
You who bring good tidings,
Get up into the high mountain;
O Jerusalem,
You who bring good tidings,
Lift up your voice with strength,
Lift it up, be not afraid;
Say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!”
Behold, the Lord God shall come with a strong hand,
And His arm shall rule for Him;
Behold, His reward is with Him,
And His work before Him.
He will feed His flock like a shepherd;
He will gather the lambs with His arm,
And carry them in His bosom,
And gently lead those who are with young."

It can be a temptation at times to treat such prophecies as beautiful poetry, or perhaps treat such prophecies or any words of scripture with “O yes I have read or heard this before.” If we do so, we are not listening to the Creator and Master, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Indeed, we are acting with contempt.

John the Baptist was waiting. He was preparing the way. He knew that the Messiah had come. He realised that preparation meant waiting and working.

God is the One who is preparing the way, making straight in the desert a highway for our God. Making every valley to be raised up, every mountain and hill to be brought low; making the crooked places to be made straight, and smoothing out the rough places. We are as grass, but the word of the Lord endures forever.

We have seen in our own lives God’s work in us and others. In a more homely metaphor, when we paint and decorate our houses, the most important work is scouring and rubbing down the wood and paint, filling in the hollows and straightening all sorts of glitches that have come about. The Lord does this with us and others whom we have known over the years. It is a painful but necessary process. Yes, the Lord God does come with strength, and He rules over all. He comes with gifts and blessings. But most encouraging is that He will feed His flock like a shepherd; gathering the lambs, his disciples, in his arms with great gentleness, wisdom and compassion. Truly we can be comforted and made strong with Our Saviour’s joy. Preparation is all.

Saint Paul in Ephesians (5:26-27) wrote, in speaking of the church, 

 ...that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.

In the world royalty or celebrities are well protected. However, Our Saviour the Lord Jesus, although He is the King of King and Lord of Lords, comes to each soul, each day in His Providence if we but awaken to His presence. Our preparation prayers before Holy communion can awaken us, as can other prayers, so that we may sanctified, purified, tuned into His presence and allow His rulership to lead and guide us.

The simple man in the story I began with encountered a potentate who had no truck with the poor man in the road. Unlike that King, the Lord came - and comes - as a servant, with great humility and gentleness. He does not cry GET OUT OF THE WAY!

Rather he invites us to follow Him, and by tuning into His gentle presence we can decrease that He may increase so that we may enter into His way.

May God grant us this paradoxical blessing!