Sermon by The Reverend Trevor Jamison at St Columba’s United Reformed Church, 19th May 2019, at the conclusion of Christian Aid Week
All we want to do is totally change the world.
So, when you came to church today did you really mean to say something so radical?
Did you notice that you had done so?
Let’s be clear, this isn’t a sermon just for the person sitting next to you or near to you, it’s for you. That’s because you’ve been making radical statements again, just like you did last time you were here, and perhaps will do next time as well. Just in case you missed it, either though momentary inattention, or because habit seduced you into forgetting what you were doing, let me quote your own words back to you: “thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”
“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”? What on earth, what in heaven’s name, were you thinking of in saying something like that? It makes you sound as though you want to change the world. You can’t get much more radical than that, unless, of course, you didn’t really mean it!
“Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” Perhaps it’s a revelation to you that you are a radical. If so, consider another revelation, The Revelation to Saint John, the book that rounds not only the New Testament but the whole bible. There, in its last-but-one chapter, you get a glimpse of God’s will done on earth as it is in the heaven; the very thing you said; that for which we prayed today.
‘Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’’ (21:1-4)
In John’s vision, both heaven and earth are renewed – ‘I saw a new heaven and a new earth’. The new city, the place where God’s will is done, appears on earth – ‘I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.’ So, yes, as John puts it, ‘the home of God is among mortals.’
And it’s not just that in this vision that God is present with his peoples, but also that God’s will is being done on earth. This new situation leads to a new existence for everyone and for everything in the world: God, we are told, ‘will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’ Well, a world where you get rid of death, mourning, crying and pain – you can’t get more radical than that, and that is what you ask for every time you say, ‘thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ Be carful what you ask for, yes?
Now, you might think, or you could say something like, “well, that’s a vision in the Book of Revelation. That’s a picture of how the world will be at the end of all things as we know it. It doesn’t really apply in the here and now.” Well, that’s a point of view, and it’s a tempting one. After all, since you and I live rich, comfortable lives in comparison to the majority of the world’s population, we are likely to be fairly happy to carry on with life as it is in the here and now, imperfect though it may be. We can put our feet up and let events take their course, confident that God will sort things out long after you and I are gone from this world. All this stuff about God’s will being done earth as it is in heaven? It’s aspirational language surely, not to be taken too seriously.
Except, God wants us to think beyond ourselves and so think about the rest of the world today, not just put it all off until tomorrow. And Jesus clearly expects us to get on with doing God’s will in the here and now, not find excuses for inaction. And if you want evidence for that then consider today’s other today Bible readings, from the psalms and from the Gospel of John, where praising God and loving others is for today, not just for tomorrow.
‘Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights!’ (148:1) That’s how psalm 148 begins and that’s how it continues. But this call to praise is not limited to the heavens and the heights. It’s the call to all places and all creatures within the whole creation, including this earth: Praise God, sun and moon … all you shining stars … praise him … highest heavens … you waters above the heavens … praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps … fire, hail, snow, frost, stormy wind … praise God, all mountains, hills, fruit trees and cedars … wild animals, cattle, creeping things and flying birds. Praise God, you humankind – kings of the earth and all peoples, young and old. ‘Let them [all] praise the name of the Lord for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven.’ (148:13)
Worship and praise of God here and now is not something to be put off until the end of time; it’s part of God’s will here on earth now. And praise for God is not something that’s only the preserve us human beings. The whole of creation, in all its variety, being and wonder, witnesses to the greatness of God; everything from the vastness of sun, moon and stars to the colour and detail of a humble flower; and here I’ll just put in personal word on behalf of tulips – one of my favourites – in their shape, their colour, their movement, their combination of simplicity and intricacy. It’s God’s will to be worshipped here on earth, by all the earth. Grasp that, and you will see the rest of this world in a new and radical light – as fellow worshippers.
Of course, sun, moon and stars, high mountains and deep oceans don’t say it in words. Sea creatures, wild animals and birds in flight do communicate, but whether they consciously attempt to do so with the Almighty, that’s another matter. It’s we human beings who speculate, ponder about, then articulate of our understanding of the divine, of our creator. We put it in writing, we say it, or we sing it, like we do with the psalms. We craft some of it into the form of prayers like the one that includes, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This intellectual giftedness, this ability to put our thoughts into words, is part of what makes us stand out on earth; part of the special glory of being a human being.
But let’s not be fooled into thinking that our words alone suffice for doing God’s will here on earth. In fact, here, the rest of creation teaches us a vital lesson. Their praise of God comes through being and acting, so it’s very likely that our doing God’s will here on earth also involves being and acting, not just our thoughts and words, wonderful though these may be.
And in this part of John’s Gospel, Jesus is preparing his disciples for his departure; getting them ready for the time when they will have responsibility for doing God’s will here on earth. For the moment, he tells them, he is going somewhere that they cannot come (13:33), so he instructs them to do something: ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (13:34-35) Here, doing God’s will on earth is characterised by loving one another, and although loving includes feelings, thoughts and words it can’t be limited to that – it includes actions.
So, that got me wondering about Christian Aid Week. Some people criticise Christian Aid, and organisations like it, for being too radical; all this talk of forgiving international loans so that, for example, the people of Sierra Leonne can spend more of their limited amount of money on health care, rather than on servicing debts. Or why on earth is a charity like Christian Aid charity banging on all the time about political issues, such as responding to climate change? Are they just a bunch of radicals? Yes, and so they should be, if by their words and actions they are determined to see God’s will done here on earth as it is in heaven.
It seems to me that Christian Aid Week, both in itself and in the sort of attitudes and actions it encourages, is radical, in the good sense of working to make God’s will a reality here on earth as it is in heaven; and to do so in the here and now, not to put it off to some point in the future when I will no longer be around to have my precious lifestyle inconvenienced by it. It ticks the boxes as far as all three of today’s Bible readings are concerned.
In Sierra Leonne and in other places it is about improved health care that wipes away the tears that come with needless infant deaths, that produce so much mourning, crying and pain. In engaging with world issues on a world level it encourages us to see ourselves as acting in solidarity with the whole of God’s world – the whole of God’s world which, as the psalm says, by its very being praises God, and cries out to God when it is misused. It is an exercise in loving the other person in practical ways; love of other, Jesus saying, being the way that the world will know that we are his disciples; the ones who are trying to make God’s will a reality here on earth as it is in heaven.
So to everyone who posted a Christian Aid envelope through a door, or who rang the bell to ask for it to be returned with a donation; everyone who made, bought, drank and ate at Christian Aid coffee mornings; everyone who popped some cash into one of their envelopes, I say to you, “what a bunch of radical you are!” Did you realise? Did you realise, when you prayed the Lord’s Prayer today? Did you realise? Did you realise that you are a radical? For only radicals would pray and work for a world where God’s will is done in the same way that is done in heaven; where death, mourning, pain and tears are no more; where all the earth is free to glorify God; where people follow Jesus’s command to love one another.
Yes, God, we pray, give us the desire and strength to be thoroughly radical in your world today. Amen.