A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, 3rd April 2022
It won’t have escaped your notice that there’s some building work going on the middle of North Shields. Northumberland Square has new paving, and the garden is being returned to a previous layout. Howard Street is being pedestrianized. The Exchange Buildings are enveloped in scaffolding. The building site on Norfolk Street, when it ceases to be the storage site for the work on the Exchange, will sprout new housing. Meanwhile the former Co-Op building on Bedford Street will soon disappear, making way for a bus hub. And the plan is to link all of this to Fish Quay with a pedestrian walkway.
Millions are being poured into this project to renew and reinvigorate the town centre. Those who have complained that North Tyneside Council neglected North Shields in favour of other places – Whitley Bay! – must be happy now. Except not all of them are. Websites and local Facebook pages abound with negative comments; about the loss of some trees in the square; about the closure of the Co-Op, emblematic of the loss of many of the shops which once made North Shields a significant retail destination.
Many of the complaints share some characteristics. The complainants feel that things were better in the past, and are distressed by the status quo, but resist changes that might make things better, because that would involve further letting go of the past. Some people say that church congregations are prone to such an outlook. I couldn’t possibly comment …
Just to be clear, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the past. I graduated with a history degree forty years ago and I’m still reading history books. I’ve just finished one charting the history of Ireland from, 1958, the year of the author’s birth, one year before mine, until the present day. At different times I was laughing aloud or holding my head in my hands (not easy to do when you are reading a book) as I recognised and remembered events he described and analysed.
So, I say, enjoy the past, but don’t try to stay there. Today’s Bible readings suggest a better perspective; God has done wonderful things in the past that should not distract us from focusing on the present and the future.
God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, says this in a roundabout way. First we get a reminder of God’s acts in the past; manipulating the waters of the Red Sea, destroying the armies of the Pharoah: ‘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.’ (43:16, 17) Then, having been invited to recall the past, we’re immediately instructed to forget the past! ‘ Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old..’ (43:17)
Why not remember the former things? Because, says God, ‘I am about to do a new thing.’ (43:19) For the original readers and hearers of Isaiah the ‘new thing’ was to end Israelite exile in Babylon. The God who had brought Israel across the Red Sea out of Egypt, now was setting out rivers in the desert; water for God’s people to sustain them on their journey back home from Babylon. People needed to focus on the here and now of that journey; needed to focus on their future; needed not to spend too much time remembering the former things.
Then there’s Saint Paul, writing his letter to the Christian congregation in the Greek town of Philippi. He warns against getting too attached to the past. Some folk were suggesting that you had to become a Jew before you could become a Christian; observing the traditions and regulations of the Jewish faith. Paul will have none of it, but not because he lacks an interest in the past.
He says that if anyone has the right to boast about their Jewish heritage he’s the one: ‘circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee.’ (3:4-5) You couldn’t get more Jewish than that. Paul was fully immersed in the historical Jewish faith, looking back to stories of creation, children of Abraham, exodus from Egypt, prophets and kings, return from Babylonian exile – the lot. Just like Jesus, Paul was and remained a Jew; part of an ongoing story with a rich past.
All of this rich tradition of faith had to be lived out in the here and now. A living faith would have an eye for the past, but focus upon the present day and future. The prophet Isaiah drew attention to God doing a new thing. The Apostle Paul, with characteristic boldness, put it this way: ‘yet whatever gains I had [from being part of this rich tradition], these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as lord.’ (3:7-8)
Paul interpreted his past through his experience of knowing Jesus in the here and now, just as Isaiah called upon the Jewish people to understand their past in the light of the new thing that God was about to do. That seems to me to be a healthy way for Christians, for church folk, to view the world and live within it – let’s appreciate our past, but focus on today and upon the future. Take Good Friday as an example. I’m fascinated by this tradition of walks of witness in North Shields, and why they attracted such large numbers. And to go further back into the past, they wouldn’t make much sense if they forgot about the original historical Good Friday, with the suffering, crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ.
What we witness to on Good Friday, however, is not just the event at Golgotha, not just to our tradition of such acts of witness in recent years, but to what these things mean to us in the here and now and for our future. To quote Paul once again: ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain to the resurrection of the dead.’ (3:10-11) So, think not just about the past, but press on, ‘straining forward’, says Paul (3:13), ‘for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.’ (3:14) Yes, we’re people with a past, but we need to keep our eyes focused on the present and look to the future.