Fourth before Lent – Rev’d Christopher Miles

Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow 10 a. m. Sunday 10th February 2019Fourth Sunday before Lent

Isaiah 6 vv 1 – 8    The call and commission of Isaiah

Luke 5 vv 1 – 11   The miraculous catch of fish and the call of the early disciples

1.      Introduction.         Last Sunday we completed the season of Epiphany with the presentation of Christ in the temple, a season for reflecting on some of the more significant events which revealed to both Jew and Gentile the divine nature of Jesus as the Messiah.   We follow this up today, on the 4th Sunday before Lent, to consider our response to Epiphany, to those revelations.   How do we respond to Jesus?  What is his call to you and me?   We see in our readings today both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament people responding to God’s call.  We heard the dramatic account of the call of that great prophet of the period of the Old Covenant, Isaiah as he prayed in the temple, with seraphs flying around and praising God.  At the sound of their voices the doorposts and the threshold shook.  Isaiah then hears the voice of God himself, “Whom shall I send and who will go for us.” Then his response, “Here am I.   Send me”.    We heard in the gospel reading the account of the miraculous catch of fish on the Sea of Galilee.   Simon Peter’s initial response is similar to that of Isaiah.  Both were aware of their own unworthiness.   Peter says “Depart from me O Lord, for I am a sinful man and but then the response of all three fishermen, Peter, James and John in leaving all to follow Jesus.   My sermon this morning is going to be rather different to usual.   I thought it might be helpful to include quite a large junk of personal testimony of God’s call and my response at different stages of what now is quite a long life.   This is not to say that this should be a pattern for everyone or even anyone else.  Rather I hope it might be an encouragement for each of us to be alert and responsive to God’s call.

         Sometimes, perhaps in years gone by, one would look at a clergyman in his clerical dress and somehow imagine that he had always been a clergyman.   100 years ago probably the majority of clergy went to university and or theological college almost straight from school and they were ordained in their early twentys.   That is uncommon these days.   Most of us have been in secular employment perhaps for many years, seeking to follow Jesus in that employment.

2.      My commitment to Jesus.         Nearly 65 years ago, on 19th May 1954, soon after joining the RAF, I went in a coach load of RAF officer cadets to a Billy Graham Crusade meeting at Haringey.  At the end of his sermon Dr Graham made an appeal that anyone who wished to commit his or her life to Christ to ‘get up out of your seat and come to the front.’  I remember having in my mind a picture of a fence on which I was sitting.  The devil was behind me bidding me at least to stay sitting on the fence, whilst God in front of me was calling me to go forward.   There was a perfect equilibrium.   I was able to make the decision of my own free will to get off the fence, out of my seat to go to the front to make that commitment to Christ.   Five out of the coach load of 30 or so went forward.   Billy Graham’s challenge affected us all.  Some of us met together for a short informal time of prayer each day. Of the 16 of us in one accommodation building, everyone at some time joined at least one of those times of prayer.   There were critics at the time who said that the whole Billy Graham crusade event was an emotional response that would soon pass.   Looking around years later, I know of those officer cadets who were at RAF Henlow in 1954, some who became ordained ministers, others lay ministers, others churchwardens and active church members.   For me it was certainly the beginning of conscious serving the Lord.

In September 1954, I went to Cambridge to read engineering.   I joined the University Christian Union as well as attending our college chapel.  In the summer of 1956 I took part in a mission based in Tonbridge.  I was a member of the team in Bidborough Church, lead by The Rev Kenneth Prior.  The Vicar then and for many years after was The Rev Fred Skinner, recently returned from China after the expulsion of all western Christian missionaries.   After I had given a talk at a children’s service Ken Prior said to me “You ought to think about becoming a Reader.”   I felt that this was right, a call from God to further service and so it was that in July 1962, whilst stationed at RAF Marham in W Norfolk, I was admitted as a Reader in Ely Cathedral.   After a year in Ely Diocese during which I preached and conducted services in our RAF Station Chapel and in the churches of some of the nearby villages I went to what was then the College of Aeronautics at Cranfield in Bedfordshire and in St Alban’s Diocese to do a 2-year course in flight control.  I regularly preached and quite often conducted services at Cranfield Parish Church. 

From 1965 to 68 I served at the Ministry of Defence in London and lived firstly in Petts Wood with my Mother for two years, then after marrying Julia, we lived in Chislehurst for 1 year.   During those 3 years as a Reader my ministry was at Christ Church Chislehurst.   I remember one Sunday after I had been preaching, someone said to me, “Christopher, have you thought about being ordained?”   My reply was to the effect that being a Reader is not the half way house to being ordained.   I jealously guarded my amateur status.  I was not paid to preach the gospel.

         From the Ministry of Defence I was posted to RAF Muharraq in Bahrein, where Julia and our elder son Philip, as a baby, were able to join me.   We worshipped and I preached initially, at the RAF Church at Muharraq but also later on I conducted services at St Christopher’s Church, the Anglican Church in Manama, the capital of Bahrein.   I know that I had a vague feeling that I was pursing two paths, two commitments.   Firstly as an engineer in an interesting and demanding job as the Officer Commanding the Electrical Engineering Squadron.  Secondly as a Reader.   It was on Easter Day 1970, after I had been assisting our RAF Chaplain with our service, that the Chaplain’s wife said to me “Christopher have you thought about being ordained?”   That time I felt a strong inner conviction that this was ‘of the Lord’, that the Holy Spirit was speaking to me.    I was quite apprehensive about sharing this conviction with Julia.  She had married an RAF Officer and now, after only 3 years of marriage, he wanted to be a Vicar!    So it was after completing my tour in Bahrein and one more tour, 4 years on the staff of the Engineering Department of the RAF College at Cranwell in Lincolnshire, that I left the RAF in 1974 and began my training at theological college, Wycliffe Hall in Oxford.

3.      General.      I want to emphasise that I have related my own experience not to say this is how God’s call comes.  We are all individuals and God treats us as such.  He has his own purposes for us but respects our free will.   I have spoken of my own experience just to say, “Be alert”, “Be responsive”, “Be open to the unexpected”.   I also want to make one other general point through some brief quotes from an article in a recent copy of the Church Times about a woman who came to the priesthood of the Church of England through much pain and suffering.   Towards the end of her curacy in 2016, she received a diagnosis of terminal cancer.   How was she to exercise her ministry during a time of progressive weakness?   As she says, “If priesthood has an element of ‘being’ as well as ‘doing’ then there is inevitably scope for continuing her role as priest, albeit with boundaries to restrict activity.   In the article, written by this lady, he Rev Wendy Bray, she says “For now, I can still celebrate the eucharist, pray, listen, preach, encourage – and arrange chairs”   A brave and thoughtful person continuing to follow God’s call.   As God said to St Paul after his prayer to be healed had not been answered in the way that he had hoped, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect (complete) in your weakness”.   Our weakness is not a hindrance to God’s call.   He will use us perhaps all the more because of our weakness because we are more aware of our need to depend on God and also we can identify more closely with those of similar experience.   The person who has been through times of mental illness, through depression or whatever can understand better the concerns of other people who are currently going through such difficulties, whilst bringing something of the Christian hope and prayerful support to the situation.  As we prayed in the prayer in which Paul led us near the beginning of the service, that God would work through the weakness of our humanity.

I finish with the collect for the Fifth Sunday before Lent, which we didn’t use last Sunday, because we were celebrating the presentation of Christ in the temple:

Almighty God, by whose grace alone we are accepted and called to your service:

Strengthen us by your Holy Spirit and make us worthy of our calling,

Through Jesus Christ our Lord.

1672 words                                                                                                        Christopher Miles