Sermon at St Mary Hadlow – God’s salvation in difficult circumstances – 28th December 2014
I Corinthians 1 vv 26 – 29 – God uses the ‘foolish’ and weak to shame the strong
Matthew 2 verses 13 – 18 – The flight into Egypt
Text: “God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” 2 Timothy 1 verse 7. (p 227 of Church Bibles). My prayer is that God will give us give us some encouragement from this verse.
- Introduction. The medieval Church made sure that ordinary people had a good Christmas break by inserting 3 major holy days immediately following Christmas, albeit if we follow the Church calendar we come down from the glad celebrations of Christmas with a huge bump. Firstly on 26th December the commemoration of the first Christian Martyr, Stephen the Deacon, eased then on 27th December by the celebration of the beloved Apostle John, albeit he finished his long life, exiled to the island of Patmos, and then on 28th December that awful event in the very early childhood of Jesus of the slaughter of the innocents, the account of which was our Gospel reading this morning. I plan to look at this event in the setting of my text from the Apostle Paul’s second letter to his young assistant minister, Timothy.
- Fear Firstly Paul writes to Timothy that God has not given us a spirit of fear. I am sure that the mothers of Bethlehem would have been filled with fear as they realised what was happening. Such events are not without their parallels today when mentally disturbed young men in the United States go into schools and shoot pupils either targetedly or indiscriminately and of course earlier this month when the Taliban went into the Peshawar Army Public School shooting and killing 132 children and 9 members of staff. King Herod’s action measured by any civilised standard, was an outrageous action, motivated by fear, fear for his own position as he found his position as King of the Jews threatened by another. What was he worried about? He died but 2 or 3 years later whilst Jesus was no more than a very young child. Perhaps though to put a slightly more disinterested slant on it he was concerned for the future of his sons. We saw recently in the event in Peshawar not only fear but a wonderful spirit of sacrifice as some of the teachers who died, did so seeking to protect their pupils. In the more ordinary circumstances of life God does not want us to live negatively in a spirit of fear, always fearing the worst. What is though the ‘worst’? Often people think of death as the worst that can happen. Personally I think serious illness can be worse. If we truly believe in a wonderful future beyond death why fear death? Especially as we get older we should not fear it. The young don’t; they think that they are indestructible.
- Power. Paul immediately goes from his one negative characteristic to three positive characteristics of the Christian. The first of these is power. The Greek word is dunamis, from which we get such words as dynamite and dynamo, the latter producing electrical power. As an electrical engineer I like that. Paul’s bold ministry was one which demonstrated the power of God, in bring people to faith in Christ, in healing and in encouraging the young churches he had founded. He bids Timothy to stir up the gift that he has, that he may do likewise. Paul knows that his own ministry had brought severe opposition at times and it will do likewise for Timothy. But he knows that God’s power has enabled him to overcome fear. Returning to the incident of the slaughter of the young children in and around Bethlehem we find of course that it was Herod who was thwarted, his plan was completely ineffective, because the infant Jesus was no longer in Bethlehem. God had warned Joseph to take Jesus and Mary and flee to Egypt. A difficult decision. Mary and Joseph had come to Bethlehem for the requirements of the Roman census and were looking forward to returning to Nazareth. One sees the very real faith and obedience to God of Joseph, as that very night he wakes Mary, packs a few things, including probably some carpentry tools so that he could carry on his trade, and then the family set off for Egypt. God also uses the ending of this period of refuge in Egypt to identify Jesus, the New Testament Saviour, with the great Old Testament act of salvation, the Exodus, when 1500 years before, the emerging nation of Israel, through many miraculous happenings, left Egypt for the Promised Land. Matthew sees it in these terms as he quotes from the Old Testament prophet Hosea, “Out of Egypt have I called my Son” (11 v 1).
- Love. Paul immediately goes on to complement power with ‘love’ , using the Greek word ‘Agape’ which through the New Testament and especially in Jesus himself, has acquired its own particular aspect, that of a self-sacrificial love, a love that puts itself out for other people, rather than a love of self. Power without love is a dangerous thing. One sees it especially in despotic rulers like King Herod, Like the Zimbabwean President, Robert Magabe, like the North Korean President Kim Jong-un. All leaders have to make tough decisions. How do they combine power and love? In principle by making decisions that are for the benefit of their people not just for themselves, to keep themselves in power, nor just for their own self aggrandisement. At a more ordinary level one, regrettably even as pastors of churches, church leaders can exercise power without love, become a controlling rather than a liberating force. Perhaps the temptation is there particularly in the very large churches. For all of us in everyday life there is this challenge to combine power and love.
- Sound Mind. I believe Paul’s third characteristic, that of a sound mind, is the one that reconciles power and love. The Greek word literally means saving of the mind. It is translated in various ways to try to bring out the meaning of the Greek word. Sometimes, as in the Church Bibles, the New Revised Standard Version, it is translated as self discipline. All three positive characteristics are God-given. A sound mind that has experienced God’s salvation is the basis of self discipline, of the avoidance of decisions which place one’s own welfare above that of other people. That is not to neglect one’s own welfare but rather to have a balanced judgement. One sees in the extreme situations to which I have already referred, of King Herod, other national leaders and the Taliban, how the wrong exercise of authority and power distorts judgement; one wonders how people can take such drastic and awful actions. The development of our relationship with the living God through prayer, through worship, through study of the Scriptures and putting the outcomes into everyday living, enables God to work in our lives, to achieve some level of self discipline through a sound mind.
6. Conclusion. We may not have the faith of Joseph to discern clearly God’s will, get up in the middle of the night and take one’s family abroad. For most of us life is more ordinary, but I hope that many of us can look back and see how as we have sought to live for God he has guided and empowered us. I thank God for the way he has guided Julia and me, and our family over the years. I am glad that as a student one of the Bible verses that I learnt by heart was the one I have taken as my text this morning. I invite you as we prepare to go forward into a New Year to take the words of the Apostle Paul to Timothy in 2 Timothy 1 verse 7 as a personal encouragement. Memorise the verse. We live in difficult times just as did the holy family 2000 years ago. However ‘God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power and of love and of a sound mind’.