Sermon: First Sunday of Lent, 5 March 2017, St Mary’s, evening

Reading  Luke 15: 1-10

Preacher  Revd Alan Sykes

To my mind it’s almost comical how advertisers seek endorsements from celebrities for the products they are trying to sell – as if a footballer being paid a large sum to endorse, say, a brand of after-shave somehow means that that brand is better than the rest.

The latest example I saw was Sir Bradley Wiggins advertising Skoda cars. But there’s no reason to suppose that Sir Bradley knows any more about cars than you or I. After all, his specialism is two wheels, not four.

I’m actually thinking of buying a Skoda – second hand, mind you. I don’t think I’ve been influenced by the adverts, but you never know. Advertising is very insidious and plays on all our weaknesses.

Political parties do something similar. They like nothing more than to have supporters who are famous actors or pop stars. But the fact is, your plumber or even your vicar is likely to know as much about politics as an actor or pop star.

Even Christians do it. I’m sure you’ve seen that poster for the Alpha course which displays a photograph of Bear Grylls.

We human beings are often mesmerised by celebrity.

Might I suggest that there’s a similar dynamic going on with our home towns. Not so much with a place like London but, if you come from a fairly small place, we find it reassuring to know that that fairly small place has produced some distinguished people in its time – as if by some alchemy that fact alone means it’s a good place to live in or come from.

I come from Preston in Lancashire and I have to confess that, by my reckoning, we’re pretty low down in this particular league table. We’ve got Tom Finney and Freddie Flintoff for sportsmen, that’s not bad for a start, but we soon run out of steam. Our most famous writer is probably the poet Francis Thompson.

‘Francis Who?’ I can hear you say. Well, we Prestonians have to take what we can where we can. Thompson’s most famous poem is called The Hound of Heaven. Let me give you the opening stanza. When the poet says ‘I fled Him’, the Him refers to God.

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind: and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong feet that followed, followed after,
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat – and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet –
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me’.

Well, it’s dramatic stuff, possibly a trifle over-written in my view. But you get the idea. God is chasing the poet inexorably. He, i.e. God, isn’t going to give up.

It’s essentially the same message as in the two parables that Jesus tells in our New Testament reading, that of the lost sheep and that of the lost coin. But there are definite differences as well.

The poem is very dramatic and rhetorical. The parables are homely and restrained – and all the more telling for that, I think.

The poem is very individualistic. It’s about me being chased by Him. It’s in that sense a typical product of modern western individualism. The parables are, yes, about the one lost sheep and about the one lost coin but set among the totality of the other 99 sheep and the other 9 coins. There’s a communal aspect to these little stories that is completely lacking in the poem.

But despite those differences the essential idea remains the same. God never, ever gives up on us. He is constantly and actively searching for those who have become estranged from him– for whatever reason. The reason is in fact immaterial.

It reminds me of that verse in Paul’s first letter to Timothy where he talks about ‘God our Saviour who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’. Note the word ‘everyone’. The farmer has a hundred sheep. Even if 99 of them are safe, that’s not enough. He wants all of them to be safe.

The farmer scours the countryside for the lost sheep; the woman sweeps the whole house in her effort to find the lost coin. These parables are telling us something essential about God. He is forever longing that all people should come into union with him and he does something about it.

Now, you could say that the lost sheep and the lost coin are very passive – and you’d be right. Sheep are known for their passivity and coins of themselves aren’t very active either. The parables aren’t claiming to tell the whole story about God – just this one essential attribute.

The lost sheep and the lost coin may be passive in these stories and yet are found, but the stories don’t pretend to tell the whole story. It doesn’t mean that in our dealings with God some response isn’t required from us, that we can get away with being totally passive and that everything will still somehow be fine.

Remember that painting by Holman Hunt The Light of the World, based on a verse from the Book of Revelation in which Jesus says: Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.

Jesus is knocking on an overgrown and long-unopened door. The door has no handle on the outside, and can therefore be opened only from the inside. God does the searching, God does the knocking, God does all the heavy lifting, as we say these days, but the person inside has to open the door and let him enter.

And God isn’t fussy about whose door he knocks on. He’ll knock on anyone and everyone’s door. I mentioned at the beginning that we are easily mesmerised by celebrity, i.e. by the various forms of status that we’ve concocted for ourselves.

Not so with God.

The 100 sheep, the 10 coins represent the whole of humanity. If any one of them goes missing – famous or unknown, prince or pauper – the search begins.

About Revd Alan Sykes

Revd Alan Sykes is a self-supporting minister (SSM) based at St Mary Magdalene. He was ordained in 2009. He has worshipped at St Mary’s for over 25 years. No longer employed, he gave up his job as a librarian early in 2009. His interests include poetry, classical music, cricket and football. Which team he supports remains a closely guarded secret as he does not wish to cause merriment among the congregation.
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