Sermon: Second Sunday before Advent, 17 November 2019, St Mary Magdalene, morning

Readings 2 Thessalonians 3.6-13 & Luke 21.5-19
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes

Pondering that passage from Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Thessalonians – our first reading – I was reminded of the Canadian clinical psychologist Dr Jordan Peterson.

In the last few years Dr Paterson has become something of a phenomenon, especially on the internet where he has garnered a very big following. He is hero-worshipped by many.

He’s also, it has to be said, very controversial. Those on the left of the political spectrum tend to look upon him with suspicion, even horror, because they see him as being on the right of that spectrum – the most heinous of crimes in their eyes. I’d say he’s more or less a centrist but that’s by the by.

Now, one of the exhortations for which Dr Peterson is most well-known is for us to tidy our rooms. In effect, what he’s saying is that if our rooms, i.e. our minds, are in a mess, we won’t be able to achieve anything worthwhile in the world.

If we are internally conflicted, self-indulgent and unmotivated, we won’t be able to do ourselves any good, we won’t be able to do our families any good, we won’t be able to do our communities any good. If our rooms and our minds are in a mess, the suffering which is an inevitable part of life is compounded thirty-fold, sixty-fold, a hundred-fold and turned into a living hell.

Which of course just makes your room even more untidy.

Dr Peterson’s exhortation is a call to personal responsibility. Only when we take responsibility for ourselves as individuals, only when we clean up our own act, can we be a force for good.

This message to my mind is similar to what St Paul is saying in that passage from 2 Thessalonians when he warns his readers about the dangers of idleness and quotes what seems to be a proverb of the time: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.

Now, to our ears, Paul may sound like a right-wing politician from the 1980s railing against welfare benefit scroungers. But that wouldn’t be the right way to interpret these words. In the ancient world there was nothing like a welfare state. There was no safety net for the poor. Nothing could be further from Paul’s mind than welfare benefits or anything of that nature.

Again, it’s a call to take personal responsibility for your own life. Otherwise, Paul says, a person is in danger of becoming a mere busybody – officious, interfering, meddling, prying. Not the sort of person who’s going to do themselves or anyone else much good. The very opposite in fact.

Now, this exhortation for us to take personal, individual responsibility for our lives – in whatever way is possible for us in our own unique situation – seems to me in itself unexceptionable. For believer and unbeliever alike it may be the only way to give our lives a foundation of structure and purpose.

It would certainly be odd for someone to exhort us not to take personal responsibility for our lives.

Now, from a religious perspective this may all seem very secular. Even the passage from St Paul seems pretty secular, though that’s more apparent than real. Paul was a religious man from head to toe and today’s reading is given to us very much in isolation and out of context.

Dr Peterson, although very interested in Christianity, does not describe himself in any straightforward sense as a Christian. He says that ’he acts as though God exists’, which isn’t the same thing at all as actually believing in God. He seems to think of God as a kind of moral policeman – fair enough, I suppose, as far as it goes. But does it go far enough? Does the exhortation to personal responsibility on its own go anywhere near far enough?

I would say not.

There has always been a strand of Christianity that thinks that what we need to do in order to make things right is for us simply to pull ourselves up by our own moral bootstraps. But that’s like telling someone suffering from severe depression to pull themselves together. It just doesn’t work like that.

And so to our Gospel reading. Among all those rather difficult words about wars and insurrections there’s one nugget of gold that I’d like to extract.

Jesus says to his followers: they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 

Now, heaven forbid that such a thing should happen to us – though in this cock-eyed world you never know.

But Jesus goes on: make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.

He’s saying: Trust me. Don’t prepare your defence in advance. Don’t rely on your own resources. They are not adequate to the task.

Rather than pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps we need rather to let ourselves go and allow the divine to work its power to transform.

And we mustn’t fall into the trap of thinking that, because he wants to transform us, God wants to take over our identity like some alien taking over a human body in a science fiction film.

By letting ourselves go, as it were, into the love of God, by allowing the love of God to permeate our whole being and transform us, we actually become who we really are.

That ‘allowing the love of God’ is about trust. I suspect we all know that that isn’t easy but building up our trust in God is what the Christian life is all about.

Who knows precisely how it happens? It’s probably unique for each one of us. What we do know is that trust and transformation are the work of God and not our own work.

We do not lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We are only truly lifted up by allowing the love that God has for us and for the world to seep deeply into every nook and cranny of our hearts.

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