Earlier this week, in between dropping off some of my children at a club meeting, buying some groceries and going back to pick them up, I sat in a local shopping mall with nothing to do and nowhere to be. A great peace washed over me as I sat in between two market stalls and watched the people hurrying about, so I started to document the experience in verse:
An Island of Serenity
An island of serenity amidst the milling throng All around me darts a world to which I don’t belong, Convinced a slice of heaven can be found here on a shelf, Or else at least a key to unlocking your true self.
Calming Christmas music wafts down the glassy walls, Drifting over harried workers at the market stalls, The peace that washes over me warms me to my core, Giving me a foretaste of that Life that lies in store
When my time down here is done and Your face I shall see, And you give me the great prize that you won at Calvary. Your love is so unmerited, so shockingly divine, It seems so insufficient to just give you all that’s mine;
Give me an opportunity to be a blessing here, A broken soul with eyes to see and a listening ear, That a fellow traveller might find the hope you give, Find rest from all his mortal woes and truly start to live.
The temple had lain in ruins for around 50 years. Destroyed, but not forgotten, just like Jerusalem itself. It still had immense, painful value to the Israelites. The visible sign of God’s presence among them desecrated and useless for anything except a reminder of what once was. Hence the strong emotions of both joy and sorrow, joy that the temple, and through it the nation of Israel, is being rebuilt with God at the centre, and also sorrow that it will never be like it was under the glorious rules of David and Solomon.
It’s hard to imagine the task of rebuilding an entire nation, but I’d like to look at the process of reconstruction, of renewal, from a different angle, using some modern examples from youtube. There are a lot of channels that focus on this sort of project, whether it’s restoring a classic car, a boat, an airplane or a house, but there are some projects that stand out.
A youtuber with a lot of followers often drove past a hill that had a ruin on the top of it. It wasn’t a castle or temple or anything like that, it was an incomplete construction project that had been planned to be a great mansion, but for various reasons construction halted and the partially completed house was abandoned to the elements for nearly twenty years, had been frequently snuck into by teenagers and animals, every window was broken, rain had gotten into the stonework, there was dirt, rubbish and broken glass everywhere, and many of the timbers were rotten. What could have been a very valuable property was now useless. He saw the potential of the place, bought it for a vastly reduced price and began to work on it, documenting his progress in various episodes and updates. He cleared debris and filth, tore down rotten beams, parts of the roof and walls until there was nothing left but the foundation and the interior walls and floors that had remained intact and undamaged by the elements, then over the next two years new frames and walls are added, roofs and windows replaced, plumbing and wiring done, doing a lot of the work himself alongside various professionals, learning new skills from those professionals, and in the process made changes and expansions to make the house even larger and more practical for his family, finally moving into it recently while some areas surrounding the house are still being worked on.
The viewership of his channel increased enormously, he obtained sponsors for the individual episodes that enabled him to pay for professionals to implement his more ambitious plans, His viewers are excited and happy for him, supporting him financially through buying his merchandise, giving him advice as well as professional contacts on all sorts of aspects of the project.
Another youtuber who specializes in restoring planes and motor vehicles was offered a plane for free if he could get it running. It had cost half a million dollars new, but had broken down and been left to rot outside for fifteen years, inhabited by birds, rats, mice and spiders. It was filthy, stank of mould and every kind of droppings, its engines were clogged with all sorts of gunk and seized up with possible corrosion.
Step by step he took the engines apart, scrubbed and cleaned the various components, cleared the lines with pressurized air, put them back together and after many failed attempts got first one engine to start, and with the help of some spare parts sent in for free by a viewer, also the second. Both engines will be sent for a full professional service later, the exterior has been given a deep clean, and recently crawled around the filth and foul stench of the interior to clear the trash, remove the seats and carpets to begin the process of giving the whole of the inside a deep clean.
Again, his channel received a major boost in viewership from this project, he’s raised over $200,000 via crowdfunding for the project, from people who will get nothing in return, only the knowledge that they helped make this project succeed.
Why is that? What is it about these projects that so captivates the audience? Is it following the progress of a pleasant, enthusiastic and skilled individual working hard to achieve their goal? That’s definitely part of it, but these cases also touch on something deeper.
Something that was clearly valuable was overlooked and written off by the crowd as worthless, beyond saving, too much work to consider bothering with. But then a wise and kind individual came along and fell in love with the beauty and potential and true value of the thing, currently spoiled as it may be. That person then lovingly and patiently and skilfully sacrifices their time and effort, working to restore and polish that treasure so it’s true magnificence can be seen by all.
Wouldn’t it be great if someone loved me or you like that? Are we dirty, broken treasures that can be repaired, cleaned, renewed and transformed into something wonderful? I have good news. You are a treasure, loved deeply by God himself, though you are full of dirt, brokenness and corrosive sin. He is ready and excited to work on you to clean, repair, renew and transform you into something glorious. If you have already given Him your life, then he has already begun that work, it is called sanctification. This process takes a long time, can be unpleasant and for long periods it can seem that no progress is being made. Parts of you need to be scrubbed clean of all the corrosive sins and attitudes that threaten to eat them away; that can hurt. Some parts will need to be thrown away and replaced entirely with something new and better, so we can become a new creation; that can be scary. Parts that have been seized up your whole life will begin to function, giving you capabilities you didn’t know you had.
You are a temple of God, a place for the Holy Spirit to dwell, a great treasure in a pot of clay. You might think that you are too broken, too polluted, to be of any use, but a whole new abundant life awaits you, if you only allow the master renovator to do his work.
Last time I gave a sermon, I introduced a new song, and played a video connected to the sermon that also served as a pre-sunday-school message for children. This time, I have (almost) combined all of those into one (I’m not sure it quite works as a message for children, but they might enjoy some of the images at least)
Many people struggle to love God because they can’t grasp who and what God is, how indescribably wonderful he is and worthy of our praise and attention. This passage provides us with one key to grasping a whole lot more of who we are called to worship and follow.
God is love. Would you say that the song was telling the truth about love? We see examples of love in the world that reflect those aspects, those properties of genuine love. Even if we aren’t experiencing them directly ourselves, we have certainly witnessed something like them in the lives of others around us, or in stories that really resonate with us, because they are showing something true and pure, the love of good parents or grandparents, of good and honest friends, a motivated rescue worker or doctor, the camaraderie and sacrifice of an honourable soldier, a helpful colleague at work, a kind-hearted stranger, a loving husband or wife. All of those loves that we can see concretely are weak reflections of the perfect, abundant, generous and powerful love of god. All of those loves that we see around us or hear about ultimately come from him.
God is love. So everything that the song said about love, we can say about God. He is patient and kind; he won’t leave us to our fate, he looks us in the face; he sees our flaws, but that doesn’t discourage him; he gives us a place where we truly belong, he continues to care even when we turn our backs on him, he forgives us and welcomes us back when we realise how stupid we have been, he gives us room to grow and empowers us to be the person we were truly meant to be.
God is love. A key aspect of God is that He is a powerful, active, invigorating, joyful, and supremely generous relationship between three persons. God is so overjoyed by this relationship that he wants to share it with us! Imagine that. He wants us to be as loving, as joyful, as generous and fulfilled as He is—to have live in abundance. To grow the gifts that he has already given us and become more and more the magnificent creations he made us to be. Now that is an invitation worth accepting. If we have already accepted that offer, it is one worth remembering, being grateful for and living accordingly with all our heart, all our strength and all of our mind.
Perfect love casts out fear. What is the message that the world, our governments and news organizations has been telling us for the last two years?
Be terrified. Suffering and death is around the corner. Hide. Everyone around you is a threat; keep them away. Don’t meet together, don’t celebrate, don’t sing. Wear a mask, or two, or three. Be responsible and show everyone around you how terrified you are. I recently saw a video of a man on an airplane putting on six masks. He was very proud of himself, making a show in front of everyone of adding mask after mask, as if to say, “Look at me! I’m better than all of you, because I’m more afraid.” It’s absurd. Other people scream hysterically whenever anyone comes near them, as if standing next to someone is the same as attempted murder. Some just play at being scared so they can look down on others and bully them, others have become addicted to this foundation of fear and are unable to cope with things going back to normal. They should be pitied.
What else does the news try to terrify us with? War is coming with Russia! (Now that the war between Ukraine and Russia has begun, that it’s the start of World War III and nuclear catastrophe) Democracies are turning into tyrannies all over the world. Civil wars are on the horizon. Economies are collapsing. Everything is unstable, out of control and you’re powerless to do anything about it. Despair, cower, and most of all, be terrified.
How do we respond to that? We could quote Mark Twain:
“If you don’t read the newspaper you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper you are misinformed.”
Because so much of the news is distorted, if not invented, and important events and contexts are often ignored completely. Unfortunately this is not only true of the tabloid press, the never-ending news cycle means that reaction and attention is everything, and the easiest attention-getting reactions to evoke are fear and outrage. (The fact that these reactions also make the viewer/listener easier to manipulate is a bonus). There will be some fragments of truth mixed in occasionally, but without a reliable direct source for comparison, it becomes very difficult to know what is really going on (even moreso during a time of war, as all you will hear on the news is propaganda from one side or the other), so ignoring the sensationalized version of what a given news source wants you to think becomes more appealing, even healthy.
Even if every danger they warn of is real, the words of C.S. Lewis that have been recently circulating online in various venues come to mind:
In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb.“How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.
— “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays
If all of our hopes are in this life, then despair and terror are logical responses. It has always been that way. But our hopes are not all in this life. We are promised persecution, struggles, difficult tasks and difficult choices, but also the strength to endure and grow through them. We are not abandoned and helpless, we are treasured children of a loving God. If the worst happens and we die, we go to be in the arms of God, fully plunged into that amazing relationship, seeing His infinite beauty face to face.
Getting back to the song, a blind friend of a friend by the name of Michael Bayus listened to it, liked it and shared the following thought:
“Being deeply loved by someone gives one strength, loving someone deeply gives one courage.”
So know that you are deeply loved by someone stronger than the world, who has defeated the world, and take strength from that to deal with the discomforts and troubles of life, and we are still very well off compared to any era in history.
Let’s have the courage to love those that God loves around us, work to make our little part of the world a little closer to what it should be, create something beautiful and share it, renew a relationship that’s been neglected, support a friend in their efforts to improve themselves, work on developing the gifts we have been given, aim to be more like Christ in the way we treat others. Meditate on what it means that God is love, and that He loves you, and learn to love him back.
12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by[c] one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues[d]? Do all interpret? 31 Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.
1 Corinthians 3 5-15:
5 What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. 6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. 9 For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.
10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.
Message for Children:
I’d like to show you a short little video I made 11 years ago, that has a boring name, but is also called “How to Park a Toy Car”
Did you like that? As you saw, the little ball at the start had all sorts of adventures and did all sorts of interesting things before it set another ball going, which started another little chain reaction, and another, then finally the big ball hit the wall that set off the toy car to park itself.
That first ball didn’t see the end result, it just knew that it did its job well. Life can be like that, in that when we do something good for someone, it can seem like nothing has really changed, when in fact we’ve started a process that will end up causing something truly beautiful. So don’t give up and stop doing good things for people, because the good things you do, especially the things you do for God, are much more important than you realise.
Sermon for adults:
Basically, if you remember the children’s message, you’ll get the main point of today’s sermon, but us adults tend to make things much more complicated than they need to be, and like things to be explained in more detail, so let’s try to do that.
Deep down, all of us would like to make a difference in the world. Some of us have less ambitious goals than others, and many have given up on the idea, but ultimately we would like to think that we can make a little part of the world a better place than it would have been without us.
Many of us look at our own efforts and the results from them, and get discouraged. We don’t see crowds of people getting saved in response to something we said, we don’t get people coming up to us to thank us for something we did for them that changed their life completely. Of course, it’s a very good habit to be sure to thank people that have helped you in small ways, it is a real encouragement to them to persevere with acts of kindness, especially when the person didn’t realise how much what they did helped you.
But small acts of kindness can have much more impact than we realise. Someone who has just been shown a kindness, especially an unexpected one, is in a better mood and more likely to then show kindness to someone else themselves and less likely to be needlessly cruel, so our initial act is multiplied, echoing further and further, making more and more of a positive difference the wider the context we take in.
This is multiplied again by the fact that humans are beings of habit. When we overcome our nerves and do something once, it is easier to do it again, and the more times we do it the easier it gets until it becomes second nature and we do it almost without thinking.
The same can be said for speaking important, even painful truths. Openness breeds openness.
Unfortunately, the same is true in the other direction. Cruelty breeds cruelty, and deceit breeds deceit. So it is a great power that we have, a great responsibility, far more than we realize.
So a kind act, a kind word, a small piece of the truth can help another soul along their journey to find God, but a soul’s journey does not end when it gives its life to Christ, it is only just beginning. As God’s children we have that foundation of Christ, and it’s time to build on that. We can help each other practically, we can study together, share our discoveries, offer warnings about dangerous paths, support each other through difficult times and encourage each other to build good habits and grow in character, becoming more and more citizens of heaven down here on earth. We are not all teachers, we are not all prophets or miracle workers, we don’t all have gifts of healing, we all have different skills, talents and opportunities, but what we do does not have to be spectacular to be worth doing, it can still change the world.
Maybe you didn’t like the analogy from the children’s message. After all, you’re not an inanimate metal ball or block of plastic—you can think, you can choose, you can actively participate in or fight against things, so here is a different one, a musical one, from the ending to the film Robots:
When Herb starts playing by himself, even though he is putting all of his heart and skill into it, it sounds awful, like he’s gone insane and is just making random noises. It’s only when the others realise what he is doing and start playing the other parts that it becomes obvious that he is actually playing beautiful, fun and joyful music.
It can be like that with us. When we try as hard as we can to do what is right, serve God, and stand up for the truth, but to the outside world we can look like a fool doing pointless random things, and sometimes the situation can get so bad that we start to see ourselves that way.
But that’s because they can’t hear the orchestra. They don’t see the ripples of influence flowing out, the slow processes that have started, the grand context that will show the true beauty of what we’ve done.
In summary, I’d like to share a poem I wrote back in January for people who saw all the scary currents in the world and were tempted to despair and shut themselves off completely.
I barely have the strength to keep my head above the waves, My face bombarded by a roar of driving rain and spray; The broken hull of my old ship is sinking out of sight, Flashes from the thick, black clouds illuminate the sky.
I’m losing vital body heat,my limbs are growing numb, Cries of rage and anguish pour from my embittered tongue. I’m sure the sharks are circling below me in the deep; As soon as one dares venture up, I’m nothing but fresh meat.
I let my head go under, the storm is muffled, faint; My struggle to survive seems somehow unimportant, quaint; I am so very tired now, why not just let go And let my body drift down where the mighty currents flow?
Off to my right approaches a patch of light and calm, Could it be the peaceful eye within this awful storm? A chance to feel the sun upon my face one last sweet time, Float a while, forgive the world, then join the glorified.
I spot a pair of sandals on the surface over me; The one who lost them overboard evokes my sympathy, But then a strong hand reaches down from between the two, Grabs and pulls me up into the clear and crystal blue,
It is the Lord of Life, he came walking on the waves Through this brutal hurricane my puny soul to save! He rebukes the mighty storm, the sea becomes as glass; Every cloud evaporates, the sky is blue and vast.
“Take a breath, get back your strength, be healed and be restored To the role and purpose you were created for; There’s still so much for you to do before I call you home: Many tasks and challenges, and skills you need to hone.”
And so he walks me to the shore, Where life awaits and so much more, Invigorated, full of joy and hope enough to share.
From this day I start afresh, Battling my mortal flesh, Beginning every morning in grateful, reverent prayer.
When we talk at length, It gives my soul new strength, To carry out each worthy work for which I am prepared.
You might think you’re just a tiny speck within a raging storm, A thousand different voices screaming at you to conform, To give up hope, blaspheme your God, and join the vicious mob; Or stand aside, at least, and let them do their hatchet job.
Defeat is unavoidable, what difference can you make? What kind of fool would stand there when the dam’s about to break? Then time itself stands still and you are swept before the Throne, And He reveals you are in fact a vital cornerstone
To peoples you have yet to meet, besides the ones you know, Your influence, for good or bad, eternity will show. A thoughtful act can redirect a life that’s gone astray, Bring broken souls back from the brink, unfounded fears allay,
Give strength to those so weary from fighting the good fight, Grant the lame the grace to dance, give back the blind their sight, As they perceive the holy war that’s waging for their hearts, Step out from the audience and dare to play their part
In the thrilling drama that decides so many fates, And takes them in directions they cannot anticipate, Drawing others heavenwards with every step they take Along the narrow path, leaving blessings in their wake.
I wrote most of this this while on a walk yesterday:
When snowy fields at sunset have turned the world to gold, Remember truths you must pass on before your heart grows cold: An empty soul cannot be filled with momentary joys; A broken heart cannot be fixed with parties, tricks and shiny toys.
Don’t entertain yourselves to death, but reach for higher things, You do not need to be struck blind or hear an angel’s wings To witness glory all around in little acts of love, Appreciate a kindness shown when push has come to shove,
Let the lonely child know there’s a place where he belongs, Offer words of hope to those whose faith is not as strong: When darkness overwhelms you and your path is all but gone, The shadow’s but a passing thing, and you are not alone.
The one who knows your heart and pain, Who knows your will to rise again, Who calls the storm cloud and the rain, Is closer than you know.
So lift your head up strong and proud, And when before the madding crowd, Be not afraid to shout aloud, “In His steps I will go!”
Should they choose to run you through For staying faithful, pure and true, Then heaven’s door will be in view, And joy will overflow.