Evening Prayer Online 30th August 2020
When I first read this evening's readings I was perplexed. They are engaging as stories and interesting enough as evidence, for example of the power of superstition in warfare or the sociology of the Jewish diaspora and the ambiguous and volatile attitude of the synagogues to proselytising and Christianity. But these reflections don’t make a sermon.
I may be over ambitious in thinking that a sermon ought to try to encourage and perhaps sometimes reprove (although not this evening you will be pleased to hear) It ought to try provide to help in some- possibly small- way to understand the Gospel and to inspire us to put it into effect. In any case we should try to be enlightening; some obscurity should become a little clearer, some anomaly less odd, or the way forward somewhat straighter.
The problem is that the conclusion I draw from these readings in 2 Kings and Acts 18, is that God does indeed move in mysterious ways his wonders to perform. That's a fine line for a hymn, but not the stuff of a sermon. It leaves us baffled and helpless. It implies that progress is down to God alone but we don't even know how, when or why it's happening, and yet we are also led to believe that we can, in however limited and confused way, understand God's purpose and our role in it. We believe we are made in God's Image and there is something divine in us. So, we can't just throw up our hands and give up. And yet that appears to be the moral of our readings. It is God's mysterious action that drives off the Syrians, and Gallio's lack of interest that saves Paul; where does that leave us?
This difficulty is made worse by our awareness that scripture ought to be edifying. That does not of course, mean that there is no space for a little light relief, for an odd excursus or two. Thankfully neither Old nor New Testaments are monolithic; in both there are strong themes and recurring motifs, but they come through in a wide variety of ways and in widely differing genres. Even in the books that we would call history, however, there is a strong moral purpose. When it comes to history, God is definitely a Whig, and in the Jewish categorisation of the books of what we call the Old Testament, history comes under Prophecy, because like prophecy, the history books tell us about God's relation with mankind, His intentions and man's aspirations and failures. It ought therefore to be possible to find inspiration even when the stories seem so inconsequential in the light of that plan as, on a superficial reading, this evening's stories do.
My failure is, I think, an understandable one. I have assumed that God's relationship with his creation, in particular with his human creatures, is a simple one; He tells us what to do and we just need to do it. If one only read the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, that would not be an unfair analysis. God does do a lot of laying down the law and ordering and commanding and his people obey and thrive or disobey and disaster strikes. Once they have arrived in Canaan however, there are, to put it mildly, complications and there will be what turns into a continual struggle to achieve the Promised Land.
It becomes apparent that the covenant between God and his people is more a collaborative enterprise than a contractual one, with God giving the commandments and men toeing the line or not. In particular it requires individual heroes; the Judges, Kings and prophets and sometimes rather humbler human beings. The peculiar but distinctive characteristic of all these heroes is their very human imperfection. All the Judges have a somewhat chequered history; either a reluctance to engage in God's work or a fatal flaw in their heroism. Even the greatest of the Kings have personal lives which leave quite a lot to be desired. This theme is also present in the Torah- think of Jacob’s shady history or the backslidings in the wilderness. Overall, the message seems to be that God can work with human beings as they are; the flaws don't vitiate their role in the bigger narrative, indeed human weakness seems to be a prerequisite. God works with the mess that his human creatures make of his creation.
This is, I now see, is where the story of the four lepers fits in. Four indigent lepers begging at the gate of besieged city are not likely instruments of God's purpose for his people, and yet they save the day and they do so by the application of very down to earth and purely self-interested principles; “We are going to die here by the gate if we don't do something; we may die by going to the Syrian camp; we have literally nothing to lose”. It is this humanly practical but hardly heroic reasoning that brings salvation and saves the day (but not before the lepers have looked after their own interest by hiding the first batch of treasure which they find.)
The lesson is one taken up in the Gospels; don't dismiss the apparently insignificant and marginalised in society and don't belittle the importance of mundane and practical-apparently self-serving- reason. God's grand design can accommodate, and may even require human co-operation on a less than heroic level. However insignificant and imperfect we may be, there may yet be a role for us, and it will be a matter of doing the practical and the mundane.
I have concentrated on the Old Testament reading and I admit I find it puzzling but more engaging, but I should finish by noting that while Paul too is a practical man, exploiting the opportunities he finds and not above exercising his craft of tent making (not perhaps the most exalted of crafts) while preaching the Gospel, he nevertheless shares the same vision and determination which drives forward the Old Testament narrative, adapted and renewed through the intervention of God in Jesus. It's a trust and inspiration that we need too, and one which we will I think, and hope, find in scripture, even when apparently obscure and hesitatingly sermonised. Amen.Print This Page