A farewell sermon preached by Nikolaj Christensen on Sunday 2 October 2022
Last time I preached on a Sunday four weeks ago, I tried to sum up some of what I’ve been saying these last three years by talking about the spiritual crisis that I believe we are facing as humanity. It’s a crisis caused, in my view, by our unconscious belief that this world is all there is, and that this life is all there is, and so we want to squeeze everything we can out of it and end up ruining it. We live as if we had no greater thing to hope for than what we can grab here and now. The environmental crisis is the obvious example: we overexploit the earth’s resources and so the earth ends up not being able to provide conditions for us to live in.
Think of fishing: we overfish the seas so much that, as a consequence, fish populations are depleted, and we catch fever fish overall. If we fished less, we would catch more, but with less effort. It’s been tried and tested that leaving some parts of the sea as no-take areas where fish can grow and procreate undisturbed creates a huge overflow of fish to catch. And yet we don’t seem to have the confidence, as a society, to trust that this kind of restraint will work.
Or think of it in terms of human relationships: we have probably all either been in or observed a romantic relationship that was going wrong because one person was being too clingy, or too jealous, or even too desperate to please the other person in order to keep the relationship going, and so the other person felt smothered. It’s human nature. We squeeze the thing we think will make us happy so tightly that we lose it. That’s our spiritual crisis in a nutshell, as I see it.
But there is another thing I’ve been trying to say, and it’s about what it is that resolves this crisis. We are not left to our own devices to find a way out of the hole we’ve dug ourselves into. You’re here in church today because you believe in God, or at least you are considering believing in God: a God who knows our weakness, a God who has the power to reach out and help us, and a God who loves us and whose grace and mercy are boundless so that he will help us when we call out in despair. And that is the good news, and the hope that is beyond anything we can produce for ourselves: God is the one who comes to us.
In our reading from the prophet Habakkuk (1.1-4; 2.1-4) this morning, we heard how the prophet pours out his frustration at the crisis and injustice he sees all around him; there’s really no holds barred in what he says: ‘O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?’ But the Lord does listen and respond and offer reassurance, in the second half of the reading, promising that help is coming, and ending with some words that are repeatedly taken up and unpacked in the New Testament: ‘the righteous [will] live by their faith’. The ‘proud’ will destroy themselves, but the faithful will be vindicated. ‘Faith’ is the important word here. The prophet knows from the outset that he can’t hold back the forces of destruction himself – he needs to put his faith in God, and that’s why he cries out to him. And God answers: those who live by faith will live.
‘Commit your way to the Lord and put your trust in him, and he will bring it to pass’, as we heard in our Psalm (37.1-9) this morning.
What was hiding in plain sight in the Old Testament, this basic sense of trust and faith in a God who stands ready to help, comes into even clearer focus in the New Testament. The Second Letter to Timothy (1.1-14), written as a letter of encouragement to a Christian minister, puts it abundantly clearly, as we heard earlier: God ‘saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.’ In other words, God doesn’t give us in accordance with our merit, he doesn’t just give us what we deserve or what we’ve earner, but he gives in accordance with his own designs and in proportion to his love for us, which is infinite. And so, our hope is not only that he will help us with our problems here and now, but it’s an expectation of something that goes way beyond anything we can imagine, which as it says ‘has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death — and brought life and immortality to light — through the gospel.’ Our ultimate hope is that life conquers death, in a very real sense, and that it has already conquered death in the life and death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus.
And so, we finally come to that strange parable we heard in our Gospel reading today (Luke 17.5-10). To our ears, all this talk about ‘worthless slaves’ probably sits somewhere between incomprehensible and offensive. But let me unpack it briefly, because behind this story is some tremendously good news. Firstly, what’s translated as ‘slave’ here could also mean a hired servant, someone who has contracted with someone for a certain period to serve them in exchange for pay. That would have been a well-known phenomenon among Jews in Jesus’ world, as well as in our Western world until just a couple of generations ago. And to serve a great master was a great honour in itself.
Now, Jesus asks if a slave or servant deserves special thanks and the rest of the afternoon off, simply for having done his duty – and the answer is no. As usual, this parable wants to tell us something about the relationship between God and us. The question it asks is whether God is impressed by what we do for him. And the answer is: no, God’s favour can’t be earned. There’s no sense in which if I do something for God, then he will be impressed with me and give me what I want. There’s no transaction. Instead, everything he gives us is a gift. And that is excellent news. Because it means he can give us far more than we deserve. The benefits of serving a master this great far outweigh the demands it makes on us. And Jesus again and again invites us to expand our imagination, to look up and think what more might be in store for us.
I’ve alluded to the first funeral I ever did as an ordained minister, but I’d like to read something that was read at the last funeral I ever had the honour of leading here, the very last paragraph from The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis:
‘As [Aslan] spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and title page: Now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.’