Make straight the paths for the Lord
Sermon preached at St. James Church, Biddenham by
The Reverend Charles Royden
12 December 1999
The Reverend Richard Bewes was on Radio 4 this morning explaining the poster campaign which his church is a part of this Christmas. The message is
'God is not religious, why should you be, explore your spiritual side'
This is the man from All Souls Langham Place, of 'Prom Praise' fame. Sir Cliff Richard is attached to the church and involved in the campaign. He is not a nut, he deserves to be heard. He said that the campaign was aimed at people inside the church as much as those outside. It was a challenge so that church folk would go to their clergy, pastors etc. and complain about turgid, lifeless services and worship. people deserved to have something better and he spoke of the little girl who tugs at the arm of her mummy during the service and says
'pay the man mummy so that we can go home'
After this interview Sarah Maitland came on and was critical of the campaign. She said that it presented a very confusing message. She also said that God was not an 'advertisable commodity.'
Well today St. Mark's Church in Bedford took out a half page add in the Beds on Sunday for the millennium and Christmas services so I had to think what I thought about that, can we 'advertise' God? How do we put across challenging messages about God, how do we confront people with the Gospel, and what was John the Baptist doing when he took a very public ministry of proclamation?
John was evidently making a bold pronouncement about Jesus, he was if you like 'advertising.' His too was a message directed very forcefully towards the religious people, it was for them that he saved his most vehement statements. Everybody had to 'make straight paths for the Lord.' We are tempted sometimes to think that scriptures are directed at people outside the church, to imagine that we are the good ones and that the challenge is to people who are outside the church. The teachings of Jesus were always strongest to those who were most religious 'you brood of vipers' he said to the professionally religious. His parables taught that the wheat and the weeds were mixed together in the field, the sheep and the goats also shared the same field. Perhaps the greatest challenge is to us who think that we are OK.
So we ask ourselves this morning whether we have paths which are suitable for the coming of our Lord this Christmas? Is our religion lifeless and boring? Do are children have any good cause if they think that our church services are completely dull? Our religion should be life changing, about a meeting with the living God, that is when it becomes a real faith, not just a set of rules and practices. How many Christians have slipped into a non-threatening cosy religion, like an old pair of slippers which fits us nicely. How easy it is for us to become accustomed to our Christianity, so that the words of Jesus no longer challenge and frighten us. How else could our churches find themselves so full of our intolerance, bigotry, envy, argument, you supply a few more suitable vices.
Yes, John the Baptist would be speaking to us this morning, us inside church, not those who are in bed sleeping off Saturday night. He would ask us to say how our religion was changing us and making a real difference. If it is not doing this then sing no more hymns, say no more prayers, God does not desire your religion he wants much more. Richard Bewes quoted the words of the Old Testament prophets who told the people that God was fed up with sacrifices and wanted love and mercy and changed behaviour. The same message is as valid today as it ever was.
My children have started recycling and taking an interest in environmental issues. We now have yoghurt pots on the draining board, tins being put in bags in the garage. Its messy and it annoys me! I told Alexandra and Max that if they wanted to save whales or protect the environment that they could more profitably spend their time going around the house switching lights off, to save burning fossil fuels. Such messages are not so politically correct or so much fun. But as I spoke I thought to myself that I could almost hear my father speaking.
How alike our parents we are. On Friday evening I was at a school concert with Corinne and a woman came up to me and told me she knew me. I could not remember her but thought she must be right so asked her where we last met. Not happy with my apparent loss of memory she cajoled me somewhat and then quite forcefully told me to look at the child by her side and see the likeness. This was all now getting serious, especially when she said that I was a policeman, I was once in the Merseyside Police. Corinne looked on bemused by the whole event, as did several other people. Then thankfully she said that she had known me from my days in Essex. I have never lived in Essex and I was able to assure the lady that it was most definitely not me. A careful look at the child in question enabled everybody to be convinced that I was not the errant father.
As children we do take on the mannerisms, the ideas, even the human characteristics of our parents. Sometimes this is good and sometimes we may spend a whole lifetime trying to change the prejudices or whatever which we seem to have inherited. As Christians we are challenged this morning to look at our spiritual nature and ask to what extent God's likeness is apparent in us. If people looked at us would they be reminded of God. This is what John the Baptist means when he tells us to make our paths straight. The Kingdom is not a far off event, as charicatured in the jokes of the pearly gates. The kingdom is here and now. It breaks into our lives every day and we do not need to ask when it will come. The kingdom seizes us, embraces us, challenges us, in the ordinary events of life. A sick friend, a discouraged spouse, a troublesome person on the telephone, a demand which is made on us which we think to be unfair. Situations which cause us to question how we will respond. Times when we can perhaps do much good with very little effort. How we react determines and tests our faith and questions our membership of the Kingdom. These are the places where we really show God's loving power coming through in our lives.
It is as we do this of course that we become like John the Baptist in declaring God and proclaiming the coming of our Lord. Our life, our deeds our words, all speaking of the Kingdom of God. It is when we do this that are perhaps the most powerful advertisement for our Lord, in so doing we make straight paths which perhaps allow others to see more easily the living Lord, the worship of whom transcends human religion.