Sermon, 10.30, Sunday 17th June 2012
Ezekiel 17:22-end; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10; Mark 4:26-34
The Power of Purpose
A few weeks ago the Men’s Group went on a trip to the Hampstead Theatre to see Chariots of Fire. I must say that we went with rather low expectations. We wondered what good could possibly come of a stage play derived from a film. As it happens, our scepticism was entirely unfounded. We all agreed that it was one of the best stage productions we had seen in ages – exciting, exhilarating and moving. The cast were extraordinarily multi-talented – they acted, they sang, they played musical instruments, they ran and one of them even hurdled. It was indeed a great night out.
For those of you who don’t know the play or the film, Chariots of Fire is the true story of rivalry between two British athletes at the 1924 Olympic Games. There was Eric Liddell the Scottish missionary who was a son of the manse and Harold Abrahams, the gentleman son of a wealthy Jewish family. They were due to compete in the 100m but Liddell famously refused to race because the heats were held on the Sabbath. Amazingly, both went on to win gold, Abrahams in the 100m and Liddell in the 400m which he was able to compete in because a generous team mate offered him his place.
In my view the play was much more enjoyable than the film, not least because at the Hampstead Theatre the audience were seated inside the running track so there was this constant sense of pulsing energy as the actors raced around the theatre. For all its entertainment value the play had a very serious point to make about having a purpose in life. Repeatedly Liddell asks Abrahams: “Why do you run? What is your motivation?” The answer, at least in the early days of their rivalry was a simple one – anger. Abrahams had suffered a lot of anti-semitism when at Cambridge and running – winning – was his way of getting his own back. The trouble was, this gave him little joy, and it’s a feature of the story that he only starts to achieve his best when he loses his anger and finds joy in what he is doing. The early, angry Abrahams contrasts with Liddell, a man full of positive purpose throughout. His great purpose in life was to be a missionary in China but he also knew that he had to use his great athletic talent to the full if he was to properly honour God. There is a line in both the film and the play which he speaks and which I always find very moving:
“God made me for a purpose but he also made me fast and when I run I can feel his pleasure”
I haven’t been able to find out whether Liddell ever said these words or anything like them but they are consistent with what we know about him. For instance his fellow missionary and later theologian Langdon Gilkey said this of him:
“He was overflowing with good humour and love for life, with enthusiasm and charm.”
All of which sounds a pretty winning combination. What’s more it seems that he was every bit as effective as a missionary as he was as an athlete, serving the poor in China and ending his too short life in a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War during which time he brought hope and relief to many.
It is hard to look at Liddell’s life and conclude anything other than that his very effectiveness was the result of his overriding sense of purpose. And it’s crucial to understand that that purpose was the perfect expression of the unique person he was – his talents, energies and passions. A joyful sense of personal purpose is the key to our fruitfulness and fruitfulness is – above all – what God requires of us according to today’s bible readings.
In the reading from Ezekiel God talks of planting a cedar on a high and lofty mountain that it might bear fruit and provide shade for nesting birds. It’s a gorgeous image and one that clearly meant a great deal to Jesus. In our gospel reading Jesus likens the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed, the tiniest of all seeds that becomes the greatest of all shrubs and so provides shade and nurture.
It’s important to remember here that when Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God he was not just referring to a future state at the end of time – the “new heaven and new earth” that we find in the Book of Revelation. Arguably, it was more important for him that the Kingdom of God exists now and “among us” whenever we live true to the gospel precepts of truth, justice and mercy. To that extent the tininess of the mustard seed is of great importance, for it shows us that the Kingdom of which Jesus spoke has small beginnings in individual lives. As ever, Jesus is our model. Despite being a poor, uneducated, itinerant preacher in a backwater of the Roman empire whose ministry lasted just three years, he transformed – and continues to transform – the world.
It goes without saying that Jesus was a man of deep purpose. That purpose was to announce the arrival of the Kingdom of God through teaching, prophesy, healing and ultimately his death and resurrection. It was his sense of purpose that nourished him. In John’s gospel he says:
“My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” (John 4:34)
What is remarkable is the vigour and clarity that his sense of purpose gave him. His energy was breathtaking. If you want to get a powerful sense of this try reading Mark’s gospel from cover to cover in one sitting. It won’t take you long and you will get an extraordinary impression of relentless activity and drive and yet it is energizing activity – it is Jesus doing what he had to do.
His clarity of purpose gave him great self-confidence such that he was easily able to respond to each situation in a manner appropriate to the fulfillment of that purpose. This made him highly unpredictable. Jesus could be gentle as we see in the love and tenderness of his healings and his pity at the needs of those who came to him. He could be generous. What greater example is there of the heavenly banquet that awaits us than the story of his turning water into wine at Cana? It wasn’t just any old wine but great wine served up when it was clear that many of the guests had already had rather too much. He could be brutally honest. There are countless examples of this but consider his dealings with the Pharisees, the religious leaders of their time. With searing honesty he told them that they missed the whole point of their faith and forgotten justice and the needs of the poor. He could be passionate, as witness his tears of sadness and frustration over Jerusalem’s hard-heartedness. He was, on one famous occasion, moved to violent anger as when he turfed the money-changers out of the temple with a whip. And he was, of course, the loving servant of all, as when he washed his disciples’ feet, even though their teacher, Lord and master.
Jesus was, in other words, multi-faceted, a man who displayed the full range of human emotions. He was, however, never without self control. Whatever he did and whatever his behaviour, it was always in pursuit of his purpose of announcing the arrival of God’s kingdom. Now I stress this because it seems to me that our default view of Jesus is monochrome rather than multicoloured. This was brought home to me during our recent Faith at Work discussion groups. For instance, during our discussion on taking tough decisions at work, which often centred on dealing with difficult people, many said that they avoided being honest despite the fact that this often created yet more problems. Why was this? Well, the assumption seems to be that following Jesus’ example means being “nice” to people, even if that involves not being entirely honest with them. It’s as if being meek and submissive is somehow a Christian virtue. Similarly when we were talking about ambition there was a clear divide between those who were embarrassed about ambition and who felt it wrong to assert themselves or push themselves forward and those who had no qualms about doing so but who wondered if this was a properly Christian attitude.
All of this left me wondering how we have ended up with such a gutless view of Christianity? A moment’s consideration of the gospels show Jesus to be the most gutsy of people. He was never afraid of speaking his mind. He was also a person of the most extraordinary ambition – the kind of ambition that shocked and enraged the religious authorities. The crucial point here of course is that he not only had a clear sense of purpose but that he pursued it without the slightest hint of vanity. He was always pointing away from himself to his Father – “not my will but thy will be done.” And that quality of humility can also be seen in the story of Eric Liddell. Even as a brilliant schoolboy athlete his Headmaster remarked on his complete lack of vanity. And what could speak more of that lack of vanity than his refusal to run on a Sunday even though, when he took that stand, it meant giving up his one chance of winning gold?
The hard truth is that if we don’t have a sense of purpose, a sense of purpose that is aligned with our talents, passions and energies, then we simply won’t bear the fruit that God wants us to bear. So what’s your purpose in life? This is a question for all of us, regardless of age, regardless of whether we are in work, out of work, retired, a homemaker or whatever. Does your purpose give you joy and energy – it is your heart’s desire? Does it enlarge and embolden you as it did Jesus? Because it is on such foundations that the Kingdom of God is built.
I suspect that there will be as many answers to these questions as there are people in this church. Some of you will be pretty clear about your purpose, while others will be wondering whether you will ever find yours. In reality, the task of identifying and pursuing our purpose is never done and it can never be too late to start. For what is at stake here is the use of our God-given talents in God’s service and we do nothing less than honour God when we do this. As the American athletics team masseur, quoting the first book of Samuel, reminded Liddell just before the 400m race in which he won gold:
“Those who honour me I will honour.” (I Samuel, 2:30)