A sermon preached by the Rector Rev Chris Williams on Sunday 27 January 2019 at the 10.15am service
Isaiah 26:1-4, Philippians 4:4-9, John 14:1-3, 23-27
Horatio Spafford was born in 1828 in Chicago. He had established a very successful legal practice as a young businessman and was also a devout Christian.
In 1870 Horatio and his wife Anna, sadly lost their 2-year-old son and just a year later he lost his fortune literally overnight. He had invested heavily in real estate along Lake Michigan’s shoreline and all of it was destroyed in the Chicago Fire of 1871.
In 1873 he planned to come to Britain to help his friend D L Moody, the famous evangelist, on one of his mission trips and also use the time as a family holiday. Due to a last-minute business development he had to remain in Chicago but his wife and four daughters sailed on ahead. Unfortunately, the ship was struck by a British ship and sank in just 12 minutes with the loss 266 lives. Nine days later Horatio received a telegram from his wife in Wales which said, ‘saved alone’. All four girls had drowned – the youngest being torn out of her mother’s arms by the force of the water.
Upon hearing the news, Horatio boarded the next ship out of New York to join his bereaved wife. During the voyage, the captain summoned Horatio to the bridge and explained that they were passing the area where the accident happened. Horatio then returned to his cabin and penned the lyrics to the hymn we are going to sing at the end of this service.
The first verse begins: When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll, Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say It is well, it is well with my soul,
It’s a powerful story and a powerful hymn – and Bernie will tell you, I haven’t stopped singing it for the last two weeks.
So why am I saying this?
Well, I have become aware that I have become affected (infected, perhaps), by recent events in the world. I’m not going to list them all, suffice to say that, for me, it all seemed to come to a head with the Brexit vote a couple of weeks ago. And I found I was becoming consumed by all of this –becoming more and more angry at the situation in which we find ourselves– both in this country and the world.
Well, this coincided with me being on my retreat in a remote hut on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands. One of the best things was that there was no phone signal, no internet and no TV so it was no surprise that I was able to hear from God.
And, it was while I was reading and praying that I read these words in John’s gospel which I read just now and they jumped right out at me.
They are the words of Jesus to his disciples: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
Most of us know these words very well – but few of us seem genuinely able to inhabit the reality of which they speak – or live them out on a daily basis. As I look around, most Christians I know seem just as lost and hopeless in the face of world events as anyone else. We seem to be drowning in a sea of despondency, anger and hopelessness. We seem to have absorbed the world’s problems and have forgotten who we are and to whom we belong– or maybe that’s just me!
We are not called to be blown here and there by every news item that appears on our TV, web page or newspapers. No, we are Christians! That means we are followers of Jesus. We should be marching to the beat of a different drum. We are in touch with the Creator – the life at the centre of the universe. This God who has revealed himself through Jesus Christ as the loving Father. Who has given us his Holy Spirit to live in us (check out our verse for the year); to show us how to live and, above all, to show us who we are.
We can come up with many excuses for not living as children of the king of kings. Life can be tough. I’ve already mentioned politics and the state of the world, but for many of us the battleground for control of our hearts is much closer to home – our families, our health – or the health of those around us, our finances, our job, loneliness, addiction, mental health issues – these lists are too easy to produce.
So, in what or in whom is your confidence/hope/joy/peace? Politics, money, economy, family, health? – all these things are changeable, and, frankly, most are completely outside of our control. So, if these things are the foundation for our wellbeing and security in life, then we don’t really stand a chance.
I told the story of Horatio Spafford, not to make us feel guilty, but to offer hope; to show us that, when sorrows like sea billows roll (to use his phrase), whatever my lot I can say ‘It is well with my soul’. Spafford dramatically demonstrated that. Like him, we are connected to something deeper, stronger and eternal.
Jesus said the peace he offers is not the peace the world can give. Did you hear that? So why is it we look to the world to provide something it’s unable to do?
So how can Jesus say these things? I mean, he too lived in tough times: in a country lacking both peace and freedom, occupied by a foreign army and paying taxes to a gentile emperor. Oh, and the words we read, about having peace and not having troubled hearts was directly related to him telling his disciples that he was about to be executed. How could he say these words? Because he knew the source of real peace, real freedom lay elsewhere.
In John (16:33), Jesus says ‘I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’ ‘In this world you will have trouble’ – how many of us claim that promise of God? But take heart I have overcome the world. In me, you may have peace. In me.
So how does that work?
The Isaiah passage says ‘You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.’ The ‘you’ here is God, of course. ‘God will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast – because they trust in him.’
Also, the Gospel passage we read begins with Jesus saying ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me’ The NIV says believe in God – but they are very closely-related words. If I believe in this chair – I will sit on it and trust it to hold me up.
Paul says to the Romans (15:13) ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. When was the last time you overflowed with hope? But notice it comes – not from the circumstances of the world, but through trust in God and by the power of the Holy Spirit (back to our verse for the year).
Also, this relates very much to the first line of our mission statement: to be with Jesus. To create space in our lives to focus on him, to be still – and know – that he is God. To know that we are not controlled by events and circumstances but by him.
The Philippians passage in your Liss List is one I know by heart because I put it on the wall beside my bed when I was a teenager. Do not be anxious about anything (are we beginning to get the picture?), Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation (at this point we might want to acknowledge all those things in our lives that we are anxious about), by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Those are also the words of the blessing we use at the end of many services. But I missed out the words that come immediately before this passage. Before it says ‘Do not be anxious’ it says ‘The Lord is near’. It is the presence of God that makes the difference and it is when we become mindful of his presence all that other stuff (yes, important stuff, vital stuff) grows dim (as the hymn says) in the light of his glory and grace. We are re-orientated, re-energised, re-freshed and re-filled to face everything that life has to throw at us.
What are those things out there that are pushing your buttons – negatively? Is there anything you can do practically to minimise their power over you. If, like me, every time you look at the Brexit news you just get angry – then stop. Why purposefully expose yourself to something that winds you up? Is that putting your head in the sand? No, it’s the opposite – it’s taking your head out of the sand – the earthly stuff –lifting your head up, taking a deep breath and recognising that there is a greater reality. Psalm 121 expresses this thought: I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. What did Paul say? brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. And the God of peace will be with you.
Why not start with the hymn we’re going to sing at the end. it’s a great one to learn and very much point you in the right direction. Well, it works for me! (there’s a version of it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHe_qmo3gX4).
And if you would like help with any of this stuff, there will be people ready to pray for you after the service – as the body of Christ we are here to support and encourage each other.
Church, as we journey through this life – and particularly in these troubled times, we should not be succumbing to the fear and anxiety that the world does so well. Our security and hope is elsewhere. So, who would like a peaceful heart? One which is not troubled, not anxious, one which trust in God? A heart and life that is connected to the deeper reality of God. Deeper than Brexit, deeper than Trump, deeper than whatever is going on in your life right now to the point that we can say with confidence – ‘it is well with my soul. it is well’.
And I tell you what – you live like that and people will soon be asking you why!
Lord, I come before you ready to pour out my worries, anxieties and fears at Your feet. I am claiming and declaring your promise of peace in my life. Bring that peace into my soul that passes all worldly understanding and help me to bring peace and hope to a world in such need.
Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way.