Sermon – Civic Service 2019

Sunday 14/10/18 St M 10.45am Civic Service
Joshua 1.6-9 Mark 10.17-31

What kind of a world do you think we live in? I’ll keep it simple and give you two options.

Is nature fundamentally a place of conflict? Is there no truth deeper than struggle and competition between nations or even between towns or businesses or individuals? Is civilisation a veneer which we constantly strive to maintain? ‘Survival of the fittest’ is a term sometimes used to describe how we evolved. Is that the only truth about humans? Not just about how we arrived here, but how we now live? Are what we call morals and values just useful devices for maintaining a certain order – standards we can sit light to when there’s a chance to gain an advantage? In other words, is this a world where we may as well be cynical because there’s no ultimate meaning anyway?

Or, when we talk about morals and values, when we speak of truth and beauty, are we then down at the foundation, at the bedrock, rather than on the surface? What if nature springs from a source of absolute goodness and love? What if we are here because of a pure gift, an act of creation? What if the goal, the end of all things, the deepest truth written into the fabric of this world, and straining to come to fruition, is that we might share in that infinite love and beauty, enjoying and manifesting the glory of the one whom we call God?

Cynicism and conflict or truth and love? There’s much about the world, its history and its current divisions, which would pull us towards the former. And if we’re honest, in our practical living, we’re all there to some extent. The second way takes faith, faith in each other, faith in the way of truth and goodness, and for many of us, all that is rooted in faith in God.

We have heard two readings. The Gospel story about the rich young man, which is set for this Sunday. And the Old Testament reading which was chosen by David, the Mayor of Nantwich. There the Lord God is commissioning Joshua as he prepares to lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land. Joshua has a clear goal, and success will be measured by the flow rate of milk and honey in a land of peace and prosperity. But Joshua isn’t commanded to be successful. That’s not how he will be judged. All that matters as he advances is that he keeps the law, and doesn’t turn away from it to the left or to the right. The law must be in his mouth, and he must meditate on it day and night.

The overriding aim for Joshua is not success but to be faithful to God, to have faith that there is a bedrock of goodness and truth. A foundation which they trusted was expressed in the Ten Commandments and the whole book of the Law more fully than anything else before.

What would success be for you in a year or in five years’ time? We could ask that as individuals, and our answers may be as basic as maintaining our health or getting a job, or we may hope for business success or financial health, or to win an election, or to find a partner. We could ask what success would be for each of our town’s organisations and institutions, many of whom are represented here today – for example Nantwich Town FC, the Nantwich Players, and the Food Festival. And we could ask the same for Nantwich as a whole, for all the other towns represented here, for Cheshire East, and not least for our nation as we are in the process of leaving the EU.

It is of course a good thing to define what success may be. We need goals at every level, and we need to pursue them. It’s not so good when we think the goal matters more than anything. That’s when the temptation is there to turn to the right or to the left, to turn away from the path of truth and justice and integrity. That’s when we may act cynically for short-term gain.

It can be very hard to stick to the true way, especially if others are playing dirty, and gaining advantage for it. It takes guts – actually it takes faith to keep true, when it may leave you with no prospect of success. Our instinct can be to take that short cut to grasping the prize.

God’s purpose is that this world may be filled with his glory, but it’s not going to come by us each grasping for our bit. The rich young man longed for eternal life, hoped for the promised age of the Messiah when riches would be abundant and everlasting. He was well on his way materially, but Jesus challenged him to give his wealth to the poor. That made no sense to him and he went away sad. He loved the goal so much. So much more than he loved God.

Christians worship Jesus Christ, whose goal as a preacher and a healer was nothing less than that the kingdom of God whould come and thereby love and peace would fill the earth. But he was put to death because he lived for truth and would not get his way by lies or force.

He embodied that Law and he fulfilled it. As the faded text says above the arch, ‘The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ’. He didn’t deviate from truth or grasp for success but followed that way of self-giving and grace which is ultimately the only way to life. And so on this day, as on every Lord’s Day, we celebrate his resurrection. We rejoice in the freedom he won, a freedom to live, not cynically, but hopefully, and faithfully and truthfully.

Nantwich is a remarkable town. Its people have set goals down the years, and still do, in all kinds of ways, and blessings have come. As Mayor I know you are giving support and encouragement to many people in a busy schedule of engagements. As councillors you have personal and collective goals, as do each of us here today in different capacities. Often there are difficulties and frustrations, and temptations to let go of our scruples. Let us resolve to trust that the goal is God’s gift, not our achievement. And that God’s purpose for us is always far more glorious than any goal we could imagine.

Mark Hart