Preacher: The Venerable Peter Lock, Archdeacon (2001-2009)
16 September 2007, 09:45 (Trinity 15)
Jer. 14.11-12;22-28; (1 Tim. 12-17);Luke 15.1-10 (Lit Yr C)
It’s strange how sometimes certain themes, phrases or issues come together and seem to draw attention to themselves. For me, like London buses three came along almost at the same time over the last week.
Last Saturday at the King’s School commemoration Service the preacher, a chaplain in the army, reflected on the theme ‘All may not appear to be what it seems.’ He challenged us to look at some of the events in our lives and see whether they might be interpreted in another way. Some might also be opportunities which God might use to open us up to his ways and indeed his presence.
In a totally different context I think I saw the same theme in the film of the book by Ian McEwen called ‘Atonement’. I won’t spoil the film by telling you all about it but at its heart – or rather at its beginning - is the way a young girl misinterprets a scene she witnesses which leads to a complete disaster for all those involved. What she thought she saw was not actually what happened. It’s this that introduces its major theme on atonement, and how she seeks eventually to find some way of reconciling herself to those she feels she has wronged.
And then from the prophet Jeremiah this morning comes the warning that disaster is about to break on the people of Israel, a disaster actually which God will use. Throughout his book he challenges the people to see the hand of God in something they might even think of as ungodly. That strikes me as the same theme: how do we interpret what’s going on around us – do we get it right all the time?
It is brave of the prophet Jeremiah, then, to challenge his people to look again at what is happening, and not surprisingly the people are deaf to what he is saying. They want to resist any suggestion that they should have anything to do with the Babylonians. They would prefer to side with the Egyptians. And so the story unfolds throughout this complex book of the demise of the people of God seen through the eyes of Jeremiah and his disciples, and of Jeremiah’s concern that people might come to see for themselves what is going on through the events which are happening to their people. Will they change their ways and come to their senses, and become more faithful in following God? Or will they ignore the warning signs, highlighted by the prophets and begin the long descent into chaos and the loss of their cultic and royal centre of Jerusalem? Where do they discern the hand of God? How can they atone for their past?
Whilst the film ‘Atonement’ is not obviously about God, its theme is very much a religious theme. Whilst is concentrates on human relationships and how they go wrong and how they might be put back together again, I couldn’t help seeing the theological relevance. For ‘atonement’ is about being at one. The word is made up of three words: at-one-ment. And from a Christian perspective, you can’t be at one with each other without being at one with God and vice-versa. As in 1 John – ‘If someone says I love God while at the same time hating his fellow Christian, he is a liar.....’1
To atone for one’s sins takes a great act of will as well as courage. It is an admittance that we ourselves are not all that we pretend to be. (There’s that theme again - All is not what it seems to be). It’s an admittance that we acknowledge we have done wrong and hurt others. In the film this is rather poignantly done, for there’s a moment in it when it’s said that the only way that the atonement could be achieved would be to write the story. This again got me thinking about the way God writes the story of the atonement from his angle – in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s as if his only way of bringing his people back to himself, to make us and his creation at one with him, was to act out in real life the story of the cost of love. But for those watching and witnessing, it would be open to interpretation and even misinterpretation. For some would say that what they observed was an innocent man crucified, whilst others would say they saw more, much more. Some would say they were seeing hell on earth and a cruel death, others the very means to new life offered by God through the offering of himself in Jesus Christ.
The very gospels themselves dangle the question about what it is it that you are seeing and hearing. It is as if they want to engage the hearer and reader in the reconciling story of God with his people, his very act of atonement.
As Paul was to say in one of his letters In Christ God was reconciling himself to the world.2 When that truth is grasped a whole new world opens up for us and for others. It is a truth that not only rests in the truth of the gospel but becomes effective in daily living as we learn how to forgive and be forgiven, for these are the tools of God.
1 John 4.20
2 Corinthians 5.19