October 15, 2023

Stand Firm in the Lord (Philippians 4:1)

A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler

Philippians 4:1

A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler

Sunday 15th October 2023 (Trinity 19)

During this service a child, Hamish, was baptised


Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

It is always wonderful to have families here for baptisms at St Mary’s and we are blessed to be baptising children regularly at our Parish Eucharist. In the past twelve years we have baptised well over two-hundred children. The joy of the moment for these families is very special. These young lives remind us all of the potential of life and all that it might bring. We hope and pray for the very best for them.

But at every baptism, and maybe especially with the news from Israel and Gaza very much in our minds, I wonder what sort of world it is that these children will inherit. As Israeli and Palestinian parents and grandparents mourn the death of children, as many face enormous risks to life and limb in the coming days, especially in Gaza, we are both grateful that we live in a stable country but aware that life can be precarious. It may not be a long-brewing war that Hamish will face, but he will face its wider consequences. We have all lived through the trauma of the pandemic, and many have experienced economic hardship, and he will certainly face the consequences of the climate emergency, and all the uncertainty it will bring. We are right to celebrate today, and we should celebrate with great joy. But our joy is tempered with some anxiety about the future. What sort of world has he arrived in? And where can he find help to navigate all the challenges that he will face, personal as well as global?

Choosing to baptise a child can begin as a cultural artefact, honouring family traditions we have inherited, an expression of solidarity with the values of the society we live in. Such factors are not to be dismissed, but I do think that, alongside them, most parents whose children I have baptised want to acknowledge something – or perhaps Someone – bigger than them. Childbirth is a profound experience which draws parents to think about the responsibilities they have taken on, and an awareness that they cannot do it alone. There are usually grandparents, godparents and friends to support them. But I think that most parents choose to baptise children today because, somewhere in their hearts, they want to acknowledge a greater presence in their lives, a Presence that we call God.

Now, however tentatively you sense that Presence, however half-heartedly you believe in God, I want to invite you to a deeper awareness today. I want to suggest that, not only can you sense God, not only can you believe in God’s existence, but that – in the world of dangers and uncertainties that we and Hamish will have to face – God can be trusted. We can, as St Paul writes in his Letter to the Philippians, stand firm in the Lord.

This is not the moment to put forward a case for God’s existence, or to explore the thorny issue of God’s goodness in a suffering world. Instead, let me suggest ways in which you can discover God can be trusted, how you can stand firm in the Lord, and how parents and godparents can show that to Hamish.

Today you can take a small next step of faith and deepen your awareness of God. That spark you feel, that moment of awareness in the face of the mysteries of birth and death, that sense you have that, when the world is out of control, there is Someone out there to whom we can turn? Do business with that Person. We call it prayer. We call it worship. There’s no big secret to it. Prayer is talking to God as you talk to a physical person, taking a few moments each day and in moments of challenge, to seek out God. Worship is simply giving voice to that sense you have that, even if the world seems to have gone mad, or our lives are spinning out of control, that there is one who holds the world in his hands, to whom we can be thankful and grateful for the gift of life, and for the good that we experience.

It is easy to forget all the good that we have, and developing the habit of gratitude is part of what draws us away from the modern tendency to turn inwards and to become self-reliant. The Western world we have created since the Industrial Revolution is slowly coming to discover again what the ancients knew: that our recent ability we have to believe in ourselves and our own abilities is the exception not the norm. Most people over time have had to rely on others. Most have relied on God. Gratitude is the habit we develop of reminding ourselves of this, that we rely on others, and that thankfulness is an essential aspect of our humanity. Worship of God is the ultimate expression of gratitude – it connects us to the One on whom we can rely when the world is going to hell in a handcart. Childbirth is often a moment when we feel this most profoundly; suddenly we discover we have responsibilities for another and we feel out of control. I think of a number of people over the years who first started to pray and think about God when they had children.

So you have this spark, this glimpse of One who is greater than you, and you begin to fan the spark into a flame. Step by step, day by day, as we pray, as we thank God, as we worship, and as we listen to God, we learn bit by bit that God can be trusted. Even though the world remains full of uncertainty, there is one who we can hold on to, because we are learning to believe that he holds on to us. That’s what we call faith, this growing trust, not unlike a child feels for its loving parent, that we are safe, protected and valued.

Have you noticed how little any of this has to do with organised religion? This is about something deeply human and personal, the business that goes on between men, women and children and their God. Learning to trust God doesn’t require any of the trappings of religion or church, doesn’t require buildings, priests, robes, choirs, or any of the countless other things that we human beings do to give public expression to that spark of faith, that need to rely on God. It doesn’t require any of it.

But what we discover, very soon, is that this trust in God is a shared experience and that, in learning to trust God, we discover that God doesn’t just want to offer us the peace and security that comes from an individual sense that God can be relied upon. We discover that actually God wants us to show the world that God can be trusted too and that there are better ways of being human than living in a world of insecurity, violence and mutual competition. This is what Jesus is doing when he calls his disciples; it’s what he’s talking about in these mysterious parables about the ‘Kingdom of heaven’. God wants not just to give us the confidence to know that he can be trusted, he wants us to actually go out and make the world a more trusting place. And that’s when we need one another. That’s why we gather together as those who trust God. We are a community of trusting souls. That’s what the church is. And that’s what our life together as we gather together in prayer and worship, is meant to be about.

Now, I hear the objection here. Look at Israel and Gaza – Jew against Muslim; look at Ukraine and Russia, with Christian bishops in collusion with Vladimir Putin’s hostile agenda; look even at America where Christian nationalism is presenting an ugly face in a culture war. All these people seem to be ‘standing firm in the Lord’. They seem to be basing their hostilities and agendas on their beliefs in God. People go to war over creeds and faiths and religion. Isn’t it the problem not the solution?

Well, there’s no doubt that sincere people of faith seem to think so. But I think they are misguided. They miss the point. When people talk of ‘standing firm’ they usually mean ‘standing firm’ about a position they hold – a doctrine they value, a moral position they take, a political philosophy they adhere to, a leader they follow. These are the things that they stand firm in. But, while those things may be important – there are perhaps things we would all stand firm about if challenged – there is a world of difference between standing firm in a position we take and standing firm in the Lord. Standing firm in the Lord is first a disposition to trust in God, not in a politician or a policy, not a moral stance or a treasured doctrine. They may be important, but they are not God, and to put them in the place of God is a form of idolatry. They come second. God comes first. Indeed, if we trust in God, if we come to believe that God’s way is the right way, then all our values will slowly be aligned to his. We will see others – especially those we differ with – in the way that God sees them. And that will, or at least should, affect the way we handle our differences. It’s not difficult to see that, from the perspective of faith, the more we learn to trust God, the more likely it is we will approach the world in a different way.

And the way we approach the world differently is this: we do it together, and with God. When we learn to trust God, we come to know our need not only of God, but of one another. We are made for community and relationship. The ties of family, race, nation and kin bind us all together. But our shared trust in God bind us together even more deeply than these things. We trusting souls find ourselves to be the People of God, and that status means that those other ties need to be qualified. Family first is not a Christian virtue; my country right or wrong is not a Christian value; my race or religion above those of others are not the values of the one who trusts God. A common humanity, a shared life, a different vision – these are what we share as we gather in prayer and worship. We learn to trust God together.

None of us know what the future holds, for Hamish or for any of us. Perhaps things are more uncertain now than they have been since the Second World War, which is the lifetime of most of us. If we want a better world, and if we want to find a way through it that promises a better future for our children, I say that a life lived in trusting God and in following Jesus Christ offers a path where we will never be alone, where we walk with God and others in a shared journey, and where we stand a chance of making this world, which we are so prone to damage and harm through our endless failures to live lives for the common good, a better place for all.

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