The theme of my sermon today is perseverance. I am sure that most of us, at one time or another, have felt the desire to give up when things are not going well. I certainly have, though my boarding school years taught me to keep going and persevere when sensing that everything was going wrong. In my school days of the 1960s there was very little pastoral care but pupils encouraged each other to keep going and helped each other out in times of trouble. This encouragement to persevere through difficult times has stood me in good stead over the years in attempting to cope with the ups and downs of life and keep a steady course in stormy weather.
Is there, though, something more here than just getting through hard times and marching on in the hope of better days to come? To attempt to find the answer let us look at today’s Gospel reading.
Mark writes that when Jesus teaches in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth his teaching is rejected by his hearers on the grounds of his being a carpenter in his home town with his sisters present. Where, they ask, can such a one get his teaching from? ‘What is this wisdom’ they ask ‘that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done in his hands?’ Jesus is amazed at their lack of belief but he does not react by abandoning his teaching. On the contrary we know from Mark that straightaway he went about among the villages teaching.
Here is a demonstration by Jesus of perseverance in a time of rejection and as we can read in the continuation of today’s Gospel, Jesus, without hesitation, goes on to summon the twelve disciples to further his mission of healing and teaching. They too, are called upon by Jesus to persevere, as they are either to stay in a household until they leave or, if they are not welcome, as they leave they must shake off the dust that is on their feet as a testimony against the householders.
What, though, is the motive for this continuance of mission against the odds? In his book ‘Transforming Mission’ David Bosch writes that: ‘Christian mission gives expression to the dynamic relationship between God and the world’. It is, he writes, ‘an act of faith without earthly guarantees’. ‘It is God’s ‘yes’ to the world’. It is an invitation to people to become living members of Christ’s earthly community and begin a life of service to others in the power of the Holy Spirit’. He writes that: ‘you are challenged to be God’s experimental garden on earth’.
These are impressive words used to explain why perseverance matters. By sticking to our guns and remaining undefeated by opposition we are engaging with life in such a way that we can demonstrate our faith in God’s ‘experimental garden on earth’. It means that we have faith in the promise of God’s covenant with us that he will never, in spite of the Fall of Adam and Eve, abandon us as he offers us an eternal love that does not fail.
An example of this love is God’s power to renew his creation. It is a feature of Jewish scripture that when his love is met by infidelity and failure it is always renewed by him. From time to time, God breaks us down, like the potter with the clay, and then renews us. In today’s pandemic it may well be that God is breaking up our world in order for it to transit through a portal into a renewed and better state of affairs. This sense of breakdown and renewal should sustain us as we attempt to persevere, particularly now with all that the pandemic has thrown at us. We can remind ourselves that every time a child is born that is creation being renewed.
To return to the mission of the twelve disciples, we learn from today’s Gospel that the journey must go on. At this stage, though, Jesus has the advantage over them in that he knows that when he teaches it is in the sure knowledge that God is the origin of his power. This is affirmed in the Gospel of John in the passage where Jesus is teaching in the Temple in the Festival of Booths. In response to the anger and astonishment of his Jewish audience, he says: ‘the teaching is not mine but his who sent me’. At the onset of their mission, the disciples embark on their journey but we know that without the certainty that Jesus possesses their faith wavers and later on the narrative of the Gospels there is denial and betrayal of Jesus right up until the Crucifixion. Yet, by the mercy of God, we also know that this is not the end. After the Ascension we are told that they will go out to proclaim the good news of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Here is an example of God breaking the pot in the death of his Son and then renewing it in the Ascension and the renewal of the mission of the disciples.
This brings a sentence to mind that I heard on the radio recently that if God opens a door no man can shut it.
In the current difficult situation that we are facing worldwide I believe it will help us to persevere if we hold on to this power of God to renew his creation. We can too pray to God to assist us when times are hard. As the Psalmist cries to God in Psalm 123: ‘have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt’. The Psalmist is struggling but he knows who to turn to when reaching the limit of his ability to endure. This is a free gift of God to us that we can call upon him for strength in hard times.
So let us pray that God will see us through when the going gets rough and have faith in his covenant of promise with its heavenly reward of eternal life.