The sermon I preached at my farewell service in Werrington and Wetley Rocks as my curacy comes to an end and as we move to Coventry where I'll be the Vicar of St Christopher's, Allesley Park, and Whoberley Community Church. The sermon is based on Isaiah 43:1-7, 16-21 and John 20:1-2, 11-18
Well, this is probably the last time that I’ll have the privilege of sharing some of God’s word with many of you, and I’ve been mulling over what exactly to say. I think it’s important to leave a good final impression. So, in an admittedly morbid mood I looked for inspiration from the recorded last words of famous people in history. I want to aim for the sort of profundity of someone Hugh Latimer, the reformer, who at the stake cried out, “Be of good comfort Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle by God's grace in England, as (I trust) shall never be put out.” – or at least the accuracy of the French grammarian, Dominique Bouhours, who said, "I am about to--or I am going to--die; either expression is used." I hope I leave that sort of impression, rather than that of the misguided American general, John Sedgwick. When someone suggested that he should not show himself over the parapet during the Battle of the Wilderness, he scoffed, "Nonsense, they couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." You can guess what happened next…
As this is the last time I’ll be able to share in this way with you, I thought I’d take the opportunity to preach the longest sermon on record – not really, I’m just kidding. John, I could hear your sharp intake of breath from here! – I would like to share something simple, something that changes everything, the only message of hope that matters. Those wonderful words that Mary Magdalene shared with the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”
When Mary Magdalene met with the risen Lord Jesus outside of his tomb in that garden in Jerusalem, it changed everything for her. In an instant she was transported from the agony of incredible shock and grief to unstoppable, heart-bursting joy. We know the story of that first Easter morning so well that we forget that when Mary went to the tomb that morning, she didn’t expect to meet Jesus. She went to the tomb to anoint his battered and broken body for burial, to wash his corpse with her tears. To say goodbye to him, and with him, her hopes and dreams.
Before he came along, she was nothing – an outcast, plagued by seven demons; evil spirits that raged inside her – voices she neither recognised nor wanted to recognise. They wouldn’t leave her alone. And then Jesus released her; he allowed her to hope again. As she followed him and witnessed incredible things, her hope grew. His amazing teaching was accompanied by incredible miracles: he healed the sick, cast out demons and even raised the dead. Amazing. Surely this man was the Messiah – the promised king who would rescue the Jewish people from all of their oppressors. And then the world stopped on that Good Friday, when he was unjustly and brutally executed. She was devastated. It was all over.
Let’s not with the gift of hindsight sugar-coat the devastation that she and the rest of the disciples must have felt in the time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. This is really important, because I believe there are so many people who live their lives shrouded by grief and disappointment. For them there is no light at the end of the tunnel, no silver lining for the cloud. Some of you will know such people. Maybe some of you know what it is to be in that place. Perhaps you’re there now. You may be walking around and to others around you things might seem absolutely fine, but you’re dying inside.
The prophet Isaiah was writing to a people in exile. Despite the many warnings issued by the prophets that Israel’s continual rebellion against God and their sinful practices would lead to exile, the people took no notice and continued to go their own way. They got into such a huge mess because they turned their back on God. Now God’s chosen people were banished from the Promised Land and had lost their identity. The future looked bleak. All hope had gone.
Where do we go when we lose hope? What is the answer? In our arrogance we come up with many so-called solutions that we call self-help or self-improvement manuals that we claim will solve the heartache at the heart of humanity. We seek to find our identity in our work or family or hobbies. But none of these works – none can bear the burden of giving shape and identity and ultimate meaning to our lives. All fall short of what we need. The world can offer no answer.
Mary Magdalene was crushed by the devastation of her grief which was compounded by the fact that Jesus’ tomb was empty – adding insult to very severe injury. She was in such a state of shock that she didn’t even seem to see the angels who were sitting in the tomb where Jesus should be; all she could think about was the fact her Lord’s body has gone. And then when she saw the figure in the corner of her eye, she didn’t recognise him. But everything changed with one word. “Mary.”
That’s the moment the penny dropped. Mary realised that this was the man who’d set her free from those demons, had taught incredible things and done wonderful works and who she’d watched die just two days previously; this was the man who wonderfully, incredibly, but truly, was alive. Jesus is alive!
I stand here today because I believe that Jesus alone provides the answer to the world’s desperate need. I believe that only Jesus can give us the hope, meaning, identity and purpose we each crave. I believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection mean that our severed relationship with God can be restored, and that the sin that swamps societies and destroys communities is accounted for. I believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection mean that the lost can be found, that the hopeless can find hope, the sick can be healed, that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that the cloud that many people live in will have a glorious silver lining. I believe it because I’ve seen it. Over the past 3 years I’ve seen firsthand the work that God has done in people’s lives. I’ve had the privilege of hearing and sharing in some of your stories. These are stories of real transformation, real hope, real restoration, real light out of some dark, dark circumstances.
Of course, that’s not to say that if you come to faith in Christ all your problems disappear. There is a myth that Christian experience is all hunky dory; that once we come to faith in Jesus, everything will be easy and that we will always be joyful. It’s simply not true, but God never said it would be. Jesus never said life would be easy if we followed him. He did say, however, that he would never leave us or forsake us, that we’d never be alone.
In our Old Testament reading God spoke words of hope to the desperate exiled people of Israel and he speaks words of hope for us. Although we might turn our back on him, God will never turn his back on us. He reminds us that he has redeemed us, that we belong to him (v.1), that he will be with us and give us the strength we need when suffering comes – the water will not sweep over us, and the fire will not burn us or set us ablaze (v.2). How do we know, how can we be sure? Because this is the word of God speaking – he is our Saviour (v.3).
Have you ever wondered how God sees you? This passage answers that question – God says, “You are precious and honoured in my sight, and … I love you” (v.4). He demonstrated that by sending his son to live and die for us. God’s love changes everything.
Jesus changes everything. Mary Magdalene experienced that, and millions have experienced that too. The world needs Jesus. The communities of Werrington and Wetley Rocks need Jesus, and in the same way that the Olympic torch has been passed from person to person as the relay has criss-crossed this nation, I’m passing on the torch to you. There is nothing more I can do to spread God’s good news to the communities here. I’m already part of the history of God’s work in this community – or I will be once the holiday club has finished on Friday. I hope and pray I’ve followed Jesus faithfully and been a good witness to him, his love and his grace. But now the message of hope is in your hands.
God is looking to do a new thing here. I love that verse in our reading this morning – ‘Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? ” (Isaiah 43:18-19). God is always one step ahead of us, calling us to move on and co-operate with his plan to bring in his Kingdom here. Are you up for it? Will you listen to God, will you respond to the challenge? Werrington and Wetley Rocks need to hear the message of hope. Will you follow Mary Magdalene – who became the first hearld of the best news – will you bring people the message they need to hear, proclaiming in word and deed, “I have seen the Lord?”