Sunday, December 12, 1999


Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
on Sunday, December 12, 1999
At Timothy Eaton Memorial Church
TEXT: Romans 8:18-21, 28-39 and The 23rd Psalm

This morning's sermon is the third in a four-part series for the millennium. The first one, you will recall, was on Discipleship, the second on Hope; this third one is on Redemption. “Who Is For Us?”

I don't know if any of you have ever had a sleepless night, but if you have you can identify with what I am about to say. They are one of the great curses of human existence, are they not? Unlike nearly everything else in this life, the harder you work at trying to solve it the worse it gets. You toss and turn and if you are like me, you get depressed and think of all the things you have left undone and all the things you have yet to do and I find that every beat of my heart gets louder and louder as I toss from side to side. It is a great plague upon us this “sleepless night.”

I remember some years ago when I had such a sleepless night. There was a reason for it; I had just returned to the United Kingdom because my father had just died and it was my job to return home and bury my father's ashes and also to meet with family members. For many years I hadn't had the opportunity to see them and I visited my aunts, uncles and cousins. It was a wonderful reunion. It is always so sad that it is occasions like that that bring families together. One night when I was visiting my aunt and we'd had coffee and reminisced about my father's life and made fun of him and laughed about him and at him and with him and I recall it was almost as if he was still in the chair in the living room where he used to sit. It was a glorious evening. My aunt realised that as I climbed the stairs to go to bed it was perhaps not the easiest time for me. She tapped me on the shoulder as I started up the stairs and said, “Andrew, the family had a meeting last week in the knowledge that you were coming and we decided to give you something. We hope you will accept it.” She took from the mantelpiece a book which was brown and ordinary and rather aged and she said, “On behalf of the family I would like you to have it for we feel you will use it like no one else.” The book is entitled A Letter From Heaven And Other Sermons. It was a book written by my great-great grandfather and is the only book in existence of its kind that we know of.

My great-great-grandfather on my mother's side was a Welsh preacher, a Congregationalist. He would tour from the north to the south of Wales preaching in Churches, mainly in Welsh. When Queen Victoria heard what a great preacher he was (he was known as ”˜the man with the silver tongue',) she actually commissioned that his sermons be translated into English and published and presented to her. This is the only other book of such sermons that I hold in my hand today; the other is owned by the Royal Family.

As I climbed those steps, losing my father, thinking of him, I lay in bed and began to read the words of my great-great-grandfather. In one of the most moving sermons and it was already almost 2 in the morning, I had come to the 133rd page, he does a devotion on the 23rd Psalm. I came to this and said to myself, “I now know why they wanted me to have this book. Now I get a chance to read one stanza from my great-great-grandfather.”

“Thou art with me. there is no one so timid without God as a godly man. He will venture no where without him. Scarcely ever does he go to his meeting place without asking his God to accompany him. He would rather be led nowhere unless God's face shine upon him. He would not for anything, enter into the valley alone, neither would he venture there in the company of an angel but having obtained a promise of God's presence with him, he is willing to go through water and fire, yea, anywhere. “Thou art with me,” evidently refers also to our Lord Jesus Christ because it could not be said that either of the divine persons, except himself, walked through the valley of the shadow of death with the believer. Death fears him. Then why should trial or danger be feared in the company of death's conqueror? He turned the shadow of the valley of death into the morning. Thou art with me.”

I can't help but think when I read that a man who wrote this over one hundred years ago believed it so deeply that the words that he spoke still speak to us with the same power and glory and majesty as for that Welsh preacher. “Thou art with me.”

What immortal words these are! I have often thought that they speak to us with a power and clarity the likes of which we have never known. The Apostle Paul in writing in the Book of Romans had exactly the same feeling when he wrote those immortal words that in neither life nor death there is nothing that will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. For the Apostle Paul the words had the same impact as they did for the Psalmist, for he was someone who believed that God was with us at all times and in all seasons. But that the Church of Jesus Christ, just like Jesus himself, has to sometimes go, as the Psalmist did, through the Valley of Shadow of Death. Like Israel when it faced the exile or the Psalmist when he faced danger, or Jesus when he faced the cross or the disciples in the glorious words of the Beatitudes when Jesus said, “Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted, blessed are those of you when you are persecuted for righteousness' sake,” the church of Jesus Christ embodies the walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death but at all times declares that “thou art with me.” Nothing separates us from the love of God in Jesus Christ or as the Creed of the United Church in Canada says, “We are not alone.” This is the word that we hear.

The great Lesley Newbiggin, who was involved with Ecumenism and the World Council of Church, once said that this story, that we walk through the valley of the shadow of death in this life and that nothing separates us from the love of God, is the very thing that Jesus Christ affirms. It tells and it enacts. The church of Jesus Christ exists for no other reason that to proclaim that very redemptive power and that redemptive grace. The Apostle Paul in this great passage of the Book of Romans, is talking about the cosmological effect of this gift of salvation, this gift of redemption, this gift of God's eternal presence. It is a gift which is given through creation, it is a gift that is given to humanity and in the midst of creation and humanity, the church exists as the people who are called, who are chosen to bear witness to this great redemptive act of love. This was at the heart of everything that my great-great-grandfather wrote in this book Letters From Heaven.

Today I want to look at these two things; I particularly want to look at the redemption of God in the midst of creation and then at the redemption of humanity. First of all for the Apostle Paul, the redemption of the grace of God, the eternal presence of God, is something that restores creation. When Paul looks around at the world in which he lives, he sees that creation is groaning. It is facing a decay; it's beauty fades away. It is lonely. It is in bondage to natural forces which destroy it. As he looks at this decay he says, “We wait eagerly, we bemoan the fact that creation is groaning but we who are called in Christ must wait in the midst of this groaning, paining, pulsing, decaying creation in hope for the glorious presence of Jesus Christ our Lord.” The Apostle Paul, you see, was in many ways a classic Jew. He understood that in Jewish thinking there was a distinction always between what was known as the present age and the age to come. The present age with its decay and darkness, with its death and with its sorrow and the age to come, the age of the Lord, the glory, the redemption, the renewal. As the great Isaiah said in Isaiah 65, “There will be a new heaven and a new earth.” The Jewish society in Paul's day believed in that; they believed that the present age was moving into the age of the Lord. This was something for which they waited expectantly and the Apostle Paul shared precisely that view, but he saw all of this now through the eyes of Jesus Christ. He makes this profound assumption, an assumption I think is shared within the Jewish scriptures, that the fall, even of creation, its decay and death, is not a result of its own will, nor is it just a result of the will of God, it is the result of the sin and fallenness of humanity. It is because of us and our disobedience, because of the fall, because of our declaration of independence from God that creation itself is in a state of fallenness, in a state of decay. In other words what we do as human beings has a profound effect on the whole cosmos, not just on our own individual single lives. Not only on ourselves as a race and a people, but our sin has an effect down the line even onto the very nature and power of creation. If we look at creation we see the signs of that. We certainly see the signs in it at times of its beauty, that when God created the earth it was good, there was harmony, there was peace, there was eternity. We can see that at times.

A number of years ago I visited the town of Concord in Massachusetts. In this great town I was invited to preach at the famous Trinitarian Congregational Church. I had waited a long time to go here because it is a very famous place, the home of Emerson, the home of Thoreau, people whom I had read. It was also a place for an Englishman that perhaps doesn't always carry with it the greatest sense of joy… is the place where the first shot was fired of the Revolution. When I was invited by friends in Concord to go and visit the Battlefield it was a moment of incredible pathos for me to see these Red Coats being shot by the Yankees, to see those British hoards being moved out of there swiftly and for the great joy and great glamour and wonderful posters up on all the walls saying ”˜The British are coming and now the British are gone! Alleluia!'

So I went into Concord with mixed feelings. Mixed feelings for obvious reasons but also with the joy at being able to preach the gospel in that historic church. So I got up in Concord, at Trinitarian Congregational Church, and I was warmly welcomed by the Clerk of Session and I got up there and my opening words were, “Ladies and gentlemen, I'm pleased to be here. I have come to take it back!” ( You should have seen the newspaper the next day: this was the beginning of the Re-Revolution of the United States of America!) But I've always had an affinity for Concord because of that and I went to the famous Walden Pond where Thoreau went and where he wrote his famous book. Recently I started to reread it for it is a beautiful book and through the eyes of Thoreau you see the beauty of creation; he sees it and he want to preserve it and want to keep it. He had these words to say: I was seated by the shore of a small pond about a mile and a half south of the village of Concord and somewhat higher than it in the midst of an extensive wood between the town and Lincoln and about two miles south of that our only field known to fame, Concord Battle Ground. But I was so low in the woods that the opposite shore, half a mile off, like the rest covered with wood was my most distant horizon. For the first week whenever I looked out on the pond it impressed me like a tarn high up on the side of a mountain, it's bottom far above the surface of other lakes and as the sun arose I saw it throwing off its nightly clothing of mist. Here, there, by degrees, its soft ripples or its smooth reflecting surface was revealed while the mists, like ghosts, were stealthily withdrawing in every direction into the woods and that the breaking up of some nocturnal conventicle. Where I lived was far off as many a region viewed nightly by astronomers were wont to imagine rare and delectable places in some remote and celestial corner of the system behind the constellation of Cassiopeia's Chair far from noise and disturbance. I discovered that my house actually had its site in such a withdrawn but forever new and unprofaned part of the universe. You see, Thoreau glimpsed the beauty of creation. But he, in his desire, wanted to get away from the bustle of the world to it. He wanted to leave the world behind with its decay and only be in the places of beauty and be only where the mist hovers on the water, only be where his house can see the constellation of the stars, he wanted simplicity, to get away from it all and to somehow recreate himself in the midst of a beautiful creation.

The problem with Thoreau's romanticism, the problem with his view of that, is that it is just not possible for humanity as a whole. We live in the midst of a creation that is decaying. We see its disasters wrenching and breaking, we see its forces clashing and killing, we hear its pounding, its groaning, its crying. As human beings as part of this world with all our sin and avarice and selfishness, we even through what we do at times contribute to this destruction of this creation that God has made. There is a cosmological effect to our sin and our greed. Paul was right: creation groans and waits expectantly for the people of God to arise, for the people of God to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ and to await the glorious consummation that comes through our living Lord. Indeed, we see that creation groans and it waits; it waits eagerly and it hopes. In the midst of this is the church. In the midst of this are those who bear witness to God. In the midst of this are the people who bear witness to the redemptive power of Christ that even creation itself will be drawn someday into the presence and glorious redemption of Almighty God. In the meantime let us treat creation gently and carefully and kindly.

But there is also the redemption of humanity. Paul goes on and waits expectantly for that day and he said “If God is for us, who can be against us?” If God, who in his own Son, came into the midst of humanity, is this not a sign of God's eternal redemption of all things? Many times, my friends, I have thought only of the redemption of myself or the personal salvation of people that I know. When I went to bed that night and felt the loss of my father I thought of his salvation. But sometimes we miss the overall power of the salvation of the cross of Jesus Christ. There is a very good friend of mine who is a professor of theology here in Toronto at Emmanuel College who one day decided to trick me. (He caught me out and if he's listening, he knows who he is!) He said to me, “Andrew, will your Cocker Spaniels be with you in heaven?” I thought it was a practical question and I said, “Clearly you don't know my Spaniels! I don't think so, no!” He looked at me and said, “Wrong!” I said, “What do you mean “wrong.” You don't know my Spaniels. If you knew what they'd done this morning trust me, you wouldn't want them in heaven with you. Cute as they are!” He said, “Wrong! Do you not realise that in the Book of Romans Paul speaks about the salvation of the whole earth? Through the gift of Jesus Christ God will be all to all. Through the gift of the cross and the resurrection all things will be drawn into God through his restoring grace and salvation.” Many times, my friends, I've thought of that and how right he is. I also think how the church that exists on this earth must bear witness to this salvation through Jesus Christ. It is not through our own actions, not through our own pride, not through anything that we ourselves do that salvation comes to the world, that God's restoration, God's redemption, God's resurrection takes place, it is by the power of grace. But sometimes even the church of Jesus Christ gets so wrapped up in itself that it forgets to proclaim this message to the world.

We are sometimes like an actor who after he had given a great performance held a reception in order that all the minions could come and be around him and give him praise. As he was there at this cocktail party with all the crowd visiting him and bestowing on him grace, he talked about his own life. He talked about the secret that he now had in his fourth marriage on the successes of marital life. He talked about how his own performances were an inspiration and how his philosophy of life was something marvellous and great. He was wrapped up in himself and everyone was listening to him and were filled with all the words that he had to say about himself and he realised that he was being a little selfish and he said, “Oh by the way, now what about you? What did you think about my performance tonight?”

The Church of Jesus Christ is sometimes like that. We are so consumed with ourselves, so wrapped up in who and what we are that we do not realise that we are here under the same call that Paul made to the church. It is Christ who is for us, that Christ exists for us and that therefore we exist for the world and for others. Just this week I was reading Readers' Digest about a wonderful letter by Paul Johnston, an article about the future of the Church and the meaning of this millennium. He talks in this about how amazing it is what the church is doing in the world. We in North America who are so wrapped up in our own little world, so caught up in the small picture that we have, forget to realise just how the gospel is spreading throughout the world, just how Catholicism is spreading in southern Africa, just how the Evangelical Church is spreading in Latin America, just how there is a sense of wonder and awe and glory in the grace of Jesus Christ amongst the poorest of our poor within the world. Sometimes we get so caught up that we forget the big picture, we lose the sight that Paul had: “If God is for us who can be against us? He who did not spare his Son but gave him up for us all.” Many people in the world realise that and sometimes those who walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death every day see that more clearly than most. Because this Christ who is for us cannot be separated from us. This Christ who is for us cannot be separated from us by life, or by death for as my great-great-grandfather said, “Death fears him.” We cannot be separated from God by the angels, by the principalities and powers in the heavens; they can't separate us from God. Neither the present nor (hear this!) the future can separate us from Jesus Christ. Nor powers can separate us. Nor disasters can separate us. Nor nothing else in all of creation can separate us, neither height, nor depth, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. “For thou art with me.”

Some years ago after a concert (maybe not as grand as the one we had last night of Messiah which was magnificent. I love Handel and I love our Choir!) But late at night after a concert, it was Advent, it was dark and snowy. All the carols had been sung, all the books had been put away, all the lights had been turned off and I locked the Church door behind me and got into my car and drove down one of the poorest streets in Ottawa. It is called Stirling Avenue! As I drove down Stirling Avenue I could see that there was a rather forlorn person sitting in a bus shelter trying to keep out of the wet snow. As I drove along I thought it might be somebody who had been to the concert so I thought I would pull over and see if it was a member of my church or an attendee at the concert that I could take home. This person was sitting on a knapsack in the bus shelter and tears were running down her face and mascara was all over her face and I could easily tell that this wasn't someone who had attended our concert but this was someone who was preparing to go and work the night. As she looked at me and I stood there with my clerical shirt on, she gazed up at me and couldn't believe her eyes. I know she was in a dilemma. “Oh my god!” she must have been thinking. “I'm going to be picked up by a minister!” Trying to comfort her and realising her anxiety, let alone mine, I just sat with her and she looked at me and said, “How far down do I have to go before someone lifts me up?”

In this broken creation with our broken humanity with our sin there is no depth to which Jesus Christ will not go to lift us up for ”˜in the valley of the shadow of death thou art with me.' There is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. My great-great-grandfather was right. Let us cleave to Christ. Amen