Hope over despair


Sermon by Guest Preacher Rev Robert Simpson on 19 November 2017

Reading was John 3:16

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Thank you for your welcome. It is appreciated, particularly to you Stuart, relinquishing your preaching post to me, your more mature but ailing father!

When I was in full-time parish ministry, and the church services were over, teenage Stuart would tell me, ‘You didn’t smile enough’. Whether I can put my face into a smiling position or not I want to tell you an overwhelming true story.

No, this story is not about studious Stuart, or Lala, his musical wife, or the exhausting family of three.

Well, is it a story then about the multi-coloured rainbow stole that I’m wearing today? My wife Margaret made it for me some time ago. Simple in design though striking in its effectiveness, for, as the title of my sermon declares, God gives me ‘hope over despair’.  No, it’s not that one.

What about then the events of crippling clinical depression? I suffered ongoing pain where wriggling worms, plopping porridge, fizzing sherbert and metal casing trapped my brain, followed by periodic spot-welding, riveting and drilling and, to finish, large draught horses out on a continuous tramp.

In the darkest moment, there was no sense of self or personal value and, although I didn’t want it, suicide seemed to be the logical end of the path available.

Instead, I was taken to Christchurch’s Sunnyside Hospital to have a single treatment of electro-convulsive therapy. The following night I suffered a severe stroke, losing all my faculties on my right side including speech – a terrible prospect for an ardent gospel preacher!

When sufficiently recovered, I found that I had stillness and quietness and silence and peace that the clinical depression had refused to give me. No, the story is not these.

This story doesn’t relate to the skills of my psychologist and psychiatrist nor to many doctors, nurses and physio, occupational and speech-therapists, at three hospitals, over five long and frustrating years, continued to help my recovery.

This story is not even about Margaret. She trained as an excellent nurse, so has been a loving and ever-patient companion all through those difficult days including this one. I could only say a few stumbling words when I opened my mouth to sing an old song:

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do, I’m half-crazy all for the love of you.

Margaret cried. I half-grinned. Singing love songs to my beloved! Was there a difference between singing freely and saying these difficult words? I didn’t yet know.

What about the story of an occupational therapist who encouraged me to have a go on their computer? I wrote a short and jumbled letter to my father:

‘I am sorry for this mistake, bookwise, because this is an opportunity this to finalise for this expedience. I can only say these, that this matter has considered the reality big numbers. This as a judicious as a thesaurus’.  

Do you know what that means? I haven’t got the foggiest notion! Yet dad wanted to encourage me, so he said that it was a fine letter and showed it to all his friends!

Oh, I knew the meaning of all these words in my new memory storehouse, but I didn’t know what they meant in conjunction with other words.

Only last month I was writing to The Press about the four-syllable aphasia, the name accorded to the loss of speech, telling readers that I had five struggling years before I was able to speak slowly, clearly and distinctly. Anyone here or whom you have contact with who has the same complaint, keep on keeping on and you will gradually find aphasia becomes manageable.

In the midst of these events, Margaret told me that I was no longer ill. Noting my disquiet, she quickly said that most disabled people never give up! So, I didn’t give up!

This story is not even about what I’m going to tell you. A story that has some implications for you and for me, for our relatives, our friends, our neighbours, our city and our nation, indeed, for all people. The gospel reading of John 3, v16 might give you a clue:

For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.

In its wider context, the apostle John presents how Jesus fulfilled His destiny, affirming that the Saviour is going to the cross. This provides a conversation between Jesus and the Pharisee, Nicodemus who pays a secret visit to Jesus at night. Let’s take a closer look at this verse.

GOD LOVED. When God loved, it is a total unending love. God doesn’t place any conditions on His love. He doesn’t say to us, I will love you only if you do this or do that. Because he is a holy God, he expects us to live as he wants us to. Even when we don’t, he still loves us.

SO MUCH is the next piece. We can use how much in a limiting sense, like when we’re purchasing goods. What cash we have in our pockets or eftpos or credit cards – they are just enough to cover the charges. But we can also use it in an unlimiting sense when we can say God loves us so much that we can’t start to measure it. There is no end. It goes on and on into eternity.

HE GAVE. God’s love is no namby pamby  affair. God’s love goes on and on. It has an unstoppable nature to it. Look at Israel’s history. God gave the Ten Commandments because he loved his people and so, He wanted them to live upright, honest and without sin, lives. However, he also allowed Israel to need correction for any wrong or evil actions as they did in the exile. But he never stopped loving the nation.

God gave HIS ONLY SON. Jesus is the sole representative of God and was the means whereby our sins can be forgiven by redeeming us. Even if we do one thing wrong that doesn’t measure up to God’s own standard, we still need God’s forgiveness. Jesus took our place when he died on the cross – and that is – absolute, perfect, loving!

SO THAT WE MIGHT HAVE LIFE. Jesus said that he wants to give us abundant life. This life was as Adam and Eve enjoyed in the garden of Eden before the fall. However, this restored and ongoing new life will affect the way that we can live now. This new life will be perfect when we finally arrive in heaven.

SO THAT – this phrase means in order that certain things might be achieved. God gave it his highest priority, intentional, full of purpose and power.

Then the verse says, EVERYONE, or WHOEVER. God’s love is for the world with its millions of people, but because the text hones-in and says everyone or whoever, we have to give it our own individual responses, whether we will accept the generous gift of the good news, or reject it.

WHO BELIEVES. Belief is an active word. It is the verb of the noun, faith. Faith is what we have. Belief is what we do. Believing is not a once and for all affair. We continue through life believing in Jesus and so, we receive from God his love in large swathes.

IN HIM. Many will say that there is no difference between other religions and orthodox Christianity. They will recognize we are on different paths, yes, but they say we will end up in the same heavenly place. There are also many who tell us that as long as we live by the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, or both, then we will be OK. But believing in the sets of rules? It is never enough. This verse is very specific, we are invited to believe in Jesus Christ, full stop.

MAY NOT DIE. It is patently obvious that we all will die. John is not talking about physical death but the death of our soul, our person, our inner capacity to know and experience the love of God.

HAVE ETERNAL LIFE. Again, it is important to understand the meaning of the word eternal. It doesn’t mean the commencement of life that comes after death. It is more of a quality of life that begins in the here and now. It describes the sort of living relationship with God that can be had at this very moment. It is eternally, eternal.

Forty-five years ago, in Port Moresby, I was the manager of the Christian bookshop. One day, this beautiful demure young lady came slowly through the open doors into my domain. Soon there was romance in the air.

One evening, we were together in the flat, enjoying supper and listening to some nice music. It wasn’t long before I plucked up courage and fell on one knee to ask if she would marry me. Of course, she agreed! Then, with a “don’t go away” sort of look, I ran back into my room and took an engagement ring that I had just purchased.

This lady held the ring up to the light, admiring the delicate diamonds. I fell on my knee again, took her hand and put it on her finger. According to her, I was so-o-o-o romantic! We kissed rather madly but our noses got in the way and we collapsed, laughing. But Margaret and I were finally engaged! A few months later, we were married.

Maybe you are thinking of the time when you have had a wonderful engagement and a fulfilling marriage. Maybe you truly love your beloved, and you are waiting for an engagement, and of course a marriage in the near future.

But what say you get a negative response from your intended and all they can offer is a miserable, ‘Thanks, but no thanks!’ I would have been disappointed if Margaret had rejected me. In fact, I would have been heartbroken!

I can’t help but imagine how Jesus copes with the rejection of the gospel message. But that’s another sermon for another day. I am preaching on John 3, v16.

Here, is the core of the gospel. It is the kernel of good news. Its full of grace and everlasting hope. It tells of God’s love to everyone, proclaiming in these ringing words:  God sings to me His love songs – sharing songs of life with me! The music can be simple or as profound as it can be. Notes can speak in dying darkness, or the deep rejoice in sound; but the harmony’s discovered, when the Loving God is found! 

God is examining all of us. Don’t let Him down on His good news of Love! Refresh yourselves with God’s love and take the good news to other people, proclaiming, God loves you.

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