Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies
Sunday 8th May
We live in
such a competitive world don’t we? After
a busy Sunday when I should’ve been getting some shut-eye I was transfixed by
Mark Selby and Ding Junghui going hammer and tongs trying to out-snooker each
other in one of the longest frames the World Championship’s ever known. There’s
a piece of research by an academic from Northwestern University in the United
States who studied medallists and discovered that Bronze medallists were happier
than those awarded a Silver medal. I think it’s possible to understand why.
Silver medallists tended to focus on how close they came to winning the big
prize - so they weren’t satisfied with coming second. Bronze medallists tended
to focus on how close they came to not winning a medal at all so they were just
happy to be on the medal rostrum at all.
It’s a fascinating insight into human nature: that what we focus on and what we pay attention to (how we perceive things) – largely determines our reality. So how we feel very often isn’t determined by objective circumstances. How we feel is determined by how we see things – by our subjective focus. The poet John Milton said it best: “The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make a Heaven out of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”
One preacher I came across thinks there are two basic types of people in the world: complainers and worshippers. Complainers can always find something to complain about. Worshippers can always find something to praise and thank God about.
I used to teach a bit of psychology in university. There’s a school of thought called Personal Construct Theory; the theory is that we’re developing ideas – hypotheses - about everything, - all the time – and then what we do is look for evidence to support our ideas and opinions, and ignoring evidence that doesn’t fit.
So if we decide we don’t like someone we’ll notice absolutely everything that is wrong with that person - and ignore anything we could potentially like about them. Mind you the flipside is true as well. If you fall head-over-heels in love with someone you tend to only notice those things you love about them – until it’s too late, of course – just ask Sue! So we see what we’re looking for.
Now what on earth does that have to do with worship? Well a true worshipper makes a decision to look for something to praise God about even in the direst of circumstances. And what a story we have in Acts 16 – because by anyone’s assessment this was a bad day. (Think about it). Paul casts a demon out of a fortune-teller; her master doesn’t like it because she loses the ability to predict the future and earn money - so he has Paul and Silas arrested; they both get severely beaten, and thrown into prison; the jailer’s then ordered to make sure they don’t escape, so he takes no chances and puts them into the inner dungeon and clamps their feet in the stocks.
I don’t know about you, but if I put myself in the sandals of Paul or Silas I’d be emotionally, physically and spiritually spent - drained to the last drop - nothing left to give. Their backs are bleeding from their flogging; they’re black and blue all over – so much for the joys of ministry! It just doesn’t get much worse than this. And that’s why the verse right in the middle of our reading is so incredible (have a look): “About midnight, Paul and Silas were complaining bitterly about their circumstances and how badly they’d been treated.” (Nah - that’s not what it says, does it??)
“…around midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening.” Incredibly they’d somehow managed to ‘zoom out’ from the horrible situation they were in to be able to see the bigger picture.
When I get into a spiritual or emotional slump – and it happens more regularly than I’d like, it’s usually because I’ve done the exact opposite and zoomed in on some problem or other. Perhaps I’ve got back late after a busy few hours somewhere up in the northern wilds of the diocese - feeling pretty knack’d – and instead of focussing on what might’ve gone well, when I discover the washer holding a tap together has finally broken – or I successfully knock over a plate of chilli you won’t exactly hear me praying and singing hymns to God - it’s all the problems I fixate on – focussing on the wrong things – and quickly losing perspective - and my cool. Sometimes it helps to zoom out and look at the bigger picture. I’ve been at Llangasty this weekend leading a session for the curates – and Dorothy Lewis was there…how about her perspective? Here’s what a university student wrote to his parents in a letter – and this is ingenious:
Mum and Dad,
I have so much to tell you. Because of the fire in my hall of residence, which was set off by the student riots, I experienced temporary lung damage and had to be rushed to the hospital. While I was there, I fell in love with a porter, and we’ve moved in together. I dropped out of college when I found out I was pregnant, and he got sacked because of his drinking, so we’re going to move to Alaska, where we might get married after the birth of our baby.
Your loving daughter ~
PS: None of this really happened, but I did flunk my chemistry exam and I wanted you to keep it in perspective.
So how do we learn to zoom out? There’s a one-word answer: it’s WORSHIP. When we worship we take our eyes off of our external situation and focus on God. We stop being preoccupied with what’s wrong with us or with our circumstances. A bit like Peter walking on the water, looking into the face of Jesus – until he started focussing on the water lapping around his feet.
Silas could have done the same, couldn’t they? “For goodness’ sake God we cast
out a demon and this is what we get?? We’re on a missionary journey to share the
Gospel and we get beaten and thrown in jail?” – But no not a bit of it! They
could have complained till the cows came home. But they made a
choice to worship God in spite of
And here’s what worship – especially if it involves thanksgiving - does. It restores spiritual equilibrium - balance. It helps us regain our perspective. It enables us to find something to praise God about even when everything seems to be going pear-shaped. It’s refocusing on the fact that two thousand years ago, Jesus died on the cross to rescue us and free us from the weight of all that sinful stuff; that God loves us when we least expect it and least deserve it.
Is it an
easy thing to do? Absolutely not!!. Nothing’s more difficult than praising God
when everything seems to be going wrong. But one of the best forms of worship is
praising God even when we don’t feel like it, because it shows God that
our worship isn’t based on what we happen to be going through. Worship –
‘worth-ship’ - is based on acknowledging the the character and goodness of God
and how he’s shown us exactly what he’s like in Jesus – and focussing on
that (Him) can actually allow us to
view our circumstances differently – to ‘reframe’ them as the psychologists
It’s always a challenge to read the accounts of Holocaust survivors about their experiences in Nazi concentration camps. Victor Frankl was one – and he said everything was taken away except one thing. Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
Paul and Silas were chained up in prison – and their choice to worship set off a chain reaction. To cut a long story short, there was an earthquake, the prisoners were set free, but they didn’t leave! The jailer who was about to kill himself must have been so affected by what was happening that right there and then he gave his life to Jesus and he and his entire family got baptized in the middle of the night.
You can’t script this kind of thing. You can’t plan miracles. But when you worship God in the worst of circumstances you never know what’s going to happen. Worship sets the stage for God to do something special! Worship causes spiritual earthquakes that can change the topography of people’s lives. Worship can be like shifting the tectonic plates of our thinking. It may not change the circumstances. But it will change our lives. The key is focusing on the right thing – or Person – which is what today is all about as we share Communion together – and our worship culminates in meeting the risen Jesus at the Table he invites us to – to share a meal and be blessed by him!
Paul gives some priceless advice in his letter to the Christians at Philippi. It’s a list of eight premeditated things we can decide to think about. He says this: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
a closing thought: the circumstances we complain about can become chains that
I wonder - are there circumstances that you’re allowing to imprison you? Have your complaints about something or someone become a bit like wearing shackles? I know I’ve had to struggle recently – and probably will continue to have to. But what I know is that there’s some good news: if you start focusing on Jesus, fix your eyes on him - the perspective will come.
That’s what the jailer did when he became a believer – when he committed himself and said this is the way I’m going from now on. I wonder if today we might re-affirm our commitment to God. Perhaps for some this might be the first time you can remember using such a prayer – and it might be like inking in the pencil marks and coming into the fullness of a relationship with Jesus that you’ve heard others talk about but which has been a bit distant for you. For others this could be the start of a process that leads to some form of ministry of service. So try praying this in the quietness of your own heart as I carefully pray the words.
Lord Jesus Christ, I know that I’ve sinned and done things that have hurt you. And I really am willing to turn away from what is wrong in my life.
I want to go where you lead in the future.
Thank you for giving yourself for me, so totally – for dying on the cross – for me - so that I might be forgiven and set free.
Thank you that you freely and unconditionally offer me forgiveness and the gift of your Spirit to make his home in my life. I now receive that gift.
Please come more fully into my life by your Holy Spirit to be with me for ever. And lead me where you want me to go - and let me know how you wish me to best serve you.
Thank you Lord Jesus for your incredible love and patience. Amen.