From John the Baptist to Philip Pullman in <15 minutes!!?


Sermon for Advent 3


Isaiah 35.1-10

Strengthen the weak hands,

   and make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,

   ‘Be strong, do not fear! Isaiah 35.3-4a

These words could have been written for John the Baptist. Last week, we saw him confronting the very powerful religious authorities of his time. We see him today after he was arrested and thrown in jail, despondent and doubting. Soon, he will lose his head through the machinations of a spiteful queen and the weakness of a vain and prideful king.

Strengthen the weak hands… John needed strength. Jesus wasn’t doing quite what John wanted, so he sent messengers to ask if they’d got it right—was Jesus really ‘the one’, the one who was to come and set things right? It didn’t look right to John.

Jesus doesn’t say Yes or No. He answers by pointing to what is happening—the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor receive the good news. That’s where your answer is.

When I was wrestling with this text, I was reminded of the 19th century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. At one point, he wrote that if Christians want him to believe in their Redeemer, they should look more redeemed. It’s a timely reminder: we are the place where others see whether Jesus is the one, or not. When people ask us if Jesus is real, we can point them to where lives are being changed, where the poor are lifted up through the work of the Church, and where they too can receive eternal life.

But Nietzsche was never convinced. It was he who coined the phrase, ‘God is dead’, right back in the 1800s. 

There are people who will ask us today if our God is even alive. You might have heard of the so-called ‘radical atheists’ who insist that religious faith is something that is a barrier to human freedom and peace. And that it needs to be resisted. One of their number, Richard Dawkins, has said that teaching religious faith to a child is a form of child abuse. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald last Thursday called Dawkins and those like him ‘evangelists of unbelief’.

I’d like to mention another author called Philip Pullman. Pullman is has written a series of three fantasy books for young people. In the final book, ‘God’ is killed. Or rather, he is so weak, he just dies with ‘a sigh of the most profound and exhausted relief’.

I should say that while this so-called god is supposed to be the God we worship, in the book he is not the creator. He is the first angel who came into being, who told all others that he had created everything, and they should worship him. 

The first of these three books has been made into a film; The Golden Compass will be screened from Boxing Day. The film has been stripped of some of the book’s anti-religious elements, and the heroes are fighting all authoritarian tyranny rather than just religious tyranny.

Some Catholic groups have called for the film to be banned. What should our response be to this film, to these books, to the ‘radical atheists’ and ‘evangelists of unbelief’ as a whole?

Firstly, we should remember the words of Isaiah:

Strengthen the weak hands,

   and make firm the feeble knees. 

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,

   ‘Be strong, do not fear! Isaiah 35.3-4a

We should not be afraid of these things or these people. The loving and merciful God is sovereign. Jesus has risen from the dead. 

That’s first thing: whatever else you do, Do not fear. God is God, and always will be.

The second thing is: do not join calls for the film to be banned. Calls for the film to be banned seem to come from a place of fear. Calls for films to be banned only succeed in raising people’s interest and giving the film free publicity. Last year, we had The Da Vinci Code. Many people—this ‘reviewer’ included—thought the film was boring anyway. It was a financial success, perhaps partly because some influential Christian groups made such a fuss about the book and the film that people wanted to see what the fuss was about. As far as The Golden Compass is concerned, the critics are mostly calling it a dud. However, they say the computer generated effects are good, and the film will be a financial success.

The third thing is: if your children want to see the film, it’s your call as to whether they see it. But if they do, you see it too. (Perhaps not with your kids, though—it’s just not ‘cool’!) See it so you can discuss it with them. The same with the books. If you decide to let your kids read the books, you read them too. The same with you grandparents.

You have a great opportunity to talk to your kids and grandkids about real matters of faith and life through films and books like this. You can point them to where the blind see, and the lame walk. The authors of these books may be ill-intentioned, but we can strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. We of all people should not fear.

The fourth thing is: trust your kids, with your encouragement, to separate fact from fiction. They can—they do it all the time!

The fifth and final thing is: whatever you do, do it in love. Talk to your kids in love. Discuss the books and the film in love. Prayer for the radical atheists in love. That’s possible when we do not fear. Perfect love casts out fear.

We live in a world in which the Christian faith is continually challenged. We need to know where the Lord is at work, so we can the children among us where to find God’s peace and presence in their lives. We need the fellowship of the Church in this task, now more than ever.

Let us pray in words that are 500 years old:

Lord Jesus Christ,

you have said that you are the Way,

the Truth and the Life:

do not let us at any time stray from you,

for you are our Way;

or ever distrust your promises,

for you are our Truth;

or ever rest in anything other than you,

for you are our Life.

Lord Jesus, you have taught us

what to believe,

what to do,

what to hope for,

and in whom to take our rest. Amen. Erasmus, 1466-1536


Filed under sermon

2 responses to “From John the Baptist to Philip Pullman in <15 minutes!!?

  1. Ed Harper

    Hello Pastor –

    I am writing to say ‘THANK YOU” for posting your sermons — they are wonderful. Certainly God has richly blessed you.

    I myself am a retired Lutheran minister here in North Carolina, USA. I am still very active doing interim ministry in various churches. Preaching has always been my great love but, to be honest, I have not always been the most creative writer — I am, even to this day, still look for good resource material. I happened to come upon your website and though, “My wonderful sermons.”

    I was wondering, do you have sermons from the year of 2007, if so — is there any way I could obtain them? — they would be such a blessing to my continuing ministry.

    Again, thank you for all you do — may you have a wonderful Easter filled with the abundance of God’s MARVELOUS LOVE!

    In peace and discipleship,

    Ed Harper

  2. Thanks very much indeed, Ed.

    Sorry, no 2007 sermons online—I did have a blog before this one, which has been taken down. I’ll continue posting though.

    A happy and holy Easter to you!

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