So there I am, driving along on a bright sunny morning, with the radio on, and Lionel Ritchie singing 'Easy Like Sunday Morning' - and that was me just then: easy, relaxed, and happy: all’s well with the world. Well, I do thank God for those times, but of course things aren't always as 'easy as Sunday morning'. And as it happens, the readings given for today in the common lectionary, the book of readings used by churches of all sorts around the world - today they dwell on the hard side of the faith we profess, the times when it’s not so easy. Coming out here to speak to you, my temptation was to ditch those readings and find some nice ones, but then I thought: no, they deserve to be tackled, and they will have important things to say. They certainly speak to me, as I look back over the past few years, when I’ve had more than a few anxious moments, albeit mostly of my own doing.
The first reading I used this morning tells of one of the hardest times in the career of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah was often out there on his own: the words he had to deliver, the word of God that burned within him, was often a hard word for the king and his counsellors to hear. Compared to the other prophets of his day, men whose words flattered and consoled, men who were quick to assure the king that his decisions were right and wise, and all that he planned and did would have God's approval, Jeremiah was a voice out on his own. But his was the real message God wanted his people to hear, even though it wasn’t good news or easy listening.
This meant that life was often tough for Jeremiah, as it was for the heroes of the faith who are praised and commended in the second reading I gave, from the letter to the Hebrews. These were the verses that inspired the 19th century bishop and hymn-writer Christopher Wordsworth to write in his hymn ‘Hark, the sound of holy voices’ the words: "mocked, imprisoned, stoned, tormented, sawn asunder, slain with sword." I remember we loved to sing those rather bloodthirsty words when I was a little boy in our church choir!
But that was the fate of many whose stories we read in scripture, the men and women who are remembered as saints or martyrs, heroes of the faith. They were those who remained determined and steadfast in their faith when times were hard. Their devotion to their crucified King stood firm, even when it seemed the whole world stood against them.
Their stories show us that to be true to God brings no guarantee of worldly popularity or success. Far from it, in fact: you may well become a target, for it may mean that you stand out as different from the crowd, and that others may see you and your faith as a challenge to their unfaith and apathy. For most of us that isn’t going to involve us in much more than a bit of gentle ribbing down at the shops or the pub; we might have to put up with campaigning atheists of modern times, people like Richard Dawkins, rubbishing what we believe, but we’re unlikely to get physically attacked. But that isn’t true for all, and there have been many Christian martyrs, and many who have suffered grievously for their faith, in this modern day. It’s happening now to Coptic Christians in Egypt, or Orthodox Christians in Syria, or to members of the secret Christian communities of North Korea - just to take three examples of those who by standing firm in their faith today encounter genuine persecution, the denial of civil rights and opportunities, the burning down of their churches, and even injury and death.
This may be directly because of their Christian faith, as under some Islamic regimes; it may be because as Christians they feel bound to speak out against abuses of power and authority, and to challenge what within their societies is unjust. It may be because they choose to care for and speak up for people whom others disregard and reject. Christians should never be easy with what is sinful and wrong; if my neighbour is being hurt or abused or damaged, there's no way that can be none of my business. It has to be my business, because I know that it's Christ's business.
At the birth of our Lord, shepherds out in the fields tending their sheep head the choir of angels hail the baby Jesus as the Prince of Peace; but in my third reading this morning we heard the man that baby grew up to be telling his disciples that he has come to cast fire upon the earth. He tells them that what he brings is not peace but division - even at the level of the family. Those were hard words indeed; I wonder what the disciples made of it when they first heard them? What could fire and the sword have to do with what they were hoping for - the new Messianic age of prosperity and harmony?
“I have come to cast fire upon the earth.” In scripture fire is often a symbol of judgement - fire is something that tests and tries: the precious metal will withstand it, while the base metal - the impurities - will be burned away and removed. Those who believed, as many Jews did, that the Messiah was about to come, believed that he would come to sit in judgement on the nations - by which they understood the gentiles, the other peoples, but not them themselves; as Jews born and bred, as children of Abraham, they themselves would have no need of judgement.
But Jesus is telling them that all must face the test. Indeed, he tells his companions that he himself will have a test to undergo. When he talks to them, as he does, about his coming baptism, he’s referring not to the water of the Jordan, which has already happened, but to the baptism of fire, the great ordeal, that he knows he must face, as he sets himself to walk the way of the cross. This wasn’t what the disciples expected of him at all. Probably they imagined their Lord gathering an avenging army to drive out the enemies of his people so that the Kingdom of David could be established in peace. The notion that the Messiah might stir up dissention within his own people would have been a very hard thing for them to hear. As would the thought that the Messiah, the Christ of God, might himself have to endure suffering.
Angels in the hills above Bethlehem had sung of peace on earth and goodwill to all; but when we read the story of the birth of Christ we do hear other voices too. Old Simeon in the temple tells Mary and Joseph that the child they've brought to him is destined to be a sign to be rejected, and that his ministry will meet with great opposition. For those who speak God's truth, whether Jeremiah or Jesus, are likely not to be heard gladly.
Truth is a challenging and disturbing thing. Those who want only to be comforted and reassured will be tempted to stop their ears to it. St Paul writes that the word of God is a two-edged sword to penetrate the depths of the human heart. Jesus did not come in order to promote dissention and division; he had no desire that brother should be set against brother, and families divided; but he knew this was bound to happen as he spoke God's word of truth. Of course, Jesus preached a gospel of love and forgiveness and mercy; of course, his words show us God as the Father who never ceases to love his wayward child. But there is also a word of judgement, a message of judgement and division even that’s there in so many of the stories Jesus told: God's love is constant and his mercy is faithful and sure; but he meets his people with an urgent call for change in our human lives, for the mending of our ways and the opening up of our hearts. This is the preaching that led to our Lord’s own suffering and death; and to the pain and persecution that lay ahead for those he would send out as his missionaries and apostles.
And that Gospel word remains the same. We live in a world that seems today to thrive on a culture of celebrity, and that likes to have every Sunday morning easy: and in places the Church will be tempted today as it has always been, to think that its role is to give uncritical blessing to the status quo, and to offer comfort without the challenge of judgement and the call to commitment and change.
But where we do that, we issue half a Gospel at best, and in the end we are untrue to our Lord’s teaching and call. We need to use and to hear the hard readings as well. When we see our role and mission as to bless and to offer comfort, then of course all of that is true to our Lord's example: for certainly he gave comfort to all who came to him, and he turned no-one away. There is no lost sheep for whom he does not search, there is no sinner who is beyond the reach of his forgiveness.
But his teaching is also challenging and hard. If we stray from the true path, there is always acceptance and welcome and forgiveness when we come to our senses and turn back, just as there was for the prodigal son; but that really does have to mean giving up the bad, changing course, genuinely repenting, making the cross our sign. For he says to us: “Follow me” - which doesn’t just mean “Wander along behind me” - no, it means “Try to be like me.” Do your best; take it seriously; be mine, heart and soul.
The way of faith isn’t always an easy road, and wherever we travel it there will be those who take offence at us, as they took offence at Jesus. There are rocks and thorns where we travel, and there’ll be tough decisions to make, and siren voices at one shoulder or the other to tempt us to turn aside. It remains as true as ever today that those our Lord calls to himself, each and every one, he calls to be different from the everyday world around us, to dance to his tune and not the tunes of the world, the flesh or the devil; to be faithful to him before all else in life, and to resist the temptation to sell his grace too cheaply, or to make too easy the way of his cross.