Lost, Found, Recovered, Saved
In Monday's Times newspaper, Matt Ridley the journalist who also belongs to an aristocratic family and is a landowner and farmer triumphalistically looked forward to a global end of faith in God. He wrote, 'Fifty years ago, after the cracking of the genetic code, scientist Francis Crick was so confident religion would fade that he offered a prize for the best future use for Cambridge's college chapels. Swimming pools, said the winning entry. Today when terrorists cry 'God is great' in both Paris and Bamako, as they murder, the joke seems sour. But here's a thought, that jihadism may be a last spasm – albeit a painful one – of a snake that is being scotched. The humanists are winning, even against Islam'.
Ridley goes on to say that the fastest growing belief system in the world is non-belief. Money and possessions, the view that what can be seen is the only reality and doubt and disbelief about God have killed Christianity in Britain he thinks, and now these are attacking faith expressions all over the world, especially Islam. What he is suggesting is that when people become educated and rich, they have no need of God. It is not a new idea. And Matt Ridley's views can be countered. Today, Cambridge's Chapels are full and overflowing. The King's College Christmas Carol Service is broadcast to hundreds of millions throughout the world. Cambridge's Chapels will serve as worship centres for centuries to come. Why? Because you and I are more than our genes and the large questions of existence cannot be answered by human minds alone.
Nor is Ridley right to think that ISIS means the end of Islam. The Saudi Arabians are the richest people in the world and they are fanatically Muslim. Islam will not go quietly into submissive obscurity in the next few decades. America is still the contradiction of wealth and power and knowledge side by side with Christianity even if some of the Christianity is corrupted and misapplied. It is America's Christianity that is called upon to settle world disputes alongside its military power, its bombs and its cyber warfare. Christianity is still the gold standard for human aspiration whether people are practising Christians or not. It offers a goal and a hope, a direction and a light. Because Jesus Christ is the best example we have.
Anglican Canon Andrew White the former Anglican Vicar of Baghdad now lives in Hampshire, having left to escape promised beheading by ISIS. Years ago his Christian congregation was 6000. ISIS killed 1000 of his church members. The congregation now is 46. He agrees absolutely that Isis are uniquely horrible, but he thinks the problem of talking to them comes from within the Quran itself. ‘The trouble is a lack of forgiveness in Islam. I have looked through the Quran trying to find forgiveness… there isn’t any. If you find it, tell me. This makes it very difficult to talk to Isis because they can show you quite clearly that it is what Allah wants. They can justify their position when Allah says you should combat and fight the infidel.’
Time magazine last week featured on its front page an article entitled 'What it takes to forgive a killer'. It is about the Christians in Charleston America, whose loved ones were murdered at their prayer meeting in Church on 17th June by Dylann Roof. One said 'Forgiveness is like a Band-Aid (elastoplast) that holds the edges of an open wound together long enough for the wound to heal'. Another who lost her son said, 'I forgave right away. If you don't you're letting evil into your heart. You're the one suffering. You're the one hating. You have to forgive. For you'. Jesus commanded his followers to forgive. And so throughout the world today it is His teaching and example that inspires and drives towards reconciliation and peace.
Last week, an Anglican pre-Christmas production advert for The Lord's Prayer was banned from cinema advertising. Even Richard Dawkins said the grounds on which it was banned are spurious ie., offending those of other faiths and none. How curious that prayer should be excluded while people otherwise are in temples of entertainment worshipping fantasy, fiction, idols, heroes and cosmic struggles between good and evil. Of course quiet peaceful Christian prayer is a great contradiction to the absurdities of the entertainment industry. It was brave and naive of the Anglicans to think they might get away with such missionary intrusion.
It is however harder to make the intellectual case for Christianity. I heard a report on the radio the other day that some Edinburgh scientists have found a gene which they claim makes people lazy. But we all know people who were once lazy and have become hard working. The comedienne Elaine C Smith used to explain why she went to Weightwatchers 'I've got this gland – it make me a greedy besom'. If the teaching of personal responsibility is replaced with credible excuses for poor behaviour then we are indeed no longer free human beings but automatons at the mercy of our biology. But it is no harder than it ever was to make the spiritual case for Christianity, the emotional case, the mystical case, the absolute miraculous wonder case. Because life and consciousness aspire beyond themselves to some other place, kingdom, world. They do so imaginatively through science fiction but however elaborate the plot and however phatasmagorical the creatures encountered, it always come back to ancient and eternal simplicities of the difference between right and wrong, the morality of good versus evil. It is still extraordinary to look at a clear sky and contemplate space – how far does it go? Why is it there? It is still beautifully soul wrenching to hold you first child in your arms after birth. The wonder of the gift of life is never more keenly felt, nor the sense that it all means more than you had ever thought until that precious moment. Lots, found, recovered, saved.
And so the parable of the lost sheep in Luke's Gospel offers something more than other faiths and philosophies. The context is Jesus' acceptance of the underclass in his society. William Barclay tells us that there were lots of non-pactising Jews at the time. They didn't keep the law. They didn't attend synagogue or temple. The name given to them was 'The People of the Land'. Orthodox practising Jews did not associate with them in any way. They were forbidden to invite them home or to visit their homes. They could not do business with them and they did not even have full legal status. Jesus was breaking new ground in his association with The People of the Land. Shepherds had a very hard job at that time and place. They didn't have lush fields or even large areas of hills on which to feed. The ground was rocky and much of it desert. Pasture was scarce. Flocks travelled far to get a nibble at some thin grass here and there. Shepherds worked in small communal groups over the hills staying out at night in spite of the presence of wild animals. If a sheep was killed the shepherd brought back the fleece to the village to prove what had happened. Shepherds risked their lives looking after sheep. Jesus parable of the Good Shepherd reflects reality at the time. Some died defending their sheep from wild animals and thieves. They did lay down their lives. It often happened that the shepherds and flocks arrived back home with the news that one sheep was lost and one shepherd was still out looking for it. This was an anxious time for everyone. When the shepherd appeared carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders there was great rejoicing and thanksgiving. This - said Jesus – is what God is like. Not a stern, violent judgemental God but a God who goes out to bring back the lost sheep of his fold. Today we might call them the children of Christians who strayed and got lost spiritually speaking and who now have been gently called and led back to the love of God, the forgiveness of God, to the blessing and peace of God.
The parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price take these things a little further. In Jesus' time, there were no safe deposit banks. People kept their valuables hidden in holes in the ground. Recently archaeologists have discovered such a hole in the ground in Colchester with jewels dating from the time of Boadicea. If an enemy arrived, people ran for their lives hoping to return and dig down and find their valuables again. Wealthy people and even governments did that. The wonderful Scotland the What comedians used to tell the story of the Aberdeen farmer who kept thousands of pounds in a biscuit tin which he hid below his bed. He told his lawyer about this as he was making his will in favour of his niece. 'Could I have her name and address?' asked the lawyer. The farmer replied, 'You could not – you find your ain niece'. 'Phew', said the lawyer, 'That's a lot of money to keep in a biscuit tin'. 'The farmer replied, 'Aye – but I took the biscuits oot first'. The man in the parable conformed to the Law of 'Finders' keepers' at the time. He did not steal the treasure but bought the field making the treasure his own. To buy it he had to sell everything for this much greater treasure. Pearls were held in great regard in the culture of Jesus' time. A jewellery merchant came across a pearl which he realised was of great value. To buy it he had to sell everything else that he had. Then it was his and he was very happy.
The gift of Christian faith is such a treasure discovered, such a pearl found. It came to you as a surprise perhaps and put into perspective everything else in your life. There may be things you have to sell off in your lifestyle in order to be a follower of Jesus Christ. But He's worth it. Lost, found, recovered, saved.
Jesus Himself is the hidden treasure. Jesus Himself is the pearl of great price. It is Jesus who is the true Flower of Scotland. Live in the knowledge of Jesus' redeeming love and of his redeeming resurrection power. And rejoice indeed. Amazing grace! How sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found; Was blind, but now I see.