Sermon preached on the Second Sunday before Lent (8 February 2015) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

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Sermon preached on the Second Sunday before Lent (8 February 2015) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

The Very Reverend David Ison looks at worship and power -  not God’s power over us, but the power God gives to us.

Colossians 1.15-20; John 1.1-14

‘We become like what we worship’. This is a quotation from a former Bishop of Durham, an insight from the Psalms (115.8), where it’s said of the silver and gold idols of the gods that ‘Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them.’

‘We become like what we worship’. And the converse is true: that what we are like indicates the kind of thing that we worship. By the word ‘worship’ I don’t just mean something religious: our worship is what we give our attention, adoration, reverence and devotion to, as in hero- or celebrity-worship, or the love of your life, or the pursuit of money or power or pleasure.

What is it that you and I worship? Where do our energies and resources go? And what kind of person does that worship make us…?

In today’s world, many people have bought into the lie that religion is the cause of war and is therefore a ‘bad thing’. It’s a sign of the precarious state of historical awareness.

Many wars have had a religious dimension, because human beings are religious people, but very few wars have been fought on religious grounds. The great genocides of the twentieth century were perpetrated by atheists, communist and fascist, from Hitler and Stalin to Pol Pot and Chairman Mao. Current civil wars in South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere occasionally use religion as a cloak, but are about the lust for power rather than an expression of religious belief.

And that’s true also of the atrocities committed by ISIL in Syria and Iraq, and those who emulate them elsewhere in the world, atrocities which are abhorrent to mainstream Muslim believers; atrocities which are justified by those who commit them by warping the worship of Allah the All-Compassionate into an instrument of the angry dreams of adolescent boys exercising the godlike power of life, death and destruction over whatever group of people they desire.

The troops of ISIL show by their actions that they worship, not God, but the ancient idols of power and death, and sacrifice themselves as well as others to the power of violence. This is indeed a blasphemy, against the nature of God.

But Islamism, like all forms of violence, including the ones which our own country has in the past espoused in its wars and conflicts, has a story and structure of belief which justifies violence and the killing of others.

We currently have our own stories, which justify drone attacks and air strikes against our enemies. And when those stories are questioned, as by conscientious objection in the First World War; or the courageous stand of Bishop George Bell in the 1940s against indiscriminate bombing of German civilians; or the mass rallies against the Iraq war; or speaking out by courageous Muslims against the forces of ISIL, the response can be violent and threatening: because those who worship power over others will react with power and violence, because they – because we – become like what we worship.

And this is where the Christian story has much to say, including against its misuse to promote the interests of the powerful. The words read from scripture in our service today claim that the world is made for the worship of God as seen in Jesus Christ; that Jesus shows us what God is like, a God of light and love, a God who gives utterly and seeks to reconcile people to one another, and the world to God, through the sacrifice of the cross.
God does not choose the way of violence and power over us, and neither should we over others. God becomes vulnerable to us in Jesus, and we are invited into the story of God to be vulnerable in love together with him.
If we truly worship who God is in Jesus Christ, we must love God and our neighbour – all our neighbours, because every human being, however unpleasant or damaged or different, is a child of God whom God loves and for whom Christ died. This is the strongest bulwark against the perversions of ISIL and terrorists of every kind. One of the greatest gifts of the Christian gospel story to the world has been the commitment to love even our enemies, and the refusal to divide people into ‘them and us’, that basic dehumanisation which underlies violence and death.

In Christian understanding, all violence and war is a failure of love.

It may in extreme circumstances be the lesser of two evils, but is to be severely limited, and is not to be celebrated but forgiven and healed.

It is heroic culture-worship, ancient and modern, that sees violence as the solution to problems rather than part of the problem itself.

I hope that we ourselves here today do disown violence. But that’s not the only form of power over others. In our culture, science and technology, information, money, pornography or fame are alternative forms of wielding power over other people and the world around us.
They too are objects of worship which will corrupt the lives of those who are devoted to them, as we attempt to make the world in our image and not in the image of God.

‘The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory’, says St John at the beginning of his gospel; words echoed by Paul in the letter to the Colossians, where Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God, the head of all things, revealing the fullness of God.

And this glory of Christ is seen, not in kingly rule, but by the making of peace through the blood of his cross.

Here is the power of the Christian story: not God’s power over us, but the power God gives to us. ‘He gave power’, says St John; power for what?

Not power over anyone or anything; but ‘power to become children of God’: the power to become like the God who we worship through Jesus Christ; the power to love even the unlovable other; the power to suffer for love’s sake… Remember, reflect and respond. Remember, when the next atrocity hits the headlines, that we become like what we worship… Reflect on yourself: what story do you live your life by; what do you worship; what are you becoming?... And respond by opening your heart to become a child of God in Jesus Christ.