Isaiah 51; 1 – 6 look to the rock from which you were cut and the quarry from which you were hewn. Look to Abraham and to Sarah. Listen to me my people, hear me my nation.
Romans 12; 1 – 8 offer your bodies… do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Think of yourself with sober judgement … we all have different gifts.
Matthew 16; 13 – 20 who do people say the Son of Man is? Who do you say I am? You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church
I am going to talk today about finding significance in life, about finding who you are and what you are here for.
There are some who believe that as Christians it doesn’t matter whether we are significant on this earth or not, because we are all going to heaven; in fact for them it is all about getting through those pearly gates. But I don’t believe that that is the only good news that Jesus brings. He promises us life after death, and that life begins in the here and now and during our time on this earth… good news for me and you today and everyday.
I was recently with a friend who is the same age as me and is in the middle of a massive sort of boxes and boxes of photographs of her family going back 150 years. Some of them are very grand, fifteen or twenty men and women, the men in top hats and cravats and the women in huge feathered hats and high necked blouses and strings of pearls and holding parasols. And sitting on the ground in front of the adults, a dozen cherub like children in smocked rompers or little Lord Fauntleroy knickerbockers… all looking very serious!
I suppose it depends what sort of family you come from, but I don’t have any photos of grandparents let alone great-grandparents. My mother was estranged from her family and my father’s family were innkeepers or worked in the coalmines in the English midlands.
But I am at the moment sorting photographs of our family life since we got married and carefully cataloguing and making up albums and labelling.
So the question is, why am I doing it? What makes me so desperate to document my existence, to prove to myself that I am significant? I know it is about holding on to memories, but is it also about wanting to know that my life has meaning? That my life has meant something, I am part of a something bigger than myself but something in which I play a vital part? That I will be remembered for something? That I will not soon be forgotten?
Do you know what I mean? As I get older I meet people who wonder what they have done with their lives, whether they have made any difference or whether they have wasted talents and skills and will pass on to the next life without anyone taking any notice.
Let me read you a quote from David Eagleman, the neuroscientist.
“There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.”
― David Eagleman, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives
Fundamentally we fear that we are, after all, just worker ants in a vast anthill and our lives will be over in a millisecond, over and done with and forgotten.
Of course the writer of Ecclesiastes knew better than anyone about this despair. Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: as one dies, so dies the other. Man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place. All come from dust and to dust all return.
And sometimes we are faced with that realisation that the world has so many people in it no wonder we feel like ants in a vast anthill. Last week I had an hour or so waiting for a plane in Birmingham airport, and Birmingham is small compared to Heathrow or Schiphol or Atlanta! Thousands of people: I love people watching. There was a mother waiting to catch a plane with 5 children, one in a pram, the other four clutching toys and struggling with their backpacks. Four tall incredibly elegantly dressed black women laughing and sharing lipstick, all with strong Brummy accents; friends off to Benidorm or Florida all ready in their strappy sandals and white jeans.
Watching people’s faces as they talk and laugh and sometimes get irritated with one another … not one of those people wants to feel insignificant. Each one a unique and precious human being, we all want and need to feel that our lives have meaning.
In our gospel today, Jesus asked the question we all ask in the middle of the night when we wonder what we have done with our life, or what we are going to do with it. ‘Who do people say I am’ and then ‘who do you, my friends, say I am?’ Of course Jesus wasn’t asking because he didn’t know. Of course he knew who he was. Jesus asked the question because his validity and the validity of his message were crucial. And there were all sorts of stories and rumours being whispered around about who he was, so he wanted to know what stories were being circulated. And of course he also wanted to find out who his friends thought he was. Not because he didn’t know, but because he wanted to know whether his friends understood who he really was and the significance of his life on this earth.
The evidence that Jesus knew exactly who he was, is overwhelming: In fact Jesus was the only human being who truly knew who he was. Jesus calls himself The Son of Man. Throughout the Old Testament a son of man refers to a human being, it is a Semitic expression used to describe a person, but Jesus calls himself The Son of Man, using emphatic language when he refers to himself and this expression is never used in any other circumstance other than when Jesus speaks of himself. Jesus knew he was not just A man but THE man and also he was God… when Simon Peter says ‘you are the Christ the son of the living God’ Jesus replies ‘This must have been revealed to you by my father.’ He knows he is both man and God. So Jesus knew EXACTLY who he was but the question still resonates for us.
There are over 7.442 billion people in the world today … it’s not surprising that sometimes we wonder who we are … and what it is all about. Do you ask yourself that question in the middle of the night, or when you are in a huge city surrounded by millions of people? Am I significant and will my life mean anything in the future? When the last person on earth has said my name will my only legacy be just another life that has added to global warming and the death of the planet?
So we turn to Peter…. and what Jesus said to Peter following Peter’s declaration that Jesus IS the Son of the Living God. Peter seems to have been a bit of a mixed up person. Following on from this story in Matthew…. when Peter has been so confident and declared that Jesus is the Son of God, and Jesus says to him that he is blessed because he has heard the truth from God, the next thing that happens is that when Jesus tries to explain to his disciples that he will have to die, Peter looses his temper and so Jesus says those chilling words to him, get behind me Satan.
And we all know about Peters’ declaration that he will stand by Jesus even unto death but then he denies he knows Jesus and the cock crows three times. He is someone who is perhaps a little confused, who struggles with life … one moment full of faith and the next moment full of doubt. I know I am on dangerous ground here because you will all say that existential angst is a modern phenomena and the last thing on Peter’s mind in the middle of the night is ‘who am I and what am I here for!’ But Jesus turns to Peter and I think, knowing Peter’s lack of confidence, says I tell you that you are PETER… and on you I will build my church.
I wonder if Peter had any inkling that 2 thousand years later his name would still be spoken … that he would be one of the very, very, very few who are known so well that we all know them as significant in the history of the world. So … what about you and me? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Jesus came to us today, or even in the middle of the night when the questions and the doubts come thick and fast, and say; you are Judith … or you are Margaret… or you are Catherine or you are Paul… and through you I am going to build something really significant. Your life really is worth something and your name will never be forgotten even to the end of time.
So there are two things that help us to know that we are not just an ant in an anthill, but unique and special and that each one of us has an important part to play in the journey of God’s Kingdom on this earth.
The first is to be certain where we come from.
Look at the Isaiah passage. A message for the people of Israel, the people who pursue righteousness and who seek the Lord…. that is us by the way!
Look to the Rock from which you were cut …… and to the quarry from which you were hewn, and to Abraham and Sarah from whom the whole of Zion descends.
How can you and I think for one moment that we are not significant when we know where we have come from! Every single human being is so incredibly made and so unique… all those people I saw milling around Birmingham airport … each individual hewn by God out of the quarry and as a sculptor brings life out of stone, made into something beautiful and irreplaceable and distinctive and exceptional.
This passage of course is speaking to a people, and it is when we are ‘a people’ that we really display the glory of God; the community of St James hewn from a quarry and cut from a rock into something that will go on and on and on. Verse 4. Listen to me my people … the law will go out from me and my justice will become a light to the nations.
Everything that happens with us as a community and with us as individuals is more than the sum of its parts. You as an individual may not feel significant, but when we gather into a community we become a light that reaches far into the dark night never to be extinguished.
I have no doubt at all that the ripples are still widening from our stall at the Leith Festival in the spring, and even as we worship God today, the ripples go out into this city and beyond. Everything we do sends out ripples. When we gather next Friday for the opening of Anne Butler’s art exhibition, the ripples of God’s Kingdom will go out to the city and beyond.
The second thing that helps us to know we are significant is to know where we are going.
Look at the passage from Romans. Knowing we come from God, and are hewn with such love and care into something of beauty, we can and must give thanks to God for ourselves. Not spending our time as the world does, but by being transformed by the renewing of our minds. Isn’t that great. To know that I am being transformed, little bit by little bit. So the work is not ours, but God’s, and it is He who is making us into something that will change the world.
Because as the rest of this passage goes on, we are being made into a body and just as with a human body, each part is vital and significant.
So when we hear in the middle of the night that voice that tells us that we have done nothing with our lives, remember where we have come from and remember where we are going. We are going forward as a people and as a people we are a rock on which God is building his church.
And its true isn’t it, that sometimes we have to look back to see that our lives have made sense and are significant. Like taking a walk and looking back with amazement to see how far you have come, or finding that you have without knowing it taken a much better route than you realised, as if some unseen hand is guiding you, which of course is exactly what has happened.
We are all part of the body, we are all part of the story.
And of course, we as a church… as a community… each one of us a vital member and from us as Isaiah says, the law will go out and we can and are a light to the nations. However small our contribution seems to be in God’s story, the ripples go out into the world and the world is changed.
So you may not have grand portraits in your family that keep you remembered for generations to come, and you may even not have a family or friends who will remember you in the future after you have died, but in God’s Kingdom we are all significant and vital.
To finish, take a moment of silence and hear Jesus whisper in your ear as he whispered to Peter. Fill in your own name.
You are… and on you I will build my church.