Saturday, 24 December 2011

Our Carol Services Sermon

What do the following pairs of people have in common?
             John F Kennedy and C S Lewis
Michael Jackson and Farah Fawcett
Christopher Hitchens and John Hucklesby

The answer is that each died within a few hours of the other.
John F Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, died the same day as C S Lewis, a Cambridge academic famous for his Christian writings and broadcasts.

Michael Jackson, one of the all-time greats in the world of pop music, died the same day as Farah Fawcett, whom some of us will remember as a member of the original Charlie’s Angels.

And Christopher Hitchens was a writer, journalist and militant atheist who died on Thursday last week. But who, you may be asking, was John Hucklesby?

Well, as some of you know, John was a long-time member of the congregation at St Peter’s, Ugley. A fervent, believer, John was a man with a passion for God and a deep love of his Saviour.

Christopher Hitchens died a week ago on Thursday, John Hucklesby died the following Friday morning, and I couldn’t help remarking on the circumstances of such different men departing this world so close to one another.

Following his death, on Radio 4’s Saturday Live a resident poet wrote this obituary for Christopher Hitchens:

So long then Mr Hitchens,
Your perfect rage still burning bright.
Off to meet your maker,
Or maybe not, if you were right.

And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Christopher Hitchens was either right or he was wrong. Either there is a God or there is not. There is no ‘in between’ on this one, where we can agree to differ and both be right in our own way.

If he was right, and there is not, then in a sense he wins. But it is a Pyrrhic victory, for if there is no God we are all ultimately losers in the game of life. The one thing in that case that Christopher Hitchens will never be able to say to anyone is, “I told you so.”

But what if he was wrong? What if there is a God, and on Thursday last week Christopher Hitchens indeed went to meet his maker?

You see it isn’t quite right to describe Christopher Hitchens as an atheist. He described himself as an anti-theist. It wasn’t that he disbelieved in God, the way I disbelieve in leprechauns. He raged against God.

He said, for example, that heaven was like a kind of cosmic North Korea. And if God did exist, said Hitchens, heaven would be hell for him.

By contrast, when my wife Alison and I saw John Hucklesby on Thursday night, we found a man ready for heaven and rejoicing at the thought of going to be with his Lord. I prayed for him, and he prayed for me. In fact I especially asked him to pray for what I’d be saying to you now, so if you don’t like it blame him!

Now the news of the deaths of these two men, the atheist and the Christian, produced in me joy on the one hand and sorrow on the other.

But which is which? Whose death do you think gives me joy and whose gives me sorrow?

Well of course is it John Hucklesby’s death that gives me joy.

On Friday morning I wrote on Facebook (as you do these days) a brief note about John’s passing, which ended with words from the bidding prayer at the original service of nine lessons and carols: “Today,” I said, “he rejoices ‘upon another shore, and in a greater light’.”

There can be no sorrow in that. But what of Christopher Hitchens? If he was right, he is nowhere. If he was wrong, he is somewhere, but he didn’t want to be in heaven, so where else could he be? Either way, one can only feel sorrow.

You see, in the end, you can only be one thing or the other. The agnostic must make their mind up and become a believer or an unbeliever, and the atheist will, in the nature of things, become an anti-theist in the face of belief

Christopher Hitchens once wrote a book titled God is not Great, which might sound a bit like me writing a book called Leprechauns are Lying about the Crock of Gold at the End of the Rainbow. But I wouldn’t do that because I really don’t believe in leprechauns, whereas Hitchens, who professed not to believe in God, somehow seemed to feel that the God who didn’t exist was nevertheless in some real way evil.

And so if heaven was a kind of hell for him then hell would be a kind of heaven, where he could go on rejecting God forever. And that is a terrible thought!

But why is John Hucklesby with is Lord today? Certainly not because he was a good man — certainly not in his view. And not because he was a better man than Christopher Hitchens — in fact they both drank like fish and smoked like chimneys, which in both cases probably hastened their death.

Some time ago, however, John told me that the passage he wanted me to preach on at his funeral was the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

This was a story Jesus told about a man who went out early in the morning to hire some labourers to work in his vineyard. And throughout the day he kept going back to hire more labourers. He did this at the third hour, the sixth hour and the ninth hour.

Finally, at the eleventh hour he picked up some men who’d been waiting all day. These would have been the least competent, the least able of the lot, and they only had one hour’s work ahead of them.

When it came time to pay them, the men hired first got a day’s wage, as agreed. But then those who’d been hired at the third hour also got a full day’s wage, as did those hired at the sixth and ninth hours.

Finally, those hired at the eleventh hour came to get their wages, and they got a full days wage as well, at which point the men who’d worked all day began to complain — “Why should they get the same as us?”

The vineyard owner’s reply was simple: “It’s my money and my choice to be generous with it. Why should you complain?”

John understood the parable. He knew he was a latecomer — someone who had only come to know Christ at the eleventh hour. And therefore he knew that his reward of heaven was a result of God’s generosity towards him, not his service of God.

In other words, he understood grace — God’s riches, at Christ’s expense.

Contrast this with what Christopher Hitchens thought about God. He once said that believers have all their work ahead of them when they die — praising the dictator God who made them. John Hucklesby believed he had all the joy ahead of him — praising the Saviour God who saved him.

I’ll let you decided who’s right. And I have to let you decide which you want to be.

All I will say is that you can either have a slightly cynical Christmas or a very merry one. It’s up to you.

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  1. Excellent piece John.

    Merry Christmas to you!

    Chris Bishop

  2. Great to read, thank you.