Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sermon: Isaiah 49: 1-18 St Patrick's Call

We’re thinking today about St Patrick, but to get us thinking about him and Ireland, we’ve got a quiz to get us going:

In which county is Ireland’s highest mountain? Carrauntoohil, County Kerry (1038m / 3406ft)
In which county did St Patrick build his first church? Saul church, Co. Down.
Which is the smallest county in Ireland? Louth
How many points did Ireland finish the 2018 Six Nations tournament with?
How many seats are there in Stormont and Dail Eireann? Stormont - 90; Dail - 158 (as well as 60 seats in the Seanad)
In which county can you kiss the Blarney stone? Cork
What is the official colour of St Patrick and of Ireland? Blue, not green!
Which other countries also have St Patrick as their patron saint? Nigeria, Montserrat, Puerto Rico

The world turned green for St Patrick's Day! For one day at least, everyone is Irish! All over the world, people drank green beer in honour of St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. Yet, incredibly, Patrick wasn't even Irish! Born at Bannavem Taburniae, which is somewhere in either Wales or Scotland, Patrick came from a Christian family. His dad was a deacon, and his grandfather a priest/presbyter. But as he grew up, Patrick didn't believe. "We would not listen to our priests, who advised us about how we could be saved." (Conf 1).

At the age of 16, Patrick was captured by Irish raiders, sold into slavery, and found himself tending sheep (traditionally thought to be at Slemish mountain outside Ballymena). It was here that Patrick came to faith. "More and more the love of God increased, and my sense of awe before God. Faith grew, and my spirit was moved, so that in one day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same." (Conf 16).

After about six years, he heard a voice in the night telling him to get up, "Look, your ship is ready." He walked for about two hundred miles to get to the boat which took him back to Britain. Initially, the captain didn't want to take him onboard, but Patrick prayed, and his mind was changed. When they landed on the mainland, they walked twenty-eight days without finding any food. The captain (a pagan) challenged Patrick: "What about this, Christian? You tell us that your God is great and all-powerful - why can't you pray for us, since we're in a bad state of hunger?" As Patrick prayed, a herd of pigs appeared before them, providing food for them all.

Eventually, Patrick made it back home to his family. His family urged him to never leave them again, after all his tribulations. But Patrick had a dream, a vision of a man called Victoricus coming from Ireland with a pile of letters - 'the voice of the Irish'. As he began to read one of these letters in his dream, he heard the voices of the Irish people: "We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us." (Conf 23). In their voice, he heard God's voice, calling him back to Ireland, to bring the good news of Jesus.

This is what drove Patrick to come back to Ireland, the place of his slavery - he wanted the pagans to know the true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Here's what he writes:

"That is why I cannot be silent - nor would it be good to do so - about such great blessings and such a gift that the Lord so kindly bestowed in the land of my captivity. This is how we can repay such blessings, when our lives change and we come to know God, to praise and bear witness to his great wonders before every nation under heaven." (Conf 3)

He describes Ireland as "the nations to whom the love of Christ brought me." (Conf 13).

But more than that, throughout his Confession, he repeatedly mentions his desire to obey God's command to bring the good news to the ends of the earth, to every nation, and even to Ireland. We're so used to thinking of Ireland as the centre of our universe. We look at a map of the world, and we're fairly central. But to the Roman empire, and Patrick, Ireland was seen as the very edge of the world. Nothing beyond it, and nothing much in it. As Patrick says:

"In this way I can imitate somewhat those whom the Lord foretold would announce his gospel in witness to all nations before the end of the world. This is what we see has been fulfilled. Look at us: we are witnesses that the gospel has been preached right out to where there is nobody else there!" (Conf 34).

He describes himself as "a saving letter of Christ even to the ends of the earth." (Conf 11).

In sections 38-40 of his Confession, Patrick quotes from 9 Bible passages in quick succession, each of them about the nations, the ends of the earth coming to God. One of them is the Great Commission found in Matthew 28, but we’ve looked at it before. So we’re going to focus on our reading from Isaiah 49.

The servant of the LORD is speaking. It’s as if he has a giant megaphone, because, v 1, he’s speaking to places far away: ‘Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations.’ He’s got a message for every nation, even the very far away places, like Ireland!

Bringing a message is the reason for his existence - called before birth, with a mouth like a sharpened sword. (We’re told in Heb 4 that God’s word is like a sharp two edged sword).

This servant was formed to be God’s servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and gather Israel to himself. The focus there is on the people of Israel, the Jews. But then his job description is expanded.

Maybe you’ve had this in your workplace. You’re getting on with things, doing what you’re meant to do, and then your boss decides to give you even more work to do, more responsibility. We see that happening in verse 6:

‘It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.’

The servant isn’t just going to restore the Israelites. He is also going to be a light for the Gentiles, to bring God’s salvation to the ends of the earth. Including Ireland.

That’s why Patrick came to Ireland - to bring the good news of God’s salvation here. This picture was going around Facebook yesterday: St Patrick's Day isn't about green beer... it's about a man wanting Ireland to know Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the light of the world, and yet, this passage is also used in Acts to speak of Jesus’ disciples. (Acts 13:47). We are called to shine brightly for God, as the light of Jesus shines in us. That’s what the first disciples did as Jesus sent them out. It’s what Patrick did in his day. And it’s what we’re called to do, here and now.

If we're Christians, these are still our instructions; this is our mission. How can we play our part in fulfilling Christ's command? There's a great little phrase Crosslinks mission agency uses: pray, give, go. We can pray for the work of mission; we can give to support the work of mission; we can go to do the work of mission. You don't have to go across the world to introduce someone to Jesus, you can go across the road.

As we go, we have the promise of Jesus that he is with us always, to the very end of the age. Patrick knew that Jesus was with him - it’s why he wrote his ‘breastplate’, the words of our opening praise. Jesus is with us as we share his good news, so let’s do it!

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 18th March 2018.

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