Please Note – there is no audio available for this sermon.
“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night…”
Earlier this week, a friend, who has a couple of teenaged daughters, wrote a short post on one of his social media platforms, which consisted of three bullet-point statements followed by a question. He wrote,
-Existential threats to the environment
-A looming global pandemic
-education cuts and walkouts
How are my kids even able to keep it together these days?
Most of us could add to his list of concerns. Divisive political partisan posturing; volatility in the financial world; uncertainty about the best ways to seek reconciliation with our country’s indigenous peoples; difficulties in getting reliable, factual news; stories of exploitative and abusive behaviour perpetrated by men who have been entrusted with power and respect; continued instability in war-torn parts of the world…well, the list could go on.
How are any of us able to keep it together these days?
The same day that I saw that post, however, I also happened to listen to the Director of Presbyterian World Service and Development, who was speaking at last Wednesday’s noontime Lenten meditation. Without minimizing the ongoing challenges in our world, he described some of the amazing progress that has been made on a host of daunting challenges facing the human community.
He shared, for example, that in the past thirty years, there has been a radical drop in the number of humans who are living in situations of extreme poverty – from 36% of the world’s population in 1990 to 10% today. He emphasized that there is still much to do – but it is an incredibly hopeful shift.
The statistics that he shared were actually so remarkable – and so uplifting — that I had to go and doublecheck the details after I heard them. And in that research, I came across a number of other amazing facts worth celebrating.
The rate of infant and child mortality has dropped drastically, while the average life expectancy continues to grow. In fact, since 1900 – the average global life expectancy has more than doubled.
The World Health Organization reports that rates of maternal mortality declined by 43% between 1990 and 2015 – a 43% drop in 15 years! — and that rates of hunger and child labour are on a similarly steep decline.
Education and literacy rates are going up, around the world, including for young girls and women, which bodes well for the future, while incidents of violence – including homicides – are actually decreasing significantly.
The most effective ways to mitigate the effects of climate change are not yet realized, but solar and wind energy are getting cheaper, and a range of promising advances related to renewable energy sources are being developed as we speak.
Every one of us has more access to more human knowledge, literally at our fingertips, than at any point in the entire history of the world; and as much as we tend to complain, there is actually much good that has come from these technologies. We can communicate more easily with loved ones, we can build new relationships with people across the globe, we can access new perspectives from a range of previously unheard voices, we can more easily coordinate responses to global challenges, like new viruses, with more speed than ever before imagined; and to use a rather glorious example from the past week, we can even be woken up in the middle of the night to be notified that an innocent child in our community has gone missing, so that we can all work together to ensure that he is – as he was – returned safely home. In passing, anyone who thinks that such alerts are just an irritating nuisance need only be reminded that – God forbid — if it was their child, they would quickly come to realize that such alerts are a blessing, not a nuisance.
Added to these global statistics are an amazing array of historically significant events that we have lived through. The Cold War kept the world on the brink of nuclear war, for decades, but since the Iron Curtain came down with relatively little violence, the number of nuclear weapons has gone down significantly.
In South Africa, the demonic yet seemingly intractable system called apartheid was dismantled and produced – in people like Mandela and Tutu – some of the world’s most inspiring leaders who reminded us that the path towards a better future requires a journey on the road of forgiveness.
Diseases such as guinea worm have been all but eliminated, while incidents of diseases such as malaria are increasingly being managed without the levels of suffering that were once inevitable. HIV and AIDS – which were a death sentence only a few decades ago – are now treated with drugs that allow affected people to live long and relatively healthy lives. Improvements in treatments for cancers, heart diseases, brain injuries and degenerative diseases are nothing less than astounding, which means that we have a great potential to live longer, healthier, more fulfilling and more rewarding lives than at any previous point in all of human history.
And closer to home – we live in a country, a province, and a city that are the amongst the most blessed in the world. We have opportunities, every day, to interact with people from around the world (simply come into the Great Hall on a Tuesday evening and watch as 70 or 80 newcomers to our country – literally from all over the world – chat and laugh and talk with each other at the Better English Café – it is inspiring to see).
We take excellent medical care for granted and – although this is not meant as a partisan comment – our children are freely educated by some of the most qualitied, and most highly paid educators in the world. Health care and education are valued.
Even though recent political campaigns have been overly negative and nasty, we should not forget that transitions of power, from one party to the next, always take place without a hint of violence, which cannot be said in so many parts of the world.
And even within the church, there is so much that is worth celebrating. The Church is diligently wrestling with profound issues – from the treatment of First Nations peoples in the residential schools, to the inclusion of all people regardless of gender or orientation, to the challenges that secularism poses to us, to the best ways to integrate rational and empirical science with the narratives of Scripture. Not all of those issues are yet fully resolved, but we should neither lose hope. After all, we cannot forget that in many of your lifetimes, you witnessed the Church finally accept that God calls women as well as men to positions of leadership in the Church.
And the Church, globally, is being transformed in equally amazing ways. It is rarely noted, for example, that since the end of the conflicts in Northern Ireland over twenty years ago, there are no longer any situations where Christians are fighting against other Christians along denominational lines – a claim that could not be made for over five hundred years. Nowadays, Protestants and Catholics and Orthodox and Evangelicals work together, as friends and fellow Christians, on a wide variety of issues, and the days when a Protestant marrying a Catholic leading to intractable family estrangements are a thing of the past.
Moreover, while the growth of the church in Europe and North America may seem slow and sometimes disappointing, the fact is that the Church is not only the fastest growing spiritual movement in the world, but its growth in other parts of the world, and particularly in Asia and Africa, is historically unprecedented.
Which is not a reason for triumphalism, but rather an opportunity to strive towards an increase in understanding, mutual respect and compassion. After all, in spite of the popular — though uninformed — secular assumption that people of different faiths are constantly battling each other, the reality is that people of different faiths actually tend to get along. Even in this very church facility, a large group of Muslims now join together on Friday afternoons for their weekly prayers in the Great Hall, and our relations with them are cordial and joyful. And such is the case in so many parts of the world – people of different faiths working together across sectarian lines to forge a peaceful future.
For these, and many other reasons, there is a very persuasive case to be made that we are actually living in one of the most remarkable, most positive and most promising eras in all of Christian history.
Now, I suspect that there are at least a few of you who are thinking, “yes, but…I really have to tell Will, after the service today, that he needs to take off his rose-coloured glasses and realize that things aren’t all that great, and that many are still suffering, and that just looking at the good things is like sticking your head in the sand.”
And, for what it’s worth, that is what I would be thinking if someone got up in a pulpit and tried to make the case that the world is in better shape than it seems to be.
But it is in those moments – those moments when I find myself giving in to the negativity and to the despair that I find myself reminded of Walter Brueggemann’s wonderful words – that “the prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion, grieve in a society that practices denial, and express hope in a society that lives in despair.”
It is that last phrase – that our calling is to express hope in a society that lives in despair – that came to mind when I read my friend’s post about the world that his daughters are growing up in. How do we express hope in a society that lives in despair?
But it was also the phrase that came to mind when I read the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus. Because Nicodemus came with questions as well, at night, under the cover of darkness. He was confused, he was troubled, he was afraid of what might be thought of him if he was seen speaking to Jesus.
Nicodemus could not quite make sense of it all. But he brought his questions, his confusion, his doubts and maybe even his despair. And we should all be grateful that he did. Because it was in response to Nicodemus that Jesus spoke words that are the Bible’s most powerful summary of the good news that we call the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Which reminds us that the power of God is not against us, it is for us. The difficulties that we face are not insurmountable because the greatest power of all is the One who chose to walk among us as a servant, whose love will never let us go, as a power that can still move mountains; that can heal the sick; that can feed the hungry, that can reconcile enemies, that can liberate the oppressed, that can welcome the stranger; and that calls each one of us to offer our skills, our gifts, our very lives in moving the world, as it is, ever closer towards that glorious biblical vision of a world of peace, a world of justice, a world of abundance, a world of love — for all.
And that is good news.
Thanks be to God.