Friday, 22 May 2009

Sunday Night Sermon

I was invited to give the main talk at our once-a-term Sunday night church service, at St Mark's Anglican, Forest Hill. I used the doco Man On Wire as my jumping off point. Here's a transcript of what I said.

Philippe Petit, a French tightrope walker, was 17 years old in 1966. He was sitting in a dentist's waiting room in Paris when he sees an artist’s impression of the World Trade Centre in New York, construction for which is about to commence. The WTC or the Twin Towers are most infamously remembered as terrorist targets on 9/11. A long time before that however, before they are built, they will become the highest buildings in the world. Young Philippe Petit sees this picture and is captivated by them. He wants to walk between these towers. He must have this picture, this memento. But how? There is a room full of people. He sneezes, and rips the paper and runs out of the waiting room. Sure, he will have a toothache for a week, but what is pain now that he has acquired his dream?
Man On Wire, won Best Documentary at this year’s Oscars and it recounts Petit’s story. Petit has decided to conquer beautiful stages. His first is to walk between the Notre Dame towers in 1971. “Its against the law but not wicked or mean” he says. As he walks, his friends call it “a dream”
In June 1973, they break into the pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Meanwhile, the Twin Towers are completed. Petit takes a number of trips to New York to spy out the Towers. He sends his friend a postcard of them, and cheekily draws a wire between them. His friend recalls, “that is why they are there, for Philippe to walk across.”
After much planning, on 7 August 1974, they haul 100s kilos of equipment up 110 floors, disguised as architects and builders. It takes all night to evade guards, haul the wire between the buildings and secure it.
They are exhausted but Petit remains focussed. He says, “if I die, what a beautiful death, to die in the exercise of your passion”. He steps out onto the wire, “his face became an ageless mask; a sphinx” and he reflects : “in the middle of this madness I suddenly had hope and joy.” Over 45 minutes, Petit crosses 8 times between the Towers, 417 metres above the ground.
His friends, watching from the ground, are in raptures. His girlfriend remembers:“I saw Philippe up there, it was extraordinary, it was so, so beautiful. It was like he was walking on a cloud.” Another friend recalls : “it was magical. It was profound”
Extraordinary. Perhaps you might say, you expect this kind of reaction from your friends. They have, after all, been the whole journey with you and are experiencing an exultation of relief.
What is most striking for me in this whole story is the reaction of the Police sent up to get this crazy man off the wire, arrest him, and bring him down. These are hard-bitten New York cops. Not prone to flights of fancy. Listen to the report of Sergeant Charles Daniels, Port Authority Police : “Officer Meyers and I observed the tightrope dancer, because you couldn’t call him a walker, approximately half way between the two towers. And upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh. When he got to the building we asked him to get off the wire but instead he turned around and ran back into the middle. Everyone was spellbound in the watching of it.” “I personally figured I was watching something that somebody would never see again in the world. I thought it was once in a lifetime.”
Another policeman said, “the rigging outfit itself, its magnificent the way he did it”
Astonishing. The very men sent to arrest him, become advocates. They have nothing to gain. They simply report what they see, and are moved by it.
I highly recommend this documentary to you. You will find it in your local DVD store.

This reminds me of Jesus’ story. In Mark’s gospel, we are assaulted by an astonishing list of feats and wonders. A real boys own adventure : Jesus drives out evil spirits; he heals people; crowds follow; he calms a storm; people are raised from the dead; he feeds 5000; he feeds 4000; he walks on water.
Surely these feats means that everyone will listen to him, understand him, want to follow him? Jesus asks his friends who people think he is : some say “John the Baptist; others say Elijah; still others, one of the prophets” Peter announces him as The Christ. They know he is a great man. But do they recognise him? I don’t think so.
The folks in his hometown certainly don’t understand. “They took offense at him”. What about the Romans – the soldiers beat and mock him. The Jewish authorities want him dead. All the way through the gospel story, people are fascinated; in awe of; enraged by; and yet they never quite ‘get it’ even after his hints. “He [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and that he must be killed, and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him”
So how do we recognise Jesus? How do we claim to have a different experience? Unlike the disciples during Jesus’ lifetime, we have the benefit of the whole story.
Let me read some edited highlights of the end of Jesus’ life; his friends have fled; Peter has denied him; [15] "And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.
The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, "Surely this man was the Son of God!"
For the first time in Mark’s gospel : after 15 chapters!, it is a Roman Centurion who exclaims : "Surely this man was the Son of God!" He has nothing to gain by this revelation. He is just reporting what he sees. You see, I think it is not until we see Jesus, on the cross, do we recognise who he really is. It is not, it seems, the miracles that convert us to Jesus but recognising the kind of death that he dies.
So why does Jesus need to die? It is part of God’s rescue package for all of mankind : for you, for me, for all of our friends and family. Paul, an apostle, who comes a little time later in the bible story, says this [Rom5:6f]: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this : While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
People have turned their back on a holy and perfect God. We do it from the moment we are born and have no means of turning and facing God by ourselves. Jesus willingly gives himself up on behalf of all people, and takes our judgement on himself. “While we were still sinners”, at our furthest from God, that is when God loved us the most : “Christ died for us”
On the cross, Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. God has turned his back on Jesus, the perfect sin offering, because he cannot look upon such a fallen creature. Jesus dies in our place, alone, separate from God.

Here is the great miracle of God’s rescue plan however.
[16] When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?"
{They have no expectation that something different has occurred.}
"But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe. He said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him."
Jesus, the human, is alive ? How is this possible. They all saw him die. It is this last, most significant act, that means that you and I can have faith in Jesus as our own personal saviour. By defeating death, we no longer have any fear of dying and becoming separated from God – Jesus has done this for us.
Firstly, God has paid for our sinfulness and secondly, [1Jn 5] "God has given eternal life, and this life is in his Son."
Philippe Petit, our French tightrope walker says : “the fact that the wire walking activity is framed by death is great, it means you have to take it very seriously”
Perhaps we could requote him and say : “Living is an activity framed by death, it means we have to take it very seriously”
What actions, what decisions do we make which will shape our future? What about our eternal future? Choosing Jesus, the creator of the universe to be our personal guide, saviour and instructor is the most crucial, the most important step we must make in living our life. What steps are you making as you consider your life? Do you choose Jesus ?

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