Even me!

Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson, Dean


Father Horace was the guest preacher in the country church of which I was the parish priest more than thirty years ago. As I recall he was working to promote overseas mission, but, in fact, he had only one sermon. Not long into his sermon, which was mostly about what a terrible and misspent youth he had lived, he rolled up the sleeves of his robes and pointed to horrible scars on his forearms. ‘You see these’ he told the shocked congregation, ‘these scars are from where I had the tattoos removed.’ He went on to tell how he had been into drugs at a young age, belonged to a gang and worked as a bouncer in a strip club. ‘But then’, he continued, ‘I met Jesus and asked him to come into my life and turn my life around. And he did! And now I dare to preach in front of all you people – so well-dressed, well-educated, so much better than I was.’ His sermon continued in similar vein, ending with a simple invitation to people to look carefully at their own lives, to ask God’s forgiveness and invite Jesus into their lives.

It’s a simple enough message, one that we hear (perhaps not in those exact words) time after time – at baptisms, at the Eucharist, in a service such as this one. It is, in essence, the Gospel: to acknowledge that we, you and I, are unable to live lives worthy of God our Creator, who made us and loves us to the end; that we need, like the prodigal son, to change our ways and find our way back to the Father; that God is always there, watching, waiting, longing for us to return; that no matter what, God’s love and forgiveness is bigger than our sin, our wrong-doings, our short-comings.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, one of the men of the parish, who never ever came to church, but dutifully dropped his wife off each Sunday morning, then sat in the car to read the newspaper – unbeknownst to me, he had come into the porch of the church, the narthex, and listened to Fr Horace preaching. Imagine my surprise when, the following Sunday, that man was to be seen sitting inside the church with his wife. I greeted him at the door afterwards and, before I could ask him what made him come that day, he said: ‘If God can love that priest you had here last week, then God can cope with me too – despite all the things I have done of which I am ashamed.’ So began his journey with Christ. It wasn’t easy, but he persevered knowing the love of God in his life, and the forgiveness that comes with a life truly open to the Lord Jesus.


There are lots of people like Father Horace, and lots of people like that man who moved from reading his newspaper in the car outside the church, to reading his hymnbook inside the church. In a way, these two men are a little like the poor widow Jesus watched putting her two coins into the collection in the temple. She literally gave everything she had to God. So different from the people Jesus warned his disciples against – those who like to walk around in long robes, be greeted with respect and have the best seats and places of honour. Like Father Horace, the woman in the temple gave her life to God – all of it, no holding back. This is the demand of the Gospel. It is the privilege of the Gospel – to come to God, just as we are, warts and all, and say and pray something like, ‘God, Jesus, here I am. You know what I am like – all of me, not just the parts that I show to the world – and, for some reason that I don’t understand and can’t comprehend, you love me, and invite me to follow you. You are not interested in what has been – only in what is and what will be. Take my life. I give you my all.’

Last Sunday night during the Advent Carol Service we read a few verses from a little known passage in the Bible called the Prayer of Manasseh. You will find it buried deep inside the Apocrypha – that collection of books that not everyone accepts as belonging in the Bible. I’ve thought much about Manasseh these last few weeks – and again today in preparing this sermon. Those who sing in cathedral choirs know well the story of King David, his lust for, and rape of, the beautiful Bathsheba – and the even more shameful way in which the king had her husband Uriah killed. The prophet Nathan is sent to confront the king with his terrible deeds, and, to his credit, the king shows great remorse. This story is at the root of one of the great penitential psalms, Psalm 51 – sung on Ash Wednesday each year to the exquisite music of Allegri. Mention Allegri’s Miserere and high sopranos and trebles go misty eyed thinking of the top ‘Cs’! It is interesting then that David, despite his sinfulness, came to be looked upon as the greatest of all of the Jewish kings, one in whose mold the Messiah would one day be cast. Over the next few weeks of Advent we will hear a lot about David.

We don’t hear much about Manasseh – which is a pity. For there is a great story, and an even greater understanding of God’s love and forgiveness wrapped up in it. Manasseh, according to 2 Kings 21, was just about the worst king the ancient Jews ever had. It’s a terrible chapter – a long litany of sinfulness. God’s punishment would be swift and brutal – “I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down.” (1 Kings 21: 13) Many years later, Jeremiah, part of whose story we have heard tonight and this morning (and if you did not hear Canon Jenny’s sermon this morning, get hold of a hard copy tonight or read it on the web) – Jeremiah found himself trying to make sense of the disaster that had befallen Jerusalem and her people.

The short Prayer of Manasseh, only fifteen verses long, is every bit as poignant as Psalm 51 and David’s song of repentance. It is said that the rabbis included the Prayer of Manasseh in their holy scriptures as a reminder, not so much of the sinfulness of Manasseh, as of the overwhelming and totally undeserved, goodness and love of God. The Prayer is a sign of hope to a fallen world, perhaps especially to individuals who believe that what they have done is so bad, so terrible, that there cannot possibly be a place in God’s heart for them. Manasseh, at whose feet the blame for the disaster that befell Jerusalem could be laid, was sorely in need of redemption. If God could not or would not hear his prayer for forgiveness, what hope is there for others who have done wrong? But, and this is the great hope and act of faith in the Prayer of Manasseh, it was believed that God was bigger even than the worst that Manasseh could do. “You are the God of those who repent, and in me you will manifest your goodness, for, unworthy as I am, you will save me according to your great mercy, and I will praise you continually all the days of my life.” (Manasseh verse 13b – 15a)

It was this message that Jeremiah began to preach to the exiles in Babylon (as we heard in tonight’s first reading), it was this message that I believe Jesus was making when he looked at the widow giving her all, and that Fr Horace had learned and lived by, and that husband who never darkened the church doors, finally understood. The measure of God’s mercy is as great, if not greater, than the measure of God’s justice.

And it is this message of God’s mercy and love and forgiveness that is proclaimed over and over again during Advent, as we move through the first stirrings of the prophetic voice into the hope and joy of the birth of the Christ-child.

It begins with a humble spirit and heart, able to recognise our need for God, and to begin, not all at once, but to begin to give our all to God.