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Small Ambitions? (Preached at Frontiers Church Exeter)

DOWNLOAD MP3: Small Ambitions (Dave Bish, 2 Corinthians 3)

Glory, sought.
Why do they call Devon the graveyard of ambition? Why do coastlines and the moors make it a haven for retirees, and make kids turn down Oxbridge opportunities to stay and surf? Why do we try to improve ourselves with fitness and fashion? Why do men turn their heads when a beautiful woman walks past? Why is pornography a billion pound industry in the UK alone? Why do we stand back in awe of great architecture –  no-one complains if a 60s office block is demolished, but if someone proposed demolishing Exeter Cathedral there would be uproar... Why do we marvel at fine music, literature or art? Why do we savour the taste of good food?

Of course, there may be many causes and reasons but I’d submit to you this morning that there is at least one common thread. There appears to be a universal taste for beauty. We thirst for it. We hunger for it.. We type “beauty” into google and go wherever we’re led, always convinced that we’re going to be happy. Always doing what we think will satisfy, and yet the eye never has enough of seeing. And you might expect to be told that those desires are bad. Isn’t that the Christian way? Curb your enthusiasm, limit your zeal?

Frontiers Church is part of the Newfrontiers Movement. If Frontiers Church existed 300 years ago, which it didn’t, I reckon it’d be part of a movement known as the Puritans. Now, there is a caricature that suggests that Puritanism is the fear that someone somewhere might be happy, and the determination to make sure it doesn’t happen. But, actually they were more likely to say:
“What could the most merciful being have done more for our encouragement? All that he desires of us is that we would not be miserable, that we would not follow those courses which of themselves would end in misery, and that we would be happy”
…which is Jonathan Edwards in a sermon called “Christian Happiness”. The puritans were God’s happy people! We’ll return to them later…

The critique is unfair to the Puritans but it might not be so unfairly attributed to Christians today. The media depicts us as a joyless crowd who lack appreciation for the beauty and joy of life.

Aren’t Christians despisers of culture whose “Contemporary Christian Music” and “Christian Fiction” is all too often just an excuse to publish works that aren’t good enough to sell to a mainstream audience.

And in addition, isn’t it Christians after all who are always telling people what they can’t pursue? And don’t Christians limit sexual desires and freedom, and don’t they view the sensory pleasures of high literature and art and music as unspiritual?

And isn’t it Christians who say all the things that make people happy are sinful? Clearly the charges don’t come without warrant. Some of the evidence is well meaning effort to avoid the potential for sinful indulgence that dehumanises people and defames our God. But there is more to say. I don’t think we can just attribute the way the eye, the ear and the human heart are tuned to aesthetic beauty to sin alone.

The common Christian approach to desire sadly looks like that of Odysseus sailed home from the battle of Troy - played by Sean Bean in the film Troy - past the island of the deadly but seductive sirens. The Sirens sang songs to lure men to their death. Odysseus had heard of the sweetness of their music and he wanted his ears to take in those sounds, but didn’t want to die. So, he tied his crew up and blocked their ears, and he tied himself to the mast without blocking his ears. They sailed safely by but he lost his heart to the sirens. Though alive, he was dead. He wanted to have what was on offer but denied himself – a tortured soul, with the same desires as everyone else but none of the happiness on offer.

The classic clenched hypocrite – in reality indistinguishable from those who acted upon their desires and died at the hands of the sirens. I look at my life and often I’m like Odysseus. Like him, we thirst for beauty, we thirst for glory. ..

Could it be that the presence of all this desire and passion and thirst for beauty is points to something more than just human corruption and sin? Could it be that there is another approach to life, that isn’t just about tying ourselves to the mast while our hearts are destroyed by unfulfilled desire?

Professor and children’s author, C.S. Lewis, was magnificent at painting pictures with words to capture our emotions and raise our desires. He writes in The Weight of Glory (p32-33),
“A man’s physical hunger does not prove that man will get any bread… but surely a man’s hunger does prove he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist… A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called “falling in love” occurred in a sexless world”
The presence of desire points to reality. And the problem isn’t our desires – it’s where they are directed. As Lewis notes (p26):
“If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised… it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased
Far from running from our desires they should be embraced – but they need to find a worthy object. Jonathan Edwards said that his goal was always to raise affections, the hearts desires, in proportion to the truth being considered. And so there appropriate differences between the joy of finding a parking space, scoring a goal and getting married. Affections in proportion to what’s in view. You should be able to hear that in our singing here. The volume always rises in this room when we sing songs with substantial words. When we sing the Puritan inspired song The Grace of My God the volume of singing in the room goes up. Not just because we love Matt Giles and the songs he writes for us, but more because it’s saturated with substantial truth – and has music that helps us to express how affected we are by that.



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