It’s 3am… (A sermon on The Epistles)

It’s 3am. A freezing September morning in Taranaki, in the shadow of a sacred mountain on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand. On whispered commands 350 men, regular British troops, and a band of forest rangers led by Gustavius Von Tempsky, slip out of a military settlement and into the bush.

Von Tempsky is a legend. A bushcraft expert and soldier of fortune, with Buffalo Bill moustache and beard…he and his men are expected to make short work of the Maori rebels up ahead.

Their goal is Te Ngutu o Te Manu, the Beak of the Bird, a Maori pa or village, deep inside the dense forest and strangling vines of the mountain hinterland. And their quarry? Titokowaru . A tohunga or priest of the Ngati Ruanui tribe. Titokowaru has begun to burn farms and attack military positions in reprisal for the British confiscation of Maori land.

His priesthood is based on Biblical and pagan beliefs and he heads a band of warriors known as hau-haus. The militant hau-haus are a worry to the white settlers. Their aim is to regain their stolen land and they practise ritual cannibalism.

By 2pm the military force has sneaked within 30 metres of the pa at Te Ngutu o Te Manu, noting the fortified look of the pa and the loopholes for rifles. A company of regular soldiers charge towards the pa and are decimated in a blaze  of bullets which don’t come from up ahead….but from carefully sited rifle positions above tunnels and inside hidden bush paths. It’s a style of guerilla warfare we recall from the days of the Vietnam War. But this is 1868. And 350 troops are caught inside the preparations of a master tactician. Von

Tempsky is killed along with more than 30 other European soldiers and the invaders retreat in harried disorder.

White civilisation is still reeling in its dismay and outrage when Titokowaru–who dresses for war in a natty English suit and top hat–foils yet another army attack with similar tactics and no loss of life in his own forces.

Outrage has turned to alarm, particularly in the large town of Wanganui, south of Taranaki. Titokowaru is marching south.

Jubilation runs through many previously uncommitted tribes who now flock to his cause. It’s haka time with a vengeance.

29 kilometres from Wanganui, Titokowaru and his 400 warriors build their most formidable pa yet, complete with trenches, rifle pits, parapets, a double line of stockade using strong timbers, packed earth and galvanised roofing iron. His raiding parties overrun a British fort close to Wanganui. Inside Wanganui the colonial forces swell to almost 2000 men. But the fear inside the town is palpable.

Colonel George Whitmore advances with his troops to within  a hundred metres of the fortified pa and begins to shell it with heavy field guns. There is no response. A reconnaissance party of Armed Constabulary approach and enter the pa. It is empty….men, women and children having slipped out the back into the bush during the night.

They’ve gone.

Why?

At the height of his power, the Taranaki tribes flocking to join him, the British invaders threatened as they had never before been threatened…. why this total abandonment of an apparently unassailable pa?

It was revealed 50 years later that Titokowaru was discovered by his people to have committed adultery in an affair with the wife of one of his sub-chiefs. He lost his mana tapu, his sacred power, and the confidence of his followers.

They could no longer accept his leadership.

It seemed, to them, that he had committed ‘sin leading to death.’

Let’s pray.

Father, thank you for the inspiration and challenges of your Word. Bless us today in opening ourselves to the meaning and understanding you intend for us to take from this passage from the first epistle of John.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.

In fact it was not the end for Titokawaru. The Taranaki War was over. But in time he gained acceptance in a new way as one of the leaders of the remarkable peace and civil disobedience movement based at the Taranaki village of Parihaka…which you may know from Tim Finn’s song.

Titokawaru and the founder of the movement, Te Whiti, led protests and sit-ins and their followers ripped up surveyor pegs and conducted a non-violent campaign which paved the way for the return of land and treaties. Titokowaru finished his life in chains and,I think, triumph.

If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He (Jesus) will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death.

A little ‘something’ from that generously loaded receptacle known as the Bible’s too-hard basket? ‘Sin leading to death.’

We heard the term this morning in the reading from John’s first epistle, coming towards the end of that rather dense explication of our relationship with God through Jesus.

This is He who came by water and blood–Jesus Christ; not only by water, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is truth. For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood.

And these passages seem to stem inarguably  from the depths, the density of meaning, of those opening verses from the fourth gospel….

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

Through it all, the deep love for his Lord and his friend, and through this first epistle to believers, his calm, fatherly shepherding of us to the saving way in Jesus…

And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.

And just when things are going so well, if a little demandingly,

If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He (Jesus) will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death.

 ‘He-will-give-him-life..’ (that is the person who is interceding with prayer)…‘for those who commit sin not leading to death.’

Yes. We’re hanging on, we’re hanging on. And then….

There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that. All unrighteousness is sin and there is sin not leading to death.

What is this all about? Where are we now?  There we were enjoying a smashing boys-own adventure yarn about Titokowaru running rings around British troops. It was all so linear and clear. And now, TROUBLE.

John takes us to the character of our relationship with our God, who is risen, but whose blood and agony and love–this was the same God and man who told his disciple John from the cross, to take his mother home and look after her–whose blood and agony and love we carry in our hearts.

But…..

Sin leading to death…..

What is that?

Yes, there are examples in the Bible. People whose sins apparently placed them beyond the reach of prayer. In the Book of Acts Ananias and his wife Sapphira steal money intended for distribution to the needy within the church and lose their lives.

In first Corinthians Paul referred to a man who had taken his father’s wife. He advised the church to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

And in first Timothy, he counsels similarly in the case of two men who blasphemed by making shipwreck concerning the faith.

In the first case the man repented of his sin and got right with God. But in both cases Paul was seeking to remove all the protections that prayer often provides–as a last act of outreach, that they in this fearfully unprotected state might face the consequences of their sins and return to God before it was too late.

It is still  a work in progress for me…there may well come a time when those words become meaningful guidance and comfort.

I doubt we are being invited to try to determine when someone is mired in ‘sin leading to death.’ Not our business. There’s a point beyond which it’s God’s business, not ours. Ours to pray His compassion and help for those who are troubled or seem to be in trouble.

Mind your own business. It’s  not necessarily ungodly. At one point Jesus told Peter to mind his own business.

Though you might prefer the old Aramaic expression:

“Stick to your knitting!”

Amen.

First preached by David Baldwin at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on May 20, 2012. To hear the audio version of this sermon click here.


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About Father Dave

Parish priest, community worker, martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of four.
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