This week we have the great pleasure and privilege of welcoming Hugh Palmer to the Cathedral.
Hugh is the Rector of All Soul’s Langham Place in London. The church made famous by the ministry of John Stott.
For ten years Hugh was Dick Lucas’ senior colleague at St Helen’s Bishopsgate. Subsequently, he was for ten years the rector of Christ Church Fulwood in Sheffield. He has been at All Souls for the last two years.
Hugh is in Australia for a couple of weeks at our request. He will be speaking at the Cathedral’s Spring Convention on Saturday afternoon and preaching at the Cathedral for two Sundays.
He will also be speaking at the Diocesan Curates Conference. All those ordained in the last three years will be at this conference. On Friday in the Chapter House, Hugh will be speaking to those in full time ministry, and then in the Cathedral for Saturday’s Spring Convention.
Hugh carries with him the reputation of famous churches and great ministries. These mantles he bears with grace and competence. However it reminds us of the danger of living under reputation.
Some reputations are never deserved. Much of the negative reputation of the Sydney Diocese, St Andrews Cathedral, and Moore College has come from the slander of the enemies of the gospel. There is nothing new in their accusations. Their themes have been the same for over one hundred years.
Some reputations are deserved but belong to the past not the present. Churches go through times of great spiritual growth and impact, as well as times of real decline. The glory years are not less glorious because the present time is barren. Life moves on and it is hard for congregations to always keep up.
There is a tendency to feel that we betray the glorious years of our forbears if we make too many changes to what they did. This tendency keeps churches fixated on the unimportant traditions rather than the spiritual realities. The very things that God blessed in a previous generation get lost in a futile attempt to preserve a “formula” that seemed to work.
There is no formula that can compel God to bless us. Even the right formula of prayer, love, and faithful preaching of the Word of God—will not compel the blessings of God. The Spirit moves where He wills—achieving God’s purposes. All we can, and must do, is the right thing—as we plead with God to look on us with His favour.
A great reputation of yesteryear is something for which we give thanks. But it is not an indication of how we are to act today or a reason to preserve the traditions of former times.
In the book of Revelation, the risen Lord Jesus Christ sent a letter to the Church on earth. He addressed seven particular churches in Asia Minor. Amongst them was the church of Sardis. To that church Jesus wrote, “I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.”
There is a great contrast between the church in Sardis and the church in Smyrna. The church in Smyrna was suffering tribulation, poverty and slander. Jesus’ estimate of that church was summed up in four words: “but you are rich”.
It is be better to be alive with no reputation than dead with a great reputation, just as it is better to be rich in the gospel than rich in this world.
To the Laodiceans Jesus wrote: “you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.”
So we welcome Hugh Palmer to our pulpit over the next week. We do not welcome him because of the wonderful reputation of the great churches in which he has served or of his own great reputation as a preacher of renown. We thank God for what He has done in those churches over many years and for Hugh’s ministry in the past. And we pray that those churches would continue to stand for the truth.
But for now we welcome Hugh to be a great preacher of God’s word amongst us today. We pray that in Hugh’s words we may hear the Word of God and have God’s word work in us. So today when you hear the Word of God—do not harden your hearts. Do not, like the Pharisees and Sadducees of old, say: “We have Abraham as our father”. For on the strength of past glory they refused to listen to God’s word in the present.