The Coal Face
I’ve given today’s sermon the somewhat obscure title of ‘The Coal Face’. Hopefully why I’ve done that will become clear as we go. I’ve never been at a literal coal face, but I assume it’s a wall of coal being cut by a large circular cutter, and with a conveyor belt removing it from the immediate site. The nearest thing I’ve come to something like a coal face was on a much smaller scale at the end of a mine drive near the South Para river. The drive maybe only went for about 30 metres, and I found out why when I came to the end of it: at the end was a solid wall of steel-hard quartz. I could picture the poor old miners hopefully following a mineral vein, only to be thwarted by a wall of rock so hard it was next to impossible to get through with their crude manual tools.
The coal (or quartz) face is where the action happens. It’s where the hard, unrelenting and unending work is done. It’s where the sweat runs and its rivulets are only stopped by the accumulation of dust and dirt.
Metaphorically, the coal face of life is the quartz wall of reality—a wall of reality that can sometimes feel as though it’s as hard and unmoving as quartz. We can look at that quartz wall from varying distances—up close, far away, or somewhere in between. We can even view it while poking our heads around the corner of the corridor of denial. We can ignore it, talk about it, worry about it, comment on it, rant about it, deny it, pretend it’s something else, look at it with rose coloured glasses, argue with it, throw bricks at it, even try to change it. But nothing shifts that wall. It is real. It is. The coal face is the gritty reality of life itself with all it brings.
Here’s why I’ve gone a bit philosophical this morning. Today we’re starting a series called ‘The Seven Words of the Cross’, a series which covers the seven things Jesus said while on the cross. Our aim is to draw us towards Easter. I’ve done this series a couple of times before in different churches, the most recent being 19 years ago at the Tea Tree Gully Church. On the occasions that that I’ve repeated series (which has not been that often) it’s been rare for me to use my previous material because a lot changes in the interim. However, for this sermon I thought I’d have a look at what I did before and found myself pleasantly surprised. I didn’t think it was too bad – even if I do say so myself, and I have used a little bit of it today. It had some quite gritty stories around forgiveness that had come from Philip Yancey and it considered the nature and importance of forgiveness. Also, I sometimes find it helpful to see what others have done on a similar theme so I did a bit of a search and found a few commentaries and sermons – with varying degrees of helpfulness.
But what did happen was I found myself thinking in unexpected directions—about cricket commentary (bear with me!!)! One of Wendy’s complaints about the cricket is that they drivel on with all sorts of rubbish just to fill in the time. I can’t really argue with that because that’s exactly what they do! Most of them are ex-players which does at least mean they should know what they’re talking about, but in the end it’s the players on the field that are at the coal face. The commentators are doing just that, commenting from a distance.
After reading 2 or 3 sermons, I found myself starting to react. I have no doubt about the heart and intent of the writers, and it wasn’t an issue of good theology or otherwise. I reacted to what I felt was a lot of Christian jargon (and I can’t point any fingers), and I reacted to well-constructed, homiletically sound, three point, alliterated sermons. Rightly or wrongly, I felt as though I was reading commentary from a distance: theologically sound, encouraging, thought provoking, but still somewhat removed. My fear today is of merely making commentary at a distance as though this word of Jesus is something that can be analysed doctrinally and mined for a new and fresh theological gem.
This word was no insipid cry, something that was the right thing for a good Christian, and especially God, to say. It was a cry flowing from love and obedience in the middle of teeth gritting pain. It was the cry of One perfectly innocent who was suffering at the hands of the perfectly guilty. It wasn’t just a cry for those who were there hammering in the nails—it was for all humanity of all time; for you and for me. It is as if we were there hammering in the nails and Jesus is crying out. This was a cry that makes it possible for us to forgive others.
Jesus made the importance of forgiveness quite clear:
Mt 6:14-15 (NRSV)
14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
But this wasn’t mere spouting words; his message was borne out in action on the cross. You couldn’t get much closer to the coal face than that.
Jesus being nailed to a cross and asking for forgiveness for the perpetrators. That’s the raw coal face of forgiveness. How could I even begin to get close to comprehending what that was all about? I wonder if the best and most adequate response to Jesus’ word of forgiveness is silence. At which point I could sit down! But I won’t!
All too often we are prone to grizzle and complain about being wronged. We may even have a case. So we hang on to our sense of injustice, our hurt, our anger and feed it, even though it becomes a bubbling festering sore. We nurse our unforgiveness. Our inner joy and emotional reserves are sapped, but still we hang on for dear life: we’ve been unjustly treated! We’ve been hurt! Don’t they know what they’ve done to us?!
Stand by the cross.
This is the coal face.
Injustice to the extreme, up close.
Forgiveness in the raw.
Follower of Jesus?
Go and do likewise.
No ifs. No buts.
Forgive as we have been forgiven.