Sunday, November 25, 2007

Sermon for November 25th: Luke 1:76-79

Into the Way of Peace

One of my favourite things to do is to get people to sit down together in groups and tell each other the story of how God has worked in their lives. Most of us aren’t dynamic, extroverted evangelists and we get a bit nervous at the idea of trying to explain Christian beliefs to others, but telling our own story isn’t so very threatening. Our biggest fear is often that idea that others might find it boring, but in fact that very rarely happens. I’ve got people sharing their stories with each other many times, and I’ve never heard the listeners complain about being bored. In fact, I’m coming to the conclusion that God just doesn’t write boring stories!

How would you tell someone else about your journey into Christian faith? As I look back on my own story, three words come to mind: ‘preparation’, ‘encounter’, and ‘change’. I thought about these words this week as I was reading Canticle 19, the Song of Zechariah, which we used for our psalm today. This canticle was the song that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, sang over his baby son when he was given the name ‘John’; it’s found in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 1, verses 67-79. Let’s look at the end of the canticle together, starting with verse 76:
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways”.

John the Baptist was the Lord’s forerunner - he went ahead of Jesus to prepare for his coming. The Gospels tell us that he did that by telling people that the kingdom of God was coming, by calling them to turn from their sins, and by pointing to Jesus when he finally arrived. Once Jesus was on the scene, John couldn’t wait to get off it! He said to his disciples, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). His role was to prepare the way for Jesus, to point people to him, and to rejoice when they made the decision to become disciples of Jesus.

This is the first stage in our Christian journey, the stage of preparation. No-one just decides to become a follower of Jesus without something happening to prepare the way. It might be special people that God puts into our lives - parents, friends, ministers. It might be circumstances we go through that make it clear to us that without God we can’t make sense of our lives. It might be books we read or meetings we go to. It might be a combination of all those things and more besides!

When I ask myself ‘What people and events did God use to set me on the road to Christ?’ I can think of several. Undoubtedly the first would be the influence of parents who knew and loved Jesus, and made it their business to teach me the Bible stories from my earliest years. Like many of you, I can’t remember the first time I heard the story of Jesus - I feel as if I’ve always known it. Nor can I remember my first prayer, although I’m sure I prayed it with my parents.

So my parents definitely played a ‘John the Baptist’ role in my life, pointing me to Jesus. And so did the Christian Church, to which I was carried before I could walk, in which I was baptised before I was two months old, and to which I was taken every Sunday of my life. Undoubtedly this participation in worship from my earliest years helped lead me to Jesus.

A third ‘John the Baptist’ figure in my life was a little paperback book, Nine O’Clock in the Morning, by Dennis Bennett, that my Dad gave me to read when I was thirteen. In this book I read about personal experiences of the love of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. I read about miracles, gifts of healing, dynamic and immediate experiences of God and so on. This book whetted my appetite for God and got me on the fast track in my journey toward Christ.

When you look back on your own life and ask yourself the question ‘How did God prepare the way for Jesus in my life?’ I wonder what story you can tell? Are there people who modelled the Christian faith for you and taught you about Jesus? Are there particular circumstances you went through - perhaps a difficult time or maybe even a happy time - circumstances that pointed you to God? Who or what did the job of John the Baptist for you - pointing you toward Jesus?

So the first stage in our Christian journey is preparation, and the second is encounter. Look at Luke 1:77:
“To give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins”.

‘Knowledge’ in the Old Testament, which was Zechariah’s Bible, doesn’t very often refer to just knowing the facts in your head. It’s about experience; the knowledge of salvation means the experience of salvation; in other words, the experience of God coming into your life and rescuing you from things you could never save yourself from, and restoring you to a living relationship with him. ‘Sins’ are mentioned here because they are one of the major barriers in the way of a living relationship with God. Christians don’t go on about sin because we’re morbid; we talk about it because we want to know God, and sin gets in the way. So before our relationship with God can be restored our sins have to be forgiven. This is what we experience through Jesus.

At the age of thirteen I had a quiet encounter with God, when I prayed a prayer giving my life to Jesus and asking him to come into my heart. I’m one of those who can remember the time and place when this happened for me: March 5th 1972, in my bedroom. Of course, there are many people who have made a living connection with God through Jesus who can’t remember when or how they did it. But there are also people in the church who have never made that connection, and so are desperately trying to get through their lives with only the institution of the church to help them, and not a living relationship with God. To people like that Jesus says ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’ (Matt. 11:28).

I have no recollection myself of the words I prayed that night, but I’m sure they weren’t very sophisticated. I was hungry for God, and I’d been told that giving my life to Jesus was the next step on the journey. I’m sure that’s how I would have worded my prayer: a giving over of my life to Jesus as Lord. Very simple, but I can say now without a doubt that it was the most decisive moment of my life.

If the first stage is preparation, and the second stage is encounter, the third stage is change. Look at verses 78-79:
“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace”.

One of the earliest names for Christians was ‘Followers of the Way’. There was a way of life that went along with being a Christian, and Christians had to learn it. Zechariah calls this way of life ‘the way of peace’, and he tells us that Jesus will guide our feet into it.

As followers of Jesus we have committed ourselves to following his example and obeying his teaching, and this means change. It means that we are rebuilding our lives according to the blueprint he gives us in the Gospels. Instead of living by the values of the materialistic world around us, we’re learning to live by the values of the Kingdom of God - love for God and love for our neighbours.

I think it’s telling that Zechariah uses the word ‘peace’ to describe the Christian way. The word he would have used in his own language was ‘Shalom’ which means far more than just the absence of war. It means wholeness, life on this planet as God originally intended it, an end to greed and violence, and a world characterized by justice and peace. That’s the way of life Jesus is teaching us, and he is with us to help us as we grow and learn.

When I ask myself “What difference is following Jesus making in my life today?” I think of two things mainly. First, I pray every day, and in my times of prayer I often sense God’s quiet presence with me. I’d be totally lost without those prayer times. I’d feel completely rootless and abandoned in a scary world. But when I pray, morning by morning, I get a deep sense of the presence of Jesus in my heart, and the peace that comes from him. That’s what helps me make it through the rest of the day.

The other thing is that Jesus is teaching me how to live. I struggle with the same sins as most other people. The temptations of a materialistic world are all around me, and I get sucked into believing that buying and owning more stuff will make me happy, just like everyone else does. But then I come back to the Gospels and read what Jesus says there, and I look at my life and I say, “Yep, looks like you’re right again, Lord!” And so, with the Holy Spirit’s help, I’m trying to bring my life into line with what I read there.

I wonder what difference being a follower of Jesus is making in your life at this point? It doesn’t have to be something dramatic. Perhaps you find yourself thinking sometimes ‘Well, God must have helped me there, because I sure couldn’t have done that by myself’. Or, perhaps there’s an issue in your life, some habit or behaviour pattern that Jesus is helping you to change right now, in order to bring it into line with his teaching. Maybe there’s a particular command of Jesus you’re working on, trying to learn to obey it. What difference is it making to you right now to be a follower of Jesus?

So these are three stages people often go through on the Christian journey - preparation, encounter, and change. We’ve been thinking of these three stages in terms of our own journey, and we’ll come back to that in a minute, but let’s just go around them again in terms of the spiritual journeys of other people we know.

Sometimes God lets us be John the Baptist for someone else. We might not get to see them move all the way into Christian Faith, but we get to be a part of the preparation for that. Be on the lookout for opportunities like that. By the way you live your life, or by a few words you say, you might be one of the signposts pointing another person towards Jesus. You’re never off duty. People are always watching. Make your life count.

Sometimes God lets us help at the very moment when someone wants to become a follower of Jesus. That might not happen very often, but when it does, it’s the most exciting moment in the universe! It’s not complicated; it might just be helping them say ‘Yes’ in answer to Jesus’ invitation. To be in on that moment in another person’s life is one of the most thrilling things a Christian can ever experience.

Sometimes God lets us be a part of the process of change. If you’ve been a follower of Jesus for any length of time, you’ve learned things that newer Christians can find useful. Don’t be shy about taking them under your wing and helping them along the way. Look out for opportunities to do that.

We’ve talked about our Christian journey ‘into the way of peace’. Let’s close by asking ourselves what the next step on that journey might be for us. Perhaps we haven’t yet had a moment of genuine encounter with the living God; maybe we need to ask someone to help us with that. Maybe there are some questions that are still troubling us that we need to talk to someone about. Maybe we’re aware of a change that God wants us to make in our lives, and we’ve been resisting it for one reason or another. Or maybe we realise that we’re at the point where a simple prayer giving our lives to Jesus would make all the difference in our journey with God.

Let’s close by taking a moment of silence. In that silence, let’s each of us talk to God in our hearts about what the next step in our journey might be, and let’s make the response to which we feel God is calling us. Don’t worry about getting the words right; God knows what’s on your heart. Let’s pray.

Ordination of Deacons at All Saint's Cathedral, Nov. 24th 2007

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sermon for November 18th 2007: Luke 21:5-19

‘Faithfulness in Difficult Times’

Those of us who are over the age of forty would probably all agree with the statement that we now live in a different world than the one we were born and grew up in.

I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War, in a little country that was on the front line of a potential nuclear conflict. To me, the Iron Curtain seemed to be a permanent fixture of European life; I never expected to live to see it come down. But in 1989, down it came, and the world as we knew it changed beyond recognition. For a few years, the fear of a nuclear holocaust was lifted, and we all thought that the world had changed for the better.

But then the clouds began to gather again, and on September 11th 2001 they burst into a spectacular thunderstorm that seems to have engulfed the world ever since. We all thought that the end of the Cold War would make the world a safer place, but I suspect that none of us feel much safer. Enemies are no longer easily identifiable by the uniforms they wear; our neighbour - the person we buy our morning coffee from – any of the ordinary people we interact with every day – any one of these folks could be the one who blows us up in an act of terrorism. This is the grim new world we live in.

Notice the language we’re using here. I said at the beginning that ‘the world we live in today is not the same world we were born and brought up in’. Now, literally, that’s not true: it’s exactly the same world. But we use the ‘new world’ figure of speech because things have changed so much that it seems like a different place to us. All the old familiar political and social landmarks are gone, and we don’t know how to find our way in this new order of things. So we talk about ‘living in a different world’.

There was a phrase that was commonly used in the time of Jesus for this idea: ‘the end of the age’. Bible readers in our day often think that this phrase means ‘the end of the world’, but in fact it usually doesn’t. When Luke wrote his gospel, it’s highly likely that his first readers had already lived through ‘the end of the age’; they had seen the Jewish Temple reduced to a pile of rubble and the city of Jerusalem destroyed by the Roman armies. They had been brought up to believe that the Temple was a sign of God’s presence among his people, and that God would protect Jerusalem from the pagans. When that Temple came down, it must have seemed to them like a combination of the World Trade Centre and Canterbury Cathedral being destroyed at the same time. It must have shaken their faith to the core; what on earth had happened to God’s promises to care for his people?

So Luke wrote chapter 21 of his gospel to remind his hearers that Jesus had predicted this event. Not only that: Jesus had predicted all sorts of grief for his followers, so if they found themselves in trouble, that didn’t mean that God’s plan had somehow gone wrong! No –the kingdom of God was confronting the kingdoms of this world, and the kingdoms of this world weren’t jumping for joy about it. But the Christian response to this wasn’t to give up in despair; rather, they were called to be faithful to Jesus, and to continue to testify about their faith at every opportunity.

This passage starts with Jesus making a startling prediction about the Temple: ‘You see these stones? They’re all coming down! The time’s going to come when none of them will be left standing’. The disciples are shocked, and they ask him ‘When will this be? And what sign will we be given that it’s about to happen?’

Notice carefully how Jesus answers. A lot of people look at this passage in a fairly superficial way and conclude: ‘Jesus foretells wars and earthquakes and signs in the heavens and persecution of Christians; when these things happen, they’re signs of the end of the world’. But in fact that is exactly not what Jesus says. He says in verse 9, “Do not be terrified, for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately”. In other words, these things aren’t signs of the end of the age – they’re just ‘business as usual’. This is the context in which we live: days of war and unrest, earthquake, deadly disease, prejudice and persecution. That’s the context in which we are called to follow Jesus.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the things Jesus describes as ‘business as usual’ for his followers. One of them is the arrival of false prophets. He says in verse 8, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and ‘The end is near!’ Do not go after them”. We know all about these false prophets; throughout Christian history we’ve had people who’ve set dates and drawn timelines and confidently asserted that the Antichrist was Napoleon Bonaparte or Adolf Hitler or Henry Kissinger or even the Pope. ‘Business as usual’, Jesus says; ‘don’t take any notice of them’. False prophets have been around since the beginning, and they’ll continue to be around until the end.

Two more pieces of ‘business as usual’ follow: wars and natural disasters. Jesus says in verse 9, “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately”, and in verse 11 he talks about earthquakes, famines and plagues. Throughout history people have looked at these events and thought, “Surely this means that the Lord is coming again soon”, but here Jesus says, “No – it’s just business as usual in the fallen world we live in”. And even astrological signs don’t mean much; in verse 11 Jesus cautions his hearers not to read too much into ‘dreadful portents and great signs from heaven’. Don’t take any notice of your horoscope: it’s just the movement of gas giants in space, folks!

Another piece of ‘business as usual’ for the church is persecution, and Jesus talks about it in verses 12-19. He says that his followers will be persecuted by both religious and political authorities, and as we read the story of the early church in the book of Acts we can see that he was right – synagogue leaders, high priests, Jewish princes and Roman authorities all joined in the persecution of the early Christians. And around the world today, this is reality for many of our Christian brothers and sisters as well.

The persecution will even reach into their own families; “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers”, says Jesus, “by relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death” (v.16). My friend Howard Green used to be an Anglican priest in Japan, and a few times during his ministry there he baptized young teenagers from Buddhist families who had decided to become followers of Jesus. In that situation, Howard told me, it was common for the families to disown the children. This is tough, and Jesus knows it is tough, but it doesn’t mean the end of the world is coming; this also is ‘business as usual’, the sort of suffering that Christians have experienced all through our history.

As I read this passage I’m reminded of Winston Churchill’s famous wartime speech in which he said that he had nothing to offer but ‘blood, toil, tears, and sweat’. “Follow me”, Jesus says, “and you’ll go through wars and insurrections, earthquakes and famines, persecutions from the religious establishment and the government and even members of your own families”. That sounds appealing, doesn’t it? This is the Gospel of Christ: thanks be to God!

Where is the good news in this passage? When our world seems to be falling apart, what can we count on? Two things, and we’ll look at them in reverse order.

First, in verses 18 and 19 Jesus says, “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls” (vv.18-19). This reminds me of Jesus’ words in Matthew 10, where he tells his disciples, “Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell”. He then goes on to say, “And even the hairs of your head are all counted” (vv.28, 30).

Obviously, in the context, this does not mean that God will save followers of Jesus from being killed for their faith. We know from history that this is just not true. In the two thousand years of Christian history, hundreds of thousands of Christians have paid the ultimate price for their loyalty to Jesus, and they continue to do so today in some parts of the world. No - what Jesus is doing here is taking away the fear of death for his followers. Yes, we may die, but we will not be lost; God will keep us in his care, and on the last day we will rise again with Jesus and live with him forever in the new heavens and new earth that God is going to create.

And this is tremendously important for us in the face of the normal troubles we face in this broken world – wars and natural disasters, plagues and deadly diseases and the fear of aircraft falling out of the sky and so on. I think Bishop Victoria spelled it out well for us in the days after she was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago. She was interviewed in the media several times, and her message was always the same: I’m hoping for healing, but if it’s not to be, I’m in God’s hands and that’s good. Or, as Paul put it, ‘If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living’ (Romans 14:8-9). Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey used to tell the story of a woman dying of cancer who he visited as a young priest; when he came into the room she smiled at him and said, “Don’t look so worried, vicar – I’m only dying!”

So the first promise is that whether we live or die we can count on God to keep us in his care, and we know that ultimately we will not be the losers. And secondly, Jesus says, we can count on him to give us the words we need. He tells his followers that when they are brought before the courts and put on trial for their allegiance to him, they shouldn’t worry about what they are going to say: “For I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to contradict” (v.15).

This promise was fulfilled in the story of the early church. In Acts chapter four we read that Peter and John were brought up before the Jewish ruling council and questioned about their faith. The apostles spoke fearlessly about Jesus, and the council members were surprised by this. We read,‘Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus’ (Acts 4:13).

You and I aren’t likely to find ourselves hauled before courts for our loyalty to Jesus, but we may well find that from time to time we’re put on the spot by friends and relatives. Maybe we get religious terrorism thrown in our teeth, or the other objections that people commonly make to Christian faith. When that happens, we’ll sometimes be surprised at how the Lord gives us the words we need. And sometimes we won’t even be aware of it until long afterwards. I’ve had the experience a couple of times of people telling me that something I had said had made a real impression on them, even when I wasn’t aware of it at the time. Perhaps a person was attacking the Christian faith, and I said a word or two in defence of Jesus and his Gospel; the argument continued, and I didn’t think I was making any impression at all, but later on I found out that the message had gone home, even though the person tried to ignore it at the time.

The disciples of Jesus who first read the Gospel of Luke had lived through terrible events which shook their world down to the foundations. We might feel today as if we’re living through the same sort of events as well; wars and rumours of wars, climate change and super bugs, and an atmosphere of increasing hostility toward Christian faith. Other Christians before us have gone through this sort of thing, and much worse. This passage calls us to three things:

First, ‘endurance’: ‘By your endurance you will gain your souls’. The word here is sometimes translated ‘perseverence’. It means that when the times get tough you don’t give up on your faith; you keep getting up in the morning, saying your prayers and reading your Bible and doing the things that Jesus told you to do, and helping your fellow Christians to do the same.

Second, ‘trust’. God has promised to keep us in his loving care; in the strength of that promise we can keep on following Jesus and leave the consequences in God’s hands.

Third, testimony. When Jesus is talking about his followers being put on trial for their faith; he says, “This will give you an opportunity to testify” (v.13). When following Jesus gets us into trouble, the prudent person will shut up about their faith; Jesus, however, doesn’t call us to be prudent but to be bold, and to speak our word of witness whenever we have the opportunity.

Follow Jesus faithfully, trust God to care for us, take every opportunity to speak a word of witness for Christ. These are the things Jesus is calling us to in this passage. May the Holy Spirit give us the will and the strength to do them. Amen.

Friday, November 16, 2007

St. Margaret of Scotland

Today is the feast day of St. Margaret of Scotland. Here’s an excerpt from an account of her life.
Although Margaret was now in a great position, possessing what was in those days great wealth, she regarded herself merely as the steward of riches. She lived in the spirit of inward poverty, looking on nothing as her own but recognising that everything she possessed was to be used for the purposes of God. In this she is in the direct line of the saints.

The miracle is that the Scots, ever jealous of their liberties, accepted the reforms she introduced. It has been thought that the clan system of Scotland helped her, for the Scots were passionately devoted to their chiefs; once she had won their hearts, she had won her cause. And she herself was so simple and attractive that they felt her way must be a good way; nothing kindles response so quickly as dedication to a great cause. Her people had free access to her. There was a stone called St. Margaret's Stone near Dunfermline, on which tradition says she used to sit so that anyone in trouble might come to her. Her charity was unbounded; she thought of her poorest subjects before herself. Every morning "at the first hour of the day" (though she had already spent many hours in prayer and the saying of the Psalms) nine little orphans were brought to her. "When the little ones were carried to her, she did not think it beneath her to take them upon her knee and to get their pap ready for them and this she used to put into their mouths with the spoon which she herself used . . . The Queen did this act of charity for the sake of Christ, as one of Christ's servants."

It was also the custom at Dunfermline that any destitute poor should come every morning to "the royal hall"; when they were seated round it, then "the King and Queen entered ... With the exception of the chaplains and a few attendants, no one was permitted to be present at their alms deeds. The King on one side and the Queen on the other, waited on Christ in the person of His poor."

The daily observance is an allegory of Margaret's life; service of God and her fellowmen before service of self. Dr Skene, the eminent historian, gives this judgement on her character, "For purity of motives, for an earnest desire to benefit the people among whom her lot was cast, for a deep sense of religion and great personal piety, for the unselfish performance of whatever duty lay before her and for entire self-abnegation, she is unsurpassed." And he adds, "No more beautiful character has been recorded in history."

There’s more here. It occurs to me that a lot of what we do at our church is an attempt to live up to the good example of our patron.

Vince and Alley and Keira

Former St. Margaret's parishioners Vince and Alley Pettinger have recently become grandparents again; Alley's daughter Mandy and her husband Kari now have a baby girl, Keira, born on September 16th. Here are the proud grandparents with their new grandbaby...

And here is Keira with her Mom and Dad, Mandy and Kari.

I baptised Alley and Mandy and officiated at Kari and Mandy's wedding, so you'll understand that I feel a special connection to these folks!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sermon for Remembrance Sunday (Nov. 11th 2007): Micah 4:1-5

The Hope of Peace

Today on Remembrance Day we pause to honour the memory of the countless millions who have lost their lives in times of war, and to pray for peace on earth. We sometimes think of earlier periods of human history – the so-called ‘Dark Ages’, for instance – as being times of barbarism, but in fact the twentieth century was the bloodiest century in all of human history. In the Second World War alone over fifty million people lost their lives, and more than half of them were civilians – men, women, and children who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Second World War, of course, came as a bloody sequel to the First, which was horrific enough that when it was over people called it ‘The War to End All Wars’. But the end didn’t last very long, and the sad story continues to this day – vengeance leads to more vengeance, killing leads to more killing. It’s always the other guy’s fault - the war could always have been avoided if it wasn’t for his stubbornness – and so the lives of men and women and children continue to be snuffed out in sacrifice to someone’s ‘righteous cause’. Even more tragic is the fact that people have often done this in the name of religion. The church did it during the Crusades, which were themselves a response to the violence of the Muslim invasions of the ninth and tenth centuries. People continued to be killed in the name of Jesus in the Spanish conquests of Central and South America, and in the great Catholic and Protestant wars of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeeth centuries – wars which had their twentieth century counterpart, of course, in Northern Ireland. And you and I know that killing in the name of God hasn’t stopped in the twenty-first century.

Jesus declared his view on this subject quite clearly, as we heard in our Gospel reading a moment ago – he told his followers to turn the other cheek, to love their enemies, to pray for their persecutors and to work for reconciliation. He did this, knowing very well how dangerous this might be: he practiced what he preached, and it led him to a cross. But he told his followers not to avoid this; they were to take up their own cross and follow him on the same path. And even in the Old Testament, which some people think of as a bloody book, we get glimpses of God’s dream for his people, a dream of a time when there will be an end to war, and when people will commit themselves to learning God’s ways.

Our Old Testament reading is one of those passages. It appears in almost identical form in two places in the prophets, here in Micah and also in Isaiah chapter two, which leads some scholars to think it may have been a hymn or psalm sung in the worship of Israel. It became a very important passage to the early Christians; in the first two or three Christian centuries this was one of the Old Testament passages that new converts were encouraged to memorise, because it gives such a clear vision of God’s ultimate purposes for his creation. Why don’t we turn to Micah 4:1-5 and think about it together?

In this passage, Micah teaches us that the time will come when the nations of the world will acknowledge that the one true God is real, and because of this they will make a decision to come to him and learn from him. The ‘mountain of the Lord’s house’ in verse 1 is the mountain where the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the place where God was worshipped, the place where the priests taught the people from the law of the Lord. Of course, the people hadn’t always been that eager to hear the law of the Lord; there are lots of stories in the Old Testament about times when the people abandoned God’s ways and lived just like the nations around them. And those nations of course all had their own gods; they weren’t too eager to hear about the God of Israel.

But in this vision Micah lifts up the hope that one day there will be a universal acknowledgement of the one true God – a God who is not just a tribal god, the god of Israel or the gods of Moab or Assyria, but the God of the whole earth, the creator of all. This was a revolutionary thought in Micah’s time. People were used to the idea of every nation having their own god or gods; those gods would go with them in battle and give them victory over their enemies – unless, of course, the enemies’ gods happened to be stronger than them! Sadly, we’re not done with this idea in the twenty-first century; we still like to think of God being on our side, of God having some special place in his heart for our nation or race.

This passage teaches that the time will come when God’s word goes out from Jerusalem and the whole world listens to it. The early Christians saw themselves as being part of the fulfillment of this prophecy. Jesus had sent out his missionaries from Jerusalem; they had gone to Judea and Samaria and on into the Gentile world, to Asia Minor and Greece and on into Italy and France and all around the known world of the day. The message they took with them would have sounded very Jewish to its first hearers – the idea that there is one Creator God who wants us to worship him and not idols, and that this God cares about how we live and has given us commandments to guide our daily life, not just rituals to guide our worship. They added to this Jewish message the good news that Jesus had announced – that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and that the King himself has come among us and has lived and died and risen again to set us free. This message, Jesus said, should be taken to all people.

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to pray, ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. This is not a natural prayer for human beings to pray. We’d far rather pray, ‘My kingdom come, my will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. My natural tendency is to see everyone else as secondary actors in my play; life would be best if I could just get everyone to acknowledge the fact that they are here for my benefit, and to live accordingly! So we put ourselves firmly on the throne of our own lives and reserve the right to do only what will serve our own desires. Nations do the same thing; they tend to champion their own sovereignty and to refuse to submit to anyone else unless forced to do so by superior military might.

But this is going to change, Micah says. ‘…Many nations shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of Yahweh, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways, and that we may walk in his paths”’ (v.2). Even in the time of Jesus this was beginning to happen. Around the Roman world, there were a few people who were tired of idolatry and were attracted to the idea of one true creator God and to the commandments he had given to Israel. These people were called ‘God-fearers’; they didn’t go the whole way and get circumcised, but they worshipped Israel’s God and tried to live by his commandments. One day, Micah says, that’s what’s going to happen across the world. Jesus and his apostles saw themselves and their work as part of the fulfillment of that prophecy.

And what will be the result of this? Well, look at v.4:
He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
In other words, when God’s kingdom comes in all its fulness then everyone will live together in peace. Now here’s something interesting: God doesn’t say that in his future kingdom there will be no disputes. Disputes aren’t necessarily a problem; any couple with a healthy marriage can tell you that. It’s not having disagreements that causes marriages to break up; it’s handling the disagreements in the wrong way. It’s the stubborn and self-centred approach that says, “This is the way I want it and this is the way it’s going to be, come hell or high water!” That’s what causes marriages to break up, and that’s what causes disagreements between nations to end up in conflict and bloodshed, too.

But the day will come, Micah says, when instead of everyone being determined to get what they want, everyone will instead be determined to listen to what God wants. ‘He shall judge between many peoples’, says Micah, ‘and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away’ (v.3) – in other words, his teaching will be the judge that determines what the nations will or will not do, and people will be willing to abide by his decision.

What follows from this? A new preoccupation with peace, and a new safety and security. Micah talks about people taking swords and beating them into ploughs, and taking spears and beating them into pruning hooks – or, today, we might say, taking intercontinental ballistic missiles and converting them into combine harvesters! Even more impressive, to my mind, is the phrase, ‘neither shall they learn war any more’ (v.3). Wars don’t just happen on the spur of the moment; they are possible because people learn the art of war – they go to training schools and military colleges, they read military history and study old battles, they use their ingenuity to develop more and more sophisticated ways of killing each other.

Micah dares us to consider an alternative: imagine that people just decided not to do that any more! Imagine if they decided instead to take all the time and energy and money they used to spend on learning the art of war, and use it instead to study peace! Imagine people spending as much time being trained in the art of conflict resolution as they now spend in military colleges! Imagine nations taking all the money that gets spent in armaments and using it on humanitarian aid instead! I’ve been told – and I don’t know if it’s true – that if the world took a break from building weapons for a single day – just one day – and used the money they saved to feed hungry children instead, child poverty could be eliminated on the proceeds of that one day. That’s all it would take. I don’t know if this is true, but it’s what I’ve been told.

And the result, Micah says, will be safety and security. Imagine the people of Israel sitting in their farms; they lived on the busiest road in the ancient world, and every invading army on its way from Egypt to Persia or Babylon or Rome passed through their land. Often they planted crops, and then someone else got to reap them. Imagine how difficult it would be for them to feel secure in such a world! But now, says Micah, after the weapons are converted to farm implements and the schools of war are closed, ‘they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid’ (v.4).

Here’s God’s vision for the future. This is what the kingdom of God will look like: a world in which each person and each nation truly and sincerely seeks the Lord and commits themselves to learning his ways; a world in which people and nations submit their disagreements to God’s guidance and abide by his ruling; a world in which weapons are converted into farm implements and no one studies war any more; a world in which everyone is safe and secure and no one makes them afraid.

It sounds like a beautiful dream, something that gives us hope for the future. And this is the problem. Plenty of people have been willing to pay lip service to it as a vision of the future, because if they banish it to a time that’s still to come, they don’t have to do anything about it now. But that’s not what Jesus meant when he said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’. He meant, ‘The time isn’t one day – the time is now’. The time to make peace, to care for the poor, to live by the teaching of the one true God in every aspect of our lives – that time is not one day, but now. Psalm 95 says, ‘O that today you would listen to his voice! Do not harden your hearts…’ (vv.7b-8a). Not tomorrow, but today!

Micah acknowledges that this will not be easy. Not everyone has agreed yet to beat their weapons into farm implements and close their military colleges. In his day, the big superpowers of Assyria and Babylon still had their mighty armies and they showed no signs of turning to the one true God. So here’s the challenge Micah ends with in verse 5: ‘for all the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God, for ever and ever’.

He’s already spelled out for us what exactly he means by walking in the name of the Lord – the way of reconciliation and peace. Now he acknowledges that not everyone will choose to follow this way, and challenges his people to follow it anyway – not because God always promises that it will work in the short term, but because it’s God’s way, and God’s way is always right. And Jesus makes the same challenge to us today as Christians. In a world which continues to hate and kill and divide the world into friend and enemy, he calls us to take the risk of looking at the enemy and calling them our friend – reaching out to them, praying for them, blessing them, doing good to them. In a world in which strike leads to counter-strike and bombing leads to bombing, and so on and so on, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, he calls us to take the risk of doing something different.

On this Remembrance Day, let us pray that the world will heed that call – but let’s be determined to heed it ourselves first, whether others do or not. ‘All the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever’. In the name of the Lord our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Jimmy Blashock's Baptism, Sunday November 4th 2007

Sermon for November 4th: Acts 2:37-41

Baptism, Confirmation, and Conversion

My baptism certificate tells me that I was baptized on December 28th 1958, when I would have been about eight weeks old. I was baptized in St. Barnabas’ Church, Leicester, the church where my parents were married. My Mum and Dad were Christians and they wanted to raise me as a follower of Jesus, and so they made the baptismal promises on their behalf and on my behalf as well.

I was confirmed at the age of 12 in St. Leonard’s Church, Southminster, in southeast Essex. I have absolutely no recollection of whose idea this was – whether it was my initiative, or whether my Mum and Dad just decided that it was time for me to be confirmed, I can’t honestly remember. In retrospect I’m inclined to think that I was a bit too young for it – it wasn’t really my considered ‘adult commitment’ to Jesus, it was more of a hoop to jump through to be able to receive communion – because, as many of you will remember, in those days we didn’t admit children to communion before they were confirmed.

Something really significant for me happened a year or so later. My Dad had been lending me religious books for quite a while, but I didn’t usually pay much attention to them. However, early in 1972 he lent me Dennis Bennett’s book Nine O’Clock in the Morning, and I was so captivated by it that I read it all the way through in one sitting. It was a story of a man who had encountered the power of the Holy Spirit in a remarkable way, and had seen God work dramatically through healings and miracles. I had never thought of God as being that close – as I often put it, ‘A real God who does real things in the real lives of real people’. I was on a search for that God after I read that book, and the search came to a head in March when, under my Dad’s guidance, I sat on my bed in my room and prayed a prayer ‘giving my life to Jesus’. For me, that was the moment when I really made my own commitment to Jesus – and that commitment changed the course of the rest of my life.

Why am I telling you these stories today? Well, today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints’, and we also celebrate the baptism of little Jimmy Blashock. I want to remind you that the way we often use the word ‘saint’ today is very different from the way it’s used in the Bible. Today we usually use it to refer to people like Mother Teresa or Jean Vanier, and the rest of us usually protest, “I’m no saint!” But in the Bible the word just means ‘someone who belongs to God’. When Paul sends letters to New Testament churches and addresses them to ‘the saints in Philippi’, he doesn’t mean, ‘the especially good ones’, but ‘the believers’, ‘the Christians’, ‘the followers of Jesus’. In the New Testament, if you’re a Christian, then you’re a saint – you’re a part of God’s people, called by God to fulfil his special purposes in the world.

But the question I want to address with you this morning is the question of the process by which we become saints. In a few moments we’re going to baptize little Jimmy. He doesn’t know anything about that, except that when it happens he’s going to get very wet. But how will his baptism as a little baby be connected to the New Testament stories of Jesus calling people to follow him? And how will it be connected to the stories we read in the book of Acts, in which adults hear the gospel message, believe it, and choose to be baptized as a sign of beginning a new life as followers of Jesus?

One of those stories is found in Acts 2:37-41; let’s look at it together.

Now when the crowd heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone who the Lord our God calls to him’. And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation’. So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.
I want to point out three things in this passage.

First, baptism comes in response to the Gospel message. The clearest example I can think of in this respect is the story of my good friend Steve. His family were not churchgoers and had not had him baptized as a child. He and I became friends in our teens, and we learned to play the guitar together. Somehow he got involved in playing music at our church, and eventually he not only joined our youth group, but also sat in on a confirmation class. There he heard the gospel, and decided he wanted to become a believer. I vividly remember standing with my best friend a week or two later as he was baptized at the age of sixteen, making his adult commitment to Christ.

Steve’s experience follows the classic New Testament pattern – someone hears the gospel, they believe it, and they are baptized as the beginning of a new life as a follower of Jesus. This is the pattern we see in Acts 2:37: ‘Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said…, “Brothers, what should we do?”’ When they ‘heard’ what? When they heard Peter preaching the gospel message. This story takes place on the Day of Pentecost, ten days after Jesus had ascended into heaven. The Christians were gathered in one place to pray, and suddenly the Holy Spirit fell on them; they started speaking in other languages and praising God, and when a crowd gathered to see what was going on Peter preached an impromptu sermon to them. He told them that this was what all the prophets had foretold; God had sent Jesus as his Messiah or anointed king, the people had rejected and killed him, but God had raised him from the dead. ‘What you’re seeing today’, he said, ‘is all done by his power’. He concluded his message by saying, ‘Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified’ (v.36).

Jesus is the Messiah, the Lord. By his life and death and resurrection he’s defeated the power of evil and set in motion a new kingdom, the kingdom of God. The true Lord of earth is not Julius Caesar or Hitler or Osama Bin Laden or even the faceless kings of corporations whose decisions affect thousands of lives. No – the true Lord of the universe is Jesus, God’s anointed king, who gave his life for us.

This is the message that the crowd heard from Peter. It touched them powerfully, and they asked what they should do. Peter told them to repent and be baptized so that their sins could be forgiven and they could receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Three thousand of them responded to his message and were baptized on that day.

Now how does my baptism fit into this story? I was eight weeks old, and I certainly hadn’t heard the gospel and responded to it with repentance and faith. And I suspect that little Jimmy isn’t really repenting of his sins this morning either! The answer is that when it comes to the baptism of babies and small children, the ones who hear the message and decide to follow Jesus are the parents; “Our family”, they are saying, “is going to follow Jesus together”. That’s why we ask parents to make the baptismal promises on behalf of themselves and of their children. What we’re asking is their clear statement that this isn’t just a civic birth rite they’re going through; “No”, they’re saying, “We’ve heard the gospel message, we want to follow Jesus, and we want to take our kids with us on that journey of discipleship. Of course, we understand that the time will come when they choose for themselves either to continue as followers of Jesus or to reject the Christian way – but while they’re growing and learning, we’ll teach them to follow Jesus”.

So baptism comes in response to the gospel message. Secondly, baptism is seen as conferring tremendous blessings. We sometimes speak of baptism as a symbol, and some people have a pretty low view of symbols; “They don’t mean anything”, they say. I think they’re wrong. Because of my job, I often get to watch the faces of brides and grooms as they are placing the wedding rings on their spouses’ fingers, and I can tell that this is not ‘just a meaningless symbol’ to them; something real and powerful is happening there.

Baptism also is seen in our reading as conferring real and powerful blessings. Two in particular are mentioned in our passage. The first is the forgiveness of sins: Peter says, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven’ (v.38). Sin is seen as a sort of dirt that soils our souls, and washing with water is an obvious symbol of the deeper washing of forgiveness of sins. Obviously, that meaning is more easily applicable when it’s an adult being baptized – perhaps with a real sense of guilt, and a longing for assurance of forgiveness. But for those who have been baptized as infants, too, it can be a real assurance of God’s pardon in later years. The great 16th century Protestant reformer Martin Luther struggled with depression a lot, and he often wondered if he really was saved. He put a lot of emphasis on faith, but when he was depressed and looked inside his soul, he wasn’t sure if he could really find any faith. But He knew he had been baptized; that was something objective he could appeal to: “I have been baptized”. That gave him the assurance he needed of God’s forgiveness.

The second blessing Peter mentions is the Holy Spirit: ‘you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’ (v.38). This gift makes each of us a living temple of God. In the Old Testament God is seen as living in special places like the temple in Jerusalem, but in the New Testament there is no mention of this at all. Rather, Paul says, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. God lives in us by his Spirit, and he gives us wisdom and strength to do his will, and a deep assurance that we belong to him.

So baptism comes in response to the gospel message, and baptism is seen as conferring the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Thirdly, repentance is seen as a part of the baptismal process. Peter says, “Repent, and be baptized…” (v.38). In the New Testament, repentance means turning around and living a different sort of life - turning away from the previous focus of my life, acknowledging Jesus as Lord of all, and as my Lord, and committing myself to learning the new way of life he teaches. This is the focus of the first set of promises that Jimmy and Sara will make in a few minutes – promises to turn away from all that is evil, to trust in Jesus as their Saviour, and to follow him as their Lord.

Adults who are baptized make these promises publicly, at the front of the church, with their fellow believers watching and supporting them by their prayers. But those who are baptized as babies need an opportunity to do that as well, when they come to the years of maturity and make their own decision to continue to follow Jesus. Why do they need to do it publicly? Why not just do what I did – pray a private prayer committing their lives to Jesus? The answer is that in the gospels everyone who Jesus called, he called publicly. It wasn’t just ‘something between me and God’. The act of becoming a Christian is the act of pledging your allegiance to a new king, and that isn’t something that happens in private. That’s why Jesus said, “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but everyone who denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33).

The way we do this in the Anglican church, and many other churches too, is by the service of confirmation. At a confirmation service, people who have been baptized as infants stand up before the bishop and the whole congregation and take for themselves the promises that their parents and godparents made for them at their baptism. They then kneel before the bishop, and the bishop prays for them that the Holy Spirit will fill them and strengthen them to keep the promises they have made.

I need to stress that, for young people, this really does need to be something they want to do for themselves. If parents or grandparents put pressure on kids and say, “Come on, it’s time to be confirmed”, that removes the whole point of making your own public decision to follow Christ.

Some people have approached me about having confirmation classes at St. Margaret’s, and this is probably something we will consider doing in the new year. Of course, our bishop is about to resign, so we will probably not be able to arrange a confirmation service until we have a new bishop - perhaps some time in June. But if we’re going to do classes we’ll need to get started fairly early in the year, so I’d be very interested in talking to anyone – whether adults or teenagers – who wants to make this public commitment to Christ.

Meanwhile, back to today, All Saints’ Day, the day we celebrate little Jimmy’s baptism, and also remember our own baptism. We are God’s saints, called by God to be a part of his people, busy doing his work in the world. As we go through this baptismal service, let’s recommit ourselves to this life as God’s saints, as followers of Jesus. And let’s pray that the Holy Spirit will fill us and strengthen us to keep the promises of our baptism.