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.

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