Monday, June 25, 2012

Sermon for June 24th: Luke 1:67-80

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. You might remember that a couple of months ago we actually did that here on a Sunday morning, when I asked Alex Blasius, Doug Schindel, and Catherine Ripley to let me interview them at sermon time about their Christian journeys; we’re going to do that sort of thing again before too long.

Often our biggest fear is that others might find our story boring, but in fact that very rarely happens. I’ve got people together to share their stories with each other many times, and I’ve never heard the listeners complain about being bored. And why should that surprise us? After all, who is the author of our stories? Do you think that God writes boring stories?

I wonder how you would 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 the Song of Zechariah in Luke 1:67-79, which is our gospel reading for today, the Feast of the Birth of John the Baptist. This is the song that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, sang over his baby son when he was given the name ‘John’. I want to start out by reminding you of a verse near the end of the song, 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 out of his way; “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). John’s role was to prepare the way for Jesus, to point people to him, and to rejoice when they made the decision to become followers of Jesus.

This was the first stage in my 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.

The Christian Church played a ‘John the Baptist, role in my life too. I was carried to St. Barnabas’ Church, Leicester long before I could walk, I was baptised there before I was two months old, and from then on I was taken to church 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 really whetted my appetite for God and got me on the fast track in my journey toward Christ.

What about you? 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 modeled 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? Who or what did God use to ‘prepare the way of the Lord’ in your life?

If the first stage in my Christian journey was preparation; the second was encounter. Let’s look again at Luke 1:76-77:
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins”.

In the Old Testament – which would have been Zechariah’s Bible – the word ‘knowledge’ doesn’t very often refer to just knowing the facts in your head; rather, 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. Contrary to popular opinion, Christians don’t ‘go on and on about sin’ because we’re morbid; we talk about it because we want to know God, and we find that sin gets in the way of that knowledge. So before our relationship with God can be restored, our sins have to be forgiven, and 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 churchgoing people 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.

In the long history of Christian spirituality, some of our greatest teachers have often talked about this experience of conversion as an experience of surrender – the surrender of control over our own lives, and a submitting of ourselves to the loving will of God. It’s a happy accident that in the English language the word ‘sin’ has an ‘I’ at the centre of it, and when I am at the centre of my own life – when I am on the throne, or when I see myself as the lead character in my own play, with everyone else, including God, just there for my benefit – then that is really the essence of sin. But conversion involves intentionally getting off the throne of my own life and letting God’s anointed King, Jesus Christ, take his rightful place there. In that moment - or process - of surrender, human beings often have profound experiences of encounter with the living God.
I’ve said that the first stage of my story was preparation, and the second stage was encounter; I would call the third stage simply change, ongoing 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 baptized followers of Jesus we commit ourselves to following his example and obeying his teaching – indeed, that will be a central part of the baptismal promises the parents and godparents will make in a few moments - and this certainly involves change for us all. It means that we are continually rebuilding our lives according to the blueprint Jesus 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.

If I were to ask myself the question, “What difference is following Jesus making in my life today?” I would think immediately of two main things . 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, day by day, either by myself or with Marci, I get a deep sense of the presence of God’s Holy Spirit 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 I read what Jesus has to say there, and then I look at my life and I say, “Yes, it 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 through that difficult time, because I sure couldn’t have got through it 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? And if the honest answer to that question is “not really very much”, then is it time to pray about that, and to ask God what he wants to do in your life, in a practical, concrete way?

So these are three stages I have gone through on my Christian journey - preparation, encounter, and change. I suspect I’m not alone in that; I suspect that many of us go through these kinds of experiences as we journey on the way of Christ.

Let’s close this morning 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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