A resolution: notes for a sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Christmas

Notes for a sermon for January 5th 2014 at St Alban’s, OffertonJohn 1:1-18

Note: this is the first time some of the congregation will have seen each other this new year.
Ask about resolutions made? (And broken) Find some out.
And ask for people to pray for each other that they might keep their resolve.

Mine is to “notice more” and to “welcome each day”.

It’s never too late to make a resolution.
We don’t reserve resolutions for New Year’s Eve do we?
Making resolutions is an everyday activity. Each year has its critical moments during which we make resolutions. (And we should be helping each other to keep those resolutions for as long as they need to be kept).

I have been wondering what a congregational resolution might look like.

Many of our resolutions are money oriented aren’t they, like “making ends meet”. I am sure that many of you make such resolutions, and I am sure that many of your PCC resolutions are along those lines. You might also have resolutions in place regarding your GAP goals. And you need to help each other to keep those resolutions.

I am wondering whether we would like to make a fresh resolution in the light of this morning’s gospel. The resolution is “let’s see”. Can I explain?

John’s gospel begins in a way that none of the others do.

John doesn’t introduce the themes of his gospel with reference to the nativity of Jesus. Instead, John sets the scene (no pun) by referring to darkness and light.
His point is that the world and our times are overwhelmed in darkness and that Jesus is the light that shines in that darkness.
The light helps us to see even when we are living through dark times.
That’s how John sets the scene for his gospel.
The darkness is so dark that some can’t even see the darkness.
God causes his light to shine in that darkness. That’s the good news.

Having introduced that theme John then goes on to provide examples of specific instances when the light did shine in the darkness, when people saw and realised, when the penny dropped.

That’s why I suggest that a good resolution for you as a congregation is “LET’S SEE” – and I hope that you will pray for one another that you may keep that resolution and that you may help one another to see.

John’s gospel is littered with invitations to come and see.

He said to two of John the Baptist’s disciples, “Come and see”.
You can almost hear them talking to one another, “shall we?”, “shalln’t we?” finally resolving “yes, let’s see.” (1:39)

Philip found Nathanael and urged him to “come and see”.
“Come and see what we have found”. He had found him about whom Moses and the prophets wrote, Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth”. (1:46)

And then there was the woman Jesus met at the well at Samaria. She went to the city and called out “come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” And they left the city with the resolution to go and see. (4:29)

The disciples that Jesus loves (the beloved disciples), according to John, are the ones who accept the invitation – the ones who come to see him as the light, the resurrection and the life.

Our gospel for this morning mentions “seeing”, or, “not seeing” – because of the darkness.

 The word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have beheld/seen his glory. (1:14)

 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (1:18)

 No one had seen God. But Jesus has made him known. We can see God in and through Jesus because he is the very image of God – he is the spit of his father. In Jesus we have the opportunity to see God.

Do you fancy making a resolution this morning to go alongside those others you have made in your lives?
Do you want to see?
In dark times in your relationships, in dark times in your work, in dark times in your families, in dark times in your faith, in dark times as a congregation, in dark times in your health, do you want to see?
At times when you feel trapped, do you want to see a way forward?

We try to cover our darkness don’t we?
We make up a face that hides the cracks.
We give the impression that we know where we’re going.
We smile and present a brave face to the world.
We hide our dark thoughts.
We pretend we are all sunshine and light.

But this does not help us to SEE. We hide our darkness by using artificial light.

If we hide our darkness, if we pretend everything is hunky-dory we are not going to see the true light which God causes to shine among us, through Jesus, through his saints and through one another.
(If we think everything is hunky-dory, we see nothing. We are blind fools).
We have to be honest about our dark times and our dark thoughts.

A lady I know, Jan Richardson, has recently lost her husband.
He died after what should have been fairly routine surgery at the beginning of December.
She is an artist who keeps a blog called the Painted Prayerbook.
Most weeks she produces an image to accompany the Sunday readings and writes a blessing which she posts on her blog.

I’m going to read her latest blessing, written for Epiphany, written in the light (or, rather, the darkness) of her husband’s death, and written in the light of herself being blessed through those who shared their darkness “by entering into days of waiting and nights of long vigil.” It begins with the words that reflect that darkness. “This blessing hardly knows what to say …” It is called:

This Brightness That You Bear
A Blessing for My Family

This blessing
hardly knows what to say,
speechless as it is
not simply
from grief
but from the gratitude
that has come with it—

the thankfulness that sits
among the sorrow
and can barely begin
to tell you
what it means
not to be alone.

This blessing
knows the distances
you crossed
in person
in prayer
to enter into
days of waiting,
nights of long vigil.

It knows the paths
you traveled
to be here
in the dark.

Even in the shadows
this blessing
sees more than it can say
and has simply
come to show you
the light
that you have given

not to return it
to you
not to reflect it
back to you
but only to ask you
to open your eyes
and see
the grace of it,
the gift that shinesin this brightness
that you bear.

Let’s see.

Is that a resolution you want to make in the light of John’s gospel and in the light of Jesus?
Is that something you want to help others do?
Is that something you want to resolve to do as a church and congregation?
Is this a blessing you want to bear in your lives for those who share the darkness with us?

Shall we help one another to see? Is that a resolution worth keeping?

Preaching for a change

Sermon for today – in which I have chosen to go with theappointed Old Testament text (Exodus 33:12-end) for preaching this morning. The OldTestament is often neglected in our thinking – but I hope you will see whytoday’s reading is important to us, and not only to us, but to all the peopleof God.

Jacob wrestling with angel by Rembandt
Can I remind you that thepeople of God were named Israel, by God after Jacob’s sleepless night of wrestling with the angel of God (or withGod)? After that match Jacob is called ISRAEL – and the name Israel means “onewho wrestles with God”, or “one who is straight, direct with God.”

The people of God wrestlewith him, struggle with him, and are straight and direct with him. This line ofthought suggests that we are not called to be mildly submissive to God, butthat God actually wants us to struggle with him, be direct with him, and begrown up with him. He wants us to get to grips with him.

This straightness anddirectness is reflected in the prayer of the People of God – which might aswell start with “I want to be straight with you God”, in a spirit of challenge. Our reading from Exodus showsMoses engaged in this sort of conversation which consists of challengingdemands.

We are told that “the Lordused to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” In our readingwe have the privilege of overhearing that conversation in which Moses isnegotiating with God.
We may take it for grantedthat God answers prayer – but in this passage we have the foundation of thatfaith which Scripture wants us to take for granted.

Black Moses

Speaking face to face, as onespeaks with a friend, God hears Moses’ prayer and answers it in the mostpositive way. He doesn’t just answer Moses’ prayer, but gives more than Mosesdares even to imagine – and it isintended that we get used to that, and take it for granted, so that we may toowith trust let God get to grips with us so that he can know our mind and whatis on our heart.

Thebackground to Moses’ demands is that God had told him that he wouldn’t go withthem to the Promised Land because he was so angry with the people for breakingthe agreement that they had.
“Go up to a land flowing with milk andhoney; but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, foryou are a stiff-necked people.” (Exodus 33:3).
Mosesinsists that God must accompany his people. He recognizes that the relationshipwith God is more important than the real estate of the Promised Land.
Theanswers to Moses’s prayer in these chapters of Exodus are outrageouslygenerous. He is prepared to start again and offers new tablets of commandmentsto replace the agreement and commandment that the people had broken.
Mosesand the Lord stood together on Mount Sinai – as friends so that Mosesunderstands just how God is going to fulfill his part of the bargain, hispromise to his people.
Thisis how God summarized the characteristics of his behavior with his peopleduring that conversation with Moses:
The Lord passed before him, andproclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow toanger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast lovefor the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parentsupon the children, and the children’s children, to the third and fourthgeneration.” (34:5-7).
Whilethere is mention of punishment the emphasis is on God’s forgiving love. Theguilty aren’t cleared, but the consequences of their guilt only reach to thethird and fourth generation, while steadfast love reaches to the thousandthgeneration – in other words – forever. This is how God is going to be forever:merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love andfaithfulness, keeping steadfast love to the thousandth generation.
We have to remember howdifferently God is promising to behave. He had been so angry with his people(and justly so, according to the text) – but now, in response to the demands of his people, he isgoing to be so slow to anger. In response to one of us humans, God changes hismind about his behaviour. In future his behaviour is going to be governed bysteadfast love and faithfulness.
In the section of the storywhich we read this morning we have the summary of God’s response to Moses. “Mypresence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
All of us can find rest inthe knowledge of the manner of God’s promised presence, particularly when thatpresence is governed by steadfast love and faithfulness. This is how God iswith us. We don’t need to worry that he is any different. We can trust in hisforgiving love. We don’t need to be afraid – the Lord is here, unconditionally.
Moses makes one request toGod that God does not agree to.  Moseswants to see God face to face. God’s response: “You cannot see my face; for noone shall see my face and live.” (33:20)

Instead, we have a ratherpuzzling response.
“Thereis a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passesby I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my handuntil I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see myback.”

WakeSeeing the back of God israther strange. Most people see this as “the WAKE of God” – just as we see theripples and waves in the wake of a boat, so we are given sight of the effectsof God’s love. Seeing the back of God is seeing where God is and has been.

So far, I have mentioned onlyhow God is governing his behaviour in covenant with his people. I haven’t mentionedwhat he promises to do. He said “before all your people I will perform marvels,such as not have been performed in all the earth or in any nation. (34:10).

Seeing the back of God isseeing the wake of marvels, seeing the work of God. And the work of God ismending the broken – the broken in this case, being the very heart of therelationship between God and his people.

Seeing the wake of God isseeing where God is going. Seeing the wake of God is being able to follow hiswork of mending. Seeing the wake of God is being able to follow him and joiningin his most marvellous work of remaking broken relationships, and SHALOM.

Even in this way, Godresponded to Moses request, but gave him, once again, more than he could everdream of. Which is better? To see God face to face, or to be able to followhim, in his wake, and love him for all his ways?

Nota Beans

>Nota bene from Rev Ruth’s blog about preaching:

The Church Times is talking about preaching this week. The College of Preachers (of which I am a paid-up member, don’t you know?) commissioned a study into preaching at various denominations.

17% said that they frequently heard sermons that made them change their lifestyles. In my humble experience, whenever one is tempted to have someone in mind when writing such a sermon they invariably don’t turn up that week.

97% said that they looked forward to the sermon each week and 84% agreed that they should be closely connected with the bible. 55% said their knowledge of Jesus was frequently improved by sermons. But only 16% said that sermons helped them to understand events in the news or controversial issues.

Looks like a case of great expectations to me – in spite of what we preachers are sometimes led to believe.

Nota Bene from Bishop Alan’s blog – this poem by Kaylin Haught:
God says Yes to Me

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

which made me think who is right and who is wrong. God says “yes” to those who see him face to face, heart to heart and eye to eye. To others he says “look at me – through Jesus”. That’s the verdict we have to live with.

>Preaching warning

>”The pressure on the preacher is to be topical and contemporary, to speak out like the prophets against injustice and unrighteousness, and it is right that he sh…ould do so, crucial even, and if he does not goad to righteous action he fails both God and man. But he must remember the ones he is speaking to who beneath all the clothes they wear are the poor, bare, forked animals who labor and are heavy laden under the burden of their own lives let alone of the world’s tragic life.”

Frederick Beuchner – telling the truth

The art of conversation

>The words ‘sermon’ and ‘homily’ seem to get used interchangeably. I always thought that homilies get preached in Catholic churches or are sermons which aren’t long enough to be sermons. I have also always been rather wary of the power relationship between preacher and hearer and its patronising nature.

Timothy Radcliffe reminded me this morning (in ‘Why go to Church’) that the word ‘homily’ comes from a Greek word ‘homilein’ which means ‘to converse’. Aha! Inclusive language. Everyone converses, but not everyone preaches sermons (you have to be qualified for that!). “Conversation is surely the foundation of any society” writes Radcliffe. “It is by talking together that we overcome misunderstandings, receive and offer forgiveness, grow in sympathy and mutual understanding, take pleasure in each other’s company, and develop a shared language and memories.”

What if what we preach is ‘conversation’? It means ‘listening’ and ‘appreciation’ – by all parties. If conversation is something all of us do, then the Sunday homily should be enabling “the real preaching, the community’s conversations” so that Christian faith becomes embedded in the everyday conversation of our communities, the Word thereby becoming flesh and living among us.

Man of conversation

Jesus always has time for conversation. He has animated conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, and the man born blind, anyone he meets. He will eat, drink and pass time with everyone: prostitutes, the hated tax collectors, religious leaders, lepers. God’s word became flesh – not, initially, in sermons proclaimed from pulpits, in learned books of theology, but in human conversation.
Timothy Radcliffe: Why go to Church? (p53)

>Now this is beginning to look like Christmas

>It will be difficult for the media to find room in their schedules for the “true meaning of Christmas”, but stuck in a media backwater – the media backwater equivalent of downtown Bethlehem – is a prizewinning film by Macclesfield Vicar and cartoonist, Taffy Davies. It’s worth a look at what he has managed to convey in a 60 second film, though I have to confess a preference for the first draft.

I was at a preaching workshop with taffy a few weeks ago. We heard Bishop Keith Sinclair telling us how he writes Sunday’s readings out in longhand as part of his sermon preparation – after that he often gets his moment of inspiration. Taking the story into a new medium (writing it rather than reading it) helps us to see new meaning.