Tag Archives: praise

How Far Can We Trust God?

Trust blog

How far can we trust God?

Our readings for Evensong on the second Sunday in Advent bring us the story of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, and his encounter with Gabriel in the Temple sanctuary. It gives us Luke’s introduction of how God’s divine plan is about to unfold…

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11Luke 1:1-25

May I speak and may you hear in the name of God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This evening our gospel reading leads us further into our Advent preparations and on this second Sunday of Advent we are reminded of the work of the prophets, and in particular we remember John the Baptist who stands as a link between the Old and New Testament. However, this evening it is not directly about John, but his parents, especially his father’s pre-conceptual reaction to the news of his divinely ordained fatherhood.

It is with this story that Luke begins his gospel and being the historian he is he is at pains to include in his dedication the care he is taking to make sure that we have an orderly and accurate account. He doesn’t set out Jesus’ ancestral claims like Matthew does; or the symbolic prose of John, or even start with John, the adult baptiser, appearing in the wilderness to fulfil Isaiah’s prophecy as in Mark’s gospel. No, Luke wants to start with a story of how people reacted to God’s preparations for the gift of his Son to the world. So, what does it tell us and how might we learn about our reactions from it?

We are introduced to Zechariah and Elizabeth, chosen by God to play an important role in Jesus’ story. I think we can safely say that neither of them were lukewarm nominal believers. Their credentials meant that they were righteous in the sight of God. Zechariah serving as a priest in the order of Abijah, which can be translated as ‘my Father is Yahweh’, and Elizabeth claiming descendancy from Aaron, God’s original high priest at the time of the Exodus. They walked blamelessly and observed all the commandments. In other words, they were obedient servants of God. Yet, for Zechariah there was an area in his life that resulted in some trust issues.

We can imagine that for a long time they had tried hard to conceive a child and had prayed to God about it, but no doubt as they grew older they had given up hope that it was likely to happen. So it is fairly reasonable that when Zechariah, alone in the sanctuary and terrified at the sudden appearance of an angel, is told that not only is he going to be a father, but that his child will play a pivotal role in proclaiming the arrival of the Messiah, that his first response is, ‘Are you sure? What proof can you offer for this?’

‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’
Luke 1:18

He was confronted with a situation that required faith and trust. The faith bit he had in abundance but the trust was not so easy. Very often we too can face a lack of trust where God is concerned. It seems that we are happy to accept that love underpins our motivation to seek God and to follow his example but trust is harder to pin down. Often this difficulty has to do with our past experiences and our present situations. As humans our fall-back position is to initiate our self-reliance mode. It’s a primitive response to protect ourselves from perceived harm, thinking that we only have ourselves to rely on to get out of trouble

It can also be difficult to imagine stepping out of our comfort zones, but we have to remember that nothing is impossible with God, not even in areas where we have experienced nothing but failure, disappointments and frustration. We have to trust he is there to catch us when we fall and to uphold us as we move forward. It may be that we are holding back that trust because we are happy and comfortable to stay exactly where we are; but this can lead to stagnation; our faith never gets an opportunity to mature, or for our relationship with God to grow stronger as we grow closer to him.

God knows all things; he knows our hearts, our desire to be committed to him and sometimes our desire to be rebellious. But we have to be prepared to take the first necessary step to trust him in each area of our life. Take that step, then another and then the next one. This is the way to grow our faith in God, one step at a time… and how much easier is it as well to take those steps in the company of others, to be encouraged and to encourage each other. Because the more we hand over our lives to God and trust in him the more we can be freer to become the people that God is calling us to be.

With regard to Zechariah’s enforced silence following his lack of trust, I would not see this as a punishment for a lack of faith rather an opportunity for Zechariah to have space for reflection. If we fast forward to his son’s birth, we know that he had become reconciled to leaving things in God’s hands, for his first actions on having his speech restored to him was to speak in praise of God and to leave people amazed at just what his son was to become

We know he was to be ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ but we also know that we too can be responsible to make this happen in our own lives. From Proverbs 3 ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.’

So, this Advent let us all be prepared to step away from self-reliance and instead step forward in faith and trust.

Amen

zechariah window

Zechariah and Gabriel at the incense altar in the Temple

Let’s Talk About Money

Generous Giving

Generous Giving

I was recently asked to preach a sermon on giving. Not that our giving isn’t already generous in so many ways, but from time to time it’s useful to be reminded not only why we need to give as a response to a generous God, but also how we need to respond to requests to review our level of giving. This topic can be quite a tricky one for lots of churches and so I thought it would be good to share a slightly adapted version. The readings that informed these ideas were Deuteronomy 15:1-11; 2 Corinthians 8:1-3, 9:6-12 and Matthew 6:19-34.

May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Today, on Bible Sunday, as on any day really, we are asked to think carefully about how important the bible is in helping to bring us closer to and to know God better; about his plans for us and for his world and just what our part in those plans might be, as followers of Christ… and it’s important to remember that ALL of us have a part to play.

The passages above all have a common theme running through them – they speak of the generosity of a God who knows no limit to his blessings for us, and they help us see the response that is expected on our part… to be equally generous in our giving, both of ourselves physically and our prosperity materially. So, I could say that I’m not going to ask you to give serious thought as to what and how you give – but quite honestly that would be as blatant a lie as those telephone calls you get from time to time….

‘Hello madam. How are you today…. now don’t worry, I’m not trying to sell you anything…..’

Now perhaps, like me, you occasionally want to slam the phone down immediately, because you know that that’s exactly what they do want to do, and it’s annoying that they don’t just say straight out what they want from you; so perhaps you will choose to stop reading at this point and click off of the page. But what I am asking you to do… in fact what I’d rather you did, is to carry on and discover some of the reasons, all revealed and supported within the bible, as to how and why each of us needs to be as generous as we are able, and afterwards to spend some time reflecting and praying about your levels of giving and what you might do about that.

We hate talking openly about money, it makes us feel uncomfortable, sometimes we feel a sense of indignation or even guilt but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be talked about. As church members it can seem that the Church is always asking for more… more of our time, more of our money… so that we’re never left in peace. There’s always some job that needs paying for; the parish share to be met, the books to be balanced. So why then should we give?

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also – Matthew 6:21

If we drive a car we know that we have to pay out to maintain it, if we don’t then eventually the car will stop working and it will be very expensive to repair or replace. If we have a hobby we have to invest a bit of money setting ourselves up with materials and equipment and as we get more proficient at it we may have to spent a bit more on different tools. The buildings in which we sit for church, have been dedicated and sanctified as a place where Christians can gather. If they fell down around our ears we could still gather there, because they’re not just buildings. They also aren’t buildings that should be preserved as pristine museums, so that people can drop in and visit it and say how wonderful it must have been to worship there; so it seems sensible that we try and ensure that we and future generations at least have a roof over our heads.

Therefore, our giving enables worship – whether we are giving of our time on Sunday to be with God, sing his praise, hear his word, share his sacraments, which is the first part of our giving. Or the second part, that our giving of money helps maintain the holy place where we worship, a place of history, a place of beauty, a place of peace and challenge, a place to glorify God.

Our giving of money also helps provide wages and resources for those who minister to us, who lead us in worship, for our music and others who enrich our worship. We need people leading us who are trained and knowledgeable and dedicated to helping us grow in our knowledge of Christ both in word and deed. If we are to sustain and enable that leadership we have to understand that it costs. The early church often paid its leaders in kind – in Matthew’s gospel for example:

Go and preach, ‘The Kingdom of heaven is near!’ … Do not carry any gold, silver, or copper money in your pockets; do not carry a beggar’s bag for the trip or an extra shirt or shoes or a walking stick. Workers should be given what they need – Matthew 10:7, 9-10

Likewise, the medieval church, who asked for donations of bread, wheat, mead and vegetables; although we’ve moved on from that now and use money instead, which is much better because quite frankly I don’t think our ministers or anyone else we have to support could cope with vast quantities of eggs and butter and pots of jam landing on their doorsteps and I’m pretty certain the gas board or the petrol station or the local council wouldn’t understand either when they tried a bit of bartering for their bills.

Our giving enables discipleship – Our giving of time and talent can help children and young people grow in the Christian faith and help those who study together to understand the gospel more fully, so that all can learn how to live faithfully. But it is our giving of money that can help provide resources for this learning, both in our own congregation and throughout our dioceses.

I wonder though how many of us use our own money to provide resources for the church? We think we are being generous… and we are, but we’re actually hiding the true cost of discipleship. We should be coming to the church and our treasurer and saying in order to do this it’s going to cost this, please can you reimburse me. Of course it may be that after having received the money you decide to offer it back as a donation, and you can say that that’s a load of faff, but it’s more valuable that we do realise the true cost. However, we don’t have a bottomless pit of money, but if we all become more aware then we can make sure that we can all contribute to that.

Our giving enables service – our giving of time and talent can assist our congregation in its service to the community, caring for some of those who are most vulnerable in our society. Every single church member can say that they give to the church, in so many different and diverse ways, you serve at his altar, you sing in the choir, you make cups of tea, you comfort the sick, the lonely and the bereaved, you clean, you organise, you lead, you turn up each week; and that’s absolutely wonderful and very sacrificial, but that can’t be treated wholly as a substitute for financial giving

One of the hardest passages in the bible to read is that of the young man who wants to follow Jesus, he knows exactly how he should behave and treat others, he does all those things that we can all do it without dipping our hands into our pockets, but Jesus says it’s not enough, you have to shed your reluctance and reliance on making sure that your nest egg is large enough and instead trust God that he will provide for you.

Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear … your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well – Matthew 6:31-33

I can almost hear you thinking, ‘Yes, but it would be super if we actually got to use the money that we give, on things that we want to happen and support,’ and it’s true that over the last few years I’ve got tired of thinking that every penny we give is often not quite sufficient to meet the demands of the diocesan Parish Share and has to be topped up by such hard work by the fundraising and social committees.

However, giving to an overarching hierarchy is nothing new either – the early churches were doing it when collecting for the church in Jerusalem, and they appears to do it with a spirit of generosity like the churches in Macedonia; but I believe things will change, particularly in the Winchester Diocese over the next few years, and that hopefully we might be in the more joyful position of deciding exactly what we want to spend our money on with the Parish Share review; which doesn’t mean that we have less to raise but it does mean that we can really get stuck into thinking of way in which the Good news can be brought to more people.

And there’s the nub… Our giving reflects our faith. We could say ‘why can’t the church do less, cut its cloth according to its means, and be content with what we already do, with what we already give’. Well, I suppose that’s one way to go – we could become more inclusive, look after our church; our people, but that would be like ‘storing up for ourselves, ‘treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal -Matthew 6:20

Surely, we have to realised what the real treasure is – that God has given us life and love, that he has shown us the extent of this love in the life and death of Jesus and that he has promised us new life through Jesus’ resurrection. Right now we can hear the good news of the gospel… and it certainly is good news for ourselves; it’s good news to know that we have personal salvation, it’s such good news that we almost what to hug it and keep it close to us. Yet, if it’s such good news for us why aren’t we bursting to share it with other – the gospel that we proclaim by word and example is a gospel for the world, a gospel for everyone. As Jesus said to his first disciples:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age – Matthew 28:19-20

I think sometimes we forget that each us of is individually called to proclaim the Gospel, not just a special few, but everyone. So our giving enables mission – our giving of time and talents assists in providing outreach to the community, providing a Christian presence in every part of life, while our giving of money helps to fund projects to bring the gospel to those who have yet to be challenged by it, and enabling the wider Church to comment on the social, moral and political issues of our time.

How more effective it is, when the world takes notice because it sees a group of people who are willing to make generous investment of their time, energy, gifts and money to share and spread the gospel…

The Widow's Mite by James C. Christensen

The Widow’s Mite by James C. Christensen

God calls us to be infinitely generous, like the widow and her mite in Luke’s gospel:

For the others offered their gifts from what they had to spare of their riches; but she, poor as she is, gave all she had to live on – Luke 21:4

That’s a really hard message to hear and live out, but what about making a start by at least considering what we have to spare…maybe we’re still reluctant sometimes to increase our giving because we honestly don’t think we have any money to spare

A Hotey Money Box

A Hotey Money Box

I actually surprised myself the other day when I looked at my ‘hotey’ money box. ‘Hotey’ – as in Don Quixote? Yes, I know he’s lost an ear, but it steadfastly refuses to stick back on… We made these at the beginning of Lent. So every time I come back from the shops and have those small coins that make your purse or wallet bulge I pop them in the box, and I also help my husband David prevent himself from wearing holes in his trouser pockets by relieving him of his pocket shrapnel as well…

As you can see it’s pretty full now, and looking at it I think there’s at least £50 in there – just made up of the small amounts of money that was spare and that we haven’t really missed – on average £3 a week … and it doesn’t have to be saved up to be given as a one off gift. Those are great for specific purposes, but it’s much more valuable knowing as a church that you are receiving a regular income, so that you can plan and budget for all the things you want to do and support. That’s not to say that we all have a lot to spare, all of our circumstances are different, but it was interesting to realise that perhaps if we do have some spare capacity to consider what we could do with it. Just imagine if everyone only had a spare 50p a week to increase their regular giving – an average congregation of 70 people could be equally sharing an increase of £1820 per year – a £1 would double that to £3640.

At the beginning, I said that I wanted this to be an opportunity to hear how and why each of us needs to be as generous as we are able, using the bible as our guide. It was not my aim to make anyone feel angry or guilty, but for you to go away prepared to review and reflect, and to then come to a decision, so that the next time you are approached to consider increasing your giving you know what your answer will be. At the end of the day, as Paul said to the Corinthians:

Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver – 2 Corinthians 9:7

Our giving of time, talent and money is a giving for the Gospel… for the Good News, and this fact was brought home to me the other day when I was privileged to be able to look through and choose some books that Sheila and Gordon Rose’s family had passed on to the church; among them were several bibles, and in many of them were personal greetings. One that stood out for me was this one in the front of  a Good News bible.

Gordon had written ‘To Sheila, hoping that it will always be “Good News”’

However on this Bible Sunday, I’m going to let Sheila have the last word, with a prayer that she had written and that was tucked into the front of her bible

A Prayer on Opening My Bible
As I settle for this time of quiet, O God, hush my heart and quicken my understanding.
I bless you for scribes, scholars and translators who have served your holy will.
I bless you for the great Bible Societies that have made this book available in my language.
I pray for a living expectancy, as I wait to learn what you will say to me as I read.
I pray for courage to face new challenges and to embrace new truth
For Christ’s son
Amen

Sermon delivered on Bible Sunday, 26th October 2014

It’s Called Christmas For A Reason – The Shepherd’s Story

A Thousand Angels

A Thousand, Thousand Angels

Jonathan shivered and pulled the camel hair aba more tightly around his shoulders. It was still fairly mild for the time of year, but he knew that these clear skies would soon bring bitter, frosty nights. Tonight though, the stars seemed to be vying to outshine each other as they twinkled brightly overhead and the moon, a silver crescent, hung low in the sky westward.

They had been gradually leading the sheep down from the hills into the valley’s pasture, and the limestone cliffs at their back were providing some welcome relief from the dusty winds that had been blowing hard. He was grateful in some ways that the size of the flock meant that they could not all be gathered into the sheepfold around the Migdal Edar* but had instead been allowed to graze the cleared harvest fields; nibbling a few remnants that the gleaners had missed.

Anyway, he didn’t really like going into the town; they were forbidden from going into the synagogue and the people in the streets stared at them and often moved aside as if they were unclean – like lepers! No doubt they did smell a bit, but who wouldn’t after being surrounded by sheep all day. But it was more than that – they wanted to keep him out of God’s house, but he was pretty certain that God heard his prayers anyway.

Still, the town looked very peaceful and it’s residents no doubt dreaming as they slept in their comfortable beds. He looked over at his younger brother Caleb, laid on his back with his eyes closed, gently snoring… some shepherd he was at keeping watch! Yet he knew that at the first sign of danger he’d be up and ready to use his sling to defend the sheep. He’d let him sleep for a while longer as it had been a hard couple of days for his new apprentice.

Jonathan shifted his body slightly to look down the hill. It was uncomfortable sitting on the hard ground; maybe he’d take a stroll in a minute to talk to some of the other shepherds he could see sitting in small groups. He was just about to rise when the whole world disappeared – his eyes were open but a blinding flash had taken away his night vision. Then a clear melodic voice spoke somewhere above his head telling him not to be afraid. Without seeing him, he could feel Caleb clutching his arm.

The voice continued to speak, and by shielding his eyes he could just make out the hazy shape of a man surrounded by a halo of light, who seemed to be hovering above the field. The few words he caught were of ‘good news’ and of ‘a Saviour being born in David’s town’…… Bethlehem!  After he had spoken, the angel, for Jonathan was certain that’s who the figure was, appeared to expand, but then he realised that he had been joined by a whole host and that the entire sky was lit up as if it was daylight. Their ethereal song was full of praise and glory to God; of peace and goodwill.

As the last heavenly notes faded into the air, Jonathan realised that dawn was breaking and he got up and hurried with Caleb over to the other shepherds who were equally amazed. Wordlessly, they all made their way into the town, a few of the sheep and lambs bleating as they followed their shepherds. Without obvious direction, they found the open door of what appeared to be an animal enclosure, from which the faint glow of an oil lamp could be seen.

Looking inside they could see two people bending over what appeared to be a hay manger. The man looked up, slightly startled; then beckoned them to enter. Humbly, they made their way in and in the makeshift crib, Jonathan could see a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, he gazed down at the child, still speechless. Meanwhile Caleb had squirmed his way through to the front and now put his hand out to touch the baby. Jonathan went to stop him, but the child’s mother nodded and smiled, and the infant reached out to grasp Caleb’s proffered finger.

The older shepherds began to tell the story of what had happened in the fields and why they had come. The man seemed to think it incredulous, but the baby’s mother, perhaps already aware of how special this child was, listened to all they had to say and pondered their words.

Afterwards, Jonathan and the others made their way back to their temporarily abandoned flocks, but what to do with the news of all that had happened that night? Who could they tell and who would believe them? Certainly not the rabbis or synagogue leaders. He, stood still for a moment to think, ‘We may be the despised guardians of the Pascal lambs but maybe we have just seen a new kind of shepherd who will lead us beyond the Temple sacrifices – a true shepherd of the sheep’

Then he turned  and ran to catch up with Caleb, who was already striding across the field. Right now these sheep needed him, and as he called out to them they answered with baas and mehs as they recognised his voice.

Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) by  Francisco de Zurbaran

Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) by Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664)

While shepherds watched their flocks by night, all seated on the ground; the angel of the Lord came down, and glory shone around. “Fear not!” said he, for mighty dread had seized their troubled minds, “Glad tidings of great joy I bring to all of humankind. To you, in David’s town, this day is born of David’s line a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, and this shall be the sign. The heavenly babe you there shall find to human view displayed, all meanly wrapped in swathing bands, and in a manger laid.” Thus spake the seraph and forthwith appeared a shining throng of angels praising God on high, who thus addressed their song, “All glory be to God on high, and to the earth be peace; goodwill henceforth from heaven to earth begin and never cease!” Nahum Tate (1652-1715) based on Luke 2:8-14

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*Migdal Edar literally means ‘Tower of Eder’ or ‘Tower of the Flock’ in Hebrew. Biblical records locate it near to the present day city of Bethlehem. It is mentioned in Genesis 35:21 and scholars interpret a passage in Micah 4:8 as a prophecy indicating that the Messiah would be revealed from the ‘tower of the flock’