Introduction to Sermon and Themes over the next three weeks.
Over the next three weeks I will be preaching on readings and material drawn from my research into “aging and declining congregations”. The readings will not be the lectionary readings set down by the wider church for all mainline churches to hear on the same day, instead they will be relevant to my topic and sermon theme. This morning’s sermon is an introduction and something of an overview of my topic but because it is a sermon and therefore a proclamation of the word of God, it will not be full of facts and figures and details. If you are interested in more information regarding this topic I am more than happy to make my essay paper available to all of you, perhaps once it is marked and tidied up!
Next week and the week after I will be focusing on two aspects of healthy, growing churches, namely missional growth, and spiritual growth. I certainly do not have all the answers, but I pray that these sermons will give you lots to think about, will give you lots of things to question and above all give you hope, peace and a sense of God’s deep love for you.
Now before we come before God in prayer I would like all of us to take a deep breath and exhale out slowly. Listen to my count..
Breath in for 2, 3 and 4, slowly exhale 3 and 4.
Let’s do that again, this time as you breath in imagine you are drawing in the breathe of God and as you exhale breathe out your burdens, your restlessness, and any tension.
Now we are ready to be still before God, let us sing in worship and praise.
Hymn: P&W 527. Be still for the presence of the Lord.
Call to Worship
Hear God speak to us through the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“I, the Lord, have called you and given you power
to see that justice is done on earth.
Through you I will make a covenant with all peoples;
through you I will bring light to the nations.
7 You will open the eyes of the blind
and set free those who sit in dark prisons.
8 “I alone am the Lord your God.
No other god may share my glory;
I will not let idols share my praise.
9 The things I predicted have now come true.
Now I will tell you of new things
even before they begin to happen.”
Prayer of Adoration and Prayer of Confession and Declaration of Forgiveness as a response to the Isaiah 42: 6-9.
Let us pray,
Lord you alone are the God who saves.
You alone hold the universe in your hands.
You alone can bring justice to a world that is both beautiful and terrifying at the same time;
A world that is full of light and darkness, truth and lies.
Yet your great love for us and all that you have created will change everything. You speak to us of new things and a new way to live. You speak of a time when peacefulness, righteousness, kindness, and fairness will be the order of the day.
Forgive us when we turn away from your Word, your truth, and your light.
Forgive us when we forget that it is only through you that the world will be put right.
Forgive us when we forget to be the bearers of your Word or when we simply can’t be bothered to be a light to all the nations.
Set us straight again and save us from our own fears, doubts, and shallowness.
Draw us closer to you so that we may serve you with hearts full of joy and contentment.
May we know your peace and share your goodness with others.
Brothers and sisters in Christ,
We never need to explain ourselves to the One and only God who became one of us.
Jesus the man knows us better than we know ourselves.
Jesus the Divine longs for us to turn to him,
For in him we find a true friend, one who promises to never leave us nor abandon us.
When we are unsure of ourselves or filled with a sense of emptiness or worthlessness Jesus speaks to us of God’s great love.
In Jesus all our mistakes, every fall away from being our kindest selves,
Thanks be to God.
Hymn: Tis 256 From heaven you came, helpless babe.
Bible Readings: Luke 4: 16-21 and Acts 2: 42-47.
There is an interesting little movie called Agora, it’s set in the year 391 A.D; so approximately 360 years after Jesus died and was resurrected. It is based very loosely on historical figures and incidents in the city of Alexandria in Egypt. It is basically a love story however there is one scene in the movie that I find particularly interesting. The main lead character a young slave boy is filled with curiosity about the Christian movement. One day while he is in the Alexandrian town Square, known as the Agora, he hears a Christian monk speaking about the Kingdom of God. The monk invites him to come and see, taking him to a place where believers in Jesus are meeting together. In the meeting hall people are hearing the Scriptures but all around the building under the eaves and along the porches are all sorts of people, beggars, lepers, the blind and the elderly and there are many other people attending to their needs. The young slave is invited to share with them the bread that he has purchased for his master. In giving away what he will now have to pay for out of his own wages, he has an experience of faith and charity that changes him. He catches a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, and he becomes a believer.
This particular scene reminds me of the passage we heard today from Acts. Everything seemed so simple and easy back then, and we read that the number of people joining the believers were added to daily; wouldn’t that be great to see in 2021. This picture of the very early church forces us to ask ourselves a very challenging question; how and why is it so difficult to be that kind of church today?
Well there are lots of answers to that question but the first thing to consider is the rapid change in all aspects of the world we live in today. For instance, the changes in science and technology and the way we live, work, play and think. Commentators suggest there have been more changes in the last 20 years than in the previous two centuries combined. Many scholars call the current time period we live in, a liminal time, it means that we are caught in the middle. We can no longer live the way we did in the past, but the future seems uncertain and unknowable.
Forty-four years ago, when the young Uniting Church opened its doors people simply streamed in. We didn’t have to do anything because the social structures within society herded people inside those doors. So in a way we could say that no one is to blame for our current situation, it’s not really anyone’s fault. Those who worked so hard to form the Uniting Church and create our beautiful Basis of Union, a document full of rich and amazing foundations of faith, could not possibly have seen what was around the corner.
The church in previous centuries didn’t need to advertise itself, it didn’t need to be particularly obvious because people came regardless. We on the other hand tend to be hidden away. Does anyone really know that we are here? Does anyone out there know what we have to offer?
In the movie Agora the fourth century church is very obvious; people can walk past and see what is happening as they stroll through the centre of town. This is mirrored in One Corinthians, chapter fourteen, Paul tells the early church not to start speaking in tongues all at the same time in case some “ordinary people or unbelievers” come in or pass by. Paul tells them that these ordinary people will think that they are crazy. I was always puzzled by this passage until I found out that the very early church gathered in open spaces within communal houses. People would have been constantly walking through the meetings of believers on their way to their lodgings or the marketplace. The early church was visible simply because they were out there in communal meeting places. It would be ….
In the reading we heard earlier this morning God tells God’s people that they are to be a light to the nations. That is really difficult for us today if we never put ourselves out there or are stuck inside. How can we mix with ordinary people and unbelievers today?
The fact that we are hidden away makes it really hard to shine the light of faith but even that is not entirely your fault. Fifty years ago and even further back in time, I often wonder if people came to church on a Sunday morning because there was nothing better to do. Today people are spoilt for choice on Sunday, they can play sport, maybe have breakfast with friends or even catch up on the housework after a busy working week. So for the first time in over a century we are being forced to consider the reason we are here as the church in the first place and how to be the church in this rapidly changing environment. I believe it is the right time to get back to basics, it is the right time to see things more clearly. Speaking of seeing things more clearly…
Here is a word to my sisters, to all the ladies in the congregation today. If you live or have lived with a male of the species, I wonder if you’ve ever noticed this little quirk. How many times has that male person in your life asked you where the batteries are, or the cornflakes, or phone charger is etc, etc. You reply, “oh yes, it’s on the third shelf in the kitchen cupboard” and the male person in your life goes to the location and calls out, “I can’t find it”. So you have to get up and leave whatever it is you’re doing, go to the location and you say, “here it is, right where I said it was”. In my family we call this cupboard blindness. To be fair on our brothers, the item is often behind other things or even way down deep in the back, in which case things need to be rearranged a little.
Jokes aside a much more serious form of cupboard blindness is spiritual blindness. The good news of the Kingdom of God can be right in front of our eyes and somehow we just don’t see it. Similarly if we think it can only be found within these walls we are limiting our effectiveness as God’s light bearers.
Every now and then I think we need to be shaken up a little bit and look a little deeper, to see things with fresh eyes. When Jesus walks into the synagogue and reads from the prophet Isaiah, he is definitely shaking things up. I used to read this passage very literally until quite recently and kind of embarrassingly, I thought Jesus was literally talking about healing physical ailments and erasing poverty. Now that I’m a little older and wiser I realise that Jesus is speaking about a spiritual form of healing; yes he does literally heal people throughout the Gospels and in the kingdom of God all will have enough but this passage from Isaiah has a great deal more depth than what we might see on the surface, and so it is with Scripture in general; there is always more to see.
When Jesus announces that he has come to bring good news to the poor he is speaking directly to anyone who feels like they are a nobody, to all those who don’t fit into society, to the ones who have no voice, no power, no social status. When Jesus says he comes to set the captives free he is speaking to all of us because there is nothing worse than being a slave to own negative thoughts or, feeling as if we are drowning in a sea of doubt and fear. When Jesus says he has come so that the blind can see, it is the truth of God’s love revealed in Christ that we are called to look at with eyes wide open. Jesus’ reading of the scroll in the synagogue is nothing less than a declaration of the good news about our Lord and Saviour.
Perhaps this liminal time, this time of uncertainty is exactly the moment that God will make a new things happen; after all God will move forward with or without us. Yet God also longs for us to join in the mission, to get onboard, so that as Christ’s body the church, we can bring good news to the spiritually blind and the spiritually hungry.
Carlingford this is our Christ given mission!
To finish, listen to this promise in Ephesians:
20 God is able to do much more than we ask or think through His power working in us. 21 May we see His shining-greatness in the church. May all people in all time honour Christ Jesus. Let it be so. Amen.
(Ephesians 3:20-21, New Life Version).
Hymn: Tis 657 God of freedom, God of justice.
Prayers of Intercession
Lord and giver of every good thing,
we bring to you our lives and gifts
to make way for the healing of the broken and the lost,
through your grace and love
made known to us in Jesus Christ your only Son.
Hymn: Tis 650 Brother, sister, let me serve you.
The blessing of God almighty,
the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit
be upon you and remain with you always.
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.