Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sunday 18 January 2009 - God the Unexpected

This sermon is based on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 and John 1:43-51.



Once upon a time there was a teenager. I'll call him Jack and I think that he was probably about 16 or 17 years old. Jack had attended church all his life. He'd gone to Sunday School until he was about 14 and then - believe it or not - after he was confirmed he actually started coming to Sunday services!

That particular church had an active group for young people and one day, they arranged to visit a youth conference in Birmingham. It was one of those big worship events with several hundred young people and lots of good music. The kind of worship that we all need now and then in order to give us a boost and encourage us in our faith.

Who knows why God picks the times and the ways that he speaks to us in a special way, but at that service in Birmingham, Jack was able to hear God in a powerful way. He was touched by the hundreds of young people worshipping God together without worrying about what their friends might think. He was touched by words of the music.
And he was particularly touched by the speaker.

It was at that worship service that Jack felt that he really understood for the first time what the Gospel was all about. He understood in a personal way God's love for him. He understood in his heart that, even if he made mistakes, God would forgive him and give him a second chance. And Jack also felt that he really understood for the first time what it meant that the Holy Spirit would give him strength to be a disciple of Jesus.

Jack was overwhelmed by this experienced and, like many people when they first really 'get it', he felt overjoyed.

But on the coach trip him, Jack began to feel a bit betrayed. Why had no one ever told him this stuff before? Why hadn't his Sunday School teachers told him about the real Gospel? And, for that matter, why wasn't the minister preaching the real Gospel?

Jack, full of the boldness of his new-found understanding, resolved that he was going to have a word with the minister and ask her why she never preached the Gospel.

When he got up on Sunday, he thought 'There's no time like the present. I'll speak to the minister after the service.' And then, as Jack listened to the sermon, he realised that the minister was preaching the Gospel. So he decided to wait and see what happened the following Sunday.

And the following Sunday, miracle of miracles, the minister preached the Gospel again. On the third Sunday, when the minister preached the Gospel yet again, Jack thought to himself, 'Maybe the minister has been preaching the Gospel all along. Maybe it was me who just wasn't hearing it.'

Hearing God in Unexpected Places

When our perspective is changed, we can suddenly 'see' things that we have never seen before.

Like Jack, we can see God in places where we have never seen him before. We can see God in expected places. And this seeing of God in unexpected places is what seems to be going on in both of our readings this morning.

On the one hand, we have Samuel. Still a young boy, he is under the tutelage of Eli the Priest. Samuel doesn't have the ability or the experience to hear the voice of God on his own, but Eli instructs Samuel in how to do it.

Eli gives Samuel this instruction - he does the right thing - even though he knows that his own sons have been cursed by God for being scoundrels. According to the laws of the Hebrew people, it is not Samuel who is supposed to hear the voice of God, yet God has chosen him over and above the sons of Eli.

Through Samuel, God speaks through an unexpected source. Samuel's perspective was changed from then on and he was able to gain experience in hearing God speak.

I think that there is a similar thing happening in the story of Nathaniel. We have some hints from the reading that Nathaniel was a dedicated scholar of Jewish Law.
First of all, his name: a very Jewish name in contrast to the other disciples whose names have been translated into Greek. Secondly, the way that Jesus greets him as 'an Israelite in whom their is no deceit' And, finally, Nathaniel's habit of studying under a fig tree - a symbol for the nation of Israel.

What is unexpected here is not Nathaniel's interest in being a disciple of God but rather his confession of Jesus - of all people - as The Son of God and the King of Israel. In John's Gospel, these title are very intentionally Messianic.
The man who had just questioned 'Can anything good come out of Nazareth?' is now acknowledging Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah.

Something happens, and we don't really know what it is, that entirely changes Nathaniel's perspective. He moves rapidly from a stance of writing Jesus off completely to recognising him as the Messiah and becoming Jesus' disciple.

Samuel and Nathaniel both had their perspective changed. They were able to hear the voice of God and become disciples even though the voice of God seemed to be coming from an unexpected place.

History Belongs to God

The historian Arnold Toynbee famously said that 'History is just one (darn) thing after another.' (He didn't say 'darn' but I wouldn't want to shock you too much from the pulpit!)

Toynbee believed that human civilizations don't learn from history but that they simply keep making the same mistakes over and over.

The question as to whether anything good can ever come out of Nazareth is perhaps poignant in the context of current events where the government of Israel is locked in battle with Palestinian militants.

Two thousand years later, we can look at that area of the world - both Israel and Gaza - and wonder whether anything good will ever come out of that place. We might be very tempted to take the view of Arnold Toynbee and think that history is doomed to repeat itself over and over in this region.

I'm not imagining that I'm going to come up with a solution to the problems in the Middle East in this sermon, but I think that today's readings suggest to us at least the outline of a Godly response.

First of all, as Christians we do not believe that history is just one darn thing after another. History has a goal and that goal is the coming of the Kingdom of God.
A world in which human dignity is real and the presence of God is manifest. Where God's kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven.

Even if we cannot see an inkling of The Kingdom at the moment, the Kingdom is in God's hands just as surely as the future of Israel was in God's hands in Eli's time. The world has seen the hand of God at work in human history. The healing of European tensions during the 20th century is one example. The peace in Northern Ireland is yet another example.

As Christians, it is central to our belief that there is always hope for human history.

Secondly, as disciples of Christ, we must be dedicated to the truth. We must have the eyes to see clearly when evil is being done, no matter who does it, and name it as evil. We must have the eyes to see clearly when good is being done, no matter who does it, and name it as good.

Both Eli and Nathaniel heard the voice of God calling from unexpected places.

If the world assumes that no good can come from Israel or that no good can come from Palestine, then there will never be clear enough vision to sit down at the negotiating table to begin the process of peace.

And finally, as disciples of Christ we are called to be agents of peace by being the agents of truth and righteousness and clear-headed ethics.

Please note that I'm not saying that Christians will be the only agents of peace. In fact, it is my belief anyone whose actions serve peace, truth, righteousness and clear-headed ethics will, in fact, be doing the will of God whether or not they call themselves a Christian.

However, to be a disciple of Christ is necessarily to be committed to the pursuit of these things.

It may be a lot simpler to simply pick a side and refuse to acknowledge when that side engages in injustice; but truth will not be served by such a process. Peace, forgiveness and reconciliation will not be served by such a process. And the Kingdom of God will not be advanced by such a process.


During the course of our lives, God will call to us from unexpected places and in the voices of unexpected people.

The principles outlined above can be applied in our personal lives and in our spiritual lives.

They are as applicable to Christian unity as well as to international relations and, of course, they are applicable to our personal lives as well.

How can we hear God's call when it comes from an unfamiliar voice?

I think that we can hear God's call when it sounds like Jesus. When it sounds like forgiveness rather than retribution; reconciliation rather than division; peace rather than war; inclusion rather than exclusion; service rather than personal glory; the good of the other rather than my own comfort.

My prayer this morning is that, as disciples, we can be clear-headed enough to recognise the voice of God by the message that it brings. May we be given the discernment to hear the voice of God even when it comes from unexpected places and unexpected people. Amen

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Sunday 4 January 2009 - Covenant Service

This is a three part sermon which I interspersed with the readings for Covenant Sunday. The aim of this sermon is to give people a better understanding of the biblical concept of 'covenant'. Understanding the concept of 'covenant' also helps to unpack much of the text in the liturgy of the Covenant Service itself. The sermon is written from an Arminian understanding of 'covenant' that I expect 5-point Calvinists probably wouldn't agree with!



This morning, we are observing a traditional Methodist form of worship called the Covenant Service, where we affirm our faith in God and rededicate our lives to God's service.

I suppose it would be quite accurate to say that what we are about to do - those who choose to do so - is like a reaffirmation of our Baptismal vows. The liturgy itself expresses the purpose of this service as 'accepting again our place within the covenant which God has made with us and with all who are called to be Christ's disciples.'

We are often used to hearing the idea that to become a Christian is to 'make a commitment to Christ' and therefore you might not be far wrong in thinking that this service is a renewal of that commitment.

But I expect you've heard it said in Covenant Services from years past that, actually, God made a commitment to us first - in the words of our baptismal service - 'before we even knew anything of it'. Because although the word 'covenant' implies a contracted promise, it also has a rich biblical meaning.

And it's the story of this biblical meaning that I'd like to review this morning.

In order to make that easier, I'd like to expand on each part of the story as we hear it rather than give 'a sermon'. The first part of the story begins in the desert. It is Moses' farewell address to the people of Israel, just before his death and just before the people are to be delivered from their forty-year exile in the desert.

Deuteronomy 29:10-15

Israel are God's chosen people, but it probably doesn't feel like it any more after forty years wandering in the desert.  As the story goes, the people cannot enter the promised land until every one of the generation of people who left Egypt has died.

Imagine trying to keep faith in God's good purposes for your people as you wander aimlessly in the desert for forty years.  But the ancient Israelites were no better at it than we are and they didn't keep the faith. Even as Moses went up Mount Sinai in order to get the ten commandments - a sign and seal of the contract between God and Israel - the Israelites had already broken their part of the bargain by worshipping a false god.

Yet, God remained faithful and he reestablished the contract with his people.

Now this covenant that has been made between God and the Israelites is not a contract in the usual sense because a contract must normally be made between two equals. Human beings are not able to reach out and establish a bond with God, but God is able to reach out to us. And that is exactly what the old covenant is about: through Israel, the transcendent God intervenes in history to establish a relationship with humanity in human time and in human space.

Of course, the other thing about a covenant - contract - is that it is normally viewed as being null and void when one party does not keep up their end of the bargain. And it did not take the coming of Jesus for God's people to understand that human beings cannot keep God's law.

Jeremiah understands all too well that God's people have not been able to keep the old covenant. He realises that a new covenant between God and humanity is needed....

Jeremiah 31:31-34

And so we have an age-old human problem: Human beings are not able to refrain from sinning. We are not able to keep the Ten Commandments. We are not able to keep up our end of a bargain with God.

What is the solution to be? That human beings keep sinning and that God keeps renewing the contract nonetheless? Jeremiah proposes a different solution: a new covenant.

This is is not a covenant that is based on human beings being able to keep God's law - we already know that won't work.  The new covenant is based on the transformation of human hearts: not God's law written on tablets, but God's Spirit written on the hearts of human beings. If human beings are not able to be faithful on their own, then God himself will have to transform the human heart in order that we can be faithful.

For the Christian, this transformation can come only from Jesus. Jesus said that didn't come to do away with the law, but rather that he came to fulfill the law. Jesus fulfilled the law because he himself was the one human being who was able to be 100% faithful to the requirements of the covenant with God. Jesus was able to keep up our end of the bargain and he did it for us, as our substitute and in our place. Jesus' obedience to the Father is accepted as our obedience to the Father and, in Jesus, the covenant between God and humanity is made permanent for all time.

It is through Christ that God's Spirit is written on our hearts and that we can hope for our own transformation. It is through Christ and his life, death and resurrection that God intervenes once again in history - in the new covenant - to establish a relationship with humanity in human time and in human space.

And just as the Jewish people observe Passover to remember God's covenant with them and with all people, So too do we observe the Lord's Supper as a token of God's new covenant with humanity.

The following reading is taken from Mark who sets The Last Supper in the context of the Passover Meal.

Mark 14:22-25

Jesus says in verse 25: 'Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.'

Just as the Passover looks forward to the fulfillment of God's promise to the Jewish people of deliverance from exile and settlement in the Promised Land, so too does the Lord's Supper look forward to what Christians believe is the fulfillment of the promise of God to all people: the Kingdom of God.

A world in which human dignity is real and the presence of God is manifest.

But the Lord's Supper is operating under the rules of engagement - if you will - of the new covenant:

Of the understanding that human beings cannot keep God's law but that Jesus has kept it for us and that he has fulfilled it on our behalf. The Lord's Supper is the feast of the Kingdom of God: the feast to which all people are invited on account of the forgiveness that has been won for us by the cross of Christ. It is not our 'making a commitment' to God that saves us, rather it is God's 'making a commitment' to us through Christ that saves us.

The Covenant Prayer which we are about to make is an acknowledgement of all that God has done for us in Christ. We acknowledge that it is because of God's action that we belong to God. And we acknowledge that we, like the Virgin Mary, are the servants of God and that we do not do God work but, rather, God works through us.

Please take a minute or so to read over 
The Covenant Prayer.  May God bless us as we prepare to make this solemn prayer together.