“… so that our church does not die out with us.”

Overgrown church building

Below you will find the sermon from last Sunday as I had it printed out, (I think it came out a bit differently but anyway there was some interest in it so I thought I would post it here).  The picture above was taken at the ruins of Lislee church, near Courtmacsherry.

Text: Mark 1.4-11

A happy New Year to you all!  One thing I love about a New Year is that it is a reminder to us that God is a God of ‘new beginnings’ and that it is never too late (while there is breath in our body) to have a new start.  But of course it is not just at New Year, but all the year round that God works and He is always doing new and exciting things.

Recently I was listening to a talk by Nicky Gumbel (the man who started the Alpha course), about the church where he serves in London.  He reminisced about when he first started going there as a parishioner and how in those days there was a very small congregation and they were mostly elderly.  At their equivalent to a vestry meeting they said to the Vicar, (a chap called Sandy Miller), ‘Yes, we like traditional church services and the old language, but please do whatever you need to do so that our church does not die out with us.’  So, many changes were gradually made and one of them was to take the pews out of the church and replace them with chairs, so they could do more things with the large space.  Nicky Gumbel loves the chairs and now twenty or so years later he finds himself in a similar position to the older folk when he was young and that is to the young people of today, chairs are a hindrance and just so old-fashioned; they just want an empty floor!   The thing about chairs is that you are stuck in them and the young people love to be able to move around freely, sit in groups get up and go over to another group and so on.  So Gumbel says that even though he loves the chairs and finds it difficult when they are not there, he is willing to not have them at some of the church services for the sake of generation who are growing up in the church.

Why am I going on about this?  One reason is that I want us to start thinking a bit more about the future of the parish but mainly it is because I believe that there is a connection with our reading from Mark’s Gospel.  The Jewish people were very traditional and very stuck in their ways and it was John the Baptist’s job to wake them up.  Have you ever had someone throw a glass of cold water on your face?  Well, that is what John came to do, as Tom Wright puts it:

“John’s ministry burst in upon the surprised Jewish world.  Many had been looking for a sign from God, but they hadn’t expected it to look like this.  Many had wanted a Messiah to lead them against the Romans, but they weren’t anticipating a prophet telling them to repent”. (From Mark for Everyone, SPCK)

What did John want the people to do to be ready for Jesus?  He called them to ‘repent’, to turn around and start walking in the right direction, to wake up to God’s reality.  John wanted people to be ready for the new thing that God was doing.

While the other gospel writers give us more detail on the Lord’s baptism, Mark gets directly to the point, he tells us:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (v.9-11)

One striking thing here is the words of the Father, which in one translations reads:

‘You are my wonderful son; you make me very glad.‘

I don’t know what it is, but in our part of the world the relationship that fathers have with their sons is such that it is not unusual for sons to never hear things such as ‘my dear child’ or ‘I’m very pleased with you’, or even simply ‘I love you’.  I believe that these words of the Father to Jesus, the Son should be an encouragement to all of us Fathers who have sons, to follow the example given to us, to tell our sons that we love them, that we are pleased with them and how much joy they give to us and how proud we are of them.  As a father, it might be one of the most important things we ever do.

The account of Jesus’ baptism is very important not just for the relationship that we see between the Father and the Son but also their relationship with the Holy Spirit.  Now sometimes our lectionary readings come together remarkably well and today is one of them.  All of the readings show God at work doing new things by the Person, work and power of the Holy Spirit.  In the reading from Genesis chapter 1, it is the Spirit of God that broods over the chaos of the deep and breathes God’s creative life into it.  As Jesus is baptised God’s Spirit settles on Him, affirming His identity and mission.  In the reading from Acts we hear how a group of new believers break into a whole new dimension of faith as they are baptised with both water and the Holy Spirit and yes if we engage with this reading it is a bit like a wake up call, like a glass of cold water being thrown in our face.

There are of course many people today who think that Jesus was a great teacher, who gave us an important moral code and ethical guidelines as ideals to strive for, but then they leave it at that.  Jesus though is not past tense, He is alive today working with the Father and the Spirit as He always has and always will.  The option to see Him as just a good moral teacher is not enough.  He wants to do new things in us and through us.  He wants to indwell us by His Spirit so that the words of the Father to Jesus that day become the same words that He says to us.  “He sees us, not as we are in ourselves, but as we are in Jesus Christ.  It sometimes seems impossible, especially to people who have never had this kind of support from their earthly parents, but it’s true:  God looks at us, and says, ‘You are my dear, dear child; I’m delighted with you.’” (Tom Wright, Mark For Everyone)

Your Heavenly Father loves you so very much, believe it.

In a similar way to that in which the Holy Spirit brooded over the face of the deep at the dawn of Creation, so He broods over us.  God wants to breathe His new life and love into the darkened chaos of our doubts, fears and sin.  He strongly desires to cleanse us with the blood of His Son and for us to let Him in, let Him work, let Him act in us and through us.

Change is something that typically the older we get the more difficult we can find to accept, whether it be the change that God wants to work in us as individuals or change that He wants to happen in the Church.  Over the past while as I have been driving around different parts of the country I have noticed more clearly than I ever have before the number of closed church buildings there are.  Now of course we can argue that church buildings are closed because of changes in population, emigration, intermarriage, Ne Temere and so on but I think the overwhelmingly greatest reason for church closure is the refusal to pass on the gospel to the generations to come in a way that is relevant to their language and culture.  Thankfully there are many churches and parishes that have successfully passed on the gospel message to the new generations and as you know this is something that we try (with limited success to do here) but I think no one would disagree that we need to be a lot braver and less tentative about it.  God wants to do new things in you and me and I believe he wants to do new things in this church and in this parish because He does not want this church to die out with the generations represented here today.  Remember that God is a God not of endings, but of new beginnings!  Let us pray… Amen.

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