I like new starts. When I was in School I loved the beginning of term. It meant new bag, new files and notebooks. It meant I could break open the subject dividers – not the papery flimsy ones but the shiny white card dividers the ones with the bright coloured plastic tabs.
A new pencil case could be bought – one with compartments that meant I could order my pencils and pens away from the erasers and tippex. A new fountain pen – usually a Parker Vector – could take pride of place with emergency ink cartridges hidden in the inevitable ‘secret’ compartment.
And then when the new text books came home from school there was the careful covering them in wallpaper and sticky-back plastic bought from Dollarways.
The beginning of a new term or year held possibilities because it was a fresh start – a step into what has been called (misquoting the Bard) the ‘Undiscovered Country’ – the future.
We are creatures governed by our own concept of time, aren’t we. Look at the TV schedules for the week after Christmas and you will see it full of 2011 retrospectives. From the End of the Year shows to the quizzes to comedic look-backs at the year. VH1 or MTV will spend the whole week playing the hits of the year – then the hit albums of the year – then the hits in virtually every musical genre you can think of. And why? Because these shows are some of the biggest audience pulls of the year.
We love looking back and we love fresh starts. That’s why so many of us make New Year Resolutions – that we have quite often already failed to keep by Epiphany!
But the coming of seasons and the marker points of the year do govern the way we think and our attitude to the world around us. Perhaps no other non-religious celebration does it for us all quite like New Year.
The sense of weariness that many of us suffer from in the run up to Christmas makes way for a renewed optimism in the year ahead as December becomes January and we notch up another year.
January is a time to look forward and a time to start things afresh.
As we begin our journey together into the new year it is an opportunity for us as a Church to look forward to what our God might want to do through us in the next year and beyond. It is an opportunity to take stock together and to refresh our commitment to God.
Our first reading today came from Isaiah 54 and it includes the verse you also have on the cards you were given as you came in today – this verse, Isaiah 54v2 is our motto for the year ahead – I believe it says something very important about what we are called to do as a Church – what we have been trying to respond to over the past year and what our future outlook should be in 2012 and beyond.
Isaiah is talking to the people of Israel. The tent imagery is very important to the Jewish people at this time – they are well aware of their history as a nomadic people, they remember each year at Passover their exodus into the desert. That God led them through the wilderness from the Tent of the Tabernacle, the people were tent dwellers during that time and beyond as they settled in Canaan. The relevance of the tent to the Israelites even centuries later in Isaiah’s time is still very ingrained in their culture. Tent life is seen as the ideal – and Isaiah himself in chapter 16 uses this language when he describes the coming Messiah as reigning in the ‘Tent of David’.
The language of this verse in Chapter 54 is harking to that ideal of the tent to the Jewish culture.
Isaiah is preparing the people and calling them to prepare for growth – it is language familiar to them because of their past but that is also laden with meaning for the future.
“Enlarge the place of your tent,
stretch your tent curtains wide,
do not hold back;
lengthen your cords,
strengthen your stakes”
It continues to speak to us today. Even as gentile believers we are children of God and children of his promises to Israel, not Israel the Jewish people, but Israel the people of God. We are children of the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 12 verse 2 in fact when God promised Abraham that his descendants would fill the world he meant us – not just those who could trace a blood line to Abraham but all the people who know God and call themselves his people.
This verse from Isaiah forms part of a wider passage talking of the restoration of Israel. The preparation for growth is important because it tells us something of the way God brings growth to his Church.
Isaiah’s instruction is not for the people to sit around and await God’s action – but to prepare for it.
It is not ‘let God enlarge the place of your tent or wait for God to strengthen your stakes. But rather YOU do it. YOU prepare for what God is about to do by preparing the way – YOU step out and make the place of your tent bigger – YOU prepare for the influx of growth that God is going to do.
You prepare the way of the Lord.
It should. In our gospel reading we heard this morning about Jesus’ baptism – the symbolic start of his ministry – by John the baptist – The One Calling in the desert ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’
John was never coy about who he was or what he was doing – he was preparing the way for what God was about to do through Jesus – he went into the desert baptising – a future echo of what Christ would command us to do in his name – John was
“Enlarging the place of his tent,
stretching his tent curtains wide,
not holding back; lengthening his cords,
strengthening his stakes”
John had a clear and God given mission – to respond to what God was calling him to do. So do we.
Vision is important because it helps us to discern direction in our lives. It is easy to think we can muddle through life waiting to see what God is going to do – but actually scripture never absolves us of our responsibility in the doing part of God’s plan. Not once do the faithful figures of the Bible sit back and await God’s action. They strive for it, in some cases they run away from it before giving into it, but God’s work in the world has always required our action. Not because God can’t do it supernaturally (he does frequently intervene in amazing ways) but because He chooses to use us as his vehicle of mission on this earth. We are God’s agents of Change in this world.
And change is an odd thing isn’t it. Most of us would admit to struggling with it on one level or other. Yet it is something that happens all the time – sometimes in-perceptively and sometimes obviously.
None of us are the people we were 5 years ago, 20 years ago or 50 years ago – because of natural change that life experiences bring to us. Very little of the things we hold dear to us are immune from change even though we convince ourselves things have always been this way.
One of the saddest things I have heard in recent years was on Radio 4 on Christmas Eve. The continuity announcer was introducing Carols at Kings. And she said:
“and now in a service that is unchanged since it’s inception in 1919, Carols at Kings”
This in a nutshell is the root of our problems in the western Church today. The five words that spell the death of the Church “We’ve always done it that way”
Show me one thing that remains completely unchanged since 1919 or 1819 or 1719. it is virtually impossible to do so because change is not only natural – it is God ordained.
A church that is unchanging is a Church that has ceased to follow God.
A church that is unchanging is a dead church.
Look around this Church – every generation of believers has left it’s mark – every generation of believers has added and removed – adapted to the culture and the people they were called to serve. Pews were added – probably in the 18th century and probably not the ones you are sitting on today. Aisles were added – pulpit’s brought in then moved. AND that is just the building. The REAL Church is constantly changing and adapting and evolving to the world around it. Because the real Church is us – you and me – the people of God.
Every generation of Christians is called to serve the community and the world around them. Every generation of the Church is called to respond – like John the Baptist – to what God is doing in the world. To have a strategy and a vision reached through prayer and discernment.
The next year here at St Mary’s is going to hold many challenges, many changes – just like every other year in it’s history.
The new service St Mary’s at 11 is starting in a month’s time – a different way of worshipping the same God and communicating the same message this Church has always been called to spread.
But that is just the start – the spring board into our community. As a Church we have to keep seeking God and discerning the way forward – keep responding to him. Keep listening and doing.
Together over the next 12 months we are going to be exploring what God is calling us to do – seeking and discerning and building a vision for the future of this Church.
But it starts now.
And it starts with us.
We – the people of God in this village along with our brothers and sisters in Churches Together – are the agents of God’s mission in our community. It is down to us, to bring the gospel to every household in our village, so that everyone has an opportunity to respond to God from a place of knowledge.
It is down to us to:
“Enlarge the place of our tent,
stretch our tent curtains wide,
do not hold back;
lengthen our cords,
strengthen our stakes”
It means that we start with our own lives and work outwards. It means we start to take seriously our call to be people of peace not discord. To treat our neighbours as we would want to be treated. To act in Godly love to those around us – within and without the Church.
Bill Hybels calls the local Church “The hope of the world” it is only through us that most people will hear the gospel. It is only through us and our actions that the love of God will be spread.
In a moment we are going to pray together a covenant prayer of commitment. Written by John Wesley it is a dangerous and powerful prayer – because when we pray it open heartedly we commit ourselves to something exhilarating, life changing and exciting – we commit our selves before God to living our lives his ways not ours – to embrace what HE chooses to do.
Let’s make this our prayer of commitment to seek God’s ways for us personally and us as a Church community this year.
I am going to give a moment for you to read the prayer – it’s on the front of the this weeks newsheet – and if when you have read it through quietly you are happy to join in we will pray it together. Please do not pray this prayer if it is something you cannot honour – or if you are just not sure about it right now. There will be other opportunities and it is important that this prayer of covenant is prayed honestly and openly before God.
“I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.”