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Sunday, 22 August 2010

Great Expectations

Once upon a time, there was a young man called Jeremiah. He was from quite a good family – his father was a priest, although not a high priest, and owned a fair bit of land not far from Jerusalem. So Jeremiah grew up in a fair amount of comfort, loved and nurtured by his family. Perhaps he had planned to be a priest himself when he grew up.

But then one day, in about 626 BC, God came to him, and said: "Jeremiah, I am your Creator, and before you were born, I chose you to speak for me to the nations."

Jeremiah is shattered! “Lord God, you’re making a big mistake! I am a lousy public speaker and I’m too young for anybody to take me seriously.”

But God insists: .“Don’t put yourself down because of your age. Just go to whoever I send you to, and say whatever I tell you to say. Don’t let yourself feel intimidated by anyone, because I’ll be there as back up for you. You’ll be okay; take my word for it.” And Jeremiah is touched by God, and enabled to speak God’s word.

Some six hundred years later, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue one Sabbath day, as he often did. There was a woman in the congregation who was twisted and deformed – perhaps she had scoliosis or perhaps it was an arthritic condition. Certainly it was long-standing. We are told she had been like this for eighteen years. And Jesus suddenly notices her, and heals her. She is able to stand fully upright again, and starts praising God.

Well, that didn’t please the leader of the synagogue. Healing people like that on the Sabbath – wasn’t that dangerously close to work? “Oi,” he goes, “Stop healing people on the Sabbath! Now then, if you want healed, you come on any of the other six days of the week; I don’t want any Sabbath-breaking going on here!”

“Oh come on, mate,” says Jesus. “I saw you taking your donkey down to the drinking-trough earlier this morning, Sabbath day or no Sabbath day. If it’s all right for you to take your donkey to have a drink on the Sabbath, it’s all right for me to heal this good lady, whom Satan had bound for eighteen whole years!”

The leader of the synagogue had nothing to say to this, but the crowd really cheered.

I think it’s about expectations, isn’t it? God expected Jeremiah to proclaim His word to the nations. Jesus expected that the woman would be healed, Sabbath day or no Sabbath day. The ruler of the synagogue expected Jesus to keep the Sabbath. And Jeremiah and the woman? I don’t think they expected anything at all!

What does God expect from us? What do we expect from God’s people? And what do we expect from God?

Firstly, then, what does God expect from us?

Jeremiah was expected to go and proclaim God’s word. He had been specifically called for this purpose, and although he was horrified when the call came, and tried to get out of it, he ultimately accepted it, and trusted in God’s promise that “Attack you they will, overcome you they can’t”; a promise that was fulfilled many times over in the Biblical narrative.

I wonder what God is expecting of you? I know I am expected to preach the Gospel. Like Jeremiah, I was very young when I was called – about 15. Unlike him, I wasn’t able to answer that call for many years for reasons that I won’t go into now, but suffice it to say that for about the past 20 years I have known that this is what God has wanted me to do. This is what God expects of me. I am so grateful, every time I preach, that all I am expected to do is to provide the words; God does the rest!

So what does he expect of you? Some of you will know, definitely, what God expects; you are a steward, or a local preacher, or a musician. For others, it’s less clear cut. You have a job, perhaps, or are bringing up a family. Or perhaps that is all behind you now, and you are retired.

But whatever it is you do, you are expected to be Christ’s ambassador. You are a witness to him in everything you say and do. Now, before you start squirming uncomfortably, and thinking “Oh dear, I’m not a very good one, am I?”, don’t forget that Jesus said that when the Holy Spirit came, we would be his witnesses throughout the known world. Not that we should be, or ought to be, but that we would be. We are. You are an ambassador for Christ, and whether you like it or not, whether you know it or not, this is what you are, through the power of the Holy Spirit who dwells within you.

When God calls you to do something, whether it is some well-defined job like cleaning the church, or running a prayer group, or speaking forth his word, or simply praying quietly at home, or whether you’re called to be God’s person where you work, or where you live, God will enable you to do it, just as he enabled Jeremiah.

And so to my second question for this morning: What do you expect of God’s people? When someone says he or she is a Christian, what do you reckon they’re going to be like?

The leader of the synagogue was confounded when Jesus didn’t conform to his expectation of what a good Jewish man did or didn’t do on the Sabbath. Healing people? Seriously? No, no, that counted as work!

And sometimes we are confounded when we come across Christians whose standards of acceptable behaviour might differ from ours. Could they possibly be Christians at all? Do real Christians behave like that? Some churches have felt so strongly about some of these issues that they have even split up, causing enormous hurt and upset in their various denominations. Yet who are we to judge another’s behaviour? In fact, you might remember that St Paul suggests that if your brother is offended by something you do or don’t do, you should do it, or not do it, as the case may be, so as not to upset them, or, worse, to let them think it’s all right for them to do it, when it might not be at all all right, and might lead them away from God. We need to be sensitive to one another, and to refrain from judging one another. We probably have our rules that we live by, but we don’t have the right to force those rules on to other people, not even on to other Christians.

I suppose the thing is, we shouldn’t really expect other Christians to be like us! Many, of course, will be – that’s why you go to this church, here, because you find people you are comfortable with, people whose vision of what God’s people are like resonates with yours. But there will be others whose views you are less comfortable with; who perhaps strike you as rather puritanical, or rather lax.

Of course, when we know someone, we know what they are like, whether they are reliable, whether you can trust them. And we accept them, normally, for who they are. Just as God does with us. But we mustn’t be judgemental. Maybe they hold views that we find strange, or even unpleasant. Maybe they feel free to behave in ways we’ve been taught that Christians don’t do, or ways that we feel would be sinful for us. But it is not for us to judge. Our Lord points out, in that collection of His teachings known as the Sermon on the Mount, that we very often have socking great logs in our own eyes, so how can we see clearly to remove the speck in someone else’s? In other words, keep your eyes on what’s wrong with you, not on what’s wrong with other people! See to it that you obey your rules, and leave other people to obey theirs.

That’s something, I think, that the leader of the synagogue would have been wise to keep in mind, rather than criticising Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath, to say nothing of criticising the congregation for coming to be healed that day. He had rules he needed to keep, and he needed other people to keep them, too. But Jesus had other ideas. For him, healing someone on the Sabbath was as normal and as natural as making sure your livestock were fed, or your cow was milked.

So, then, God is free to expect anything from us; we should not, though, expect other Christians to be just like us. But what do we expect from God?

Jeremiah didn’t expect anything from God. When told that he was to proclaim God’s word, his first reaction was to panic: “I can’t possibly! I’m a lousy public speaker and much too young!” But God gave him the gifts he needed to fulfil his task, and sometimes Jeremiah had to actively act out God’s word, not just speak it!

The woman who was all twisted and bent over didn’t expect anything from God, either. She presumably went to the synagogue each week to worship, not really expecting anything to happen. But that particular Sabbath day, Jesus was there – and that made all the difference. After eighteen years she was finally free of her illness, able to stand up straight, able to walk normally and talk to people face to face once more.

What did you expect from God this morning? Let’s be honest, we come to church week after week, and on most Sundays nothing much happens! We worship God, we spend some time with our friends, and then we go home again. And that’s okay. But some weeks are different, aren’t they? Not often, but just sometimes we come away from Church knowing that God was there, and present, and real. I wonder why these occasions are so rare? Partly, of course, because mountain-top experiences like that are rare, that’s why we remember them. There’s an old story of two men coming out of Church one Sunday morning when the preacher had been rather more boring even than usual. The first man said, “Honestly, what’s the point? I’ve been going to Church more or less every Sunday for the past 30 years, and I must have heard hundreds of sermons, yet I hardly remember any of them!”

To which the second man replied, “Hmm, well; I’ve been married for 30 years and my wife has cooked me a meal more or less every night, and I don’t really remember many of them, either. But where would I be without them?”

Church, mostly, is about providing daily bread for daily needs. We don’t expect to see miracles each Sunday, or healings such as took place in the synagogue that day. But what do we expect when we come to Church? Do we expect to meet God in some way?

What do we expect from God? We know that our sins have been forgiven, right? And that God is gradually making us into the people he designed us to be. But do we expect more? Should we expect more? Neither Jeremiah nor the woman in the synagogue expected anything from God – yet God gave, bountifully, to both of them in very different ways.

Who was it who said “Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God”? I can’t remember right now, but it’s really what I want to leave with you this morning. What does God expect from you? Are you trying not to hear something you think God might be trying to say? What do you expect from other Christians? Are you requiring a higher standard from them than from yourself? And what are you expecting God to do for you today? Amen.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Mary the Mother of God

Today is the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary. At least, in some parts of the Church it is. If you’re Catholic, it is the Feast of the Assumption, and a public holiday in many countries. If you’re Orthodox, it is the Dormition, only many branches of the Orthodox Church observe their Festivals according to the old calendar, so that won’t be until the 28th of this month. But for us Protestants, it is simply a day to celebrate Mary the Mother of God.

We tend not to think very much about her, do we? Possibly in a reaction to what we see as Catholic worship of her, we tend to ignore her most of the year, except possibly for a mention on the Annunciation, on the 25th March, and then this festival, deep in August when many people are away.

As so often happens, the festival long pre-dates Christianity. It has taken over what used to be a day celebrated to the goddess Diana, who, if you remember your Roman mythology, was the goddess of the hunt, and of the Moon, and, incidentally, was celebrated as a virgin goddess.

Hmmm, that’s interesting. We celebrate the Virgin Mary on a feast-day originally dedicated to a pagan virgin goddess. It makes sense, really, when you come to think about it, given that Christianity took over many other pagan festivals. But perhaps it helps to explain why some versions of Christianity do venerate Mary so much. If you were Jewish, you were quite used to thinking of God as Father and Creator, but if you came from a background which worshipped a virgin goddess, Mary obviously provided what you found you were missing. And again, if you were used to worshipping a mother figure, as so many people were, you found something in Mary that perhaps you missed in the Christian depiction of God. Don’t forget, in the olden days you had to convert to Christianity when your ruler did, or the head of your tribe, or whatever, and if the worship you were used to was suddenly no longer provided, you had to make what you could of what you did have!

And then, of course, the Catholic Church being nothing if not practical, formalised a great deal of what was happening, and thought, about Mary into doctrine.... and so it went on. Chicken and egg type of situation, drawing on tradition and practice more than on Scripture. And so, of course, when the Protestants went back to the Bible, discarding most, although not all, traditional theology, Mary rather fell back into the background.

The thing about Mary, though, is that she provides a model for us to copy. In our Bibles, we first meet her as a young girl in Nazareth who says “Yes” to the enormous, impossible task God set for her, to be the mother of the Messiah. Tradition tells us that she was the daughter of Joachim and Anne, and quite possibly had been reared in the Temple, like Samuel, only if she was living in Nazareth when she was 16, I’m not quite sure how that could have been. Unless, of course, as Matthew implies, she was living in Bethlehem, which isn’t that far from Jerusalem. In either event, she was not dedicated to the Temple as a permanent virgin or anything; she was betrothed to Joseph, a local craftsman, who we are told was much older.

I do rather love Luke’s stories about Mary – how one of the things the angel had said to her was that her relation, Elisabeth, was pregnant after all those years. And, as we heard in our reading, Mary rushes off to visit her. Was this to reassure herself that the angel was telling the truth? Or to congratulate Elisabeth? Or just to get away for a bit of space, do you suppose? We aren’t told. But Elisabeth recognises Mary as the mother-to-be of the promised Saviour, and Mary’s response is that great song that we now call the “Magnificat”. Or if it wasn’t exactly that – that may well be Luke putting down what she ought to have said, like Shakespeare giving Henry V that great speech before Agincourt – it was probably words to that effect! I think she was very, very relieved to find the angel had been speaking the truth, and probably did explode in an outpouring of praise and joy!

And later, in Bethlehem, when the shepherds come to visit her, we are told that she “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”

The next time we see Mary is when Jesus is twelve and gets separated from them in the Temple. I spent a lot of time with that story when Emily was a teenager – how Mary and Joseph say to Jesus, “But why did you stay behind? Didn’t you realise we’d be worried about you?” and Jesus goes, “Oh, you don’t understand!” – typical teenager!

We don’t see Joseph again after this – as I said, tradition has it that he was a lot older than Mary, and, of course, he had a very physical job. It wasn’t just a carpenter as we know it – the Greek word is “technion”, which is the same root as our “technician”; if it had to do with houses, Joseph did it, from designing them, to building them, to making the furniture that went in them! And tradition has it that sometime between Jesus’ 12th birthday, and when we next see him at the start of his ministry, Joseph has died.

But we see a lot more of Mary. She is there at the wedding at Cana, and indeed, it’s she who goes to Jesus when they’ve run out of wine. And Jesus says, at first, “Um, no – my time has not yet come!” but Mary knew. And she told the servants to “Do whatever he tells you”, and, sure enough, the water is turned into wine.

There’s a glimpse of her at one point when Jesus is teaching, and he’s told his mother and brother are outside waiting for him, but he refuses to be diverted from what he’s doing. And, of course, it could have been that it was just random people who said they were his relations to try to get closer to him.

We see Mary, of course, weeping at the Cross – something no mother should ever have to do. And Jesus commending her into the care of the “beloved disciple” John. And, finally, we see her in the Upper Room in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit came.

Tradition then has it that she moved to Ephesus with John, where she died sometime between three and fifteen years later, and that her body was taken into heaven – or perhaps she didn’t die, but was taken bodily into Heaven first, which is what Catholics believe. In either event, this is what the Catholic Church celebrates today; the Orthodox believe she died, and her body was taken into heaven, which they celebrate as the Dormition.

Well, we Protestants don’t necessarily see her as the Queen of Heaven, or anything like that, but she does make a terrific role model, doesn’t she? She says “Yes” to God; she tells the servants at the wedding to “Do whatever Jesus tells you”. She does what no mother should ever have to do, and watches her Son die one of the most cruel deaths imaginable. And she stays with the disciples afterwards, and is in the Upper Room when the Holy Spirit comes. She stayed with Jesus, all the time. She believed in him, apparently not just because he was the son of her body, although that too, but because He was raised from death, and she remained, one imagines, a faithful disciple until she died.

I’ve been thinking about that a bit this week, as it is the start of Ramadan when, as you know, observant Muslims don’t eat or drink anything during daylight hours. That must be incredibly difficult – I should hate to have to do it. Yet they do it every year, for four whole weeks, as a discipline to help them stay close to God. I find it always says things to me about my own self-discipline and how I need to help myself stay close to God. Nadine was reminding us just last week how easy it is to slip away from one’s first love for God.

But Mary stayed close to her Son, and through Him to His heavenly Father. Mary’s “Yes” to God enabled God to be incarnate, to come to earth as God the Son. Our own “Yes” to God is unlikely to do anything quite so earth-shattering, but on the other hand, who knows where it will lead? We don’t observe Ramadan, and when we do observe a season of fasting, such as in Lent or Advent, we tend not to allow it to impinge on us very much. But we do need to do whatever it takes to stay, like Mary, close to God, and to say “Yes” to whatever we are asked to do. Amen.