Walking in the dark

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Advent. Time of transition and threshold. Hushed and holy time of waiting. On this Advent cusp last year, Diana a friend and my church warden, slipped peacefully to heaven after a long illness. She and I had walked much of it together, particularly in her last months. I had to preach on Gaudette Sunday after her funeral, on Joy and how we get there having just buried someone  greatly loved. You can read that here.

Last week another parishioner died, but this time very suddenly and with no warning, leaving family and parish reeling with shock.

Today was my last service in the community I have loved and served for three and half years. I preached today, having to hold a community once again in grief.  I titled it

Walking in the dark

 I ought to be used to walking in the dark by now. I do it enough. I regularly tramp the roads, paths & fields around here in the dark. Usually, in the deepest darkness just before dawn, with my dogs for company. Sometimes there is a tiny twinkle of starlight to see by. Every other sense is heightened as you walk by feel, rather than knowing where you are putting your feet.

I ought to be used to walking in the darkness of an unknown future. I have done that rather a lot over the course of my life, in various ways. Stepping out of all that was familiar, not knowing where the way would lead.     There is a word that best describes these times. Liminal space.

Liminial simply means threshold. The doorway between one way of being & another. Imagine yourself in a doorway looking out – the light is behind you –from the room where all is familiar & recognisable, but all you can see ahead is dark & unknown. Sometimes we are aware a threshold is coming, & see it from afar- other times the world turns upside down in a minute, & we find ourselves on a threshold we never ever imagined or wanted.

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Today we are all standing on the threshold of a new year. A new church year – because the church’s calendar is different to the one used by the world. It always begins on Advent Sunday. Rather than parties & fireworks – Advent begins a time of waiting & preparation towards Christmas, on a much quieter, sombre note.

The first Christmas of world war II, King George the VI faced down his own fears of his stammer to give a radio broadcast to nation & commonwealth in the turmoil & disorientation of war. As he looked into the fear-filled uncertainties & darkness of the year about to start,

he quoted a poem by Minnie Louise Haskings

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’                                                        And he replied,
‘Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

That poem is as relevant to each of us at the start of this new church year, & into 2016 as it unfolds, as it was to those who heard it on their crackly wireless sets in 1939. None of us knows what it may hold, internationally in our war-torn world, nationally or personally. As I will explain more fully at the end of the service, I am leaving here with no fixed future. I don’t know at this point, where God will lead me. No doubt each of us in this building, come to this threshold of a new year with uncertainties of one sort or another.

We heard the choir sing earlier the Psalm set for today, Advent Sunday – Psalm 25. The writer beset by troubles & uncertainties on every side, crying out to God to show him the way through.

“Make me to know your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths… for you are the God of our salvation, for you I have hoped all the day long”

Just before the Gospel, which painted a dramatic picture of a world in fear & turmoil, we sang a hymn echoing the Psalm writer’s thoughts. (Click on the words below to hear it sung by David Archuleta )

Be still my soul; your God will undertake to guide the future as he has the past. Your hope, your confidence, let nothing shake – all now mysterious shall be clear at last. Be still my soul; the tempests still obey his voice who ruled them once on Galilee.

The Advent candle of Hope we lit at the start of this service is a symbol of God’s faithfulness to us. His promise to take our hands, & walk beside us in the dark.

The faithfulness on which the Psalmist knew he could rely.

To you O Lord I lift up my soul; O my God, in you I trust. 

Trusting the trustworthy. Waiting, watching & walking in the dark, knowing that God walks at our side. Hope that shines in our hearts & does not disappoint us.

We prayed together as we lit that first Advent Candle.

God of Hope, you light our path. When we feel drained, defeated, & downtrodden, you tend to our souls. When our bodies & hearts are chilled by personal winters, you warm us by your Spirit’s fire. As we begin this time of Advent waiting, instil in us a hope that carries us through troubled times, as we anticipate the new heaven & new earth that is ever manifesting in our world. It is in the name of the One for whom we wait & in whom we hope that we pray.

As we stand at the Advent Door, what keeps you from hoping?                 What things are you carrying that weigh you down & slow your steps?     We may not see Him in the darkness, but God stands in our deepest shadows hands outstretched, to lead us forward. To carry all that wearies us. He waits patiently for us to reach out & put our hand in His.

The apostle Paul wrote a lot of letters to a lot of churches. People he had loved, cherished & walked along side. This letter to the Thessalonians is believed to be the first one that he wrote.

AD51 – within 20 years of Jesus death & resurrection, to a very early church.

Another word that is often used to describe Advent is LONGING.          Longing as we wait in the darkness for the coming of the Light. Paul writes with a bursting heart – to this small struggling congregation he loves so dearly. He is longing to see them again. He is longing for them to sink their roots deeply into God’s Love & to grow tall & strong – flourishing & sharing that love with each other & the world around them.

Let me read it to you again in a slightly different version.

1 Thessalonians 3: 9-13 (NLV)

How can we thank God enough for you and for the joy and delight you have given us in our praying for you? 10 For night and day we pray on and on for you, asking God to let us see you again, & for Him to fill up any little cracks there may yet be in your faith.

 11 May God our Father and our Lord Jesus bring us to you very soon. 12 And may the Lord make your love for one another and for all people grow and overflow, just as our love for you overflows. 13 May he, as a result, make your hearts strong, blameless, and holy as you stand before God our Father when our Lord Jesus comes again with all his holy people. Amen.

This Advent Sunday, at the threshold of a new year, the threshold of a new journey stretching out ahead of us- I could not ask for a more appropriate Epistle. ( I didn’t choose it – it is simply the one set in the lectionary for today) I could not ask for a more appropriate prayer of thanks & blessing – written by a heart brimful of love & longing. It echoes the feelings in my own heart as I stand here looking out at you all. How I thank God for each of you! How you will continue to be in my prayers as my journey peels off from yours. It has been a privilege to serve & travel with you for these three & half years. Paul’s prayer & longing for the Thessalonians is mine for each of you.

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As we step out into the darkness & go our separate ways – I don’t know where those paths will lead. But I do know this. That the hand that holds mine, is one that I can trust. I also know that His hand holds each of yours & that nail pierced feet walk at our side.

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Journey to joy

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Gaudete Sunday. Avent 3.

How do you get to joy when three days ago you buried a much loved pillar of the church and community, our churchwarden, Diana? How do you do the journey to joy in the tears, the the dark days and the loss?  The following is my sermon from this morning, as I tried to answer..

(The readings from this am were Isaiah 61.1-4,8-end 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24 and Gospel John 1: 6-8, 19-28)

Isaiah 61 (NRSV)

61 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
    and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.

For I the Lord love justice,

    I hate robbery and wrongdoing;[b]
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
    and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
    and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
    that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
    my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
    to spring up before all the nations.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets,[a] 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil.

23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound[b] and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.              24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

You shall go out with joy.

We sang that through our tears on Thursday. It was Di’s favourite hymn and she would have loved it that we sung it as she left this place. Paul in writing to his beloved brothers and sisters in Thessalonica is for once in his life very succinct, in the passage we have today. You will be glad to hear that I intend to follow suit..

Paul fires off 8 imperatives in 7 short verses and they could sum up all of his many many words and teaching about the wholeness that is at the heart of our life of faith. Wholeness, because if you over emphasise one aspect without the others you can end up on the floor.

3 legged stool

 I made this stool in a woodwork class, some years back, from scratch. Turning the legs and cutting and shaping the seat. It is just a humble 3 legged stool. Nothing fancy. Nothing complicated. But I had to make sure that all the legs were exactly the same length and that I made 3 of them. A two legged stool is a much use as a chocolate tea pot! Like I said, you can end up on the floor.

God who loves each of us so much, so longs for wholeness in our lives. Longs to touch our spirits, souls and bodies with his Peace, his Spirit and his Joy.

Paul starts with Joy. The three legs of his stool are joy, prayer and thanksgiving.

He tells his friends to start with joy. Joy as the fire in the steam engine of their lives that drives the rest. Using that analogy. Perhaps the water is prayer and the coal needed to keep that fire burning is thanksgiving… I don’t know a lot about steam trains – but I do know that shovelling coal is hard work! It also needs to keep happening or the train will simply grind to a halt.

I have a thing about 3’s this am, and the Trinity are of course the most important. 3 legs of a stool. 3 initials that should be applied to any and every sermon (by the preacher) YBHYES, BUT HOW?

HOW do you rejoice when your heart is broken or heavy? When you are tired and there is simply too much too do, and no time or energy to do it all in? When your faith is wobbly, and you are not sure where you are going anymore?

HOW do you give thanks in all circumstances .. ALL circumstances? What planet are you on, Paul? You can’t mean that, surely.

HOW can you pray without ceasing when you can’t find the words, or they stick in your throat or you want to shout rather than pray?

If I want to stand on this stool, I have to make sure it is set on a firm foundation. Slide your eyes down to the last verse of our passage to the Thessalonians..

The One who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

THAT is how. We can’t do it by ourselves. We can’t pull ourselves up by our bootlaces and make ourselves joyful, prayerful or thankful. But we have a God of Peace who wants to ground the very depths of our being in his LOVE and Faithfulness. Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.. (we sang this prior to the Gospel reading)Touch me with your holy fire and set me alight , spirit, soul and body. Paul tells us not to quench the Spirit, because he knows that it is ONLY through the Holy Spirit that we can have joy, peace and thankful hearts. The other name for the Holy Spirit is Comforter. Jesus said he would not leave us alone, but would send us a Comforter. The Bayeaux tapestry has a picture of King Harold poking a spear at one of his soldiers – with the heading Harold comforteth his troops” The old English meaning of the word – encompassing comfort, encouragement, enabling.. but it can often feel like anything but- like a poke with a sharp stick!

How do we give thanks in all circumstances .. only because we know that God can use and transform even the toughest of circumstances for good. The sharpest, most pointy things can be used by him for good. Please note that I AM NOT saying that God sends hard things for our good. I am saying that if we offer those hard things to him he can transform them and us. There is a saying that goes: Life is 10% what happens to us, and 90% how we react to that 10%.                                                                                       We can react with bitterness, the oh,so dangerously, slippery slope of self pity, or by walling ourselves off from God or other people. OR with the help of God’s Spirit we can come to him Just as we are.(Opening hymn) On any given day. UP, down or in between. Fearful, doubtful, tired. Just as we are. We come. We come to the one with nail pieced hands who comes in to the darkest of places and sits with us.

I cannot tell how silently He suffered,
  As with His peace He graced this place of tears,
Or how His heart upon the Cross was broken,
  The crown of pain to three and thirty years.
But this I know, He heals the broken-hearted,
  And stays our sin, and calms our lurking fear,
And lifts the burden from the heavy laden,
  For yet the Saviour, Saviour of the world, is here.   (Closing Hymn)

We will sing those beautiful words at the end of our service this morning.                      ‘The Saviour of the world is here.’ 

Emmanuel. God with us. In it all. The hard bits, the good bits, the boring drudgery bits and the rest.

Emanuel. God with us -spirit, soul and body.  Touching our weary spirits with his peace, lifting our heavy souls and carrying us, in his faithfulness, fuelling our flagging bodies with his joy.

1 Thessalonians 5 (The Message) 

23-24 May God himself, the God who makes everything holy and whole, make you holy and whole, put you together—spirit, soul, and body—and keep you fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ. The One who called you is completely dependable. If he said it, he’ll do it!

Amen.

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