St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 2nd January 2011
Over the past few days our TV and radio channels have been full of programmes looking back over the events of 2010 and trying to predict what might happen in 2011. The New Year is of course traditionally the time when we do a lot of looking back, and try to glimpse however uncertainly into the future. And I think the reason why we do this is far more than because of the simple fact the date on the calendar changes. The period between Christmas and the New Year is for most of us a time when we stop; when perhaps we have a chance to take a break from the rush and bustle of the past few months, and actually think about all that’s been happening and what might be around the corner.
So what I’d like you to do is to team up with your neighbour, and for a couple of minutes ask each other the following questions:
What for you has been the best thing about 2010?
What are you most looking forward to in the New Year?
I realise however that the past year has not been good news for everyone. We may be going into the New Year with all kinds of questions about our health, or our work, or our family, for instance. Maybe you’ve come here today with all kinds of questions such as “Where has God been in all this?” or “How will I get through the next year?” There are times, aren’t there, when all of us face tough situations, when we have more questions than answers. I recently read a book called My Donkey Body which is all about an Anglican vicar trying to come to terms with, and make sense of, the fact he is dying of Motor Neurone Disease. (Well worth a read, if anyone’s interested).
So how does our Christian faith help us at times like this? Well, I am not going to pretend to offer the definitive answer this morning, but I think a good place to start is with the reading that we always have on Christmas Day: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. These famous opening words from John’s gospel tell us that God has always been there from the beginning. From the beginning of time, from the beginning of our existence, from the beginning of that problem which looms so large at the moment. And the fact the Word – that is, Jesus Christ, has been with God from the beginning reminds us that our God is a God who wants to set up communication and enter into a relationship with us. We don’t believe in a God who simply made everything, and then retreated to a far-away universe to watch us make a mess of everything He created. We believe in a God who wants more than anything else to be involved with and to share in our deepest joys and sorrows, our highest highs and our deepest lows.
The problem is, as John goes on to say, is that so much of this world lies in darkness. John doesn’t explain in so many words what this darkness is or where it comes from. But it shows itself in our failure to let God be God, to only pick and choose those bits about God that we like, to only let Him come into those parts of our lives that we choose. We keep God in a box marked “emergencies only” and actually don’t think that much about Him at all when the going’s good. Or we shut God out of our work situation so that when our colleagues ask us what we did at the weekend we say, “Nothing really” when the reality is we’ve had a great time at church.
Thankfully, as John goes on to say in this chapter: The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it. When John talks about the light here, he is again talking about Jesus Christ. Because actually even when God made the world, He knew that we would turn our backs on Him, that we would try to exclude Him and shut Him out of all or part of our lives. And He already had in mind that He would send His Son Jesus Christ to restore communication with us, to renew our relationship with Him. That’s why we have just celebrated Christmas, that’s why, even now, our thoughts are starting to turn slowly towards Easter.
And if we have put our faith and trust in Jesus Christ, if we have welcomed Him as our Lord and our Saviour, then this should make all the difference to how we view the past and how we face the future. OK, we may not have the exact answers to the questions, “Where has God been in all this?” or “How will I get through the coming year”, but we will have the assurance of certain key truths which will give us light and hope and peace in every season of life. And these are spelt out in our first reading from Ephesians this morning.
First of all, we have been included in the eternal purposes of God. You see, amazing as it might seem, right from the beginning of the world God had a definite plan for you and for you and for me. And that plan was, and is, to bless us abundantly through His Son, Jesus Christ. Do you believe that? That you have a God who actually wants to bless you? I think so often we go round believing that God’s blessings are the exception rather than the rule, or that they’re only for other people, who might be good or clever or wise enough. But Paul makes it clear that God’s blessings are there for everyone who believes and trusts in Jesus. Even as he gives thanks for the church in Ephesus, his first words are: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. Or again, as John finishes the introduction to his gospel and reflects on what faith in Jesus really means, he writes in verse 16: From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. Do you, do I really believe in a generous, giving God who longs to give good gifts to His children? If we did, I think we would have a radically different perspective on so many of the issues that crop up in our lives.
So what are these blessings? Often when we talk about blessings, or have a time of sharing we mention things we can see like our family or the weather or good health. But Paul goes on to make it clear that our deepest blessings come from the simple fact God has chosen us to be His. Now I guess when we read verse 4, it doesn’t sound that much like a blessing: For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. I don’t know about you, but looking back over the past year I can list more examples than I care to mention of when I haven’t been holy or blameless in God’s sight.
But read on to verse 5 (which is really part of the same sentence): In love He predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will. God’s way of blessing us is to make us part of His family, the church, to give us a new identity as His children, and to confer on us the privilege of being His ambassadors here on earth. And looking at it that way, this business about being holy and blameless is less of a duty and a chore, than a response of praise and gratitude to all that He has given us. We have a God who blesses us. We have a God who has made us His children and longs for us to call Him Father. And we have a God who planned all this even before this planet came into being. What else can we do than give Him our very selves in thanks and praise and adoration?
Well, that’s all very well, you may say, but how does that help me in my present situation? In verse 7, Paul goes on, secondly, to explain the present benefits of our relationship with Jesus: In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace. And here I believe we find the very heart of what our Christian faith is all about.
I wonder, how many people were given a gift voucher for Christmas? My brother sent me one for Pizza Express and I have to say, I am really looking forward to redeeming it. Of course at the moment, it’s just a piece of plastic, and it doesn’t have any real value. But as soon as I go into the restaurant and order a meal, it’s true worth will be revealed. And maybe this gives us something of a picture of what it means for us to say we are redeemed. After all, there are plenty of people who feel they don’t have much value. Maybe they are in the grip of an addiction, like drinking or gambling. Maybe they are yearning to be free, but don’t know how.
The good news of the gospel, however, tells us, that whoever we are, in Jesus’ sight we are infinitely, infinitely precious. In fact we are so precious that Jesus died for us, to show to us a love than is greater than whatever is holding us and ruining our lives. Because thanks to Jesus’ death on the cross there really is forgiveness no matter who we are, no matter what we have done. We don’t have to struggle from one year to the next wondering if anyone cares, or if anything can ever change. In Jesus we find we have a new relationship with God, and He gives us the power of the Holy Spirit to change us from the inside. With the result that when we are tempted to go back to the old way of life, when we start to doubt how much we are worth, we can go back to the cross and see just how much Jesus loves us. And even if this is not the situation you are facing this morning, may I suggest that each and every one of us begins this New Year by going back to the very roots of our faith and reflecting on the glorious truth: In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.
Because when we fully grasp just what it means for say Jesus died for us, then thirdly we have a new focus and a new perspective for what lies ahead. For God’s amazing plan to save and rescue us doesn’t just extend from the beginning of the world until now. It extends to the very end of time where, as Paul says in verse 10, all things in heaven and on earth will be brought together under one head, even Christ. Now in the short term of course none of us knows what lies around the corner. There will be joys and sorrows in 2011 that we just cannot see at present, and no doubt there will be times when we will really struggle to make sense of what exactly is happening.
But no matter how confusing and how inexplicable these events may be, if we believe and trust in Jesus, we can have the confidence that we are not simply caught up in a random series of events, or trapped in an endlessly repeating cycle. In ways I cannot I understand, 2011 will in the great and mysterious plan of God will be one step closer to the time when Jesus returns, and His reign and majesty will be seen in all the world. And just like a traveller uses his compass or GPS system to guide him through times when he is confused or lost, so this final point in history should help us to keep our bearings when times are tough.
Of course, you might say, isn’t this just a piece of wishful thinking? Something nice to cling onto even against all the evidence? Well, listen again to the end of verse 13 onwards: Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory. God, you see, doesn’t make promises He can’t keep. It used to be that until a few years ago we would use the expression “to bank on something”, to say that something is a certainty or a safe bet. We have since learnt that even our banks can sometimes fail, and that sadly it is possible to lose the money we have deposited with them. But God is far more secure, far more reliable than any human institution, even a bank. The deposit of the Holy Spirit really is something we can bank on. And one of the ways the Holy Spirit works in our hearts is to keep pointing us forwards, to encourage us to lift our eyes up from all the things that so often distract us, and to show us how to live in light of the certainty of Christ’s return. How much, I wonder, are you listening to the Holy Spirit as you plan for 2011?
However, please note the last few words at the end of this passage which run as a kind of refrain throughout these verses: To the praise of His glory. What’s that all about? Very simply, if we have grasped that we have been included in the eternal purposes of God, if we know that we have been redeemed and forgiven through the cross of Christ, if we are focused on Christ’ return here on earth, then our aim and our ambition will surely be to point others to Jesus. If God has done all this for me, then the only question remains: what can I do for Him? How can I make this coming year one where others see more of Christ and less of self in me? Let’s spend some time listening to the Holy Spirit and then I’ll pray…