St Michael’s and St Barnabas 1st January 2012
Reading – Luke 2:15-21
Who here has received any kind of communication device for Christmas? Who was lucky enough to get something like a mobile phone or a laptop? What about a MP-3 player or a Kindle? Did anyone get something smaller, like a humble fountain pen, or a set of pencils? We live in the age of the so-called communication revolution where they are more and more ways to keep in touch with other, to record and share information, and to spread news fast across the world. Indeed the pace of change seems to be getting ever faster, and what was yesterday’s cutting edge technology is fast getting left behind. Ten years ago I would have been standing here talking about cassettes, and videos, and Walkmans. I have no idea what I will be talking about in ten years’ time, but I suspect even today’s must-have gadgets will seem to be old hat.
So isn’t it good to gather together at the start of a New Year and talk about a form of communication that never changes? I’m talking here, of course, about the word of God. How we share the word of God may change of course – we’ve moved a long way from illuminated manuscripts and handwritten Bibles chained up in churches. But as evangelicals we believe that the word of God itself is timeless and unchanging. It is the gift of our loving Heavenly Father who caused it to be written under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And when we read the Bible as the word of God we believe the same Holy Spirit lives within us to speak God’s truth to us. It’s that fundamental conviction which that drives so much of what we do at St Barnabas and St Michael’s and it’s why we offer so many opportunities for folk to encounter the Bible for themselves. For example:
- Each Sunday we have usually two readings from the Bible, and a sermon based on one or both those passages.
- We offer during term-time our GIFT groups – so called because they aim to help us Grow In Faith Together, by prayer, by fellowship and by reading together God’s word.
- We also encourage folk to read the Bible for themselves, and there are at both churches people who can get you a set of Bible reading notes and other aids to help you understand God’s word better for you.
Our programmes aren’t of course perfect and there’s so much more work we still have to do, such as, for example, teaching our young people more about the Bible. But I’d like to think that if you’ve been coming to our churches for some time you’ve had an opportunity to hear God’s word and read it for yourself. So let me ask – as you look back over the past year, what difference has all you’ve heard and read about made to your life? Can you think of a specific occasion where maybe a verse of Scripture has spoken to you? Or are there ways you can say you have you have grown in your Christian faith during 2011? I’m not asking these questions to make you feel guilty. There’s probably far more you’ve absorbed and learnt than you realise or remember. But I think it is right to take stock, and to ask what difference God’s word really makes to us.
You see, it seems to me that our reading from Luke’s gospel is all about the influence of God’s word.
First of all, there is the word acted upon.
In our reading there are two groups of people who act upon the word of God. First of all, there are shepherds. They heard the amazing message of the angels that: Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. So what did they do? If they had been media celebrities, they would have contacted their agents and waited for the right moment to get maximum exposure. If they were theologians, they would have formed a committee to explore possible interpretations of the angel’s message. But they were plain, hard-working men who simply took God at His word. They didn’t need a committee or an agent. They simply looked at each other, gave the nod and went. As it says in verse 15: Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about. The Lord spoke; they acted. I don’t know where people get the idea that doing what the Lord says is so difficult. At heart the message of the Bible is very simple. It’s only the disobedience of our heart that stops us from putting it into practice and makes it all so complicated.
So there are the shepherds. Who else acted according to God’s word? That’s right – it’s Joseph and Mary. Verse 21: On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived. You see, way back in Genesis 17 the Lord gave Abraham the command that every male should be circumcised on the eighth day and from that time on the Jewish nation faithfully obeyed this law to show they belonged to the people of God. There was no reason why Joseph and Mary should have acted any differently. As Paul says elsewhere in the New Testament Jesus was born under the law, and it was important that right from the beginning of His life He should fulfil the commands of the law perfectly.
We usually skip over this verse at Christmas, but it’s worth dwelling on it just for a moment. We can get this impression that when we talk about God speaking, it’s about Him telling us something new and dramatic. Now God can sometimes speak to us like that, just as He did to the shepherds. But more often God quite simply wants to remind us of what we already know, so we do something about it. Yes, faithful obedience isn’t dramatic. It doesn’t make the headlines. But it’s the best evidence I know that Jesus is ruling in someone’s heart. When a person reads what about the Bible says relationships and puts things right, even at great cost to themselves – or decides to put into practice this business about loving your neighbour as yourself. That’s the kind of long-term stuff that produces real fruit for the kingdom of God, and we should encourage one another more and more in the coming year to put God’s word into practice.
So we have God’s word acted upon.
Secondly, we have God’s word shared.
Let’s go back to those shepherds. They heard the angel’s message; they went to Bethlehem; they found Jesus. And then what? Verse 17: When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.
Notice how naturally the shepherds talked about their life-changing encounter with Jesus. It wasn’t they had been trained in a specific style of evangelism and went out with some high pressure sales-tactic. Nor did they have a minister behind them who made them feel guilty about the number of people they had or hadn’t brought to Christ. No, they simply shared their own experience of coming to the baby Jesus, of realising that this child was their Lord, their Saviour, and discovering that He was the very light of the world come in human form. And that’s why all who heard their message were so amazed. Because it was a very different kind of message from any they had ever heard before. They were used to religious people lecturing them. They were used to politicians and kings claiming a divine mandate for their rule. But here were ordinary, hard-working men who were naturally and in their own language telling a story they could relate to. No wonder their message provoked such a reaction.
Of course the shepherds wouldn’t have had such a message if they hadn’t gone down to Bethlehem in the first place. And this leads to a simple point, that if we are to share the good news of Jesus, we first need a story of what Jesus is doing in our life. Evangelism, you see, was never meant to be about folk anxiously worrying each day when they could find a moment to slip Jesus into the conversation, or thrust leaflets into the hands of complete strangers. If I’ve read this passage correctly, evangelism – the spreading of good news – is about us sharing naturally what we have ourselves have experienced, how we heard God speak to us, how we acted and what we discovered as a result. So don’t try to share the good news of Jesus before you yourself know what it means to trust and obey Jesus for yourself – the chances are, it won’t work.
We have God’s word acted upon. We have God’s word shared. We also have God’s word treasured.
The Christmas story, you see, isn’t all hustle and bustle. In the midst of all the activity around the manger, there is Mary. And what is she doing? Well, outwardly she is doing what any mother would do with a new-born child. But inwardly, something very special is going on. As we read in verse 19: Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.
Can you, I wonder, relate to Mary’s experience? It’s so easy for a church to say it is a Bible-believing, evangelical church. It’s so easy for its members to go through the motions of reading and studying the word of God. But unless we actually treasure it, unless we value it for what it is – personal communication from the very maker of heaven and earth – it will never really touch and change our lives.
Now of course there are parts of the world where the Bible is highly treasured. There are people who prepared to meet together for worship even in the face of arrest or imprisonment or torture. For them, the word of God is so precious that nothing stops them from reading it and doing what it says. In other places there are people who are hearing the Bible in their own language for their first time. Because it is new and fresh and exciting, it is transforming not only individuals, but whole communities. It is often the first text available in the mother tongue, and it conveys the wonderful message there really is a God who cares for them and loves them.
What about us? As you look forward to the coming year, I am sure you have plans and hopes and dreams, indeed you may have shared some of them earlier on in the service. But have you brought them under the word of God? Indeed, do you have a growing hunger and desire to learn about King Jesus in 2012 and to obey Him more? When we were going through the Christianity Explored course last term we spent a lot of time looking at the parable of the sower, and you may remember that parable ends with the seed which ends up with a crop of thirty, sixty, hundred times what is sown. This seed, Jesus explains in Mark 4:20, stands for those who hear the word but accept it. They put down deep roots into Scripture. They don’t get distracted by the desires and cares of this world. Their one desire is to bear fruit for the Lord. I wonder if that description applies to you, to me.
And notice that Mary not only treasured what had happened, but she also pondered them in her heart. Because when we value Scripture and begin to engage with it, we also find we need time to work out how it applies to our lives. The Bible was never meant to be a kind of promise box where you could take a verse out at random, and instantly know what to do. It was written after all to point us to a living relationship with Jesus, and we need to listen carefully to what Jesus might be trying to say to us by His Holy Spirit. Sometimes His words may be clear. Sometimes we need to store them up in our heart and wait for Him to show us what exactly they mean for us.
If we’re still not sure, we need to get into the habit of discussing them with others, and sharing our wisdom and our experience. Let’s, after all, forget, that the Bible was primarily addressed to a community of believers where it was expected that folk would naturally talk about their faith with each other. That’s why, for example, Paul writes to the church in Colossae: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.
And I think it’s significant that Paul also uses the word “heart” in this verse. Because actually folk won’t take the word of God seriously just by hearing a preacher talking about the need to act on it, to share it and to treasure it, although I would like to hope you will remember something of this sermon! If we want to move forward into 2012 as a growing, Spirit-filled church, then we need to let the word of God sink more deeply in our heart, that we look forward to reading God’s word, that we expect the Holy Spirit to teach us as we read, that we look to Jesus to help us obey what we’ve been taught. And when that happens, I believe -whether you have a fresh, new experience of the Lord like the shepherds, or simply carry on living out your faith like Joseph and Mary – others will notice and we will start to bear a crop thirty, sixty, a hundred times what is sown.