Sunday Sermon 13 December- What Do You Do Now?
The chosen hymns for this week, O come all ye faithful, Child in a manger and In the bleak midwinter can be found below along with a transcription of the sermon for those who prefer to read.
What do you do now?
Luke 1: 26-56
Welcome to our time of reflection for Sunday 13th December. Communion Sunday, and the third week of Advent.
By now things are getting near the end.
A lot of presents have been brought, much of the food has been ordered, travel arrangements have been made.
And now there is a deep breath as we take the final moments of peace before the chaos.
Only this year has been nothing but chaos.
And how should we cope?
For some reason I think we misread the Bible here.
Like Mary, she is told cataclysmic news, ‘She is going to be pregnant. Joseph isn’t the father.’
If news of this leaked out she could be stoned to death. And the first people in line to stone her would be her family, her parents, her brothers and sisters, because she has brought great shame to the family.
She may be 14 years old. Her family may kill her, Joseph is threatening to divorce her, she has no one to turn to; and her response...’My heart praises the Lord...’
And because we don’t read it all we think that is how we are meant to react to every act of chaos we face...stoicism, happy contentment, perfect trust.
But I’m not too sure that’s really what the Bible says.
Elaine will lead us in prayers and the full passage that we will be looking at.
Elaine: Reading Luke 1: 26-56
When I first created a worship group that would be trained to lead worship, including sermons and children’s addresses, the most common reaction that I got from those I asked to be part of the group was, ‘I could never do that. I’m not like you.’
To be honest, I just looked at that as an excuse.
What was more interesting was the reaction that the trained worship group got from members of the congregation. The members of the group would come up to me and say, ‘They said “You are so good, I could never do what you do, because I’m not like you.”’
Which they found really weird because a few months earlier they were exactly like them; sitting in the congregation thinking that they could never do it.
There is something in us that is like that. That sees others doing ministry and gives reasons why they can’t do it.
Maybe they truly believe that they don’t have the skill set, maybe it is false modesty, maybe it is just an excuse so that they don’t need to commit themselves.
And you know what, in some ways it doesn’t matter, because we can talk to these people face to face and convince them that they have the skill set or the talents or the commitment to make a difference.
The problem I have though is that too often we do the same thing with Bible characters.
We look at them and say, ‘I could never do that, I’m not like that. They are special, they are different.’
And that is a dangerous attitude.
It is dangerous because it makes the Bible a useless waste of paper.
These people in the Bible are exactly like us, they lived like us, breathed like us, failed and succeeded like us, and because of that we can learn from them, be inspired by them, be taught by them.
If we palm off everything that they did as being caused by them being different, special, more holy, then they have nothing to teach us, so it is a waste of time reading about them, which is maybe why so few Christians bother to read their Bibles.
Because what is the point if they have nothing to teach us?
Here is a case in point.
Too often we read the Bible as if we have rose tinted holy glasses on.
Mary. 12-14 years of age, she has been told that she is going to be pregnant and her son is going to be the Saviour of the world.
How does she respond?
She sings a hymn of praise, ‘My heart praises the Lord; my soul is glad because of God my Saviour, for he had remembered me, his lowly servant! From now on all people will call me happy, because of the great things the Mighty God has done for me.’
We have made her a spiritual giant. What faithfulness, what trust, what resilience.
But we are not like her, we are nothing like her.
We can’t learn anything from her.
What would be even worse is that people might try to emulate her and be like her.
Then they end up either failing and feeling guilty as well as everything else, or looking like there is something wrong with us because we are reacting to crisis in a way completely inappropriate.
I have had to deal with Christians that have had to deal with miscarriages.
And unfortunately some of these people have reacted the way they think that Mary would.
It was all part of God’s plan, everything will work out, we should be happy and rejoice.
They think they are being wonderful examples to others.
Whereas others think they are weird and heading for a breakdown later on.
The sad thing is, the really sad thing is, that that is not how Mary coped.
Mary coped by being real, and acting real, and doing what we should all do in crisis, seeking the practical help that God gives us.
So let us look at this passage again and see how real people, people like us, people like Mary, deal with crisis.
The first thing we need to do is admit where we are.
Every time you start a journey of healing you start by admitting that you are not well.
The first thing the angels says is ‘Peace be with you’ or ‘Stay calm’
Why should the angel say that?
Because Mary wasn’t calm.
I don’t go home and the first words I say to my wife are, ‘Stay calm.’
How would that make any sense in a normal day? I don’t need to say anything like that because she is always calm when I enter the house.
Let’s change the situation, my daughter is pregnant, she has been rushed into hospital with a possible miscarriage. I have rushed over to see how she is getting on and then I go home and as I enter the house I see Roseanna there looking at me with dread in her eyes. And I say, ‘Stay calm.’
Now that narrative makes sense.
So here is the first lesson we can learn, God, and in this case his angel, are smart enough to know where we are. Our fears, our struggles, our worries, are no surprise to God. So we don’t need to be ashamed of them, we don’t need to be guilty about them, we don’t need to hide them from God as if we have let Him or ourselves down.
We can be honest to God in our prayers and in our life.
If you learn nothing else from this talk learn this, pretend Christianity isn’t Christianity, if we are living a pretend life we think God wants us to live, we are not living our lives.
Pretend love, pretend care, pretend harmony, pretend peace is not real.
God can’t help us if we are too busy saying to God, ‘I don’t need your help because I am fine.’ When the truth is we are not fine.
And Mary wasn’t fine.
The angel comes out, ‘Peace be with you.’
And is Mary full of peace?
No, she is a normal human being.
The angel has to say, ‘Do not be afraid.’
Because she is in shock.
Now I have never been spoken to directly by an angel like this.
But I have been had people need to tell me things about my future in a direct way, and I know many of you have been in similar situations and the conversations go exactly the same way.
The doctor says, ‘The tests have come back positive.’
We go into shock.
And then the doctor says, ‘There are things we can do.’
With me it was, ’Mr McNeil. We need to tell you that you have had a heart attack. But we are going to take you to the theatre and you will get a procedure. We are going to see what we can do for you.’
Mary was normal. She reacted in normal ways to shock.
We can learn from her.
And what can we learn?
Well we learn that she didn’t just carry on as if nothing had happened.
Imagine the scene.
You’re 14 years old. You have been told you are pregnant, in that society if you are pregnant and not married then you have dishonoured your family. Your community may stone you to death, your family may be the ones that drag you out in front of the community and start the stoning.
You have a fiancée but instead of supporting you he is going to break it off, leaving you to the judgement of your family. How would you react?
Now the way we have read the Bible we see Mary’s reaction as some kind of saint who just carries on as if nothing has happened. She is going about serenely happy, she just takes it in her stride.
And that is our mistake. For that pretend, perfect, Mary can’t help us in our real life. That Mary is protected from anything that happens in the outside world. That Mary is totally self sufficient; that Mary doesn’t need any help because she has some kind of spiritual force field round her that protects her from all danger and all evil.
And that Mary can’t help us because we don’t have a spiritual force field that protects us from all danger and evil.
I have never been a 14 year old girl that has to tell her parents that she is pregnant. But I imagine that if I ever had been then I would have been terrified of the reaction. So let’s imagine that Mary is a real 14 year old with real emotions.
But then let’s imagine that she is to be our example of how to cope, then what would be a good reaction for a terrified 14 year old in trouble to do?
Maybe get herself out of that situation,
maybe seek the wisdom of someone older, someone wiser,
maybe seek the council of someone who has gone through the same thing or is going through the same thing and can give her practical advice.
And maybe spend a lot of time with that person.
And low and behold, that is exactly what real Mary does.
She goes to her cousin. Elizabeth, in fact she hurried off to her cousin, because the sooner she was under her protection the safer she would feel. Elizabeth would know how to cope with being pregnant for the first time because she was suddenly pregnant for the first time as well. The advantage that Elizabeth had was that she had the support and strength of a partner Zechariah who cared for her. And with that support and help Elizabeth could support and help Mary.
And she didn’t just get a rousing pep-talk to pull her socks up, have faith, and then head back home the same day.
Mary stayed for three months.
Because long term struggles need long term support.
Long term problems need long term solutions, and they all take time.
We walk a dangerous path if we romanticise the Bible and make it about perfect people doing perfect things that we could never live up to and never achieve. That Bible has nothing to teach us, and to be honest isn’t worth reading.
But if we read the Bible the way we should, as a book of examples to follow, dangers to avoid, council to seek, then it has a lot to show us.
In this time of crisis that we are living in, a crisis that has gone on for nearly a year, and the ripples of which will affect us for years to come, we see a way of dealing with our fear, our struggle.
Mary admitted that the situation she was in was out of her control and that she couldn’t deal with it on her own.
Mary knew she needed help and wasn’t so proud as to beat herself up over it and try to cope when she was in a situation which was way beyond her.
Mary sought the help of more experienced friends and family, she spent a long time talking things through with them, listen to their advice, accepting their support and help.
Yes she had a positive attitude, her hymn of praise shows that, but it wasn’t a positive attitude based on some false hope, ‘if only I can pretend to be happy then I will be happy’, it was a positive attitude based on the reality of the help she was getting.
When I had a positive attitude when I had my heart attacks, it wasn’t based on me believing that if only I pretended the heart attacks hadn’t happened then I would self heal.
It was a positive attitude based on the fact that God had inspired all those healers, all those expert surgeons and nurses and physiotherapists and if I listened to them, if I trusted in the skills God had given them, if I listened to the advice of all the friends and family that God had put in my life to help me, then I had the best chance to get through my crisis.
I know it is going to be a tough Christmas for many.
But we can listen to the guidance and example of Mary and how she coped when it was tough for her.
We need seek the advice and friendship of those God has put in our lives.
God has not left us alone with our problems; he is not surprised by our problems.
If we go to Him, he will help, he will put others in our lives to help, and all we need to do is accept it.
Let us pray
Before you know we seek a time of honesty.
In our silence we open up to how we really are...
In our silence we give you our worries about others...
In our silence we are truthful about our wishes for our lives...
May we go forward knowing and trusting that you are with us, seeking your guidance, having the wisdom to follow the inspiration you give us, being truthful to the people you put in our lives to help us.
Let us share in our communion.
If you haven’t already done some maybe you would want to pause the recording at this point and go and get some bread to eat and something to drink...