Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies
Sunday 24th July
July 25, 2010. Luke 11:1-13, Genesis 18:20-32; Colossian 2:6-15
I was introducing a book of Bible stories to the Waunarlwydd schoolchildren in afternoon assembly a week or so ago. These have been made available as a gift for each child who wanted one from a generous Christian charity – and they’ve all gone – so every child will now be able to build on the incredible work that our Open the Book team have been doing the past year (and our thanks to Julie who’ negotiated our entry into the school to tell bible stories every week – and then to the team: Mair, Christine, John and Antony who have a lot of fun dressing up and acting these out in a way that completely involves the kids – and let’s not forget our Sue Howells who has been a faithful witness there for years.
When I was talking to the children I was saying it didn’t matter which order they read the stories in because they’d all tell them something about God – something about themselves – and about how he wants us all to live…but that they all pointed to Jesus in all sorts of way, even if this isn’t apparent at first.
It can feel as if you’re dipping in and out with some of our Sunday readings – like this one from Genesis. What did you make of that? It’s easy to think that Abraham is being the generous and merciful one, bargaining and pleading with a nasty, vindictive God – trying to calm him down and get him to agree to keep the killing to a minimum. “See”, people will say, “that God of the Old Testament is a vengeful, hateful being.” But actually that’s not what the story is about at all. In the verses immediately preceding the ‘bit’ we get in our set lectionary reading, God is debating about whether or not to let Abraham in on his plan – which isn’t at all about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but about his larger purposes – about how he’s going to deal with the powerful exploiting the weak,; and about how he intends to make Abraham a blessing to ‘all the nations’ – which of course is the big plan to rescue all of us that reaches its fulfilment in Jesus.
So what’s going on in this conversation between Abraham and God is actually a lesson from a skilled teacher (you should see Mair and Chris and Anne in action!). God doesn’t tell Abraham the plan straight off, but he does allow him to discover it, allows Abraham to struggle and set the pace as he comes to realize how much it all matters. (If I’m honest I feel like that a lot of the time – haven’t a clue what’s going on – especially after a week of destruction in the vicarage – and God graciously waits for me to see what he might be about). What we’re being let in on is a deepening of their relationship. What Abraham discovers that as his own instinct for justice and mercy increases, he finds it matched & surpassed by God at every turn. And there seems to be a kind of teasing pleasure in God’s attitude as he dares Abraham to test him further and further, waiting for the penny to drop – waiting for Abraham to realize that what he’s asking for is what God already wants – and was intending all along. Ah... the value of realizing something bigger is going on (getting the bigger picture?). I know I can be pretty dense at times and can get quite upset and immobilized when things don’t turn out like I expected or wanted – and when I haven’t the foggiest why they turned out the way they did.
So it’s a help when Paul starts to unravel the implications of the Cross as the central feature of what God has accomplished for me – indeed for all of us (the whole world) – and what it all cost him. Paul talks about the impact of being ‘found’ in Jesus; being given a new identity. (Now a bit of social psychology...) Some think identity is ‘a given’ – but it’s probably more of a constant reworking in relationship to others. So our sense of who we really are is more about an ongoing discovery, an adventure even (if we’re able to see it that way) - as we discover who we become when we give ourselves more fully to Jesus. Paul says ‘continue to live your lives in him’ And as we live and move though this world we hear all sorts of voices and theories about what we are and what we should be: voices that clamour for our attention - “you are what you own”; “wealth=happiness”; how successful you are in relating to others - all that stuff. But Paul says remember “you have come to fullness in him” Your past identity – all the things you prided yourself on – it’s all been (or being) remade because of Christ’s fullness – in everything
All these shallow, false voices will be shown for what they are. There is only one voice we need listen to. But you have to work at it, remember it, live it. Let that be the voice that shapes you. Let that be the voice that we attend to first and foremost.
Our new identity is revealed in the tender words of a prayer Jesus taught his disciples - with the opening word: Father. Jesus expresses the generous and lavish way the Father gives good gifts to his children. Isn’t it amazing that we have been drawn into that relationship between the Father and the Son – we’ve been caught up in the dynamic pattern of living and loving. So Jesus says “if you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children. how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. “Ask him”, says Jesus - don’t be afraid – “be bold in your petition for the Spirit.” Because he’s waiting to respond, if we knock the door it will open and we’ll discover the welcoming and life changing relationship of Father, Son and Spirit - and begin that journey of self-discovery.
The disciples no doubt had watched and heard Jesus praying, many times, and there’s something about his relationship with God that attracts them and makes them want to learn. Jesus simply teaches them to talk to God: to bring the whole muddle of our lives to him, the sublime and the mundane – so in one breath we can ask for the coming of the kingdom and our daily bread.
It’s in talking to God and listening to what he says, that we get to understand what he’s about. Just like in any relationship - you have to spend time with someone to get to know them. Abraham gets to learn that God is indeed a just judge – and not just as a philosophical idea or concept, but in his own experience – and it changes him.
And did you notice in the gospel reading, Jesus tells a funny story about an irritating friend to get the disciples to see that prayer is something basic - like breathing – part of our day-to-day life – not a thing that’s somehow shut up in a small box to bring out on Sundays, or when we have our backs against the wall and feel desperate for help. Here’s what Jane Williams says as she comments on this passage:
Praying is not something carefully sanitized, so that we bring to God only what we know he will like. Jesus is encouraging his disciples to bombard God, to tell him everything, to talk to him constantly, to involve him in every part of their lives…And as you pester, as Abraham did, as the persistent friend did to the sleepy householder, you will learn more about God, and about yourself in relation to him…You might say the message from all today’s readings is ‘Go direct to God and accept no substitutes.’ It’s so easy to substitute something else for God, often for the very best of motives. We don’t like to show God our incomprehension, or our humour, and so we gladly bring less and less of our real selves to prayer.”
It’s easy to become distant in any relationship; to get stuck with certain stylized responses to another person like you’re disconnected somehow – and it’s the same if our prayers are always formulaic because it probably means we’re knowing less and less about God and how to recognize him.
Notice that Abraham had the courage to go straight to God and question him, and – yes - Jesus encourages us to do the same. God’s big enough to handle our questions. Just read some of the psalms! So in Colossians Paul is reminding the Christians to go direct to Christ, and not let anything else, however good it may seem, get in the way.
As we live out our purpose as a church in this world, we quickly realize that growing as Christians is a process that takes time. We can become Christians in an instant when we receive Jesus into our lives as our Saviour and Lord, but it takes a lifetime to work out what it means to live out our faith. So our focus should not just be on ‘gathering’ (as our diocesan mission statement reminds us) ’ but on ‘growing’ & discovering stuff as a basis for ‘going out’ to share the good news. Notice that the Bible always links information about God with a change of life - we’re to become what we’ve begun.
So let’s get serious about our faith shall we? And if there are questions that have been hanging around for you, or you’d appreciate having someone to pray with you - come and ask, or join the bible study discussion group that Julie will be starting probably during the day in September. Or find out more about the 8 week course on ‘how to pray’. But let’s commit ourselves to growing more like Jesus this next year.
As he ministers to these little churches like the one in Colossi the Apostle Paul has an unswerving confidence in his conviction that it is Jesus the Christ who occupies the centre of creation and salvation;
And if you read his letters Paul doesn’t argue this from the arrogance of his intellect, but (as Jane Williams says) from “a rooted humility” – a servant heart – that, like that of his Lord “is warmly and wonderfully kind”.
Our Lord and God is so wonderfully patient with us – and wants us to grow strong in him, into his likeness, more and more…. Amen.