Sunday, 4 January 2015

Seeking the seekers

Epiphany Sermon

Ephesians  1:3-4 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.  
Matthew 2:1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 

How do people find Christ today?
It’s something that we should seriously consider now that believers who practice their faith are in something of a minority in the UK today.
If so few of us are in church week by week, that means outside the Church are many who might be seeking, for truth, for love, for meaning, for God perhaps. How will they hear the Good News in a way that means something to them?
It makes sharing our faith with those who don’t know Christ much more of an issue.
How well equipped are we to share the Good News of Christ with our friends and neighbours who might not know him?
The reason our thoughts turn to those outside the faith today is because it’s Epiphany – the revelation of God’s glory to the Gentiles – i.e. those who were outside the Jewish faith.
The Magi, we are told, came from ‘The East’.
They were not part of God’s chosen people; nevertheless they were seeking, and they were spiritually open.
East of Jerusalem would probably be modern day Iraq or Iran, formerly known as Persia.
How did these Magi know that the star they had seen indicated a Messiah, a King?
If we think about the Old Testament, we recall that God’s people were exiled to Babylon – you’ll be familiar with the prophet Daniel, who along with his three friends, Shadrak, Meshak and Abednego, served under the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar (he of the enormous gold statue, the fiery furnace and the subsequent incongruous conversion to the Living God).
It’s thought that because of the exiled Jews in Babylon, the Hebrew Scriptures were still available, and that the wise men who’d spotted this new star had somehow identified it with the coming of the Messiah, foretold in the those Scriptures (I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; a Star shall come out of Jacob; a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17). 
So these outsiders, these Gentiles seeking a Jewish King, had decided to set out and try and find the king.
In their search, their first move was to study the Hebrew Scriptures and study the sky.
So how are people carrying out their spiritual searching today?
Possible not by those means, but there are many others...
By and large they’re probably not searching in the Churches, however, which poses a challenge to us.
As you look around, observe people in this village, their habits, their hopes and fears; what form does their spiritual search take?
Who are the people you are praying for, asking God to give you a chance to share the Good News?
Here are some observations I have made about those who for whatever reason do not come to Church:
Older generations still sometimes maintain a nominal association with the Church, though they only attend infrequently, and some return to it in times of need, or when they are nearing death.
They still have a faith but it may have ossified, or got stuck at a school child phase, or there’s some sadness that holds them back from a God they once believed in.
Largely speaking those in the younger generation (50 years old and below) have concluded the Church is not the place to seek for spiritual food.
This is a group of largely un-churched people – even in 2004 this group was identified in The Mission Shaped Church Report as upwards of 40% of the UK population - we might have brief daily contact with someone from this group, or know them from neighbourly interaction.
How can we be part of their search for spiritual food?
  • Open our eyes – ask God to give you spiritual insight to see who is seeking
  • Pray! Pray for neighbours We need a locality based prayer scheme – would like someone to take this on – a road from the parish prayed for every week in church.
  • Hunger for God yourself: A spiritually seeking person is alive and vibrant. They speak about faith in a natural convincing way because they’re living it day by day. Sooner or later people will want to know what makes us tick, but we have to be living the life of the Spirit first! 
  • Think of yourself as a witness to Jesus: If you’re not sure of what God has done for you already, read that Ephesians reading and see yourself in that list of blessings!

The Wise Men were on a spiritual quest – they had a starting point; the Messianic references form a dim and distant past – a star in the East.
Their journey was far from straightforward.
They assumed that Herod would know about the new king of the Jews.
They were taken in by his pretence at wanting to know too.
They needed divine intervention – they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod.
Do we believe our un-churched neighbours could receive divine intervention? They might if we pray for them!
God is not above sending dreams to unbelievers – Pharaoh in the Joseph story; King Xerxes in the Esther story (he’d failed to reward Mordecai, God's dream to him led to justice for the threatened Jewish).
Once someone’s on a search, they can be very open to spiritual happenings.
I have heard too many stories from the relatives of those near death to doubt it.
We must resist the assumption that everyone in church has arrived and all those outside are 'outside'.
God is calling us all to prayer and to hunger after him for ourselves and on behalf of others.
You are only here today (and I am only here today) because someone shared the Good News with you…
One of the most encouraging things we can do is share our own stories of coming to faith – and to develop a culture of doing this. 
Do you know the faith stories of the people in the Church family? How has God been real to you; could you talk to someone outside the Church about it?
We end with one such story of seeking:
How one text changed a woman's life.

'A text message from the vicar on behalf of the whole church was the start of a faith journey for Jane Goddard which turned her life around. The text simply said that everyone was praying.

The prayers were for the whole family (who had recently been victims of identity theft) but especially for Jane and Steve's young son Christopher who was seriously ill in hospital. To make matters worse Steve had contracted pneumonia during this stressful period.
"At the time, I wasn't a particularly religious person," said Jane. "Steve and I both believed in God, though he wasn't a big presence in our lives. In my job as a carer, I had regularly accompanied one particular client to church every Sunday - a young man with learning difficulties. Although, I really enjoyed going to St James Church in East Cowes, I was mainly there because it was my job."
The text actually came from the vicar of St James, the Rev Jonathan Hall.
"I know you shouldn't bargain with God but there and then I made a vow to him that if Christopher recovered, I would worship him with all my heart and soul in future. I also pledged to devote myself to making life better for others - to use my skills and talents to help as many people as I could."
When Christopher was discharged from hospital several weeks later Jane immediately signed up for an Alpha course and her faith began to mature. Within a matter of months a new business idea took off and Community Spirited was launched in August 2007 - an organisation that offers caring services to enhance quality of life for vulnerable and lonely people.

Three years on, Christopher is now healthy and thriving. And so is Community Spirited.
Spurred by her Christian faith and promise to God, Jane is determined to run Community Spirited so that she can make a living for her family, pay her staff well, and ensure that all clients are shown genuine respect, love and caring.’
My hope for 2015 is that we’ll be a seeking church – just like the wise men, we’ll set out and not be distracted till we encounter Christ afresh, and we’ll simultaneously keep an eye out for the seekers in this village, and in our wider networks; and we’ll be asking God to empower us to share our own stories and invite others to come and worship him too.

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