Monday, 16 January 2012

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Sermon: Pray Together

Acts 2:42-47; Luke 18:1-8

City breaks are all the rage at the moment but this is not a new idea. In the 186o's a group of 5 young students went for the weekend to London. When Sunday came around they could think of nothing better then to go and see the famed Charles Spurgeon preach. So keen were they that they arrive early, so early in fact that the church doors weren't even open yet. On seeing them waiting for the doors to open, a man approached and greeted them, “Gentlemen, let me show you around.” Asking, “Would you like to see the heating plant of the church?” It's not the most exciting offer that you could receive and even less so as it was a rather hot day in July anyway. However, being the polite gentlemen they were they didn't want to offend their host so they consented. The man took the gentlemen down a flight of stairs and quietly opened a door, whispering “This is our heating plant.” The gentlemen looked at each other with surprise for inside was not a boiler, a furnace or anything of the like but rather around 700 people with their heads bowed in prayer asking for God's blessing on the service which was shortly to begin. The man gentle closed the door and said to the gentlemen. “I must apologise, I haven't introduced myself yet. My name is Charles Spurgeon.”

In our Acts reading today we've heard about the first church to form. Of course there was no church building and in fact the term Christian hadn't even been invented yet. They were simply Jews that followed the Messiah, Jesus. He had ascended back to the father and here was left his little band of followers. This then was a simple church. They met together daily, they ate together and celebrated the Lord's supper, and they prayed. All they had they shared, no matter what it was. Here then was more then a group of individuals who loved Jesus, rather it was a family. Church as it ought to be. Now of course you can have biological family who feel more like a house of strangers then a family so there is obviously more going on here then having the same heavenly father. A family is bonded by mutual interest, by supporting each other, by love, by shared experience. Love and bonding are not passive things: they are active, taking effort to achieve and sustain.

The church has the privilege of sharing Jesus. We believe because others told us, who believed because others told them and so on, a chain that reaches all the way back to Abraham or slightly more immediately to the apostles and the early church we have just heard about. It would have been easy to keep quiet. A group whose leader was rejected by the religious leaders and much of society, and then killed. In fact we hear that is exactly what they did, hid in that locked room until the risen Jesus appeared among them. The likelihood is that they would be treated with suspicion at best and killed at worst, well I say likelihood but we know that is exactly what happened. Fortunately for us they spoke up and the spirit worked powerfully in those first days for we hear that as they shared Jesus there was more then just a few converts. People were being saved everyday, sometimes just 1 or 2 but on one occasion we are told more then 3000 people began to follow Jesus because the holy spirit moved and Peter spoke up. There was something different going on here as this wasn't the first group to claim that the messiah had come, yet suddenly people were coming in droves to follow Jesus. There was something about this new community that was attractive to those around. This new community was genuine. They cared for each other and lived out what they spoke. They cared for those around them and sought not to condemn people but to redeem them trough Jesus. It was a community of sincere love rather then hypocritical piety. It was also a community whose words were accompanied by actions, some were noticeably supernatural like healings and some were seemingly natural like prayer. Either way the people saw that there was more to this community then just a band of people because God was at work there.

There is loads that can be drawn from the passage, but today we are going to focus on just one aspect of that early life. It's something which is vital to a church if it is to be healthy and grow both in quantity and quality: It's prayer. Prayer is the theme for this week and next weeks service. Next week we'll be looking at what prayer is and how to pray but this week I'd like to focus on a specific aspect of prayer, namely corporate prayer.

Your first thought may be something like “Why do we need corporate prayer when I can pray on my own?” Which is of course a valid question. In a sense prayer is an individual matter. We require no-one else around to pray any more then we need people around to eat. Although this is true, it is merely eating when we are on our own but it can become a meal when we eat with others. The event which is in itself solitary is improved on when it is done with others. It becomes more then just the mere act and becomes something more then just individuals eating in a room together. In the same way prayer, although it can be done alone, is a different experience when it is done collectively and becomes more then just individuals praying in the same room. This then is the first reason that corporate prayer is so important: it is a relational event. We can share with one another our joys and sorrows and bring them collectively to God. In the same way a family grows by sharing together, so does the church. We have all known times when we want to pray but find ourselves unable, then we can pray for one another, or times when you just want to burst with praise and seek others to join in, then we can pray together.

We all pray. Even if for most people it is a muttered plea in a moment of panic. It is innate in us. The hope is of course that those of us who call ourselves Christians pray regularly, may I dare say daily. It is a relationship thing, not that God may be our slot machine but that we might know him better. Anyone that only spoke to another person to get something would be far from regarded as a friend, rather we speak to develop our friendship, to share, to encourage to build one another up. In the same way prayer is a relational device. It is the mere act of conversing with God. I use the word 'mere' not to belittle the act of pray but rather to emphasise how simple it actually is. It's funny then how such a simple thing as talking, which the majority of us manage quite respectfully every day, perhaps a little too much in some cases, can suddenly be so hard when it comes to talking to God.

This then is the second reason that corporate prayer is so vital: we encourage one another to pray. Many of us take part in group exercise at the gym or moves, or whatever you do. It's not that it cannot be done on your own for the most part but because its easier to do when others are joining in. The same is true of prayer. Where our mind wanders and gets distracted on our own, when we are praying with others our minds can become focused on their prayers, which in turn focuses our mind back on God.

There is a picture that's going around the internet (See above), “Prayer: How to do nothing and still think you're helping”. The truth is that for most people they may agree in public but as we have seen and I'm sure you've hear elsewhere, most people pray. We may be disheartened at the lack of hope that this expresses but the truth is I wonder how much this is our fault. We saw in the reading earlier that the community was attractive to those outside to the point thousands were converting. I'd suggested that at least one aspect of this was sincerity. When this community said it believed something it lived a way that showed it did. So when they said that God loves his people, when they said that God is present and changes lives, when they said that God hears us when we pray, when they said that God wants us to play our part in his story, they meant it and showed it. If it was just words and nothing more then they would be guilty of the same thing that Jesus condemned the religious leaders for at the time. Just empty words. Rather they met daily, the shared life together, they shared Jesus with others and the constantly prayed together.

So as for us, if we say that we believe in the power of God in prayer to change us and to change the world and we don't pray then what are we? And if people do not see that we are a church that prayers then what will that say to them when we say that God hears our prays and wants a relationship with us? It will be just empty words. Just another religion built of self and emptiness. Thirdly then, Corporate prayer then is a witness to new believers and to those outside that God hears and answers our prayers. That God calls us into relationship with him. That when we speak of who God is we truly believe it because our lives reflect when our mouths preach. It is also a witness to one-another and to ourselves that we truly do want God to change the world because we say together “God, change the world and start with us”.

So then friends, I say this boldly: Do not give up meeting together and praying together. Yes on a Sunday but more so: At small groups, with a coffee mid-week, with your family, at Wednesday morning pray and of course the church prayer meetings on the first Tuesday on the month. Build one another up, support one another's prayer life and be a witness to the church and to the world.


Till Next Time!

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Still I will say, 'Blessed be the name of the Lord' - A New Year's Day sermon

Habakkuk 3: 16-19; Matthew 26: 36-50

El Salvador was a country torn by greed and corruption; 40% of the land was owned by 14 families with 90% of the country’s wealth owned by 0.5% of its people. On the 15 August 1917 a baby was born to a regular and typically poor family, in a small city. Shortly after, the baby was baptised and bought up in the faith, spending much of his free time growing up in one of the two churches in the city. At this time many believers were being persecuted even to the point of death and assassination. At seven he contracted a life-threatening disease but slowly recovered. He was only educated till 13, although that in itself was for then average. He was trained by his father in carpentry as academia very rarely lead to any work but at the age of 14 he left home by horse to begin his calling to ordained ministry in the church. At 25 he became ordained and worked as a parish priest in El Salvador. His eyes were opened to the extreme injustice that was all around him and was known for his hard stance on ethics and justice. Progressive reforms were being issued as the church stood with the people in criticising the government. In 1974 he was made the bishop of the diocese of Santiago de María, where his home city was. The following year the national guard raided a village in his diocese, killing and mutilating the inhabitants. At the funeral of one of the victims, he spoke up against human rights violations. Shortly after, his friend, another priest who was out spoken against the government was gunned down. He buried his friend, although he was not given governmental permission to do so and the next Sunday cancelled all services though-out the country, except one: A mass service, conducted outside the cathedral for all to see. Over 100,000 people turned up to see and hear what he had to say whilst government groups were leafleting: “Be a patriot: Kill a priest.”. For the next three years he spoke up against injustice and received a steady stream of death threats. On Sunday, March 23, 1980, he went to a quiet place to pray then phoned a local news paper to say his goodbyes, telling people that the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. At the service he was speaking, as usual, about how the gospel speaks against injustice including a famous call for the government to repent, "In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression." The following day, during mass, after speaking about the need for a seed to die for wheat to grow and bring a harvest he was assassinated by a single bullet. His name was Oscar Romero, the Salvadorian martyr.

Believe it or not we are still in the middle of the Christmas season. We’ve written cards with “Merry Christmas and a happy new year” inside, or something like that. They may even depict in picture or maybe even in words the cry of the angels “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” It is the season of good will to all mankind and dream of a wonderful season full of parties and rest with friends and family. We also look forward to the new year and hope that it is better then the one that’s gone before, full of hope and expectation for what the new year might bring for us, pregnant with potential. Movies at this time of year particularly are full of happy endings and things that turn out alright in the end. The problem is that things in real life don’t work that way. All of us have bad days, weeks, months and years. For those of us whose year has been wonderful we rejoice in that and look forward to another, but for those of us whose year has bought pain and disappointment the clichés can feel painful and the thought of a new year evokes pain and fear. I think most of us can probably relate to these feelings and if you cannot, although I pray you won’t, you almost certainly will one day. The world is full of wonder and awe but also of pain and disappointment, and no-one is exempt. We like to think that if we are good enough or nice enough, if we do the right things and work hard, or we worship regularly enough then we will have a long and happy life. It was, and in some cultures still is, common to think that if we succeed then we deserve it and if we suffer, we deserve that too. The problem is reality just doesn’t share the same thought. There are plenty of good, loving, kind people, like Oscar Romero, who suffer miserably and plenty of evil, cruel, and twisted people who know little or nothing of pain and struggling.

The Jewish people thought very much like this. They were God’s special people so of course God would protect them and give them financial security. If people were poor or ill it was because they weren’t religious enough and didn’t do the right things. You may remember the disciples shock at being told it was hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven because they thought the rich were the ones that God blessed the most. Constantly though we see another picture. The Jews are constantly in trouble. The big two are Exodus and Exile: Exodus, where God saved his people who had been enslaved to hard labour in Egypt, and Exile where the Jews had been invaded, captured and taken to Babylon. The book of Job addresses this subject too. Job looses everything, except his own life, and his friends try to help him by saying that he had done something to deserve it and to repent but Job is insistent that he is innocent. It turns out he is right. He is vindicated by God although he is not given any more answer to why, then to trust in God and his ways.

Our OT reading this morning was from a book called Habakkuk. He was a prophet who was troubled by the unfaithfulness of his people and their abominal behaviour. The book starts with Habakkuk complaining at God in the same way many of us still do today, “How long, O lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?” and “Why do you tolerate wrong?”. God's answer is 'patience'. “I am doing something in your day that you would not believe even if you were told”. God was telling of the exile, that extremely dark but important period in israels history. Habakkuks message is a call to faith. You have forgotten God and follwed idols, he says. Stop and return to God. Have faith in him and trust. That is where we get to our reading for today. Despite the darkess that is to ensue and the seemingly hopeless situation, Habakkuk chooses to trust in God because he knows who He is. It is not that Habakkuk thinks he will have a better time then the rest for, as we have already heard he has suffered and knows he is not immune but realises that either he can forget God and worship wood and stone which is powerless or he can remember God, the mighty God who loves and remembers his people and is mighty to save.

We see the pinnacle of this, as in many things, in Jesus. We know Jesus as the God-man, the one with whom the father is 'well-pleased', the perfect, the righteous. If there was ever one for whom the common thought should be true then it should be Jesus, the truly blessed one. We would expect to see him healthy, rich and happy. This however is not what we see! He is no richer then the average man, he was born running for his life and became a refugee, he was hated by those who you would expect to be his closest allies, he had no real home to speak of, he had few close friends and of those whom he did, one betrayed him and of course he died an early, unjust death of the most horrific nature. In our gospel reading we peek at him at his lowest moment. He feels crushed by the weight of expectation and the severity of what is to come. He takes his closest friends with him for comfort and support and they continually fall asleep. Alone in the garden he prays, “Father, if its possible take this away from me”. This is not an easy or happy life!

This year friends perhaps we will feel like Jesus, over-whelmed by all that is expected of us or scared by the prospect of what is to come. Perhaps we are praying to have something taken from us yet it remains, or perhaps we are just praying in general that we might have evil taken from us, as we do everytime we say the Lord's prayer. Perhaps we are tempted to just walk away and leave our worries behind. Remember Jesus, our example. Things were not going how others expected yet he trusted in the father. It meant great pain and loss from his part but he still trusted. He could have walked away but trusted in God and that all things work together for the good of those who love him, even if it means pain now. God never promises to take all pain and suffering from us this side of the new creation but he promises to be with us, just as the father was with Jesus in the garden and how he was with his people in exile.

Belief, faith and trust are not abstract principles. They are not things we believe despite the evidence but they are things we actively do. To know God, to know his character, when things are good. To build a relationship and a trust in what he does so that when he seems quiet, when the world seems too much to bear, we have a foundation to work on. C.S. Lewis once said that “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” Are we willing to trust God even in the pain, even if it means pain? Of course this is not easy or passive. Sometimes we ignore God all year and call on him when something goes wrong and wonder why he is hard to hear. We must get practicing at hearing his voice now, get reading the bible and praying, learning his character so that trust is not blind but reasonable behaviour. We must also support each other. Rejoice together when things are good and mourn when they are not. This of course means a community of friends and family, of openness and trust. When others cannot hear God's voice we can speak words of life to them to hear. When our faith is weak alone, together we are strong. When we stumble on the rocks of life alone, together we pick each other up. And of course, as the apostle Paul tells us, where we are weak, God is strong.

I of course hope that you will have a year of peace but I pray that our faith is strengthened and that we trust in God no-matter what 2012 brings. In a moment we will listen to a song that speaks of trusting in God no matter the circumstance. I hope that this can be a reminder to each of us this year in the good and the bad. Have a read of the words and dwell on them. It's called 'blessed be your name'.

Till Next Time!