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Free Gift: Sunday Sermon 17 February 2006

Posted by Dr Moose in Uncategorized.
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(Category: faith)

It may or not be true that people who blog suffer from the delusion that the world really wants to know your every word or thought.

It certainly is true that a complete record of previous sermons going back many years can be invaluable to the tired, stressed, uninspired or sleep-deprived preacher. Hence my delight on discovering this morning a sermon that I feel I can use almost verbatim on Sunday.

Please forgive me my vanity but I think it’s one of the best I’ve ever been inspired to write. So I’ve posted it all below. I hope you find it useful. Would any members of my congregation please look away now!

(Extra points will be awarded for spotting the opportunities for the use of visual aids, spotting the original date and lectionary, and being able to tell me in which city it was preached!)

Enjoy!

Imagine that a friend who’s been abroad on holiday has given you a box of chocolates. There’s one slight problem: there’s no little note inside telling you what they are. Now take one at random and see what it tastes like. Good? Or bad? If it was good what are you going to do. Look for another one like it, or try something different? And if it was bad would you reject the whole box, or try your luck with something else?

Well, I’m sorry to say that I’m not about to start giving out any more random chocolates. But the picture is relevant this morning, even if you’re wondering what it has to do with the readings. Sometimes we treat the Bible like a box of chocolates, pick the bits we like, ignore the bits we don’t. Sometimes, the lectionary, our programme of readings, puts some very different flavours together which don’t seem to work. For whatever reason we usually concentrate, or start, from just one reading. So just for a change this morning lets try looking at the bigger picture.

The passage from the Old Testament reflects the traditions of the Jewish wisdom literature. Proverbs is chock-a-block full of sometimes contradictory statements about how to live, how to get things right. Some may seem obscure to us, and others just plain wrong. Underlying the literature though is the conviction that Wisdom provided the best way to live this life. As Proverbs 9:10 says, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. It’s all about right living.

Our reading this morning is a hymn to wisdom. But wisdom is an abstract quality, it can’t be touched like a table. Proverbs changes the abstract, wisdom, into a person, a woman, sometimes called Lady Wisdom. She exists before the rest of creation at the side of God and rejoices the works of God. Wisdom becomes a person.

There before the oceans and springs, quite literally older than the hills, before the heavens and the clouds. There was, and is, wisdom.

The intention isn’t in the creation of another god, a sidekick for the Almighty, but to emphasise just how important wisdom is. Nevertheless a powerful image developed through Jewish thought: wisdom built-in to God’s order and not just an extra.

Wisdom was not apart from creation, but a part of the creative process.

Our New Testament readings, both the Epistle and the Gospel pick up on the Proverbs reading, and build upon it. They don’t just compare Christ to Wisdom, but they apply the acts and nature of wisdom to Jesus himself. The author of the Gospel takes his example from the Jewish scriptures and in them sees Jesus, the Word of God. He asserts that “through him all things were made”. To say that this is a radical claim is something of an understatement.

In this introduction to his Gospel John sets the scene, on a cosmic scale, for the role of Christ in the redemption of humanity, providing his local churches with the story of Jesus. People walk in darkness or light, and Christ calls people into the light. Coming so soon after Christmas the reading is a familiar one.

Paul, in his epistle to the church at Colossae, picks up the theme. The purpose of the letter is to encourage the church in its faith and devotion. To ensure that no-one was taken captive “through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of the world rather than on Christ. “(that’s Col 2:8). He is depicted not only as the image of God, not only as the prime actor in creation and redemption. He is the complete sovereign ruler of the universe, over everything, seen and unseen, holding all creation together.

Paul illustrates that Christ is the image of God, and the highest power in the universe.

Jesus was not apart from the creation, but a part of the creative process.

Now, I’ve outlined the point and meaning of the texts. Given us an overview. But, and here’s the key question, what do they mean for us, for me? As an old film said, “What’s it all about, Alfie?”

A wise preacher said once that an important thing to do is to get inside the text. Not as if you’re using a can opener; not necessarily by studying the original Greek. Possibly the question is rather simpler “Where am I in the text?” Or, sometimes, “Who are you in the story?”, not ideally, but really. Too often with stories, we stand outside them and look in. Most fiction is written like that too. It gives us everybody’s thoughts and feelings, as if we are God.

And so, yesterday I asked the question. “Where do I stand in the text?”

And I looked. And I scratched my head.

And looked some more.If you could have seen the thought bubble forming overhead it would have said something like, “But it’s not a story, so I can’t be in it!”

Then the thought bubble was replaced by a light bulb. PING! The readings do form a story, they are part of the story. The story of creation, and I am in it, we are in it.

We are not apart from the creation.

We are the results of the creative power of God. We are part of all that we see around us. And more, we are part of all the things we don’t see around us too. We can only see the invisible through the visible. You can’t see the wind, but you can feel its action and watch the trees swaying. You can’t see God. Only through Jesus Christ – “the image of the invisible God” – and to a lesser degree through those around us, can we see God.

So what does it mean for us if we are in the story, under the text, so to speak? Well, we are somewhere within it. Not just in St John’s Church, Neville’s Cross on Sunday 27th February in the two thousandth year of our Lord. But we are also somewhere in the light, or in the dark, as the Gospel would say.

The implications of this might not be very popular. We can’t simply sit outside the text and judge it when we’re actually inside it. If you want a critical, abstract and dispassionate view of it then you’re in the wrong place. Go and do a Theology degree at the University. I’m not discounting church tradition, human reason and human experience but you can’t be a Christian without recognising the place and authority of the Bible. We can’t simply sit outside the text and judge it when we’re inside it.

The whole thrust of the Bible is not about a “take it or leave it” attitude, as if your decision doesn’t matter. The Bible is rather narrow-minded on that: the message seems to me to be “take it or be left behind”, and that makes the decision matter a lot.

I’ve had to ask myself recently whether I’m within the story, or whether I’ve seen myself as standing somewhere outside it. I blame theology. There should be a spiritual health warning attached to academic training: “Caution: Theology can seriously damage your faith”.

So this sermon’s for me as much as for all of us.

To come back to the point. What does it mean to live within the story, and what does it mean if we want to get back into the story?

It means a shift in our priorities, and that involves repentance, that rather little-used word. Not just saying sorry to God but turning around and going a different way; a change of direction. God, unlike the Highway Code, encourages U-turns.

It means examining the way I spend my time. If I’m too busy to pray then I’m spending too much time on something else. Maybe I need to spend more time with my knees on the floor, rather than my fingers on my computer keyboard.

It means looking at the way I see the world. If I’m too over-run with despair and hopelessness, then I’m not taking seriously enough the message of the Bible, even in today’s readings; Christ who has the supremacy over all things. I need to look for God in the everyday, not just in the best, but also in the worst, and walk with him beside me. I need to use the TV news as a starter for prayer, not a key to despair.

It means a re-consideration about sharing my faith. If I stand in the story and there is a call to move from the dark into the light, then I have a responsibility to tell others in my words as well as my actions about that light. This light bulb is useless without power.

We, however, are not powerless. We are after all (as Genesis says) made in the image of God. When it comes to our place in this world Shakespeare was only half-right, we are not just actors, acting out someone else’s story. Rather we are made in God’s image. We possess some of God’s creativity and imagination. We can be empowered by God’s Spirit. We can write part of the story with his help.

We are not apart from the creation, but a part of the creative process.

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