Covenant service.

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2010-01-10 by Jeremy Clarke

Preacher: Sue Haslehurst
10th January 2010
Readings: Exodus 3:1-12; Mark 12:28-34;  Luke 6:27-31 (referenced/quoted later in sermon)

So we begin another year together. We look back over the past year. We anticipate the year ahead. And for us as a church, as we peer out into the coming year, much is shrouded in uncertainty.Of course in some ways the future is always uncertain. We may think we know what is coming but the truth is that everything could change in the blink of an eye. I hope this won’t sound too much like a caricature of Donald Rumsfeld, but there are times when we know that we don’t know what the future holds and other times when we have an illusion of certainty and don’t know that we don’t know what the future holds.

But right now we know that we don’t know what the future holds for us as a church. The question of where we will worship on Sundays is still wide open. And by the time we say goodbye to Ed & Phyllis we will in the space of just one year have lost seven North Americans who have been very much part of our community and we will need to find new paths without them.

So I’ve been trying to think of characters in the bible who experienced uncertainty and thinking about what we could learn from them.

Exodus 3:1-12 (NIV)
3 Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.
2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up.

3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”

4 When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”

And Moses said, “Here I am.”

5 “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”

6 Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

7 The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.

8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.
9 And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them.

10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

12 And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”

And I thought of Moses in Exodus 3. Every time I read this passage I am struck by God’s response to Moses’ uncertainty and reluctance. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” asks Moses plaintively. This isn’t Moses’ last question or objection by any means, and God gradually gives him more and more concrete reassurance, but just look at God’s first response: “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

That response asks a lot of Moses. “Just get on with doing the impossible task I’ve given you and after you’ve done it all you’ll be grateful and you’ll realise that I was with you all along.” It’s quite a different response from, for instance, the one Gideon gets when he sets up a series of elaborate tests to show him whether it was really God speaking to him and whether God would really rescue Israel from her enemies. (For those of you who may not know or remember those stories from Judges 6, God obligingly works through all the tests till Gideon is convinced.) And Moses does in due course get some much more specific encouragement and guidance.

But I think it is helpful for us to remember this strand of the story of how God interacts with the people he calls, the way God expects Moses just to do what he’s asked and let his questions be answered along the way. In a rather less frightening but surely more puzzling instruction, Jeremiah is told, with no explanation, to buy, wear and then bury a linen loincloth. Then some time later he is told to dig it up. Only then does God give him the prophecy for which the now rather manky loincloth will be the visual aid.

What I think this tells me is that it is OK if sometimes we don’t know what is going on or why. It doesn’t mean God isn’t with us and it doesn’t mean things will never make sense.

Now the most awake of you may be wanting to point out that even if Moses and Jeremiah didn’t know the full story, they both had very clear instructions from God to get to work on. It’s all very well saying that they just got on with doing what God had asked them and only much later had the certainty that God had been with them and that there was a point to it all, but they did have some basic direction. What if you don’t even have the clear instruction in the first place?

One of the things that I have found hard about the lengthy church decision process about where to worship on Sundays is that I couldn’t ever say for sure “this is what God wants us to do”. Over time I came to the view that we should ask to worship at the London Mennonite Centre (LMC) for a variety of reasons but none was a clear instruction direct from the mouth of God. So if we’re a bit in the dark about how the future will pan out AND we don’t have a clear instruction from God, what are we supposed to do?

Well, I think one answer is simply to be faithful. It can be a real test of our faith finding the faithfulness and maturity to keep on seeking to serve God even when we’re not getting lots of exciting concrete instructions from God day by day, as perhaps some of us experienced in earlier days of our relationship with God. (Some of you will be aware of various ways of mapping the stages of faith and maybe the personality of this church is partly shaped by the fact that many of us have been Christians a long time and are in the later stages of faith.)

Luke 6:27-31 (NIV)
27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.
29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them.
30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.

31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Mark 12:28-34 (NIV)

28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.

30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’

31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him.

33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

So even if we don’t have clear instructions from God on our worship location, there are some instructions that are clear. The sermon on the mount from which we heard an extract is just one example: “love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return”. Or there’s the “greatest commandment”, to love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength and your neighbour as yourself. In our sermon series on poetry and wisdom literature in the Old Testament, we looked at the book of Proverbs which Walter Brueggemann suggests is an exploration of how to be faithful in the routine of settled daily life once God is no longer putting on dazzling displays of intervention to establish Israel in the land or rescue her from her enemies. So Proverbs too may provide some guidance on faithful living.

So one response to uncertainty or to the apparent absence of particular leading from God is just to seek to live faithfully, just to put our heads down and get on with obedience in daily life.

But I think there is a risk here, and maybe the mention of Proverbs has already set some of you thinking along these lines too. Because I can’t help thinking of Proverbs as a largely conservative book with quite a small-scale, domestic vision. I wonder whether, as we press on faithfully, we are in danger of taking only the old familiar paths of obedience and missing new paths or even of viewing the new as a diversion from faithfulness.

We are a church that values tradition and our heritage as we see ourselves in the line of God’s people from ancient Israel, through Jesus and the early church to the 16th century Anabaptists and then those who were so influential in the founding and shaping of this particular community. But, whether this year we start to worship at the LMC or stay here and have to adjust to a new phase in our relationship with the LMC, we may need to forge some new traditions and some new ways of thinking and being.

We start the year by voicing again our commitment to God and each other in the words of the covenant and in communion. Though some questions are wide open, let us seek to follow faithfully God even in that uncertainty, in the dark as it were. Let us trust that in due course we will find that God was with us all along and has a purpose for us which we may not yet discern. And as we seek to follow faithfully, may we at the same time be free and willing to embrace the new as part of our faithful following of Jesus.

Teach us Your ways, O Lord, and let us walk in Your truth.
We put behind us our stubborn independence, and turn again to You.
Now let us willingly fasten ourselves to the God of covenant:
That we be Christ’s, and Christ be ours.Christ has many tasks for us. Some are easy; others are difficult.
Some bring honour; others bring reproach.
Some are to our liking, and coincide with our own inclinations,
and are in our immediate best interest; some are just the opposite.
In some we may please Christ and please ourselves;
In others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves.
Yet the power to take on all of these is most definitely given us in Jesus;
for it is He who strengthens us, and comes to help us when we are weak.

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