Ascension

Ascension

2 Timothy 1:3-7, Mark 6:7-13

We are coming to the end of the season of Easter. Tomorrow we celebrate Jesus’ Ascension to heaven, and the following week, Pentecost, where we hear about the holy Spirit coming upon the disciples.

Easter seems a long time ago doesn’t it? Eggs and autumn flowers, chocolate and a holiday. But Easter is a permanent condition in the hearts of those who follow Jesus. He rose from the dead, once and for all, conquering death so it would not conquer us. Every Sunday is a little Easter day, and Jesus’ resurrection is a constant with us. But our church has seasons, – that’s one major difference between the Anglican church and the Pentecostal churches, and it’s part of what drew me back to Anglicanism. In the Pentecostal church, every Sunday was Easter, but it wasn’t showcased, or particularly celebrated, at Easter, and the story of Jesus’ journey to the cross through Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Holy week was often completely ignored. Continue reading

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Sermon: Hope

14 June St Anne’s Porirua

Hope

2 Cor 5:6-17, Psalm 20, Mark 4:26-34

When I set out to write this sermon on Thursday, I was feeling tired, a bit despondent, worrying about my children. But then I started to read Paul’s inspiring words that we have just heard. Always be cheerful! That’s how it starts in the CEV translation.

Always be cheerful! It sounds easy to say, but do you know, it gave me a real jolt. It said, stop having a pity party. The real story is bigger than my problems and your problems. Paul helpfully goes on to tell us why we should always be cheerful – because of Hope.

Hope is a difficult virtue to practise by ourselves, because it takes courage. Courage to look beyond the present, beyond our circumstances, to a brighter future. We know, because we have been told many times in scripture, that we have not yet reached our ultimate destination.

Are we there yet? call out the kids from the back of the car on a long journey. No, we’re not. We have not yet reached heaven, where we can be at home with the Lord. My friends, let your imaginations go on a journey – think about a time when you will no longer be hindered by circumstances, or physical or emotional pain. That’s what it will be like when we reach our final destination. We don’t know whether heaven will be like a great big praise and worship service, or Club Med on a beach somewhere, or praying for everyone still on earth. But we do know who it will be like. Heaven, our final destination, will be like God. Living, all-seeing, all-powerful. And we have hope, through our salvation, what we will be part of it.

That doesn’t solve the problem about life now though does it?

When life has hit you in the face with yet another worry, yet another phone call you dreaded, or another bill you can’t pay, how can we carry on?

Paul tells us that too.

But whether we are at home with the Lord or away from him, we still try our best to please him.10 After all, Christ will judge each of us for the good or the bad that we do while living in these bodies.

Trying our best to please God with everything we do, think, say. Does that sound a bit like hard work? A bit like too exhausting to even contemplate? It might be, if we were only doing it in our own strength, to please people. But remember a few weeks ago, when we celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost? We have the Holy Spirit to help us please God. If we are open to those little nudges of conscience, those quiet voices, those hints, we can be guided in the right path. Our own habits develop as we follow God’s will, and it becomes instinctual.

Remember too, that we strive to please God, not people. People are capricious and changeable. I know I am harder to please when I have a headache, – it takes a lot of wonderful child behaviour to get through the Grumpy mum syndrome. Or so I speculate – I’m not sure it has ever happened…

Think of God as someone who is completely head over heels about you. Like a grandparent with their first grandchild. We are completely loved, adored, cherished. And, even better than a besotted human, God doesn’t seek to change us. God accepts us as we are, warts, exhaustion, grumpiness and all.

Our society seems to be fixated on what others think of us. It causes a lot of difficulty for our children as they grow up, trying to negotiate the popular versus unpopular dynamic, trying to be accepted. It gets too hard, and people are hurt. Don’t worry about trying to please people. You can never please everyone, so just focus on pleasing God. It’s a lot easier! If someone is grumpy with you, let it be between them and God. As we trust God to guide us, we can leave other people to God too, and just focus on loving them.

Verse 7 of today’s psalm reinforces our trust in God, rather than in things of this world:

Some people trust the power
of chariots or horses,
but we trust you, Lord God.

 

Let’s think about hope some more. It can start out very tiny, just like a seed. I love the parables about seeds, because I am a keen gardener.

I bought some seeds recently for my favourite annuals, lobelias. I really like the dark blue ones with the white splash, and I thought that seeds would get me more plants for my money. The lobelia seed packet said ‘contains approximately 1000 seeds’. Wow! 1000 of my favourite plants! As you can imagine, the seeds are so incredibly tiny that they’re hard to see. Way smaller than mustard seeds. So I sowed them too thickly. After a week or so, tiny hints of green, almost invisible, started to mist the seed tray. Now I have many many tiny plants. Too many.

But just like hope, they need nurturing, and a certain amount of luck. They also need protecting from the cats. I really cannot expect to have 1000 lobelia plants! If I do, I will be donating them to anyone that wants some, so watch this space!

Did you notice in Jesus’ story about the farmer, that the farmer does not know how the seeds keep sprouting and growing? Did you also notice that God does? Hope is like that. Often we don’t know what it will take to make our hope grow, but God does. So we can trust God, and leave it in the hands of the Creator.

Hope can grow beyond our wildest dreams too. If you walk along the road near my house, there is a wild bit that the council mows every so often, and mustard is one of the plants that grows there. The plants get about 1 metre tall at the most, before they have their pods of tasty seeds. In Jesus’ parable, he may have been indulging in a bit of Jewish story-telling exaggeration I suspect. His mustard seed grows into the greatest of all garden plants! And it doesn’t stop there! It provides branches big enough for birds to nest in its shade! Our hope can grow like that too, larger than anything possible by natural means. larger than the normal, everyday surroundings would expect. And our hope can provide for others too, shade, shelter, support. As we let our hope grow in God, we can be part of providing that shade, shelter and support to those around us, as we trust God, cheerful in our hope of eternal life with God.

Our friend Ray had that hope in eternal life with God, and we know that he is with God now. Hope can be what keeps us looking forward, rather than back, knowing that after all this struggle, we will be with God.

But hope is also for now, for our earthly lives. It’s what keeps us going, what keeps us optimistic, what keeps us thankful. We have a life to live here – we don\t want to be so heavenly-minded that we’re no earthly good!

I’ve had to be careful telling children about heaven. When my father died three years ago, I was telling the kids that Grandad was with God now, and he would be playing the organ, and eating pavlova in heaven. The children found this such an appealing picture that they wanted to join him in heaven, so I had to dissuade them from that idea!

We need to develop our hope muscles here, by noticing the resurrection moments, the joys, the answered prayers, the beauty around us.

By abandoning our self-indulgent pity-parties and looking up, beyond the everyday miseries and difficulties, to find the Creator at work around us.

 

 

Sermon: Dry Bones and the Holy Spirit

Have you ever felt really dry in your faith life?

Have you ever felt that you were just going through the motions, turning up at church but not really getting into it, trying to read the Bible but your mind kept wandering? Forgetting to pray?

I think most of us have been through those dry times, those wilderness times. If we don’t have the Holy Spirit with us, we are like dry bones.

We would be like the skeleton of King Richard the Third, which was found a few years ago by archaeologists. They could tell who he was from the particular shape of his twisted spine, and how he died from the nicks on the bones, but the scholars couldn’t tell what he thought, what he did, what was important to him, from looking at the bones left behind after his death. Our dry bones can be a bit like that too, without the Holy Spirit. We need this extra dimension to be truly alive!

For some of us, being born again, being filled with the Holy Spirit, is a sudden and wonderful thing, a bit like what happened to the disciples in the acts reading. It was really obvious that something wonderful, something supernatural was happening. Not only were there tongues of fire on their heads,- a bit like Kevin’s hat – but they could speak in languages so that everyone there could understand! It was a really spectacular thing!

I didn’t have tongues of fire appear on my head when I prayed to be filled with the holy spirit. I was at an Alpha Holy Spirit weekend, and I had heard all about this Holy Spirit thing. I had met people who seemed to have an extra dimension to their faith, and mine seemed a bit dry, a bit lacking. I had been quite comfortable as an Anglican, going to church, but to be honest I probably got as much out of the morning tea afterwards as from the services. But I knew other Christians who seemed to be alive in another dimension, as if my life was on a black and white TV, and theirs was in a 3d movie! I started to want what they had.

When I was asked what I wanted to pray for at the Alpha weekend, I asked to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Hoping, wondering if something would happen, if it was at all possible.

Then I felt a prickling feeling that took over and I fell to the floor, a huge feeling of warmth sweeping through me, and I couldn’t stop crying. The Holy Spirit was filling me up!

I’ve never forgotten that day. Many of you may have had a similar experience, a feeling of knowing the real supernatural power of the spirit flowing through you.

But there are many other ways the Holy Spirit can inhabit us. It doesn’t need to be sudden and spectacular. It permeates gently, coming in where we invite it.

It’s a bit like making candied orange peel.

First you have to rescue the peel from lunchboxes and plates – it’s bitter, leftover, but it’s got potential. Then you boil it in water to get rid of the bitterness, and scrape off the pith, then boil it in a sugar syrup. You let it steep in the syrup. Then you make a stronger syrup and repeat the process several times, until the peel is translucent, every cell filled with the sweet syrup, but still also tasting of itself. That’s why candied peel is so delicious!

Our lives can be like that too. We can be rescues from the scrap heap, bitter but full of potential, boiled and scraped, then immersed in the sweet syrup of the Holy Spirit. Heated then steeped many times until we are translucent too, with God’s love shining out of us.

With the real peel of course, you can then dip it in chocolate. I don’t think we can extend our metaphor that far…

One hazard of becoming born again in a sudden and spectacular way is that we can disregard the experience of those who have been steeped slowly in the Spirit for a long time, until they are completely transformed. In some Pentecostal circles, people refer to those who have been ‘born again’ as ‘becoming a Christian’, and see those whose journey is slower and less direct as somehow not Christians. Please be careful not to judge people that way – judge yourself, fine, but other people’s souls are God’s business.

Let’s go back to the reading from Ezekiel. The dry bones came together, were covered again with flesh and skin, but it was only when the Spirit blew life into them that they could come back to life and make a large army! What does an army do? Sit around and polish its guns? Well, sometimes. But an army is for action, for freeing others from injustice! If we have the Holy Spirit enlivening our dry bones, what are we for? Polishing our equipment so we look the part, or doing something useful for the kingdom of God!

The Lord said to Ezekiel, my Spirit will give you breath!

What is breath for? Living, singing, speaking!

Speaking God’s truth to all those who will listen.

That brings us to the Acts reading – the disciples were speaking in whatever languages the Holy Spirit gave them. And all the assembled crowd, from all those hard to pronounce places – well done Helen – could understand!

This is a message for us. We are to speak God’s truth, God’s message in a language that others can understand. Not churchy speak. Not jargon. Words like charismatic, salvation, justification, Alpha, these are technical terms. If we want to be understood we need to use the language God gives us, even if it might not be how we normally speak.

My husband and oldest son have been known to talk computer-speak. The words are all English words, they all have a clear meaning, but the way they put them together makes no sense to a non-computer speaker like me.

Do you know what I mean? I am seeing people nodding…

What Peter had to say to the crowd was interesting, in that it was not a recounting of the Gospel message. Rather it was about prophecy. Remember, the crowd were Jewish, some born Jews, some choosing to follow the Jewish religion. They were in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. So Peter spoke in terms they understood. He went back to familiar prophecy from the book of Joel.

The Jews valued prophecy, they were aware of when it might be fulfilled, and to hear Joel’s words spoken in their context would have been very exciting! They were part of history, something was being fulfilled with them in the story!

Do you notice how God says ‘I will give my Spirit to everyone? Sons, daughters, young men, old men, men and women. Everyone. Not just Jewish people. Not just popular people, not just slim or attractive people. Not just intelligent people. Everyone. The unpopular, the plain, the dull-witted, the refugee, the outcasts, the successful, the failure. Everyone.

As a church we must be aware that the Holy Spirit is for everyone. This is a challenge to us when we talk of our faith to those who don’t know God yet. But we don’t need to go in dry, the Holy Spirit will give us the words to speak.

When we welcome newcomers and visitors to our service, again, may we be aware of the language we use, that the message is for everyone, and we mustn’t let the delivery of it put people off.

My friends, we can trust the Holy Spirit. As we heard in John’s gospel, it only speaks truth, and it will guide us into full truth. Isn’t it amazing that God does this? That God speaks to us and through us in this way? I feel so excited to realise that I am part of this wonderful kingdom, where God flows through all of us, and the Holy Spirit is part of our lives.

Often images of the Holy Spirit are gentle and peaceful, but I want to leave you with the image of the flames above the disciples’ heads. What do flames do? They need fuel, oxygen and heat to start, or so Nigel Latta told us in last week’s episode of his programme where he blows stuff up and sets it on fire. I have boys, of course we watch it!

What is our fuel? Our lives. What is our oxygen? The power of the Holy Spirit. And what is our heat source? The love of God.

May you burn brightly for the kingdom this Pentecost, and keep burning.

Let’s finish by singing along with this great song, Send the Fire!