Given by Jeff Lowndes on 17 Dec 17
SERMON: John 1.6-8, 19-28 At Gordon Chapel Morning Service on Sun 17 Dec 17
Intro: Read the Gospel, then put alb hood up and stroll up and down the aisle announcing that I am Andrew (Patron Saint of Scotland), disciple of John the Baptist….describe what John did then that you will get Jeff to go to the pulpit to tell you more.
As most of you will know, I’m a Lay Reader, and part of my remit is to preach to you, and this I feel called to do and take seriously. I hope that I am also your friend – and because I am your friend and care for you, my preaching cannot always be what you would like to hear – sometimes it may be uncomfortable. It cost John the Baptist his life – I trust you will be more gentle and forgiving.
The Rev Dick Shepherd was an Anglican priest, a Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, a prolific preacher, brilliant broadcaster and a pacifist who died far too young. He was a far seeing priest – so what do you think he meant by saying that the Church had reduced Christ’s whole message to the motto “Be kind to granny and the cat.” We’ll come back to that!
John the Baptist was Israel’s first prophet in three hundred years, and people flocked to hear him. They even came out to the wilderness from Jerusalem. When asked who he was, he told them forcefully who he wasn’t – “I am not the Christ”. I’m not the Messiah and I am not Elijah.
Well who are you they asked? “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord'”. That’s my job, my mission, my purpose in life! The Lord is coming, and my job is to get people ready for him! What John did to prepare people for Jesus was to preach, call them to confess their sins, repent, and to baptize them. He obeyed God!
So, what can we learn from John? We are the church – and the church needs do what John was doing. We need to testify to the light – point to Jesus, make the way straight – help people to see Jesus – introduce them to him.
I can almost hear you take a deep breath! Yes, I know – we’re British – reserved – not keen on speaking about religion and all that. I confess to you – I struggle with that too.
But, we must speak about Jesus – that’s our core mission – to call them to repent, confess their sins and be baptised. Get that right and the rest will follow.
We, the church, sometimes lose track of that. Jesus is set to one side as we get involved with other things – important, but really, secondary things. For example:-
Feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, helping the refugee, promoting racial harmony, it’s all important – the church does all of that – but they’re our secondary tasks. Our first task is to witness to Christ through word and sacrament and the lives that we lead, and sometimes we lose track of that.
When that happens, we become a sort of secular social club with religious overtones – but the church starts to fade away. When the church becomes primarily a soup kitchen, homeless shelter, concert hall, coffee morning organiser – or anything other than a witness to Christ – it withers on the vine.
So often we’re swamped in fund raising for the fabric of the church and good causes – we hardly have time, patience or energy for much else.
Even non-Christians do many of those things and they too do them well. But surely it is the church that gave the lead in this years ago and still does. However we now have problems – I suggest primarily because Christ is not placed up front and centre in all that we do, and that we do not make sure the community and the world, know clearly where we are coming from.
The nation’s population has grown but generally churches have shrunk. Priests and ministers are in short supply. Why? A study of churches concluded that “To grow and continue growing, it’s necessary for each mainstream church to become a vital religious institution, vibrant with the presence of God. It must develop a clear religious identity, a compelling religious purpose, and a coherent sense of direction that arises from that purpose”.
It is often said that the church is in a rut, hasn’t moved with the times, still tries to do things the traditional way – ‘ we’ve always done it that way’ is often heard when something new or different is suggested. There is truth in that, though I recall, didn’t Jesus bring something new and different, even radical!
But, dare I suggest that churches have also declined because they took their eye off the ball – put second things first and first things second. They need to recover their sense of mission, and that mission is simply to witness to Christ. It applies to us here in Gordon Chapel too doesn’t it – or perhaps you disagree with me?
Now here’s the tricky part – the balancing act in a way. One of the ways that we witness to Christ is to meet the needs of vulnerable people – to feed the hungry, house the homeless, to help the sick and much more. Christ calls us to do those things, and the church has always done them – done them well and must continue to do so, setting an example to society.
They are an integral part of our witness to Christ. But they are a product of our faith and mission, the service we offer in the name Christ. We must always remember that our first task is to witness to Christ through word and sacrament, through Preaching, Eucharist, and Baptism. If we genuinely bear witness to Christ through them – He will bless us and make it possible for us to do the other things as well.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talked about all the things that we worry about – what we will eat or what we will drink or what we will wear. Then he talks about God providing all these things, even for the birds of the air – and he assures us that we are more important to God than the birds. He tells us not to worry, and says:- “But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well”.
In the church, we sometimes worry about many things, all the way from feeding the hungry, to the colour of the carpet or whether to put flowers up in Advent, or a Christmas tree at the front or back of church, or up at all. We’re always tempted to put second things first and first things second – to be distracted by little things so that we forget the big ones.
Let us, for the sake of Christ’s kingdom, keep focused on the big thing – our witness to Christ through word and sacrament – trusting that God will then make it possible for us to do everything else that he wants us to do – in that way there should be no conflict.
So, how seriously do we take our faith? Rev Michael has given us Bible and Advent Studies recently – attendance has been good but sadly – where are those who really do need to know more about their faith, so that they can have the confidence to share it? Only you will know if your absence was justified!
It has been said that the only bible which millions of people read now, is the daily example of Christians – yours and mine – that is – the life we live and show to others. Dick Shepherd was right – it’s about more than granny and her cat isn’t it!
Because it’s important that not only are we Christians – but active and well informed Christians, not afraid to say whenever we can – “yes – I believe in and follow Jesus Christ”. You may even add, ‘I struggle, but I’m still learning’.
Have I been too hard on Christians in general – and on you here in particular. OK – then answer these questions as honestly as you can.
First – when in conversation with someone who is not a Christian – do you mention Christ, the church, your faith? Or are you too embarrassed! Same question, but this time – when did you last mention, even discuss those things with another Christian.
Harder now – when did you last invite someone to church, a stranger, a friend, a member of your family. Or, to be fair – go to their church with them?
Another hard one – have you missed coming to worship because of something you thought more important – was it really – really? Would you give the same answer to Christ himself?
To proclaim Christ does not mean we all become street corner evangelists and bible thumpers – I certainly couldn’t do that. But, as the hymn tells us: “They will know we are Christians by our love – and our witness”. That is how we proclaim Jesus.
We gather together every Sunday to draw strength from our worship, to re-focus our purpose, to build confidence and be encouraged to take Christ with us back into the world and to fearlessly witness to him.
It is within the walls of our church that we gather this strength. But it is outside the walls, in the world, in our community, where we do our greatest work.
We use the gifts and talents given to us by God, together with the Holy Spirit. That surely is God’s will for us. Is there a John the Baptist hidden within you?
In Isaiah, God asks, “Whom shall I send – and who will go for me?” We need to hear that call from God and ask ourselves, “Why not me?” We need to reply along with Isaiah, “Here I am Lord – Send me.”
Perhaps we say we are going to commitment ourselves to Christ, but not now, not yet – too much else to do, to think about! God calls us to do something special, and we say that we will respond, but not now. Perhaps when we are older and have more time – given that we are granted that time!
So I ask – why not me and why not now – why not you and why not now!
May we all be a worthy successor to John the Baptist.
At the end of this service when you affirm that you will go forth to love and serve the Lord in the Name of Christ – add the simple words quietly to yourself ‘ here I am Lord – send me’.